As mentioned in my last blog post, President Franklin Roosevelt showed little interest in the fate of Europe’s Jews until January 16, 1944. On that date he had a meeting with officials from the Treasury Department, including Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr. and a man in his thirties named John Pehle. These men presented to FDR a report which detailed the State Department’s attempts to “stop the obtaining of information concerning the murder of the Jewish people of Europe.” The report revealed that State Department officials blocked cables about Nazi atrocities that reliable informants tried to send to the U.S.
Henry Morgenthau, Jr. 1944
Fortunately for Morgenthau and Pehle, FDR was receptive to a report of State Department wrongdoing. A major reason for this was the recent testimony of Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long. The House of Representatives was debating whether to ask FDR for a refugee rescue agency that would be separate from the State Department. Congress held private hearings with witnesses testifying for and against the new agency.
Breckinridge Long testified that another agency was not needed because “we have taken into this country, since the beginning of the Hitler regime and the persecution of the Jews, until today, approximately 580,000 refugees.” Most members of the House initially believed Long’s story. Then Long made a mistake by allowing his testimony to be published. A few news outlets and Jewish organizations pointed out the inconsistencies in Long’s statement. According to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the number of Jews who came in under national quotas between January 1, 1933 and June 30, 1943 totaled only 166,843–far from Long’s claim of 580,000.
The press made Long a laughingstock, and members of Congress who supported the new agency were more determined than ever. The Senate planned to put the rescue agency to a vote, and polls showed it would pass.
FDR hated the idea of a scandal, especially in an election year like 1944. Long’s false testimony and the Treasury Department’s report on State Department duplicity were enough to convince FDR to create the War Refugee Board. He made his decision in his twenty minute meeting with Henry Morgenthau and John Pehle.
Before President Franklin Roosevelt created the War Refugee Board in January 1944, he showed little interest in the plight of Europe’s Jews. His indifference wasn’t caused by a lack of information. FDR had read reports that revealed the Nazi plan to exterminate the Jews. He also met with Jan Karski, a Polish underground leader, who witnessed the gassing of Jews in a concentration camp. Since he knew what was going on, why did FDR fail to act on proposals to rescue the Jews until 1944?
One problem was FDR’s personal opinion of European immigrants. In his April 23, 1925 column for the Macon Daily Telegraph, FDR wrote that immigration to the U.S. should be restricted to those who had “blood of the right sort.” FDR happily upheld the strict immigration quotas he inherited from previous presidents and even left quota slots unfilled. More than 190,000 additional immigrants from Germany and other Axis countries could have entered the U.S. between 1933 and 1945, without the quotas being exceeded.
Official Presidential Portrait of FDR
The president’s callous attitude toward immigrants influenced his choice for Assistant Secretary of State, the chief government official in charge of refugee matters. FDR appointed his friend Breckinridge Long to the job. Long had no intention of relaxing the strict immigration laws. On October 3, 1940, Long wrote in his diary “I left him [FDR] with the satisfactory thought that he was wholeheartedly in support of the policy which would resolve in favor of the United States any doubts about the admissibility of any individual.” FDR generally left State department officials in charge of refugee and immigration issues. He knew his desire to limit immigration would be taken care of by Long.
Anti-Semitic feeling among American voters influenced politicians including FDR. Public opinion polls taken during World War II showed one-third of the American public was anti-Semitic. When voters show little sympathy for a group of people, elected officials have little incentive to act.
Yet not all politicians were as insensitive as FDR to the European Jews. For example, some members of Congress drafted the Wagner-Rogers bill. If passed, the bill would have allowed 20,000 Jewish children to enter the U.S. outside the immigration quota. Even though the children were supposed to return to Europe after the war, many members of Congress and the public opposed the bill. The president’s cousin, Laura Delano, commented that “twenty-thousand charming children would all too soon grow into 20,000 ugly adults.” When the bill crossed his desk, FDR wrote “no action” on it.
In my next post, I’ll discuss why FDR changed his mind and created the War Refugee Board in January 1944.
Source: Passionate Crusaders: How Members of the U.S. War Refugee Board Saved Jews and Altered American Foreign Policy during World War II by Heather Voight