Even after the U.S. entered World War II, the Roosevelt administration was opposed to taking any action intended specifically to help the Jews of Europe. Particularly hostile toward any plan that might lead to Jewish refugees turning up in America was the State Department and its anti-Semitic assistant secretary, Breckinridge Long. Henry Morgenthau, Jr.—the secretary of the treasury and a close friend and confidant of Franklin Roosevelt’s—discovered this when he and a team of Treasury Department lawyers attempted to do something to aid Jews in escaping the Nazis. Andrew Meier tells the story, which begins in 1943 with the efforts of the Switzerland-based lawyer Gerhard Riegner, who worked tirelessly and heroically throughout the war on behalf of his fellow Jews:
Riegner saw an opportunity to save the remaining Jews in Romania and France. The Romanian dictator, Marshal Ion Antonescu, long an accomplice to Hitler, feared an Axis loss approaching. He offered to let the Jews out—at a price of at least $50 a head. It was also possible, Riegner had added, to save tens of thousands of Jewish children in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. An underground network—sympathizers, mercenaries, bribable officials—was in place. Riegner only needed the funds. He sent this appeal to Leland Harrison, the U.S. envoy in Bern, in April; it reached Morgenthau’s men in June. They had seen a paraphrased version of the appeal, but had demanded to see the entire, original cable.
For months, as [the group at Treasury] petitioned the State Department for details, they received only vague denials. . . . Morgenthau’s lawyers were sure, as [one of them], Joe DuBois wrote, “It was Treasury business, all right.” They had become obsessed with funding a rescue mission—to find a way of “financing these escapes,” DuBois would recall, “that wouldn’t at the same time benefit the enemy.”
On July 16, 1943, Treasury signaled that it was prepared to issue the license to Riegner’s group, the World Jewish Congress, but at State the lawyers met with stonewalling. The more they probed, the more their suspicions grew. Finally, they took matters into their own hands. Quietly and without any formal brief, Treasury undertook to investigate another arm of the federal government. Their boss counseled caution: Morgenthau feared the hunt would boomerang, hurting his standing with FDR—and dooming any chance of saving the refugees. The Treasury lawyers soon got glimpses behind the curtain from two “moles” at State. It took months, but as [they] sorted out the history, they uncovered a second trail of documents, one that exposed an ugly—perhaps even criminal—series of delays and denials, lies, and cover-ups.
The State Department had deliberately tried to stop the news of the mass murder from reaching anyone in the United States—and then lied to the Treasury about it.