How America Abandoned the Jews in World War II
by Stephen E. Ambrose
David S. Wyman. The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust, 1944-1945. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984. 444 pages.
This is a major book on a most difficult subject. The question it explores is: what did the United States do to save Europe's Jews from extermination? The short answer is: nothing of significance. As David S. Wyman conclusively demonstrates, almost no one in Washington, New York, or anywhere else, spent any appreciable amount of time on the problem of the Holocaust, and even less money and effort. Proposals of possible rescue operations seldom got as far as the President's desk; when they did, they were more or less casually swept aside. This was because nearly every official in Washington, and many leaders in the Jewish community, had concluded that the question of what America could do to save the Jews was invalid, because nothing could be done short of hastening the end of the war.
Wyman believes that they were wrong, that there was much that could have been done. Far more important than his speculations in this area, however valid as some of them may be, is Wyman's examination of internal politics in the wartime Roosevelt Adminstration and within the American Jewish community. It is a tour de force of brilliant research-imaginative, sustained, exhaustive-and a logical, concise, illuminating presentation of the facts. As a primer in the complexity of politics in the United States, this book is superb.
"To kill the Jews," Wyman writes, "the Nazis were willing to weaken their capacity to fight the war. The United States and its allies, however, were willing to attempt almost nothing to save them" (p. 5). Who was responsible? Wyman is especially concerned with this point. The grandson of two Protestant ministers and professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, he is embarrassed by and ashamed of the failure of America's leaders, most of all its Christian leaders, to act. "At the heart of Christianity is the commitment to help the helpless," he writes (which is an arguable assertion, not a fact). "Yet, for the most part, America's Christian churches looked away while the European Jews perished" (p. 320). He provides abundant details to substantiate his charge, based on a close reading of the religious press, an examination of the minutes of meetings of Catholic and Protestant committees set up to deal with refugee problems, and a detailed account of how much money was raised (precious little), how it was used (badly), and so on. The total picture is indeed devastating.
But by no means does Wyman limit his indictment to the churches. The President, the State Department, the labor unions, the Zionists, the non- Zionists, the political parties, Congress, the mass media, and the American people all share some of the blame.
Of Roosevelt, Wyman says, "If he had wanted to, he could have aroused substantial public backing for a vital rescue effort by speaking out on the issue [another assertion, not a fact].... But he had little to say about the problem and gave no priority at all to rescue.... In the end, the era's most prominent symbol of humanitarianism turned away from one of history's most compelling moral challenges" (pp. 311, 313).
So it went through the government. "It is clear that the State Department was not interested in rescuing Jews. The War Department did next to nothing for rescue" (p. 314). The Office of Strategic Services refused to get involved. The Office of War Information "considered Jewish problems too controversial to include in its informational campaigns" (p. 315).
"Congress took no official action concerning the Holocaust.... Of the seven Jews in Congress, only Emanuel Celler persistently urged government rescue action" (pp. 316-17). Congress appropriated no money for rescue programs. The AFL and the CIO passed some meaningless resolutions and retired. "Most American intellectuals were indifferent to the struggle for rescue. . . . Overall, Jewish intellectuals remained as uninvolved as non-Jews" (p. 320). Walter Lippmann wrote not a word on the Holocaust. The American Communist Party "contributed virtually nothing to the rescue cause" (p. 320).
The newspapers were no better. Neither the Jewish-owned New York Times nor the Jewish-owned Washington Post carried much news about the Holocaust. Neither did other newspapers, nor the radio news broadcasts. Hollywood, despite the many Jewish-owned studios, did no feature films on the Holocaust. The American Jewish organizations, meanwhile, although they did far more than anyone else in the way of rescue, nevertheless spent much of their terribly limited time and energy on Zionist vs. non-Zionist infighting. The result badly hampered the rescue effort.
Wyman's detailed chapter on America's Zionists and the Holocaust is a fascinating account. Even among themselves, they argued endlessly about the smallest points, spending far more time on what they disagreed about than on what should be done, always rubbing salt rather than salve into old wounds and thus making them fester instead of heal. According to Wyman's equally fascinating account of Congress, the same kinds of things happened there.
That America failed to respond to the crisis of the Holocaust has long been known. What Wyman does is provide the irrefutable details in a way that cannot be challenged. To put it in the vernacular, he has the goods on these guys, from Roosevelt on down. As to the one excuse (or explanation) that is usually offered in their behalfthat they just didn't know what was happening in Nazi EuropeWyman demolished it. They knew. They knew fairly early on. The evidence was irrefutable, even as early as 1941, certainly by the end of 1942. Yet nothing was done.
Wyman is a careful and honest scholar, and he explores in depth the overwhelming question, why not? How could Americans who knew with certainty about the death camps fail to respond?
There were reasons, some more understandable and forgivable than others. The first was historical, namely, the fabricated atrocity stories of World War 1. The image of German soldiers walking around Brussels with Belgian babies held high on their bayonets had been pounded into the minds of the young Americans of World War 1, the men who were the nation's leaders in World War II. Having learned after 1919 that most of these atrocity stories were grossly exaggerated, if not altogether untrue, they bore an ingrained suspicion of wartime propaganda, a suspicion they could never fully shake, no matter how convincing the evidence.
