American Response to the Holocaust
The holocaust, the targeted destruction of so many jews and others by the Nazis, continues to live in the memory of the present generations in large part due to the Jewish community itself who has never allowed us to forget. What is also not forgotten and of great relevance especially for scholars, is the reaction of the international community towards the atrocities as they were happening.
Why did the United States not engage all their military and economic might to attempt to effect an end - or reduction - to the crimes of genocide being committed? Historians have traditionally attributed the blame on a confluence of factors relating to international politics, domestic events in America and others. The following pages will summarize the major arguments given explaining the lack of American interest in the unfolding Genocide as well as the jewish refugee crisis and then will go on to suggest other reasons that may explain such behavior.
The Nazi holocaust, and the refugee crisis that stemmed from it, marked the second such mass slaughter within the 20th century, the Turkish annihilation of the Armenians coming earlier. It also was the second missed opportunity for the American political establishment of utilizing its resources for the benefit of the victims during these tragedies. Some historians have sought explanations within international politics. We can infer, for example, that given the close allied cooperation in prosecuting the war, British disinterest in helping the Jews and other victims helped dissuade American policy makers from taking concrete action. Furthermore, the precarious situation in regards to the near east, where U.S. /British interests were allied against the influx of jewish refugees into Palestine and fear of Arab discontent, also solidified American inaction.
A myriad of domestic factors in America have are also given to rationalize the lack of attention paid to Jewish suffering. One that was all too prevalent in the West was anti-antisemitism. Samantha Power seems to suggest that some scholars may have even been sympathetic with the Nazi's, many often engaging in "false equivalencies" comparing atrocities of the Nazi regime with those of the allied effort. In fact anti-antisemitism was prevalent to the extent that the Nazi's used it as a rebuttal for European condemnations of German barbarism.
Another defense of American inaction often cited is the lack of information available at the time to properly gage the accuracy of atrocity reports. This was in fact the preferred argument of the State Department: reports were "unconfirmed and exaggerated." Many Americans simply refused to believe the stories, largely owing to the media exaggerations of atrocities that came before in previous wars. The U.S. press had a role as well; even credible and verified information was given little attention within major publications.
While this is certainly a tempting argument, one that is only partially true, intelligence reports and first-hand accounts had long given the allies clear assessments of the organized murders being committed. A more accurate assessment of American thinking can be summarized by quoting a local refugee specialist in the State department: "whether the number of dead amounts to tens of thousands or...to millions is not material to the main problem. The main problem was always winning the war; these were the orders given.
This reasoning leads to one more vital component that pre-determined any American response in helping the victims of genocide, one that is considered to be within the scope of social history. One can argue that fundamental social behavior is the prime molder of any government decision-making process. For example, a persons tendency to favor "the familiar" created an environment that was hostile to any new notions of mass extermination. This basic psychosocial analysis can equally be applied to the European jews who refused to leave their homes insisting they were not targets (despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary), as it can to American foreign policy and its adherents. On a more practical level, one can talk of compartmentalization or the excessive bureaucratization of government where self-interest and survival of one's own group is the goal. It follows then that as soon as a bureaucratic structure was created - the U.S. war refugee board - to deal with the problems of Jewish refugees, it was only at this point that the basic self-interest and selfishness of the bureaucratic element came to serve a higher goal.