Book Review: “America’s Soul in the Balance: The Holocaust, FDR’s State Department, and the Moral Disgrace of an American Aristocracy” by Gregory J. Wallance
In “America’s Soul in the Balance,” Gregory J. Wallance, a partner at the New York firm of Kaye Scholer, tells the story of a chapter of American hiostory that too few know. He describes the battle in 1943 between four lawyers in the Department of the Treasury and diplomats at the Department of State. The Treasury Department lawyers were outraged at the diplomats’ suppression of graphic, unimpeachable reports of the Holocaust and their blocking the rescue European Jews. None of the lawyers or diplomats involved were Jewish, although the lawyers worked under Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau Jr. (the father of former Manhattan district attorney Robert M. Morganthau), who was Jewish. But because of his loyalty to and fear of President Frankln D. Roosevelt, was reluctant to join the fight.
The State Department diplomats were members of the upper crust, East Coast elite, and Wallance spends a good deal of time describing the worlds from which they came. Particularly thorough are his examinations of elite private boarding schools — Exeter, Groton, and St. Paul’s — and how these rarified environments shaped the world views of their graduates. Living in an aristocratic bubble, they were inbued with Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism and tended to be anti-Semetic, if not virulently so. The Treasury Department lawyers considered the diplomats to be effectively war criminals and accomplices of Hitler.
Central to the story is FDR, a complex man who saved this country from the ravages of the Great Depression and led it to victory in World War II, but who was as politically calculating as he was charming. The same FDR who befriended and comforted the nation during fireside chats was also the FDR who authorized the internment of 110,000 Japanese-Americans. It is unclear exactly how much FDR knew about the Nazi attempt to exterminate the Jews and when he knew it; but what is eminently clear is that State Department diplmats deliberately squashed the nightmarish news from Europe and were largely successful in the battle with the Treasury Department lawyers. Although Roosevelt approved the rescue of 70,000 Romanian Jews and a few others, he could have done far more and could have acted earlier.
Wallance takes us beyond the statistics of suffering by telling the story of Ruth — a little girl from Romania who lost her entire family and braved unspeakable horrors in order to survive. Today, she lives in Florida and is the author of “Ruth’s Journey: A Survivor’s Memoir,” published in 1996. Wallance alternates the story of Ruth with the chronicle of the battles in FDR’s administration.
Indeed, it was the story of another little girl much like Ruth who inspired Wallance to research and write “America’s Soul in the Balance.” He discovered correspondence of Otto Frank, Anne Frank’s father, requesting a visa to enter the United States. That led Wallance to wonder why a seemingly benevolent country did not do more to stop the slaughter of six million Jews.
“America’s Soul in the Balance” shows that there is no simple answer to that question. Nonetheless, in an era when genocide and crimes against humanity still persist, we must continue to ask it.
Note: This review was published in the December, 2010 edition of The Federal Lawyer. My interview with Mr. Wallance can be heard at http://tobtr.com/s/3575221.