Henry Morgenthau, Jr. (1891-1967) is best known for his service as U.S. Secretary of the Treasury during most of FDR’s administration; for stabilizing the dollar and for his major role in designing and financing the New Deal; and for his leading role in financing America’s participation in World War II.
He was the only Jew in FDR’s cabinet and, when he continued as Treasury Secretary through the first few months of Truman’s presidency, he became the first Jew in the presidential line of succession.
A skillful and dynamic administrator, he thoroughly reorganized the Treasury Department and was largely responsible for the national and international monetary policies instituted in the 1930s which led to the stabilization of the American economy and made the dollar the strongest currency in the world.
He was an early champion of supporting the Allies in World War II and preparing America for involvement in the war and – notwithstanding his father’s repeated and insistent urging that he not become entangled in Jewish issues – he was one of the greatest and most important advocates for the Jews of Europe during the Holocaust.
As early as 1930, Morgenthau was a contributor to the efforts of the Joint Distribution Committee, and he became one of the earliest and most vocal critics of the American immigration quota system for its inadequate visa allocation for Jews seeking haven from the Nazis.
In 1938, he unsuccessfully urged FDR to acquire British and French Guiana for use as a sanctuary for refugees – a humanitarian effort in which he pointedly included non-Jews – and he later actively, albeit unsuccessfully, pressed Secretary of State Cordell Hull to intervene on behalf of the 900 refugees aboard the S.S. St. Louis (1939).
However, he was successful in persuading Hull to support a World Jewish Congress plan to transfer private U.S. funds to Europe to rescue Jews. When the State Department purposely delayed any American action on the plan, a determined and indomitable Morgenthau undertook to circumvent the State Department and went directly to the president, presenting him with a stunning January 13, 1944 “Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of the Jews.”
As a result of his meeting with Roosevelt, the president issued an executive order on January 22, 1944 which created the United States War Refugee Board (WRB), the first major American attempt to address the extermination of European Jews. Among other things, the WRB sponsored Raoul Wallenberg’s mission to Budapest and is responsible for saving the lives of some 100,000 Jews.
Later in 1944, Morgenthau proposed his famous “Morgenthau Plan,” a peace plan involving the partition of Germany pursuant to which the Ruhr and Saar regions would be converted into an agrarian area and Germany would be stripped of its heavy industry and “so weakened and controlled that it cannot in the foreseeable future become an industrial area.”
While still at the Treasury Department, Morgenthau was active in many Jewish organizations, including the United Jewish Appeal, B’nai B’rith, and the Jewish Welfare Board. Due to personal and policy differences with President Truman – including not only advancing the Morgenthau Plan, which Truman and the State Department opposed, but also his call, as chair of the United Jewish Appeal, for Truman to take action regarding the British seizure of The Exodus – Morgenthau was forced to resign as Treasury Secretary (July 1945).
Born into a prominent assimilated Jewish family in New York City, Morgenthau rejected all Jewish observance and was reticent about even publicly acknowledging his Judaism. He and his wife never attended Jewish religious services, yet they celebrated Christmas and Easter; they carefully avoided Jewish social networks and vacation spots; and they pointedly refused to circumcise their son. Yet, he was a fervent Zionist and dedicated much of his post-government life to Israel.
He served as general chairman (1947-1950) and as then honorary chairman (1950-1953) of the United Jewish Appeal, in which capacity he is credited with playing a major role in raising the unprecedented sums vital to the success of the new State of Israel. He also served as chairman of the Board of Governors of the Hebrew University (1950-1951). As chair of the Board of Governors of the American Financial and Development Corporation for Israel, he played an important role in the offer of a 500 million-dollar bond issue for the new nation.
In this historic May 15, 1949 correspondence on his UJA general chairman letterhead, Morgenthau writes to Rabbi Isadore Breslau about the importance of attending an upcoming UJA meeting in light of the proclamation announcing the birth of Israel:
We are living in what is perhaps the most meaningful moment in two thousand years of Jewish life. The proclamation announcing the re-establishment of the State of Israel and the prompt recognition given to it by the United States make it imperative that American Jewish leadership come together at the earliest possible date to take counsel on the responsibilities and opportunities facing the United Jewish Appeal.
In reviewing the list of acceptances, I note with concern that we have not yet received a reply from you to attend the conference of the United Jewish Appeal to be held at the Astor Hotel in New York, on Saturday evening, May 22 and Sunday, May 23. The new developments give this meeting even more urgent significance….
Rabbi Isadore Breslau (1897-1978) is perhaps best known for his work on behalf of a variety of Zionist causes, including particularly the UJA, which he served as its honorary national chairman. He was also active in the Zionist Organization of America and the Joint Distribution Committee, and was a delegate to a number of World Zionist Congresses.
Morgenthau was awarded honorary doctorates from Yeshiva University and the Hebrew Union College, and Morgenthau Street in Jerusalem is named for him.
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Ironically, Morgenthau’s father, Henry Morgenthau Sr. (1856-1946) – lawyer, businessman, financier, diplomat, and perhaps best known as the American ambassador to the Ottoman Empire during World War I – was a fervent and vociferous anti-Zionist.
In March 1919, with the Jewish community preparing for the Paris Peace Conference with hopes that it would officially bless the idea of a Jewish homeland in Eretz Yisrael and as President Wilson was leaving for the conference, Morgenthau Sr. joined 31 other prominent Jewish Americans in signing an anti-Zionist petition.
