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U.S. Policy During WWII: Morgenthau Documents State Department Inaction

(January 16, 1944)

The following report was prepared at the request of Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau to investigate the State Department's behavior with regard to European Jewry. He submitted the findings to President Roosevelt, who subsequently established the War Refugee Board.



One of the greatest crimes in history, the slaughter of the Jewish people in Europe, is continuing unabated.

This Government has for a long time maintained that its policy is to work out programs to save those Jews and other persecuted minorities of Europe who could be saved.

You are probably not as familiar as I with the utter failure of certain officials in our State Department, who are charged with actually carrying out this policy, to take any effective action to prevent the extermination of the Jews in German-controlled Europe.

The public record, let alone the facts which have not yet been made public, reveals the gross procrastination of these officials. It is well known that since the time when it became clear that Hitler was determined to carry out a policy of exterminating the Jews in Europe, the State Department officials have failed to take any positive steps reasonably calculated to save any of these people. Although they have used devices such as setting up inter - governmental organizations to survey the whole refugee problem, and calling conferences such as the Bermuda Conference to explore the whole refugee problem, making it appear that positive action could be expected, in fact nothing has been accomplished.

The best summary of the whole situation is contained in one sentence of a report submitted on December 20, 1943, by the Committee on Foreign Relations of the Senate, recommending the passage of a Resolution (S.R. 203), favoring the appointment of a commission to formulate plans to save the Jews of Europe from extinction by Nazi Germany. The Resolution had been introduced by Senator Guy M. Gillette on behalf of himself and eleven colleagues, Senators Taft, Thomas, Radcliffe, Murray, Johnson. Guffey, Ferguson, Clark, Van Nuys, Downey and Ellender. The Committee stated:

“We have talked; we have sympathized; we have expressed our horror; the time to act is long past due.”

Whether one views this failure as being deliberate on the part of those officials handling the matter, or merely due to their incompetence, is not too important – from my point of view. However, there is a growing number of responsible people and organizations today who have ceased to view our failure as the product of simple incompetence on the part of those officials in the State Department charged with handling this problem. They see plain Anti-Semitism motivating the actions of these State Department officials and, rightly or wrongly, it will require little more in the way of proof for this suspicion to explode into a nasty scandal.

In this perspective, I ask you to weigh the implications of the following two cases which have recently come to my attention and which have not as yet become known to the public.


On March 13, 1943, the World Jewish Congress representative in London sent a cable to their offices here. This cable stated that information reaching London indicated it was possible to rescue Jews provided funds were put at the disposal of World Jewish Congress representation in Switzerland.

On April 10, 1943, Sumner Welles cabled our Legation in Bern and requested them to get in touch with the World Jewish Congress representative in Switzerland, who Welles had been informed was in possession of important information regarding the situation of the Jews.

On April 20, 1943, the State Department received a cable from Bern relating to the proposed financial arrangements in connection with the evacuation of the Jews from Rumania and France.

On May 25, 1943, State Department cabled for a clarification of these proposed financial arrangements. This matter was not called to the attention of the Treasury Department at this time although the Treasury has the responsibility for licensing all such financial transactions.

This whole question of financing the evacuation of the Jews from Rumania and France was first called to the attention of the Treasury Department on June 25, 1943.

A conference was held with the State Department relating to this matter on July 15, 1943.

One day after this conference, on July 16, 1943, the Treasury Department advised the State Department that it was prepared to issue a license in this matter.

It was not until December 18, 1943, after having interposed objections for five months, that the State Department, precipitously and under circumstances revealing the fictitious character of their objections, instructed Harrison to issue the necessary license.

During this five months period between the time that the Treasury stated that it was prepared to issue a license and the time when the license was actually issued delays and objections of all sorts were forthcoming from officials in the State Department, our Legation in Bern, and finally the British. The real significance of these delays and objections was brought home to the State Department in letters which I sent to Secretary Hull on November 23, 1943, and December 17, 1943, which completely devastated the excuses which State Department officials had been advancing.

