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Dwight Eisenhower, Holocaust Rescuer

Fifty years after his death, a growing new appreciation for the president’s special empathy for the Jewish people

Benjamin Runkle
October 11, 2019
Photo: Library of Congress
Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower with other military and civilian officials gathered in the rubble of Warsaw, 1946Photo: Library of Congress
Photo: Library of Congress
Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower with other military and civilian officials gathered in the rubble of Warsaw, 1946Photo: Library of Congress

This year marks the 50th anniversary of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s death. Recent years have seen a renewed scholarly interest in Eisenhower, particularly as the increasingly bitter partisanship of modern politics helps foster nostalgia for his more collegial style of leadership.

For many Jews, however, Eisenhower’s presidential legacy is marred by his appointment of the anti-Semitic John Foster Dulles as secretary of State, and his administration’s subsequent skepticism toward Zionism and sometimes tenuous relationship with the young state of Israel. Indeed, as Michael Doran argues in his excellent history of Eisenhower’s foreign policy in the Middle East, Ike’s Gamble, the president saw Israel as a liability and decisively sided with Egyptian strongman Gamel Abdel Nasser against Israel, Britain, and France during the 1956 Suez Crisis. Today, Eisenhower’s failed attempt to be a neutral broker in the Middle East is portrayed by some as a role model for a U.S. foreign policy toward the region not “beholden” to “Israeli interests.”

Yet it would be a mistake to define Eisenhower’s relationship with the Jews strictly by his Administration’s failed realpolitik. As commander in chief of the Allied Forces in Europe, Eisenhower was the primary driver behind the memorialization of the Holocaust; he ordered extraordinary measures to ensure the well-being of Jewish displaced persons during the occupation of Germany; and, following David Ben-Gurion’s recommendation, he established a “temporary haven” in the American Zone of Occupation for persecuted Jews from Eastern and Central Europe—a policy that both the Soviets and the British strongly opposed.

There was little about Eisenhower’s upbringing or his professional milieu that suggested he would develop any special empathy for the Jewish people. Although he was born in Denison, Texas, in 1890, two years later Eisenhower’s family returned to Abilene, Kansas, where he and his five brothers (a sixth died in infancy) were raised. The closest Jewish congregation to Abilene appears to have been in Topeka, 90 miles away. Consequently, Eisenhower had virtually no firsthand knowledge of Jews or Judaism. He once told Abba Eban that as a boy he did not think there were any Jews on earth, that they were “all in heaven as angels.”

Although the Eisenhowers steeped their sons in Bible studies, they did so in a somewhat esoteric fashion. Disconsolate after the death of Ike’s infant brother Paul in 1895, David and Ida Eisenhower left the Mennonite River Brethren Church and became devoted Jehovah’s Witnesses, then known as the Bible Students or the Watchtower Society. Local adherents of this faith met at the Eisenhowers’ home every Sunday and taught that all other churches were not pleasing to God. The second president of the Watchtower Society taught that all priests and ministers are of Satan and were leading their flocks to eternal damnation.

Yet in his memoirs, Eisenhower noted that despite her own staunch convictions, his mother “refused to try to push her beliefs on us just as she refused to modify her own.” Despite their upbringing, the Eisenhower brothers eventually abandoned most of their parents’ beliefs. Milton became a college administrator despite the religion’s condemnation of higher education; Earl served as a state legislator contrary to the group’s prohibition against working in civil government. Dwight Eisenhower strayed the furthest, becoming a military officer despite the sect’s strict pacifism. Younger brother Milton, then president of Penn State, wrote to Ike in 1942:

I was at a cocktail party … in Washington given by one of those real old dowagers. She said very nicely to me, “You must come from a very nice family, young man. You have an important job here, and your brother is leading our troops abroad and I understand another brother is a banker. What a pity it is that you are Jewish.” I looked at her, sighed unhappily, and said, “Ah, Madame, what a pity it is that we are not.”

Conversely, their older brother Edgar, a successful banker, suspected Franklin Delano Roosevelt might be a Jew but was definitely a communist.

