U.S. Foreign Policy and Jewish Inmigration

Essay by Anonymous UserUniversity, Master'sA, January 1997

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Interesting analysis Well Done!


In reviewing the events which gave rise to the U.S.'s foreign policy toward

Jewish refugees, we must identify the relevant factors upon which such decisions

were made. Factors including the U.S. government's policy mechanisms, it's

bureaucracy and public opinion, coupled with the narrow domestic political

mindedness of President Roosevelt, lead us to ask; Why was the American

government apathetic to the point of culpability, and isolationist to the point of

irresponsibility, with respect to the systematic persecution and annihilation of the

Jewish people of Europe during the period between 1938-1945?

Throughout the years of 1933-1939, led by Neville Chamberlain and the

British, the United States was pursuing a policy of appeasement toward Hitler.

They had tolerated his military build-up and occupation of the Rhineland, both

violations of the Treaty of Versailles, as well as the annexing of Austria and the

take-over of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia.

Hitler realized early on in his

expansionist campaign that Western leaders were too busy dealing with their own

domestic problems to pose any real opposition. In the United States, Americans

were wrestling with the ravages of the Great Depression. With the lingering

memory of the more than 300,000 U.S. troops either killed or injured in World

War I, isolationism was the dominant sentiment in most political circles.

Americans were not going to be 'dragged' into another war by the British. The

Depression had bred increased xenophobia and anti-Semitism, and with upward of

30% unemployment in some industrial areas1, many Americans wanted to see

immigration halted completely. It was in this context that the democratic world,

led by the United States, was faced with a refugee problem that it was morally

bound to deal with. The question then became; what would they do?

Persecution of the Jews in Germany began officially on April 1st

1933. Hitler had come to power a few weeks earlier and he immediately began the

plan, as outlined in his book Mein Kampf, to eliminate 'the eternal mushroom of

humanity - Jews'.2 German Jews were stripped of their citizenship by the

Nuremberg Race Laws of 1935 and had their businesses and stockholdings seized

in 1938. Civil servants, newspaper editors, soldiers and members of the judiciary

were dismissed from their positions, while lawyers and physicians were forbidden

to practice. Anti-Jewish violence peaked on 9 November 1938, known as the

'Night of the Broken Glass' or Kristallnacht, when over 1000 synagogues were

burned. Jewish schools, hospitals, books, cemeteries and homes were also


The mistreatment of non-Aryans in Germany was common knowledge in

the U.S. in 1938. After the anschluss, the flow of refugees exceeded the

capabilities of both the Nansen Office and the Autonomous Office of High

Commissioner for Refugees. The commission had been formed in response to the

anti-Jewish persecution and had but the 'tacit endorsement of the United States'.

In light of the League's incapability, President Roosevelt and then Secretary of

State Cordell Hull, invited the representatives of more than 30 nations and 39

private organizations to an international conference at Evian, to discuss the refugee

problem. Myron C. Taylor, past chairman of U.S. Steel Corporation, was named

the chairman of the American delegation. In the weeks before the conference,

Ambassador Joseph Kennedy, in London, felt the growing concern in the British

Foreign Office as to the American position on the conference and the refugee

question in general. He cabled the U.S. State Department expressing his concern,

and received an evasive reply from Secretary Hull. Hull explained that it was the

French, that had assumed control of the planning of the conference and that he

would be advised of their position 'in the near future'. No reply ever came and on

the eve of the conference the British were unaware of U.S. refugee policy4, a

practice that would recur throughout the refugee crisis. Assistant Secretary of

State George Messersmith, in briefing the President's Advisory Committee on

Political Refugees (PACPR) before Evian, expressed the U.S. desire to 'create

some permanent apparatus to deal with the refugee problem,' but they,

'envisioned no plan of official assistance to refugees.'5 Taylor expressed this

policy in his opening speech at Evian in saying that the U.S. would accept 27,000

