In 1942, a German mining executive got a message to Gerhard Riegner, a lawyer working for the Jewish World Congress in Switzerland, with concrete information about the mass-murder of Jews in Poland. Riegner rushed to the American consulate to convey the information to the U.S. State Department and to American Jewish leaders. But, as Sol Stern writes, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s State Department “had been turned into a vipers’ nest regarding the plight of the European Jews,” and its initial reaction was to keep the information secret:
In the years before America entered the war, the Roosevelt administration ruled out political protest on behalf of Jews facing mounting persecution in Germany, because it wasn’t deemed to be in the “national interest”—that is, in the economic interests of a country still mired in the Great Depression. Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long, an admirer of Mussolini and a known anti-Semite, then became the administration’s point man in charge of refugee policy. Long erected a maze of bureaucratic barriers (“paper walls,” as the historian David Wyman later called them), which made it impossible to fill even the very restrictive immigration quotas established by Republican administrations in the 1920s. Hundreds of thousands of Jews fleeing the Nazis were effectively blocked from entering the United States.
In December 1940, the State Department disrupted an underground rescue network, led by the gallant journalist and Harvard literary editor Varian Fry, that helped over 1,000 Jewish artists and scholars escape the Nazis through southern France. Intent on maintaining proper diplomatic relations with France’s collaborationist Vichy government, the department viewed Fry’s unauthorized operation as a political nuisance. It refused to renew Fry’s passport and then requested the Vichy police to arrest him in Marseille and force his return to the U.S.
After the U.S. entered the war, the Roosevelt administration convinced itself that efforts to aid Jews trapped in occupied Europe would divert resources from the military campaign against the Axis powers. Thus when the Riegner cable arrived at the State Department on August 10, 1942, it was treated not merely with appropriate skepticism but also downright obstructionism. . . . Long [even] falsified documents about the extermination and then lied blatantly in public testimony about the total number of visas the department had granted to European Jews.
After examining this sorry history at length, Stern concludes with an “essential lesson” for America:
There can be no American greatness if there is no American moral leadership, a leadership that commands the United States to sometimes take risks, even at the expense of narrow definitions of the “national interest.” As we memorialize Auschwitz, we should honor the imperative in the question [posed by the novelist Dara Horn], “why didn’t everyone become Denmark?” and ask of ourselves—if not America, who?