Eisenhower’s later empathy for European Jews was also surprising given the Army’s culture in the two decades prior to WWII, which was rife with institutional anti-Semitism. As historian Joseph Bendersky notes in The ‘Jewish Threat,’ the Army’s foreign intelligence liaison department was dominated by officers who eagerly spread the calumny of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Books by prominent white supremacists such as Lothrop Stoddard were mandatory reading at West Point and the Army War College. “You have to face the fact that some of our most important American newspapers are Jewish-controlled,” Harvard historian William L. Langer declared in a 1939 War College lecture. The New York Times, in particular, gave “a great deal of prominence” to “every little upset that occurs in Germany. … So that in a rather subtle way, the picture you get is that there is no good in the Germans whatever.”

Although Eisenhower never uttered such sentiments, he was certainly exposed to these prejudices, and worse. In November 1929, Eisenhower was assigned to the assistant secretary of war’s office as executive assistant to Maj. Gen. George Van Horn Moseley, the assistant secretary’s principal military adviser, under whom he served directly from 1929-1931. Moseley, one of the country’s most decorated soldiers, called Eisenhower “my brainy assistant” and recorded his appreciation in his subordinate’s efficiency reports. He later wrote to Eisenhower: “You possess one of those exceptional minds which enables you to assemble and to analyze a set of facts, always drawing sound conclusions and, equally important, you have the ability to express those conclusions in clear and convincing form. Many officers can take the first two steps of a problem, but few have your ability of expression.”

Yet even in an organization notorious for its social conservatism, Moseley was exceptional in his racism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism. After serving as the Army’s deputy chief of staff and a corps area commander, Moseley retired in 1938 and became a bitter critic of FDR and the New Deal. He saw the possibility of war with Germany as a conspiracy launched by the great investment banks, which in his view were controlled by Jews. In an unpublished memoir, he wrote: “If we are to re-establish our Christian Republic as it was founded, we must defeat the Jewish plan in their effort to kill off their Gentile competitors.” Moseley ultimately came to believe that the Jews of Europe “were receiving their just punishment for the crucifixion of Christ.”

Eisenhower was aware of Moseley’s bigotry, noting in a September 1940 letter to Mark Clark that “in spite of his retired activities [Moseley] was a shrewd judge of officers.” Although Ike disapproved of Moseley’s extremism, he nevertheless maintained a correspondence, writing Moseley in August 1941: “You cannot know how much I appreciate the good wishes you send me—and I constantly recall my association with you as a very wonderful personal opportunity, and your good opinion means a lot to me.”

Yet despite these potentially pernicious influences, from 1938-1945 Eisenhower showed a remarkable personal empathy toward the plight of European Jewry. While serving in the Philippines with Gen. Douglas MacArthur in a failed attempt to build a Philippine army from scratch, Eisenhower played in a regular poker game that included Philippine President Manuel Quezon, and Alex and Phillip Frieder, two American Jewish brothers who owned a cigar factory in Manila. Manila was home to a large Jewish community, as the Philippine government permitted 1,300 European Jews with the required skills as teachers, professors, doctors, and lawyers fleeing Hitler’s oppression and unable to emigrate to the United States to enter on a selective basis. Having heard Eisenhower’s vehement arguments with Spanish supporters of Hitler in Manila, the Frieders offered the young colonel a job on behalf of the Jewish Relief Committee of Manila resettling German Jews in Asia. They offered him $60,000 a year—six times his current Army salary, and roughly $2 million in today’s dollars—for a minimum of five years. Although Eisenhower sympathized with the refugees’ plight, another war clearly loomed on the horizon. As he noted in his memoirs, “I had become so committed to my profession that I declined.” Upon leaving the Philippines in December 1939—mostly to get out from under MacArthur’s increasingly toxic leadership—Eisenhower began the rapid rise that culminated with being appointed commander of the European Theater of Operations in 1942.

