War Refugee Board: Background and Establishment

On January 22, 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced a new policy to rescue and provide relief for Jews and other groups persecuted by Nazi Germany and its collaborators. The War Refugee Board, tasked with carrying out these programs, likely saved tens of thousands of lives.

Key Facts

  • 1

    The War Refugee Board, headed by the secretaries of State, War, and Treasury, operated between January 22, 1944, and September 15, 1945. Most of the staff were Treasury Department employees

  • 2

    The War Refugee Board streamlined the work of private relief agencies, helping them send money and resources into neutral and enemy territory. They also placed American representatives in neutral nations to supervise projects and pressure these countries to welcome refugees.

     

  • 3

    The War Refugee Board was the first and only official American response to the crimes we now call the Holocaust. Winning World War II, however, remained the Allied priority.

Introduction

Through Executive Order 9417 on January 22, 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the War Refugee Board (WRB), tasked with the “immediate rescue and relief of the Jews of Europe and other victims of enemy persecution.” An independent government agency under the Executive branch, the WRB operated until President Harry S. Truman closed it with Executive Order 9614 on September 15, 1945.

After World War II, the WRB's first director, John Pehle, described the board as “little and late” in comparison to the enormity of the Holocaust. In the War Refugee Board’s final report, the staff estimated that they saved tens of thousands of lives, and aided hundreds of thousands more.

The Bergson Group and the Emergency Committee to Save the Jews of Europe

In the United States, increased public knowledge about Nazi atrocities against Jews in Europe prompted various groups—both in the government and in the public sphere—to devise rescue proposals. Public pressure rose in thanks in part to the agitation of a group of Palestinian Jews led by Peter Bergson (who used this pseudonym instead of his birth name, Hillel Kook). The group was originally working in the United States to gain support for the formation of an independent Jewish Army under Allied command. In the summer of 1943, however, they formed the Emergency Committee to Save the Jews of Europe. The Bergson group (as it became known) took out full-page advertisements in major newspapers and sponsored elaborate public programs to raise awareness of the ongoing mass murder of the Jews of Europe.

In advertisements and petitions using the names of prominent people in the entertainment, religious, intellectual, business, and political communities, the Bergson group condemned what its members perceived to be the inaction of the United States, particularly the State Department. The group's stark language and brash tactics irked many in Congress, in the mainstream Jewish community leadership, and, in the Roosevelt administration.

Members of Congress who supported the recommendations of the Emergency Committee sponsored identical bills in the House of Representatives and the Senate in November 1943. The bill, which became known as the “Rescue Resolution,” challenged Roosevelt to establish a commission to devise and enact plans to rescue the Jews of Europe. Though the non-binding resolution passed unanimously in a Senate committee, it had not passed the full Senate or the House of Representatives by the time the War Refugee Board was created.

Internal Pressures within the Roosevelt Administration

As public pressure increased in summer and fall 1943, internal conflict developed within the Roosevelt administration. Tensions flared between the State Department, under Cordell Hull, and the Treasury Department, under Henry Morgenthau, Jr. A proposal from the World Jewish Congress to fund relief for Jews in France and Romania and the evacuation of Jews from Romania resulted in a long series of discussions and cables. While the Treasury Department officials eventually supported issuing a license to fund the relief, the State Department deliberately delayed and obstructed the plan. Their delays were a result of bureaucratic inertia, concerns about setting a precedent necessitating the approval of similar requests, and continuing reservations that the money might fall into the hands of the enemy.

The Treasury Department staff also discovered a series of cables from January and February 1943, showing that the State Department had deliberately attempted to stop information about the mass murder of Jews from reaching the United States. By the end of 1943, staff at the Treasury Department, led by General Counsel Randolph Paul and head of Foreign Funds Control John Pehle (who would later become the WRB's first director), gathered enough information to present to Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr.

These Treasury officials believed the situation sufficiently grave that they spent weeks crafting a scathing 17-page memo entitled “The Acquiescence of this Government in the Murder of the Jews.” Laying out their allegations of obstruction by the State Department, Treasury officials warned in their introduction that

“Unless remedial steps of a drastic nature are taken, and taken immediately, I am certain that no effective action will be taken by this government to prevent the complete extermination of the Jews in German controlled Europe, and that this Government will have to share for all time responsibility for this extermination.”

Executive Order Establishing the War Refugee Board

On January 16, 1944, Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr., John Pehle, and Randolph Paul met with President Roosevelt at the White House. Pehle described the facts the Treasury staff had uncovered. They presented Roosevelt with a draft executive order to establish a War Refugee Board tasked with the “immediate rescue and relief of the Jews of Europe and other victims of enemy persecution.” Oscar Cox, the administrator for Lend-Lease, who for several months had been contemplating the idea of a relief agency supported by Lend-Lease funds, assisted with drafting the Executive Order.

Roosevelt approved the order with minor changes. Executive Order 9417 establishing the War Refugee Board was issued on January 22, 1944.

Composition of the Board

John Pehle, Executive Director of the War Refugee Board.The Executive Order establishing the War Refugee Board stated, “It is the policy of this government to take all measures within its power to rescue the victims of enemy oppression who are in imminent danger of death and otherwise to afford such victims all possible relief and assistance consistent with the successful prosecution of the war.” The WRB was nominally headed by Secretary of War Henry Stimson; Secretary of State Cordell Hull (after November 1944, Edward Stettinius); and Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr. In actuality, the WRB was largely a Treasury operation. The majority of the staff came from the Treasury Department, and the WRB offices were located in the Treasury building.

John Pehle was appointed to act as the WRB's first director. He immediately gathered a staff to help run the office in Washington, and appointed overseas representatives. Brigadier General William O'Dwyer served as the director of the WRB from January 1945 until the dissolution of the board in September 1945. The board's administrative funding came from the President's Emergency fund and through Congressional appropriations. The WRB also streamlined the work of private aid organizations, most of them Jewish organizations, allowing them to fund relief and rescue projects in Europe.

Critical Thinking Questions

  • What pressures and motivations may have delayed the formation of a government program to aid the endangered Jews of Europe?
  • What pressures and motivations spurred agencies and individuals to push for such a program?
  • Investigate different methods and programs that governments, coalitions, and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) use to aid endangered populations.