Will Rogers, Jr. (1911-1993)
When asked what he accomplished in Congress, the part Cherokee actor and politician Will Rogers, Jr., son of the famous humorist, would typically say, "Well, not much." But in fact during his brief 17 months as a Democratic Representative from Southern California, the self-deprecating Rogers was one of the most active agitators on Capitol Hill in favor of U.S. efforts to rescue the Jews in Europe. And what he achieved really made a difference.
Rogers' congressional career almost never happened: he was pulled away from his 1942 campaign for the House by a call to serve in the Army. But his wife and friends stepped into the gap, campaigning on his behalf and Rogers won. Within a few months of taking his seat, Rogers received a visit from Jewish activist Peter Bergson. Decades later the actor would remember the meeting this way: "I was a freshman Congressman and being a freshman I was up on the 5th floor of the Old House Office Building. And somehow or the other, Peter Bergson found his way up to my office, my remote office.... I don't remember the exact details, but I do recall sitting down there and talking to him about the Jewish position in Europe.... I was just like anybody else -- all right, what could I do about it? [But] Peter Bergson stimulated me... he was very persuasive."
While Rogers found Bergson persuasive, it was the involvement and activism of the prominent Hollywood scriptwriter Ben Hecht that convinced Rogers to get involved. With the growing conviction that "saving lives immediately," should be a primary U.S. goal, Rogers became a member of the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe. The organization had grown out of a six-day conference that took place in New York City in July of 1943. Fifteen hundred people had taken part, some of them influential non-Jews like New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. At the conclusion of the conference, participants formed the Emergency Committee, which was charged with lobbying Congress and launching a national publicity campaign.
Years later, Rogers remembered wanting, "the United States as a country and as a nation to stand, to protest and to stand for the rescue of these people when it could be done." With this in mind, Rogers made his biggest contribution: In November 1943, together with Joseph C. Baldwin, he introduced a resolution into the House that called on the president to create a commission to rescue the Jews of Europe. Guy Gillette and eleven other senators introduced an identical measure into the Senate. At a press conference, the resolution's sponsors explained that their proposal would establish camps in Turkey, Sweden, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal and Morocco, where Jewish refugees would be housed temporarily. The sponsors added, "Tens of thousands of French, Bulgarian and Rumanian Jews, now facing death could be immediately rescued this way, as has been proven by the recent action of Sweden in saving 6,000 Danish Jews in a few days."
The so-called Rescue Resolution went through a difficult hearing process in the House. Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long almost killed the measure with his closed-door testimony to the Foreign Affairs Committee, in which he claimed that everything that could be done to save the Jews was being done. And Zionist leaders almost derailed its progress by pushing for the inclusion of a clause that would open Palestine to Jewish refugees. Nonetheless, throughout December the measure continued to pick up votes and by mid-January a poll indicated that it would pass in both houses.
Two days before the Senate vote was to take place, President Roosevelt established the War Refugee Board, effectively taking the initiative away from Congress. Roosevelt acted when he did in part because Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. had just presented him with compelling evidence that the State Department had willfully attempted "to prevent action from being taken to rescue Jews from Hitler." But months of pressure from Bergson's group, coupled with the introduction of the Rescue Resolution, certainly played a key role in Roosevelt's decision.
Rogers, however, was not in Washington long enough to see the impact of the War Refugee Board. On May 23, 1944, he resigned from the House to rejoin the Army as a tank commander. He experienced the rest of the war from the front lines and was decorated for his bravery. After a failed race for the U.S. Senate in 1946, Rogers worked on Harry S. Truman's 1948 election campaign. Then he began moving away from politics towards show business, starring in several films, some of which were about his father, and briefly hosting "The CBS Morning News." By the early '90s, Rogers had been dogged by ill-health for some time, suffering a series of strokes and heart problems. On July 9, 1993, in considerable pain following hip-implant surgery, the 81-year-old Rogers got into his car and drove into the desert near his Arizona home. He then committed suicide.
Until the very end of his life, the entertainer thought very little of his role in saving Jews from the Nazis. His biography makes no mention of the rescue resolution. When asked why, Rogers explained: "I didn't regard it as worthy of mention." But to the very end, the inaction of a president he had long championed and truly admired baffled him. "I could not understand the Administration that I supported," he said. "I could not understand their attitude towards the rescue of large numbers of Jews...it would have been the humanitarian thing that I would have thought Roosevelt should have been in favor of. I could not understand why he was not."