"Believe the Unbelievable": The American Response to the Nazi Genocide of the Jews, 1933-1945

Robert S. Leventhal

Copyright © 1995-2003 by Robert S. Leventhal, all rights reserved. This text may be shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of the U.S. Copyright Law. Redistribution or republication on other terms, in any medium. requires the written permission of the author.

Above: Franklin D. Roosevelt

Important Figures | Primary Sources | Major Secondary Sources | Timeline | Views and Interpretations | Questions for Discussion

Important Figures:

Franklin D. Roosevelt, President of the United States

Cordell Hull, Secretary of State
Breckinridge Long, Assistant Secretary of State
Sumner Welles, Undersecretary of State
Rabbi Steven Wise, American Jewish Leader
Gerhard Riegner, German Jew and sender of the famous "Riegner Telegram"
Henry Morgenthau, Jr., Secretary of the Treasury
Josiah Dubois, Assistant to the Secretary of the Treasury
John Pehle, Treasury Department and Director of the WRB
Jan Karski, Polish, Christian Refugee who escapes to London after seeing the Warsaw Ghetto
Ignaz Schwarzbart, Polish-Jewish Leader in Exile in London
Peter Bergson, Palestinian Emigree and Activist

Primary Sources:

Gerhart M. Riegner, Telegram to Rabbi Stephen S. Wise via the U.S. State Department and via the London Foreign Office to Sydney Silverman, August 1942, Geneva, Switzerland, in Laqueur & Breitman; Riegner, "From the Night of the Pogrom," 21 3 (1988): 9-12.

Cable sent by Ignaz Schwarzbart from London to the World Jewish Congress in New York City, December 2, 1942.

Henry Morgenthau & Josiah Dubois, "The Acquiescence of this Government in the Murder of the Jews" Paper submitted to the Secretary of State Cordell Hull, December, 1943.

Henry Morgenthau & Josiah Dobois, "A Personal Report to the President of the United States on the Acquiescence of this Government in the Murder of the Jews," Paper submitted to Franklin D. Roosevelt, January, 1944.

Major Secondary Sources:

Books and Articles:

Semantha Power, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. New York: Basic Books, 2002.

Walter Laqueur and Richard Breitman, Breaking the Silence. New York: Simon and Schuster,1986.

Stephen J. Whitfield, "The Politics of Pageantry: 1936-1946," American Jewish History 84:6 (1996), 221-251.

Richard Breitman and Alan M. Kraut, American Refugee Policy and European Jewry, 1933-1945. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.

Martin Gilbert, Auschwitz and the Allies. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1981.

Deborah E. Lipstadt, Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust, 1933-1945. New York: The Free Press, 1986.

Verne W. Newton, ed., FDR and the Holocaust. New York, 1996.

Rafael Medoff, The Deafening Silence: American Jewish Leaders and the Holocaust. New York, 1987.

Monty Noam Penkower, The Jews Were Expendable: Free World Diplomacy and the Holocaust. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983.

David S. Wyman, The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust, 1941- 1945 . New York: Pantheon, 1984.

David S. Wyman, ed., America and the Holocaust: A Thirteen-Volume Set Documenting the Acclaimed Book The Abandonment of the Jews. New York: Garland, 1989-1990.

Joseph Borkin, The Crime and Punishment of I.G. Farben. New York: Free Press, 1978.


"America and the Holocaust: Deceit and Indifference" produced by Marty Ostrow. PBS Video aired April 6, 1994 on PBS as part of the series The American Experience.


1933 January 30 Hitler elected Chancellor of Germany

1935 Nuremburg Laws

1938 November 10 The Night of Broken Glass

1938 March 25 The Evian Conference called by Roosevelt held in Evian, France

The Evian Conference was a worldwide meeting called by President Roosevelt in order to find homes for Europe's refuges. The New York Times (NYT), 14 July 1938, p. 15; Levin: 76-77. In David S. Wyman, Paper Walls (New York: Pantheon Books, 1968): 43-50, the author explains that some people believed that the reason for the Evian Conference was to show anger and disapproval of the Nazis--although in the end nothing was accomplished.

1939 The Tragedy of The St. Louis

The ship, St. Louis of the Hamburg-Altoona Line, sailed to Cuba with approximately 900 Jews, was turned away, and then headed to the U.S. coast. Because the refugees had not been able to secure the necessary documents before leaving Hamburg, and because of strict immigration laws, The U.S. government denied entry to the refugees, forcing them to return to Europe.

