U.S. response to a cry for help during World War II

A prosecutor by training and a historical novelist by avocation, Gregory J. Wallance has written books of historical fiction and historical nonfiction. In “America’s Soul in the Balance: The Holocaust, FDR’s State Department and the Moral Disgrace of an American Aristocracy” (Greenleaf Book Group Press: 2012), a highly readable, brief account of the dramatic interplay between the Department of State and the Department of the Treasury during the Holocaust over the fate of the Jews of Europe, Wallance tells quite a story and masterfully documents the well-deserved indictment of the World War II-era U.S. State Department.

The evidence he musters is well known to scholars, yet he brings fresh eyes to this material and introduces a factor that others have raised merely in passing — the issue of class and of the White Anglo Saxon Protestant (WASP) establishment, which was then at the peak of its power. The WASP supremacy would soon change, however, as the sons and daughters of American ethnic groups came of age during the middle decades of the 20th century, and with the election of John F. Kennedy, who always remembered that he was an Irish Catholic, a scorned outsider to the WASP establishment. Beginning with the JFK presidency, we witnessed a broadening of the American establishment with the entry of Catholic and Jews and, somewhat later, African-Americans and women, and now Asians and Latinos.

Wallance takes us inside the corridors of the State Department, then housed in what is now the Old Executive Office Building, across from the White House. He captures the tragic tension between Sumner Welles, the undersecretary of state with deep personal ties to the president, the man in the State Department most sympathetic to Jews, and his boss, Cordell Hull, a former senator and politician with deep Southern roots — married to a woman of Jewish ancestry — who, frankly, was not up to the task of being a wartime secretary of state. At the peak of the German annihilation of the Jews, a sexual and racial scandal destroyed Welles’ career. On a presidential train, he is reported to have solicited sex from an African-American porter. Hull did not get mad at his insubordinate subordinate, he got even. 

Wallance also takes us a floor above to the high level of the American State Department bureaucracy, where men — and they were then virtually all men — of similar background, class and education were quite certain that they — perhaps even they alone — knew what was in the best interest of the nation, without interference from outside agitators and special interests, such as Jews, who were concerned about the fate of their brethren and not just about the pursuit of war. He also takes us back to the prep school of Groton, where they were taught the values of national service and also of WASP supremacy, even before getting their Ivy League education.

He details the failure of the State Department to turn over  Gerhard Riegner’s telegram to Rabbi Stephen Wise, informing the head of the World Jewish Congress of the Final Solution to the Jewish Problem “because of the fantastic nature of the allegations and the impossibility of our being of any assistance if such actions — the murder of the Jews — were taken,” as if it were better not to know than to know and be unable to be of assistance.

Historian Walter Laqueur had it right: With regard to rescue, the pessimists won. They said that nothing could be done, and nothing was done. The optimists, those who believed in rescue, were never given a chance. They may have failed, but to not attempt rescue was to ensure failure.

Wallance depicts the famous confrontation between the State Department and the Treasury Department over the issuing of a license to transfer foreign currency, and thus ransoming the Jews. It was this confrontation, and the State Department’s effort to thwart the rescue, that led young Treasury Department officials to draft their “Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of This Government to the Murder of the Jews.” Among the accusations in the report, it said the State Department had: “used Governmental machinery to prevent the rescue of these Jews; … taken steps designed to prevent these [rescue] programs [of private organizations] from being put into effect; … surreptitiously attempted to stop obtaining of information concerning the murder of the Jewish population of Europe” and “tried to cover up their guilt by: a) concealment and misrepresentation; b) the giving of false and misleading explanations for their failures to act and their attempts to prevent action; and c) the issuance of false and misleading statements concerning the ‘action’ which they have taken to date.”

Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. condensed this report, softened its title and took it to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in January 1944. The result was the War Refugee Board — with Morgenthau as chairman — which finally had the power to do something about rescue.

Throughout the book, Wallance does not let the reader lose sight of what these “great” men of history did not consider, namely that the decisions they made and the policies they pursued impacted real people, desperate people — men, women and children. Ruth Glassberg, then a young child, is his narrator, and her story is riveting.

With his skill as a writer evident, his sense of the scenery and the dialogue, Wallance takes us into the corridors of power. We meet Gerhard Riegner, then a young official of the World Jewish Congress operating in neutral Switzerland who first learns of the “Final Solution” of death camps and of Zyklon B. We are introduced to his informant, who has high contacts in the German government as a major industrialist and travels to Switzerland first to reveal the plans to attack the Soviet Union and then a second time to speak of the murder of the Jews. He is a source of absolutely significant and “incredible” information. It took 40 years for Eduard Schulte’s name to be known, as Riegner had promised him anonymity. We are taken to Poland’s embassy in the United States, when Jan Karski, the great Polish courier, told of the demands of the Jews he met in the Warsaw ghetto to Felix Frankfurter and Ambassador Jan Ciechanowski in preparation for his meeting with FDR.

We feel that we are literally in the room as Randolph Paul, general counsel of the Treasury Department, along with John Pehle and Josiah DuBois Jr., confront Secretary Morgenthau with their findings and their insistence on action. Wallance’s narrative is not imagined, but based on the diary of one of the participants. Thirty years ago, I examined DuBois’ most personal papers and attempted to describe the scene in Morgenthau’s office and also the moment when Donald Hiss showed DuBois the missing link in the evidentiary trail that sealed his case against the State Department. My hat is off to Wallance for the sheer pleasure of reading his depiction.

He is less prone to blame Jewish institutional politics and the divisions among Jewish leadership than David Wyman, and places responsibility directly in the hands of an establishment that failed the test in the Jewish people’s greatest hour of need. Wallance is quick to emphasize the distinct and controlling way in which Roosevelt controlled his cabinet and played off the interpersonal rivalries. Not all blame comes from FDR’s desk, and Wallance credits the war effort.

Wallance’s judgment is balanced. He allows his case to build brick by brick, story by story, document by document. He is careful to stress that the State Department of today shares little in common with its World War II predecessor, both in class and in background — a point that is easily forgotten by many, as the State Department and the Department of Defense and the White House now may hold in their hands the fate of the rebuilt Jewish community in Israel.

One may read more scholarly accounts of this period, but it is unlikely one will read a more vivid account that is both responsible and detailed without being too dense or drowning the guts of the story in myriad facts. Imagine a prosecutor presenting his case and a novelist writing his story. Consider Wallance’s mastery of detail and ability to present such detail in a compelling manner. The reader will not be disappointed.