refugees as outlined in the German and Austrian quotas, no more. The only

concrete achievement of the conference was the creation of the Intergovernmental

Committee on Refugees (IGCR), which was to be a voluntary organization, totally

dependent on private funding. Furthermore, no member of the IGCR would be

expected to change immigration policies and quotas. The obvious lack of intended

action was summed up in the final communiqué of the conference, 'The

governments of the countries of refuge and settlement should not assume any

obligations for the financing of involuntary emigration.'6 The conference

concluded and Taylor, weary of the fact that nothing had been accomplished in the

week at Evian, cabled the State Department warning that if the United States does

not move to act, 'other countries of settlement will claim that they are not

obligated to commit themselves.'7 Secretary Hull cabled back reminding Taylor

of the rigid immigration laws and the restrictionist sentiment in Congress. The

unwillingness of the U.S. to set the example, allowed for the attending nations to

keep their borders closed, hiding behind domestic unemployment, anti-Semitism

and, American apathy.

So, before war broke out in September 1939, during that same

summer, President Roosevelt called for the deactivation of the IGCR, the now

600,000 refugees in need of aid were nowhere closer to asylum than they were at

its creation. The U.S. government had successfully maintained a policy of

restrictionism and isolationism. But the refugee problem would take a nasty turn,

presenting them with a more serious moral headache.

Three months after the conference at Evian the worst purging of German

Jewry yet took place in what came to be known as Kristallnacht. Thirty thousand

Jews were arrested and anti-Jewish violence peaked. In protest, President

Roosevelt ordered the American ambassador, Hugh Wilson, to return to

Washington, but refused to impose diplomatic or economic sanctions on the Nazi

government8. Roosevelt publicly denounced Nazi brutality, saying that he could

scarcely believe the Nazi barbarism. But when asked about getting masses of Jews

out of Germany, he replied, 'The time is not ripe for that,' and when questioned

further about the possibility of relaxing immigration restrictions, he responded,

'That is not in contemplation, we have the quota system.'9 This policy of rhetoric

had been predominant in the U.S. approach to the refugees and would continue

well into the war. Even Hitler commented with bitter sarcasm regarding Western

hypocrisy, 'It is a shameful example to observe today how the entire democratic

world dissolves in tears of pity, but then in spite of its obvious duty to help, closes

its heart to the poor, tortured people.'10 Prompted by the U.S., the international

committee refused to even acknowledge publicly that the main refugee problem,

was a Jewish one.

The organized mass slaughter began with the German invasion of the Soviet

Union in June 1941, this was accomplished through the use of mobile

extermination units that followed behind the advancing Nazi army11. Scholars on

the subject have questioned when exactly, the Western world knew about the

atrocities occurring in Europe. From July 1941 until the end of 1942, U.S.

intelligence operations in Europe were only beginning to get underway. However

British intelligence was the focal point of all news coming out of Occupied

Europe. Early reports from aerial reconnaissance, returning soldiers, escaping

citizens, prisoners of war, neutrals, as well as reports from Polish, Dutch, French

and Czech intelligent services, all reported 'unofficial stories' - the State

Department viewed them as rumors - about Nazi plans of extermination12. In May

1942, a report was transmitted to London from the Jewish Socialist Party in Poland

warning that the Germans had 'embarked on the physical extermination of the

Jewish population on Polish soil.13' European news, such as the Swedish

Socialdemokraten, published a report in the Fall of 1941 about the killing of Jews,

'There was no doubt that this was a case of premeditated mass murder.'14

Newspapers in Western Europe and the United States picked up on the reports

later. The London Daily Telegraph published an article on June 30 headlined,

'More Than 1 Million Jews Killed in Europe.'15 The New York Times covered

the story that same day, skeptically putting it in the middle of the paper.16

Reports, although filing into the United States at an accelerated rate, were still

considered unconfirmed.

In November 1943, the Gillette-Rogers resolution was introduced in the

Senate and in the House. The resolution called for 'the creation by the President

of a commission of diplomatic, economic, and military experts to formulate and

effectuate a plan of action to save the surviving Jewish people from extinction...'17

SRes. 203 was supported unanimously, but in the House H.R. 352 faced the

opposition of Breckinridge Long. In his testimony, he pointed out that with 'every

legitimate thing' already being done, any more action by Congress would 'be

construed as a repudiation of the acts of the Executive branch.'18 Very impressed

by his words, the Committee on Foreign Affairs voted down the Gillette-Rogers

Bill on 26 December 1943.


