Pressing at the Limits: The Challenge of the Hebrew Committee Of National Liberation to Chemical Warfare Policy

by John Ellis van Courtland Moon

On 16 September 1944, the Hebrew Committee of National Liberation made a startling recommendation to the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS).1 Citing Presidential statements threatening chemical warfare retaliation against the Axis powers if they used "poison gas against civilian or military populations ... of any of the United Nations," the Hebrew Committee proposed the issuance of a warning "stating that unless the practice of using poison gas against the Hebrew people ceases forthwith, retaliation in kind will be immediately ordered against Germany." The Hebrew Committee reinforced its appeal by arguing that such a warning would demonstrate to the Germans that the Hebrews were accepted as fully equal within the United Nations.2

The Joint Strategic Survey Committee, a high-level group of senior officers who advised the "Chiefs of Staff on national policy and world strategy," prepared a detailed answer for use by the Joint Chiefs of Staff.3 They argued that such a warning would boomerang: the Germans would continue their extermination program and the proposed retaliation would unleash unrestricted gas warfare resulting in heavy civilian and military losses. In the conclusion of their draft letter, the joint Strategic Survey Committee tried to soften the impact of rejection: "The joint Chiefs of Staff are of the opinion that the vigorous Allied offensives now being so successfully consummated and the announced policy of bringing war criminals to justice will soon bring this deplorable matter to an end."4

Two members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Henry H. Arnold, Commanding General of the Army Air Forces, and Admiral William D. Leahy, Chief of Staff to President Roosevelt, objected to a rejection by explanation.5 After discussion by the JCS, the request of the Hebrew Committee of National Liberation was neatly parried: "The joint Chiefs of Staff consider that, from a military point of view, the proposal set forth in your letter does not come within their cognizance."6 The question was apparently never brought to the attention of either the Combined Chiefs of Staff or the President.

In 1942 and 1943, British Prime Minister Churchill and President Roosevelt had defined chemical warfare policy in a series of pronouncements, some of which were interpreted by the Hebrew Committee of National Liberation as providing the justification for their proposal. Responding to a warning by Stalin that the Germans were preparing to launch chemical warfare against the U.S.S.R., Churchill, on 10 May 1942, threatened massive retaliation against Nazi Germany:

I wish now to make it plain that we shall treat the unprovoked use of poison gas against our Russian ally exactly as if it were used against ourselves, and if we are satisfied that this new outrage has been committed by Hitler we will use our great and growing air superiority in the west to carry gas warfare on the largest possible scale far and wide upon the towns and cities of Germany.7

On 5 June 1942, President Roosevelt issued a similar statement on chemical warfare policy in response to repeated allegations that the Japanese had used toxic agents against the Chinese:

I desire to make it unmistakedly clear that if Japan persists in this inhuman form of warfare against China or against any other of the United Nations, such action will be regarded by this Government as though taken against the United States and retaliation in kind and in full measure will be meted out.8

These declarations were aimed at deterring Axis use of gas against the Russians and the Chinese. They were limited in scope, extending the protection of a retaliatory pledge to the members of the anti-Axis military coalition.9

On 8 June 1943, this policy was re-emphasized by President Roosevelt, who explicitly limited chemical warfare policy to retaliation. After citing reports that Axis powers "were seriously contemplating use of poisonous or noxious gases or other inhumane devices of warfare," the President defined the policy of retaliation to which the United States would adhere throughout the war. Pledging that America would never resort to first use of toxic weapons, Roosevelt warned that "acts of this nature committed against any one of the United Nations will be regarded as having been committed against the United States itself and will be treated accordingly." The President's pledge was sweeping and emphatic:

We promise to any perpetrators of such crimes full and swift retaliation in kind and I feel obliged now to warn the Axis armies and the Axis peoples, in Europe and in Asia, that the terrible consequences of any use of these inhumane methods on their part will be brought down swiftly and surely upon their own heads.10

The brief but illuminating discussion held in response to the proposal of the Hebrew Committee showed that there were limits to the implementation of this broad pledge.