Jewish critics of Eisenhower often cite two controversial decisions he made as a general during WWII: the deal he made with Vichy French commander Jean Darlan during Operation Torch that left various anti-Semitic ordinances in place during the Allied occupation of North Africa; and the Allied decision not to bomb the train lines to Auschwitz in July 1944. Although in the case of whether or not to bomb the concentration camps the actual decision was made echelons above him, Eisenhower made the deal with the despicable French general in order to avoid having to fight French forces along with the Wehrmacht in northern Africa or alienating the Arab population in such a way that would negatively affect an already difficult military campaign. In both cases, it was military exigencies—whether right or wrong in the bigger picture—that were determinative to Eisenhower at a time when the conflict’s outcome was far from certain.

On April 12, 1945, however, with the Wehrmacht in full retreat and Allied forces pouring into Germany, Eisenhower visited the recently liberated Ohrdruf-Nord concentration camp near Gotha with generals Omar Bradley and George Patton. In an effort to eliminate witnesses to their crimes, the SS guards had murdered 4,000 prisoners before fleeing. The surviving prisoners were emaciated skeletons, and bodies were piled everywhere, some having been set ablaze in makeshift funeral pyres. The stench was indescribable, and even Patton, no shrinking violet when it came to the carnage of battle, excused himself and vomited against the side of a building. Eisenhower called the atrocities “beyond the American mind to comprehend,” and ordered every American unit not on the frontlines to see Ohrdruf. The next day he visited Buchenwald and sent a cable to George Marshall urging the Army chief of staff to come to Germany to see for himself. “I made the visit deliberately,” he told his boss, “in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to ‘propaganda.’”

Eisenhower wrote to the governments in Washington and London urging that newspaper editors and representatives of all political parties be sent to Germany immediately so that evidence of Nazi atrocities could be placed before the British and American publics in a way that would leave no room for doubt. This began the process of documenting the Shoah that proved instrumental to both the prosecution of Nazi war crimes and gaining international sympathy critical to the eventual support for the creation of the State of Israel.

After Germany’s surrender in May 1945, more than 8 million displaced persons (DPs) wandered through Europe. By the end of the summer all but roughly 600,000 had been repatriated, including about 100,000 German and East European Jews who had survived the extermination camps. The U.S. Army, together with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, assumed responsibility for the remaining DPs and had to establish camps, register and process individuals, and provide food, shelter, clothing and medical care. Because of a lack of facilities, the military detained many of the European Jews in or near the concentration camps where they had been imprisoned. Moreover, the Army made the mistake of classifying Jewish DPs by their nationality rather than as a separate group, so that German and Italian Jews were labeled former “enemy nationals” and often housed with former concentration camp guards.

When Earl Harrison led a State Department investigation into the conditions in European refugee camps, he found the Jews lived “amid crowded, frequently unsanitary and generally grim conditions in complete idleness.” Moreover, the report concluded: “As matters now stand, we appear to be treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them except that we do not exterminate them. They are in concentration camps in large numbers under our military guard instead of S.S. troops.”

As supreme commander, Eisenhower undoubtedly bears some responsibility for this debacle. Yet whereas Bendersky implies the Army’s neglect was due to latent anti-Semitism, it must also be remembered that there was simply no precedent for a humanitarian mission of this scale in 1945. Moreover, because the Roosevelt administration had repeatedly vacillated as to what Allied policy toward postwar Germany would be, the military operated under the only approved operational document, JCS 1067, which provided little to no guidance as to how to handle so many DPs, particularly those as persecuted and traumatized as the Holocaust’s survivors.

Once Eisenhower was made aware of Harrison’s findings, he acted quickly. He toured the DP camps, which Rabbi Judah Nadich, who was the senior Jewish chaplain in the European Theater of Operations, said “proved to be the single greatest factor to date in boosting the morale of the displaced persons. They knew now that they were not forgotten people.” Eisenhower issued a series of directives aimed at improving their conditions. Subordinates were told to segregate Jewish refugees, requisition housing for them even if it meant displacing Germans, and to increase their daily rations to 2,500 calories, twice that of German civilians. One American observer, Harvey D. Gibson, president of Manufacturers Trust Co., toured the revamped areas in October 1945 and reported that conditions were “much-improved.”

