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World War II

Prelude to WW II: Isolationism, Refugee Policy and the Roosevelt Administration
Pearl Harbor and Mobilization
Internment Policy
Pacific Theatre
European Theatre
Wartime Refugee Policy
The Atomic Bomb

Wartime Refugee Policy

Prisoners at the Auschwitz concentration camp shown at their liberation by the Allies in January 1945.
Image Source: L'Histoire a l'ecole primaire

While the the Roosevelt Administration's pre-war policy against undertaking more aggressive relief actions to help European Jews and other refugees may have been influenced by the coalition of interests formed by isolationists, labor unions and nativists opposing relaxation of immigration quotas, the rapid shift of public sentiment to unite against the Nazis and the other Axis nations after Pearl Harbor did not generate any major change to help rescue Jews or others fleeing the Nazis by either military measures or enactment of higher immigration quotas.

Within the President's Cabinet, the conflict over refugees increasingly pitted two of the President's closest advisers against one another, Secretary of State Cordell Hull and Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr..

Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Jr. Image Source: The Nobel Foundation Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr. Image Source: US Department of the Treasury

In August 1942, the State Department had received a copy of a cable from Gerhart Riegner, Secretary of the World Jewish Congress in Geneva, reporting on the Nazi plan for the murder of European Jews based on information that Riegner had received from a confidential source, a German industrialist. The cable was not forwarded to the President, and the Department also asked Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, a founder and president of the World Jewish Congress who also received the cable, not to publicize its contents, suggesting that the accuracy of the information was questionable.

Cable dated August 10, 1942, from Gerhart Riegner, Secretary of World Jewish Congress, Geneva, transmitted to U.S. State Department through U.S. Vice Consul General at Geneva and Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, a founder and president of the World Jewish Congress

...Received alarming report stating that, in the Fuehrer's Headquarters, a plan has been discussed, and is under consideration, according to which all Jews in countries occupied or controlled by Germany numbering 3 1/2 to 4 millions should, after deportation and concentration in the East, be at one blow exterminated in order to resolve, once and for all the Jewish question in Europe. Action is reported to be planned for the autumn....

Source: Focal Point Publications

The State Department did not confirm the accuracy of the Riegner cable until November, and the following month a small group of Jewish leaders including Rabbi Wise were given their only meeting with the President during the War in which they briefed Roosevelt on the information they had obtained on the Nazi extermination plans. During the 29-minute session, the President offered only a promise that he would issue another statement condemning the Nazis.

...The government of the United States is very well acquainted with most of the facts you are now bringing to our attention. Unfortunately we have received confirmation from many sources. Representatives of the United States government in Switzerland and other neutral countries have given up [sic] proof that confirm the horrors discussed by you. We cannot treat these matters in normal ways. We are dealing with an insane man-- Hitler, and the group that surrounds him represent an example of a national psychopathic case. We cannot act toward them by normal means. That is why the problem is very difficult. At the same time it is not in the best interest of the Allied cause to make it appear that the entire German people are murderers or are in agreement with what Hitler is doing. There must be in Germany elements, now thoroughly subdued, but who at the proper time will, I am sure, rise, and protest against the atrocities, against the whole Hitler system. It is too early to make pronouncements such as President Wilson made, may they even be very useful....

Report quoting President Roosevelt written by Adoph Held, president of the American Jewish Labor Committee, during meeting on December 8, 1942 with a delegation of American Jewish leaders


On March 23, 1943, the Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple pleaded with the British government to help the Jews of Europe in a speech delivered in the House of Lords. Partly as a result of the pressure of the Archbishop and others in Great Britain, as well as a mass public rally organized by American Jewish leaders protesting Nazi atrocities held in Manhattan's Madison Square Garden, in April the U.S. and Britain convened a conference of the Allies in Bermuda to discuss refugee relief. Background documents suggest, however, that key decision-makers continued to resist any approach that would result in significant numbers of refugees being allowed safe havens in the Allied countries, and the Bermuda Conference ended after 12 days of discussion with only vague statements of condemnation of the Nazi persecution. See The Bermuda Conference, America and the Holocaust, PBS. org.