During the months leading up to the Bermuda Conference of April 1943,

the State Department vetoed the idea of temporary harboring of refugees in the

U.S., based on security reasons and the critical food shortage. They ruled out

rescue operations because that would require diversion from the war effort. In

addition they refused to use their abundant political influence to pressure Britain

into loosening immigration to Palestine. At Bermuda, the U.S. and Britain

reiterated the fact that they were not willing to change quotas or immigration and

stressed that no diversion from the war effort should be employed for the refugees.

The only positive outcome of the conference was the revival of the IGC, whose

mandate gave relief to those already rescued but did not participate in rescuing.

The New York Times writing on the conference noted, 'Not only were ways and

means to save the remaining Jews in Europe not devised, but their problem was

not even touched upon, put on the agenda or discussed.'19 Three million people

had already perished.

It was already quite obvious that the American government didn't want to

help, and it was beginning to appear as if there were certain people in key places

who didn't want other nations to help either. However, in 1944, the tide of

American foreign policy was going to shift. The changes were precipitated by a

report submitted to the President by the Secretary of Treasury, Henry Morgenthau

Jr., dated January 16th 1994, entitled 'A Personal Report to the President'. The

report outlined the State Department's repression of news of the Final Solution in

cable No. 354, its policy of apathy, and recommended that all rescue operations be

removed from its hands. The report and the recommendations formulated had the

desired effect both because it was 'political dynamite' and because 1944 was an

election year20. The report consequently spurred a chain of events in favor of

cooperation toward rescue, no matter how limited. On January 22nd 1944,

Executive Order 9417 established the War Refugee Board. Morgenthau, Hull and

Henry Stimson were to head the WRB, and John Pehle, a member of Morgenthau's

Treasury staff, was named Director. Agents were installed in Ankara, Istanbul,

Lisbon and North Africa, funding, negotiating and coordinating relief programs.

The WRB sent threats of punishment to Axis nations in an effort to deter them

from collaborating with the Nazis in the deportation of Jews.21

The State Department, a major actor in the policy making process,

although removed from the issue, continued to subtly obstruct the workings of the

WRB. The board requested that a message be transmitted via Switzerland to Latin

America countries, requesting them to validate fraudulent visas for Jews interned

in a German camp at Vittel, France. Internal confusion caused the transmission to

be delayed and in the interim 250 people were sent to Auschwitz.22 After

eyewitness accounts and drawings of Auschwitz were made available to the WRB

in June 1944, they suggested the bombing of the gas chambers or the rail lines

leading to it. Assistant Secretary of the Army, John J. McCloy said that the

bombing would be of 'doubtful efficiency'23 and would require a 'diversion of

considerable air support'.24 With respect to the diversion of air support between

July and November 1944, the American 15th AF division, stationed in Italy,

carried out over 2,800 bomber attacks on Blechhammer, the synthetic oil and

rubber works factory not 5 miles from the gas chambers. The chambers were

never bombed. Later, parts of Auschwitz as well as pursuant documents to the

camps atrocities would be destroyed - but by the Nazi's, in an attempt to hide the

evidence from the world. The U.S. could not have rescued people from German

occupied countries, but they could have redefined the status of those being held in

camps to prisoners of war. This would have made them subjects of international

law, legally binding the International Red Cross to protect them. This wasn't done


It is fairly easy to look back on history and comment on what could

have been done, but the reality in this particular case is that while many options

were of 'doubtful efficiency', many others were quite viable. Up to 1944, with

the creation of the WRB, and to a lesser degree afterward, the U.S. rejected

proposals of rescue attempts through neutrals, Axis allies, North African ports,

diplomatic means, threats, incentives and the use of physical force. The question

is why were these decisions made? Scholars and politicians have attributed U.S.

policy to discrepancies between early reports, the incredibility of the horror

stories, the desire not to antagonize the Germans into escalating the level of terror

to one the allies couldn't match and the U.S. goal to end the war achieving 'rescue

through victory.'26 This paper contends that although all of these did influence

American immigration policy, domestic factors, such as public opinion, the U.S.

bureaucratic process and the position and influence of certain key actors had the

most profound effects on why these decisions were made.

