American Wartime Indifference to the Plight of the European Jews

Katherine E. Culbertson

(29)In April 1943 the Warsaw ghetto was ravaged by revolt. A secret transmitter's signal relaying the news of the struggle was partially obscured, but two words still reached the outside world: "Save us."[1] From 1942 until 1945, America and the rest of the Allied world failed to heed that call for help. Armed with complete knowledge of the massacre and resources to alleviate the tragedy, America lacked only the will to spare the lives of millions of Jews and other undesired inhabitants of Hitler's Europe. To account for its inattention to the problem, the United States unleashed a flurry of excuses. Over the course of the war, the most popular rationalization became the supremacy of war aims over the incidental needs of non-enemy civilians. The frequency and intensity with which American officials invoked this reason reflected the larger mentality implicit in American involvement in World War II. The hardening of warriors to the cries of downtrodden Jews in Europe represented America's flight from moral responsibility and a retreat from its own standards of humanitarianism. Examining wartime behavior and attitudes in the United States regarding the hapless Jews of Europe dismantles one of the most imbedded myths in post-war America, that the United States, as a boundless well of democracy and freedom always outstretching its arms to those seeking refuge, entered the war to in part fulfill that pledge. As Emma Lazarus's words etched on the Statue of Liberty eloquently promise: "Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." Yet as the course of the war proved, the United States slammed its doors shut to six million doomed Jews.

The sickening success of the Holocaust, though masterminded and executed by Hitler and the Nazi regime, cannot be wholly attributed to one small group's maniacal policy of racial cleansing. To Hitler's delight, the democratic, humanitarian governments contributed to the deliberate murder of two-thirds of Europe's Jews. Since the war, however, the United States has escaped condemnation for its part in a war the world has essentially viewed as a story of killer and killed. As Holocaust historian Arthur D. Morse, author of While Six Million Died: A Chronicle of American Apathy, discovered, "It is as if there were no other world, as if two circling antagonists, one armed, the other unarmed, inhabited an otherwise vacant planet."[2] No power on earth could have stopped the killing and saved even a fraction of lives. As TIME noted in March 1943, "saving any of them would be a monumental task; saving all would be impossible. . ."[3] But (30)opportunities nevertheless existed for the Western nations to mitigate the horror, however slightly. Through half-hearted efforts the United States and its Allies did indeed save thousands. But other opportunities to save even more were stalled or rejected by such obstacles as ignorance, indifference, indolence, and cowardice. "It was a double failure," found Walter Laqueur, who authored The Terrible Secret: "first of comprehension and later of seizing the opportunities which still existed." [4]

In August 1942, a member of the Czechoslovak State Council sent a memorandum regarding the Jews' situation to the United States, in which he stressed the moral challenge confronting the Allies. "This war is not being waged with bombs and guns alone, nor will the nature of the coming world be determined by the outcome of battles," he wrote, urging the Allied governments not to be guilty of "grave sins of omission." [5] Others shared his fear. Szmul Zygielbojm, a Jewish Socialist member of the Polish National Council devoted to publicizing the plight of the Jews, committed suicide in 1943, dejected over Allied indifference. Zygielbojm as well placed the responsibility for the murder of millions of Jews on "the whole of humanity." [6] In this moral call to arms, no nation was endowed with more expectations than the United States. [7] But of all the individuals and groups who denounced the Nazis and demanded counteraction, none were powerful enough to inspire effective retaliation. The failure of the "democratic impulse" to stir the United States to action constituted a blatant contradiction of America's altruistic image, as well as undermined the popular conception of America's beneficent role in World War II. [8] The United States faced a clear obligation, and various groups-the press, the military, the people, the State Department, and Roosevelt-all failed their responsibility to the Jews. Thus, the blood of six millions Jews who perished in the most horrible, deliberate act of violence ever engineered by humankind has come to stain the hands of not only the perpetrators, but the bystanders as well.