Displayed here is Morgenthau on Zionism and Palestine, Morgenthau Sr.’s booklet, distributed by the “League for Peace With Justice in Palestine,” in which he seeks to turn “Americans of the Christian faiths” against “gigantic lies” advanced by “dual-allegiance Zionists” who are essentially American traitors. He blames Zionism for virtually every ill plaguing the Middle East and, in particular, for fomenting Arab animosity against the Jews.
Citing his own knowledge, expertise, and familiarity with the Jews, he characterizes Zionism as “the most stupendous fallacy in history;” argues that it is “wrong in principle and impossible of realization; unsound in its economics; fantastical in its politics; and sterile in its spiritual ideals;” and contends that “Zionism is a surrender, not a solution; a betrayal; a proposal that, if it were to succeed, would cost the Jews of America most of what they have gained of liberty, equality, and fraternity.”
Calling the Balfour Declaration “a shrewd and adroit delusion,” he sets out to prove that Zionist leaders purposely misrepresented its scope, which was not that “Jews shall have the right to dispossess, or to trespass upon the property of those far more numerous Arab tenants whose rights to their share in it is as good as that of the Jews and, in most cases, of much longer standing.”
He asserts that sustaining an economy in a Jewish county in Eretz Yisrael is manifestly impossible, arguing that despite 30 years of Jews working with “fanatical zeal backed by millions of money from philanthropic Jews of great wealth,” only 10,000 Jews have moved to the soil of Eretz Yisrael while 1.5 million Jews have come to America, and that agriculture in that waterless land is impossible. He further argues that the Moslem dedication to the land is such that the British would never, under any circumstance, permit Jewish ownership of any part of the land.
He submits that “the spiritual pretensions of Zionism” are intellectually dishonest and that rational Jews understand that their true route to success is accomplishment in the fields of science, industry, and arts, and as protected citizens in the enlightened countries in which they live. And, perhaps the worst of all: Morgenthau Sr. makes a point of declaring: “I speak as a Jew.”
Born in Mannheim, Germany and brought to the United States at age nine, Morgenthau Sr. achieved great success in the fields of law, real estate, and business before commencing his public service career at age 55. An early Wilson supporter, he was disappointed when the president appointed him as ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, but Wilson responded that he had to have a Jew in that position because of the interests of American Jews in the welfare of the Jews of Eretz Yisrael.
He originally declined the offer but later was encouraged to accept by Rabbi Stephen Wise, a close friend. Ironically, Morgenthau Sr.’s extreme antipathy for the very idea of a Jewish state led to his resignation as president of the Free Synagogue following a dispute with Wise, who was an ardent Zionist.
When the Ottoman authorities commenced the Armenian Genocide in 1914-1915, Wilson, seeking to maintain American neutrality in the dispute, rejected Morgenthau Sr.’s request for American intervention. As the massacres continued unabated, however, Morgenthau Sr. took independent unilateral steps to alleviate the plight of the Armenians, including forming the Committee on Armenian Atrocities, which raised over $100 million in aid, and convincing his good friend Adolph Ochs, the Jewish publisher of the New York Times, to assure continued coverage of the massacres. He finally resigned his post in disgust in 1916.
In June the next year, Morgenthau Sr., in his capacity as a representative of the War Department, commenced a clandestine mission to persuade Turkey to abandon the Central Powers in the war effort. In undertaking his mission, he cited the wretched conditions of the Jews under Turkish rule, but this was only a cover. As additional protection against unwanted interference by the Zionists, both in America and overseas, he enlisted a reticent Felix Frankfurter, considered by some to be a leader of American Zionism (and then assistant to the Secretary of War), to join the mission.
However, few Jewish leaders were fooled. For example, Weizmann correctly saw the delegation as a plot to undermine the Zionist national movement, since any successful peace proposal to Turkey would necessarily reduce dramatically any real possibility of a Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael. Weizmann feared – and with good reason – that this sudden American interest in Turkey would compromise his ongoing discussions with Great Britain with respect to the Balfour Declaration.
Fortunately, the British also opposed Morgenthau Sr.’s mission, but they could not risk alienating President Wilson. Accordingly, Arthur Balfour, the British Foreign Secretary, sent Weizmann to meet with Morgenthau Sr. as “an unofficial British representative” in Gibralter, where he convinced Morgenthau Sr. to abandon his mission.
It was one of Weizmann’s greatest, if generally unheralded, accomplishments. The failure of Morgenthau Sr.’s mission enabled England and France, pursuant to the secret Sykes-Picot Treaty, to dismantle the Turkish empire and led to the issuance of the Balfour Declaration.
Morgenthau Sr. was next appointed head of the “Morgenthau Commission” (July-Sept. 1919) charged with investigating the situation of the Polish Jews after the post-World War I pogroms. The shameful Commission report, published in the New York Times on Oct. 3, 1919, ignored the evidence of atrocities committed against the Jews and, in an attempt to cover up Polish brutalities, attributed the violence to tension and hostile acts perpetrated by the occupation armies and retreating forces.
Notwithstanding his extreme anti-Zionism, Morgenthau Sr. cared to some degree about Jews and Judaism. He appealed to Jewish leader and philanthropist Jacob Schiff on behalf of the Jews in Eretz Yisrael in 1914, which generated $50,000 for the cause. In 1939, with America’s doors all but shut to Jewish refugees, he was able to secure visas for dozens of his relatives and provided financial support to them all.
He also had a strong attachment to Reform Judaism and was very active in religious and philanthropic work. He served as a member of the board of directors of Mt. Sinai Hospital; helped raise funds for the establishment of the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati; served as a B’nai B’rith executive committee member; and was president of the Free Synagogue of New York.