The stark recommendation of the Hebrew Committee was a more grandiose version of reprisal suggestions made repeatedly during the war by Jewish organizations and occasionally by Allied Governmentsin-Exile to deter or to counter German atrocities.11 The proposal was presented to the joint Chiefs of Staff at the time when another dramatic military measure was being urged upon the Allies by established and recognized Jewish and Zionist organizations. By June 1944, Auschwitz-Birkenau had been identified as the chief extermination camp in Nazi Europe, and the magnitude and frightfulness of the slaughter carried out there was undeniably apparent.12 Throughout the late spring and summer of 1944, the Jewish Agency and the leaders of other important Jewish and Zionist organizations repeatedly urged the Allies to bomb the rail lines from Budapest to Auschwitz, thereby hindering the deportation of the Hungarian Jews; furthermore, they recommended bombing the gas chambers and crematoria of Auschwitz-Birkenau, thereby disrupting the momentum and the scale of the extermination program.13 In the United States, this proposal was steadily resisted by the War Department, using an argument later echoed by the Joint Strategic Survey Committee: ". . . the most effective relief to victims of enemy persecution is the early defeat of the Axis, an undertaking to which we must devote every resource at our disposal." This argument was bolstered by more specific objections centered upon the operational difficulties presented by the bombing proposal.14 In England, the Auschwitz-Birkenau proposal, emphatically backed by the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, was frustrated by bureaucratic lethargy and by the arguments of the Air Ministry regarding the technical difficulties of the proposed operations.15

The rejected proposals for the Auschwitz bombing operation, backed by established and recognized Jewish and Zionist leaders, were far more limited in scope and far less sweeping in consequence than the proposal for chemical warfare retaliation advanced by the relatively obscure Hebrew Committee of National Liberation. It is, therefore, not surprising that the Hebrew Committee's recommendation was dismissed so swiftly.

The Hebrew Committee of National Liberation did not command widespread support among the American Jewish community or the world Zionist organizations. Its creation, announced on 18 May 1944 by its chair, Peter Bergson, was accompanied by the establishment of an "unofficial embassy" in Washington, D.C., and by a declaration that the Hebrew Committee would seek "co-belligerent status" within the United Nations."16 The creation of the Hebrew Committee was immediately denounced as a "colossal hoax" promulgated by "half a dozen adventurers from Palestine with no standing, no credentials, no mandate from anyone unless from the Irgun Zevai Leumi in Palestine, an insignificantly small, pistol-packing group of extremists who are claiming credit for the recent terror outrages."17 The Hebrew Committee was, therefore, viewed as a nonrepresentative, selfappointed group, associated with the extremist underground army, the Irgun, which had declared war against the British Mandate in Palestine in January 1944. Unlike established Zionist organizations, the Hebrew Committee challenged the concept of a universal Jewish community. It advocated a Hebrew nation - for which it was the self-appointed protector - composed only of Palestinian Jews and the uprooted Jews of Nazi-occupied Europe.

With only the dubious sponsorship of such a presumptuous group, the proposal for chemical warfare retaliation was unlikely to command prolonged consideration by the American military. The record does not indicate whether the joint Chiefs of Staff were briefed on the relative importance of the respective Jewish and Zionist organizations. However, the status of the Hebrew Committee would have surfaced rapidly if the debate had been carried into diplomatic and political circles.

The decision of the Joint Chiefs of Staff deserves our attention because it clearly illuminates one of the basic reasons for the failure of the Allies to accord higher priority to the relief and the rescue of the Jewish victims of Nazi annihilation.

As a military measure, the recommendation of the Hebrew Committee of National Liberation was hardly persuasive. As the Joint Strategic Survey Committee pointed out in its proposed letter to the Hebrew Committee, the execution of this policy would lead to the outbreak of full-scale chemical warfare. Such a development was understandably unwelcome. Moreover, the effectiveness of the threat was questionable. As the Joint Strategic Survey Committee warned: "If gas warfare is threatened, we must be prepared to carry out the threat."18 Since the President's 1943 pledge, the Joint Chiefs of Staff had struggled with the problem of preparedness for global chemical warfare, seeking to build an American arsenal capable of immediate and massive retaliation against Axis initiation. In the summer of 1944, however, preparations still lagged behind requirements.19

This buildup was part of a preparation for an uncertain eventuality, an eventuality that American military leaders hoped would never take place. The Hebrew Committee's proposal called for a response to an undeniable challenge: the Nazi war of extermination against the Jewish population of Europe. Struggling with the continuing problems of preparedness and the conflicting demands of a multi-theater conflict, the Joint Chiefs of Staff certainly did not want to complicate their task by recommending a course of action that, if approved by the British and American governments, would force the Allies to initiate chemical warfare operations against the Axis.

