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The US Government and the Holocaust

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Tyler Sova
December 23, 2022

On September 1st, 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland. Behind the “Blitzkrieg” army were special units known as the Einsatzgruppen (literally: operational units). The Einsatzgruppen began systematically murdering Jewish people all over Poland and in parts of neighboring Soviet Russia. This was the beginning of the Holocaust. An event that would eventually claim approximately six million Jewish lives, as well as countless other ethnic minorities and political prisoners. After watching the recent, and excellent, Ken Burns documentary The US and the Holocaust, it was stunning to see the difficult choices the United States government had to make. Grave mistakes were made, and tens of thousands died as a result. In the end, the US Government, and the public administrators running it, corrected themselves and saved tens of thousands of lives near the end of the war.

Harsh Refugee and Immigration Policy

The United States decided to reign in the flood of immigrants from around the world, and a new law was enacted named the Johnson-Reed Act in 1924. This act put quotas on the number of migrants from specific countries and ethnicities. People of color and Asian descent were barred from entrance, and European Jews were severely restricted from entering the United States. The State Department and President Roosevelt capped German and Austrian visas to 27,370—that many slots for 309,782 applicants in 1939. The persecution of Jews in Germany had become extreme. Jews were trying to leave in record numbers, but often denied by the Nazi government as well as the US Government. US Consulates were ordered closed by the Nazi’s in July 1941, making it near impossible for Jews to leave at all. The United States accepted 123,868 Jewish refugees between 1938 and 1941. Hundreds of thousands were left behind. Many of them perished in the concentration camps of Germany and Poland.


Antisemitism was running rampant around the world during the time of World War II. In the United States, public sentiment of antisemitism, isolationism and anti-immigration feelings created a perfect storm of apathy. After World War I, the United States was reluctant to become involved in another European conflict. And a media frenzy ensued when the US Government accused German refugee Herbert Karl Friedrich Bahr of being a Gestapo spy. He attempted to sneak in among Jewish refugees. This led to many more accusations that Jews were being used by Germany to spy for them. No German Jew was ever convicted of spying, but public opinion had been swayed. In 1938 a poll asked if the United States should allow a large number of Jewish refugees access to America—72 percent said no.

Saving Who Was Left

By 1944, the news from Europe had become increasingly grotesque. It was now an open secret that Nazi Germany’s plan was Jewish extermination. Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau Jr. (a Jew himself), had had enough. His father, Henry Morgenthau Sr., had helped Armenians escape during the Armenian genocide. Now, the son would do the same for the Jews of Europe. After a brief meeting with President Roosevelt, the War Refugee Board was created using money from the President’s Emergency fund. The board’s duties were to save the Jews in Europe from Nazi persecution, mostly by encouraging Jewish friendly peoples and organizations overseas to do anything in their power to save the Jewish people, with funding and administrative support provided by the War Refugee Board. No accurate statistics exist on the lives saved, but it is agreed that the War Refugee Board saved tens of thousands of Jews who could have otherwise been murdered.


I highly recommend The US and the Holocaust documentary. It is a treasure trove of important lessons in history that are applicable today, especially for public administrators. There is failure, bravery, correction and action. The failure of the US government to fully comprehend and express to the nation the genocide (a word not created until the Nuremburg trials) of European Jews. The bravery of US officials, like Henry Morgenthau Jr., who stood up to public sentiment to do the right thing. Correcting the US Government’s non-involvement by creating the War Refugee board to save lives, and that board’s actions that saved thousands. The US’s response to the Holocaust creates an equally tragic and beautiful collage, illustrating the complexities of life and its various, often unforeseeable, situations.

Author: Tyler Sova is a current Federal employee. He received his MPA in 2017 and is a member of the Keystone State Chapter of ASPA. He can be reached at [email protected].

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