In 1938, at a time when there was much discussion about opening American frontiers to refugees from Nazi Germany, General George Van Horne Moseley gave a speech before a meeting of medical reservists at Tulane University in which he expressed the opinion that America should take no risk of having people who were thrown out of other countries as “undesirables” reproduce their own kind here. Refugees should be accepted only “with the distinct understanding that they all be sterilized before being permitted to embark. Only that way can we properly protect our future.”
Moseley did not use the word “Jew,” but everyone knew that he meant it, and in 1939, after his mandatory retirement, he made himself quite clear in another speech in Philadelphia, in which he asserted that the United States was on the brink of a war that would be “for the purpose of establishing Jewish hegemony throughout the world.” As Robert Bendersky summarizes Moseley’s argument: “While ‘your sons and mine’ would fight side by side with Christian-killing Communists, only the Jews would profit…. The Jewish firm Kuhn, Loeb, and Company had ‘financed the Russian Revolution.’ Americans must not let history repeat itself.”
The details of this harangue were not new, even in an army that projected itself as an institution that would tolerate neither racism nor anti-Semitism. In his disturbing new book, which is based upon research in an impressive number of official and private archives, Robert Bendersky claims that both racism and anti-Semitism had been a staple of army intelligence reports ever since World War I, when nativist xenophobia had for the first time led high army officers to consider Jews as a special problem whose loyalty to the US was open to question.
In the Military Intelligence Department a special file (MID 245) was set aside for data about Jews, and this, which was largely composed of reports from military attachĂŠs and special agents in major European capitals, tended, when it was not falsely alarming, to verge on the fantastic. The fact that many American Jews were engaged in international business inflamed the imagination of MID’s correspondents and led one of them, in a paper called “Bolshevism and Judaism,” to describe how the banker Jacob Schiff had conspired with the Warburgs in Germany and Stockholm, as well as with other Jewish bankers in London, Tokyo, Paris, and Petrograd, “to finance Trotzky, a Jew, for the purpose of accomplishing a social revolution.” This story, and similar ones, survived in many forms and influenced the thinking of many officers, including, in due course, General Moseley.
In the uncertain aftermath of the First World War, preoccupation with the alleged link between Jews and Communists continued. One of the strongest forces in shaping it was the Army War College in Washington, D.C., which prepared the elite of the service for the upper echelons of command and the general staff. In the interwar years almost two thousand officers were educated at the War College, and of the thousand generals on active duty at the end of World War II more than six hundred were War College graduates. Bendersky does not argue that this highly respected institution ever descended to vulgar indoctrination, but he suggests that it tended to develop a common view among its students. Since the lecture curriculum placed considerable emphasis upon racial theory and eugenics, this included a belief in Nordic superiority and a prejudice against peoples from Eastern Europe, including Jews. It was not an accident that War College graduates were so interested in immigration, and that in the early 1920s the MID, where 50 percent of them ended up, mounted, in collaboration with other government agencies, a vigorous campaign in Congress against Jewish immigration to the United States. This culminated in the new and much more restrictive immigration law of 1924.
In essence, Bendersky writes, the army had
established the fundamental arguments and institutional precedents that would condition its later response to the Nazi persecution of Jews…. [Moreover], many officers who were part of this institutional culture or participated directly in anti-Jewish activity in the 1920s rose to high-ranking positions in the army during the 1930s….
These officers were to play an important part in justifying restrictionist immigration policies at a time when Jews were desperately seeking refuge.
Franklin D. Roosevelt’s assumption of the presidency in 1933 was received coolly by many army officers. The proliferation of social programs inspired by his administration and the agitations that took place on the nation’s campuses seemed to them to be vaguely un-American; and they resented being compelled to participate in the administration of the Civilian Conservation Corps, because they felt that the work camps would become centers where undesirable elements would corrupt the country’s youth. Under the New Deal, moreover, the army’s leaders no longer felt as much a part of Washington as they had under the staider Hoover administration; and the number of Jews who enjoyed the President’s confidence (Felix Frankfurter, Henry Morgenthau, Samuel Rosenman, and others) made top army officers critical of the quality and direction of national leadership.
