A US State Department official alters a document to hide politically embarrassing information.
That’s the new controversy, in which US officials have admitted tampering with a video of remarks by then-State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki concerning Iran.
But something similar also happened during the Holocaust – and led to a dramatic change in America’s policy toward European Jewry.
The current State Department spokesman, John Kirby, has admitted that one of his colleagues deleted from their archives a videotaped exchange in 2013 in which Psaki confirmed that the department sometimes lied to the press to hide information about the Obama administration’s dealings with Iran. Kirby said the person who did the deleting “does not remember” who exactly gave the order.
In the case of the Holocaust episode, however, we do know who was responsible. His name was Breckinridge Long.
A wealthy campaign donor to Franklin D. Roosevelt, Long was rewarded with the post of ambassador to Italy, where he soon raised eyebrows by praising Mussolini’s “punctual” trains. In 1940, FDR promoted Long to assistant secretary of state, where he was put in charge of implementing refugee policy, among other things.
Former congressman Emanuel Celler described Long as “cold and austere, stiff as a poker, highly diplomatic in dress and in speech... he was the least sympathetic to refugees of all the members of the State Department.” When members of Congress introduced a resolution (drafted by the activist Bergson Group) urging president Roosevelt to help rescue Jewish refugees from Hitler, the administration sent Long to Capitol Hill to testify against it.
Prior to Long’s testimony, his deputy Robert C. Alexander advised him that in defending US refugee policy, “It would be impressive to state that over 547,000 visas of all kinds were issued during the decade beginning with the advent of the Hitler Regime in 1933....”
However, Alexander explained to Long that 547,000 was only the number issued; the actual number of foreigners who had entered was about 300,000, of whom only 195,000 were from Europe. “It is not advisable to say that these refugees were fleeing from Axis oppression exclusively, as many of them were fleeing from Communism,” Alexander cautioned him. But Long threw caution to the wind. He told Congress: “We have taken into this country since the beginning of the Hitler regime and the persecution of the Jews, until today, approximately 580,000 refugees.”
Long’s lie was soon exposed. Two leading political affairs journals, The Nation and the New Republic, refuted his statistics. Members of Congress and mainstream Jewish organizations denounced him. But that did not stop Long from lying again – this time by tampering with a document.
Long’s fraud began to unravel in late 1943 when Josiah E. DuBois, Jr., a young attorney on the staff of Treasury secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr., came into possession of an internal State Department cable, #354, which ordered US officials in Switzerland to stop sending cables such as one they had recently sent to Washington, identified as #482.
When DuBois got hold of #482, he was horrified to discover that it provided details about the mass murder of Europe’s Jews – that’s what the State Department wanted to suppress.
State feared publicity about the killing would put pressure on the Roosevelt administration to admit refugees, something that president Roosevelt adamantly opposed.
At DuBois’s suggestion, secretary Morgenthau asked the State Department for a copy of #354. But in the copy that Long delivered, he had “deleted the cross-reference to cable 482,” DuBois later recalled.
“It was an obvious, deliberate deception.” Without the reference to #482, “all it said was that messages such as those should no longer be sent – it didn’t mean anything.”
When DuBois revealed to Morgenthau what Long had done, the secretary was furious. “He once told me [that Long’s] deliberate attempt to deceive him... was the most shocking incident that he had ever experienced during his time in office,” DuBois recounted.
Galvanized by Long’s altering of the cable and the escalating controversy on Capitol Hill over Long’s false testimony, Morgenthau confronted the president and pleaded with him to pre-empt Congress by establishing a new government agency to rescue Jews from Hitler. It was just 10 months before election day, and the last thing Roosevelt wanted was a public scandal over the refugee issue. He quickly issued an executive order to create the War Refugee Board.
DuBois and his Treasury colleagues were chosen to head the board. During the final 15 months of the war, their initiatives – including its sponsorship of the life-saving work of Raoul Wallenberg – played a major role in saving some 200,000 Jewish refugees.
Thus the exposure of the State Department’s altering of a document in 1943 led to a significant change in American policy. So far, the exposure of the State Department’s altering of the Jen Psaki-Iran video has led only to a good deal of embarrassment for the Obama administration. Whether there will be more serious ramifications remains to be seen.
The author is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and author of 16 books about Jewish history.