As secretary of state under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Cordell Hull (1871-1955) faithfully implemented the Roosevelt administration’s policy of refraining from any substantial action to aid Jews who were persecuted by the Nazis.
Hull was a first-term Senator from Tennessee at the time of his appointment as secretary of state, in 1933. His wife, Frances Witz, was raised Episcopalian but her father was a Jewish immigrant from Austria. Hull tried to keep his wife’s Jewish heritage from becoming publicly known, apparently for fear it could harm his chances of securing the Democratic presidential nomination in 1940.
President Roosevelt told Senator Burton Wheeler (D-Montana) in August 1939 that a Hull candidacy would be problematic because Mrs. Hull’s Jewishness “would be raised” by his opponents. FDR added: “Mrs. Hull is about one quarter Jewish. You and I, Burt, are old English and Dutch stock. We know who our ancestors are. We know there is no Jewish blood in our veins, but a lot of these people do not know whether there is Jewish blood in their veins or not.”
During the 1939 crisis over the refugee ship St. Louis, Hull rebuffed a suggestion by Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. that the passengers be permitted to stay temporarily, as a tourists, in the Virgin Islands. Hull cited a technicality that required tourists to have valid addresses in their native countries to which they could return.
In late 1940, furious German and French officials complained to the State Department about Varian Fry’s rescue activities. Secretary Hull responded with a telegram to the American ambassador in Paris, instructing him to “inform Dr. [Frank] Bohn and Mr. Fry [that] this Government can not, repeat not, countenance the activities of Dr. Bohn and Mr. Fry and other persons, however well-meaning their motives may be, in carrying on activities evading the laws of countries with which the United States maintains friendly relations.” Hull also sent a telegram to Fry, pressing him to “return immediately” to the United States in view of “local developments,” meaning the opposition of the Germans and French. When Fry refused, the State Department in early 1941 revoked his passport and shortly afterwards transferred Bingham to Lisbon.
In general, Hull showed little interest in the plight of the Jews, preferring to leave day-to-day policy implementation in the hands of Breckinridge Long, who was appointed assistant secretary of state in 1940.
When confronted by Morgenthau in late 1943 over the State Department’s suppression of Holocaust-related information and obstruction of rescue opportunities, Hull replied, “I don’t get a chance to know everything that is going on,” because “the fellows down the line”–lower-level officials in the department–handled those matters.
In June 1944, Hull was approached by Agudath Israel representative Meir Schenkelowski, who proposed bombing the railways over which Jews were being deported to Auschwitz. Hull declined to consider the proposal, suggesting that Schenkelowski speak with Secretary of War Henry Stimson instead.
In his autobiography, published in 1948, Hull insisted that the State Department “made strenuous efforts” to help the Jews in Europe.