There is, however, a more fundamental reason why the proposal of the Hebrew Committee of National Liberation received scant consideration. Even if it had been advocated by established and recognized Zionist organizations, and even if Allied preparations for chemical warfare had been completed by the summer of 1944, this proposal would probably have been dismissed without extensive consideration. Like the more rational and limited Auschwitz bombing proposal, it confronted an underlying political fact: the Jewish people had no status within the Allied coalition. John Mack, a Labor member of Parliament, highlighted the powerlessness of the Jews in a debate in the House of Commons: " . . . they have no Government to speak for them, they have no consul and no flag. They have no status in any land and they are not likely to have a place at any future peace conference."20 He could have added: they have no army.21

By the summer of 1944, it was obvious to the Allied leaders that Hitler was systematically exterminating the captive Jewish population of Europe. By then, gas had become the most efficient means of delivering death. Using Zyklon B, hydrogen cyanide, in the gas chambers of their extermination camps and carbon monoxide in their death vans, the Nazis were engaged in an unprecedented form of war to which there was no prepared response22 It is cruelly ironic that, although the extermination of the Jews violated the traditional distinction between combatants and non-combatants, Allied chemical warfare policy could provide no counter. Devised to prevent a recurrence of the horrors inflicted by the use of gas in military operations in World War I, it could not meet the ethical challenge of the "final solution." It answered more immediately practical imperatives.

The policy evolved at a time when delays in the launching of a Second Front to relieve the German pressure on the Eastern front and the impossibility of carrying out major operations on the Asiatic mainland had led to endless recriminations from the Russians and the Chinese. The Roosevelt-Churchill pronouncements on chemical warfare had been measures designed to strengthen the bonds of the Allied coalition. Although sweeping in scope, the pledges to retaliate had never covered the hostage captives of occupied Europe. The debate over the proposal of the Hebrew Committee of National Liberation made explicit a distinction which was always implicit. To the end of the war, chemical warfare policy was determined by the political imperatives of a military coalition.


The author gratefully acknowledges assistance from William Cunliffe, John Mendelsohn and Leroy Jackson of the National Archives, Washington, D.C. I am also indebted to 1. L. Kenen, Washington, D.C., for information about Jewish organizations, and to the following scholars who reviewed this article in draft form: Professor Ernest R. May, Harvard University; Professor Robert Weiner and Professor Joan van Courtland Moon of the University of Massachusetts at Boston. Dr. William Emerson, Director, Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park, N.Y., verified that the proposal of the Hebrew Committee of National Liberation was never formally presented to the President.

1. The basic documents for this article are located in the National Archives, Washington, D.C., Record Group 218, the Records of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. [Hereafter cited as NARS, RG 218, JCS] See especially file CCS 385.3 (9-16-44). (The date in parenthesis refers to the initial document in the file.) See also The Holocaust, ed. John Mendelsohn, (New York and London, 1982) vol. 14, Relief and Rescue of Jews from Nazi Oppression, pp. 129-52. Allied chemical warfare policy and preparedness are analyzed in John Ellis van Courtland Moon, "Chemical Weapons and Deterrence: The World War II Experience," International Security 8 (Spring 1984): 3-35.

2. NARS, RG 218, JCS 1072: Retaliation for the Extermination of Hebrews in Europe by the Use of Poisonous Gases, 26 Sept. 1944, CCS 385.3 The Hebrew Committee appealed first to the State Department. The State Department referred them to the War Refugee Board. The Board in turn referred them to the joint Chiefs of Staff.

3. NARS, RG 218, Minutes, 40th Meeting, Joint Chiefs of Staff, 3 Nov. 1942, CCS 334 (6-23-42). For the formation and the functions of the Joint Strategic Survey Committee, see Ray S. Cline, Washington Command Post: The Operations Division, United States Army in World War II (Washington, D.C., 1951), pp. 173- 74.

4. NARS, RG 218, JCS 1072: Retaliation for the Extermination of Hebrews in Europe by the Use of Poisonous Gases, 26 Sept. 1944, CCS 385.3 (916-44).

