Americans generally had access to reliable information about the Nazi regime’s persecution of Jews as it happened, but most people could not imagine that a mass murder campaign was possible. Though most Americans sympathized with the plight of European Jews, that sympathy did not translate into a concerted nationwide effort to assist refugees or rescue the victims of Nazism.

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. Antisemitism in the United States further prejudiced Americans against Jewish immigrants.

US Refugee and Immigration Policies of the 1930s and 1940s

The United States had no refugee policy in the 1930s or 1940s. Refugees fleeing persecution were forced to follow the complicated and bureaucratic immigration process. Neither President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration nor the US Congress adjusted that process, which included quotas (numerical limits on the number of immigrants) to significantly 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 between 1933 and 1945, it did admit more refugees fleeing Nazism than any other nation in the world.

From Neutrality to War

When World War II began in September 1939, most Americans hoped the United States would remain neutral. Over the next two years, however, the United States slowly began to support the Allied powers amid ongoing debates between isolationists and interventionists. Isolationists wanted the United States to stay out of war and focus on the defense of the Western Hemisphere. In contrast, interventionists favored proactively assisting Great Britain, even if it meant entering the war. Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, ended this debate. The United States quickly declared war on Japan in response to the attack, and Germany soon responded by declaring war on the United States.

The United States joined the Allies’ fight against the Axis powers (led by Germany, Italy, and Japan) in World War II to defend democracy, not to rescue Jewish victims of the Nazi regime. It wasn't until January 1944 that the US government created the War Refugee Board. The War Refugee Board was charged with trying to rescue and provide relief for Jews and other groups persecuted 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 World War II and the Holocaust.

Although the American people and their government had a lot of information about the Nazi persecution and later murder of Jews, the rescue of Jews never became a national priority. The United States alone could not have prevented the Holocaust, but more could have been done to save some of the six million Jews who were murdered.