“Sacrificing Adjectives”–from the Holocaust to North Korea

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

Controversy has erupted over a State Department official who tried to water down a U.S. report on human rights in North Korea, in order to avoid offending Pyongpang. Sadly, this sort of behavior is old hat at the State Department, dating all the way back to the Holocaust.

The latest culprit is Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Glyn Davies, who in an email urged the U.S. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor to tone down its upcoming report on North Korean human rights violations, so as to avoid disrupting the ongoing U.S.-led talks with North Korea. “[I] hope given the Secretary’s priority on the six-party talks, we can sacrifice a few adjectives for the cause.” Among other things, Davies wanted to omit a reference to North Korea as “repressive” and refrain from acknowledging that public executions there are “on the rise.”

This is not the first time that State Department officials have been willing to “sacrifice a few adjectives” –that is, sacrifice the truth– for the sake of political objectives.

The State Department’s first (and, so far, only) report on antisemitism worldwide, issued in early 2005, sacrificed quite a few adjectives, not to mention nouns and verbs, when it came to reporting on regime-sponsored antisemitism in the Arab world. The sections on Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian Authority, two of the worst offenders, were just 182 words and 86 words long, respectively–by contrast with, for example, Iceland, which merited 387 words. The Saudi entry downplayed antisemitism in the government-controlled press and the PA entry was mostly about an aytpical preacher’s sermon urging tolerance (but not of Jews). Poor Iceland was given twice as much attention in the report even though its list of offenses for the entire previous year consisted of exactly one instance of antisemitic harassment and one hostile cartoon, neither of which was sponsored by the government. Armenia, Brazil, and Azerbaijan, where there is little reported antisemitism and no evidence of government-sponsored antisemitism, were likewise given much more space in the report than the PA.

The State Department’s linguistic sleight-of-hand was on display during the Holocaust as well.

In the summer of 1942, the British and American governments received detailed information about the Nazis’ mass murder of European Jewry. The State Department did its best to keep the reports from reaching the public, but they gradually leaked out through other sources. In December, under pressure from members of parliament, Jewish organizations, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, the British government reluctantly suggested to Washington that the Allies issue a joint statement confirming and condemning the mass murder.

The State Department at first resisted the proposal, fearing that “the various Governments of the United Nations [the Allies] would expose themselves to increased pressure from all sides to do something more specific in order to aid these people.” Ultimately the Roosevelt administration decided to go along with the statement, but only after watering down the language. For example, the proposed phrase “reports from Europe which leave no doubt” (that mass murder was underway) was whittled down to just “numerous reports from Europe.” The key phrase “which leave no doubt” was sacrificed for the political objective of undermining the growing pressure to help the refugees.

The State Department “sacrificed adjectives” about the Jews again in October 1943, when Secretary of State Cordell Hull visited Moscow for tripartite talks with the Soviets and British. The State Department drafted, and the other allies approved, the statement that was issued at the end of the meetings. It threatened postwar punishment for Nazi war crimes against conquered populations, mentioning “French, Dutch, Belgian or Norwegian hostages …Cretan peasants … the people of Poland”–but not Jews. The State Department feared that giving too much attention to the suffering of the Jews would increase pressure on the U.S. to take them in.

No wonder Arthur Szyk, the famous artist and Holocaust rescue activist, remarked bitterly that Europe’s Jews were being “treat[ed] as a pornographical subject–you cannot discuss it in polite society.”

Then, as now, the State Department had a political objective that it deemed more important than telling the truth about a murderous regime and its victims. In the 1940s, the tragic result of downplaying Holocaust news was a lower level of public interest in the mass murder of the Jews and thus a slower U.S. response to their plight. Sadly, instead of learning from the mistakes it made sixty-five years ago, the State Department seems to be on its way to repeating them.

March 2008