“What did Americans know” is the central question guiding “Americans and the Holocaust,” the new show at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. It’s worth asking, over and over: who knew what and when, and could our leaders and policy makers have abated this unprecedented horror?
I learned from the show but couldn’t help feeling the curators were digging in the wrong places. The introductory text bluntly cites America’s fear of war, immigrants, foreigners, poverty, and unemployment as barriers keeping soon-to-be murdered Jews from salvation. This is too generalized a diagnosis, as well as unfair and inaccurate. It leads us away, not toward, approximations of truth and fault. Blaming mass phobias insulates us from the key people who made terrible decisions as well as those who were both prescient and brave. There was lots of bad leadership—and leadership starts with individuals. The show also barely considers another obvious question: who failed in telling the story?
The show takes a currently hot issue—immigration—and tries to make it a template applicable to an entirely different state of affairs. We’re all creatures of our times, but history shows require understanding someone else’s times, and not reading our own concerns into theirs. The show too often feels like a diatribe against tight immigration policy and a warning of its consequences today.
It’s true that some Jews refused admission to America as refugees later died. Many, however, did come here. Millions more didn’t think of immigrating or didn’t try. Only in 1938 and 1939 did masses of European Jews realize their plight was desperate and irreversible. After the war started in Europe in 1939, free movement by civilians was vastly complicated. Many left Germany in the 1930s for other countries—and some of those countries were overtaken by the Nazis after 1939 anyways. Hungarian Jews, about 450,000 of them, felt secure—if queasily so—until mid-1944, when in two months the entire population was deported to camps. Most died before the end of the summer. Almost every country had strict border controls, often tougher than ours. For many reasons, there was no refugee policy in the United States until 1943. Between then and 1945, we admitted hundreds of thousands of refugees.
Rather than shoehorn an awful event from decades ago into today’s immigration debate, a look at what Americans knew can be recast. It’s a story about courage, first of all. There were moments of foresight and compassion, like the Wagner-Rogers bill to change a series of quotas allowing 20,000 Jewish European children to come to the United States temporarily in 1938 and 1939. Who were Senator Wagner and Representative Rogers, the bill’s sponsors? What moved them? We can understand Wagner, who represented New York, but the fabulous, very senior, now unknown Republican Edith Nourse Rogers was a WASP grandee from Boston’s North Shore, with few Jewish constituents.
There are stories of individual malice and wanton indifference. Who blocked the measure and why? How did the issue play in the press? The bill was a front page story—a critical moment in forming American public opinion. It gets some attention in the show but the storyline keeps getting pulled back to the amorphous, like xenophobia, over the tangible. Then there are detours. A section on the internment of Americans of Japanese descent and Japanese nationals is irrelevant. That’s a separate show. The show informs us in a headline that between 1930 and 1938, 100 African Americans were lynched. Terrible as that is, it’s not relevant, either.
The show gets to the meat of the matter toward the end. By 1942, public officials in the United States and other allied countries were well aware of the “bestial policy of cold-blooded extermination” of Jews. The Allied Nations, a forerunner of the United Nations, condemned it in these terms in a December 1942 resolution. More and more newspapers reported it. On July 22, 1942, a massive rally at Madison Square Garden protested the Nazi campaign to terrorize and kill European Jews. Full page newspaper ads sponsored by Jewish groups ran in many cities. The public was becoming better informed.
Zionist Hillel Kook, known as Peter Bergson, organized a flashy, star-studded pageant that opened at Madison Square Garden on March 9, 1943 with the explicit goal of drawing attention to the deaths of 2,000,000 Jews up to that time. It traveled throughout the country. Eleanor Roosevelt and many members of Congress saw it when it played in Washington. It’s barely mentioned in the show, possibly because Bergson was a member of Irgun, the political and paramilitary Zionist group. Did the conflation of Zionism, a controversial nation-building enterprise, and promoting the safety of European Jews, compromise relief efforts? This sounds like a good question the show could have asked.
I wish the show developed further the roles and characters of central figures in undermining efforts to publicize anti-Jewish atrocities, to secure the safety of more Jews, and to disrupt the system of extermination camps. Breckinridge Long, an assistant Secretary of State in the Roosevelt administration, systematically thwarted rescue attempts and refugee resettlement involving Jews. He had his fingers on multiple power levers. We know he was a Roosevelt crony, a longtime Democratic politician from Missouri, and, in 1916, the author of Woodrow Wilson’s campaign rallying cry, “He Kept Us Out of War.” He often wrote about his contempt for what he called the “radicals” behind the Jewish relief movement and especially the “Jewish press.” Why did he oppose Jewish relief with such fierce determination? Was he motivated by hate? He sounds like a skunk but, in the show, he’s just a name.
