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 attachés 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 attaché 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.”

In 1944 requests from Jewish organizations for bombing attacks on the rail lines carrying victims to the extermination camps in Poland and on the most notorious of these camps, Auschwitz, met a similar fate. The general line taken by the Operations Division was that the

air operation is impracticable for the reason that it could be executed only by diversion of considerable air support essential to the success of our forces now engaged in decisive operations.

This position was sometimes embellished by other arguments casting doubt upon the feasibility of such raids or suggesting that they might provoke more vindictive action by the Germans. Such judgments were not, however, the result of serious military analysis. At no time did the army make a systematic assessment of the bombing proposals made to it or ask theater commanders what was feasible. The crucial factor, Bendersky writes, was “the absence of a will to act,” and this suggests “indifference among highly placed officers to the plight of Jews.”

There is also evidence that when the full extent of Nazi atrocities in the camps was first revealed in 1944, local commanders were reluctant to acknowledge the fact that the victims were mostly Jews. Bendersky tells of a reporter for Yank: The Army Weekly, whose story on the camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau was turned down by his editors because the sources on which it was based were “too Semitic” and because they wanted a story that “did not deal principally with Jews.” This attitude was matched by the stubborn incredulity with which many people, including most editors of the American press, faced details of the Nazi brutalities. In her excellent book Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust, 1933– 1945,* Deborah Lipstadt speaks of this reluctance to acknowledge historical reality as a malady that obliterated “both the particular character of the German action against the Jews and the particular identity of the victims.”

American troops acquired a closer acquaintance with the camp inmates after the war came to an end, when they were ordered to assist the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration in caring for and rehabilitating millions of displaced persons. Despite chronic shortages of food, fuel, shelter, and transport, the army acquitted itself well in this assignment, except in the case of those who could not be repatriated. These included many Jewish survivors of the camps who had suffered dreadfully and whose needs the army did not always recognize. An investigation ordered by President Truman into the conditions of the Jewish DPs reported that the US military was

treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them except that we do not exterminate them. They are in concentration camps in large numbers under our military guard instead of SS troops. One is led to wonder whether the German people… are not supposing that we are following or at least condoning Nazi policy.

This situation was speedily corrected, but not without causing complaints among local commanders. Chief among these was General George S. Patton, who commanded the zone with the largest number of Jewish DPs. A man of volatile temperament and decided racial prejudice, Patton was furious about the ordered changes, and embarked upon a policy of obstruction, writing to Henry Stimson about a “virus” of “Semitic revenge against all Germans” spread by “Morgenthau and Baruch” (i.e., Bernard Baruch, a prominent Jewish financier). In the end, Patton was the victim of his own rhetorical excesses, and after he said, in defense of the Nazis, that they were just like Democrats and Republicans, he was withdrawn from his post.

Bendersky does not imply that Patton’s views were normal in the US Army. He ends his long and detailed book by admitting that throughout the first half of the twentieth century there were officers at all levels who were free of anti-Semitism and that these were more numerous by World War II and after, when more officers were willing to take a stand against prejudice. He seems reluctant, however, to admit that much progress has been made. His last word to his readers is that anti-Semitism in the army remained pervasive, and that “even those officers who, like Eisenhower, cannot be characterized as anti-Semitic, were influenced [by it] in more or less subtle ways.”


American official behavior toward the opponents of Nazism was always marked by a curious anomaly, a combination of generosity on the one hand and fixed distrust on the other. General Moseley’s proposal, happily never seriously considered, that exiles admitted to this country be sterilized to avoid the possibly undesirable behavior of their progeny was an extreme form of this ambivalence. A better example, disturbing in its own way, is the case of the German émigré writers.

In the 1930s, as the intellectual atmosphere of Germany became increasingly restrictive, the normally tight US immigration laws were relaxed in the case of distinguished German writers and intellectuals who were forced to flee their country. Travel costs and jobs, or promises of support, were provided by various foundations and benevolent groups (one film company offered short-term contracts). As a result of these efforts, hundreds of German writers, among them Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Franz Werfel, Carl Zuckmayer, and Lion Feuchtwanger, came to the United States and established themselves in either Los Angeles or New York.

At the same time, however, and largely unknown to most of those who had escaped from Nazism in this way, they were subjected to an astonishingly elaborate and complex system of surveillance that followed their movements, read their mail, instituted searches of their homes, not always legally, and kept a record of their visitors. All of this was recorded by the FBI and the resultant files supplemented by interviews. Nor was this a short-term procedure. Once a file was opened on a person, it was generally closed only with his death; in between it became the undiscriminating repository of whatever anyone might say about him. In his early years in the United States Thomas Mann was praised as the leader of the German community; in his last, his file included descriptions of him as an “upholder of Soviet amorality” and “America’s Fellow-traveler No. 1.”

