The U.S. Response to the Holocaust

Experts discussed reasons for U.S. actions in WWII during a Loeb Institute for Religious Freedom virtual forum.

Peter Berkowitz
Peter Berkowitz, historian and political analyst, discussed the U.S. response to the Holocaust.
April 09, 2021

By Curtis Bunn

The way Peter Berkowitz sees it, Holocaust Remembrance Day was more than an opportunity to look back on the atrocities of the genocide of European Jews during World War II. More than 80 years since its conclusion, it serves additionally as an opportunity to learn.

It would be difficult to find an authority more suited on the subject than Dr. Berkowitz, the director of policy planning at the U.S. State Department, the executive secretary of the Presidential Commission on Unalienable Rights and a longtime fellow of the Hoover Institution.

During an online Q & A session Thursday in honor of the day recognizing the atrocity of killing six million Jewish people, Dr. Berkowitz took questions and engaged in conversation with interviewer Samuel Goldman, the executive director of the Ambassador John L. Loeb, Jr. Institute for Religious Freedom and an associate professor of political science at George Washington University. The event was sponsored by the GW Alumni Association.

Dr. Goldman set the groundwork for the occasion by opening the virtual event sharing that the United States government had a role in the Holocaust in that it was aware the tragedy was taking place but slow to offer aid to halt it.

“For sure,” Dr. Berkowitz agreed, “that terrifying event—World War II and the Holocaust—do reflect a deep and recurring tension in political affairs within international relations. The tension between necessity and justice. The tension between military, necessity and justice. There can be no doubt that during World War II, the United States’ primary interest was military victory over the Nazis ... and was not the military rescue of Jews targeted for extinction.”

He added, “Some of the political considerations were perfectly appropriate. There was also an element of bigotry and prejudice that fed into American considerations.”

Ultimately, though, Dr. Berkowitz said America’s role in the ending the atrocity in 1945 was significant.

“There’s no doubt the United States did not do all that the United States could do,” he said. “But we also have to say, America’s military campaign. . . represented the struggle for nations seeking freedom against authoritarian nations that despised individual freedoms and equality. So even in securing their vital national security interest, the United States played a decisive role in defeating that evil power, the Nazis.”

But he said America and the world learned from the Holocaust and its inaction for a time, which led to revolutionary commitment to not letting it happen again, anywhere.

In 1948, the nations of the world, with the United States at the lead, voted to approve the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Dr. Berkowitz said, “reflecting on the terrible experience of World War II and appreciating that through (advancements of technology and transportation), the world had become a single unit with an international order.”

“The U.S. took on an obligation. . . to foster respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for people around the world,” he said. “For the United States, the tension between justice and necessity took a specific and immediate form.”

To end the in-depth, one-hour conversation, Dr. Berkowitz had a message for students about what they could do to help as young people who care about the world.

“The short answer is, there is a thousand and one things you can do to help,” he said. “There is not just one way to help with human rights abroad. I would take advantage of my college years and study history, literature, religion, philosophy to acquire a broad-based understanding of the United States, the principles on which we were founded.

“And to branch out. A liberal education begins at home under the principles of freedom under which we are fortunate enough to live. Include in your studies the many ways we fall short. . . Learn foreign languages and cultures of other nations.”


Politics and Society


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