Strangely enough the show initially feels like a homage to Franklin Roosevelt. “We have nothing to fear but fear itself” booms at us in recordings at the show’s beginning. The relationship between the Great Depression and the Holocaust is assumed but never made clear, possibly because there are quite a few degrees of causal as well as intellectual separation between the two. Roosevelt, it turns out, knew a lot about the perils of Jews in Europe.
Then there is John McCloy and the infamous, still-contested July 1944 War Department refusal to bomb the rail lines leading to the death camps. By then, American war planners knew plenty about what was happening in Auschwitz. McCloy was the assistant Secretary of War, responsible for coordinating targeting decisions. His letter to John Pehle, chair of the newly established War Refugee Board, reporting the military decision not to bomb the rail lines leading to Auschwitz (as Pehle had demanded) is in the show.
McCloy himself is a fascinating figure. He was known as the WASP establishment’s preeminent New York fixer from the 1940s through the 1970s. He was closely connected to big German business interests in the late 1930s, representing I.G. Farben, the German chemical conglomerate. After the war, as High Commissioner for Germany, he initiated and managed the wholesale pardon of many German industrialists. Later, he was president of the World Bank, Chase Manhattan Bank, and the Ford Foundation. Did he share the anti-Semitic views common among America’s country club set? We know he was a social climber, son of a hairdresser and insurance agent, who aped the habits of the old rich. Why did he put his thumb on the scale to block disrupting the death camp machine? Where was his boss Henry Stimson, the Secretary of War? Militarily, was the decision not to bomb a reasonable call?
The answer to the question, “what did Americans know” seems to be “a lot,” but the big news story—the developing Holocaust—was at times spottily covered, buried, downplayed, concealed, ignored, or simply missed by lousy journalists. Many reporters and editors just couldn’t believe what they were learning. The Holocaust was, after all, without parallel. And the term “Holocaust” and its suggestion of enormity, willfulness, and finality, are products of the 1950s and later. No one could have fully understood its dimensions in real time. Still, what Americans know about anything is a function of what our news outlets tell us. We certainly, even then, didn’t suffer from a paucity of outlets. By the 1930s, nowhere else on earth could information flow so easily to the general public. Unfortunately we were getting lots of bad information, or none at all.
Sometimes the show spotlights a pungent, articulate, and prophetic news voice like Dorothy Thompson’s. She had Hitler’s number as early as 1933 and broadcast it loudly. The scholars Laurel Leff, Deborah Lipstadt, David Wyman, and Theodor Hamerow have done brilliant, dogged work over the last twenty years on what America’s news media reported, or didn’t report. It’s a shocking, sad story to which the show merely alludes. There’s plenty of good evidence, for instance, that major newspapers owned by American Jews were reluctant to push stories of European atrocities, for fear they’d be tagged as having a biased “Jewish agenda.” This image consciousness colored corporate and editorial decision making at the highest levels. Of course, other owners, editors, and reporters were frankly anti-Semitic, and this affected what Americans knew. We never get a sense in the show of the important, powerful men and women making these judgment calls. It lets them off the hook.
Holocaust reporting during the Nazi era and the Second World War faced another surprising drag on which the show briefly reports. Because of what we call today “atrocity propaganda” during World War I, when news stories about German brutality proved false, the public was jaded. By the 1930s most Americans believed our role in World War I was a big mistake. Many, in retrospect, felt bamboozled and rushed toward an enterprise offering, at least after the war, one poisoned chalice after another. Bad or disingenuous news coverage was a big reason people felt misled and wronged. This created a climate of skepticism. Credibility’s precious. Once lost, it’s hard to recover.
“What Americans knew” is significantly a matter of “what the news business told us.” It wasn’t the last big news story our collective news industry botched. America’s news masters bought a pig in a poke in the early 1960s as the war in Vietnam escalated. Then there was the WMD farrago of fact and fiction preceding the 2003 Iraq invasion. Chicanery and imbalances leading to the 2008-09 financial crisis were known to many business reporters but never made the front pages or the evening news. Maybe “Americans and the Holocaust” should have treated the period as a news media history show. The scholarly advisers listed at the wall panel concluding the show is immense in length, which might explain the show’s designed-by-committee feel.
The show is worth a visit because the issues are so weighty and contentious. Our understanding of what Americans knew about the developing Holocaust will keep evolving. The Holocaust Museum has done hugely significant work, but the Holocaust, its raison d’être, is leaving the realm of living and witnessed memory and becoming learned history. Keeping it relevant is an immense challenge that needs to be met with precision and focus.