5. For General Arnold's proposed modifications to JCS 1072, see NARS, RG 218, General H. H. Arnold to the Secretary, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Subject: Retaliation for the Extermination of Hebrews in Europe by the Use of Poisonous Gases, 29 Sept. 1944, CCS 385.3 (9-16-44). Admiral Leahy's proposed modification is found in NARS, RG 218, McFarland to Leahy, Marshall, King, Subject: Retaliation for the Extermination of Hebrews in Europe by the Use of Poisonous Gases, 1 Oct. 1944, CCS 385.3 (9-16-44).

6. NARS, RG 218, Admiral William D. Leahy to the Hebrew Committee of National Liberation, 4 Oct. 1944, CCS 385.3 (9-16-44). For the discussion of JCS 1072 by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, see NARS, RG 218, Minutes, 180th Meeting, Joint Chiefs of Staff, 3 Oct. 1944, CCS 334 (6-23-42).

7. Quoted in CCS 106/1: Allied Chemical Warfare Program, 6 Nov. 1942, CCS 441.5 (8-27-42) Section 1. Winston S. Churchill, The Hinge of Fate (Boston, 1950), pp. 203, 329-30.

8. The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt, ed. Samuel 1. Rosenman (New York, 1950), 1942 Volume: Humanity on the Defensive, p. 258.

9. For the background of these earlier policy announcements, see van Courtland Moon, "Chemical Weapons and Deterrence," pp. 10-12.

10. The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt, ed. Rosenman, 1943 Volume: The Tide Turns, pp. 242-43.

11. Martin Gilbert, Auschwitz and the Allies (New York, 1981), pp. 50-51, 106-7, 246, 250, 258, 264-65; Henry L. Feingold, The Politics of Rescue: The Roosevelt Administration and the Holocaust 1938-1945 (New Brunswick, N.J., 1970), pp. 256-57.

12. Gilbert, Auschwitz and the Allies, pp. 231, 232-36, 244-45, 248, 251-53, 262-65, 268.

13. Ibid., pp. 216-17, 236-37, 245, 246-48, 252, 255, 264, 269, 278-79, 285, 301, 303-6, 312, 318-20; Bernard Wasserstein, Britain and the Jews of Europe: 1939- 45 (London and Oxford, 1979), pp. 307-20, 349-50; David S. Wyman, "Why Auschwitz Was Never Bombed," Commentary 65 (May 1978): 37-46; Feingold, Politics of Rescue, pp. 256-57, 305.

14. NARS, RG 165, OPD, OPD 387-7, section 11, case 21: Letter by Major General Thomas T. Handy, Assistant Chief of Staff. Quoted in Gilbert, Auschwitz and the Allies, p. 238. This argument, developed by the Operations Division of the American General Staff, was used consistently by the War Department in the debate over the bombing of Auschwitz and the access rail lines: see especially Wyman, "Why Auschwitz Was Never Bombed," pp. 39, 41. Wyman's article skillfully demolishes the arguments used by the War Department.

15. Gilbert, Auschwitz and the Allies, pp. 284-85; Wasserstein, Britain and the Jews, pp. 311-12.

16. New York Times, 19 May 1944.

17. Quoted ibid. The phrasing is that of the American Zionist Emergency Council. Other Jewish organizations (Zionist. Organization of America, the Jewish Agency for Palestine, the American World Zionist Organization, the Women's Zionist Organization, the American Jewish Conference) denounced the Hebrew Committee in similar terms.

18. NARS, RG 218, JCS 1072: Retaliation for the Extermination of Hebrews in Europe by the Use of Poisonous Gases, 26 Sept. 1944, CCS 385.3 (916-44).

19. van Courtland Moon, "Chemical Weapons and Deterrence," pp. 18-21.

20. Hansard, 19 May 1943. Quoted in Gilbert, Auschwitz and the Allies, p. 139.

21. For the proposal to form a Jewish Brigade within the British Army, finally accomplished in October 1944, see ibid., pp. 48-49, 261, 276, 291; Wasserstein, Britain and the Jews, pp. 176, 270-88, 349.

22. The literature on Hitler's war against the Jews is so extensive as to defy summary. A few examples must suffice: Eugen Kogon, The Theory and Practice of Hell: The Concentration Camps and the System Behind Them (New York, 1950); Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews (Chicago, 1967); Lucy S. Dawidowicz, The War against the Jews: 1933-45 (New York, 1975). On the use of gas, the most notable recent work is Nationalsozialistische Massentotungen durch Giftgas, ed. Eugen Kogon, Hermann Langbein, and Adalbert Ruckerl (Frankfurt, 1983).

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