A more realistic explanation of U.S. policy then would be the

process of bureaucratic decision making itself, and not the morality of the

individual decision makers. From this notion stems two very important influences.

Within the bureaucracy, deviation from the accepted norms was viewed with

disdain. Bureaucrats who questioned the morality of a given policy also had their

loyalty questioned. So a bureaucrat wanting to look good in the eyes of his

superior, was better off going with the flow. Secondly, one could argue a most

influential factor was the sheer size of the foreign policy making machine.

Responsibility, as it is today, was diffused throughout dozens of agencies and

thousands of individuals so that blame is very difficult to pin on any one

individual. When everyone is responsible, no one is. The bureaucrat will refer

back to the phrase that was carried all the way to the Nuremberg Trials and echoed

in Adolf Eichmann's trial: 'I was doing my job' or 'I was following orders'. Thus

passing the buck onto his superior and on up through the hierarchy of power.

Eventually, though, whether willingly or unwillingly, somebody must bear the

brunt for those who covered their faces and blindly followed orders.

Restrictionism was a sentiment widely embraced in American

politics and flowed from many sources. Jobs were scarce and the unemployed

feared immigrants who would be willing to work for lower wages. This unrealistic

fear would carry into the following decades. Somewhat ironically, it was this fear

which motivated many Germans into scapegoating not only immigrants, but actual

German citizens, taking the blame for everything from unemployment to inflation.

Far right neo-Nazi groups were gaining momentum as the depression had bred

intergroup racial tension. A January 3rd 1939 report, from the House Committee

on Un-American activities reported the existence of 135 organization that were

regarded as fascist. The German-American Bund was receiving program direction

and funding directly from the Nazi ministry of propaganda and was trying to

frustrate legislation which it deemed prejudicial to the Fatherland (i.e. the

harboring of German refugees). The political climate was restrictionist to the

point that decision makers, both Jewish and not, favoring rescue felt that others

would question their patriotism and loyalty to the U.S.. Charges of dual loyalty

would surface wherever efforts were made to utilize American resources, to aid

the refugees.27

All of the above mentioned factors allowed the U.S. to adopt the easier

refugee policy rather than the morally correct one. The man who individually had

the most power to change and direct U.S. policy was President Roosevelt. The

American Jewish population adored F.D.R. and even after several years of rhetoric

without action, Jewish support for the president had not wavered. It might partly

have been because of this admiration that while nothing was being done, American

Jews believed that the President wanted to help them. It is quite probable that

Roosevelt, being the humanitarian that he was, did want to see Nazi 'barbarism'

stopped, but siding with the Jews bore a political price he was not willing to pay.

With critics having labeled his New Deal a 'Jew Deal', with Congress and more

than two-thirds of the population against the admission of refugees, and with his

popular support at an all-time low, to have pushed for the refuge issue would have

meant political suicide. His perception of the refugees in a narrow domestic

political context made self-justification of his policies much easier. When

weighing the pros and cons in light of domestic factors, apathy was the only

logical answer. In this context, even Roosevelt's Jewish advisors advised against

the creation of a 'Jewish Problem'. He proceeded to pursue a policy which earned

him points at home while risking very little, and substituted symbolic reassurance

for commitment.28 Role theory predicts that the actor, when given the choice

between two camps, will chose the side which promises the least threats.

Roosevelt wanted to avoid confrontation with the WASP elite who were making a

lot of isolationist and restrictionist noise. The American Jewish community,

which wanted to avoid stirring up anti-Semitism and allegations of dual-loyalty,

while doing what it could, tried hard not to 'rock the boat'.29 Again, Roosevelt

acted quite predictably. In order to avoid taking the criticism for his own inaction,

he passed the responsibility onto Breckinridge Long and the State Department.