Second, the plain fact was that the Holocaust was unbelievable. It simply made no sense. Why on earth would the Germans carry out a campaign of mass slaughter when they were short of manpower? Why, when they were in the fight of their lives, for the Nazis a literal struggle for existence, would they kill some of Europe's most skillful technicians and capable workers? No matter how overwhelming the evidence of mass murder brought back from occupied Europe, common sense said that it just couldn't be so.
Third, there was the problem of what to do. Convincing FDR, the State Department, and the public that the Holocaust was real was only a first (and as events proved, halting) step toward doing something about it. Many Jewish leaders agreed with the Administration that nothing could be done or, put positively, that the way to end the Holocaust was to crush the Nazis. Every effort had to be made to win the war as soon as possible, and any diversion from that effort-say, to save Jewish lives-would only contribute to a longer war, and thus an even greater Holocaust. Paying ransom money, for example, whether in cash or in trucks, for the release of Romania's Jews or Hungary's Jews, might save a few thousand Jews, perhaps even some tens of thousands, but in the end more Jews would die, because the ransom would strengthen Nazi military resistance.
Wyman has no patience with this argument. He insists that Jews could have been saved, and in large numbers, without in any way detracting from the war effort. Not through any direct dealing with the Germans, but rather with their allies, who by early 1944 were growing uneasy about their role in the Holocaust (as with the larger problem of their alliance with the Nazis) and were looking to save their own skins. They, the Romanians and Hungarians especially, were ready to cooperate. Jews could have been saved had there been a will to do so.
Perhaps this is true, although Wyman is not perfectly convincing on this point. More valid is his assessment of how a bombing raid on Auschwitz could have been organized and what a disrupting effect on the program of mass murder such a raid could have had. Even there, however, it should be pointed out that this is much easier to see in retrospect than it was at the time.
The most damning section of Wyman's book is his charge that American antisernitism played a major role in the American failure to act. He shows that American society was shot through with antisernitism and demonstrates that by far the biggest single obstacle to saving the Jews from the Holocaust was immigration restriction. He then puts these two irrefutable facts together and claims that the restriction resulted from the antisernitism. The "fundamental problem," Wyman writes, was "where Jews could be put if they were rescued." No one wanted them, no one at all, least of all the United States. "Unwillingness to offer refuge was a central cause for the ... inadequate response to the Holocaust" (p. 98). But politics, and their result, national policy, are never so simple that they can be described through simple causality. Immigration policy is always a major issue for any government at any time in any place. Innumerable cross- currents are at work. Pressures come from every direction. America's restrictive policies, adopted in the 1920s and maintained to this day, were only in small part a result of antisernitism. The basic problem was stated most succinctly, if innocently by the Committee for a Jewish Army:
We, for our part, refuse to resign ourselves to the idea that our brains are powerless to find any solution to the rescue possibility.... Imagine that the British people and the American nation had millions of residents in Europe.... Let us imagine that Hitler would start a process of annihilation and would slaughter not two million Englishmen or Americans ... but only tens of thousands.... It is clear that the governments of Great Britain and the United States would certainly find ways and means to act instantly and to act effectively" (p. 339-40).
Certainly true, and for the exact reason the Committee impliesthat no government can ever abandon its citizens, especially in large numbers, and still stay in power. But the further truth is that Hitler knew exactly what he was doing when he declared Germany's Jews to be stateless. That set them before the world as naked human beings, with no citizenship, and thus with no government anywhere committed to help them. No one wanted stateless Jews, and thus there was no refuge for them-because they were stateless, not because they were Jews.
This brings us to the major shortcoming of Wyman's work-the absence of context. Other peoples besides the Jews have been slaughtered, even by their own government. America's response to these horrors could have been compared to America's response to the Holocaust. The United States Congress would not change the immigration laws to offer haven to Europe's Jews in World War II-but then neither would the Congress change the immigration laws to offer haven to the peoples oppressed (or murdered) by the Communists during the Cold War. Not for Hungarian freedom fighters in 1956, not for Polish escapees in the 1980s, not for the Cambodians, not for the Afghans, not for the boat people of Vietnam. Suppose, in 1968, when the North Vietnamese were slaughtering the people of the Hue in the aftermath of the Tet offensive, Hanoi had said the following to Washington: "All right, you object to our policy of killing the lackeys of capitalism. Then bring some ships to port and we will give you these enemies of the people, tens of thousands of them, on the single condition that you take them all to the United States." Can anyone suppose that Congress, or the public, would have agreed?
The quickest and most efficient way to save millions of Africans from starvation is to fly them to the United States. But don't hold your breath waiting for someone to advocate that policy-or for someone to suggest that the solution to the Palestine refugee problem is to bring them all to the United States.
I hope that some day Professor Wyman takes on the subject of America and the refugees of the Cold War and other disasters. If he treats the subject as thoroughly, as sympathetically, as courageously, and as imaginatively as he has done with The Abandonment of the Jews, he will render a great service- and perhaps expand his own perspective a bit in the process.
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