Why Was America So Reluctant to Take Action on the Holocaust?

A new Ken Burns documentary examines the U.S.’ complex, often shameful response to the rise of Nazism and the plight of Jewish refugees

Paula, Sam and Sol Messinger aboard the M.S. St. Louis in May 1939.
Paula, Sam and Sol Messinger aboard the M.S. St. Louis in May 1939. The U.S. denied the ship entry, forcing its 937 passengers to return to Europe. More than a quarter of these refugees were later killed in the Holocaust. Sol Messinger

In the years leading up to World War II, Otto Frank, a well-connected German Jewish businessman, desperately tried to emigrate to the United States. He had the necessary affidavits and visas for admission, as well as the sponsorship of an American friend-turned-government official. But anti-Semitism and xenophobia permeated the U.S.’ foreign policy at the time, and the State Department was cracking down on immigration. Along with hundreds of thousands of others fleeing the Nazis, the Franks—including Otto’s daughter Anne—were deemed security risks and denied entry. Instead, the family went into hiding in an attic in Amsterdam.

The Franks’ failed attempt to escape the Nazis was one of the key threads researched by filmmaker Ken Burns and his colleagues over a six-year period. Their investigation—showcased in “The U.S. and the Holocaust,” a three-part documentary series premiering on PBS on September 18—illuminates the anti-immigrant sentiment that prevailed in the U.S. during the 1930s and ’40s. Had things been different, the team argues, the Frank family might have met a less tragic fate.

“Anne Frank could be alive today if American policy and the quota system had been different,” says Sarah Botstein, who co-directed and produced the documentary with Burns and Lynn Novick. “Anne’s diary is an unbelievable document and important work of history. But it’s not the [full] story of the Shoah” (the Hebrew word for the Holocaust).

The U.S. and the Holocaustexhaustively examines America’s response to Nazism and one of the most horrific humanitarian crises in history. Inspired in part by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s (USHMM) “Americans and the Holocaust” exhibition, the documentary follows two parallel narratives: the rise and rapid spread of Nazism in Europe and the contradictory political and social currents underlying American policy. Written by Geoffrey C. Ward, the series examines what the U.S. government and American people knew and did—or did not do—as Adolf Hitler’s forces carried out their genocidal reign of terror. Interviews with survivors of the Holocaust bring a poignant, personal dimension to the documentary, which abounds in in archival footage and photos.

Why America didn’t take action

Burns, whose previous historical documentaries include “The Roosevelts” (2014) and “The Vietnam War” (2017), says the message on a neon sign hanging in his office—“It’s complicated”—is an apt summary of the issues discussed in “The U.S. and the Holocaust.” Over three two-hour segments, the film dispels competing myths that Americans were either ignorant of the persecution of Europe’s Jews or knew about it but responded with callousness and indifference. (The reality was somewhere between these two extremes; newspapers kept the American public informed about the Holocaust, sparking limited but concerted aid efforts by numerous organizations and individuals.) It also convincingly shatters the myth of America as the ever-welcoming champion of the oppressed.

“Americans have a very hard time deciding what kind of country they want to have,” says Peter Hayes, a historian at Northwestern University who appears in the documentary. “We all tend to think of this country and the Statue of Liberty [poem] ‘Give me your tired, your poor.’ … But in fact, exclusion of people and shutting them out has been as American as apple pie.”

Shmiel, Ester, Bruno, Ruchele, Bronia, Lorka and Frydka Mendelsohn in Bolechow, Poland, in 1934
Shmiel, Ester, Bruno, Ruchele, Bronia, Lorka and Frydka Mendelsohn in Bolechow, Poland, in 1934 Mendelsohn family

One of the most perplexing questions the documentary grapples with is whether the U.S. could and should have done more to help victims of the Holocaust. A featured historian in the documentary offers a counter to at least one popularly cited argument—that the Allies should have bombed rail lines to Auschwitz. The scholar emphasizes the difficulty of accurately hitting such a precise target and points out that the Nazis could have easily repaired any damage overnight.

