How many people were left without help to be killed in the street or gassed? Six million. Six million Jewish people were slaughtered by German Nazis during the Holocaust. What could America have done to save even some of those fearful refugees? The Holocaust was the World War two genocide between 1933-1945. The United States could have changed their antisemitic attitudes towards Jews, changed their domestic policies to help Jews, and helped the Jews outside of United States territory, and ultimately saved Jews. The U.S. could have done more to save Jews during the Holocaust.
Three factors played a role in inaction throughout the U.S. First, many prominent voices in spreading antisemitism prevented the U.S. citizens from a desire to help the Jews. Antisemitism was also popular among the public. These ideas were propagated by leaders like, Breckenridge Long, who was determined to limit immigration and used the state department’s power to create several barriers that made it almost impossible for Jews to seek asylum in the U.S. Antisemitism also played a role in America’s public opinion on immigration. Father Charles Coughlin accused Jews of manipulating financial institutions and conspiring to control the world. The effect of these antisemitic voices led to, 83% of Americans being opposed to the admission of refugees, in 1939. Also, in December 1945, only 8% of the German quota was filled. The U.S. citizens took a pole of that meer 2,077 Jew immigration spots being filled that year. The results were, 14% of the population wanted to admit none at all, 37% wanted to admit fewer Jews, 32% wanted to admit the same amount, 12% did not have an opinion, and only 5% wanted to admit more than 2,077 Jewish German refugees that were admitted in 1945. This pole was taken six years into the war when it was about to end. Throughout those six horrific years for the Jews in Europe, still, only 5% of U.S. citizens wanted to admit more than the year prior.
Second, The antisemitic attitude in the U.S. was also as a result of the isolationist attitude from the recent great Depression. The U.S. used the Great Depression as an excuse not to raise their country’s immigration quotas. The U.S. feared the burden that a bigger population could place on their nation’s economy. They also were more hesitant towards refugees with no money or assets, which were characteristics of most of the German Jewish refugees. They believed that WWII was ultimately a dispute between foreign nations that the U.S, had no good reason to get involved. The best policy, they claimed, was for the U.S. to build up its defenses and avoid antagonizing either side.
Third, specifically, president Franklin D. Roosevelt’s made certain derogatory comments towards the Jews that perpetuated attitudes. For example, he believed that Americans would protest against having Jews in their neighborhood. Vice president Henry Wallace wrote in his diary about a meeting he had with FDR regarding accepting jews into the US, where FDR said, “[We need] to spread Jews thin all over the world… The president said he had tried this out in [Meriwethe] county, Georgia [where Roosevelt lived in the 1920s] and at Hyde Park-based on adding four or five Jewish families at each place. He claimed that the local population would have no objection if there were no more than that.” Another derogatory comment towards the Jews was when Administration official Lep Crowley told Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthai Jr. that Roosevelt had said to him, “Leo, you know this is a Protestant country, and the Catholics and Jews are here on sufferance.” It can be assumed that he meant that people only tolerated the Jews and did not want them in the U.S. In Frank Freidell’s book Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Rendezvous with Destiny, it states that Roosevelt said at a cabinet meeting, “There are too many Jews among federal employees in Oregan.” Meaning Roosevelt did not want as many Jews as there was in Oregan. Lastly, in Robert N. Rosen’s Saving the Jews: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Holocaust, Roosevelt remarked, “The number of Jews engaged in the practice of the professions (law, medicine, etc.) should be limited to the percentage that of the Jewish population.” Roosevelt wanted to limit the amount of Jews with higher status professions. Since Roosevelt takes on a leadership role as the president when he says negative and condescending comments many people will adopt those same viewpoints.
Fourth, the U.S. was in denial of what truly horrible actions the Jews were undergoing. The nature of the news in Europe was being filtered through publicity. This caused Americans to look for a reference point to understand the extent of the treatment and torture that the Jews faced. Americans found themselves incapable of imagining how horrifying the Holocaust and what the Jews were undergoing was. There was news about the names of the camps, the location of them, and how many people died, but not how they died. The Americans did not realize James Agee in his book The Nation, called pictures from American soldiers in Europe “propaganda” and accused soldiers of an attempt to move the public opinion against their peace with Germany.
