Americans had access to reliable information about the Nazi regime’s persecution of Jews as it happened, but most could not imagine that a mass murder campaign was possible. Though most Americans sympathized with the plight of European Jews, assisting refugees and rescuing the victims of Nazism never became a national priority.
Domestic concerns in the United States, including unemployment and national security, combined with prevalent antisemitism and racism, shaped Americans’ responses to Nazism and willingness to aid European Jews.
The United States and the other Allied nations prioritized military victory over humanitarian considerations during World War II. Saving Jews targeted for murder by the Nazi regime and its collaborators was not the Allies’ wartime aim.
The United States admitted between 180,000 and 225,000 refugees who were fleeing Nazi persecution between 1933 and 1945. Although the United States permitted more refugees to enter than any other nation, thousands more could have been granted US immigration visas had the quotas been filled during this period.
The economic devastation of the Great Depression in the United States, combined with a commitment to neutrality and deeply held prejudices against immigrants, limited Americans’ willingness to welcome refugees. Neither President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration nor the US Congress adjusted America’s complicated and bureaucratic immigration process, which included quotas—numerical limits on the number of immigrants—to aid the hundreds of thousands of refugees trying to flee Europe. Instead, the US State Department implemented new restrictive measures during this period that made it more difficult for immigrants’ to enter the United States. Although the United States issued far fewer immigration visas than it could have during this period, it did admit more refugees fleeing Nazism than any other nation in the world.
When World War II began in September 1939, most Americans hoped the United States would remain neutral. Over the next two years, amid ongoing debates between those who wanted the United States to stay out of war and focus on the defense of the Western Hemisphere (isolationists) and those who favored proactively assisting Great Britain, even if it meant entering the war (interventionists), the United States slowly began to support the Allied powers. Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, ended this debate. The United States quickly declared war on Japan, and Germany soon responded by declaring war on the United States.
The United States joined the Allies’ fight against the Axis powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan) in World War II to defend democracy, not to rescue Jewish victims of the Nazi regime. In January 1944, the US government created the War Refugee Board, charged with trying to rescue and provide relief for Jews and other minorities who were targeted by the Nazis. During the final year of the war, US rescue efforts saved tens of thousands of lives. In the spring of 1945, Allied forces, including millions of American soldiers defeated Nazi Germany and its Axis collaborators, ending the Holocaust.
Breitman, Richard, and Allan J. Lichtman. FDR and the Jews. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014.
Feingold, Henry L. The Politics of Rescue: The Roosevelt Administration and the Holocaust, 1938-1945. 1970.
Lipstadt, Deborah E. Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust 1933-1945. New York: The Free Press, 1986.
Trachtenberg, Barry. The United States and the Nazi Holocaust: Race, Refuge, and Remembrance. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018.
Wyman, David S. The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust, 1941-1945. New York: Pantheon, 1984.
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