The Nazis perpetrated the Holocaust, but the indifference of onlookers facilitated it. One of the guiltiest parties in this regard, according to a new book by former federal prosecutor Gregory Wallance, is the U.S. State Department. In the book, America’s Soul in the Balance: The Holocaust, FDR’s State Department, and the Moral Disgrace Of An American Aristocracy, Wallance quotes Treasury Department lawyers who accused State Department officials of being “accomplices of Hitler” and “war criminals in every sense of the term.”
The Jewish Press recently spoke to Wallance about the State Department’s sins of commission and omission; the extent of Roosevelt’s culpability in them; and the Treasury Department officials who lobbied to save Jews.
The Jewish Press: Why would Treasury Department officials charge their colleagues in the State Department as being accomplices of Hitler?
Wallance: Because Jewish groups in Switzerland provided information to the U.S. legation in Switzerland that 6,000 Jews were being killed daily in a single location in Poland. The legation then sent that information to the State Department, which, in turn, gave it to Jewish groups. The very next day, however, the State Department sent a cable back to the Swiss legation that said, in effect, “Don’t send any more cables like that.”
In addition, the department later blocked, if not sabotaged, a plan to rescue 70,000 Romanian Jews, as I recount in the book.
Why would it do that?
Anti-Semitism was part of it. But it was more than that. It was a heartlessness, an inability to empathize, to see this terrible crime that was being committed, and to say, “We’ve got to do something about it.” Some of them even opposed a plan to rescue Romanian Jews because “if it succeeds we’ve got no place to put them.”
Contrast that with the reaction of these Treasury Department lawyers – men like John Pehle and Josiah Du Bois – who, in my mind, are heroes. These lawyers found out about [the State Department’s cable to the Swiss legation], and that’s what made it possible for them to persuade their boss, [Treasury Secretary] Henry Morgenthau, to go to Roosevelt and persuade him to take Jewish rescue affairs away from the State Department and invest it in a War Refugee Board.
That board is credited with directly or indirectly saving 200,000 Jewish lives. But by the time it was created in January 1944, a year and a half had gone by since the first reports [of genocide had reached the U.S. government]. The War Refugee Board did a fair amount, but it was too little and too late.
How do you account for the State Department trying to derail rescue efforts and the Treasury Department trying to advance them? Weren’t they both departments of the same government?
Many members in the State Department were sealed off from the rest of America. They were educated in a bubble of privilege and wealth and told they were the chosen, the elite, imbued with Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism. They also received a healthy dose of conformity. The lawyers in the Treasury Department didn’t grow up in this aristocratic cloister.
Second, the Treasury Department was involved in almost all the New Deal programs. People were drawn to the New Deal because they wanted to change the world. They were idealists. The State Department was more like one of those old-line clubs like The Knickerbocker and attracted people, in large part, from this aristocratic bubble that I described. They had a completely different mindset about the world, and it was more of a “don’t rock the boat” attitude.
Finally, as I said, there was a significant degree of anti-Semitism in the State Department. I don’t think anti-Semites would’ve gone to work for Morgenthau, who was Jewish. Morgenthau’s hiring policy by the time war loomed actually was: “Does [the prospective employee] hate Hitler and does he want to lick Hitler’s guts?” So people in the Treasury Department naturally had a much different mindset.
Why assign so much blame to the State Department? Doesn’t the buck stop at the president’s desk? If Roosevelt wanted to do more to save Europe’s Jews, he could have, regardless of the State Department’s opinion on the matter.
Roosevelt certainly neglected the issue, so in that sense he’s responsible. But he wasn’t anti-Semitic. He appointed many Jews to high posts in his administration, for which he was attacked by both American anti-Semites and the Nazis. Furthermore, when he was presented with a rescue plan to save [tens of thousands of] Romanian Jews, he approved it on the spot.
About the Author: Elliot Resnick is a Jewish Press staff reporter and holds a Masters degree from Yeshiva University’s Bernard Revel School of Jewish Studies.
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