They were an underground “movement to let the Jews be killed.” They were “vicious men” who may have been “accomplices of Hitler.” They were “war criminals in every sense of the term.”
These charges were made at the height of World War II. The men who made them were senior officials of the United States Department of the Treasury. But they were not speaking of French collaborationists or the satellite allies of Nazi Germany. They were referring to other Americans—indeed, Americans who happened to be highly placed officials in another governmental department.
This book is about the response of the United States Department of State to the systematic murder of six million Jews by Nazi Germany during World War II.
Holocaust historians have handed up broad, sweeping indictments of American leaders and institutions for abandoning Jews in occupied Europe and the Soviet Union to the Nazi extermination machinery. The indictments cover a lengthy period, from the initial persecution of Jews by the Nazis in the 1930s—before Hitler apparently had even conceived of a “Final Solution” in the form it eventually took—to the end of the war. To be sure, Holocaust historians have described and criticized the State Department’s conduct, but in the same breath, and often with the same vehemence, they have criticized all conceivable organizational and individual governmental and private actors, including President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his aides, other government agencies, Congress, American newspapers and journalists, church groups, and even American Jewish leaders. Especially in recent years, as much time and effort have been devoted to books, articles, and even a play (The Accomplices by Bernard Weinraub) to the wartime infighting among American Jewish organizations over the rescue of European Jews as to the conduct of the State Department. One influential book about the American response to the Holocaust, David Wyman’s The Abandonment of the Jews, contains a chapter titled “Responsibility” (“America’s response to the Holocaust was the result of action and inaction on the part of many people.”). Less than a page of the chapter’s twenty-nine pages is devoted to the State Department’s conduct, while three full pages are spent on the action and inaction of American Jewish groups.
The drawback to universal blame is the risk that the most culpable find refuge by simply being part of a guilty crowd. But when everyone is guilty, no one individual or group of individuals is especially guilty. The failure to rescue Jews becomes a matter of collective responsibility, not of individual misconduct. The premise of this book is that, while very few of these institutions and their leaders are free of responsibility for America’s failure to do more to save Jewish lives, not all were equally guilty, and one particular group—officials in the wartime State Department—behaved in such a manner as to stand out from all others.
Authoritative eyewitnesses—young Christian lawyers in the wartime Treasury Department—concluded that State Department officials indeed were especially reprehensible. These idealistic but tough-minded lawyers, New Dealers from middle-class backgrounds, fought with the diplomats in the State Department to rescue dying Romanian Jews in a place called Transnistria (now a disputed land claimed by the Republic of Moldova). Many thousands who could have been saved perished while this bureaucratic battle played out. The Treasury Department lawyers not only believed that State Department officials were guilty of a failure to act but also became convinced they deliberately suppressed reports of the vast slaughter in occupied Europe and blocked efforts to rescue Jews in the few places where rescue was possible.
This is an extraordinary accusation; indeed, it is one of the most startling and provocative ever to be leveled against a discrete group of senior officials of the American government. Given the evidence supporting these claims, which the Treasury Department lawyers obtained by essentially stealing diplomatic cables from the State Department, the conduct of the State Department deserves a historical condemnation far greater than that leveled against other players in the drama of America’s response to the human and moral cataclysm that became known as the Holocaust.
What possessed them to act in such a manner? As a start, anti-Semitism played a significant role in the State Department’s response to the Holocaust. While this may be self-evident to many, some historians’ judgments of collective American guilt have tended to minimize or entirely overlook the virulence of the anti-Semitism that pervaded the State Department bureaucracy like no other cabinet department in wartime Washington, D.C.
But it would be a mistake to explain the State Department’s conduct simply on this basis, because other factors were at work. The State Department’s most influential personnel—particularly in the Foreign Service—came largely from America’s Christian aristocracy. In fact, they were Christian America’s “best and brightest.” They had followed a path far outside the experience or even awareness of most of their fellow Americans: from wealthy upbringings to exclusive boarding schools—especially one school, Groton, in Massachusetts—to Ivy League and other elite undergraduate educations, to diplomatic postings. Very few Jews, blacks, or women served in the wartime Foreign Service, and the few who did were largely relegated to backwater posts.
In some respects, therefore, this was the last group of people one would expect to behave so inhumanely. Many State Department officials had been given the best formal education that America had to offer, a strong grounding in religion (with its attendant emphasis on the eternal struggle between good and evil), exposure to different cultures, and knowledge of history, literature, languages, and science. But their education and maturation within an aristocratic cloister walled them off from the rest of America, especially from other ethnic and religious groups. This patrician upbringing, with its constant emphasis on Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism, also accounts for the callous response of State Department officials to the sufferings of human beings from different ancestries, religions, or economic backgrounds.
Another factor was that the State Department may have been the most dysfunctional wartime government agency in the nation’s capital. At the highest level, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, a former Tennessee senator from a hardscrabble mountain upbringing, and his undersecretary, Sumner Welles, a Groton-Harvard graduate with an impeccable lineage, sumptuous homes, and a close friendship with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, loathed each other. The mutual enmity between these diametrically opposite personalities, which was no secret in official Washington, poisoned the State Department. Ultimately only one of these men would survive their bitter feud, but before their rivalry reached its denouement in the form of a sex scandal, no less—they contributed to a calamity that neither wanted.
