The U.S. Response to Humanitarian Crises

excerpted from the book

Imperial Alibis

by Stephen Rosskamm Shalom



With Hitler's rise to power in 1933, and particularly after November 1938 when Jews in Germany were terrorized and tens of thousands were sent to concentration camps, Jews were desperate to emigrate. Nazi policy at the time encouraged emigration-extermination didn't become policy until after the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941-but the world's doors remained closed. In the United States, Congress and even explicit anti-Semites supported the idea of a haven for Jews, as long as it wasn't in the United States." President Franklin Roosevelt, responding to public pressure, convened an international conference at Evian, France, in 1938 to deal with the refugee crisis, but made clear that the United States had no intention of loosening its quotas. Only one country attending the conference offered any substantial encouragement to Jewish immigration-the Dominican Republic, because dictator Rafael Trujillo wanted to increase the white population of his country relative to the black.

The United States didn't even admit Jews up to its low quota limits. The State Department established all sorts of bureaucratic obstacles to immigration that fell within the quota, claiming to fear spies, saboteurs, and those who would end up on the public welfare rolls. In late 1941, after talking with Lawrence A. Steinhardt, the Jewish U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, the Department's official in charge of issuing visas recorded in his diary his approval of Steinhardt's opposition to immigration in large numbers from Russia and Poland of the Eastern Europeans whom he characterizes as entirely unfit to become citizens of this country. He says they are lawless, scheming, defiant-and in many ways inassimilable. He said the general type of immigrant was just the same as the criminal Jews who crowd our police dockets in New York and with whom he is acquainted.... I think he is right-not as regards the Russian and Polish Jew alone but the lower level of all that Slav population of Eastern Europe and Western Asia.'

The United States entered the war in December 1941, and by the end of the next year U.S. officials knew for certain that Jews were being systematically murdered." Yet U.S. immigration policy remained unchanged: the quotas were maintained and State Department administrative policies assured that only 10 percent of the quota slots were filled, not for any lack of potential refugees. In addition, Washington persuaded Latin American governments to halt all their immigration from Europe.

During the course of the war, numerous opportunities presented themselves for rescuing substantial numbers of Jews. But, as David Wyman's well-documented study The Abandonment of the Jews concluded, the State Department and the British Foreign Office "had no intention of rescuing large numbers of European Jews. On the contrary, they continually feared that Germany or other Axis nations might release tens of thousands of Jews into Allied hands." This would have put intense pressure on the United States to admit more Jewish refugees. It also would have put pressure on the British to open Palestine to Jewish immigration, which they were loathe to do, not out of any concern for Palestinians (Churchill called Arabs "a backward people who eat nothing but camel dung"), but to maintain Britain's imperial position in the Middle East. The State Department hoped that the Nazis would not offer to deliver a large number of refugees, because, the Department warned in October 1943, the Allied unwillingness to accept them would transfer the odium from Germany to the Allies.

Some rescue schemes raised tough moral issues: Should trucks be traded for Jews? Should the Allies threaten to bomb German cities in retaliation for killing Jews? (This latter proposal was essentially moot since the Allies were bombing German cities and civilians in any event.) But other opportunities involved no threat to the war effort. Among the possibilities were setting up "free ports" for refugees, establishing a war refugee board, and bombing the death camp at Auschwitz and the railroads leading to it.

U.S. public opinion strongly opposed increasing the immigration quotas, but there was substantial support for the idea of free ports: just as certain goods were allowed to enter free ports as long as they were later going to be transhipped, so refugees might be admitted if they were placed in camps until the end of the war and then sent elsewhere. In addition, such an example might have helped in persuading Spain, Turkey, and Switzerland to accept more refugees. Roosevelt finally agreed to set up such a free port, a camp at Fort Ontario, New York, accommodating a grand total of 1,000 people (this while 55,000 immigration slots remained unfilled). Obviously, this miserly effort was hardly sufficient to set much of an example to other countries. And to reassure the public that the refugees weren't being treated too well, government medical policy provided that the refugees were to be maintained in the same general condition under which they arrived; not even vitamins could be given to children out of government funds.

A government agency assigned the job of helping Jews could have made a big difference: pressuring neutral nations, funding escape efforts broadcasting warnings to Jews in occupied Europe, and so on. FDR set up such an agency-the War Refugee Board-but only in 1944, after Congress was about to do so, and fourteen months after U.S. policy-makers knew of the death camps. The Board received little power, no cooperation from the administration, and woefully inadequate government funding. Even so, its dedicated staff was able to save some 200,000 people.