On December 18 I made an appointment to discuss the matter with Secretary Hull on December 20. And then an amazing but understandable thing happened. On the very day I made my appointment the State Department issued a license not withstanding the fact that the objections of our Legation in Bern were still outstanding and that the British had indicated their disapproval for political reasons.

State Department officials were in such a hurry to issue this license that they not only did not ask the Treasury to draft the license (which would have been the normal procedure) but they drafted the license themselves and issued it without even consulting the Treasury as to its terms. Informal discussions with certain State Department officials have confirmed what is obvious from the above-mentioned facts.

This wasn't all that my letter and appointment precipitated. I had told Secretary Hull that I wished to discuss the British objections—in simple terms, the British were apparently prepared to accept the probable death of thousands of Jews in enemy territory because of “the difficulties of disposing of any considerable number of Jews should they be rescued”. Accordingly, on that day of “action” for our State Department, December 18, they sent a telegram to the British Foreign Office expressing astonishment at the British point of view and stating that the Department was unable to agree with that point of view.

Breckinridge Long, who is in charge of such matters in the State department, knew that his position was so indefensible that he unwilling even to try to defend it at my pending conference with Secretary Hull on December 20. Accordingly, he took such actions as he felt was necessary to cover up his previous position in this matter. It is, of course, clear that if we had not made the record against the State Department followed by my request to see Secretary Hull, the action which the State Department to officials took on December 18 would either never have been taken at all or would have been delayed so long that any benefits which it might have had would have been lost.


The facts are as follows:

Sumner Welles as Acting Secretary of State requests confirmation of Hitler's plan to exterminate the Jews.

Having already received various reports on plight of the Jews, on October 5, 1942, Sumner Welles as Acting Secretary of State sent a cable (2314) for the personal attention of Minister Harrison in Bern stating that leaders of the Jewish Congress had received reports from their representatives in Geneva and London to the fact that many thousands of Jews in Eastern Europe were being slaughtered pursuant to a policy embarked upon the German Government for the complete extermination of the Jews in Europe. Welles added that he was trying to obtain further information from the Vatican but that other than this he was unable to secure confirmation of these stories. He stated that Rabbi Wise believed that information was available to his representatives in Switzerland but that they were in all liklihood fearful of dispatching any such reports through open cables or mail. He than stated that World Jewish Congress officials in Switzerland, Riegner and Lichtheim, were being requested by Wise to call upon Minister Harrison; and Welles requested Minister Harrison to advise him by telegram of all the evidence and facts which he might secure as a result of conferences with Riegner and Lichtheim.

State Department receives confirmation that the extermination was being rapidly carried out.

Pursuant to Welles cable of October 5, Minister Harrison forwarded documents from Riegner confirming the fact of extermination of the Jews (in November 1942), and in a cable of January 21, 1943 (482), relayed a message from Riegner and Lichtheim which Harrison stated was for the information of the Under Secretary of State (and was to be transmitted to Rabbi Stephen Wise if the Under Secretary should so determine). This message described a horrible situation concerning the plight of Jews in Europe. It reported mass executions of Jews in Poland; the Jews were required before execution to strip themselves of all their clothing which was then sent to Germany; in Germany deportations were continuing; many Jews were being deprived of rationed foodstuffs; no Jews would be left in Prague or Berlin by the end of March, etc; and in Rumania 130,000 Jews were deported to Transnistria; about 60,000 had already died and the remaining 70,000 were starving; living conditions were indescribable; Jews were deprived of all their money, foodstuffs and possessions; they were housed in desert cellars, and occasionally twenty to thirty people slept on floor of one unheated room; disease was prevalent, particularly fever; urgent assistance was needed.

Sumner Welles furnishes this information to the Jewish organizations.

Sumner Welles furnished the documents received in November to the Jewish organizations in the United States and authorized them to make the facts public. On February 9, 1943 Welles forwarded the messages contained in cable 482 of January 21 to Rabbi Wise.