1939 February The Wagner-Rogers Bill

When Robert Wagner and Edith Nourse Rogers introduced their bill in early 1939, providing for the admittance of 20,000 German refugee children in the United States, many religious figures,labor organizations, prominent politicians, and editors supported it. Other restrictionist and patriotic groups, such as the American Legion, DAR, and the American Coalition of Patriotic Societies banded together in opposition to the Wagner-Rogers Bill, insisting that charity began at home, and criticizing the notion of separating children from their parents or guardians. The bill died in the Senate.

David Wyman on the Wagner-Rogers Bill and its Failure:

"Fresh from the bitter battles of the 1938 election, Congress in 1939 had a more conservative complexion than before and was intent on asserting its independence from strong executive leadership. Political crosscurrents unquestionably made it difficult for Roosevelt to back this comparatively minor legislation which was very unpopular in some quarters and which Congress generally saw as too hot to handle." Paper Walls (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985), p. 97.

1941 The mass killings of Jews begin by gassing in specially designed vans at Chelmno.

1942 June 20 The New York Times carried a report from the World Jewish Congress that the Germans had massacred one million Jews, and that the Nazis had established a "vast slaughterhouse for the Jews" in eastern Europe.

From Hannah Rosen's Diary:

"The New York Herald Tribune (NYHT) finally had a front page story on the massacre of a million Jews.(32) Though horrifying, this article contains hard facts, however late. I am outraged to have found such a brief article about the killings in Chelmno buried on page five in NYT on June 27."

1942 August 20-25 Jan Karski in the Warsaw Ghetto

Between August 20 and 25, 1942, the wave of terror in the Warsaw Ghetto briefly abated; the German murder network was busy clearing the Jews from several outlying towns. In an area already shrunken to a fraction of its former population, the Ghetto's remaining inhabitants were momentarily free to go about the business of living and dying-- mostly dying, of starvation, disease and suicide-- relatively unmolested.

1942 August The Riegner Telegram/Cable reaches the U.S. State Department

Gerhard Riegner sent the telegram to Rabbi Steven Wise via the U.S. State Department and to Sydney Silverman via the London Foreign Office informing them that a Nazi plan for the mass extermination of the European Jews is being implemented on East European Soil.

From Hannah Rosen's Diary:

"Cousin Gerhart sent me a letter from Geneva explaining the Nazi terror(35) and suggested that I ask Rabbi Wise about a recent message he sent. Rabbi Wise discussed Gerhart's telegram(36) and said that a similar copy had been sent to Sydney Silverman,(37) who then sent it to Rabbi Wise who received it on August 28, three weeks after Gerhart had sent it.(38) The telegram states that Hitler is now implementing the "Final Solution" to kill all remaining Jews. I'm grief-stricken. Oh Gott! Mother! Father! The AJC wants to publicize information about all the atrocities in Europe that the Jewish organizations are learning about through very reliable sources. Rabbi Wise wants U.S. citizens to know about the "Final Solution," but the State Department wants to withhold the information until it is verified.(39) The AJC knows it must compromise. This is a dilemma. Rabbi Wise is being criticized heavily for complying with the State Department's position, but he feels that without government confirmation, the news would be thought of as just more Jewish propaganda. Because he wants the State Department to recommend action to the President, Rabbi Wise knows that he has to comply. Furthermore, he knows there are many anti-Semites inside and outside the government who would not believe the information in the Riegner telegram without the government's corroboration.(40) I agree whole-heartedly with Rabbi Wise's decision because the State Department might never recommend action if he doesn't heed them."

Gerhart M. Riegner, Telegram to Rabbi Stephen S. Wise via the U.S. State Department and via the London Foreign Office to Sydney Silverman, August 1942, Geneva, Switzerland, in Laqueur & Breitman; Riegner, "From the Night of the Pogrom," 21 3 (1988): 9-12.

1942 November 25 The New York Times carried an announcement on page ten by Rabbi Wise about the slaughter of two million Jews.

1942 November 28 Rabbi Wise holds a press conference and announces to the world the Nazi Plan to exterminate Europe's Jews.