Finding Out

Throughout the murderous years and months of planning and executing the Final Solution, Nazi officials worked efficiently and secretly. Few written orders or documents were ever produced regarding the Holocaust; most were issued verbally or concealed in heavily coded documents. But despite the high priority of secrecy, Nazi Germany could not long conceal a project of such a scale involving millions of Europe's inhabitants and employing so many of the Reich's resources. [9] The average civilian easily witnessed the daily disappearance of Jews (31)from the streets of Europe. In July 1942 alone, the Germans removed 18,000 Jews from Paris under the stated purpose of deportation to the East. That same month, the Nazis began to ship 6,000 Jews a day from the Warsaw ghetto in Poland to their death at Treblinka. Thousands were removed every day from other countries such as Belgium and Holland. As news of deportations regularly reached the Allied world, these events were common knowledge to the American and the European. [10]

Ultimately, it was the information pushed through underground channels that culminated in the exposure of Hitler's Final Solution. This discovery drastically altered people's perceptions by replacing the suspicions of random atrocities imposed on various peoples with evidence of a systematic plan for the extermination of one people. In the summer of 1942, however, news to that effect began to emerge. In July, a document issued by the Polish government-in-exile in London reported that 700,000 Jews, mostly Poles, had been killed by the Germans since the September 1939 invasion. According to Morse, the report entailed a "city-by-city roll call of death" in which as many as 1,000 died per day. Furthermore, Zygielbojm, whose wife and two children had perished at the hands of the Nazis, testified on the BBC that the report was true. The World Jewish Congress added that every Jew's destination was a "vast slaughterhouse" in Eastern Europe, and that since 1939, an estimated million or more Jews had been killed. These initial reports regarding the Jews' grisly fate were widely publicized. [11]

On August 1, 1942, "history thrust a terrible burden" upon Gerhart Riegner, a member of the World Jewish Congress in Geneva, when he discovered through an informant that Hitler had ordered the deaths of all Europe's Jews. [12] Riegner passed on the information to the State Department, which decided to suppress the report until further confirmation was obtained. In the following weeks, numerous reports substantiating the Riegner allegations materialized. Ambassador Anthony J. Drexel Biddle, Jr. forwarded the Czechoslovak document which stated that "there is no precedent for such organized wholesale dying in all Jewish history, nor indeed in the whole history of mankind." Dr. Donald A. Lowrie, an American representative to the YMCA who was observing deportations of Jews from unoccupied France to Poland, also sent a report to the State Department. A non-Jew who had escaped from Poland provided information on the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto. [13] By November, through a series of diplomatic exchanges, various affidavits were obtained which provided new, independent testimony. [14]

(32)Though not privy to documents crossing State Department desks, the American people were not blind to the genocide unfolding halfway around the world. The newspaper became the most prevalent medium for informing the people. David Wyman, in The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust, 1941-1945, emphasized that the American press did little to publicize news of the Holocaust and stir public activism, and he blamed the press as one of the groups which failed the Jews during the war. [15] Although coverage was sometimes scant and often relegated to inner pages, the information was still available to the American public. During the summer of 1942, newspapers acknowledged the various reports of Nazi atrocities. On June 27, for example, the New York Times published about two inches on page five regarding the Polish government's report, which was also broadcast on the BBC and CBS radio, of 700,000 Jews slain by the Nazis. The article quoted the statement: "To accomplish this, probably the greatest mass slaughter in history, every death-dealing method was employed--machine-gun bullets, hand grenades, gas chambers, concentration camps, whipping, torture instruments, and starvation."[16] Three days later, a longer article under the headline "1,000,000 Jews Slain By Nazis, Report Says," appeared in the New York Times detailing the World Jewish Congress report. [17]

An announcement made by Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels on June 12 should have sounded warning bells. In retaliation for Allied air bombings of German cities, Goebbels promised that the Nazis would execute a mass "extermination" of European Jews. He elaborated: "The Jews are playing a frivolous game and they will pay for it with the extermination of their race in all Europe and perhaps even beyond Europe." The New York Times carried this medium-length story on page seven. [18] If they did not quite trust Goebbels, Americans could have listened to Hitler's speech at the Berlin Sports Palace on September 30. It was recorded on German radio and reported by American newspapers:

In my Reichstag speech of September 1, 1939, I have spoken...that if Jewry should plot another world war in order to exterminate the Aryan peoples of Europe, it would not be the Aryan peoples which would be exterminated, but Jewry… At one time the Jews of Germany laughed about my prophecies. I do not know whether they are still laughing or whether they have already lost all desire to laugh. But right now I can only repeat: they will stop laughing everywhere, and I shall be right also in that prophecy. [19]

(33)After the State Department obtained confirmation of the Riegner report, Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles went to Rabbi Stephen S. Wise of the American Jewish Congress and authorized him to release the information to the press. [20] On November 24, 1942, Rabbi Wise held a press conference in Washington and told reporters that the State Department had confirmed that two million European Jews had already fallen victim to Hitler's plan of total extermination. While Wyman found that the press conference and its disclosures were not a "major story"-of the nation's 19 most important newspapers, only five placed the story on page one and two did not carry it at all-it was nonetheless widely reported. From that moment on, more news would point to the horrible truth of Hitler's Final Solution. November 1942 marked a turning point, as ignorance turned into awareness. [21] Discovery should have evolved into action, but as the events of the next three years showed, it did not.