In 1944, the U.S. War Department was urged by Jewish organizations and others to bomb Auschwitz. Assistant Secretary John J. McCloy replied that "such an operation could be executed only by the diversion of considerable air support essential to the success of our forces" and would be of "doubtful efficacy." Moreover, said McCloy, "such an effort, even if practicable, might provoke even more vindictive action by the Germans." McCloy never explained what could be more vindictive than mass extermination, but his other excuses were bogus as well. U.S. bombers regularly flew near Auschwitz on their way to other targets, and even did heavy bombing in the area of the death camp, including at the industrial facilities associated with the camp. The camp had taken eight months to build and under the conditions prevailing in 1944 could not have been rebuilt if it were destroyed by bombing. The single-minded focus on the war effort that McCloy said precluded saving Jewish lives did not prevent McCloy from blocking the planned bombing of a German town known for its medieval architecture, or stop Washington from dropping supplies in what it knew was a futile effort to assist the Polish Home Army in its uprising in Warsaw or prevent a U.S. army tank unit from going out of its way in what the U.S. Senate called a "heroic effort" to save some valuable horses.

The shameful record of the United States and the rest of the world during the holocaust is used by Zionists to justify the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. This is not the place to deal at any length with this argument, but it should be noted that the Zionist movement did not distinguish itself either in rescue efforts during the war. Rescue was always subordinated to the goal of establishing Israel. Mainstream U.S. Zionists, for example, refused to back a congressional resolution calling for more immigration to Palestine unless it included a demand for a state. The Zionists also did not support the legislation calling for the establishment of the War Refugee Board. The Zionist movement was not without influence in the United States during the war, but it devoted its major efforts to the drive for a Jewish state and relegated rescue to a secondary position.

Defeating Nazi Germany ended the holocaust. But the United States did not enter the war to save Jews. And when it could have saved many by opening up the immigration quotas or bombing the gas chambers, it did not do so. World War II may have been a "just war," but it certainly wasn't driven by humanitarian concerns on the part of the U.S. government.



In Cambodia in the late 1970s, the Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot carried out massive atrocities against its own population. Before 1975, the United States had destabilized Cambodian society and subjected its peasantry to one of the most intense bombardments in history, thereby creating the conditions for the Khmer Rouge's brutal rule. Once Pol Pot took power, the United States had almost zero direct influence on the Cambodian government. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke testified in 1977 that only one country carried any weight in Phnom Penh, and that was China, which, unfortunately, had no desire to prod the Khmer Rouge to stop the killings.' But Washington had growing ties with Beijing which it could have used as indirect leverage on the Cambodians. The Carter administration, however, was more eager to solidify its relationship with China and to punish Vietnam for resisting U.S. domination for two decades than to concern itself with Cambodian deaths. In May 1978, National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski discussed with the Chinese the need for "assistance to Southeast Asian efforts to check Soviet support of Vietnamese expansionism,"' the only efforts in this regard at the time being those of the Khmer Rouge.

At the end of the year, Vietnam invaded Cambodia. To many Cambodians, this was a humanitarian intervention, saving them from the brutality of the Khmer Rouge.' Hanoi did not officially endorse the humanitarian justification for its intervention, appealing instead to its right of self-defense against continual Cambodian border incursions.' There would be reasons to question a humanitarian intervention rationale from Vietnam, even if it had been put forward. Apart from the historic Vietnamese domination of Indochina, there is the fact that Hanoi had publicly supported the Khmer Rouge regime in 1977' and even returned refugees to the Khmer Rouge to maintain ties.' But however we judge the Vietnamese intervention, the U.S. reaction was clearly devoid of humanitarian considerations.

Though the Vietnamese quickly took Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge were able to regroup over the Thai border and with support from China and Thailand wage a guerrilla war against the new Vietnam-backed regime of Heng Samrin. Brzezinski boasted in 1981: "I encouraged the Chinese to support Pol Pot." Pol Pot, he said, "was an abomination. We could never support him. But China could." And while Chinese arms flowed to the Khmer Rouge, the United States, according to Brzezinski, "winked semipublicly.

As part of its policy of punishing Hanoi, Washington had banned all aid to Vietnam, and even obstructed private U.S. aid agencies from shipping privately donated humanitarian assistance to meet basic needs of the people of Vietnam. Following the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, the new Vietnam-backed regime in Phnom Penh was subjected to the same restrictions.' The only U.S. humanitarian aid was that sent to the refugee camps near the Thai border from which the Khmer Rouge and other anti-Phnom Penh guerrillas recruited fighters. At the same time, the United States gave diplomatic support to Pol Pot, voting to award the Cambodia seat in the General Assembly to the Khmer Rouge rather than giving it to Heng Samrin, or even leaving it vacant.

