Holocaust, American Response to

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The American response to the Holocaust is characterized by a series of fluctuating policies. One must first examine the attitude of Americans towards the persecution of Germany's Jewish population under the Nazi regime and then examine how these attitudes changed once the war began in 1939.

persecution and immigration, 1931–1939

As Jews in Germany faced increasing acts of violence and discrimination sponsored by Hitler's government, some American Jewish leaders and American Christian liberals urged the U.S. State Department to alter their standards with regards to German Jewish immigration. By 1936 U.S. immigration officials did change their considerations to include the level of a German Jew's education, job skills, and affidavits of support from American relatives. In just one year this new policy led to a near doubling in the amount of visas granted to German Jews.

The immigration situation became further complicated in 1938 with the Nazi annexation of Austria and the subsequent increase in persecuted Jews living in the former Austrian lands. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt suggested that the immigration laws be further liberalized and added that the application wording of "Jewish refugees" should be changed to "political refugees." It has been argued that he was motivated to change this wording because he was well aware that public opinion polls demonstrated an American perception that Jews already held too much power. It should also be mentioned that due to the effects of the Great Depression, President Roosevelt understood that many Americans were unwilling or unable to extend humanitarian aid to foreigners. Even among some Jewish groups in America, there were divided opinions regarding the crisis in Germany and Austria.

The year 1938 turned out to be a pivotal year for it saw an increase in immigration quotas, the unsuccessful introduction of a congressional bill to aid 20,000 German Jewish children, and an international conference to discuss the Jewish refugee question. In July 1938, Evian, France, became the host site for a conference of thirty-two nations. Most of the nations in attendance were there to explain why their countries could not alter immigration restrictions to accept additional Jewish refugees. In this respect the American delegation was no different from the other countries present. Perhaps the only positive result of the Evian meeting was the creation of the Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees (IGCR), commissioned by the attendees to negotiate with the Nazis about Jewish immigration. Unfortunately, with war looming on the horizon, nothing substantial came of this new committee.

war and jewish refugees, 1939–1941

As Nazi Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, the American public was consumed with worries of possible internal subversion. This overwhelming fear of potential enemy spies on American soil led to a major shift

in American policy towards refugees. In an ironic twist, as Jews in Europe faced increased danger, immigration legislation was now altered to make it increasingly more difficult for them to gain entry to America. By 1941 Congress had made immigration so restricted that only a very small percentage of European immigration quotas were met.

From 1933 to 1941 most of the officials who had been working on the Jewish refugee question had aimed at the resettlement of Jews outside of Nazi-occupied Europe; now their focus shifted to rescue and aid efforts. By 1941 the Nazis had initiated a policy of planned extermination of Europe's Jewish population. By late 1941 the western press began to carry reports of Nazi atrocities. But to many Americans, the idea of mass annihilation of an entire group of people was unimaginable. Linked to this sense of disbelief was the memory that Americans had been tricked by British propaganda into believing that Germans had committed atrocities in Belgium in World War I. There was a tendency to discount much of the reported suffering as just Allied propaganda. In addition, officials in the U.S. government had decided by 1941 that military objectives were to be given top priority; any civilians suffering persecution by the Nazis would best be served by an Allied victory. In short, the argument was to win the war, thereby saving lives in general.

protest against extermination, 1942–1945

Some prominent individuals, such as Gerhart Riegner of the World Jewish Congress in Switzerland, attempted to provide hard evidence of the systematic murders being carried out against Europe's Jewish population. Many government officials ignored Riegner's attempts to prove murders were indeed taking place, but by 1942 the State Department could no longer reasonably deny the accuracy of Riegner's information. President Roosevelt met with five Jewish leaders, one of whom was Rabbi Stephen Wise (president of the American Jewish Congress) on December 8, 1942. A few days after this meeting the U.S. and eleven Allied governments issued a denunciation of Hitler's extermination policy in a joint declaration. Although the statement publicly verified that there was in fact a Nazi atrocity campaign underway, it included no plan of rescue.

