Sixty Years Ago This Week: FDR’s One Step Against the Holocaust

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

Sixty years ago this week, President Roosevelt took his only meaningful action against the Holocaust–the creation of the War Refugee Board, which saved some Jews from Hitler during the final months of the war. But even that late step came only after enormous public and Congressional pressure on Roosevelt, and a furious conflict within FDR’s own cabinet over the rescue issue–a conflict that revealed much about why the American government did so little to intervene against the Nazi genocide.

In late 1942, the Roosevelt administration publicly confirmed that Hitler had embarked on a campaign to murder all of Europe’s Jews, and that at least two million were already dead. But FDR was not prepared to go beyond a verbal denunciation of the genocide.

Roosevelt refused to seek liberalization of America’s popular immigration restrictions, which limited the number of foreigners who could enter to a maximum of about 153,000 from around the world each year. But if he had wanted to, FDR could have provided a haven to many refugees even within the existing immigration quotas, because they were almost always under-filled. The man Roosevelt hand-picked in 1940 to handle refugee matters, Breckinridge Long, instructed U.S. consular officials abroad to “postpone and postpone and postpone the granting of the visas.” During the period of the Nazi genocide, from late 1941 and until early 1945, only ten percent of the already-miniscule quotas for immigrants from Axis-controlled Europe were actually used. Almost 190,000 quota places were deliberately left unused.

It was not just that the president was unwilling to help the Jews. FDR’s State Department actively thwarted efforts to help them. In late 1943, senior aides to Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. discovered that State Department officials had been blocking transmission of Holocaust-related information to the United States, and had been intentionally obstructing opportunities to rescue Jews from Hitler. The bitter truth is that the State Department did not want them to be rescued, because that would increase pressure on the Allies to give them shelter.

On Christmas Day, 1943, Treasury staffer Josiah DuBois drew up a stinging 18-page report that he titled “Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of the Jews.” He and his colleagues presented the report to Morgenthau and urged him to go to the president.

Meanwhile, the rescue issue was reaching the boiling point on Capitol Hill and in the press. Throughout 1943, a Jewish activist committee known as the Bergson group had been waging a campaign of rallies, full-page newspaper ads, and lobbying Congress for U.S. rescue action. In November, Members of Congress introduced a Bergson-inspired resolution calling for creation of a U.S. government agency to rescue refugees. The resolution was quickly approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In the House of Representatives, it was the subject of hearings which exploded in public controversy when Breckinridge Long gave wildly misleading testimony about the number of refugees who had already been admitted into the country.

The embarrassing publicity from the hearings gave Treasury Secretary Morgenthau the leverage he needed with the president. On January 16, 1944, Morgenthau brought the “Acquiescence” report to FDR, determined to convince Roosevelt that “you have either got to move very fast, or the Congress of the United States will do it for you.” Ten months before election day, the last thing FDR wanted was a public scandal over the refugee issue. Within days, Roosevelt did what the Congressional resolution sought–he issued an executive order creating the War Refugee Board.

Although understaffed and underfinanced, the Board played a key role in the rescue of some 200,000 Jews and 20,000 non-Jews, in part by facilitating and financing the life-saving work of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg in Budapest. Among the rescued were future U.S. Congressman Tom Lantos and his wife-to-be, Annette. The Board’s work demolished the Roosevelt administration’s longstanding claim that there was no way to rescue Jews except by winning the war.

So many more could have been saved if Roosevelt had extended some of his reputed humanitarianism to Europe’s Jews before most of them had been murdered by Hitler. He could have offered temporary shelter to refugees, just for the duration of the war. He could have pressed the British to open the gates of Mandatory Palestine. He could have established the War Refugee Board a year earlier. Note that the Roosevelt administration established a special government agency to rescue historic artwork and buildings in Europe in 1943; but it was not until 1944–sixty years ago this week–that FDR, under strong pressure, finally created a government agency to rescue human beings.

That one belated step could not change the bitter fact that in the end, as David S. Wyman wrote in his 1984 best-seller ‘The Abandonment of the Jews,’ “the era’s most prominent symbol of humanitarianism turned away from one of history’s most compelling moral challenges.”

January 2004