On July 28, 1943, President Roosevelt received a more extensive briefing on the Nazi persecution from Jan Karski, a member of the Polish resistance movement who had repeatedly crossed into Nazi-held areas and, in disguise, had entered a concentration camp in Poland where he witnessed the execution of Jews.

...Western leaders knew what was happening. The problem is that they were all preoccupied with military victory. Strategy was crushing the German military and industrial power. Ending the war as fast as possible, with as few losses as possible. No side issues were to interfere.

What happened to the Jews was never more than a side issue....

Interview with Jan Karski for America and the Holocaust


Also in the summer of 1943, the conflicts between the State Department and the Treasury Department over refugee policy came to a head in a dispute over allowing the transfer of funds for refugee relief raised by U.S. Jewish organizations to bank accounts in Switzerland. The transfer was intended to implement a plan to help save Rumanian and French Jews proposed by Gerhart Riegner, the World Jewish Congress representative in Geneva who had first sent the August 1942 cable describing the Nazi extermination programs. The transfer required government approval, but the State Department took no action for 11 weeks after receiving the request from the Jewish organizations.

When Treasury Department officials were advised of the plan, they promptly issued the necessary licenses for overseas transfers, but the the State Department covertly continued to delay final action needed for the money to be received in the Swiss accounts. Toward the end of 1943, the Treasury Department staff learned of the State Department's obstructions, and Treasury Secretary Morgenthau directed that they prepare a report on the situation, titled ``A Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of Jews'' dated January 13, 1944. The report asserted in part that "State Department officials have not only failed to use the Governmental machinery at their disposal to rescue the Jews from Hitler, but have even gone so far as to use this Governmental machinery to prevent the rescue of these Jews." Secretary Morgenthau then gave the President a condensed version of the report on January 16, 1944, and told others that he was prepared to resign from the Cabinet and release the report to the press if the President failed to act. See Museum of Tolerance Multimedia Learning Center; America and the Holocaust,; James Carroll, The Haunted Memories of Robert Morgenthau, Boston Globe, Frank Olson Project

A few days after receiving the report, the President signed Executive Order 9417, establishing the War Refugee Board. The Order authorized the Board to coordinate the policies of the U.S. government regarding the rescue and relief of those attempting to flee the Nazis, including evacuation of people from Nazi-occupied territories, the creation of safe havens, and delivery of relief supplies into concentration camps. Despite an initial appropriation from the Congress of only $1 million, the Board was able by the end of the war to aid the rescue of about 200,000 Jews and other refugees. The Board also supported the work of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who was credited in saving the lives of thousands of Jews in Hungary by providing them with protective passes issued by Sweden, a neutral non-combatant during the war, but who then mysteriously disappeared in January 1945 while in Soviet custody. See generally The International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation.

By the spring of 1944, the Allies knew of the gassings at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Jewish leaders pleaded unsuccessfully with the U.S. government to bomb the gas chambers and railways leading to the camp. From August 20 to September 13, 1944, the U.S. Air Force bombed the Auschwitz-Monowitz industrial complex, less than five miles from the gas chambers in Birkenau. However, the U.S. maintained its policy of non-involvement in rescue, and bombed neither the gas chambers nor the railways used to transport prisoners.

The United States and the Holocaust

Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

In January 1945, Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz. They found 600 corpses of prisoners whom the Germans had murdered several hours before they fled, as well as 7,650 living prisoners who survived because the Germans were forced to leave before they could force them to join death marches to territories still under Nazi control. See Yad Vashem, The Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority.On April 12, the same day that President Roosevelt died, American forces liberated 21,000 prisoners at Buchenwald, a relatively small proportion of the over 80,000 that were estimated to be at the camp during the prior month.


United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Museum of Tolerance, Simon Wiesenthal Center

The Holocaust, anti-Semitism, U.S. immigration policy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, World War II >>

The Holocaust Chronicle

The Shoah Foundation

World War II History Info

Great Depression and World War II >>Library of Congress

Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum

Educational Tools

Holocaust Education >> United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Educational Lesson Plans on the Holocaust >>, A Cybrary of the Holocaust

Suggestions for the Classroom: The Holocaust, anti-Semitism, U.S. immigration policy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, World War II,