The War Refugee Board, established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in January 1944, was a U.S. executive agency created to aid civilian victims of the Nazi and Axis powers. Created largely at the behest of Roosevelt's Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr., Roosevelt "stressed that it was urgent that action be taken at once to forestall the plan of the Nazis to exterminate all the Jews and other persecuted minorities in Europe".
The WRB was created when a group of young Treasury Department lawyers, including John Pehle, Ansel Luxford, and Josiah E. DuBois, Jr., grew frustrated by State Department delays surrounding a license for relief funds to help Jews escape Romania and France. While the Treasury Department had granted the World Jewish Congress permission to send the money to Switzerland in July 1943, the State Department used various excuses, delaying permission until December, a full eight months after the program was first proposed. Josiah DuBois also found evidence that the State Department had actively tried to suppress information about the murder of the Jews from reaching the United States.
When the Treasury staff learned about the State Department's obstructions, they wrote a report entitled Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of this Government to the Murder of the Jews, first drafted by DuBois. The report was written to convince Morgenthau that it was time to go to the President with their complaints. Morgenthau, John Pehle, and Randolph Paul met with Roosevelt on January 16, 1944. He agreed to create the War Refugee Board, issuing Executive Order 9417. Credited with rescuing tens of thousands of Jews from Nazi-occupied countries, through the efforts of Raoul Wallenberg and others, the War Refugee Board is the only major effort undertaken by the United States government to save the lives of Jews during the Holocaust.
The immediate cause for Roosevelt’s action was pressure from the staff of the Treasury Department’s office of Foreign Funds Control and its chief, John W. Pehle. Pehle’s office had authorized a number of charitable groups to use funds in the U.S. regulated under the Trading with the Enemy Act to pay for food, medicine, and other aid to refugees and other civilian victims of the war in Europe. Those efforts were systematically blocked by some officials in the U.S. State Department. Specifically, in July 1943, the Treasury Department issued a license to the World Jewish Congress to use funds in the United States to pay some of the costs of evacuating Jews from Romania and France. (This should not be confused with another initiative, by the Romanian government, to “sell” Jews for approximately $50 a head, with which it had no connection.)
Various State Department officials delayed the license for the next five months. Treasury officials, led by a staff lawyer, Josiah E. DuBois, Jr., investigated how and why the license had been held up. In their research, which was aided by some whistleblowers in the State Department, they discovered that in addition to blocking licenses for use of money to aid refugees, the State Department had also sent foreign missions orders not to forward information about Nazi atrocities—specifically about the Holocaust—to Washington. At the end of 1944, DuBois wrote a memorandum, “Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of the Jews”, which said the State Department was “guilty not only of gross procrastination and willful failure to act, but even of willful attempts to prevent action from being taken to rescue Jews from Hitler".
DuBois took his memorandum to Treasury General Counsel Randolph E. Paul, who agreed to put his signature on it and forward it to Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. After a series of meetings, Morgenthau agreed to take his staff's concerns to the President. Morgenthau, Paul, and Pehle met with President Roosevelt in the White House on Sunday, January 16, 1944.
Roosevelt got an oral briefing on the facts and conclusions in the Treasury Department's memorandum, and immediately agreed to deal with the issues by creating a War Refugee Board, consisting of three cabinet members, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Secretary Morgenthau, and Secretary of War Henry Stimson (Morgenthau had suggested that instead of Stimson, Leo Crowley, Director of the Foreign Economic Administration be appointed, but Roosevelt decided to appoint Stimson instead.) On January 22, 1944 Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9417 creating the Board. The Treasury Department did not act in a vacuum. By the end of 1943, Roosevelt was also getting intense pressure to act on the issue from members of Congress, including Sol Bloom and Emanuel Celler; Jewish organizations, most notably Stephen Wise and the American Jewish Congress, and Peter Bergson and the Emergency Committee to Save the Jews of Europe. Two Congressional resolutions had been introduced in November 1943, calling on Roosevelt to create a commission to formulate and effectuate plans for the relief and rescue of Jews. The Senate was scheduled to vote on the resolution in late January; the House Committee on Foreign Affairs held hearings, and testimony from these hearings further discredited Breckinridge Long of the State Department.
John W. Pehle, the assistant to the secretary of treasury, was appointed Executive Director of the board, which was directly responsible to the president. Its members included the Secretary of State, the Secretary of the Treasury, the Secretary of War, and a staff, mainly pulled from inside the Treasury Department. Though they were officially restricted to a maximum staff of thirty, some government employees (including Pehle) were considered "detailed" to the WRB, raising their staff to seventy in the summer of 1944. Brigadier General William O'Dwyer later succeeded Pehle as executive director until its dissolution at the end of World War II.
The Board appointed representatives in Turkey, Switzerland, Sweden, Portugal, Great Britain, Italy, and North Africa.
The WRB developed and implemented various plans and programs for:Rescuing, transporting, and relieving victims of enemy oppression
Establishing of havens of temporary refuge for such victims
The War Refugee Board enlisted the cooperation of foreign governments and international refugee and rescue organizations in carrying out these functions. Such neutral countries as Switzerland, Sweden, and Turkey were of particular importance, serving as bases of operation for the rescue and relief program. The Vatican rendered some assistance, mostly towards the very end of the war, primarily as a channel of communication to enemy regimes, such as the fascist government of Slovakia. The board obtained the cooperation of the Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, and the International Committee of the Red Cross in rehabilitating and resettling refugees, finding temporary shelters for rescued victims, transporting these victims to the shelters and providing for their maintenance in transit, and making relief deliveries inside enemy territory.
The WRB worked closely with private U.S. relief agencies in formulating, financing, and executing plans and projects. A Treasury Department licensing policy that permitted established private agencies to transfer funds from the United States to their representatives in neutral countries aided in financing the rescue of persecuted peoples living under Nazi control. Under this licensing policy, it was possible to communicate with persons in enemy territory and to finance rescue operations with certain controls designed to bring no financial benefit to the enemy. Approximately $15 million in private funds was made available in this way. The board obtained blockade clearances for food shipments of private relief agencies for distribution by the International Red Cross to detainees in Nazi concentration camps and supplemented these private projects with a food-parcel program of its own financed from the emergency funds of the president.
Through the efforts of the War Refugee Board, refugee camps were prepared in North Africa and safe haven was arranged in Palestine, Switzerland, and Sweden. The Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter in Oswego, New York, housed nearly one thousand refugees permitted to enter the United States outside the immigration laws.
By attracting international attention to the Hungarian government and putting pressure on them, the WRB contributed to the cessation of deportations of Jews from Hungary to Auschwitz, possibly saving many of the Jews of Budapest. The board sent the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, and others to protect the Jews of Budapest. Through the WRB, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee funded Wallenberg's rescue work there.
In August 1944 the WRB brought 982 Jewish refugees from Italy to Fort Ontario in New York. The WRB used the example of Fort Ontario to influence other countries to also allow additional refugees over their borders. The WRB lobbied Roosevelt to publicly condemn the mass murder of Jews by the Nazis, which he did on March 24, 1944.
It is difficult to determine the exact number of Jews rescued by the War Refugee Board, since so much of their work was done behind enemy lines and involved psychological warfare and other intangible rescue activities. One historian, David Wyman, credits them with saving as many as 200,000 people; the WRB staff themselves estimated they saved tens of thousands. However, near the end of his life, WRB director Pehle described the work as "too little, too late" in contrast with the totality of the Holocaust.
With the close of the war in Europe, the work of the board was at an end. By the terms of Executive Order No. 9614 the board was abolished on September 15, 1945.