Neither of them was either inhumane or anti-Semitic. Cordell Hull was married to a woman of Jewish descent, and Sumner Welles was the one high-ranking State Department official who appeared sympathetic to the plight of Jews in Europe; after the war, in fact, he became a committed Zionist. But their management styles and personal animosity allowed the unfeeling, anti-Semitic assistant secretaries and careerists in the State Department to step into, and ruthlessly exploit, a bureaucratic vacuum on refugee issues and thereby doom an unbearable number of Jews who could have been saved.
An important backdrop to the State Department’s conduct was that, after the United States entered the war on December 7, 1941, a genuine opportunity arose to save Jewish lives: at least seventy thousand Romanian Jews who had been deported by their government, an ally of Hitler, to the killing fields of Transnistria. There, these Jews were left to perish from cold, disease, and starvation. In fact, one of the most distinct groups of Transnistrian Jews were the thousands of newly created orphans, including one, eleven-year-old Ruth Glasberg, whose valiant struggle to survive in Transnistria forms a part of this narrative. Short of defeating Nazi Germany, the United States and its allies had no realistic means to rescue most of the Jews who ultimately perished in concentration camps such as Auschwitz. But that was not true of the Transnistrian Jews and, as a result, their plight became a morally defining moment for the U.S. government, especially the State Department.
Finally, the specific personalities caught up in the State Department’s response to the Holocaust account in no small part for the tragic course of events. The Holocaust illuminated the very worst and the very best in people. In their use of both state apparatus and industrial infrastructure to carry out a scheme to eradicate European Jewry, Hitler and his henchmen appeared more like a mutant species than human beings. But a prominent German industrialist courageously risked his life to get word to the United States and Britain of Hitler’s “Final Solution,” and a Catholic member of the Polish Underground also risked his life—and his sanity as well—by reporting on conditions in the extermination camps (which he infiltrated in the guise of a camp guard) and in the Warsaw ghetto. In the United States, which has never given rise to anything like the Nazis, the range of human response to the Holocaust was nonetheless remarkable. Indeed, it seems impossible that, given their opposite reactions to the plight of the European Jews, the uncaring Christian State Department officials and the idealistic Christian Treasury Department lawyers worked in the same government within just a few hundred yards of each other.
And then, of course, there was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a towering figure in American history with a sunny but commanding personality and a spider-like mastery of his cabinet secretaries. Roosevelt’s complex relationships with the State Department’s Hull and Welles, on the one hand, and the Jewish Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau Jr., on the other, simultaneously enabled the State Department’s opposition to rescue and the Treasury’s campaign to save Jewish lives. But for once Roosevelt miscalculated, and the titanic interdepartmental battle turned into a race by the Treasury Department not just to save the lives of the Transnistrian Jews but also to salvage the historical reputation of the president himself.
According to the twelfth-century physician and scholar, Maimonides, “If one person is able to save another and does not save him, he transgresses the commandment ‘neither shalt thou stand idly by the blood of thy neighbor’” (Leviticus 19:16). In our time, as the wretched place-names have piled up—Cambodia, Kosovo, Rwanda, Darfur, to name just a few—we often debate the meaning of that decree: that is, what are the obligations of the United States to rescue victims of genocide? Typically, such debates end with retrospective regret at the failure either to intervene at all or to have intervened sooner. The precursor to those debates took place in 1943 between the State Department and the Treasury Department over the rescue of the Transnistrian Jews.
Parallels between the Holocaust and the more recent genocidal tragedies can be overstated. In its objective of biological extermination through modern industrial means, the genocide perpetrated by Nazi Germany stands qualitatively and quantitatively apart from the horrors of our own times. Moreover, during World War II, hundreds of thousands of American soldiers died in the cause of defeating Nazi Germany and its allies. While these soldiers fought in order to remove a mortal threat to the United States, the defeat of Germany also unquestionably saved the lives of the remaining two million Jews of Europe. The sacrifice of so many Americans must never be forgotten in any assessment of American responsibility as a whole. By comparison, relatively few American lives have been sacrificed to destroy or remove contemporary genocidal dictators.
But there is at least one similarity between what happened to the Transnistrian Jews and the fate of genocide victims since World War II. In all of these events, countless lives essentially hung on the outcome of a battle in the halls of government thousands of miles away in Washington. To be sure, the State Department’s obstruction of efforts to rescue the Transnistrian Jews, as witnessed by the Treasury Department lawyers, was far more inhuman than anything done by American officials in connection with the more recent acts of genocide. Nor is it possible for any nation, not even one as powerful as the United States, to stop every instance of genocidal madness. But as we weigh the costs of intervention to stop genocide against the consequences of not acting, the story of the State Department in World War II is a cautionary tale that should always remind us that, in the words of the Talmud, “To save one life is as if you have saved the world.”