As public awareness increased regarding the reality of the "Final Solution," various groups attempted to hold demonstrations and marches. Yet public opinion polls documented an actual increase in anti-semitism rather than a decline. The official American view began to alter only after the summer of 1943 as the tide of war began to change in favor of the Allies. Another contributing factor in the changing view was the role of Henry Morgenthau, secretary of the treasury, and a group of young, non-Jewish Treasury Department staff who shared the belief that the State Department had purposely dragged its feet in the aid and rescue of Jews. Josiah DuBois drafted a document to prove the group's beliefs. Morgenthau toned down the report and then submitted it to the president.

After reading the report, President Roosevelt created the War Refugee Board (WRB), with John Pehle heading the newly-created organization. At first, Pehle and the WRB met with resistance. However, in time, the WRB successfully obtained assistance from a variety of sources, including Pope Pius XII, the Red Cross, and Swedish businessman, Raoul Wallenberg. The WRB also considered a proposal that the Allies bomb Auschwitz-Birkenau, but ultimately the board concluded that such action would only bring about a temporary disruption of the concentration camp's activities.


Nazi atrocities committed against Jews did not play a decisive role in the minds of most American people. American politicians, for their part, were not willing to risk military personnel's lives in order to save foreign civilians. American Jewish leaders were not able to convince the American people that saving the lives of Jews in Europe should not be a minor issue. In the words of scholar Yehuda Bauer, "the record of the great democracies … does not generate a sense of pride, to put it mildly." (Bauer, p. 302).

In April and May 1945 various concentration camps were liberated by the Americans, the British, and the Soviets. Camps such as Buchenwald, Dachau, Mauthausen, Theresienstadt, and Bergen-Belsen revealed their horrors to the rest of the world. Perhaps the most stunning release of information was the British liberation of inmates at Bergen-Belsen. When films taken at the camp showed how the prisoners had suffered from a lack of food and water and the ravages of disease (37,000 inmates died prior to liberation), most Americans reacted with disgust and feelings of guilt. President Harry S. Truman, responding to American reactions, commissioned Earl G. Harrison, a Princeton law professor, to examine what could be done to aid Jews now living in the displaced person (DP) camps. In the end, the Harrison report was quite critical of the U.S. Army's treatment of Jewish DPs and it recommended that 100,000 Jews be allowed to emigrate to Palestine. Harrison's report was released publicly in September 1945 but the British, in control of Palestine, refused to support the movement of so many Jews into the region. Most polls of the time reveal American support for Jews moving out of the DP camps and into Palestine, yet most American politicians refused to interfere in what was regarded as a "British" problem. Throughout 1946–1948 there was an internal battle between Arabs and Jews in Palestine over a Zionist state, ending on May 14, 1948, with the establishment of the state of Israel. While many Americans believed the Holocaust was the catalyst to Israel's creation, evidence suggests that Israel might have developed more rapidly had it not been for events in Europe.

Nevertheless, the Holocaust left an indelible impression on American values and identity. It contributed to the post-war American and international efforts to define "Crimes Against Humanity" and "Human Rights," and to create a permanent international court of justice to deter holocausts. In the twenty-first century Americans continue to debate whether the nation is obligated to use its military power to stop new forms of extermination, such as ethnic cleansing.


Bauer, Yehuda. A History of the Holocaust. New York: Franklin Watts, 1982.

Breitman, Richard, and Allen Kraut. American Refugee Policy and European Jewry: 1933–45. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.

Feingold, Henry L. The Politics of Rescue. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1970.

Feingold, Henry L. Bearing Witness: How America and Its Jews Responded to the Holocaust. New York: Syracuse University Press, 1995.

Friedman, Saul. No Haven for the Oppressed: United States Policy Toward Jewish Refugees, 1938–1945. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1971.

Laqueur, Walter. The Terrible Secret: Suppression of the Truth about Hitler's "Final Solution." New York: Penquin, 1982.

Marrus, Michael. The Unwanted: European Refugees in the Twentieth Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Morse, Arthur D. While Six Million Died: A Chronicle of American Apathy. New York: Random House, 1967.

Newton, Verne W., ed. FDR and the Holocaust. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996.

Wyman, David. The Abandonment of the Jews, 1941–45. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984.

Beth Griech-Polelle

See also:Propaganda, 1895–1945; Radio and the Power of Broadcasting; Roosevelt, Franklin Delano.