FDR and the Holocaust

FDR with Henry Morgenthau

FDR with Henry Morgenthau

A final excerpt from H.W. Brands’ Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt [for a terse review and earlier excerpts, see FDR: Traitor to His Class and FDR: Traitor to His Class (2)]:

“In January 1944 Henry Morgenthau scheduled an unusual Sunday meeting with Roosevelt. Morgenthau came not only as Treasury secretary but as Roosevelt’s oldest friend in the administration and as a pleader of a special cause. Morgenthau’s ancestors were German Jews who had assimilated into mainstream American society. Morgenthau himself had rarely attended synagogue and, by all evidence, never observed Passover. ‘We Jews of America have found America to be our Zion,’ Morgenthau’s father once said. ‘I am an American.’ But during the war the son discovered his Jewish roots when Jewish leaders came to him with evidence that Hitler was systematically trying to exterminate Europe’s Jews.

“Morgenthau initially hesitated to raise the matter with Roosevelt. He didn’t want to presume on their personal friendship, and the plight of Europe’s Jews was hardly the responsibility of the American Treasury Department. If any office in the administration was to deal with the issue, it ought to be the State Department. But Cordell Hull wasn’t interested, and Breckinridge Long, the assistant secretary to whom Hull referred refugee and related issues, was downright hostile. The State Department had a long history of anti-Semitism that reflected the old-stock Protestant values of the nineteenth-century founders of the American foreign service. Morgenthau concluded that if the fate of the Jews was left to the professional diplomats, there was little hope.

“He began to look for an excuse to bring the Jewish question into the Treasury’s bailiwick. At the end of 1943 he found one, when the administration received a request to expedite money transfers to refugees from Hitler’s war machine. The State Department balked, but Morgenthau, reasoning that anything touching money involved the Treasury, determined to take the matter to Roosevelt. He scheduled a White House meeting.

“Roosevelt may have guessed the purpose of the meeting, for others had raised the Jewish question with him. During the summer of 1942 Rabbi Stephen Wise, the head of the American Jewish Congress, wrote saying that Hitler was trying to annihilate the Jews, as he had threatened to do for years. Wise asked Roosevelt to issue a statement bringing the matter to American and world attention. He said he wanted to read the statement to a Madison Square Garden rally on behalf of the Jews, and he offered language for the president to use. Roosevelt wrote his own words. ‘Citizens, regardless of religious allegiance, will share in the sorrow of our Jewish fellow-citizens over the savagery of the Nazis against their helpless victims,’ the president declared. ‘The Nazis will not succeed in exterminating their victims any more than they will succeed in enslaving mankind. The American people not only sympathize with all victims of Nazi crimes but will hold the perpetrators of these crimes to strict accountability in a day of reckoning which will surely come.’

“Roosevelt issued similar statements on subsequent occasions, sometimes singling out the Jews as victims of Nazi violence, sometimes not. A month after the Madison Square Garden rally he asserted that new intelligence from Europe revealed that the Nazi occupation of various countries had ‘taken proportions and forms giving rise to the fear that as the defeat of the enemy countries approaches, the barbaric and unrelenting character of the occupational regime will become more marked and may even lead to the extermination of certain populations.’ Those persons involved in such crimes would not escape. ‘The time will come when they shall have to stand in courts of law in the very countries which they are now oppressing and answer for their acts.’

“In December 1942 Roosevelt brought Stephen Wise back to the White House. The rabbi and several other Jewish leaders delivered a detailed memorandum describing the Nazi Extermination program. ‘Unless action is taken immediately,’ Wise said, ‘the Jews of Hitler Europe are doomed.’ Wise and the others asked for a new statement on behalf of the victims. Roosevelt replied, ‘Gentlemen, you can prepare the statement. I am sure that you will put the words into it that express my thoughts.’ He added, ‘We shall do all in our power to be of service to your people in this tragic moment.’

“Wise acted at once on the president’s offer. The rabbi emerged from the White House meeting to tell reporters that ‘the President said that he was profoundly shocked to learn that two million Jews had in one way or another perished as a result of Nazi rule and crimes.’

“Roosevelt followed up with a message of his own – and of America’s allies. The president approved a statement by the United Nations condemning the Nazi campaign against the Jews. ‘From all the occupied countries Jews are being transported in conditions of appalling horror and brutality to Eastern Europe,’ the statement declared. ‘The able-bodied are slowly worked to death in labor camps. The infirm are left to die of exposure and starvation or are deliberately massacred in mass executions. The number of victims of these bloody cruelties is reckoned in many hundreds of thousands of entirely innocent men, women and children.’ The statement went on to vow that ‘those responsible for these crimes shall not escape retribution.’

“Roosevelt kept his door open to the representatives of the Jewish cause. In the summer of 1943 a member of the Polish underground, Jan Karski, who at great personal risk had observed the extermination program in action, carried his eyewitness account to the West. Roosevelt invited him to the White House. Just what Karski told the president is unclear. Karski relayed a message from the Jews of Poland that if the Allies didn’t do something to stop the killing, the Jewish community there would ‘cease to exist.’ But, according to his later recollection of the meeting, he kept to himself what he had seen with his own eyes. Whatever Karski’s words to Roosevelt, the president’s reply was succinct: ‘Tell your nation we shall win the war.’