In addition to changing antisemitic attitudes, the U.S. could have done more domestically to help the Jews. First, the U.S. did not max out its current immigration quotas. For example, St. Louis, a ship with more than 900 Jews aboard, sought to dock in Florida, in June of 1939, after being denied by Cuba. The hope of these Jews longing to seek refuge in America would soon be crushed by excuses, but first leaders from the Virgin Islands pushed to help these Jews live. Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. proposed permitting the passengers to stay in the Virgin Islands temporarily on tourist visas. Also, Interior Secretary Harold Ickes urged to use the islands as a haven for the Jewish refugees. Lastly, the governor and legislative assembly of the U.S. Virgin Islands offered to open their territory to them. Unfortunately, for the Jews aboard, Roosevelt personally blocked their proposals, claiming that he feared Nazi spies might sneak in, disguised as refugees. Even though, there had not been any incidents of Nazi spies aboard refugee boats in the past. The Jews aboard were sent back to Europe losing their glimpse of hope, for nearly one-third of the passengers were murdered by the Nazis. Roosevelt turned down these hopeful Jews even though, the quota system permitted a maximum of 25,957 German citizens to immigrate to the U.S. each year. During the twelve years Roosevelt was in office, the German quota was only filled in one year, and it was less than 25% filled the other eleven years. A total of nearly 190,000 quota places from Germany and Axis-controlled countries sat unused during WWII.
Second, the U.S. did not change its immigration policy to help save more Jews. Senator Robert Wagner, a Democrat from New York, congresswoman Edith N. Rogers, and a Republican from Massachusetts, sponsored a bill that proposed to allow German Jewish children to enter the U.S. outside of official immigration quotas. Ultimately others with higher status could have supported the bill and pushed for a change in the immigration policy. Immigration laws were shaped around fears of communist infiltrators and Nazi spies, but there was no evidence to back up the concerns. The representatives in congress needed to reflect the sentiment of the U.S. population, but the U.S. population did not want to accept more immigration.
Third, the state department deliberately sabotaged immigration applications. The state
department defeated the request, by the members of the president’s advisory committee of political refugees, for the simplification of immigration procedures for refugees. Breckenridge Long, head of the state department’s visa division, was removed from his position, mostly for his antisemitic beliefs, in January 1944. Long believed that he was “the first line of defense” against those who would “make America vulnerable to enemies for the sake of humanitarianism.” This evidence shows that even though Long was antisemitic he was given a role as part of the government with influential power.
Fourth, the U.S. was slow to establish the War Refugee Board. Only after many requests did Roosevelt agree to make an effort to help the refugees and make the WRB. One of these requests was John Pehle’s report, January 16, 1944. This report was a summary of the state department’s efforts to delay and prevent immigration changes. Another influential report was by Henry Morgenthau who submitted a report on “the Aquienscense of this Government in the Murder of the Jews,” January 1944. In this report he spoke about the state department officials use of machinery, “[State Department officials] have not only failed to use the Government machinery at their disposal to rescue Jews from Hitler but have even gone so far as to use this Governmental machinery to prevent the rescue of Jews.” Six days after Henry Morgethau’s report Roosevelt took action at last and created the WRB, an independent commission to coordinate rescue and relief for refugees, in January 1944. The WRB was created two years and one month into the U.S.’s involvement in the war. Looking back, the WRB represents a tragic reminder that the U.S. wasted precious months. If Roosevelt acted earlier more lives could have been saved.
Fifth, Franklin D. Roosevelt could have created more refugee shelters for Jews. There was just one token camp in Oswego, New York, which only housed 982 refugees. Also, a Gallup poll (commissioned by the White House), found that 70% of Americans said they agreed that “our government should offer now temporary protection and refuge to those people in Europe who have been persecuted by the Nazis,” yet only one shelter remained. Creating more shelters could have brought in more refugees to the U.S., and ultimately saved more Jewish lives.