The Refusal to Believe

Laqueur depended a great deal on the distinction between knowing and believing to analyze American reaction, contending that despite widespread publicity, the outside world could not come to grips with a tragedy of such an unprecedented nature. [22] The nature of the news filtering out of Europe left the democratic world floundering for a reference point to grasp its meaning, and finding themselves psychologically incapable of ascribing any such meaning, Americans turned away. [23] Soldiers who encountered concentration camps as they marched across Europe in the spring of 1945 were stunned, despite the warning signs. "There had been much detailed information about the names of these camps, their locations, the millions who had been killed there," found Laqueur, "[but] virtually no one had 'imagined what a camp would be like."' [24] Many Americans resisted belief even after their own soldiers had witnessed the atrocity firsthand, refusing to look at their photos or believe their stories. [25] In the May 19, 1945 issue of The Nation, James Agee called such pictures of the camps "propaganda" geared toward hardening public opinion in an "effort to condition the people of this country against interfering with, or even questioning, an extremely hard peace against the people of Germany." [26]

Others during the war sensed Americans' inability or refusal to believe. The New Republic's Varian Fry acknowledged that "there are some things so horrible (34)that decent men and women find them impossible to believe, so monstrous that the civilized world recoils incredulous before them. The recent reports of the systematic extermination of the Jews in Nazi Europe are of this order." Fry examined the standards by which Americans judged the Nazis: "That such things could be done by contemporary western Europeans, heirs of the humanist tradition, seems hardly possible." [27] Naive perceptions of both the perpetrators and the victims colored the American response to the Holocaust. Although the Germans were America's enemies, they shared a common heritage and religion. In contrast, the Jews were perceived as an alien people. In War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War, John Dower compared American attitudes toward Japanese and Germans, noting that Americans harbored most of their ill will against the Nazis, and not the German people. [28] It was as if they viewed Nazism as an unfortunate blemish on the Western tradition which would be eliminated through war. Therefore, hostility toward the Germans and outrage at the Holocaust was mitigated by the standards Americans imposed on their interpretation. The exaggerated nature of World War I propaganda posing the Germans as baby-burning, pillaging rapists also barred acceptance of these stories. "Our skepticism has been fortified by our experience with "atrocity stories" during the last war," found Fry. "We were told of the rape of nuns, the forced prostitution of young Belgian girls, of German soldiers spearing infants on their bayonets, or deliberately and wantonly cutting off their hands." [29]

But, as Laqueur wrote, "tout comprende is not necessarily tout pardonner." [30] Americans were not instantly absolved of responsibility simply because they were impaired in their understanding. Much of the self-imposed obstacles to comprehension rested on a foundation of indifference, anti-semitism, and ignorance. Both Laqueur and Fry characterized "the tendency to dismiss as impossible fantasy the real warnings the Nazis themselves gave us" as one of the initial mistakes in a long line of failures. [31] For Laqueur, the failures lay in the "misjudgment of the murderous nature of Nazism, and... by a false optimism." [32]

Roosevelt's Role

President Roosevelt's passivity set the tone for American wartime policy toward the Jews. "Roosevelt was not indifferent to the plight of the Jews," found Robert Dallek in his assessment of FDR, "On the contrary, Nazi crimes profoundly disturbed him, and he looked forward to the day when Nazi leaders would face the consequences of their actions. Yet at the same time, he saw no effective (35)way to rescue great numbers of Jews from Hitler's Europe while the war continued." [33] Roosevelt articulated what was to become the most popular excuse for avoiding moral responsibility: winning the war. American officials invoked this in two ways: one, that the Jews' situation simply did not rank high on a list of priorities cluttered by direct war aims; and two, that winning the war would best save Jews, given the difficulty of rescue and resettlement. Historians have pointed to other significant factors which helped shaped Roosevelt's policy. Foremost among these was Roosevelt's submission to public opinion; he allowed it to interfere with the welfare of helpless Jews and with the United States's obligation to attempt to save them. According to Wyman, when the War Refugee Board was established in January 1944, Roosevelt acted "only because he was confronted with political pressures he could not avoid and because his administration stood on the brink of a nasty scandal over rescue policies." [34] According to historian Paul Johnson, in addition to his "purely domestic and political considerations" Roosevelt was "mildly anti-Semitic" and "ill-informed." His ignorance was reflected at the Casablanca Conference in January 1943, when he alluded to the "understandable complaints which the Germans bore toward the Jews in Germany," citing that Jews held a disproportionate amount of professional positions. [35]