1942 December 2 In London, Jan Karski reported to Polish-Jewish leaders Szmul Zygielbojm and Ignacy Schwarzbart.

Schwarzbart perused the full text of the documents Karski had carried, his illusions were shattered. He cabled the World Jewish Congress in New York:

Here are the contents of the cable:



1942 December 13 America's most popular broadcaster, Edward R. Murrow reported the following:

"Millions of human beings, most of them Jews, are being gathered up with ruthless efficiency and murdered...It is a picture of mass murder and moral depravity unequaled in the history of the world. It is a horror beyond what imagination can grasp...There are no longer 'concentration camps' - we must speak now only of 'extermination camps'."

1942 December 17

In the name of the United Nations, President Roosevelt warns Hitler and the Germans that they will be held individually responsible for what they were doing to the Jews of Europe. This announcement was made both in Congress and the British Parliament.

1942 December 18

Front page story in The New York Times about the atrocities in Europe. It is the first public acknowledgment by the U.S. government and ten other nations of the mass murder of the Jews.

1943 January-March. Peter Bergson engages in an all-out campaign to bring the genocide to the attention to the United States Government and the American People. A Pageant about the Genocide and the plight of the jews -- We Will Never Die -- tours five american cities and draws a total of 40,000 at two record-breaking performances at Madison Square Garden on March 9.

1943 April. British-American Conference held in Bermuda to discuss the situation of the Jewish victims of the Genocide. Largely regarded in its aftermath as a hoax, the official result is that the only way to help the Jews of Europe is to win the war.

1943 October The Bergson Group leads a massive demonstration in Washington, D.C. They do not succeed in meeting with the President. They urge the immediate establishment of a special governmental agency to address the plight of the European Jews.

1943 Congress considers legislation that would assist in the rescue of the Jews by Senator Guy Gillette and Congressman Will Rodgers, Jr. It moves rapidly through the Senate but is held up in the House when Breckenridge Long gives misleading testimony behind closed doors concerning the numbers of refugees and Jewish refugees in particular.

1944 January 16 Rabbi Steven Wise meets with F.D.R. at the White House. Henry Morgenthau,Jr. and John Pehle meet with Roosevelt at the White House and outline the report "On the Acquiesence of this Government in the Murder of the Jews."

In this report, Morgenthau demonstrates to Roosevelt that there has been an intentional cover-up of the reports of genocide from Europe and intentional obstruction of action by the State Department. He identifies and produces two memoranda from Breckinridge Long of 1942 and 1943. The first sent to the Visa Officers at the consulate in Zurich, Switzerland, directing them not to relay any reports of the Genocide from private individuals. Given that there were very few, if any, official reports relating to this matter at the time, this was a crucial source of information.The second was a memorandum to all U.S. Consulates to delay and postpone all requests for visas.

1944 January 22 At the urging of Henry Morgenthau, the War Refugee Board (WRB), an interdepartmental committee, is established by Executive Order 9417 to deal directly with the plight of the European Jews and other victims of Nazi terror. It has the authority to circumvent the State Department. John Pehle is appointed as its Director. The mandate of the WRB is to "rescue as many victims of the Nazi oppression as possible."

From Hannah Rosen's Diary:

"2/6/44 John Pehle was appointed to direct the War Refugee Board (WRB).(60) This is the answer to our prayers and efforts. Finally, something is really being done.(61)"

In the end, the WRB succeeded in rescuing over 200,000 Jews, including 48,000 Rumanian Jews and at least 70,000 Jews from Budapest, Hungary.

1944 July 6. Chaim Weizmann transmits two messages to Anthony Eden, the British Foreign Secretary, requesting that the gassing installations and the railway lines to Auschwitz be subjected to aerial bombing. The reply, dated September 1, 1944, that is, over seven weeks later, reads as follows: "As he promised, Mr. Eden immediately put the proposal to the Secretary of State for Air. The matter received the most careful consideration of the Air Staff, but I am sorry to tell you that, in view of the very great technical difficulties involved, we have no option but to refrain from pursuing the proposal in present circumstances." (Quoted in Richard Rubenstein, The Cunning of History: The Holocaust and the American Future, p.20)

The WRB also recommended that the Crematoria at Auschwitz be bombed. The War Department refused to do so. John Pehle was told it was not possible because the bombers would have to fly from England without fighter support. In fact, American bombers had been flying to oil refineries not even 40 miles away from Auschwitz and even bombed the BUNA refinery at Auschwitz from airbases in Italy.