Eisenhower also reversed his initial position and requested that somebody be appointed to serve as a special adviser on affairs dealing with displaced Jews, and in October Judge Simon Rifkind was given the position. (Indeed, Eisenhower cabled Secretary of War Henry Stimson with this request on Aug. 10, 1945, a month before President Harry Truman’s letter ordering the general to address the Harrison Report’s findings.) Eisenhower subsequently promised Rifkind “Anything you need in the way of personnel or transport, or in any other type of assistance.” Rabbi Nadich, who served as an adviser to Eisenhower, recalled that Eisenhower’s treatment of the Jews was consistently “marked by understanding and sympathy.”

Eisenhower was also sympathetic to Harrison Report findings that contradicted Allied policy. One challenge in maintaining the DP camps was that the number of people they had to accommodate kept rising as Jews who had returned to their former homes in Poland, Romania, and other areas of Eastern Europe were forced to flee again in the face of postwar pogroms. Whereas the British and Soviets denied these refugees entry into their zones of occupation, the U.S. Army let them into the American zone. Consequently, Nadich stated that Eisenhower saved the “lives not only of the Jews in the DP camps,” but also of the “approximately 80,000 Jews … who came in across the borders from Eastern Europe.”

Once in the American zone, Harrison found that most of the Jews wanted to go to Palestine, and recommended that 100,000 Jews be quickly allowed to emigrate there. The British still held the mandate, however, and strenuously opposed the policy. Although Eisenhower was unable to alter this fact, he allowed David Ben-Gurion and other representatives of the Jewish Agency to visit the camps and establish contact with the Jewish DPs that enabled a mass exodus from the camps once Israel gained its independence.

Whereas Rabbi Nadich perhaps overstates Eisenhower’s contribution by declaring that “in the annals of Jewish history the name of General Eisenhower will always be venerated as one of the great saviors in the history of the Jewish people” one need only compare Eisenhower’s empathy for the Jews to other generals to see that his reaction was extraordinary. Although arguably America’s greatest operational commander during the war, Patton’s oversight of the DP camps in Bavaria was marred by his indisputable anti-Semitism. He wrote that “Harrison and his ilk believe that the displaced person is a human being, which he is not, and this applies particularly to the Jews, who are lower than animals.” When Eisenhower visited one of the worst DP camps in Bavaria, Patton blamed the squalid conditions on the inmates themselves, who were “pissing and crapping all over the place,” and said he was thinking of building his own concentration camp “for some of these goddamn Jews.” Eisenhower told him, “Shut up, George,” and later relieved his old friend from command for Patton’s comments to the press comparing membership in the Nazi party to that of the Democratic and Republican parties. When Eisenhower met with Patton’s replacement, Gen. Lucian Truscott, he told him that the “most acute and important problems” facing the Third Army “were those involving denazification and the handling of those unfortunate persons who had been the victims of Nazi persecution.” Eisenhower told Truscott to be “stern” toward the Nazis and to give preferential treatment to Jewish DPs.

Thus, although the Eisenhower administrations paid little attention to American Jewry’s concerns in regard to Israel as it set out to enact a policy of “friendly impartiality” toward the Arab-Israeli conflict, it would be mistake to view this as the grand sum of Eisenhower’s relationship with the Jews. Indeed, as Doran points out, by 1958 President Eisenhower realized that distancing itself from Israel gained the United States precious little diplomatic traction in Arab capitals. According to his vice president, Richard Nixon, Eisenhower said that Suez was “his major foreign policy mistake,” and the former President reportedly told another acquaintance, “I never should have pressured Israel to evacuate the Sinai.”

What is indisputable is that, against both the circumstances of his upbringing and his professional/social milieu, Eisenhower developed a deep empathy for the plight of European Jewry and he repeatedly expressed that empathy through strong, consistent action. Although he might not merit inclusion in Yad Vashem’s Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations, he enacted policies that saved Jewish lives and helped make Israel’s creation possible—and which few other American generals would have ordered.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the date of Eisenhower’s death. He died March 28, 1969, at age 78.

Benjamin Runkle is the author ofGenerals in the Making: How Marshall, Eisenhower, Patton, and Their Peers Became the Commanders Who Won World War II. He is a Senior Policy Fellow with Artis International and an Adjunct Lecturer with The Johns Hopkins University’s Global Security Studies program.