‘The God-Damnedest Thing’: The Antisemitic Plot to Thwart US Aid to Europe’s Jews and the Man Who Exposed It

On December 20, Morgenthau marched over to State, taking Pehle and Paul along for ballast. They had spent the morning rehearsing a script for the showdown. Morgenthau’s aim was not only to deliver a stern warning, but to get all the cables. Only the originals, all agreed, could convince FDR of the State Department’s deception. Morgenthau’s aides had coaxed him into a scheme to play Hull: to ask for a copy of cable 354, casually, without revealing its importance.

In Hull’s office, Paul felt the weight of the occasion. Morgenthau, he would say, “was taking his political life in his hands.” Hull was “known as a killer,” and he could be counted on to seek revenge. Yet the secretary of state also knew, Paul added, that “Morgenthau had a personal hold on the President.”

Before Morgenthau could present his letter on the British refusal, Hull spoke.

“I’ve already sent a cable to Ambassador Winant,” he said, handing Morgenthau the reply on a pink-copy sheet. Morgenthau was taken back. He had never seen stronger official language. Hull read aloud his reply to Winant, letting the words sink in. The department expressed “astonishment” at the British position. London’s stance, he assured Morgenthau, was not in line with the policy of the State Department, but at times, he conceded, such matters did not get his attention. When they did, he found it necessary to take them in hand, skirting the people down the line who raised objections. At Hull’s side sat Breckinridge Long, the State official who had caused the Treasury such consternation, doing all he could to slow the granting of a license to rescue the refugees.

Long interrupted: “I don’t know if you’re going to like it … but I personally drafted a license Saturday and issued it and cabled it to Switzerland.” He had issued the license to Riegner himself, Long said, but had not had time to consult Treasury. Long had obviously been prepared for the meeting. He ran through a list of State’s efforts: They had tried to rescue Jews, he said, in hopes of sending them to the United States, Sweden, Madagascar and Palestine — but the Germans had succeeded in “thwarting most of these rescue attempts.”

As if by way of reply, Morgenthau handed Hull the Treasury report, which charged his department with a deliberate hindering of Treasury’s efforts to save any remaining Jews. Hull read it quickly, without comment. Only when the secretary of state sent his aides to retrieve the cables did Morgenthau make his move.

“By the way,” he said, “I have a cable in my hand from Harrison, No. 2460, in which it mentions a cable, No. 354. While you’re getting all the other cables, would you mind getting that one for me?”

“Make a note of that,” Hull told Long. “And just give it to him.”

As the men rose to leave, Long approached Morgenthau. “I want to talk to you privately,” he said, ushering him into another room.

Morgenthau and Long had known each other since the Woodrow Wilson years, having crossed paths when Morgenthau’s father was Wilson’s ambassador to Turkey. At 61, “Breck” Long was on his second round at State. In the 1930s, as FDR’s envoy to Rome, Long had expressed admiration for Mussolini’s rule: “the most interesting experiment in government,” he wrote a friend, “to come above the horizon since the formulation of our Constitution.” Long had also explored Nazi ideology: “Have just finished Hitler’s Mein Kampf,” he wrote in his diary in early 1938. “It is eloquent in opposition to Jewry and to Jews as exponents of Communism & chaos.” He added, “My estimate of Hitler as a man rises with the reading of his book.” In 1940, FDR had brought him back to State where, as assistant secretary, all matters relating to the European Jews crossed his desk.

For years, Long had deemed Morgenthau no more than an annoyance, a placeholder who owed his survival to the mercy of the Roosevelts. Now, Long realized, he faced a different man.

Morgenthau had him cornered. Long’s recent lying before Congress was the talk of Washington newsmen. In secret testimony on the Hill — “a 4-hour inquisition,” Long called it in his diary — he said there was no need for any agency to save the Jews: “We have taken into this country since the beginning of the Hitler regime and the persecution of the Jews, until today, approximately 580,000 refugees.” Many in his audience believed Long, even those who should have known better. According to the immigration service, of the 476,930 aliens who had entered the United States in the decade since 1933, only 165,756 had self-reported as “Hebrews” — or Jews. Of these, about 138,000 had escaped persecution. (While it would remain impossible to give a precise figure, the best estimate for the number of Jewish refugees who could have been admitted to the United States in the years 1933 to 1941, as the persecution mounted, is derived from the number of unused German visas under the federal quota scheme: a total of some 165,000.)

Morgenthau braced himself, refusing to let the opportunity go.

“I just want to tell you,” Long started in, once the two were alone, “unfortunately the people lower down in your department and lower down in the State Department are making a lot of trouble.” Long raised the issue of anti-Semitism, alluding to underlings who had “been spreading this stuff” and “raising technical difficulties.”

Morgenthau seized the opening.

“Well, Breck, as long as you raise the question, we might be a little frank. The impression is all around that you, particularly, are anti-Semitic!”

“I know that is so,” said Long. “I hope that you will use your good offices to correct that impression, because I am not.”

“I am very, very glad to know it,” said Morgenthau, adding, “Since we are being so frank, you might as well know that the impression” at Treasury was that State shared the British position on refusing any rescue plan.

Long protested: He hoped they could work together. Of course, Morgenthau said. “After all, Breck,” he replied, “the United States of America was created as a refuge for people who were persecuted the world over, starting with Plymouth.” Morgenthau tried hard not to condescend. Instead, he repeated his father’s vow to President Wilson and to the Young Turks in Constantinople: “As Secretary of the Treasury for one hundred and thirty-five million people,” Morgenthau said, “I am carrying this [rescue effort] out as Secretary of the Treasury, and not as a Jew.”

“Well,” Long said, “my concept of America as a place of refuge for persecuted people is just the same.”

Morgenthau said he was “delighted to hear it.”

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