Despite Washington's claim that it was following the lead of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in dealing with the Cambodia question, in fact, as one conservative scholar has noted, "Over and over again, the U.S. has acquiesced in attempts by Beijing to block a more compromise oriented policy" put forward by some Southeast Asian nations.' In July 1981, for example, at a UN conference on Cambodia in New York, ASEAN wanted the final resolution to call for the disarming of the Khmer Rouge in the context of a political settlement; the Chinese instead wanted language that favored the Khmer Rouge. Washington sided with Beijing.'

In May 1982, the Khmer Rouge formed a coalition with Prince Sihanouk and Son Sann, two conservative leaders of what the United States dubbed the NCR-Noncommunist Cambodian Resistance. The NCR was of little consequence militarily, but they gave the Khmer Rouge international respectability, with Sihanouk becoming the nominal head of a coalition in which the Khmer Rouge was the dominant force. ASEAN and the United States had pressed Sihanouk and Son Sann to adhere to the coalition, making their joining a precondition for receiving western aid.'

ASEAN provided weapons (some of them manufactured under U.S. license) to the NCR, while Washington provided them with financial support, "non-lethal" supplies, intelligence information, military advice, and coordination of all the aid.' The United States claimed this support in no way aided the Khmer Rouge, but, as Sihanouk admitted, "We assist one another in every circumstance and cooperate with one another on the battlefield."' The U.S. General Accounting Office reported that from 1986 to 1988 there was no U.S. accountability to assure that U.S. aid went to the Sihanouk and Son Sann forces and not to the Khmer Rouge; "serious abuses and diversions of assistance" were found to have occurred, though "the details of these abuses remain classified by the State Department." After 1988, when tighter controls were imposed, the GAO could verify that the NCR received the aid, but had no way of determining how it was used within Cambodia, and whether, for example, it was diverted to the Khmer Rouge.

In 1989, Vietnam withdrew its troops from Cambodia, but U.S. policy remained unchanged. Only under congressional pressure and the defection of the West European allies,' did the Bush administration announce in July 1990 that it would no longer vote to give the Cambodian seat in the United Nations to the Khmer Rouge-dominated coalition., But this new policy did not end U.S. aid to the Khmer Rouge's coalition partners nor U.S. endorsement of Sihanouk's insistence that any settlement must be acceptable to the Khmer Rouge.' After further evidence of battlefield coordination between the Khmer Rouge and the U.S.-supported guerrillas, Washington suspended aid to the latter in early 1991; but a month later, the aid was resumed.' A UN peace-keeping force is now being sent to Cambodia to supervise country-wide elections. Whether the Khmer Rouge will be able to intimidate its way to victory-using military force that it accumulated over the years of its tacit alliance with the United States-remains to be seen.

More Massacres

... the United States overthrew the elected government of Guatemala and organized a brutal security apparatus to maintain the status quo. Over the next three and half decades, this U.S.-backed security force-"today arguably the most repressive force in Latin America," in the words of a Wall Street Journal reporter-was responsible for as many as 200,000 killings, with the help of intelligence files set up by the CIA.'

Between 1965 and 1969, at least half a million people were massacred in Indonesia by the army and its right-wing supporters. U.S. diplomatic backing for the Jakarta butchers, and U. S. enthusiasm for the defeat suffered by the Left in the bloodbath have long been noted. Recently, however, Kathy Kaldane of State News Service documented that Washington did more than just serve as a cheering section: the CIA provided the killers with lists of names of leftists to murder. A decade later, when Indonesia invaded East Timor, killing upwards of 100,000, the United States continued to arm Indonesia and blocked United Nations actions to halt the slaughter.

In Uganda, Idi Amin presided over the killing of some 250,000 people between 1971 and 1979. Amin took power in a military coup backed by Britain and Israel; he had been a member of the British colonial armed forces and was known to be a murderous thug, but ferocity in carrying out orders had always been considered a virtue by his British commanders.' Amin soon broke with Israel and established ties with Libya, Saudi Arabia, the PLO, and the eastern bloc. Washington called home its ambassador from Kampala in 1973, but publicly attributed the recall not to the mass slaughter then under way, but to Amin's "entirely unacceptable" criticism of the U.S. role in Vietnam.' At the same time, the United States became Uganda's main trading partner, and continued to provide the regime with military equipment and training for members of its internal security force. By the end, Amin was an international embarrassment. The U.S. Congress voted (over objections from the Carter administration) to cut off trade with the country. When Ugandan troops conducted a raid into neighboring Tanzania, the Tanzanians responded with an all-out invasion of Uganda and deposed Amin in 1979, in what is often referred to as a humanitarian intervention. The aftermath, however, was not very promising: after an initial euphoria, the country slid into civil war, repression, and mass murder. As many may have died in the half decade following Amin as during his rule, and not a few talked of the "good old days under Amin."' Amin obtained refuge first in Libya and then in Saudi Arabia, where he is today.

