The War Refugee Board (WRB), established by Franklin D. Roosevelt in January 1944, saved, or had a hand in saving, tens of thousands of Jews from certain death at the hands of the Nazis. FDR’s public statement about the Holocaust on March 24 of the same year, in which he told the Germans directly that they would be held accountable for war crimes, may have saved additional lives. But John Pehle, the director of the WRB, also lobbied the War Department to do more, including bombing the rail lines to Auschwitz and the factories in the camp itself. In a thorough account of Pehle’s efforts, excerpted from his recent biography of FDR, Jay Winik writes:
Many years [after the war, Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy, who had repeatedly stalled Pehle’s requests], told a journalist that Roosevelt’s close adviser and good friend, Harry Hopkins, maintained that “the Boss was not disposed to” order the bombing of the death camp. Nonetheless, Hopkins himself had enjoined McCloy to solicit the advice of the War Department. McCloy indicated that the Air Force was against the idea of bombing the camps. Insisting that he had “never talked” to the president in person, McCloy said bluntly: “That was the end of that.”
However, several years later McCloy, by then elderly and evidently conscience-stricken, gave a different version of what had happened. In an interview with Secretary [of the Treasury Henry] Morgenthau’s son, he indicated that he and Roosevelt had talked about whether to bomb Auschwitz. In this account, McCloy said the president felt that the bombing would amount to little except to make the United States seem complicit in the Final Solution, a view some Jews themselves held. Roosevelt then evidently told McCloy that the United States would be accused of “bombing these innocent people,” and “we’ll be accused of participating in this horrible business.” Thus, the president himself denied the request, without offering any other imaginative alternatives.