People & Events
Henry Morgenthau, Jr. (1891-1967)
Soon after the Second World War ended, Henry Morgenthau, Jr. would recall what he called "those terrible eighteen months" in Washington, when "the Nazis were planning to exterminate all the Jews of Europe." He went on to write, "officials dodged their grim responsibility, procrastinated when concrete rescue schemes were placed before them, and even suppressed information about atrocities." The terrible 18 months Morgenthau was referring to was the period between the summer of 1942, when the State Department first heard of Hitler's plan to murder Europe's Jews, and January of 1944, when President Roosevelt set up the War Refugee Board, an institution that ultimately saved as many as 200,000 Jewish lives. Although, as secretary of the treasury, Morgenthau had few official opportunities to deal with the rescue efforts, a series of events starting in mid-1943 meant that Morgenthau and his staff at the Treasury played a key role in Roosevelt's decision to set up an agency independent of the State Department that would be charged with rescuing Europe's Jews.
Morgenthau was himself the grandson of a German Jewish immigrant. His grandfather, Lazarus, arrived in New York in 1866 on the verge of bankruptcy. As the promoter of his own consistently unsuccessful inventions, which included among other things a label machine and a tongue scraper, Lazarus Morgenthau was ultimately a failure in America. That his grandson Henry Morgenthau, Jr. rose to a position of such prominence in American politics had much to do with the determination of Henry's father, who'd graduated from Columbia Law School, gone on to make a fortune in real estate, and though he never was given the place in President Woodrow Wilson's cabinet he had fought so hard for, had nonetheless been appointed Ambassador to Turkey.
His son's path to high office was easier. Henry Morgenthau Jr. left Cornell University without graduating and, deciding to become a farmer, bought 1,000 acres of land in Dutchess County, New York. As it turned out, the Morgenthaus were now neighbors of the Roosevelts, and the two families became close friends. When Roosevelt became governor of New York in 1928, he appointed Morgenthau the chairman of his agricultural advisory commission. When Roosevelt was elected President in 1932, Morgenthau became his Treasury Secretary.
Morgenthau was one of the few Jews surrounding the President, and was perhaps the most concerned by the plight of Germany's Jews. At the end of 1938, realizing that Congress was becoming increasingly unyielding on the number of immigrants who could enter the country, he went to the President with a different suggestion. He proposed that the United States acquire British and French Guiana and in return cancel whatever Britain and France still owed the United States on loans from World War I. According to Morgenthau's diary, Roosevelt was not impressed. "It's no good," the President reportedly said. "It would take the Jews five to 50 years to overcome the fever."
Nonetheless Morgenthau continued to bring news of rescue plans to the President's attention. On February 13, 1943, a "New York Times" article offered the Jews of Rumania some hope. It reported that the Rumanian government was prepared to ship the 70,000 Rumanian Jews in Transnistria to a safe haven chosen by the allies. In return, the Rumanians wanted approximately $130 per refugee to cover expenses. Morgenthau immediately pointed the story out to the President, who suggested that Morgenthau ask the State Department to look into the matter. Nothing ever came of the plan.
Later in the year, Morgenthau became much more involved in the rescue issue. The sequence of events began in April of 1943, when Gerhart Riegner, the representative of the World Jewish Congress in Geneva, sent a message to the U.S. with yet another rescue proposal. According to Riegner, if American Jewish organizations made funds available, supplies could be sent to the Jews of Transnistria. Additionally, Jewish children in the region could be moved to Palestine. And in France funds were needed to support hidden Jewish children and to finance escapes of Jews to Spain.
It was the Treasury Department's responsibility to issue the licenses required to send funds overseas. The State Department, however, didn't inform Morgenthau's staffers about Riegner's plan until late June. Once aware of what was involved, the Treasury Department rapidly approved the license. But because of further State Department delays and the procrastination of the U.S. legation in Bern, the license was not transmitted to Riegner until late December. This was eight months after Riegner had first proposed his plan. In struggling against State Department obstructionism, the Treasury Department discovered that the State Department had at one point actually instructed the U.S. legation in Bern to block more information about the Holocaust from reaching the U.S. Treasury Department staffers were so incensed by this callous indifference, they presented Morgenthau with a searing, 18-page critique of the Administration's failure to help the Jews of Europe. They entitled it "Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of the Jews." Morgenthau was also aware of political pressure mounting on Capitol Hill for an independent rescue agency. Cognizant of the possible political scandal if Roosevelt didn't seize the initiative, he urged FDR to set up an organization to deal with the refugee crisis. The President responded immediately, issuing an executive order on January 22, 1944 that established the War Refugee Board (WRB).
Before the end of the war, Morgenthau was to clash with the State Department again. This time the issue was the future of Germany. The Treasury Secretary put forward a proposal that came to be known as the Morgenthau Plan. In order to prevent Germany from rearming, he advocated dismantling heavy industry and closing the country's mines. He also had a drastic suggestion regarding Germany's young people. "Well, if you let the young children of today be brought up by SS Troopers who are indoctrinated with Hitlerism, aren't you simply going to raise another generation of Germans who will want to wage war?" he noted in his diary. "Don't you think the thing to do is to take a leaf from Hitler's book and completely remove these children from their parents and make them wards of the state, and have ex-US Army officers, English Army officers and Russian Army officers run these schools and have these children learn the true spirit of democracy?" State Department Officials strongly opposed the plan. Harry S. Truman rejected it when he became president.
Morgenthau didn't remain long in public office after Roosevelt's death. After leaving the Treasury Department in July of 1945, he spent much of the rest of his life working with Jewish philanthropies.