The passing of Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal is a moment to pay tribute to his relentless pursuit of justice and to consider that while today it is a given that such criminals should be punished, there was a time when Nazi-hunting was not politically correct.
Soon after the United States entered World War II, the Roosevelt administration began formulating its policy on postwar treatment of Nazi war criminals. Even at that early stage the Allies knew enough about Nazi atrocities against Jews and others to know that if and when they won the war they would have many war criminals on their hands. Yet US policy on what to do with those war criminals was disturbingly ambivalent.
In 1942, president Franklin Roosevelt pledged that Nazi war criminals would be punished. The following year the Allies established a United Nations War Crimes Commission. But the State Department wanted to limit postwar trials to those war crimes committed against citizens of Allied countries, excluding atrocities against European civilians. In policy discussions among administration officials the State Department contended there was no legal basis to prosecute war criminals whose victims were citizens of Axis-occupied countries chiefly the Jews.
Enter Herbert Claiborne Pell. A former US envoy to Portugal and friend of FDR's since their days together at Harvard, Pell was in June 1943 appointed by the president to serve as the US representative to the war crimes commission.
Pell immediately found himself at odds with the State Department. He favored prosecuting all Nazi war criminals, both those who had harmed Allied citizens and those who had murdered Europeans, including Jews. In the State Department's eyes, however, prosecuting large numbers of Germans was politically incorrect because it could harm America's relations with Germany after the war.
State Department officials proceeded to undermine Pell at every opportunity.
Pell had been appointed to his new post in June but it was not until November that the State Department finally cleared him to travel to the meetings of the war crimes commission in London. In addition, State wouldn't let Pell bring Harvard law professor Sheldon Glueck to London as his legal adviser, insisting that the State Department's own man, Lawrence Preuss, accompany him.
Preuss soon sparked an uproar at the London meetings by openly opposing Pell's proposal to prosecute all war criminals. Preuss also tried to sabotage Pell by secretly sending Washington harshly critical reports about Pell's work in London.
On a visit to the US in late 1944 to attend the wedding of his son Claiborne a future US Senator from Rhode Island Pell met with FDR at the White House for a friendly chat. The president did not mention that he had already privately agreed to the State Department's request to dump Pell. A few hours later the State Department informed Pell that his service had been terminated because it could no longer find $30,000 in its budget to fund his position.
Pell promptly offered to work for free; State replied that it would be illegal for him to work without being paid.
Pell turned to a Jewish activist group, the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe (better known as the Bergson group), to help him publicize the scandal. At a press conference in New York City organized by the Emergency Committee in January 1945, Pell blew the story wide open. He urged punishment of "every Gestapo member who has caused suffering," denounced the State Department for leaving his proposals "to gather dust in the files of its legal adviser," and labeled as "nonsense" the State Department's explanations of his termination.
The Pell scandal appeared on the front page of The New York Times and throughout the American press. Embarrassed by the avalanche of negative publicity, the State Department was forced to reconsider its position. Within days, acting secretary of state Joseph Grew announced what was, in effect, a complete reversal of its previous position the State Department now agreed that Nazi murderers of European Jews should be prosecuted.
Looking back from the vantage point of our own era, Herbert Pell's position hardly seems controversial. "If we are not tough and hard toward the war criminals," he explained, "it will encourage other tyrants to try the same thing to murder, persecute and loot from minorities. Conviction and punishment of Axis war criminals is not a matter of revenge. It is justice."
That indeed was the principle that guided the work of Simon Wiesenthal, ably continued today under the direction of Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff, director of the Israel Office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. But it was not so long ago that this sacred task was regarded by many in Washington as politically problematic.
The writer is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, which focuses on issues related to America's response to the Holocaust.