Eighty years ago this week, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the War Refugee Board (WRB), a new government agency tasked with rescuing and providing relief for Jews and other groups facing Nazi persecution.   

While the War Refugee Board’s creation was truly historic, it came about due to the Treasury Department’s exposure of the State Department’s obstruction of earlier attempts to aid Jews. In the 1930s, the State Department strictly interpreted immigration laws, often leaving the already highly limited quotas unfilled. During World War II, State officials delayed humanitarian aid to Jewish communities in Europe and instructed diplomats who wished to send information about the about the Holocaust to the United States.  They apparently intended to keep it out of the hands of those who might push for a more active response.  

At a time when the easy thing to do would have been to stay silent, or to simply wait for the end of the war, Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr., together with his staff in Foreign Funds Control (today’s OFAC)John Pehle, Josiah DuBois, and Randolph Paul, exposed the State Department’s inaction and convinced President Roosevelt to create the War Refugee Board. By the end of the war, the War Refugee Board had sent 300,000 food packages into concentration camps, opened a refugee camp in upstate New York, pressured neutral nations to admit more Jews, and much more. WRB officials estimated that their work saved tens of thousands of lives and helped hundreds of thousands of people. 

The State Department recognizes this chapter of its own history and takes inspiration from the heroism of those public servants who stood in defense of humanity. Today, we are proud to have Secretary Morgenthau’s granddaughter, Sarah Morgenthau, serving as Special Representative for Commercial and Business Affairs, and to have Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues Ellen Germain and Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt’s leadership in combating antisemitism and hatred across the globe.

U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future