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Failing The Call Of The Hour: The State Department And The Holocaust

Gregory Wallance

Gregory Wallance

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.

His record is mixed. I don’t think it can be said that he set out in a deliberate and methodical way to block reports from Europe of massacres or to sabotage a rescue plan [as the State Department did].

Some people say Roosevelt abandoned the Jews, others say he saved the Jews. I think the truth is somewhere in the middle.

In a recent letter to the editor to The Jewish Press, Wyman Institute director Rafael Medoff disputed your claim that your book is the first to properly examine the State Department’s role in the Holocaust. He argued that books like The Abandonment Of The Jews by David Wyman already covered the topic in depth.

In these books, the State Department’s role tends to get submerged in what I call the “collective guilt approach” to the American response to the Holocaust, which is that everybody was guilty: the press, Roosevelt, Congress, the churches, Jewish American groups, etc.

I came away from my research with the sense that, while very few of these actors are really free from responsibility, the State Department didn’t simply neglect the issue, which you could accuse Roosevelt of doing for example. It actually used its authority and power to block reports of the [Holocaust] and then obstructed efforts to save 70,000 Romanian Jews. These actions struck me as a different order of misconduct that needed to be examined on its own.

Your first two books (published in 1981 and 2005, respectively) were about corruption in the NYPD and the 1857 Dred Scott Supreme Court decision. How did you get from these topics to the State Department and the Holocaust?

A couple of years ago, I was reading newspaper accounts about the discovery of letters written by Otto Frank to friends in the U.S. seeking their assistance in getting visas for himself and his family. The visa obstacles proved too much, though, and he decided to take his family into hiding in Amsterdam. We all know the rest of the story. I just was struck by the notion that American visa regulations and policies might have doomed the Frank family. So I started reading up on the subject and felt that not enough attention had been paid to the State Department’s role.

The second reason I decided to write this book is these Treasury Department lawyers; I found their outrage at the State Department morally redeeming. In part, they morally redeemed the good name of the United States. I can’t say enough about them. I’d like to see their story and all that they did really widely known because it’s an inspiration.

About the Author: Elliot Resnick is a Jewish Press staff reporter and author of “Movers and Shakers: Sixty Prominent Personalities Speak Their Mind on Tape” (Brenn Books).


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