by Mitchell Bard
Over the course of 48 hours on November 9-10, 1938 — now known as Kristallnacht — 96 Jews were killed, 1,300 synagogues and 7,500 businesses were destroyed, and 30,000 Jews were sent to concentration camps. And now, almost exactly 80 years later, even Jews in America are not safe.
Today, Jews are looking to our president for words of solace and condemnation of not only antisemitism in general, but the hate mongers on the left and right who traffic in conspiracy theories and threaten Jews with violence. Many Jews believe that President Trump has failed them, and that they are more vulnerable today than in recent memory.
President Franklin Roosevelt also failed the Jews. Though viewed as an icon by many Jews, and defended by apologists, his inaction as well as the deleterious actions of his administration condemned countless Jews to death.
In his book, The Abandonment of the Jews, David Wyman documents how the US government failed to save European Jewry. He concludes with a quotation from the Committee for a Jewish Army:
Imagine that the British people and the American nation had millions of residents in Europe. … Let us imagine that Hitler would start a process of annihilation and would slaughter not two million Englishmen or Americans, not hundreds of thousands, but, let us say, only tens of thousands. … It is clear that the governments of Great Britain [and] the United States would certainly find ways and means to act instantly and to act effectively.
The assumption was understandable, but incorrect. Tens of thousands of Americans were in peril, but their government did not act instantly or effectively. Consequently, many suffered, and some died.
American Jews were subject to the same antisemitic regulations and dangers as any other Jews who came under the control of the Nazis. Americans were killed in concentration camps, though the total is unknown. Non-Jews did not face the same peril; however, thousands were sent to internment camps.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands of lives could have been saved had the United States government taken action to rescue people claiming American citizenship. Often, it did just the opposite, creating obstacles that impeded Americans from obtaining the necessary documents to escape from the Nazis.
In 1939, more than 80,000 American citizens were believed to be living abroad. That year, the State Department established a little-known “Special Division” for handling matters related to the whereabouts and welfare of Americans abroad, including civilian internees and POWs, evidence that the United States anticipated the problems that would later arise.
The State Department’s initial position was that every effort should be made to get Americans out of Europe, but that no money should be spent paying citizens’ expenses to return home. On November 25, 1939, Assistant Secretary of State George Messersmith wrote that Americans in danger zones were given the opportunity to return home, but for business or private reasons, many did not do so. State Department officials held that citizens who chose to live abroad without any apparent intention of returning to the United States could not expect their government to feel any obligation to protect them.
An even deeper prejudice lay behind this viewpoint: the belief that citizens returning from abroad would become “welfare” cases. “Their real status,” Messersmith wrote, “does not differ very much from that of the many thousands of unfortunate persons deserving of our sympathy, and having no claim to American citizenship, who would desire to come to this country in order to escape from danger zones or for other reasons and who seek immigration visas and passport visas to that end.”
The State Department was not sympathetic to Americans who were caught in the Nazi net. Although it acknowledged the US obligation “to facilitate in every way possible the return” of US nationals during an emergency “from places where danger may exist,” State also maintained that Americans who failed to take advantage of the opportunity for repatriation did so knowing the risks involved.
The State Department sent five ships in 1939 and four more in 1940 to bring United States citizens home from the European war zone, and the ships returned with space available. “It therefore seems safe to draw the conclusion,” a Special Division policy paper written four years later says, “that those United States nationals who remained in threatened areas did so, for the most part, voluntarily, and with full realization of the occupational risks they were taking.”
No one could imagine in 1939 or 1940 what would happen to Jews later. Nevertheless, US officials took the position that Americans who, in their eyes, literally missed the boat were on their own. This view was to have tragic consequences.
By the summer of 1941, it was extremely difficult for Americans in the occupied territories to travel and communicate; they needed special permits to leave, and those were rarely given.
A few months earlier, Breckinridge Long, the head of the Special Division, told Roosevelt that consuls had been instructed to be “as liberal as the law allows” and expedite action, but because of reports of Nazi agents pretending to be refugees, “it has been considered essential in the national interest to scrutinize all applications carefully.” In another letter to the president, Long said he was proposing new regulations for travel to and from the United States for all persons, including US citizens, because the laxity of the current law allowed subversives to enter the United States.
Besides fear of Nazi sympathizers infiltrating the US, the State Department adopted the policy that it could not save any one group if it could not save everyone. “If we once open our doors to one class of refugee,” Special Division’s James Keeley wrote in December 1942 in reference to Jews, “we must expect on the basis of our experience in extending relief in occupied territories, that all other sufferers from Nazi (including Japanese) oppression (the Belgians, Dutch, Poles, Greeks, Yugoslavs, Norwegians, Czechs, Chinese, et cetera) will likewise wish to avail themselves of our hospitality. … Even the most optimistic dispenser of largess could scarcely expect us to become an unrestricted haven of refuge for all suffering peoples.”
Once again, sound familiar?
Another official, Joseph Green, suggested that the Passport Division provide a list of passports issued in Europe during 1941, as well as a list of Americans whose passports were validated in 1940 or 1941 for continued stay in Europe, so the Department could check for Americans in Europe who might be entitled to repatriation. Long argued that it was impracticable to search lists of thousands of passports. Moreover, he said that Americans in Germany awaiting repatriation “ought to be examined and only those we want should be accepted” (emphasis original).
Once the decision was made not to further aid Americans, the State Department was forced to cover up its failure to act out of fear of public reaction. Green admitted, for example, that “if the Axis propaganda mill should give publicity to the proposed ill treatment of American citizens of Jewish race in Slovakia there may be considerable criticism of the Department by Jewish circles in the United States.” This is perhaps the clearest statement that the State Department was aware of the seriousness of the plight of Jews in Eastern Europe, was sensitive to public opinion, and still was unwilling to act.
It wasn’t only European Jews that died on Roosevelt’s watch; an unknown number of Americans did as well.
Mitchell Bard is author of 48 Hours of Kristallnacht: Night of Destruction/Dawn of the Holocaust – An Oral History and Forgotten Victims: The Abandonment of Americans in Hitler’s Camps.