“ac•qui•es•cence ( k w - s ns), n. 1. Passive assent or agreement without protest.”
In response to the intensifying threat to German Jewry Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau approached Roosevelt in 1938 suggesting the president promote British Guiana as refuge for refugees. But, “Roosevelt did not favor that particular proposal.” British Guiana was the first of several rejected suggestions of locations outside the U.S. for refuge. But administration reticence regarding European Jewry was not limited to “refuge”:
“Pehle’s office [in Treasury] had authorized a number of charitable groups to use funds in the U.S. regulated under the Trading with the Enemy Act to pay for food, medicine, and other aid to refugees and other civilian victims of the war in Europe. Those efforts were systematically blocked by some officials in the U.S. State Department”.
It was this systematic antisemitic policy expressed by the Roosevelt Administration that led three senior members of Morgenthau’s staff to charge the administration as complicit in Germany’s Final Solution to the Jewish Problem.
Treasury secretary Morgenthau received the Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of this Government in the Murder of the Jews on 13 January, 1944. While we may not know how Morgenthau finally convinced the president to act, nine days later Roosevelt signed an executive order establishing the War Refugee Board (WRB). As to what it was intended to achieve, even its director John W. Pehle described the result as “too little too late.”
The story of how one branch of the administration came to accuse a second of complicity in the murder of European Jewry describes systemic antisemitism supported by bureaucratic apathy absent presidential concern or leadership. But the administration was not acting in a vacuum; it had broad-based support for its policy of abandoning the Jews to their fate. Congress, itself enjoying broad popular support from an American populace overwhelmingly antisemitic, was always available to support the president’s assertion of “powerlessness.”
Five years after the United States and Britain colluded to produce a cosmetic “refugee conference” at Evian, France the two countries agreed to repeat the charade at a site inaccessible to protesters, the British colony Bermuda. American Jewish leaders again asked to be allowed to attend, to just register a plea on behalf of rescue and, as at Evian, were again refused.
“The 12-day Bermuda Conference, which opened on April 19, 1943, grew out of concerns in the British public [emphasis added] about news reports that the Nazis were slaughtering Europe''s Jews. The U.S. agreed to hold a closed-door conference with Britain to discuss the issue. But American delegates arrived with secret directives from the State Department to accomplish little or anything.”
Even had the U.S. not been committed to abandoning the Jews to their fate, the mid-level diplomats chosen to represent the administration still feared,
“that great difficulties would be presented if Nazi Germany released large numbers of Jews to the Allies.”
In the end the Allies agreed to “rescue” 2000 Jewish refugees from the safety of Spain and transport them to the safety of Morocco!
While serving as Sweden''s special envoy in Budapest between July and December 1944, Wallenberg issued protective passports and sheltered Jews in buildings designated as Swedish territory saving tens of thousands of lives. (Wikipedia)
On January 22, 1944 President Roosevelt, “Acquiescence Report” in hand, performed his sole decade-long gesture towards Jewish refugees and issued an executive order establishing the War Refugee Board (WRB). From the start the WRB was intentionally hobbled with bureaucracy. The president included on the Board the Departments of State, War and Treasury. State Department antisemitism was, after all, the public face of administration policy regarding the Holocaust. As for the War Department, it was at best indifferent to the plight of Europe’s Jews. And, as will soon be discussed, as “caretaker” of Jewish Displaced Persons after the war would be criticized by Earl Harrison, President Truman’s representative to the post-war Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees:
"As matters now stand, we appear to be treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them except that we do not exterminate them.”
As for budgeting the work of WRB, Roosevelt grossly underfunded the mission forcing its Chairman, Pehle, to spend most of his time fundraising among American Jewry to save Europe’s tiny remnant.
“In August 1944 the WRB brought 982 Jewish refugees from Italy to Fort Ontario [New York]… permitted to enter the United States outside the immigration laws [clearly the president always could have worked outside that law, had he chosen]… The board intended to create other such places of asylum, and thus also influence other countries to provide sanctuary [emphases added] for World War II victims. President Roosevelt, however, [refused] to establish any other havens… The board lobbied Roosevelt to publicly condemn the mass murder of Jews by the Nazis... This, however, was never done.”
Of the approximately 200,000 Jews claimed to have benefitted from the War Refugee Board, approximately 10,000 were actually “rescued.” The remaining were just moved from one “safe haven” to another.
The lessons of the WRB are the regrets surrounding “what might have been.” Had the US and its president shown any interest, demonstrated any leadership Roosevelt’s mid-level US negotiators at Bermuda would not have expressed concern regarding “great difficulties” they feared if Nazi Germany actually released the Jews.
The problem was not that nothing could be done. The problem was not that “the best way to save the Jews is by winning the war.” It was that the Jews were just not important, that Jewish survival never warranted even a modicum of effort. At bottom, as demonstrated by American actions, the United States was as much a participant in the Holocaust as was Europe. Passivity also is complicity.
But the president, the administration and the Congress did not exist apart from the American people. And statistics clearly prove that their actions were not far from how a great many Americans viewed “the Jews”: In 1939 only 39% felt Jews should be treated like Christians, and 10% would have seen them deported; In 1944 24% viewed Jews far more dangerous that Germans (8%) or Japanese 16%), America’s enemies in the war!
“Anti-Semitism in the United States climbed to very high levels in the 1930''s and according to Elmo Roper, a leading pollster of that era, reached its historic peak in 1944.”
What if Roosevelt had lost the election?
This is not a frivolous “what if” question. Roosevelt was elected in the midst of the Great Depression and while he won the popular vote, Corporate America and the wealthy opposed his agenda for “reform,” going so far as to attempt to remove him by military coup! With the intensity of popular antisemitism, Corporate America’s coup attempt and the enthusiasm of American elites for Hitler and his much admired experiment in eugenics and social engineering: How would the Jews have fared had Roosevelt lost the 1940 election?
The two most popular and charismatic figures on the American scene during those years were Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh. Both had been considered as potential presidential candidates, and both were antisemites and admirers of Hitler. With public sentiment strongly isolationist and opposed to involvement in the European war it was possible that either man as president would have kept the U.S. out of the war. But the United States also feared communism. A President Lindbergh might have sat out the European war. But would he have resisted an alliance with Hitler in a crusade against Communist Russia?
American eugenicists inspired and trained their German counterparts; American financiers built and funded the schools and universities that trained the “scientists” who would design and participate in the extermination of the Jews. America even preceded Germany by decades in the quest for a blond-haired, blue-eyed gene pool, its own Nordic ideal.
If, under a Ford or Lindbergh administration, the U.S. remained “neutral” the survivability of the Jews might have been uncertain. But had the United States joined Germany against what Hitler termed the “Judeo-Bolshevik enemy”?
In the end the two populists chose not to run, Roosevelt was reelected, and Germany declared war on the United States. In the end, despite his apathy regarding European Jewry we may consider the president the difference between a European Holocaust and a full and final solution to the 2000 year-long Jewish Problem.