Roosevelt's primary failure was not in purposefully preventing the rescue of Jews, but in remaining silent and failing to motivate action. [36] Wyman concluded that Roosevelt, in failing in a sincere effort to save the Jews, committed the "worst failure" of his presidency. [37] In the end, it was not enough; as Holocaust historian Marty Noam Penkower wrote: "The Jews could not wait for an Allied victory. Adolf Hitler would not let them wait." [38]

Initial Steps

On October 6, 1942, Roosevelt announced that the United States, Great Britain, the USSR, and several governments-in-exile would establish a collective War Crimes Commission to record war crimes and prepare for post-war punishment. However, the announcement was almost made without the Americans, who delayed responding to a British proposal for the Commission for two months. British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden warned American officials that if he did not receive a response, the announcement would be made without the United States. Hull eventually complied, and Roosevelt himself made the (36)announcement, giving the impression to the public that the Americans secured the new commission, and not stalled its formation. [39]

Further announcements were made throughout that winter and following spring, including a joint United Nations Declaration signed by the three major Allied governments and eight occupied countries. The essence of the declaration, issued on December 17, acknowledged Hitler's determination to "exterminate the Jewish peoples of Europe" and condemned "in the strongest possible terms this bestial policy of cold-blooded extermination." The cooperating governments indicated that post-war punishment would be forthcoming." [40] Unlike the War Crimes Commission, this declaration dealt specifically and exclusively with the Final Solution. It was indeed a powerful statement-as powerful as a statement could be to a Jew facing death. While highly publicized announcements such as these condemning Nazi atrocities helped increase general awareness, they promised little or no immediate action and meant nothing to Jews stranded in Hitler's death trap. However, many still praised the declaration for its reserve. An editorial in the Christian Century shortly following the declaration commended the "calm tone of the pronouncement" and reinforced that "the right response to the Polish horror is a few straight words to say that it has been entered in the books, and then redoubled action on the Tunisian, Russian, Italian, and German fronts and on the production lines." [41] The argument that was so popular in the State Department and the White House-win the war to save the Jews-was clearly trickling down, into the press and eventually to the people, who perhaps least of all could conceptualize simultaneously waging a war and saving innocent lives. When it came down to someone's son or brother on the front line and a foreign Jew in the Warsaw Ghetto, Americans naturally chose their own, only because the believed they had a choice and failed to perceive that the might and influence of the United States could accomplish both tasks. None should be blamed for wishing for the speedy and safe return of a loved one, least of all the average American who lacked the perspective to establish priorities. But Americans in a leadership position, such as Roosevelt, Hull, or Secretary of War Stimson were able to evaluate American capabilities and objectives, and they still failed to employ as many available resources as possible to rescue Jews and other refugees, as the 1943 incident in Rumania so prominently illustrates.

The Rumanian Jews Episode

In February 1943, the Rumanian government approached the British and Americans with an offer to move 70,000 Jews starving and dying in the Rumanian region of Transinitria to any place of refuge the Allies determined best, provided that the Allies pay shipping expenses. In this instance, the United (37)States outright rejected an opportunity to save a number of Jews, as well as revive its already ailing reputation for humanitarianism. When Welles investigated the offer, he dismissed it as "without foundation." He further identified the plan as the product of the "German propaganda machine which is always ready to use the miseries of the people of occupied Europe in order to attempt to create confusion and doubt within the United Nations." Wyman condemned Welles' cursory investigation of the report, especially for neglecting to contact directly Rumanian officials. That the plan may not have worked in the long run was irrelevant. "The crucial point is," stressed Wyman, "that against a backdrop of full knowledge of the ongoing extermination program, the American and British governments almost cursorily dismissed this first major rescue opportunity." [42]

Fear, not hope, that authorities would release vast numbers of refugees into Allied hands steered the course of action in this incident and throughout the rest of the war years. Paul Johnson found this to be true: "The British and American governments were in theory sympathetic to the Jews, but in practice they were terrified that any aggressively pro-Jewish policy would provoke Hitler into a mass expulsion of Jews whom they would then be morally obliged to absorb." [43] In a similar instance regarding the removal of thousands of Jews from Bulgaria, Hull approached Eden for a solution. Eden responded that if they removed the Jews from Bulgaria, "the Jews of the world will be wanting to make similar offers in Poland and Germany. Hitler might well take us up on any such offer and there simply are not enough ships and means of transportation in the world to handle them." [44] Throughout the war, it was evident that the Allies perceived an undeniable responsibility as an unwelcomed burden.

