Memo on Army Policy Regarding Refugee Rescue Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

On February 8, 1944, Assistant Army Chief of Staff Thomas T. Handy sent a memo to his superior, US Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall, Jr., regarding the War Refugee Board directive that Allied forces aid the escape of Jewish refugees from Nazi oppression. The memo came in response to British government concerns communicated via diplomatic channels. The War Refugee Board had been formed only weeks before, by executive order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who instructed the government and the newly created board to “take all measures within its power to rescue the victims of enemy oppression who are in imminent danger of death.” However, throughout the war, despite mounting evidence of Nazi plans for genocide, the Allies had insisted that the focus remain on defeating the enemy—not on assisting or rescuing the victims of the enemy.

Summary Overview

On February 8, 1944, Assistant Army Chief of Staff Thomas T. Handy sent a memo to his superior, US Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall, Jr., regarding the War Refugee Board directive that Allied forces aid the escape of Jewish refugees from Nazi oppression. The memo came in response to British government concerns communicated via diplomatic channels. The War Refugee Board had been formed only weeks before, by executive order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who instructed the government and the newly created board to “take all measures within its power to rescue the victims of enemy oppression who are in imminent danger of death.” However, throughout the war, despite mounting evidence of Nazi plans for genocide, the Allies had insisted that the focus remain on defeating the enemy—not on assisting or rescuing the victims of the enemy.

Defining Moment

Throughout World War II, rumor, rhetoric, and reports claimed that the Nazi leadership of Germany intended not only to persecute, but also to exterminate Europe's Jews. Despite evidence of atrocities committed in ghettoes, concentration camps, and forced labor camps, and despite Adolf Hitler's own vow to eliminate the Jews should war break out, the Allied powers did not take direct action to aid Jewish refugees in escaping the Nazis. Questions abounded as to the reliability and the likelihood of what seemed like outlandish fantasy, and Allied leaders argued that their focus must be on the war itself.

Even when reports—and photo evidence—of the death camps in Poland made clear the reality of Nazi extermination plans, Allied leadership balked. Many nations, including Britain and the United States, had maintained strict immigration quotas and rules that prevented mass immigration of Jewish refugees. In December 1942, the Allied leaders, speaking as the United Nations (not yet a formal organization), condemned Nazi barbarities and promised retribution, but they faced the daunting question of how to live up to that statement. At the time, the Allies lacked the ability to strike the death camps, and officials debated the efficacy of doing so. Meanwhile, with most of Europe consumed by battle, the prospect of evacuating refugees that late seemed highly improbable.

Still, reports that millions of Jewish men, woman, and children—and other groups deemed undesirable by the Nazis—had been killed, and that millions more were slated to die in Nazi gas chambers, motivated President Roosevelt to take action. On January 22, 1944, responding to the now undeniable evidence of Nazi genocide, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9417, establishing the War Refugee Board. An executive agency, the board became a joint enterprise of the Secretary of State, the Secretary of War, and the Secretary of the Treasury, under the leadership of newly appointed director John Pehle.

A week later, on January 28, Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau sent a message to the assistant secretary of war, advising him that the Allied commanders in Europe be notified to take every action possible to comply with President Roosevelt's command that “action be taken to forestall the plot of the Nazis to exterminate the Jews and other persecuted minorities in Europe.” This directive most likely incited concerns not only among American Allied commanders, but also among British and other Allied leaders. In response to these concerns, Handy issued his memo giving directions that would seem to contradict the explicit orders issued to and by the War Refugee Board.

Author Biography

General Thomas T. Handy devoted much of his life to military service. Born in Spring City, Tennessee, on March 11, 1892, he received his first commission in the US Army after graduating from the Virginia Military Institute. Soon after, he served in France during World War I. After the war, he returned to VMI to teach until the United States became involved in World War II. During World War II, Handy served first as US Army deputy chief of staff. It was Handy who signed the written order to General Carl Spaatz to use atomic weapons in Japan. After the war, Handy went on to serve as chief of the United States European Command and as deputy supreme commander of the Allied Powers in Europe. He died in 1982.

Historical Document

8 February 1944

MEMORANDUM FOR THE CHIEF OF STAFF:

Subject: Appointment of the Secretary of War as a Member of the War Refugee Board.

I. Discussion.

1. Regarding the enclosed memorandum from the Office of the Chief of Staff dated 7 February 1944 on above subject, it appears highly desirable to communicate with the British Government offering assurance that military forces, units or individuals will not be used in rescuing refugees except insofar as these rescues may result from planned military operations conducted to defeat the Axis military.

2. Since the information from the British Government was received through Mr. Winant it is believed preferable to transmit any answer thereto in a confidential status to Mr. Winant for passing on to the British Government.