The receipt of this message intensified the pressure on the State Department to take some action.

Certain State Department officials attempt to stop this Government from obtaining further information from the very source from which the above evidence was received. On February 10, the day after Welles forwarded the message contained in cable 482, of January 21 to Rabbi Wise, and in direct response to this cable, a most highly significant cable was dispatched to Minister Harrison. This cable, 354 of February 10, read as follows:

“Your 482, January 21

In the future we would suggest that you do not accept reports submitted to you to be transmitted to private persons in the United States unless such action is advisable because of extraordinary circumstances. Such private messages circumvent neutral countries' censorship and it is felt that by sending them we risk the possibility that steps would necessarily be taken by the neutral countries to curtail or forbid our means of communication for confidential official matter.

The cable was signed for Hull by “SW” (Sumner Welles). But it is significant that there is not a word in it that would even suggest to the person signing that it was designed to countermand the Departments specific requests for information on Hitler's plans to exterminate the Jews. The cable has the appearance of being a normal routine message which a busy official would sign without question. On its face it is most innocent and innocuous, yet when read together with the previous cables is it anything less than an attempted suppression of information requested by this Government concerning the murder of Jews by Hitler?

It is also significant that the message which provoked the ban on further communications of this character was not addressed to private persons at all but was addressed to Under Secretary Welles at his own request and the information contained therein was only to be transmitted to the World Jewish Congress if Welles deemed it advisable.

Thereafter on April 10, 1943, Sumner Welles again request our Legation for information (cable 877). Apparently he did not realize that in cable 354 (to which he did not refer) Harrison had been instructed to cease forwarding reports of this character. Harrison replied on April 20 (cable 2460) and indicated that he was in a most confused state of mind as a result of the conflicting instructions he had received. Among other things he stated:

“May I suggest that messages of this character should not (repeat not) be subjected to the restriction imposed by your 354 February 10, and that I be permitted to transmit messages from R more particularly in view of the helpful information which They may frequently contain?”

The fact that cable 354 is not the innocent and routine cable that it appears to be on its face is further highlighted by the efforts of State Department officials to prevent this Department from obtaining the cable and learning its true significance.

The facts relating to this attempted concealment are as follows:

Several men in our Department had requested State Department officials for a copy of the cable of February 10 (354). We had been advised that it was a Department communication; a strictly political communication, which had nothing to do with economic matters; that it had only had a very limited distribution within the Department, the only ones having anything to do with it being the European Division, the Political Adviser and Sumner Welles; and that a copy could not be furnished to the Treasury.

At the conference in Secretary Hulls office on December 20 in the
Presence of Breckinridge Long I asked Secretary Hull for a copy of cable 354, which I was told would be furnished to me.

By note to me of December 20, Breckinridge Long enclosed a paraphrase of cable 354. This paraphrase of cable 354 specifically omitted any reference to cable 482 of January 21—thus destroying the only tangible to the true meaning of the message.

I would never have learned the true meaning of cable 354 had it not been for chance. I had asked one of the men in my Department to obtain all the facts on this matter. He had previously called one of the men in another Division of the State Department and requested permission to see the relevant cables. In view of the Treasury interest in this matter, the State Department representative obtained cable 354 and the cable of January 21 to which it referred and showed these cables to my representative.

The facts I have detailed in this report, Mr. President, came to the Treasurys attention as a part of our routine investigation of the licensing of the financial phases of the proposal of the World Jewish Congress for the evacuation of Jews from France and Rumania. The facts may thus be said to have come to light through accident. How many others of the same character are buried in State Department files is a matter I would have no way of knowing. Judging from the almost complete failure of the State Department to achieve any results, the strong suspicion must be that they are not few.

This much is certain, however. The matter of rescuing the Jews from extermination is a trust too great to remain in the hands of men who are indifferent, callous, and perhaps even hostile. The task is filled with difficulties. Only a fervent will to accomplish, backed by persistent and untiring effort can succeed where time is so precious.

Henry Morguenthau

Jan. 16, 1944