Ken Burns Holocaust Documentary Asks Why U.S. Didn’t Do More

Are the U.S. allowed to bomb the Auschwitz concentration camps during World War II.

That’s one of several “what if?” questions Ken Burns tackles in his latest documentaryThe U.S. and HolocaustPBS airs the series on three nights, starting September 18th.

The six-hour plus feature features a running theme that was co-directed by Sarah Botstein and Lynn Novick. It examines what the U.S. could do to prevent the horrors that led to the death of six million European Jews.

Deborah Lipstadt, the current Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism, argues that bombing Auschwitz would have sent “a message” to the Germans that “‘we know what you are doing. Your actions are unacceptable. This is our response to what you are doing.’”

Leaders at the time considered attacking the concentration camp where at least 1 million people were put to death, but worried that it wouldn’t be effective. Aerial bombing proved to be imprecise during World War II. Only one bomb hit its target within five miles. John McCloy was the U.S. assistant Secretary of War. He claimed Franklin D. Roosevelt didn’t approve the idea because the Germans wanted to rebuild the camp elsewhere.

“It is one of those tragic questions,” Rebecca Erbelding, Rescue Board: The Untold Story of America’s Efforts to Save the Jews of Europe,The film says so. U.S. officials weighed the dangers of not doing anything against the potential of bombing prisoners or people who could have survived. “No matter what we did, I think we’d look back and wonder what would have happened had we done the other thing.”

Ken Burns believes there’s no question that the U.S. could have done more. He believes that even if ten times as many refugees were let in, it wouldn’t be enough. “Despite the fact, as we say in the intro of the film, that the United States let in more people than any other sovereign nation—we didn’t do enough. We failed,” Burns tells TIME.

Learn more Ken Burns discusses his new documentaryThe U.S. and Holocaust

In Nov. 1938, two weeks after Kristallnacht—in which the Nazis destroyed Jewish homes and synagogues in Germany—polling showed that more than 90% of Americans disapproved of that kind of violence, but more than seven out of ten Americans opposed letting more Jewish exiles from Germany into the U.S.

It explains why this resistance exists. Americans were afraid that refugees would take their already limited jobs. This was one reason for the Great Depression. Charles Lindbergh and other prominent Americans embraced widespread antisemitism. Automobile pioneer Henry Ford wrongly blamed Jews for President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and even for making candy bars less tasty. Although there are American Jewish organizations who did heroic work in bringing persecuted Jews to Germany, American Jewish people weren’t afraid to voice their concerns and put themselves at risk of losing their fragile positions within American society.

Also, the documentary highlights voices within America who are opposed to U.S. policy towards the Holocaust. A 1943 opinion piece The Nation’s editor-in-chief and New Deal supporter, Freda Kirchwey reamed out FDR for not doing enough to stop the Nazis’ genocide of the Jews, arguing, “If we had behaved like humane and generous people instead of complacent, cowardly ones, the two million Jews lying today in the earth of Poland and Hitler’s other crowded graveyards would be alive and safe…. We had it in our power to rescue this doomed people and we did not lift a hand to do it—or perhaps it would be fairer to say that we lifted just one cautious hand, encased in a tight-fitting glove of quotas and visas and affidavits, and a thick layer of prejudice.”

Kirchwey’s reference to the restrictive quota system of southern and Eastern European Jews was established before Nazism. The system dates all the way back in the 1920s and was maintained due to antisemitism as well as xenophobia and national security considerations.

Learn more America Denied Refugees After the End of World War II—Just As We Are Today

During World War II, the U.S. took in some 225,000 refugees from the Nazis—more than any other sovereign nation. America held its ground even though this was a significant feat. “The U.S. government doesn’t issue the maximum number of visas that it could have, so there’s thousands and thousands of visas that go unissued,” says Daniel Greene, one of the historians interviewed in the film. “If the U.S. government had issued all of those visas, it doesn’t stop the Holocaust, but it does mean hundreds of thousands or tens of thousands of people are able to enter the United States who otherwise were kept out.”

However, the film makers argue that it is impossible for one individual to prevent the worst from happening. FDR faced widespread antisemitism within Congress and the electorate.

“Yes, he’s the President, and yes, there is responsibility there, but he’s also dealing with a huge domestic crisis,” as Sarah Botstein put it to TIME. “He’s answerable to his electorate. He’s dealing with Congress. He doesn’t act alone. He’s a more complicated character in this history.”

One of the big questions is whether the U.S. could have done a better job of publicizing more of the private intelligence on the murder of Europe’s Jews as the details became available, and whether that could have turned public opinion around. Public information campaigns on the rise of fascism throughout Europe were focused more broadly on freedom-fighting, due to the widespread antisemitism/xenophobia that had been rising since the 1930s. The mass murder of Jews was reported by American media outlets earlier in wartime, though in small articles in newspapers. “You either missed it or if you saw it, you would say the editors don’t think this is true—if they thought this was true, this would be on the front pages,” as Lipstadt puts it in the film.

Black newspapers such as the Pittsburgh Tribune, however, exist. Courier, did put the killings of Europe’s Jews on the front page, likening southern whites to Nazis. After 1945 liberation, many Americans realized how horrendous the Holocaust was.

Learn more ‘It’s Not That the Story Was Buried.’ What Americans in the 1930s Really Knew About What Was Happening in Germany

“The United States government—especially after Europe goes to war, but before the United States joins the war—is very wary of this being perceived as a war to rescue the Jews of Europe,” Greene tells TIME. “Indeed, it never is a war to rescue the Jews of Europe. It’s a war to defeat fascism and save democracy. When we think about the future, however, it’s not hard to see what [more] could have been done, perhaps circulating more information in the United States or circulating more information in European countries, in allied countries, about the dangers of Nazism to Europe’s Jews.”

The Holocaust and America viewers learn about bureaucrats who did try to get the word out about the Nazis’ atrocities. In 1942, Gerhart Riegner, who represented the World Jewish Congress in Geneva, Switzerland, alerted the U.S. State Department that the Nazis were going to round up and murder Europe’s Jews. Although American diplomats initially resisted the information, Stephen Wise (an influential American rabbi) alerted them to it. The news sparked widespread outrage. John Pehle (a War Refugee Board Director in his 30s) decided to publish a report on eyewitness accounts of Auschwitz by escapees. It made top-page news. He was a child of immigrants and led an organization that saved thousands of Jews.

Burns is well-known for his series of documentary on American history, which range from the Civil War through the Vietnam War through jazz to baseball. Where? The U.S.A and the Holocaust fits in his four-decade film career, Burns concludes, “I will not work on a more important film than this one.”

The U.S.A and the HolocaustAirs Sept. 18-19, 19-20 at 8:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET on PBS, or the PBS Video application.

Read More From Time

To Olivia B. Waxman at

Read More From Time

To Olivia B. Waxman at


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