3. It is a sound military principle that the strength of the armed forces should not be diversified in secondary efforts which lack military objectives. For this reason, it is believed that Mr. Bundy's proposed message should be broadened in its scope to be made applicable to all types of operations. A suggested reply follows:

“It is not contemplated that units or individuals of the armed forces will be employed for the purpose of rescuing victims of enemy oppression unless such rescues are the direct result of military operations conducted with the objective of defeating the armed forces of the enemy.”

II. Action Recommended.

Inform Mr. Bundy of the War Department counter proposal set forth in paragraph 3 above.

Thos. T. Handy

Major General

Assistant Chief of Staff

Document Analysis

On February 8, 1944, Gen. Thomas T. Handy issued a memo to his commanding officer, Chief of Staff George C. Marshall. Although the subject line suggests that the document deals with the appointment of the secretary of war to the newly formed War Refugee Board, the memo goes on to address a much more specific matter: the proposed Allied rescue of refugees from Nazi oppression. Previous communications and historical context make clear that the refugees to which Handy refers are the Jewish victims of the Nazi death camps in Poland.

Handy divides his memo into two sections: “Discussion” and “Action Recommended.” Under “Discussion,” Handy writes three points, each of which clarifies that the memo's purpose is to advise the chief of staff on how to respond to concerns communicated by the British government through American ambassador John Gilbert Winant.

The first discussion point lays out an immediate need to assure the British that “military forces, units or individuals will not be used in rescuing refugees except insofar as these rescues may result from planned military operations”—an assertion restated and emphasized in the suggested reply in the third discussion point. This point reflects the general disposition of Allied political and military leaders who had consistently maintained that the only way to help the victims of the death camps was to defeat Nazi Germany militarily. The point makes clear that military resources should be used only for military actions that fall in line with battle strategy, not for rescue attempts deemed to fall outside the scope of the war effort.

The second discussion point states that the chief of staff's official response ought to be communicated back to the British government through Ambassador Winant. The phrase “in a confidential status” indicates a desire to prevent public scrutiny of the response. This suggests that Handy and his counterparts were aware that the official response—which might be seen as contradicting the charge of the War Refugee Board—would incite criticism. This conclusion is supported by ongoing debate within the Roosevelt administration regarding potential actions to be taken on the part of the Jews.

The third discussion point offers justification for the proposed response as “sound military principle,” implying that it would be unwise for “the strength of the armed forces” to be “diversified in secondary efforts which lack military objectives.” This point dismisses suggestions that Allied forces use military resources to rescue victims of Nazi persecution as “secondary” to the main objective—winning the war. As secondary concerns, and being nonmilitary in nature, attempts to rescue refugees should not be cause for weakening the Allies' armed forces. Handy then scripts a proposed response for Harvey Hollister Bundy, a serviceman in US Army Intelligence and an assistant to Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson.

Handy concludes with a section titled “Action Recommended,” in which he issues a straightforward instruction: The chief of staff should send the scripted response under discussion point three to Bundy. It can be inferred from the earlier text that Bundy would communicate this response to the British government via Ambassador Winant.

Essential Themes

The broader theme of this document is the ongoing debate and controversy, during the war and after, regarding Allied inaction as Nazi atrocities against European Jews and other minorities escalated toward genocide. Numerous primary source documents have established what the Allied leaders knew about Nazi plans to exterminate the Jews, and when they knew it. By February 1944, the death camps had been operating for more than a year, and millions of Jews had died in the gas chambers as well as by other means, including mass shootings and attacks in the ghettos. Allied leaders faced several problems: the appropriate allocation of resources during wartime, the best strategies to fight and win the war, and the feasibility of rescue attempts or attacks on the death camps—and railroad lines leading to the camps—during the heaviest fighting of the war. By 1944, it had become clear that the best strategy to save Jewish lives would have been to open international borders to the flood of Jewish emigrants trying to escape the rising tide of Nazi power, but by then, it was too late.

This document and others serve as evidence for evaluation of Allied action and inaction during the Holocaust.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Breitman, Richard, and Alan M. Kraut. “A Message to Rabbi Wise.” American Refugee Policy and European Jewry, 1933–1945. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987. Print.
  • Breitman, Richard. Official Secrets: What the Nazis Planned, What the British and Americans Knew. New York: Hill, 1998. Print.
  • Hamerow, Theodore S. Why We Watched: Europe, America, and the Holocaust. New York: Norton, 2008. Print.
  • Kershaw, Ian. Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution. New Haven: Yale UP, 2008. Print.
  • Neufeld, Michael J., and Michael Berenbaum, eds. The Bombing of Auschwitz: Should the Allies Have Attempted It? New York: St. Martin's, 2000. Print.
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