A running theme in the six-hour film, co-directed by Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein, is what the US could have done to avoid the worst of the atrocities that led to the deaths of an estimated six million European Jews.
Deborah Lipstadt, the current special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism, argued that bombing Auschwitz would send a “message” to the Germans that “we know what you’re doing. We cannot accept what you are doing. This is our response to what you are doing.”
Leaders at the time considered attacking the concentration camp, where at least 1 million people were killed, but worried that it would not be effective. During the war, aerial bombing was inaccurate; only one in five bombs hit within five miles of its target. US Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy claimed that President Franklin D. Roosevelt rejected the idea, worried that the Germans would simply rebuild the camp somewhere else.
“It’s one of those tragic questions,” Rebecca Erbelding, Rescue Board: The Untold Story of America’s Efforts to Save Europe’s Jews, says in the film. American officials weighed the risks of doing nothing against the risk of bombing prisoners and people who would survive. “No matter what we did, I think we would look back and wonder what would have happened if we had done the other thing.”
Ken Burns believes there is no doubt that the US could have done more. He believes that even if ten times as many refugees are admitted, it will not be enough. “Despite the fact, as we say in the film’s introduction, that the United States has admitted more people than any other sovereign nation — we haven’t done enough. We failed,” Burns tells TIME.
In November 1938, two weeks later Kristallnacht— in which Nazis destroyed Jewish homes and synagogues in Germany — the survey found that more than 90 percent of Americans disapproved of this type of violence, but more than seven in ten Americans opposed allowing more Jewish exiles from Germany into the U.S.
The documentary covers the many reasons for such resistance. The Great Depression was one factor, as Americans feared that refugees could take away their already scarce jobs. But there was also widespread anti-Semitism espoused by leading Americans, including Charles Lindbergh. Automotive pioneer Henry Ford wrongly blamed Jews for the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and even candies less tasty. While there were American Jewish organizations that did heroic work to get persecuted Jews out of Germany, there were also American Jews who were afraid to speak out and jeopardize their already precarious positions in American society.
The documentary also shines a light on voices in America who are critical of the US approach to the Holocaust. In a 1943 article The nationThe editor-in-chief and supporter of the New Deal, Freda Kirchway, criticized FDR for not doing enough to stop the genocide of the Jews by the Nazis, arguing: “If we had behaved like humane and generous people, instead of complacent, cowardly, two million Jews , lying today in the soil of Poland and Hitler’s other crowded cemeteries, would be alive and safe…. It was in our power to save this doomed people, and we did not lift a hand to do it – or perhaps it would be more let’s be honest, we raised only one cautious hand, wrapped in a tight-fitting glove of quotas and visas and affidavits and a thick layer of prejudice.
The restrictive quota system for Southern and Eastern European Jews that Kirchwey mentions predates Nazism up until the 1920s, and was maintained due to anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and national security concerns.
During World War II, the United States accepted about 225,000 refugees from the Nazis—more than any other sovereign nation. But even here America held back. “The U.S. government is not issuing the maximum number of visas it can have, so there are thousands and thousands of visas that go unissued,” says Daniel Green, one of the historians interviewed in the film. “If the U.S. government had issued all these visas, it doesn’t stop the Holocaust, but it does mean that hundreds of thousands or tens of thousands of people could enter the United States who would otherwise have been detained.
But the filmmakers argue that no one can be held responsible for preventing the worst of the Holocaust. FDR had to deal with widespread anti-Semitism among the electorate and in Congress.
“Yes, he’s the president, and yes, there’s responsibility, but he’s also dealing with a huge domestic crisis,” as Sarah Botstein told TIME. “He is answerable to his electorate. He deals with Congress. He does not act alone. He is a more complex character in this story.
One of the big questions is whether the US could have done a better job of disclosing more of the private intelligence about the killing of European Jews when the details became available, and whether that could have swayed public opinion. Given the widespread anti-Semitism and xenophobia growing in the 1930s, public information campaigns about the march of fascism in Europe focused on broader themes of the freedom struggle. Earlier in the war, the American media did report the mass murders of Jews, but in small articles deep in the papers. “Either you missed it, or if you saw it, you’d say the editors didn’t think it was true — if they thought it was true, it would be on the front pages,” as Lipstad puts it in the film.
However, black newspapers such as the Pittsburgh courier, put the murders of European Jews on the front page, likening southern whites to the Nazis. The full extent of the horror of the Holocaust became clear to many Americans only after exemption on concentration camps in 1945.
“The United States government — especially after Europe went to war, but before the United States joined the war — was very wary of seeing this as a war to save the Jews of Europe,” Greene told TIME. “It is never really a war to save the Jews of Europe. This is a war to defeat fascism and save democracy. But when we think about what [more] could have been done, perhaps by spreading more information in the United States or spreading more information in European countries, in Allied countries, about the dangers of Nazism to European Jews.
in The United States and the Holocaust, viewers learn about bureaucrats who did try to spread the word about Nazi atrocities. In 1942, Gerhart Rigner, who represented the World Jewish Congress in Geneva, Switzerland, warned the US State Department that the Nazis intended to round up and kill European Jews. US diplomats were initially skeptical of the intelligence, but when influential US rabbi Stephen Wise broke the news to the Associated Press, coverage caused public outrage. In the fall of 1944, John Pehle, director of the War Refugee Board in his early 30s, decided to release an eyewitness account detailing Auschwitz from escapees, which made front page news. The child of an immigrant family, he leads an organization that saved tens of thousands of Jews.
Burns is known for a series of documentaries about the American experience ranging from Civil War and on war in vietnam to jazz and baseball. As far as where The USA and the Holocaust fit into his four-decade film career, Burns concluded, “I’m not going to work on a more important film than this.”
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