Some researchers have claimed that Roosevelt didn't think that the war was

really about the Jewish Question, and it was therefore very low on his list of

priorities. But others contend that U.S. hesitance to accept the Nazi priority on the

Jewish question stemmed form the desire to avoid turning the war into one to save

the Jews. The acceptance of such a fact, could have interfered with the full

mobilization of U.S. forces.30 It was no secret, though, that the Nazis viewed the

Jewish Question as central in their ideological quest toward world domination. As

early as February 1939, this was brought to the President's attention by George

Rublee at the White House. This occurred during negotiations by Rublee for the

emigration of 150,000 Jews from Germany. The President asked why only Jews,

so Rublee explained to him that 'Berlin only recognized a Jewish problem and

refused to negotiate on anything else.'31 Further proof that Roosevelt knew was

the fact that in August of 1942, in a White House press conference, he said, 'The

communication which I have just received...gives rise to the fear that... the

barbaric and unrelenting character of the [Nazis]...may lead to the extermination of

a certain population.'32


Another theory defends Roosevelt, claiming that he didn't understand the

meaning of Auschwitz. Oliver Wendell Holmes described Roosevelt as

'possessing a third-rate intellect but a first-rate temperament.'33 Although it did

not require an analytical genius to put together the rumors, or the fact that the

railways headed to Auschwitz, from directions all over Europe. The kilometers of

enclosed land and the disappearing Jews, is what Lacquer calls, 'the blindness of

perception: the horrific paradox of 'knowing' and still not being 'aware'.'34 He

claims that to a certain extent rejection of such information is a normal

psychological mechanism. Images of factories producing soap, glue, lubricants

and artificial fertilizers from corpses, gas chambers packed with naked, emaciated

people forced to hold their children above their heads as to maximize space, and

sadistic medical experiments using humans as guinea pigs, are notions which the

human mind cannot immediately perceive or process, even when actually

confronted with it. W.A. Wisser't Hooft, a Protestant theologian and First

Secretary of the World Council of Churches, said 'People could find no place in

their consciousness for such an unimaginable horror...they did not have the

imagination together with the courage to face it. It is possible to live in a twilight

between knowing and not knowing.'35 Furthermore, the events were taking place

in towns and cities which F.D.R., let alone the average American, had never heard

of before, confounding the reality of the situation making it more difficult to

comprehend. Another factor supporting this view is that the casualty numbers

reported in the newspapers were in the order of hundreds of thousands or millions,

numbers extremely difficult for people to relate to. Joseph Stalin said that, 'One

death is a tragedy, one million deaths is a statistic', and truth of his words lies in

the fact that greater than a certain magnitude, numbers lose all meaning. The

shortcoming of this theory lies in the fact that had there been a will, collectively,

after extensively reviewing the reports, even with a minimal understanding, there

could have been a way. Since, for the most part, no 'way' was devised, one can

infer that the 'will' was nonexistent.

Breckinridge Long, in the higher echelons of power, stated U.S.

immigration policy when he said, 'We can delay and effectively stop for a

temporary period of indefinite length the number of immigrants into United States.

We could do this by simply advising our consuls to put every obstacle in the way

and to resort to various administrative devices which would postpone and postpone

the granting of visas.'36 In this sense, U.S. policy toward refugees and immigrants

did succeed, at least in theory. That is to say, they succeeded in not allowing more

immigrants and effectively stalling any rescue attempts even before they could be

implemented. However, the decisions taken by the actors involved would prove

rather unsuccessful, within the realm of public opinion. In fact, as early as 1943,

the U.S. would divert it's power and attention away from rescue attempts vis a vis

their immigration policy, toward damage control.