The Bermuda Conference

While the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto gathered in revolt, delegates from the Allied governments arrived in Bermuda to discuss the refugee problem. It is the virtually unanimous assertion of Holocaust historians that the "especially criminal" Bermuda Conference of April 1943 marked the pinnacle of Allied apathy. [45] The Bermuda Conference originated out of a British proposal to the United States asking for an informal United Nations conference to remove refugees from neutral countries, encourage those countries to accept more refugees from Nazi-occupied territory, and recommend action to the Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees. Assistant Secretary of State Breckenridge Long, who handled all refugee questions for the State Department and wished to avoid the British overture, returned a report to the Foreign Office stating the various ways the United (38)States "has been and is making every endeavor to relieve the oppressed and persecuted peoples." According to Long's diary, he intended for his report to show up the British on the refugee problem and make it their responsibility. Long wrote that the British initiative "was a plain effort to embarrass us by dumping the international aspects of that question plumb on our lap. I picked up the ball and by our February 25 reply put the baby very uncomfortably back on their laps." But two days later, on March 1, 20,000 Americans, mostly Jewish activists, gathered in Madison Square Garden and urged the United States to "Stop Hitler Now!"

Ever mindful of public opinion and more concerned about resurrecting their humanitarian image than saving Jews, American officials reopened negotiations for a two-power conference on the refugee problem. The United States selected Princeton University President Dr. Harold W. Dodds, Senator Scott Lucas (Dem., Ill), and Representative Sol Bloom (Dem., NY) as the American delegation at Bermuda. Remoteness from the press and public pressure encouraged organizers to choose Bermuda as the site. [46] According to Penkower, the entire framework for Bermuda was a superficial response to outside pressure, not a heartfelt reaction to the cries of powerless Jews. The delegates approached their task with reluctance and few expectations. "The statements made by some delegates shortly before the Bermuda Conference began already signaled the defeatism of the two governments," Penkower observed. Lucas noted that even if the conference recommended changes in immigration, only the United States Congress possessed the power to alter immigration quotas. Dodds flatly stated that "the problem is too great for solution." [47]

The State Department approached the Bermuda Conference with three primary objectives: to encourage neutral countries to accept more refugees, to transport temporarily refugees to UN territories in Europe and North Africa, and to recommend that the ICR implement the decisions reached. [48] Nowhere in the objectives was any mention made of the special situation of the Jews. In fact, when the British initially proposed the conference, they feared that "Allied criticism would probably result if any marked preference were shown in removing Jews." [49] The American government agreed that the problem should not be "confined to persons of any particular race or faith." [50] The failure in this instance was in not distinguishing the far more pressing needs of Jews over non-Jews. Hitler made his Final Solution a racial issue, yet his enemies failed to match his cruelty with an appropriate response.

(39)Throughout the conference, the American delegation seemed bent on showing up the British and gaining public favor. An early British proposal that refugees waiting in Spain should be transported to North Africa was met by American objections that North Africa was a "field of present and possible future military operations," and that "security and supply considerations make it impossible to recommend this proposal to military authorities." [51] The British acknowledged the protests, but reminded the Americans that Spain would have to be emptied of refugees in order to make room for new refugees pouring out of Nazi Europe. The British delegates also feared that if the conference rejected this proposal, "public opinion throughout the world would come to the conclusion that the Allies were not making any serious endeavor to deal with the refugee problem." [52] In a personal note to Long on April 24, Dodds urged the assistant secretary to reconsider the proposal, adding that the camps would be far removed from military sites. Appealing to the State Department's thirst for public approval he wrote that the "proposal for refuge in Africa under American administration appears to be the only new contribution we can make that would impress public opinion as matching British measures which otherwise will monopolize attention. Consider[ing] possible military objections to area removed from war theatre will not impress interested people." [53]

Long approved the proposal which was then tentatively accepted by the conference delegation, but many, including Roosevelt, still feared that depositing a large number of Jews in North Africa would be unwise, due to potential Arab aggression. [54] Roosevelt and others failed to consider that North Africa would have been a welcomed paradise compared to a work camp or a gas chamber. Humanitarian objectives bowed to war needs. However, in July, Roosevelt, finally consented to the camps for Jews and non-Jews in North Africa. As a result of these exhaustive negotiations, 2,000 Jews were removed from danger. [55]

