Human Smoke

Neither Allen, Foster, nor their three sisters were ever as devout as their father, the Reverend Allen Macy Dulles, who presided over a small Presbyterian flock in Watertown, New York, a sleepy retreat favored by New York millionaires near Lake Ontario. But the siblings always regarded the family’s summer vacations on nearby Henderson Harbor as some kind of heaven. The huge lake and its sprinkling of islands held countless adventures for the children. The boys would rise early in the morning and, in the company of a lean, laconic fishing guide, set off in a skiff, stalking the waters for the lake’s delicious smallmouth black bass. At noon, they would ground their little sailboat on one of the islands and cook their catch over a driftwood fire. The fish was fried in crackling pork fat, served with corn and potatoes, and washed down with black coffee. Years later, they would recall these summer feasts as among the best meals of their lives.

Reverend Dulles was not a man of means, and he had difficulty supporting his family on his modest churchman’s salary. His illustrious father-in-law, the luxuriantly bewhiskered John Watson Foster, who had served briefly as secretary of state under President Benjamin Harrison and then established himself as one of Washington’s first power attorneys, was a beneficent presence in the family’s life. Reverend Dulles sometimes resented his dependence on the old man’s generosity. But the whole family thrived during their summer idylls on Lake Ontario, cozily squeezed into a big, red, clapboard cottage that had been built by Grandfather Foster. Their lakeside life was rustic—the house had no electricity and they had to pump their water. But it all seemed enchanted to the children.

There were picnics and moonlight sails, and on the Fourth of July the children would put small candles in paper balloons and set them floating in the air, watching as the golden lanterns drifted over the glittering water toward Canada. In the early evenings, Eleanor—the next oldest sibling after Allen—liked to sit on the family’s dock and watch the clouds gather over the lake, casting red and pink shafts on the darkening water. “I never feared hell and I thought heaven would be like Henderson but more so,” she mused in her later years.

Eleanor was exceedingly bright and curious, and she refused to resign herself to the prim, petticoat world to which girls of her generation were supposed to confine themselves. When the boys and men would go fishing, she would sometimes plunk herself down in the middle of the boat. When robed Chinese dignitaries and other exotic figures from her grandfather’s diplomatic forays would pay visits to Henderson Harbor, she would be certain to listen in on their conversations. Eleanor’s intelligence and determination would take her far, as she followed her brothers into the diplomatic corps, where she would eventually take over the State Department’s German desk during the critical years after World War II. But, as a brainy woman in a thoroughly male arena, she was always something of an outsider. Even her brothers were often perplexed about how to handle her. With her dark, wiry hair and thick eyeglasses, she considered herself the ugly duckling in the family. Her slightly askew status in the Dulles constellation seemed to heighten her powers of observation, however. Eleanor often had the keenest eye when it came to sizing up her family, especially her two brothers.

Allen loomed large in her life. She attached herself to him at an early age, but she learned to be wary of his sudden, explosive mood shifts. Most people saw only Allen’s charm and conviviality, but Eleanor was sometimes the target of his inexplicable eruptions of fury. Her infractions were often minor. Once Allen flew into a rage over how closely she parked the car to the family house. His moods were like the dark clouds that billowed without warning over Lake Ontario. Later in life, Eleanor simply took herself “out of his orbit to avoid the stress and furor that he stirred in me.”

Allen was darker and more complex than his older brother, and his behavior sometimes mystified his sister. One summer incident during their childhood would stick with Eleanor for the rest of her life. Allen, who was nearly ten at the time, and Eleanor, who was two years younger, had been given the task of minding their five-year-old sister Nataline. With her blond curls and sweet demeanor, Nataline—the baby in the family—was usually the object of everyone’s attention. But that day, the older children got distracted as they skipped stones across the lake’s surface from the family’s wooden dock. Suddenly, Nataline, who had retrieved a large rock to join in the game, went tumbling into the water, pulled down by the dead weight of her burden. As the child began floating away toward the lake’s deep, cold waters, her pink dress buoying her like an air balloon, Eleanor began screaming frantically. But Allen, who by then was a strong swimmer, was strangely impassive. The boy just stood on the dock and watched as his little sister drifted away. Finally, as if prompted by Eleanor’s cries, he, too, began yelling. Drawn by the uproar, their mother—who was recovering in bed from one of her periodic, pounding migraines—came flying down the dock and, plunging into the water, rescued little Nataline.

Throughout his life, Allen Dulles was slow to feel the distress of others. As a father, his daughter Joan would recall, Dulles seemed to regard his children with a curious remoteness, as if they were visitors in his house. Even his son and namesake Allen Jr. made little impact on him when he excelled in prep school and at Oxford, or later, in the Korean War, when the young man was struck in the head by a mortar shell fragment and suffered brain damage. Clover Dulles called her cold and driven husband “The Shark.”

Allen did not take after his father. Reverend Dulles, a product of Princeton University and Germany’s Göttingen University, was a scholarly, meditative type. While his children explored the wilds of Lake Ontario, he was likely to be sequestered in his upstairs study with his Sunday sermon. The minister was a compassionate man. While walking home one frigid day, he took off his coat and gave it to a man shivering in the street. On another occasion, he risked expulsion from the Presbyterian Church for performing a marriage for a divorced woman.

It was her mother, Eleanor would recall, who ran the family. Edith Foster Dulles was “a doer,” the kind of woman who “believed in action.” Eleanor would remember her cracking the whip on her father. “Now, Allen,” she would tell her husband, “you’ve been working on that book for five or six years. Don’t you think it’s good enough? Let’s publish it.”

