A number of controversies have arisen about United States policy and its impact on European Jews during the era of the Holocaust.
ADMISSION OF IMMIGRANTS
One controversy involves the admission of immigrants from Nazi Germany into the United States. Influenced by the economic hardships of the Depression, which exacerbated popular antisemitism, isolationism, and xenophobia, the refugee policy of the US State Department and its stringent (and questionably legal) application of the 1924 Immigration Law made it difficult for refugees to obtain entry visas, despite the ongoing persecution of Jews in Germany.
Although several other European countries permitted limited Jewish immigration (for example Britain, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands) before 1938, many of these refugees disappeared as Nazi Germany conquered Europe. Latin America had also been a potential destination for refugees, although after 1938 these nations increasingly refused to admit further immigrants. A significant exception was Bolivia, which admitted around 30,000 from 1938-1941.
Beginning in 1940, the United States further restricted immigration by ordering US consuls to delay visa approvals on national security grounds. After the United States entered the World War II in December 1941, the trickle of immigration virtually dried up, just as the Nazi regime began systematically to murder the Jews of Europe. Despite many obstacles, however, more than 200,000 Jews found refuge in the United States from 1933 to 1945, most of them before the end of 1941.
PUBLICIZING REPORTS OF GENOCIDE
Another controversy centers on the State Department’s delay in publicizing reports of genocide. In August 1942, the Department received a cabled report, sent by Gerhart Riegner, the representative in Geneva of the World Jewish Congress (WJC). The report revealed that the Nazis planned to murder Europe's Jews. Department officials declined to pass on the report to its intended recipient, American Jewish leader Stephen Wise, who was president of the WJC. That same month, however, Wise received the report via British channels and sought permission from the State Department to make the contents public.
Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles requested that Wise refrain from disclosing the contents of the Riegner cable to the public. Wise agreed, and only released the information contained in the cable to the press on November 24, 1942, after receiving word from Welles a day earlier that the State Department had confirmed its contents. On December 17, 1942, the United States, Great Britain, and ten other Allied governments issued a declaration revealing and denouncing Hitler’s intention to murder the Jews of Europe. The declaration warned Nazi Germany that it would be held responsible for these crimes.
Other issues have arisen as well. One involves the lack of action by the United States with regard to the rescue of Holocaust victims. From 1941 to 1945, winning the war was the foremost priority for Allied governments. On April 19, 1943, US and British representatives met in Bermuda to find solutions to general wartime refugee problems, but neither government initiated any rescue programs. On July 28, 1943, Polish underground courier Jan Karski informed President Franklin D. Roosevelt about reports of mass murder that he had received from Jewish leaders in the Warsaw ghetto and in the Izbica transit ghetto. US authorities did not, however, initiate any action aimed at rescuing or providing safe haven for refugees prior to 1944, when the War Refugee Board was established.
On January 22, 1944, Roosevelt, under pressure from American Jews and his own Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau Jr., established the War Refugee Board (WRB) as an independent agency to facilitate the rescue of imperiled refugees. In August 1944, the WRB and the US Department of the Interior established the Fort Ontario Refugee Center in Oswego, New York. The facility served as a haven for 983 refugees from Yugoslavia who had managed to reach Italy. Two thirds of the residents of the Refugee Center were Jews. By the time the WRB was established, however, four fifths of the Jews who would die in the Holocaust were already dead. Nevertheless, the efforts of the War Refugee Board contributed to the rescue of approximately 200,000 Jews.
OTHER US INSTITUTIONS
In addition to the actions of the US government, criticism has been voiced about the behavior of other US institutions during the era of the Holocaust. One such institution is the US media, which did not always publicize reports of Nazi atrocities in full, and did not give the mass murder of the European Jews the attention it deserved. For example, the New York Times, the nation’s leading newspaper, consistently deemphasized the murder of the Jews in its news coverage.
Finally, controversy has arisen about the decision not to bomb the killing facilities at Auschwitz-Birkenau. During the spring of 1944, the Allies received more explicit information about the process of mass murder by gas carried out at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Beginning in late spring, some Jewish leaders pleaded unsuccessfully with US government officials to bomb the gas chambers and the rail tracks leading to the camp.
Even after the Anglo-American air forces developed the capacity to hit targets in Silesia (where Auschwitz was located) in 1944, US authorities decided not to bomb either the gas chambers or the rail lines used to transport prisoners to Birkenau. US officials explained this decision in part with the technical argument that US aircraft did not have the capacity to conduct air raids on such targets with sufficient accuracy, and in part with the strategic argument that the Allies were committed to bomb exclusively military targets in order to win the war as quickly as possible. Since the late 1960s, the Allied decision not to bomb the gas chambers in or the rail lines leading to Birkenau has been a source of lively and sometimes bitter debate both among scholars and among the general public in the US.
Between 1945 and 1951, the United States (along with Great Britain) became the guardian of more than a million displaced persons (DPs) in Germany, Austria, Italy, and Czechoslovakia, including 250,000 Jews at the peak period in late 1945. The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency and various private relief agencies assisted the Western Allied powers in meeting this enormous challenge. Until September 1945, Jewish and non-Jewish DPs resided together in the same camps. This sometimes required Jewish victims of the Holocaust to reside with former perpetrators or with other non-Jews, some of whom expressed antisemitic sentiments painfully reminiscent of the Holocaust. Jewish DPs, many of whom felt unsafe, protested these living conditions, as well as the harsh treatment by US military personnel and the permitting of German police into the camps to search for contraband.
These practices reflected postwar Allied insensitivity to the particular psychological plight of the European Jewish DPs. Protests about the treatment of Jews by US Army personnel in DP camps located in Bavaria induced President Harry S Truman to send Earl Harrison, Dean of the Law School at the University of Pennsylvania, to the US occupation zone in Germany to investigate. Harrison’s report, filed in August 1945, led Truman to order the separation of Jews from non-Jews and more sensitive treatment of Jewish survivors. The US authorities facilitated significant improvements in living conditions by permitting Jewish relief agencies to operate in the camps and giving greater autonomy to DP councils.
After the war, President Truman favored efforts to relax US immigration restrictions for Jewish displaced persons. A December 1945 executive order allowed for 16,000 Jewish refugees to enter the United States between 1946 and 1948. With the passage of the Displaced Persons Act in 1948, US authorities granted approximately 400,000 visas to immigrants above the quota system. Jewish DPs received 80,000 of these visas.