Still, Rebecca Erbelding, a USHMM archivist who also appears in the documentary, says, “I have a really hard time with this question because inevitably it involves hypotheticals. I don’t know if it would have been a success or failure or if it would have saved lives. It was possible to attempt it. ... But the war department never studied or seriously considered it.”

While the U.S. admitted upward of 225,000 European refugees between 1933 and 1945—more than any other sovereign country—many thousands more could have been saved. “We had the ability to let in five times that amount,” says Burns. “But because of public opinion and outright anti-Semitism, our quotas were not filled. If we did ten times that we would still have failed. So I give us an ‘F.’”

At the time, public opinion on America’s response to the plight of Europe’s Jews was mixed. One poll cited in the documentary found that two-thirds of Americans partially or wholly blamed the Jews for their own persecution. Others simply didn’t believe reports of the Holocaust.

The Statue of Liberty, as seen from Ellis Island
The Statue of Liberty, as seen from Ellis Island Library of Congress

Racism, anti-Semitism, and political and economic concerns all contributed to the U.S.’ inaction. In the 1920s, a widespread push to restrict immigration played into the eugenics movement’s calls to preserve the country’s “racial purity.” These efforts culminated in the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924, which placed strict quotas on entry into the U.S. and prohibited all immigration from Asia. In the late 1930s, when the Great Depression was still a recent memory, fears of foreigners taking jobs from cash-strapped Americans also fueled xenophobic sentiment.

As the threat of war loomed, leading Americans like car magnate Henry Ford and aviator Charles Lindbergh confidently expressed anti-Semitic and eugenicist vitriol in speeches and the press. And extremist, pro-Nazi organizations like the German American Bund, which fashioned itself after Hitler’s Gestapo, proliferated.

A mood of isolationism, as opposed to the interventionist spirit that motivated the U.S.’ participation in World War I, dominated the era, with 72 percent of Americans responding “no” when asked in 1938 if the U.S. should allow a larger number of Jewish refugees into the country. The following June, the U.S. government refused to allow the German liner St. Louisto dock in Miami, sending all 937 people on board—most of them Jewish refugees—back to Europe. More than a quarter of the passengers were later killed in the Holocaust.

“We are a nation of immigrants but also a nation that fought hard to keep immigrants out,” says Burns. “It’s an unreconcilable paradox that has to be understood.”

What Americans knew about the Holocaust

The first reports of the Nazis’ mass murder of Jews appeared in the American media in late 1942. In a radio dispatch that December, journalist Edward R. Murrow described the extermination campaign in his characteristically direct style: “What is happening is this. Millions of human beings, most of them Jews, are being gathered up with ruthless efficiency and murdered.” Though they typically weren’t on the front page, stories about the Holocaust consistently made it into daily publications. By November 1944, 76 percent of respondents in a Gallup poll stated that they believed reports of Germans murdering “many people in concentration camps.”

“I went into this with the (wrong) belief that Americans didn’t know much about what was happening in Europe,” says co-director and producer Novick. “But it didn’t take long to realize I was completely wrong. There was a great deal of information about Nazi persecution, dehumanization, deporting people and taking away their rights.”

A tenant farmer in Oklahoma reads newspaper articles about the war in February 1940.
A tenant farmer in Oklahoma reads newspaper articles about the war in February 1940. Library of Congress

In December 1942, the U.S., Great Britain, the Soviet Union and eight other Allied powers issued a joint statementcondemning “in the strongest possible terms [the Nazis’] bestial policy of cold-blooded extermination” of European Jews.

But American president Franklin D. Roosevelt, a shrewd politician who looked to public opinion while forming his own response to Nazi persecution, was reluctant to take additional action. “There is no doubt that Roosevelt could have done more to aid the Jews of Europe,” says Daniel Greene, president and librarian at the Newberry Library in Chicago and curator of USHMM’s “Americans in the Holocaust” exhibition. “[But] something else was always more important, like moving from isolationism to intervention in the war, then winning the war.”