1994 April 6 "America and the Holocaust: Deceit and Indifference" aired on PBS as part of the series The American Experience. Controversy erupts before the preview screening at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and continues for another 6 months.

Views and Interpretations:

It is clear that by December, 1942, the United States government and the American Jewish Leaders were aware of the atrocities being committed against the Jews of Europe by the Nazis.

The United States did not pursue a policy to rescue the endangered Jews of Europe and the victims of Nazi genocide until 1944. The Great Depression, strict immigration policies established by legislation in 1921 and 1924 under Presidents Harding and Coolidge, isolationism in Congress, anti-Semitism, immigration conservatism and obstructionism in the State Department - Cordell Hull had opposed the anti-Nazi boycott and Breckenridge Long was a known anti-Semite - and Roosevelt's blind reliance on the State Department all contributed to this failure.

The effects of the Great Depression and the fear of foreign workers flooding the American labor force led to an unusual coalition of labor union and business leaders on the issue of immigration, specifically, against the enlargement of any quotas, an attitude reflected in the Congress of the U.S. of the time.

The failure or negligence on the part of the United States with regard to the Nazi Genocide of the European Jews of Europe was primarily due to the State Department's anti-semitism, in the person of Breckenridge Long, a staunch anti-communist, southern aristocrat and the bureaucrat in charge of immigration issues up until the creation of the WRB in 1944. A memo of 1940 by Long urges that Jewish refugees could be kept out of the country by "[...] advising our consuls to put every obstacle in the way, which would postpone and postpone the granting of visas." It is widely acknowledged, even by the strongest historical supporters of F.D.R.(Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and William vanden Heuvel), that Breckenridge Long tried to bury the issue and actively sought to dissuade Congress and the President from enacting legislation that could have helped the Jews. In 1943, for example, Long testified before the Congress on a resolution introduced by The House Foreign Affairs Committee which would have created a commission of experts to try and rescue the remaining Jews of Europe. Long exaggerated the number of Jews to be rescued by stating there were 580,000 that would have to be brought to the U.S., while in fact there were only 200,000. In 1944, after Roosevelt received Morgenthau's report, the WRB is established and perhaps as many as 180,000 Hungarian Jews are saved as a direct result.

Two decisive events had to come together in order to produce results. First, the movement started by Peter Bergson and his undaunted pursuit of bringing the horror to the attention of the Government and the people of the United States, and, secondly, the efforts of Treasury Department Officials led by Henry Morgenthau, jr., which led to an uncovering of the deliberate obstructionism and cover-up of the Department of State. It remains an open question whether FDR's decision to create the WRB was more a political move in light of the pressing public pressure and congressional debate, or a humanitarian gesture after he understood how he and the people had been deceived by the State Department.

Questions for Discussion:

To what extent can F.D.R. as an individual be held responsible for the failure of the United States to rescue the Jews of Europe, and the lateness of the response? To what extent should the State Department, or Breckinridge Long as an individual, be held responsible for the failure?

To what extent must the U.S. Policy toward the Victims of the Nazi Genocide be understood in the context of the more widespread isolationism, conservatism in matters of immigration, and anti-semitism of the era?

A recent book by William Rubenstein argues that "...not one plan or proposal made anywhere in the democracies by either Jews or non-Jewish champions of the Jews after the Nazi conquest of Europe could have rescued one single Jew who perished in the Holocaust." The Roosevelt scholar and director of the Roosevelt Institute vanden Heuvel similarly argues that "the prisoners of Hitler could only be saved by the total, unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany." On the basis of the historical record, are these accurate statements? If the WRB had been established earlier, could additional Jewish lives have been saved? Could FDR, the State Department, and Congress have enacted a policy or set of policies that could have made a difference?

Many historians believe that history should only be concerned with what "was," not with what "should have been," that history is concerned with the facts, the events, and the explanations of what has been, not with the moral issues implied by these facts, events and explanations. Using America's responses to the Holocaust as an example, discuss why or why not historical scholarship and teaching has a duty to raise and debate issues of moral responsibility.

E-mail: rsleve@wm.edu
This document was last modified on Monday, April 8, 2002
Copyright © 1997-2003 Rob Leventhal