Henry Morgenthau Jr. was born into a prominent family of German Jewish descent in New York City. His father, Henry Morgenthau Sr., was a successful real estate investor and diplomat who served as ambassador to the Ottoman Empire during the presidential administration of Woodrow Wilson. Morgenthau Sr. was the ambassador in place during World War I and the Armenian genocide when Ottoman Turks massacred as many as 1.2 million Armenians.

During World War I, Henry Morgenthau Jr. worked in the US Farm Administration of the United States Department of Agriculture. He worked under Herbert Hoover, who later became US president. 

From 1922 to 1933, Morgenthau was the publisher of American Agriculturist, an independent journal. In 1928, his long-time friend and then governor of New York, Franklin D. Roosevelt, appointed Morgenthau as chairman of his agricultural advisory committee. In 1933, following Roosevelt's election to the presidency, Morgenthau was appointed chairman of the Federal Farm Board, an independent and intergovernmental agency below Cabinet level. Then in 1934, he was appointed to the position of secretary of the treasury.

Over more than eleven years as treasury secretary, Morgenthau would stabilize the US dollar, help finance the “New Deal,” prepare the US economy for war, and finance the war effort through the sale of war bonds. Although he often personally opposed the argument that government spending could end the Great Depression and disagreed with certain aspects of Roosevelt's “New Deal,” he was extremely loyal to Roosevelt.

Morgenthau was the only Jewish person to serve as a cabinet secretary during Roosevelt’s administration. While showing some concern for the plight of Germany's Jews, he did not become actively involved in the issue until the late 1930s. In 1938, aware that the US immigration quota system was insufficient to accommodate the number of immigrants who wanted to come to the United States, he proposed to Roosevelt that the United States acquire British and French Guiana in order to use these territories as a place of refuge for immigrants from Nazi Germany. Roosevelt did not favor that particular proposal. Nonetheless, Morgenthau continued to bring various rescue plans to his attention.

Morgenthau and the Establishment of the War Refugee Board

In 1943, months after the US State Department confirmed the existence of a German policy and practice aimed at annihilating the Jews of Europe, Morgenthau became involved in the debate over rescue at the urging of some of his staff at the Department of Treasury. These officials were disappointed by the lack of tangible results following the Bermuda Conference in the spring of 1943, and suspected that US State Department officials had purposefully delayed assistance to Jews in France and Romania. Treasury staff members John Pehle, Randolph Paul, Ansel Luxford, and Josiah DuBois presented Morgenthau with an 18-page memorandum entitled “Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of Jews" on January 13, 1944. Three days later, Morgenthau, Pehle, and Paul met with President Roosevelt. Warning of future negative assessments of the will and actions of the Roosevelt administration with respect to trying to rescue European Jews, they urged the president to agree to a more focused effort by the US government to provide relief and, if possible, rescue Jews and non-Jews threatened with death in German-occupied and German-influenced Europe. The president issued an executive order establishing the War Refugee Board (WRB) on January 22, 1944.

Third meeting of the War Refugee Board

The Morgenthau Plan

In 1944, the same year that the War Refugee Board was established, Morgenthau devised a plan for the occupation of Germany, known as the Morgenthau Plan. The Plan advocated harsh measures to ensure Germany could not go to war again. It stipulated that Germany's heavy industry was to be dismantled and the country converted to an agricultural economy. Although Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill signed a modified version of the plan in September 1944 at the Second Quebec Conference, the victorious Allies never fully implemented it. US Secretary of State Cordell Hull and US Secretary of War Henry Stimson firmly opposed the policy, as did British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden. Moreover, in the first postwar years, the Truman administration's concern about the developing “Cold War” and the need to strengthen the western zones of occupied Germany reinforced opposition to implementation of the Morgenthau Plan.

Still, the western Allies implemented some of its suggestions. For instance, the Morgenthau Plan strongly influenced Joint Chiefs of Staff Directive (JCS 1067), issued on May 10, 1945. This Directive, which remained in force until July 1947, aimed at reducing overall German living standards in order to prevent Germany's reemergence as an aggressive power. It prohibited assistance to the German agricultural sector, and banned the production of oil, rubber, merchant ships, and aircraft.

Morgenthau’s Resignation

Due to personal and policy differences with President Harry S. Truman, Morgenthau was forced to resign from the Treasury in July 1945. He spent much of the rest of his life working for Jewish philanthropies, including the United Jewish Appeal, and became a strong supporter of the state of Israel.