There have been other murderous regimes where U.S. leverage has been negligible. For example, the governments of China in the 1950s and 1960s and Ethiopia in the 1980s have been responsible for massive death. Washington was hostile to both of these regimes, but there are good grounds for doubting that humanitarianism was the reason for the hostility: the Ethiopian government in power before 1974 was also responsible for mass starvation and a brutal war against secessionist movements, and yet was strongly supported by the United States;'94 and Mao's predecessor massacred immense numbers,' while enjoying U.S. backing

There has been no instance since World War II in which the United States has formally justified a resort to force on the grounds of humanitarian intervention on behalf of non-Americans. More significantly, however, although there have been many opportunities for Washington to have stopped massacres and saved lives by measures short of direct military intervention, it has not done so. Sometimes it has acquiesced in the murders; sometimes it has facilitated them.

The U.S. government has often been generous with food aid, and even though there is an element of self-interest in distributing surplus food supplies, this generosity should still be welcomed. But often-as in Biafra and Bangladesh-the U.S. participation in relief efforts was used to deflect attention from the larger U.S. complicity in mass atrocities.

There have been three recent cases of inhuman regimes deposed by outside intervention-in Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Uganda. I have indicated some reasons for being skeptical regarding the humanitarian intervention justification in each of these cases, though I admit these are not easy situations. But there is no doubt-given the U.S. record with respect to government murder-that U.S. intervention is unlikely to promote humane results.

There will be situations, like the travail of the Kurds in Iraq, where intervention may be considered. In the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq war, Saddam Hussein turned his military machine, including chemical weapons, against his country's Kurdish population. At least half a million Kurds were forcibly relocated, many were killed, and 4,000 villages were wiped off the map, but there was no word of public protest from the Bush administration.' In February and March 1991, the United States urged the Iraqi people to overthrow Saddam Hussein; the Voice of Free Iraq-almost certainly a CIA-funded operation-recruited Kurdish exiles to broadcast calls to their compatriots to rise up against the Iraqi leader.' When the U.S. calls were heeded, President Bush proceeded to turn his back on the Kurds, just as Kissinger had done in 1975 (while Bush was head of the CIA).

Bush decided to let Saddam Hussein put down the rebellions without U.S. intervention rather than risk the splintering of Iraq. Washington had warned Hussein not to use combat helicopters against the insurgents, but when he ignored the U.S. warning, the United States chose not to act. In fact, a White House spokesperson explicitly rescinded the warning.' "We never made any promises to these people," said a senior official. "We don't want Iraq dismembered, since that would go counter to the reason we fought the war," commented another official.

White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater declared that reports of atrocities against the Kurds would not change U. S. policy. Just a short while before Bush had likened Saddam Hussein to Adolf Hitler; now Fitzwater equated the Iraqi leader with those trying to overthrow him:

I think it's safe to assume that in the kind of warfare being conducted by the rebel forces and the Kurds, as well as by the Government of Iraq, as well as by other groups, that there are all sorts of atrocities and war repercussions taking place-yes. But it is our belief that the best policy is not to involve ourselves in those internal conflicts.

Only after U.S. and international opinion were aroused by Bush's perfidy did the president move to protect the Kurds. And his continuing hypocrisy was evident from his complete silence while Kurds are being massacred by Turkey-a loyal ally and member of the anti-Iraq coalition. In addition to killing Kurds within Turkey, Ankara has launched major raids by its U.S.-supplied air force against Kurdish villages in Iraq-located within the allied security zone. (In 1983, while NATO maneuvers were going on in Turkey, Turkish troops attacked Kurdish positions in Iraq with Iraqi approval, eliciting no criticism in the West.) Kurds in Turkey have been subjected for years to draconian legislation that, among other things, outlaws the use of their language in books, newspapers, schools, and public meetings. Even a Turkish law banning spoken Kurdish in any circumstance was only lifted recently. (Objections to spoken Kurdish, the New York Times's Clyde Haberman sympathetically noted, "were rooted less in racism than in a sincere foot-in-door fear that yielding on language rights today would lead inexorably to separatist demands tomorrow." Protecting the Kurdish people from the Turkish government would not require sending in foreign troops. Given Ankara's dependence on trade and aid from the West, the United States has ready leverage to save many l lives-leverage it has no interest in exercising.

Imperial Alibis