When President Bill Clinton stepped to the podium at the opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., 20 years ago, most of the audience no doubt expected him to offer the usual generalities about the importance of not forgetting the past. Instead, Clinton went much further, delivering the harshest words ever uttered by an American president about our country’s response to the Nazi genocide.
Clinton made clear that the response of the U.S. to news of the Holocaust was an important part of the events that need to be commemorated and taught. He said on April 22, 1993 that the construction of the museum would “redeem in some small measure the deaths of millions whom our nations did not, or would not, or could not save.” He referred to America’s lethargic response to the Holocaust as constituting “complicity” in what happened.
Moving from general criticism of America’s response to very specific references to the policies of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration, Clinton continued, “For those of us here today representing the nations of the West, we must live forever with this knowledge—even as our fragmentary awareness of crimes grew into indisputable facts, far too little was done. Before the war even started, doors to liberty were shut and even after the United States and the Allies attacked Germany, rail lines in the camps within miles of militarily significant targets were left undisturbed.”
It was the first time an American president had ever explicitly criticized the response of the U.S. government to the Holocaust. Many years later, President George W. Bush, viewing an aerial reconnaissance photo of Auschwitz at Yad Vashem, remarked, “We should have bombed it.” And President Barack Obama said last year that the Nazis were able to carry out the Holocaust in part “because so many others stood silent.”
But it was Clinton’s specific and detailed commentary on the American response that really cemented the idea that the U.S. Holocaust museum has an obligation to frankly confront our own government’s record during those years.
The museum’s 20th anniversary, which is being marked this spring with a series of commemorative events and exhibitions, is an appropriate time to consider how the museum has met the challenge that Clinton presented.
Consider, for example, the story of the refugee ship St. Louis, the infamous “Voyage of the Damned.” That episode shines a particularly troubling light on America’s response to the plight of the Jews under Hitler. It was therefore very much in keeping with Clinton’s mandate that the museum undertook a comprehensive research project to trace the fate of each of the 937 passengers.
The final study, authored by museum staffers Sarah Ogilvie and Scott Miller, was published by the museum in 2006, in a book titled Refuge Denied. It chronicled the sad story of how the St. Louis, after being turned away from Cuba, hovered off the coast of Florida, hoping to be granted haven by President Roosevelt. But FDR denied their appeals, the book recounts, and “several U.S. Coast Guard cutters surrounded the vessel to make sure that none of the would-be emigrees attempted to swim for shore.” Forced to return to Europe, many of the St. Louis passengers would ultimately perish in the Holocaust. Thanks to the museum’s efforts, we now have a complete accounting not only of the tragic voyage itself, but also of what happened to those men, women, and children afterward. They were real people, not just statistics, and their stories matter.
Clinton himself has spoken movingly about the St. Louis. For example, at a dinner of Steven Speliberg’s Shoah Visual History Foundation in 2005, Clinton—according to news reports—”recalled President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s refusal in 1939 to admit more than 900 Jewish refugees aboard the German ship St. Louis” and called it “one of the darkest chapters in United States history.”
Another important aspect of America’s response to the Holocaust that has garnered the museum’s attention is the work of the Bergson Group, the political action committee that used newspaper ads, marches, and Capitol Hill lobbying to pressure the Roosevelt administration on the rescue issue.
The Bergson Group’s efforts were the subject of controversy both at the time and in later years, and the museum did not initially include mention of the group’s activities when it opened its doors in 1993. But after appeals by a number of historians and public figures, the museum in 2007 added to its permanent exhibition several panels, photographs, and artifacts chronicling the Bergson Group’s successful efforts to alert Americans about the Holocaust and to change U.S. policy, albeit belatedly.
Not every aspect of America’s response to the Holocaust is fully addressed in the museum; there is more work to be done in telling the story. Still, by confronting such key episodes as the voyage of the St. Louis and the work of the Bergson activists, the U.S. Holocaust museum, in its first 20 years, has taken significant steps toward fulfilling Clinton’s vision of a museum that will openly and honestly confront our country’s past.
Dr. Rafael Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, in Washington, D.C. His latest book is “FDR and the Holocaust: A Breach of Faith,” available from Amazon.