As undersecretary of state from 1937 to 1943, Sumner Welles (1892-1961) played a significant role in the shaping and implementation of the Roosevelt administration’s policy toward European Jewry.
The wave of antisemitism accompanying the German absorption (Anschluss) of Austria in March 1938 resulted in increased calls for U.S. action to aid Jewish refugees. Welles proposed to President Franklin Roosevelt that the U.S. sponsor an international conference, in Evian, France, “to get out in front” of public opinion in order to “guide the pressure and seize the initiative before the pressure built” for America to open its door to more German and Austrian Jews.
Welles helped draw up the guidelines for the U.S. delegates to the conference, which included offering no haven to refugees beyond the existing German quota, and no discussion of Palestine.
Welles strongly opposed the proposal by Interior Secretary Harold Ickes to open Alaska to Jewish refugees. Welles counseled President Franklin D. Roosevelt that the plan “would lead to a breakdown in our whole system of protective immigration laws.”
It was Welles to whom Rabbi Stephen S. Wise turned, in August 1942, when he received a telegram from World Jewish Congress official Gerhard Riegner, in Geneva, revealing the Nazis’ intention to murder all of Europe’s Jews. Welles had already seen the telegram and was one of the officials who tried to keep Wise from receiving it. He pretended to Wise that he was unaware of the cable, and asked Wise to refrain from publicizing the information until the State Department could independently verify it. More than three months later, Welles finally informed Wise that Riegner’s message was accurate. Even then, Welles warned Wise not to say in public that the State Department “assumes no responsibility for the information contained in these reports.”
American Jewish leaders met with Welles in early 1943 to protest the failure of the Allied authorities in liberated North Africa to restore equal rights to Jewish residents. They were disappointed to hear Welles insist that, technically, the area was governed by local authorities and the Roosevelt administration could not dictate their laws. In fact, the Allies, as the occupying powers, did wield significant influence and, after several months of protests by Jewish and other groups, the U.S. compelled the local government to grant equal rights to North African Jews.
Soon after that, the Joint Emergency Committee for European Jewish Affairs sent Welles a list of proposals for rescue action that they hoped would be taken up by the U.S. delegates to the upcoming Bermuda refugee conference. Welles did not respond. None of the proposals received serious consideration at the conference.
Welles rejected a request to send a message to the Bergson Group’s July 1943 Emergency Conference to Save the Jewish People of Europe, and persuaded the U.S. envoy to the Vatican, Myron Taylor, to decline an invitation to speak at the event.