“I like to think that the State Department was using bureaucracy to hamper aid and the War Refugee Board using bureaucracy to challenge bureaucracy,” says Erbelding, who also authored Rescue Board: The Untold Story of America’s Efforts to Save the Jews of Europe. “The [overall] U.S. response was absolutely disappointing. But [it was] not a monolith.”

Beyond the War Refugee Board, numerous Americans took steps to help European Jews on a smaller scale. Activists denounced the Nazis, marched in protests and boycotted German-made goods. Jewish American organizations fundraised and lobbied government officials to intervene on behalf of German Jews. Private citizens and politicians alike battled red tape to bring Jewish refugees to America.

Rabbi Stephen Wise addresses a crowd at a rally outside Madison Square Garden in June 1944
Rabbi Stephen Wise addresses a crowd at a rally outside Madison Square Garden in June 1944. Library of Congress

According to Greene, Roosevelt’s near-silence on the Holocaust probably stemmed more from the political climate than personal biases. (The historian dismisses conjecture that the president had anti-Semitic leanings.) His strategy “often meant not picking a battle he knew he couldn’t win,” Greene adds.

Roosevelt’s main response to the Holocaust was his establishment of the War Refugee Board, a small government agency tasked with aiding victims of Nazi persecution, in January 1944.

Formed on the recommendation of the president’s Jewish Treasury secretary, Henry Morgenthau, this band of bureaucrats begged, borrowed, bribed and laundered money to be sent overseas for relief efforts. The team also falsified documents and opened an emergency refugee shelter, throwing the weight of the U.S. government behind its plans and ultimately saving an estimated tens of thousands of lives.

As Elizabeth White, a historian at USHMM, told Smithsonian magazine in 2018, the Allied response to the Holocaust was, on the whole, relatively restrained. Nazi propaganda insinuated that the Allies were only fighting in the war to protect Jewish interests—a claim that the Allies were quick to refute amid rising anti-Semitism on the home front.

“The Allies emphasized that the Nazis were a threat to all of humanity, that the war was about freedom versus slavery,” White said. “When they would condemn Nazi atrocities, [they highlighted attacks] against peaceful citizens,” like a 1944 massacre in the French village of Oradour-sur-Glane, rather than violence against Jews specifically.

Protesters march in a November 1938 demonstration calling for a boycott of German-produced products.
Protesters in New York City march in a November 1938 demonstration criticizing the Nazis' persecution of German Jews. Bettman via Getty Images

Contemporary parallels

Burns became interested in the topic of the U.S. and the Holocaust through his work on “The Roosevelts” and a 2016 documentary titled Defying the Nazis. When USHMM approached Burns about making a film tied to its “Americans and the Holocaust” exhibition, which opened in 2018, he readily agreed. As “The U.S. and the Holocaust” nears its premiere, Burns deems it the most important work of his professional career.

Greene highlights the documentary’s contemporary resonance, noting that it “raises enduring questions about Americans’ responsibilities to refugees and to people who are targeted in a genocide.” He adds, “Those are questions that came into high relief during the Nazi period and questions that still matter deeply today.”

Ultimately, viewers will have to decide for themselves whether the U.S. was a beacon of hope for immigrants, a xenophobic country that turned its back on refugees fleeing from a murderous despot in Europe or something in between. “There is an American reckoning with this, and it had to be told,” says Burns. “If we are an exceptional country, we have to be tough on ourselves and hold ourselves to the highest standard. We cannot encrust our story with barnacles or sanitize our history into a … feel-good story.”

In the documentary, historian Nell Irvin Painter echoes this sentiment, saying, “Part of this nation’s mythology is that we’re good people. We are a democracy, and in our better moments we are very good people. But that’s not all there is to the story.”

Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt, an important voice in Burns’ documentary, sounds a much-needed alarm: “The time to stop a genocide is before it starts.”