“The God-Damnedest Thing”: The anti-Semitic plot to thwart US aid to European Jews and the man who exposed it


December 20, Morgenthau headed to State, taking Pehle and Paul to ballast. They had spent the morning rehearsing a scenario for the showdown. Morgenthau’s goal was not just to deliver a stern warning, but to get all the cables. Only the originals, all agreed, could convince FDR of the State Department’s deception. Morgenthau’s assistants had persuaded him of a ploy to play Hull: ask for a copy of cable 354, casually, without revealing its importance.

In Hull’s office, Paul felt the weight of opportunity. Morgenthau, he said, “took his political life into his own hands.” Hull was “known as a killer” and could be counted on for revenge. Yet the secretary of state also knew, Paul added, that “Morgenthau had a personal hold on the president.”

Before Morgenthau could present his letter on the British refusal, Hull spoke.

‘I have already sent a telegram to Ambassador Winant,’ he said, handing Morgenthau the reply on a pink sheet. Morgenthau was surprised. He had never seen stronger official language. Hull read his response to Winant aloud, letting the words sink in. The ministry expressed its “astonishment” at the British position. London’s position, he assured Morgenthau, was not in line with State Department policy, but sometimes, he conceded, such matters did not attract his attention. When they did, he found it necessary to take them in hand, bypassing the downline people who were raising objections. Sitting next to Hull was Breckinridge Long, the state official who had caused such consternation at the Treasury, doing all he could to delay the granting of a license to rescue the refugees.

Long interrupted: “I don’t know if you’ll like it… but I personally wrote a license on Saturday and delivered it and wired it in Switzerland.” He had issued the license to Riegner himself, Long said, but had not had time to consult the Treasury. Long had obviously prepared for the meeting. He ran through a list of state efforts: They had tried to rescue Jews, he said, hoping to send them to the United States, Sweden, Madagascar and Palestine – but the Germans had succeeded in “thwarting most of these rescue attempts”.

As a response, Morgenthau handed Hull the Treasury report, which accused his department of deliberately obstructing the Treasury’s efforts to rescue the remaining Jews. Hull read it quickly, without comment. It was not until the Secretary of State sent his aides to retrieve the cables that Morgenthau acted.

“By the way,” he said, “I have a cable in my hand from Harrison, No. 2460, in which he mentions a cable, No. 354. While you get all the other cables, would you mind to get this one for me?”

“Make note of that,” Hull told Long. “And just give it to him.”

As the men rose to leave, Long approached Morgenthau. “I want to talk to you in private,” he said, ushering him into another room.

Morgenthau and Long had known each other since the Woodrow Wilson years, having crossed paths when Morgenthau’s father was Wilson’s ambassador to Turkey. At 61, “Breck” Long was on his second tour at State. In the 1930s, as FDR’s envoy to Rome, Long had expressed his admiration for Mussolini’s rule: “the most interesting experience of government”, he wrote to a friend, “to come above on the horizon since the formulation of our Constitution”. Long had also explored Nazi ideology: “I just finished Hitler’s war Mein Kampfhe wrote in his diary early in 1938. “It is eloquent in opposition to the Jewish community and to the Jews as exponents of communism and chaos. He added: “My estimation of Hitler as a man increases with reading his book.” By 1940, FDR had brought him back to the state where, as undersecretary, all matters relating to the Jews of Europe ran through his desk.

For years Long had considered Morgenthau only an annoyance, a replacement who owed his survival to the mercy of the Roosevelts. Now, Long realized, he was facing a different man.

Morgenthau had cornered him. Long’s recent lie to Congress has been the talk of reporters in Washington. In secret testimony on the Hill—”a 4-hour inquisition,” Long called it in her diary—he said no agency was needed to save the Jews: “We brought into this country from the beginning of the Hitler regime and the persecution of the Jews, until today about 580,000 refugees. Many in his audience believed Long, even those who should have known better. According to the Immigration Service, of the 476,930 foreigners who had entered the United States in the decade since 1933, only 165,756 had identified themselves as “Hebrews” — or Jews. Of these, approximately 138,000 had escaped persecution. (Although it remains impossible to give a precise figure, the best estimate of the number of Jewish refugees who might have been admitted to the United States in the years 1933 to 1941, when persecution intensified, is derived from the number of unused German refugees visas under the federal quota system: a total of approximately 165,000.)

Morgenthau braced himself, refusing to let the opportunity pass.

“I just want to tell you,” Long began, once the two were alone, “unfortunately, people lower in your department and lower in the State Department cause a lot of trouble.” Long raised the issue of anti-Semitism, alluding to underlings who had “spread this stuff” and “raised technical difficulties”.

Morgenthau seized the opening.

“Well, Breck, as long as you bring it up, we could be a little candid. The impression is everywhere that you, in particular, are anti-Semitic!

“I know it is so,” Long said. “I hope you will use your good offices to correct this impression, for I am not.”

“I am very, very happy to know that,” Morgenthau said, adding: “Since we are so outspoken, it might as well be known that the impression” in the Treasury was that the State shared the British position on the refusal of any plan of rescue.

Long protested: he hoped they could work together. Of course, said Morgenthau. “After all, Breck,” he replied, “the United States of America was created as a haven for people who were persecuted all over the world, beginning in Plymouth.” Morgenthau tried not to condescend. Instead, he repeated his father’s vow to President Wilson and the Young Turks in Constantinople: “As Secretary of the Treasury to one hundred and thirty-five million people,” Morgenthau said, “I carry this [rescue effort] as Secretary of the Treasury, not as a Jew.

“Well,” Long said, “my conception of America as a place of refuge for the persecuted is the same.”

Morgenthau said he was “delighted to hear it”.


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