The talks at Bermuda yielded six recommendations: 1) Hitler should not be approached for the release of potential refugees; 2) the British and Americans should acquire neutral shipping to transport refugees; 3) the British should consider allowing refugees into Cyrenaica in North Africa; 4) refugees should be removed from Spain; 5) the governments should issue a joint declaration on the repatriation of refugees; and 6) ICR should be reorganized to meet the needs of war refugees. [56] A joint communique was issued on April 29 outlining the accomplishments of the conference:


The United States and United Kingdom delegates examined the refugee problem in all its aspects... Nothing was excluded from their analysis and everything that held out any possibility, however remote, of a solution of the problem was carefully investigated and thoroughly discussed. From the outset it was realized that any recommendation that the delegates could make to their governments must pass two tests: Would any recommendation submitted interfere with or delay the war effort of the United Nations and was the recommendation capable of accomplishment under war conditions? [57]

In claiming that it thoroughly discussed the remotest possibilities, the delegation perhaps forgot the cursory attention it paid to certain avenues of rescue. During the second day of talks, the delegation immediately dismissed what it considered the "more radical proposals" submitted by Jewish organizations, including the appeal to Hitler to release Jews, the lifting of the blockade to aid persecuted people, and UN shipping for refugees. It was agreed that these subjects were both impossible and outside the scope of the Conference," stated the final report. [58]

Bermuda was almost unilaterally denounced by contemporary critics as a "program of inaction" and a "cruel mockery." [59] Freda Kirchwey of The Nation wrote that Bermuda "has brought nothing but a series of excuses for the failure of the British and American governments to do anything effective to rescue the victims of Hitler's terror who still remain alive." [60] The New Republic noted that no Jewish organizations were represented at the conference, which was "purely exploratory," unable to make any decisions except to recommend action to the ICR. "Meanwhile," it read, "the hourly slaughter of Jews goes on." [61] On April 25 the New York Times ran a story titled "Scant Hope Seen for Axis Victims," in which the conference was called the "no-news conference." [62] Bloom of the American delegation later said he was surprised by the overwhelming criticism. "I personally believe we did everything we possibly could do," he said, "As a Jew I am perfectly satisfied with the results." However, Rep. Emmanuel Celler (Dem., NY) later said that Bloom told him he was "helpless" at Bermuda. [63] The State Department also issued a statement in response to the criticism:

The Conference at Bermuda was not, as some sources have stated, a farce or a cruel mockery. It was a sincere attempt on the part of the two Governments concerned to rescue as many people as possible from the torture house of Europe ... During the (41)stresses and strains of a terrible war upon which depends the fate of civilization itself the needs of any particular individual, nation or race must be subordinated to the needs of the whole. [64]

The War Refugee Board

In response to the dawdling over the rescue of the Rumanian Jews, Secretary of Treasury Henry Morgenthau submitted a report in January 1944 "on the Acquiescence of this Government in the Murder of the Jews." The report stated that State Department officials "have not only failed to use the Governmental machinery at their disposal to rescue Jews from Hitler, but have even gone so far as to use this Governmental machinery to prevent the rescue of these Jews." [65] The release of this report coincided with the significant public protest over the testimony of Breckenridge Long before the House Foreign Affairs Committee against the establishment of a commission to help save the Jews. On January 16, 1944, with this incident lingering in the background, Roosevelt received the Morgenthau report, which concluded that

the matter of rescuing Jews from extermination is a trust too great to remain in the hands of men who are indifferent, callous, and perhaps even hostile... Only a fervent will to accomplish, backed by persistent and untiring effort, can succeed where time is so precious. [66]

Six days after he read the report, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9417, creating the War Refugee Board and halting fourteen months of cold indifference. [67] Though still stalled by disinterested parties, mostly at the State Department, and though confronting a death machine at the height of its terror, the WRB nevertheless represented a stark reversal of policy toward the Jews and proved to be relatively effective. The Board served as a tragic reminder, however, that the United States had wasted precious months, and exaggerated the supremacy of war aims. [68]

John Pehle, head of Foreign Funds Control for the Treasury Department, was selected as the Board's executive director, while the Departments of State, War, and Treasury assumed the responsibility for the WRB's administration. Endowed with $1,000,000 in initial funds from Roosevelt's emergency funds, the Board came to rely almost completely on private donations, mostly from Jewish groups. [69] Four main purposes defined the course of action for the Board: 1) removing Jews and other "endangered people" from Axis territory, 2) establishing temporary havens for them, 3) employing "psychological measures," such as (42)severe threats of post-war punishment to deter more murder, 4) shipping food and supplies into concentration camps. [70] By the end of the war, the WRB had saved approximately 200,000 Jews. For example, 15,000 Jews were evacuated from Axis territory, and at least 10,000 Jews remained in Axis Europe under the WRB's protection. [71] In The Abandonment of the Jews, David Wyman detailed the efforts of WRB representatives in various locales. The accomplishments of the WRB, achieved through diplomatic and underground measures, included the eventual removal of the remaining 48,000 Jews in Transnistria, securing the better treatment of Jews in the Balkans, delaying deportations of Jews hiding in France, and assisting the flight of 1,250 Jewish children into Switzerland. [72]

