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War Refugee Board Director John Pehle to Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy

National Archives & Records Administration
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tags: killing centers US armed forces

type: Letter

Beginning in the spring of 1944, US Army air force planes1 had the ability to reach the Auschwitz-Birkenau killing center from a base in Italy. In June (only a few weeks after the D-Day invasion), several Jewish organizations sent pleas to the War Refugee Board (WRB) to request the US military to do something to halt the deportations of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz. They suggested either destroying the railroad lines and bridges used to transport Jews to the camp or damaging the the gas chambers and crematoria inside the camp.

John Pehle, the director of the WRB, spoke to Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy regarding these suggestions on June 24, 1944. Pehle later sent him pleas from Jewish organizations. Still, Pehle commented in a memo, "I had several doubts about the matter…I made it very clear to Mr. McCloy that I was not, at this point at least, requesting the War Department to take any action on this proposal other than to appropriately explore it."2 McCloy wrote to Pehle on July 4, 1944, to explain that he viewed the operation as "impracticable."3

With this letter, dated November 8, 1944, Pehle forwarded a copy of the so-called "Auschwitz Protocol" to John McCloy, along with his recommendation that the War Department bomb the gas chambers and crematoria at Auschwitz-Birkenau.4 "I strongly recommend that the War Department give serious consideration to the possibility of destroying the execution chambers and crematories in Birkenau through direct bombing action," Pehle wrote.5 Unbeknownst to anyone in the US government, the gas chambers at Auschwitz had already shut down. 

On November 18, McCloy responded, stating again that "the War Department has felt that it should not, at least for the present, undertake these operations."6 He returned the copy of the Auschwitz Protocol with his response, and likely never read it.7

Historians have long debated whether the US military could—or should—have destroyed the rail lines leading to the Auschwitz-Birkenau killing center or bombed the gas chamber or crematoria inside Birkenau. These debates intensified in the 1980s, after the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) released newly discovered photographs taken by the American air forces in the summer of 1944, some of which show lines of prisoners and smoke coming from the Birkenau crematoria.8 Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, historians disputed the bombing issue. Some claimed that targeted bombing raids would have been difficult due to technical considerations. Others believe that even a chance to disrupt the killing would have been worth the attempt—and that even an unsuccessful bombing raid would have sent a strong moral signal, both to the prisoners at Auschwitz and to the Nazi leadership. These debates are ongoing and historians are unlikely to reach a consensus.9

The US Air Force did not become a separate branch of the US military until 1947.

John Pehle memo, June 24, 1944. War Refugee Board papers, Box 42, Hungary (vol 5, folder 2) [June 1944]; FDR Library, Hyde Park, NY.

John McCloy letter, July 4, 1944.

On October 12, 1944, the first courier was able to leave Switzerland, which was neutral in the war and had been surrounded by Nazi territory for nearly two years. The War Refugee Board’s representative in Bern gave the courier a long report, now generally known as the “Auschwitz Protocols,” which contained the testimonies of escapees from Auschwitz. The graphic report included detailed information about the process of arrival, selection, and gassing at Auschwitz-Birkenau, as well as an estimate that more than 1.7 million prisoners had been murdered at the camp in the previous two years. Although international press had published articles drawn from the report in the summer of 1944—and the War Refugee Board had also received detailed summaries—Pehle had never read the full report.

John McCloy, Letter to Pehle, 1944 November 18. War Refugee Board papers, Box 7, folder "German Extermination Camps" (Folder 1 of 2); FDR Library, Hyde Park, NY.

John McCloy, letter to Pehle, November 18, 1944. War Refugee Board papers, Box 7, folder "German Extermination Camps" (Folder 1 of 2); FDR Library, Hyde Park, NY. See the related item Secretary of War John McCloy to War Refugee Board Director John Pehle.

At the end of November 1944, the War Refugee Board released the report to the US press. In the wake of the publicity, McCloy complained that he had never received a copy. Transcript of phone call between Morgenthau and Stimson, 1944 November 17, The Morgenthau Diaries, vol. 799, 19-21; FDR Library, Hyde Park, NY.

David Wyman, "Why Auschwitz was Never Bombed," Commentary 65, no. 5 (May 1978): 37-46.  Wyman later adapted the article into a chapter in his 1984 The Abandonment of the Jews (New York: Pantheon, 1984). For an example of the press coverage of the Auschwitz aerial photography, see "44 Photos Showing Auschwitz Camp Spur Questions on Failure to Bomb It," Washington Post, February 23, 1979, A1. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum recorded an oral history interview with Dino Brugioni, the CIA photoanalyst who discovered and researched the photography.

Michael Neufeld and Michael Berenbaum, eds. The Bombing of Auschwitz: Should the Allies Have Attempted it? New York: St. Michael’s Press, 2000. For more on this debate, see the related USHMM Holocaust Encyclopedia article.

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Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
National Archives & Records Administration
RG Number 107
Accession Number Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy, 1941-1945--Formerly Security Classified Correspondence, 400.38--Countries-Germany, NARA-CP
Date Created
November 8, 1944
Author / Creator
John Pehle
Washington, DC
Auschwitz, Poland
Document Type Letter
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