This was particularly true after Adolf Hitler consolidated his power in Germany and began to elaborate his anti-Jewish program. The outrage that this elicited in the American press aroused fears in the army that Jewish influence might persuade the President to drift toward an open break with the German dictator. For arguments against this, they relied, after the middle of the 1930s, on the enormously capable military attachĂŠ in Berlin, Colonel Truman Smith. Smith had met and interviewed Hitler even before the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923, and had studied the Nazi movement ever since. He regarded Hitler’s course as in no way a radical departure from traditional German policy. Although he fully expected the Nazi leader to reduce Jewish influence in all phases of German life, he anticipated no radical changes in his policies on foreign affairs. Like US ambassador Hugh Wilson, with whom he was on the closest terms, he believed in trying to turn Hitler eastward against the Soviet Union; for the rest, he favored following a policy of appeasement. Anything else would be dangerous, he warned:
If the British or anybody else try a policy of intimidation towards Germany, such a policy will only result in a blood bath and with the dissolution of society as we know it.
This was the view also of Smith’s friend Captain Albert C. Wedemeyer, who had had the privilege of studying at the German army’s Kriegsakademie and who was to rise to the position of deputy chief of staff in his own service. Wedemeyer believed that Nazism was the result of British and French policy after the First World War. He did not condone Hitler’s policy toward the Jews but was inclined to believe that the Jews were the cause of their own misfortunes, since they had inherent traits that made them always “suspect or distasteful and incompatible with other groups.” In any case, he said, Hitler’s treatment of them did not excuse those “who wanted to make us fear and hate the Germans in order to get us into war”; and in Wedemeyer’s view, “the fevered imagination of Roosevelt and his speech-writers” exaggerated the threat of Nazi Germany.
The views of the US Army’s German experts were enormously influential in the American intelligence community and the military command and staff; but after November 9, 1938, when the Nazis burned down Jewish synagogues by the dozens on the so-called Night of Broken Glass, it was harder to find excuses for them. The President withdrew Ambassador Wilson from Berlin with general public approval, and Truman Smith had to terminate his intelligence operations in the German capital. US relations with Germany now became increasingly fraught with tension, particularly after Hitler’s assault on Poland and the Anglo-French response. In the bitter debate that soon began on the home front over the issue of American intervention, a substantial part of the army command, while supporting aid to Britain, was convinced that to enter the war against Hitler would be contrary to American interests. It was perhaps predictable that they suspected the President’s Jewish advisers of pushing in the opposite direction.
The Roosevelt administration, for its part, used its influence to increase the public sense of danger by discrediting the anti-interventionists as pro-German, antidemocratic, and anti-Semitic. The debate over intervention was an unedifying episode in the nation’s history, and it ended only with the attack on Pearl Harbor.
This changed the tone decisively. After the war began, Jewish conspiracies against the national interest became even less plausible than they had seemed in the past. The Jews proved to be as patriotic as anyone else. As Bendersky writes:
…Hundreds of thousands of Jews served during World War II; their percentages of combat dead and wounded approximated their proportion of the American population. Tens of thousands were decorated; several rose to the rank of general and admiral. Among these were old and recent Jewish immigrants who served not only loyally but enthusiastically.
Even so, Bendersky insists, prejudice persisted during the war, and he gives examples of general anti-Semitic badinage, and anecdotes repeated perhaps out of habit, and the not inconsiderable amount of loose talk to the effect that Americans were fighting and dying to maintain Jewish business interests.
The longer the war lasted, however, the less obtrusive such anti-Semitic talk became. More important was the fact that the US Army itself often betrayed an inability to recognize basic facts about what Jews were experiencing during the war. The Holocaust was always a concept that the army found difficult to understand and accept. In 1943, four thousand Yugoslavs evacuated by partisans to the Adriatic island of Rab feared recapture by the Nazis and, since most of them were Jews, certain death. When the World Jewish Congress and the Yugoslav embassy in Washington appealed to the US government for assistance, the commanding general in the North African theater of operations, to whom the problem was assigned, decided that the military situation did not permit any assistance being afforded, since operational needs, which he did not specify, must be satisfied first. He also said that “it is considered that to take such action might create a precedent which would lead to other demands and an influx of additional refugees.”
This infuriated Assistant Secretary of State Edward R. Stettinius, who, according to Bendersky, wrote that, if this was the opinion of the army command, the United States might as well resign itself to having no part whatever in efforts to get refugees out of occupied Europe. The army was apparently unmoved by this reproach. When the President created the War Refugee Board to coordinate efforts of the War, State, and Treasury Departments to rescue victims of Nazi oppression who were in imminent danger of death, the army defied both the spirit and the letter of the directive, Bendersky writes, “through indifference, evasion, and inaction.”