On December 17th 1942, for the first time since the beginning of the war,

11 allied governments and DeGaulle's Free France published a common

declaration announcing Hitler's intention to exterminate the Jews. U.S. minister to

Switzerland, Leland Harrison, had met with Dr. Reigner and had been sending

reports to the State Department, which was trying to formulate a picture of what

the situation was in occupied Europe. On February 10th 1943, Harrision

forwarded another message on The Final Solution and received cable no. 35437

from Breckenridge Long, then head of the War Special Problems Division,

instructing him to stop forwarding reports of mass murder, as they could have

'embarrassing' repercussions in the United States.38 Without the proper facts,

any type of action would be greatly impeded; The State Department was cutting of

it's information at the source. Thus, damage control had already begun, via the

State Departments blissful ignorance, in efforts to halt negative publicity and

World condemnation.

Patriotic organizations such as the Crusaders, Sentinels of the Republic and

the American Liberty League preached 100% Americanism. While the more

conservative Allied Patriotic Societies, Junior Order of American Merchants,

American Medical Association, BPOE and Chamber of Commerce, with a

combined membership of 5 million, bombarded Congress with resolutions and

recommendations to halt immigration completely. Nativism, patriotism,

xenophobia and anti-Semitism all affected U.S. attitudes toward refugees. An

Elmo Roper poll of 1938-39 showed that although 95% of Americans polled

disapproved of the existing Nazi regime, only 8.7% favored the immigration of

more European refugees, while 83% were adamantly against.39 The political

climate was restrictionist to the point that decision makers, both Jewish and not,

favoring rescue felt that others would question their patriotism and loyalty to the

U.S.. Charges of dual loyalty would surface wherever efforts were made to utilize

American resources to aid the refugees. In 1943, after one-third of European Jews

had already been killed, less than half of the Americans polled believed that mass

murder was occurring. In December 1944, 75% believed that the Nazis were

killing in the concentration camps but estimated the severity at 100,000 deaths or

less. Only by May 1945 could 85% acknowledge that mass murder had

occurred.40 Furthermore, American Jewish leaders were unable to unify

themselves, limiting them in their ability to maximize pressure on the government

and to create adequate political incentive.

In retrospect it is evident that the decisions made, carried the 'word' of the

American people. They issued the orders, whether that person was the President,

the House of Representatives, the Senate, the State Department, interest groups or

an individual citizen, the American people had spoke. It is unfortunate but not

surprising, that the only year during which immigration of the entire German and

Austrian quotas was permitted was 1939. From 1939-1944, of a potential 900,000

immigrants outlined in the already resrictionist quotas, less than 125,000 Jews

were accepted, while more than two thirds of the positions went unfilled.41

However, the voice of pressure groups, important bureaucrats, political leaders, the

decision making machine and the American people was heard and mirrored by the

presidents actions. He can be held responsible for not having the political courage

or the moral convictions to risk his political career to aid the Jews of Europe, but

he can not be blamed for acting on the will of his own nation. This is in effect his

job: Government of the people, by the people, for the people. It's ironic that

politicians often choose a policy based on gains and losses of support, and while

they do this for selfish reasons, they end up representing the majority view. The

above mentioned domestic factors Roosevelt had to contend with, played a major

and even laid the foundation for the decisions made. There were those who

advocated rescue, but they could not penetrate the wall of science. Had the

majority of the population wanted to open the doors to Jews fleeing persecution,

the Congressmen would have wanted to, as would have the President.

Inscribed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty are the words, ' Send

these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door,'. It

is for history to judge why a country, made up entirely of immigrants and

promising freedom and opportunity to the home less of the world, closed 'the

golden door' in this momentous time of need. Paradoxically, the events in

Germany which lead to the closing of the gates, are also for history to judge.


1. Bauer,Yehuda 'When Did the Know?' Bystanders to the Holocaust (The Nazi

Holocaust: v. 8) (Westport: Meckler Corporation, 1989),

2. Berenbaum,Michael The World Must Know (Toronto: Little, Brown and

Company, 1993),

3. Fein,Helen Accounting for Genocide (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co.,


4. Feingold,Henry L. The Politics of Rescue (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers

University Press, 1970),

5. ---,'The government Response' in The Holocaust: Ideology, Bureaucracy and

Genocide,ed. San Jose Conferences on the Holocaust. New York: Kraus

International Publications,1980.

6. ---,'Who shall Bear the Guilt for the Holocaust: The Human Dilemma' in