Adolf Hitler and the Nazis never made any secret of their hatred for the Jews, or their desire to expel them from Germany and expropriate their property. Although the actual physical extermination only began during the war, the American government and media were well aware that it was occurring, but both chose to downplay and minimize this event. Part of the reason was that the public doubted the veracity of the atrocity stories and compared them to British propaganda during World War I. More significantly, the majority of Americans held anti-Semitic views, and these actually intensified during the Great Depression and the Second World War. For this reason, the U.S. government was reluctant to revise the strict immigration quotas of the 1924 National Origins Act, even during wartime, which meant that there was a severe limit to the numbers of refugees it would accept in 1933-41. After the war began, of course, escape from Europe became even more difficult, and the relatively ineffective War Refugee Board was of little assistance. By 1944, Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau was so outraged by the lack of action to assist the European Jews that his department produced a report condemning the U.S. government for indifference and even complicity in the Holocaust. At that point, the U.S. knew that Auschwitz was a death camp, but even then it took no action on a request by the World Jewish Congress to bomb the railroad lines and gas chambers at the camp. All in all, the American reaction to the Holocaust was minimal, given an unsympathetic public opinion and a government and media that really attempted to avoid the issue as much as possible. Almost certainly more could have been done at the time, but the extermination of the Jews was simply not a major interest or priority for the U.S. at the time.
Hitler created anti-Semitic laws and policies in 1933-45 because his entire career in politics from 1919 until his suicide in 1945 was based on a racist and anti-Semitic worldview (Weltanschauung) as well as 19th Century Social Darwinism and the belief that some individuals and races were supermen and others subhuman or Untermenschen. Certainly he never made any secret of his ideology, which could be found in Mein Kampf and all his other writings and speeches. He ordered the extermination of the handicapped and mentally ill in Germany in 1939, which continued up to the end of the war and many of the personnel involved with that T-4 program were later moved to Poland to organize the first death camps for the Jews, including Franz Stangl, the commandant of the Treblinka death camp. All of the main death camps established during the Third Reich were located in Poland, including Auschwitz, although mobile killing squads like the Einsatzgruppen also murdered two million Jews in Poland and Russia. Hitler’s hatred of the Jews and other ‘non-Aryans’ was clearly pathological and he frequently expressed the desire to kill them all with his own hands. As early as 1922, he was on record stating that he would hand all the Jews in Germany and leave their bodies on the public gallows “as long as hygienically possible”.1 In 1929 Hitler had also said that 70-80% of German infants should be exterminated every year to “strengthen the bloodline”.2 He had long planned to exterminate the handicapped, mentally ill and senile persons, and this T-4 euthanasia program began in 1939. Two years later, many of its personnel were transferred to Poland to organize the first death camps for the Jews, and his last will and testament in April 1945 still blamed them for the war and “all the evils of mankind”.3
In the America media from 1933-45, the persecution of the Jews and then the Holocaust which began in 1941 was always an underreported story. Even reports about gassing and mass shooting of Jews in Poland and Russia during the war received relatively little press coverage, and “papers placed the various stories on inner pages and allotted them but few lines.”4 Public opinion polls showed that most Americans did not believe the atrocity stories during the war, regardless of the source, even when they were able to find them in the media. From 1933 onwards, they mostly dismissed reports about the persecution of the Jews in Germany as false or exaggerated, just like British propaganda about the ‘Huns’ during the First World War. In this case, however, the reality far worse than anything being reported in the media, but the comparison to the false atrocity stories of 1914-18 became “a common feature of the American public’s reaction to the Final Solution.”5 This was also an important reason—or at least a justification—for the U.S. government to downplay the Holocaust, even though it was aware as early as 1941-42 that mass extermination and genocide was underway in Hitler’s Europe.
There was considerable anti-Semitism in the U.S. in the 1930s and 1940s, and this was the most significant determining factor for the lack of media coverage and the almost nonexistent efforts to aid the victims of the Holocaust. Given the high unemployment of the Depression years, political leaders from Franklin Roosevelt on down had no desire to encourage more immigration from Europe or the admission of Jewish refugees. As late as June 1945, 58% of Americans surveyed thought the Jews had too much power, and this was after Germany had been defeated and the horrors of the concentration camps and death camps had finally received widespread media coverage. Throughout the war years, polls showed more hatred, fear and distrust of the Jews than even for the Germans. Even in 1946, 55% of Americans surveyed still thought the Jews were too powerful and influential, even though the crimes of the Nazi regime were being revealed every day in the Nuremberg trials.6 At the same time, there was also considerable racism against Poles, Asians, blacks and Mexicans in the U.S., so much so that the government and the media were reluctant to mention the Holocaust at all or to “single out any particular group as the chief victim of the enemy’s brutality.”7
National unity and winning the war were the main priorities of the Roosevelt administration so basically nothing was done at all to aid the Jews of Europe during the war, not even the destruction of the rail lines and gas chambers of Auschwitz. American planes actually did bomb the I.G. Farben factories there in 1944 and took pictures of the Hungarian Jews being marched into the gas chambers, but not a single bomb fell on the actual death camp at Birkenau except by accident. America was a bystander during the Holocaust but hardly an innocent one, and it could not claim that it fought the war to aid the Jews or any other victims of the Nazi regime. During the Cold War, when West Germany was a key ally against the Soviet Union, the U.S. government also had good reasons to continue to downplay and minimize the Holocaust, which it did up to the 1960s and 1970s. This image of the U.S. is hardly a pretty one, and certainly not the one it wishes to present to the world, but it is the truth.
Hamecrow, Theodore S. Why We Watched: Europe, America, and the Holocaust. NY: Norton, 2008.
Kershaw, Ian. Hitler: A Biography. NY: Norton, 2008.
Lipstadt, Deborah. Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1993.
Waite, Ralph G.L. The Psychopathic God: Adolf Hitler. De Capo Press, 1993.