New U.S. Government Report Distorts America’s Response to Holocaust

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

Did the Allies have enough information about the Holocaust to understand what the Nazis were doing, and did they have that information in time to do something about it?

The answer to both questions is “no,” according to recent media accounts of a new U.S. government report about Allied intercepts of German communications during the war.

But now the full text of that report has been made available–and it turns out there is more to the story than was first reported.

The report, titled “Eavesdropping on Hell,” was published by the National Security Agency.  Its author is Robert J. Hanyok, a staff member at the NSA’s Center for Cryptologic History.  Hanyok makes clear in the introduction to the report that he is a cryptologist, not a scholar of the Holocaust.  And that weakness becomes apparent in his report.

After analyzing communications that the Allies intercepted and decrypted in 1941-1942, Hanyok emphasizes that information about the mass murders arrived after the killing was underway, so it “could not have provided an early warning to Allied leaders regarding the nature and scope of the Holocaust.”  (p.126)

But the “early warning” notion is a red herring.  The question is not whether the Allies should have been able to predict genocide.  The question is what they did once they themselves confirmed that genocide was underway.  After receiving information about the Nazi massacres from a variety of sources –not just intercepts, but also diplomats, journalists, and Jewish escapees– the Allies issued a statement, in December 1942, confirming that “the German authorities … are now carrying into effect Hitler’s oft repeated intention to exterminate the Jewish people in Europe.”

An estimated two million Jews had already been murdered, but millions more were still alive and many could have been saved, if Washington and London had taken steps to do so.

Yet Hanyok virtually excuses the Allies’ refusal to help the refugees.  He blames “the refusal by some in Congress to accept more Jews …” (p.125) and asserts that “both President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill were often hampered in their limited efforts to alleviate some of the suffering by the general anti-Semitic sentiment in both nations.”

While many in Congress did oppose liberalizing the immigration laws, FDR could have given haven to many more Jews within the existing quotas, without asking Congress to change anything.  The quotas from Axis-controlled countries were 90% unfilled during the period from late 1941 through early 1945 –nearly 190,000 quota places were left unused, because the administration imposed unreasonable requirements that discouraged would-be immigrants.

Likewise, Hanyok’s suggestion that British leaders tried to help the Jews but were “hampered” by domestic antisemitism sidesteps the significance of England’s closure of Palestine.  The British White Paper of 1939, which severely limited Jewish immigration to Mandatory Palestine was a strategic decision by government policymakers to appease the Arabs.

Sadly, Hanyok also misrepresents the work of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who rescued many thousands of Jews in German-occupied Budapest in 1944.  According to Hanyok, Allied intercepts of messages from Hungary did not contain “information about conditions in Budapest [or] information about Wallenberg’s rescue efforts.”  And since they did not have that information, the Allies “could not” know what he was doing or assist him. (p.98)

And Hanyok missed one of the most important points of the story:  Wallenberg was indeed assisted by the U.S. government.  His mission to Budapest was the result of efforts by Iver Olsen, the Swedish representative of the U.S. government’s War Refugee Board, which had been created by Roosevelt in January 1944 because of strong pressure from Congress and Jewish activists.  It was the War Refugee Board which provided Wallenberg with funds, as well as lists of Jews to protect from deportation.  What the Board did in helping Wallenberg is Exhibit A in disproving Hanyok’s suggestion that the Allies were unable to rescue more Jews.

The bottom line is that Hanyok looked at a few trees, and missed the forest.  A cryptologist by training, he focused too narrowly on the decrypted intercepts and failed to acquire a basic understanding of such crucial issues as U.S. immigration policy, England’s Palestine policy, and the activities of Raoul Wallenberg.  That’s no way to write about the Holocaust.

October 2005