The U.S. could have helped Jews outside of the United States, especially in Europe. Palestine was an area that had been assigned by the League of Nations as a Jewish Homeland for Jews who were not safe in their original countries. The U.S. should have worked to make sure Jews were able to move to Palestine.
First, the U.S could have exerted pressure on Britain to recant the 1939 British White Paper regarding Palestine. In the 1939 British White Paper, the British said that Jews could not go to Palestine and sought to persuade the other European nations to do the same. Legal immigration to Palestine in 1939 was limited by the British. Many other nations followed Britain and refused to allow European Jews to go to Palestine. President Roosevelt could have pressured the British to quietly support the migration of European Jewish refugees to Palestine. By not applying pressure and sitting back while Jews had no place to go, the United States hurt the Jews.
Second, the U.S. could have convinced other nations to help Jews more. The U.S. could have applied constant pressure on the Axis-Satellites to help Jews escape concentration camps or to escape before they were sent to concentration camps. If President Roosevelt could not have prevented neutral countries, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Croatia, and Finland from making alliances with Germany, he could have at least convinced these countries not to go as far as to put Jews in concentration camps. Havens for refugees in these neutral countries would have been essential to helping the Jews seek asylum. Overall, if the U.S. pressured neighboring countries of Germany, more Jews’ lives would have been saved.
Third, Roosevelt did not explicitly request the release of refugees. One example of Roosevelt not taking action on opportunities to help Jews was with the thousands of U.S. cargo ships that brought supplies to allied forces in Europe. Instead of filling the empty ships with rocks and concrete so that they did not tip for their return back to the U.S., they could have easily have been filled with Jewish refugees. President Roosevelt acknowledged that the United States could have saved more Jews, but used antisemitic and isolationist reasoning as to why the United States did not.
Fourth, the U.S. did not bomb Auschwitz rail lines. The U.S. had the resources to bomb the rail lines that were taking Jews to their death. Even after Anglo-American air forces developed the capacity to hit targets in Silesia (town of Auschwitz) authorities decided not to bomb Auschwitz. They came up with false excuses. McCloy, assistant secretary of war, claimed about bombing the rail lines, “Such an operation could not be executed only by the diversion of considerable air support… now engaged in decisive operations elsewhere and would, in any case, be of such doubtful efficacy that it would not warrant the use of our resources.” Although within a week of his claim, the U.S. Army Air Force carried out a heavy bombing of the I.G. Farben synthetic oil and rubber works, that were only a short distance of five miles away from Auschwitz. It was clear that the U.S. had the resources to slow down the traffic of Jews, therefore saving some of their lives. Inside the U.S requests for the bombing of Auschwitz were denied. The World Jewish Conference and the War Refugee Board made an effort and forwarded requests to bomb Auschwitz. These requests were denied by the U.S. War Department.
Through changing the U.S. antisemitic attitude toward Jews, taking actions domestically to help the European Jews, and taking actions outside the U.S., the U.S. could have significantly decreased the number of Jewish deaths during the Holocaust. Instead, Franklin D. Roosevelt was antisemitic, the U.S. didn’t fill German immigration quotas, the U.S. did not bomb Auschwitz, etc. In modern-day Americans still do not understand the tragedy of the Holocaust and the amount of Jewish lives lost. A survey highlights the gap in American knowledge about the tragedy of the Holocaust. 31% of Americans took the survey and 41% of millennials within that group do not believe that six million Jews were killed during the Holocaust. Instead, they believe the death toll of Jews was at least less than two million. Adolf Hitler and the Nazis killed six million Jews, as well as, millions of Eastern European civilians, disabled people, homosexuals, Soviet prisoners of war, and political prisoners. The estimate of the total death total was 15 million to 20 million. 15% believed people today should be allowed to have Nazi views and display Nazi symbols. Americans need to take responsibility for understanding the loss during the Holocaust. The six million Jews that perished during the Holocaust need to be recognized and remembered.