Holocaust, U.S. War Effort and The

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Holocaust, U.S. War Effort and The. The Holocaust, Nazi Germany's systematic destruction of the European Jews, began in June 1941 and ended with the defeat of Germany in May 1945. The U.S. government was aware of Germany's program of extermination by November 1942, but for fourteen months thereafter the State Department, with the knowledge and acquiescence of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, made virtually no attempt to rescue Jews. Only in January 1944 did Roosevelt act, and then only when confronted with pressure from many members of Congress, as well as documentation presented by the Treasure Department proving that the State Department had for the most part been following a policy of active obstruction of rescue. Faced with incipient scandal, the president established a government rescue agency called the War Refugee Board. It ultimately helped to save the lives of about 200,000 European Jews. The British government, whose policy on the Holocaust had paralleled that of the State Department, declined to form a rescue agency and never altered its program of inaction.

Throughout World War II, the U.S. military considered proposals to rescue Jews as outside the scope of its mission. As early as April 1943, responding to inquiries from the Anglo‐American Bermuda Conference on Refugees, the War Department made clear its unwillingness to support even minor rescue efforts. The Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) urged rejection of a proposal to move 3,000 Jewish refugees from danger in Spain to safety in North Africa, pointing to the shortage of shipping, the added administrative burden the refugees would put on the military government in North Africa, and the possibility that Arab resentment might require military action to keep order.

In December 1943, the JCS refused a State Department request for military help in moving 4,000 Jews to southern Italy from the Adriatic island of Rab before the Germans seized the island. The chiefs explained that Allied forces in Italy were already overloaded with refugees (mostly non‐Jewish Yugoslavs) and action to help those on Rab “might create a precedent which would lead to other demands and an influx of additional refugees.” Edward R. Stettinius, Jr., recently appointed undersecretary of state and one of the very few State Department officials interested in rescuing Jews, declared that if this response accurately reflected military policy, the United States might as well “shut up shop” on its efforts to rescue any more refugees from Axis Europe. Stettinius recommended that President Roosevelt inform the military that rescue was “extremely important … in fact sufficiently important to require unusual effort on their part and to be set aside only for important military operational reasons.” Nothing came of his suggestion.

The military's noninvolvement in rescue might have changed in early 1944 when Roosevelt formed the War Refugee Board. The president's executive order specified that the State, Treasury, and War Departments each had a special responsibility to help the new agency in its rescue endeavors. War Department officials, concerned that this could mean military forces might be diverted to rescue missions, decided, secretly, in February 1944 not to participate in rescue operations despite the executive order.

By late spring 1944, the massive killing operations at Auschwitz, in Poland, were known to the Allied governments, and Allied air forces had the range to strike the gas chambers as well as the railroads leading to them. Yet no effort was made to bomb those locations, despite several requests for action. Such proposals began to reach the United States from occupied Europe in June 1944, as the deportation of the 760,000 Jews in Hungary went forward.

The first request was turned down by the War Department in late June on the ground that “it could be executed only by diversion of considerable air support essential to the success of our forces now engaged in decisive operations.” In reality, the decision was not based on any analysis of air force operations. The War Department did not consult the commanders of the Italy‐based U.S. 15th Air Force, which was in the best position to conduct the proposed strikes. Instead, when the War Refugee Board forwarded the initial bombing request to them, War Department officials measured it against their February 1944 policy of noninvolvement. On that basis they decided against the proposal, without investigating its feasibility. Obviously, they could not inform the board of the real reason for rejection. Instead, they used the best argument available: that the operation would divert considerable military power from essential war plans. With this, the pattern was set. All succeeding requests were rejected on the same grounds as the first.

In fact, bombing the gas chambers at Auschwitz could have been accomplished with little diversion of airpower. Because the complex included a major industrial area adjacent to the camp, Auschwitz itself was a military target—the primary objective a synthetic oil refinery. The Germans has seven other synthetic oil plants in the region, all based on the coal resources of Upper Silesia and all within forty‐five miles of Auschwitz. From July through November 1944, more than 2,800 American heavy bombers pounded the eight oil installations. En route to their targets, all of these aircraft flew along or over key deportation railways. On two occasions (20 August and 13 September) large fleets of American heavy bombers struck the industrial area at Auschwitz itself, less than five miles from the four large gas chambers. Yet the War Department stated in a letter of 14 August 1944 that the bombing was not possible because such actions “could be executed only by the diversion of considerable air support essential to the success of our forces now engaged in decisive operations elsewhere.”