“These words didn’t satisfy Henry Morgenthau, and when he entered Roosevelt’s second-floor study on January 16, 1944, he came armed with a new report detailing the massacres. ‘One of the greatest crimes in history, the slaughter of the Jewish people in Europe, is continuing unabated,’ the report began. Roosevelt listened to Morgenthau’s summary and scanned the report. He waved aside Morgenthau’s assertion that anti-Semitism at the State Department accounted for the lack of interest there in the Jewish troubles, but he accepted Morgenthau’s suggestion that responsibility for refugee affairs be moved from State to a special board answerable to the president. The War Refugee Board was assigned to take ‘all measures within its power to rescue the victims of enemy oppression who are in imminent danger of death and otherwise to afford such victims all possible relief and assistance consistent with the successful prosecution of the war.’

“Following an order by Hitler to round up the Jews of Hungary, Roosevelt issued his most detailed and scathing condemnation of the Nazi policies:

“‘In one of the blackest crimes of all history – begun by the Nazis in the day of peace and multiplied by them a hundred times in time of war – the wholesale systematic murder of the Jews of Europe goes on unabated every hour. As a result of the events of the last few days, hundreds of thousands of Jews, who while living under persecution have at least found a haven from death in Hungary and the Balkans, are now threatened with annihilation as Hitler’s forces descend more heavily upon these lands. That these innocent people, who have already survived a decade of Hitler’s fury, should perish on the very eve of triumph over the barbarism which their persecution symbolizes, would be a major tragedy.’

“Roosevelt had already declared that Hitler and his henchmen would be made to answer for their crimes. Now he promised that the reach of Allied justice would extend to those who collaborated with the Nazis. ‘All who share the guilt shall share the punishment.’ Roosevelt urged Germans and others to sabotage Hitler’s plan. ‘I ask every German and every man everywhere under Nazi domination to show the world by his action that in his heart he does not share these insane criminal desires. Let him hide these pursued victims, help them to get over their borders, and do what he can to save them from the Nazi hangman. I ask him also to keep watch, and to record the evidence that will one day be used to convict the guilty.’ Roosevelt pledged that the United states would employ ‘all means at its command’ to assist the escape of Hitler’s intended victims, ‘insofar as the necessity of military operations permits.’

“This last clause was crucial. Roosevelt remained convinced that the surest way to save the Jews was to win the war as quickly as possible. As it became apparent that a concentration camp at Auschwitz was a centerpiece of the German death machine, some Jewish spokesmen advocated bombing the camp or the rail lines feeding it. The bombing, the advocates argued, would slow the destruction of the Jews and thereby save lives. It would also make a political and moral statement that the Allies knew what was happening at Auschwitz and were trying to stop it.

“But there were arguments against the bombing. In the first place, it would certainly kill some of the very people the allies sought to save. Little imagination was required to predict that Hitler’s propagandists would display the bodies of those killed by the bombing and blame the Allies for many more Jewish deaths. Roosevelt was serious about bringing the war criminals to justice, and he didn’t want to spoil the evidence of their guilt. In the second place, bombing the camps or the rail lines would require the diversion of scarce resources. American and British bombers were fully employed during 1944 striking targets that contributed to the German war effort. To send planes over Auschwitz might well cost the lives of allied soldiers. Finally, there was no guarantee bombing the camp would do any good. The rail lines could quickly be rebuilt, and the killing of Jews might be accomplished by other means.

“How much of the argument Roosevelt heard, and how fully he participated in it is unclear. John McCloy, the assistant secretary of war, told a journalist decades later that Harry Hopkins informed him during the summer of 1944 that Roosevelt had been urged by some Jewish leaders to order the bombing but that, in Hopkins’s words, ‘the Boss was not disposed to.’ Hopkins asked McCloy to staff the request out. McCloy said he had already done so. The air force had rejected the bombing request on cost-benefit grounds. McCloy gave the negative report to Sam Rosenman, and, in McCloy’s words, ‘that was the end of that.’ McCloy added, in his retrospective interview, that he ‘never talked’ to Roosevelt about the subject.

“But McCloy subsequently changed his story. He told Morgethau’s son that he had indeed spoken to Roosevelt about bombing Auschwitz. The president, according to this later version, himself refused the request. He said the bombing would be ineffecrtive and would appear to make the United States complicit in the killings. ‘We’ll be accused of participating in this horrible business,’ Roosevelt told McCloy.

“Which version, if either, is true is impossible to tell. The contemporary record is silent on the subject. What is clear is that the bombing did not take place and that it did not take place because Roosevelt did not want it to. He knew bombing was an option, and he could have overridden objections from the War Department, as he had overridden the department regarding the timing of the second front. But he thought bombing would be a mistake. Whether he spoke through Hopkins of McCloy, directly or indirectly, the decision – like every other important decision of the war – was his.”

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Published in: on July 13, 2009 at 9:18 am  Leave a Comment  

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