40 Years Ago This Spring: While Six Million Died–A Book That Changed How We Look at the Holocaust

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

(Dr. Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, wwww.WymanInstitute.org. His next book, Blowing the Whistle on Genocide: Josiah E. DuBois, Jr. and the Struggle for an American Response to the Holocaust, will be published this summer by Purdue University Press.)

In the spring of 1968, it seemed that everything to which Americans were accustomed was being challenged.

Hippies were testing cultural boundaries. Civil rights protesters were fighting the racial status quo. The public’s assumptions about America’s military prowess were being sorely tested in the jungles of Vietnam. The conventional wisdom about America and the Holocaust, too, was about to be turned on its head.

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In the aftermath of World War II, Franklin Roosevelt enjoyed near-iconic status in the public mind. It was unthinkable to criticize the president who shepherded America through the Depression and led the Free World to victory over the Nazis.

Moreover, the 1950s and early 1960s were a time when presidents were not subjected to the kind of scrutiny that later became routine. Journalists often refrained from investigating rumors of presidential indiscretions. Many biographies of FDR resembled press releases from the Roosevelt Library at Hyde Park.

Then along came Arthur Morse.

As a reporter and director for Edward R. Murrow’s “See It Now” series on CBS Television in the 1950s, Morse authored influential exposes about race relations, the dangers of smoking, and McCarthyism. In 1964, he was named to succeed Fred Friendly as executive producer of the CBS Reports series. He soon began work on a segment about a question that had long troubled him but which had never before been seriously examined: how did the U.S. government respond to news of the Holocaust?

Morse began filming interviews with U.S. diplomats and government officials who had been involved in making policy decisions in the 1940s. But for reasons which are unclear, CBS spiked the project. The footage from the interviews has been gathering dust in a CBS warehouse ever since. Morse resigned from CBS, and spent the next three years writing a book instead of filming a documentary. He called it While Six Million Died: A Chronicle of American Apathy.

The book’s very title made clear Morse’s conclusion. So did the stunning cover illustration of FDR averting his eyes, drawn by renowned political caricaturist Gerry Gersten. With an advance feature story in the New York Times and serialized excerpts in Look Magazine, While Six Million Died was a sensation even before its release in the spring of 1968.

Although some important archives were not yet open to researchers, Morse was able to piece together key aspects of this difficult, sometimes shameful chapter in American history. Refugee ships that were turned away from America’s shores even though the immigration quotas were largely unfilled. Reports about the mass killings that were suppressed by the State Department, because it feared such news would increase public pressure to rescue the Jews. Gas chambers and crematoria that could have been bombed, if the U.S. had been willing to exert a minimal effort to save Jews from Hitler.

Morse also described how Treasury Department lawyer Josiah E. DuBois, Jr. and his colleagues blew the whistle on the State Department’s obstruction of rescue opportunities, and helped force FDR to belatedly take limited steps to aid the Jews. Morse was the first to discover and quote from the extraordinary expose that DuBois prepared, titled “The Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of the Jews.” FDR’s fear of this report reaching the public helped convince him to establish the War Refugee Board. Despite its small budget and staff, the Board helped rescue over 200,000 Jews from Hitler near war’s end. Raoul Wallenberg’s famous rescue campaign was initiated and financed by the War Refugee Board.

Morse’s book cracked the ice and made it possible for large numbers of Americans to begin considering the failings of a long-idolized president. In the years after While Six Million Died, historians such as David S. Wyman would gain access to archives that Morse did not see, and reveal many additional chapters to this sordid tale.

Morse died in an automobile accident in Yugoslavia in 1970. Sadly, he did not live long enough to see the profound impact that his book had on so many people.

For example, Stuart Eizenstat, the U.S. envoy who later led the successful effort to compel Swiss banks to pay restitution to Holocaust survivors, has cited While Six Million Died as a central influence in shaping his understanding of America’s response to the Nazi genocide and thereby influencing his own work.

Prominent Soviet Jewry activists, such as Glenn Richter of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry and Joseph Smukler of the Philadelphia Soviet Jewry movement, have said that While Six Million Died helped motivate their activism. Many pro-Israel activists, too, say their efforts on behalf of the Jewish State were galvanized by what they learned from Morse about American apathy during the Holocaust.

The knowledge that his book had such an impact no doubt would have given Morse much satisfaction, in view of the final words of his preface: “If genocide is to be prevented in the future, we must understand how it happened in the past–not only in terms of the killers and the killed, but of the bystanders.” Forty years ago this spring, Arthur Morse took the first important step in helping the American public understand what happened.

April 2008