The Nazi occupation of Hungary in March 1944 and plans to concentrate and deport to Auschwitz the country's approximately 850,000 Jews presented the Board with its most formidable challenge of the war. While the Allies fervently issued psychological warnings to Hungarian leaders who permitted the deportations, their effort arrived much too late, after Adolf Eichmann had already began herding Jews into ghettos and preparing them for deportation and death. Nearly seventy percent of the Hungarian Jews by the end of the war were dead at the hands of the Nazis. Most of this was due to Eichmann's maniacal determination to doom each and every Hungary Jew. But partly responsible were American and British delays in negotiating exits for Jews who were permitted departure by the Hungarian Head of State, Regent Miklos Horthy. During negotiations for visas, the Nazis had closed all Hungarian borders to exiting Jews. Although the American and British overture to relocate refugees represented a breakthrough, wrote Wyman, the costly delay was "unconscionable" and he deemed the Hungarian efforts a failure. [73]

Another instance involved the shared failure of the WRB to compel the War Department to divert war resources to bomb the gas chambers at Auschwitz and the railroads leading to them. Throughout late 1943 and early 1944, Allied forces made significant advances into Poland, Rumania, and Italy. Capturing air fields in Italy rendered central European targets vulnerable to Allied bombing. Most important for European Jews, the gas chambers and railroads were finally within reach. A central feature of the executive order which established the WRB involved the cooperation of military commanders in aiding oppressed inhabitants of Europe. Choosing to defy the WRB's authority, the War Department simply disregarded its role in the rescue efforts. The War Department relentlessly cited the exclusive priority of the war over incidental needs, asserting that "it is not contemplated that units of armed forces will be employed for the purpose of rescuing victims of enemy oppression unless such rescues are the direct result(43)of military operations conducted with the objective of defeating the armed forces of the enemy." [74] Yet it was clear that the diversion of resources would scarcely be a burden to the war effort. In 1944, an oil refinery located 47 miles from Auschwitz was attacked, and a factory area less than five miles from the gas chambers were bombed as well. "The United States War Department rejected the plan [to bomb Auschwitz] without ever examining its feasibility," wrote Johnson in A History of the Jews. [75]

In the short time that it operated, the War Refugee Board succeeded in not only saving thousands of Jews, but also in partially resurrecting the American humanitarian image. Its greatest failure lay not in its partial success in saving a fraction of the six million Jews who died, but in its extremely late conception. In his assessment of the Board's accomplishments, Pehle remarked that "what we did was little enough. It was late... late and little, I would say." While the WRB highlighted the United State's immense potential for rescue, it also made all the more glaring and offensive the months of sheer indifference. To a Jew unsuccessfully fleeing Hitler's death trap, the WRB was a far too late answer to the question, "When are the Americans coming?" [76]


Paul Johnson concluded his discussion of the Allied role in the Holocaust on "a harsh and important point." The United States did not rescue Jews because such an endeavor interfered with the war; not to help the Jews was to help defeat Hitler. Similarly, for Hitler to persist in killing the Jews, he was sacrificing thousands of his own soldiers and SS men, tons of resources, and millions of able-bodied Jews, thus contributing to an Allied victory. Hence, the Holocaust was one of the factors which were [sic] losing Hitler the war. The British and American governments knew this," wrote Johnson. Although other factors certainly contributed to the Allied victory, such as production capabilities and superior leadership, Johnson was suggesting that the existence of a wartime mass-murder program significantly affected the outcome. [77]

Although it is impossible to discern to what extent the multitude of variables altered the outcome of the war, most realized that for every SS man guarding prisoners in a work camp, there was one less individual to build tanks or Uboats. For every train that shipped Jews to their deaths, supplies were not reaching the front on schedule. For every bullet pumped into the body of a Jew, an American soldier could keep on fighting. By the same token, every resource that the United States withheld from the refugee effort was diverted to the war. Simple mathematics dictate that the genocide proceeding under the guise of the war secured an Allied victory, but only in the military sphere. As many articulated (44)when they learned of the plight of the Jews, the Second World War was not to be just a military struggle. It was also a moral battle, one that both sides lost. At the crossroads of the twentieth century, the United States met the moral challenge not by wiping out the evil it confronted, but by layering its own indifference on top. The United States avoided reprobation because Hitler's unprecedented evil took center stage. But his terror does not diminish the others' sins. Americans were not cruel, or evil, or monstrous in the sense that Hitler was. They simply did not care. They abandoned their characteristic motivation, will, and creativity to respond to history's most tragic episode in the only humane manner.