The last of the attempts to persuade the War Department to bomb Auschwitz came in November 1944. War Refugee Board director John Pehle wrote a strong letter urging destruction of the gas chambers and pointing out the military advantages in simultaneously bombing industrial sites at Auschwitz (the board was not aware of the earlier raids on Auschwitz industries). Once again Pehle's appeal was rejected on grounds that airpower should not be diverted from vital “industrial target systems.”

In late November 1944, SS chief Heinrich Himmler ordered the killing machinery at Auschwitz destroyed. On 18 and 26 December 1944, American bombers again pounded the Auschwitz industries. The Soviet army captured the camp 27 January 1945.

As Red Army forces advanced across Eastern Europe in 1944 and 1945, they overran several Nazi concentration camps, including those at Lublin and Auschwitz. In April and May 1945, American and British soldiers came upon the concentration camps in Western Europe—Dachau, Bergen‐Belsen, Buchenwald, and others. The liberation of these camps has been cited as proof of the Allied governments' and the armies' concern for the helpless Jews and other victims trapped there.

It is important to keep in mind that these liberations were completely unintentional—an unexpected byproduct of military advances, not the result of military planning. The camps were not assigned as objectives; in reality, the Allied troops came upon them entirely by chance. These facts are clearly reflected in two aspects of the responses to the camps by the American and British armies. First, the officers and men were totally surprised at what they found. There was also shock at the extent of the Nazi depravity. To make certain the Germans could never claim doubt about what had been found, the troops forced local civilians to view the camps and help bury the dead. Second, the armies came without provisions or emergency equipment appropriate to the acute needs of concentration camp survivors. The troops' efforts to help were indeed compassionate, but their attempts to keep the surviving inmates alive had to be improvised. About one‐third of those found in the camps died within a month.

The U.S. military's final connection with the Holocaust came about after the defeat of Germany. One result of World War II was that more than 8 million displaced persons (DPs) were stranded in Germany and Austria when the war ended, including former slave laborers and concentration camp inmates, prisoners of war, Eastern Europeans fleeing the Russians, and others. The Allied military forces, in a highly successful operation, managed to repatriate about 7 million DPs by September 1945. Of the more than 1 million who remained, about 100,000 were Jewish survivors of the Holocaust.

Nonrepatriable DPs were to have been cared for jointly by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) and the Allied military forces. As it turned out, UNRRA was unable to meet its responsibilities, so the military had to fill the vacuum in an assignment for which it had not been trained. The consequence was a continuing disaster for the Jewish survivors. The U.S. Army had very little sympathy for or understanding of the difficult problems of these people, who had been most damaged by the Nazis. Most were kept in inadequate camps (some were former concentration camps) and provided with rations similar to those they had received from the Nazis.

In July 1945, responding to pressure from American Jewish leaders, President Harry S. Truman agreed to send Earl G. Harrison, former U.S. commissioner of immigration and dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, to investigate the situation in the DP camps. Harrison found the plight of the Jews to be “far worse than that of other groups.” He denounced “the continuance of barbed‐wire fences, armed guards, and prohibition against leaving the camp except by passes,” and declared that “as matters now stand, we appear to be treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them except that we do not exterminate them.” In early August 1945, the War Department instructed General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, to do everything possible to improve the situation. Eisenhower issued several directives, and by late 1945 conditions for Jewish DPs were generally better, although many military officials in the field continued to show little inclination to implement the new policy adequately.
[See also Genocide; Hitler, Adolf; World War II: Military and Diplomatic Course.]


Martin Gilbert , Auschwitz and the Allies, 1981.
Leonard Dinnerstein , America and the Survivors of the Holocaust, 1982.
David S. Wyman , The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust 1941–1945, 1984.
Robert H. Abzug , Inside the Vicious Heart: Americans and the Liberation of Nazi Concentration Camps, 1985.
David S. Wyman, ed., Bombing Auschwitz and the Auschwitz Escapees' Report, Vol. 12 in the series America and the Holocaust, 1990.
Kai Bird , The Chairman: John J. McCloy, 1992.

David S. Wyman