In the autumn of 1943, members of Congress introduced a Bergson Group-authored resolution urging creation of a government agency to rescue Jews from the Holocaust. The battle over the resolution played a major role in bringing about the establishment of the War Refugee Board.
Stymied by the Roosevelt administration’s insistence that rescue was impossible, the Bergson Group looked to Capitol Hill for help. In October 1943, just before Yom Kippur, the Bergsonites and an Orthodox rescue group, the Va’ad ha-Hatzala, brought 400 rabbis to Washington for an unprecedented march to Capitol Hill and the White House. The marchers presented Vice President Henry Wallace and leading members of Congress with a petition urging creation of a rescue agency.
In view of the administration’s refusal to create such an agency, the Bergson Group decided to pursue a different strategy: a call by Congress for rescue action. Bergson activist Fowler Harper, a law professor and general counsel for the Federal Security Agency, drafted a congressional resolution urging the president to establish a refugee rescue agency. Senator Elbert Thomas, one of the Bergson Group’s leading supporters on Capitol Hill, sent the text of the resolution to Secretary of State Cordell Hull on October 1 and suggested that the administration pre-empt congressional debate by unilaterally creating a rescue agency.
On October 27, Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long responded on behalf of Hull. Long argued that the Roosevelt administration, via the Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees, was already doing everything possible to rescue Jews, and therefore the resolution’s demand for a new government rescue agency was “unwarranted and liable to duplicate functions which are being carried out by the Department.” Creating an agency “would interrupt the relationships already established with the Intergovernmental Committee and might affect adversely the contribution this Government can make towards a solution of the refugee problem.”
On November 9, the rescue resolution was introduced in the Senate by Guy Gillette, Democrat of Iowa, and Robert Taft, Republican of Ohio; and in the House of Representatives by Will Rogers, Jr., Democrat of California and Joseph Baldwin, Republican of New York. The measure was not legislation, but simply a recommendation, which under ordinary circumstances would not have been the subject of hearings. But the Roosevelt administration’s allies in Congress, led by House Foreign Affairs Committee chair Rep. Sol Bloom (D-New York) tried to slow down the advance of the resolution by insisting on full hearings before the committee.
The hearings opened on November 19, 1943. Bergson arranged for an impressive array of public figures to testify in support of the resolution. Probably the most important was New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. The fact that he was a staunch supporter of President Roosevelt’s policies in general gave La Guardia credibility to challenge FDR on refugee policy.
In his testimony, La Guardia zeroed in on the fact that the administration had recently established a commission to rescue historic buildings and monuments in wartorn Europe. The mayor told the congressional hearing: “This very important problem…is not like the destruction of buildings or monuments, as terrible as that may be, because, after all, they may be rebuilt or even reproduced; but when a life is snuffed out, it is gone; it is gone forever.”
American Jewish leaders were divided on the rescue resolution. Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, head of the American Jewish Congress and a fervent supporter of President Roosevelt, testified that the Gillette-Rogers resolution was “inadequate” because it did not state that refugees should be brought to Palestine. Bergson had deliberately omitted the contentious Palestine issue from the wording because some members of Congress would not support a resolution challenging British policy in Palestine. “I understand that there are differences of opinion in Jewish circles,” Rep. Rogers wrote to Wise and other Jewish leaders afterwards. “But sincerely, gentlemen, those differences should be forgotten when a case of rescue is concerned.”
The Roosevelt administration countered Bergson and La Guardia by sending its top refugee policy expert, Assistant Secretary Long, to testify against the Gillette-Rogers resolution on November 26. Arguing that a separate rescue agency was unnecessary, Long declared: “[W]e have taken into this country since the beginning of the Hitler regime and the persecution of the Jews, until today, approximately 580,000 refugees.”
Long’s testimony was given behind closed doors, but wavering congressmen subsequently asked him to release it publicly, because they believed his remarks would justify their decision to shelve the rescue resolution. Long, with Rep. Bloom’s support, agreed to do so.
Long’s statistics made the front page of the New York Times and at first seemed to sway key members of Congress against the resolution. But the actual number of refugees admitted was not more than 250,000, and many of them were not Jews. Long’s erroneous assertion set off a firestorm of criticism from the media, mainstream Jewish organizations, and members of Congress. The controversy deeply embarrassed the administration and provided additional momentum to the campaign for U.S. rescue action.
While the battle over rescue was raging in the halls of Congress, another struggle was underway behind the scenes, at the Treasury and State departments. Aides to Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. discovered that senior State Department officials had been deliberately obstructing opportunities to rescue Jewish refugees, blocking the transmission of Holocaust-related information from Europe to the United States, and trying to cover up evidence of their actions.
State Department officials took these steps because they feared the rescue of large numbers of Jews would put pressure on the United States to open its doors to them. As one official privately explained: “There was always the danger that the German government might agree to turn over to the United States and to Great Britain a large number of Jewish refugees. In the event of our admission of inability to take care of these people, the onus for their continued persecution would have been largely transferred from the German government to the Allied nations.”
As a result, of these developments the administration found itself facing a rising tide of criticism from the Jewish community and Congress. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously adopted the resolution just before the Christmas recess. A vote on the resolution by the full Senate was scheduled for January 24, 1944. Many knowledgeable observers expected it to pass. For example, Capitol Hill lobbyist Dorothy Detzer, in her memoirs, recalled that a private poll of members of both houses of Congress in mid-January 1944 found “a sufficient margin of votes to insure passage” of the rescue resolution.
Meanwhile, Morgenthau’s aides compiled a devastating “Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of the Jews,” which detailed the State Department’s sabotage of rescue opportunities. They convinced Morgenthau to personally appeal to the president to create a rescue agency before the full Senate vote in favor of Gillette-Rogers. FDR reluctantly acquiesced, and in January 1944, the War Refugee Board came into existence.
Leading newspapers at the time acknowledged the connection between the Bergson Group’s congressional resolution and the creation of the War Refugee Board. An editorial in the Christian Science Monitor, for example, called the creation of the Board “the outcome of pressure brought to bear by the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe [the Bergson Group], a group made up of both Jews and non-Jews that has been active in the capital in recent months.” Likewise, an editorial in the Washington Post noted that the Bergson Group’s “industrious spadework” was one of the forces that made it “entitled to credit for the President’s forehanded move [in creating the Board].”
Subsequent internal Treasury Department discussions further confirmed the link between the Bergson Group’s efforts on Capitol Hill and Morgenthau’s approach to the president. For example, on March 8, 1944, recalling the events leading up to the creation of the Board, Morgenthau remarked to his staff: “[T]he thing that made it possible to get the President really to act on this thing–we are talking here among ourselves–was the thing that–the resolution at least had passed the Senate to form this kind of a War Refugee Committee…” Later in the meeting, he asked his aides, “I am just wondering who the crowd is that got the thing that far,” to which War Refugee Board director John Pehle replied: “That is the emergency committee, Peter Bergson and his group.”
At a March 16 Treasury staff meeting, Morgenthau referred to “the Resolution in the House and in the Senate by which we forced the President to appoint a Committee [the War Refugee Board]” and “not to have him forced by Congress to do this.” Likewise, at a May 24 staff meeting, Board director Pehle noted that the Bergson Group “brought considerable pressure on Congress to pass a resolution which called for the setting up of an agency such as the War Refugee Board, which was ultimately set up.”
Sources: Wyman, The Abandonment of the Jews, pp.193-206; Medoff, FDR and the Holocaust, pp.86-92.