The U.S. Response to Humanitarian Crises
excerpted from the book
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
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
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
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.
... 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
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.