Many aspects of the US government's response to the persecution and murder of European Jews during the era of the Holocaust have attracted public interest and debate. This article provides information and context about these difficult topics.
Admission of Immigrants
During the 1930s and early 1940s, as hundreds of thousands of Jews sought safe havens outside Nazi occupied territory, the United States had no official refugee policy. It had only a slow, deliberate, immigration procedure. The 1924 Immigration Act set annual quotas based on a prospective immigrant's country of birth. Although Germany had the second highest quota allotment under the act, the number of Jews trying to flee to the United States meant that immigrants had to wait, often for years, on a list.
Other considerations beyond the law also contributed to the fact that US immigration quotas from Germany were not filled in the early years of Nazism. The economic crisis known as the Great Depression led the President Herbert Hoover to mandate that immigrants had to prove that they would not become a “public charge,” disqualifying people who could not financially support themselves indefinitely. Public opinion, motivated by economic fear, xenophobia, antisemitism, and isolationism, did not favor any increase in immigration to the United States, even as it became clear that Nazi Germany was targeting Jews for persecution.
Several European countries permitted limited Jewish immigration before the outbreak of war in September 1939, but the German invasion of western Europe brought many of these refugees back under Nazi control. Many refugees also attempted to escape to Latin America, though after 1938 some nations there refused to admit further Jewish immigrants.
By the spring of 1940, Americans feared that the Nazis were sending spies and saboteurs to the United States, possibly disguised as refugees. On national security grounds, State Department officials carefully screened all potential immigrants, rejecting anyone they found questionable. In July 1941, American consulates closed in Nazi-occupied territories. After the United States entered the war in December 1941, it became nearly impossible for refugees to escape to the United States.
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 Mass Murder
In August 1942, the State Department received a cabled message, relayed by Gerhart Riegner, the Geneva-based representative of the World Jewish Congress (WJC). Riegner reported that the Nazis planned to systematically murder Europe's Jews. State Department officials, believing the news to be a wartime rumor, decided not to pass on the message to its intended recipient, American Jewish leader (and president of the WJC) Rabbi Stephen Wise. That same month, Wise instead received the report via British channels and he immediately asked the State Department to confirm the information.
Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles promised to investigate, finally informing Wise on November 24, 1942, that the terrible news was true. Wise held a press conference that day, announcing that the State Department had verified the Nazi extermination plan. On December 17, 1942, the United States, Great Britain, and ten other Allied governments issued a declaration denouncing Hitler's intention to murder the Jews of Europe and warning that any perpetrators would be held responsible for their crimes.
Winning the war was the foremost priority for Allied governments, and very few people suggested diverting resources from the war effort to try to save the Jewish victims of Nazism. For much of the war, any major rescue efforts seemed impossible. In response to public pressure to do something to aid Jews and other victims of Nazi persecution, British and American representatives held a conference in Bermuda in April 1943, but only achieved minor results.
On January 22, 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, responding to pressure from American Jews and from the Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau Jr., established the War Refugee Board (WRB) as an independent agency tasked with the rescue of imperiled refugees. In August 1944, the WRB and the US Department of the Interior established the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Center in Oswego, New York. The camp served as a haven for 982 refugees—most of whom were Jewish—who were brought to the United States from Allied-occupied Italy.
The War Refugee Board assisted private relief organizations with their work in Europe; helped refugees reach safety in Sweden, Spain, Switzerland, and Turkey; informed Americans about the Auschwitz concentration camp; and selected Raoul Wallenberg for a mission to Budapest. With the assistance of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the World Jewish Congress, as well as many other relief groups in the United States, the WRB helped to rescue tens of thousands of Jews in Hungary, Romania, and elsewhere in Europe.
Newspapers in the United States devoted significant coverage to Nazi Germany and to Hitler in the 1930s. Articles on early persecution of the Jews, the opening of the Dachau concentration camp, Nazi boycotts of Jewish stores, and book burning sat next to reports about the New Deal and American domestic concerns. Once the United States entered World War II, many newspapers did not give prominent coverage to reports of Nazi atrocities, privileging news of the war and reports that could be verified by reporters. The New York Times, in particular, has been criticized by some scholars for placing news of Nazi mass murder on the interior pages.
In June 1944, reports that the Nazis were deporting Hungarian Jews to their deaths at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp led to calls from some Jewish organizations to bomb the rail lines leading to the camp, the gas chambers in the camp, or the camp itself. The War Department rejected these requests, explaining that US aircraft did not have the capacity to conduct air raids on these targets with sufficient accuracy, and did not want to divert military resources needed elsewhere to win the war. Requests in the fall of 1944 were also turned down. Since the late 1960s, the Allied decision not to bomb the gas chambers or the rail lines has been a source of controversial and sometimes bitter debate both among scholars and the general public.
Between 1945 and 1951, the United States and Great Britain ruled occupation zones in Germany, Austria, Italy, and Czechoslovakia, which housed more than a million displaced persons (DPs), including 250,000 Jews, in late 1945. The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration and various private relief agencies assisted the Western Allied powers in meeting this enormous challenge. Until September 1945, Jewish and non-Jewish DPs lived together in the same camps, which sometimes required Jewish Holocaust survivors to reside with former perpetrators or with other non-Jews. Jewish DPs, many of whom felt unsafe, protested these living conditions, as well as harsh treatment by US military personnel and searches for contraband conducted by German police.
Immediately after the war, the victorious Allied forces did not understand the particular psychological plight of the European Jewish DPs or the extent of the DP problem. The American Jewish community protested the US Army's treatment of Jews in DP camps, which led President Truman to to send the American representative for the Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees, Earl Harrison, to the US occupation zone in Germany to investigate. Harrison's report, filed in August 1945, led to 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 ease US immigration restrictions for Jewish displaced persons. Truman could not change immigration law himself, but he did order the State Department to fill existing quotas, privileging displaced persons. With the passage of the Displaced Persons Act in 1948, US authorities granted approximately 202,000 visas to immigrants above the quota system. Jewish DPs received 80,000 of these visas.