It is clear what happened to the Jews. Six million of them perished in the most shocking way. Not so plain is the epitaph for the bystanders. After the revolt in the Warsaw ghetto, the suicide of Szmul Zygielbojm, and the Bermuda Conference, a writer for a small Jewish periodical called Jewish Frontier seemed to know: "The Warsaw ghetto has been 'liquidated.' Leaders of Polish Jewry are dead by their own hand. And the whole world which looks on passively, in its way, is dead too." [78]


1. David Wyman, The Abandonment of the Jews (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984), 123.
2. Arthur D. Morse, While Six Million Died: A Chronicle of American Apathy (New York: Random House, 1968), Introduction.
3. "Total Murder," TIME, March 8, 1943, 30.
4. Walter Laqueur, The Terrible Secret (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1980), 10.
5. Morse, 11.
6. Wyman, 123.
7. Morse, 23.
8. Blum, 181.
9. Laqueur, 17.
10. Morse, 6-7.
11. Ibid., 5-6.
12. Laqueur, 77, Morse, 7, Blum, 179.
13. Morse, 3, 7-12.
14. Ibid., 21-2.
15. Wyman, 61-2.
16. New York Times, June 27, 1942, 5.
17. "1,000,000 Jews Slain by Nazis," New York Times, June 30, 1942, 7.
18. "Nazis Blame Jew for Big Bombings," New York Times, June 13, 1942, 7.
19. New York Times, October 1, 1942, 37.
20. Laqueur, 93.
21. Wyman, 61.
22. Laqueur, 3.
23. Ibid., 205.
24. Ibid., 2.
25. Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1988), 504.
26. James Agee, "Films," The Nation, Vol. 60: May 19. 1945, 54.
27. Fry, Varian, "Massacre of the Jews," The New Republic, December 1942, 816.
28. John Dower, War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1986), 34.
29. Fry, 816.
30. Laqueur, 10.
31. Fry, 816.
32. Laqueur, 199.
33. Robert Dallek, Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy, 1932-1945, (Oxford: Oxford University press, 1979), 447.
34. Wyman, p.x.
35. Johnson, 504.
36. Dallek, 168.
37. Wyman.
38. Penkower, 147.
39. Morse, 24-6.
40. Wyman, 75.
41. "Polish Atrocities Are Entered in the Books," The Christian Century, Vol. 59: December 30, 1942, 1611.
42. Wyman, 82-4.
43. Johnson, 503.
44. Foreign Relations of the U.S., Memorandum of a conversation by Harry Hopkins (Eden visit with FDR, Mar. 27, 1943), Vol. III, 38.
45. Penkower, 112-3.
46. Wyman, 104-109.
47. Penkower, 113, 119. 109.
48. Wyman, 112.
49. Foreign Relations of the U.S., (The British Embassy to the Department of State, "Refugees from Nazi-Occupied Europe Territory") Vol. I: 1943, 134.
50. Ibid., (The Secretary of State to the British Ambassador), 143.
51. Ibid., (The Consul General to the Secretary of State, April 21, 1943), 158.
52. Ibid.
53. Ibid., April 24, 1943, 164.
54. Wyman, 117.
55. Ibid.
56. Ibid., 119.
57. Foreign Relations of the U.S., April 28, 1943, 173.
58. Ibid., April 20, 1943, 155.
59. Kirchwey, Freda, "A Program of Inaction," The Nation. Vol. 156: June 5, 1943, 366-7. New York Times, May 4, 1943.
60. Kirchwey, 366.
61. "The Bermuda Conference," The New Republic, Vol. 108: April 26, 1943, 548.
62. Wyman, 119.
63. Ibid, 121
64. Morse, 77.
65. Ibid, 89.
66. Ibid, 89-98.
67. Dallek, 448.
68. Ibid.
69. Dallek, 448, Wyman, 210, Johnson, 404.
70. Wyman, 215.
71. Ibid., 85.
72. Ibid., 215.
73. Ibid., 235-240
74. Ibid., 206, 291-2.
75. Johnson, 505v
76. Wyman, 287, 221.
77. Johnson, 505-6.
78. Wyman, 123.