The driving force of this operation was J. Edgar Hoover, who after serving as chief of the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation since 1924, was called in by President Roosevelt in August 1936 and ordered to gather information about subversive activities in the United States, particularly fascism and communism. Hoover set to work diligently. What had been a small troop of agents who specialized in hunting bank robbers and kidnappers became a powerful agency which, according to Alexander Stephan in his book “Communazis, “justified its existence by continuously discovering conspiracies against democracy and the American Way.” The number of special agents assigned to political duties increased from three hundred in the mid-Thirties to five thousand by the end of the war, with seven thousand additional employees assigned to secretarial and archival duties. In 1940 Hoover was also given authority for protecting the southern flank of the United States against subversion and set up the Special Intelligence Service (SIS) to work inside Latin America and hunt down what the FBI chief came to call Communazis.

In carrying out these responsibilities, the FBI was not alone. Its agents depended to a large extent upon information supplied them on a regular basis by other federal agencies, including the Foreign Nationalities Branch of the Office of Strategic Services, which was the predecessor of the CIA; the Immigration and Naturalization Service; the Department of State; the Office of Naval Intelligence and the Military Intelligence Division (MID) of the US Army; and the Office of Censorship, founded after Pearl Harbor to monitor mail, cable, and radio transmissions between the United States and other countries. Sporadically, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and its equivalent in the California state senate, the Tenney Committee, also passed on to the FBI information picked up in their interrogation of persons suspected of being un-American.

This combination of agencies formed a security system that might have been envied by a totalitarian state and one greatly in excess of its purpose. Alexander Stephan writes occasionally of the high efficiency of the FBI and its allies, but he is quick to add that it was accompanied by what he calls “grotesque overkill”:

What else to call it but absurd that dozens of government employees were set to monitor pillow talk between the little-known [Bertolt] Brecht and his Danish co-worker Ruth Berlau, at taxpayers’ expense, in the middle of a world war? Or that agents followed the car of Lion Feuchtwanger’s gardener or asked the mailman about the mailbox at Thomas Mann’s villa?

Based on FBI files released under the provisions of the Freedom of Information and Privacy Acts, Stephan’s book is highly informative about the collaboration among the different agencies and on the files accumulated on the various writers. The information in these files differed but dealt for the most part with the subject’s susceptibility to communism and, significantly, with his opinions about the future of Germany, a subject about which Hoover and his allies were inordinately sensitive. In 1943 when exiles were trying to form an official group with Thomas Mann as its leader, the files show much concern on the part of the State Department and the OSS because, a secret analysis reads, “we do not like some of the personalities involved.” Somewhat later, Heinrich Mann’s file made much of the fact that he was active in the affairs of the Free German Movement, whose aim, it was claimed, was the establishment of a postwar German government that was favorable to Russia. The file also emphasized the fact that Heinrich was in active contact with organizations in Latin America that were pursuing the same purpose.

Since their subjects were writers, the FBI and its collaborating agencies paid considerable attention to their literary work, although not always perceptively. In FBI reports of March 1943, sent to Hoover with the intention of urging him to promote the expulsion of Bertolt Brecht from the country, Brecht was described as “a writer of Communist and revolutionary poetry and drama…and…looked upon by German Communists as their poet laureate.” A translation of a poem of his, “Demolition of the Ship Oskawa by the Crew,” was described, inaccurately, as proof that Brecht supported the sabotage and destruction of American property.

Similarly, in Lion Feuchtwanger’s lengthy and repeated INS interrogations, after the novelist applied, unsuccessfully, for American citizenship, his questioners sought stubbornly to make him acknowledge that his novel Moscow, 1937 showed his belief in communism. He answered, just as stubbornly, that the book in question was a historical novel and had nothing at all to do with politics, an argument that seems to have left them nonplussed. FBI investigation of the works of the novelist Anna Seghers, who was seeking entry into the US from Mexico, was even less profitable, since it was devoted to either a fruitless search for coded messages or attempts to discover whether questionable political agencies profited from her royalties.

Compared with those of the security systems of the totalitarian states, the abuses committed by the FBI and its allies were not, Stephan believes, matters of life and death:

Anna Seghers and several others had to spend their exile in Mexico instead of the United States; Lion Feuchtwanger was denied US citizenship and, although aged and ill, could not leave to visit Germany one last time; questions put to Brecht by HUAC suggest that the FBI laid the groundwork for political harassment; Thomas and Erika Mann felt compelled by the American political climate to go into a second exile in Switzerland; Klaus Mann was hounded by interrogators asking embarrassing questions about his private life; many exiles found their names published in blacklists drawn up by the anti-Communist Tenney Committee; letters were destroyed or delivered late; and refugees who had already suffered intense political persecution were made to continue feeling intimidated and anxious.

In the age of Nazism and the cold war, these were far from the worst hardships, but that should give us no comfort. As long as the evil example of other countries does not lead to reflection on our own excesses, Stephan concludes, we still have a way to go.

This Issue

April 12, 2001