The upcoming 50th anniversary of the passing of Dwight D. Eisenhower has occasioned a number of laudatory essays about the former president and commander of the Allied forces in Europe during World War II. One author, in a prominent Jewish publication, went so far as to declare Eisenhower to be a “Holocaust rescuer” because he oversaw postwar aid to survivors living in displaced persons camps.
Any survey of Eisenhower’s Holocaust record, however, needs to also consider his troubling decision, in 1944, to delete references to Jews from an Allied warning about Nazi war crimes.
The events leading to this episode began in the autumn of 1943, when American, British and Soviet leaders, meeting in Moscow, issued a statement threatening postwar punishment for Nazi war crimes against “French, Dutch, Belgian or Norwegian hostages … Cretan peasants … [and] the people of Poland.” There was no mention of the Jews.
Several months later, strong pressure from Congress, Jewish activists and the Treasury Department compelled President Franklin D. Roosevelt to establish the War Refugee Board. Although given only token funding by the White House, the board did its best to promote the rescue of European Jews during the final 15 months of the war.
High on the board’s initial agenda was the need for a presidential message to the people of Axis-occupied countries, warning them not to collaborate in atrocities against the Jews. John Pehle, the board’s executive director, had been deeply disappointed that the Moscow statement omitted the Jews. In his view, the failure to identify the Nazis’ primary victims undermined efforts to help rescue them.
In February 1944, Pehle gave the White House a draft of a strong statement which noted that the Nazis were trying “to exterminate all the Jews within their grasp” and “More than two million men, women and children already have been put to death solely because they were Jews.” After two weeks of stalling, White House aides informed Pehle that President Roosevelt “wanted the statement rewritten so as to be aimed less directly at the atrocities against the Jews.”
The final version deleted the reference to Jews being murdered “solely because they were Jews”; removed three of the statement’s six references to Jews; and added three opening paragraphs naming various other nationalities who had suffered during the war.
In September of that year, the War Refugee Board ran into a similar problem, this time with General Eisenhower. The board drafted a leaflet which it wanted U.S. planes to drop over Europe, warning civilians to refrain from collaborating in Nazi atrocities against Jews.
The board wanted the warning to bear General Eisenhower’s name because, as Pehle put it, “We felt that such an action might have some effect since Eisenhower presumably will be in charge of certain parts of Germany when occupied.”
Eisenhower, however, insisted that the leaflet’s reference to Jews be deleted. The final version urged readers not to “molest, harm or persecute” any of the “great many men” being held by the German authorities, “no matter what their religion or nationality may be.”
Eisenhower’s deletion of the Jews was consistent with the overall attitude of President Roosevelt and his administration regarding the plight of Europe’s Jews during the Holocaust. They were concerned that too much emphasis on the persecution of the Jews would increase pressure for action to help them, such as admitting more Jewish refugees to the United States—something the president strongly opposed.
That is why Roosevelt’s 1944 statement commemorating the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising—a rebellion staged by Jewish fighters—did not mention Jews.
In the same spirit, the chiefs of the U.S. Office of War Information instructed their staff that their writing concerning the Nazi mass murders would be “confused and misleading if it appears to be simply affecting the Jewish people.”
Arthur Szyk, the famous artist and Jewish activist, remarked bitterly that the Jews under Hitler were being “treated[ed] as a pornographical subject–you cannot discuss it in polite society.” At the very moment that Europe’s Jews most needed someone to speak up on their behalf, the theme of U.S. policy, from the White House to Allied military headquarters, was to downplay and minimize their plight.
Dr. Rafael Medoff is founding director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and the author of 19 books about Jewish history and the Holocaust.