The reflective pastor was less of an influence on his sons than their mother and grandfather. The Dulles boys were drawn to the men of action who called on Grandfather Foster, men who talked about war and high-stakes diplomacy, men who got things done. Foster and Allen both lacked their father’s sensitive temperament. Like Allen, Foster felt little empathy for those who were weak or vulnerable. He understood that there was misfortune in the world, but he expected people to put their own houses in order.

Foster’s callousness came into stark relief during the Nazi crisis in Germany. In 1932, as Hitler began his takeover of the German government, Foster visited three Jewish friends, all prominent bankers, in their Berlin office. The men were in a state of extreme anxiety during the meeting. At one point, the bankers—too afraid to speak—made motions to indicate a truck parked outside and suggested that it was monitoring their conversation. “They indicated to him that they felt absolutely no freedom,” Eleanor recalled.

Foster’s reaction to his friends’ terrible dilemma unnerved his sister. “There’s nothing that a person like me can do in dealing with these men, except probably to keep away from them,” he later told Eleanor. “They’re safer, if I keep away from them.” Actually, there was much that a Wall Street power broker like John Foster Dulles could have done for his endangered friends, starting with pulling strings to get their families and at least some of their assets out of Germany before it was too late.

Throughout her life, Eleanor wrestled with her brothers’ cold, if not cruel, behavior. A family loyalist to the end, she generally tried to give her brothers the most charitable interpretation possible. But sometimes the brothers strained even her sisterly charity. The same year that Foster sidestepped the urgent concerns of his Jewish friends in Berlin, Eleanor informed him that she intended to marry David Blondheim, the man she had been in love with ever since meeting him in Paris in 1925. Blondheim was a balding, middle-aged linguistics professor at Johns Hopkins University—with “a very sensitive mouth,” in Eleanor’s estimation, “and clear, brown eyes.” He was also a Jew. Eleanor’s parents had given Blondheim their approval, calling him “charming,” after meeting him and Eleanor for dinner during a visit to Paris. But by 1932, Reverend Dulles was dead and Foster was head of the family. And he had a different perspective on the mixed marriage that his sister and her fiancé finally felt brave enough to attempt.

Foster wrote Eleanor a letter, asking her if she realized “the complications of marrying a Jew”—and helpfully pointing out a dozen such problems. Her brother’s letter stunned and infuriated Eleanor, who by then was in her midthirties and not in need of her brother’s counsel in such matters. She promptly replied, but, not wanting to directly defy her imposing brother, she sent the letter to his wife, Janet. In her letter, Eleanor made it clear that Foster need not trouble himself with her life’s “complications” and that, in the future, she would simply “go my own way.”

Years later, Eleanor tried to explain away her brother’s behavior. He was not motivated by anti-Semitism, she insisted. He was just a product of his social and professional milieu. In his circles, she explained, people would say, “We can’t have too many Jews in this club” or “We can’t have too many Jews in this firm.” Foster simply saw this attitude as a fact of life, Eleanor observed—“just like the climate.”

In 1934, the fragile Blondheim, distressed by the growing cataclysm in Europe and private demons, sunk into depression and killed himself, sticking his head into the kitchen oven. Reasserting himself as paterfamilias, Foster swept back into the deeply shaken life of his sister and took charge. The suicide must, of course, be hushed up. And Eleanor must instantly shed the dead man’s name, or she would be haunted by it in years to come. Eleanor dutifully complied with Foster’s direction and the name Blondheim was purged from the Dulles family record, as if the brilliant man with the sensitive mouth and clear, brown eyes had never existed. The fact she was about to give birth to Blondheim’s son was a bond that Foster could never make disappear.

In early June 1939, the German transatlantic ocean liner St. Louis cruised slowly up the coastline of Florida. The ship, carrying more than nine hundred Jewish refugees from Europe, had been turned away from its original destination, Havana, after days of increasingly frantic negotiations with the Cuban government. Now the black-and-white ocean liner, towering eight decks high and flying a swastika flag, had become a ghost ship, with dimming hopes of finding a safe harbor. While the ship was anchored in Havana Harbor, relatives of the St. Louis passengers crowded onto motorboats and circled the ocean liner, desperately crying out to their loved ones. As the tension-filled days went by, one passenger grew more and more agitated, convinced that he was about to be seized by Gestapo agents on board and bundled off to a concentration camp. He slashed his wrists and jumped into the harbor, where he was rescued and sent to a hospital. He was one of the few allowed to stay in Cuba.

As St. Louis captain Gustav Schroeder guided his ship along the Florida shore, his passengers could see the sparkling lights of Miami in the near distance. Schroeder had ordered his German crew to treat the refugees just like any other passengers. While the ocean liner had steamed across the Atlantic from Hamburg, the captain asked his stewards to serve ice cream to the children and to play movies in the evening. But after the ship was turned away from Havana—where Nazi agents had stirred up anti-Semitic feelings among the local population and demagogues had fanned fears that the Jews would steal jobs that were ever scarcer in the declining economy—the festive mood on board the St. Louis had quickly dissipated. Now Captain Schroeder hugged the U.S. coastline in the dim hope that the Roosevelt administration would come to his passengers’ rescue.

The doomed voyage of the St. Louis would become a symbol of the Jewish people’s terrible predicament. While the ship plowed the seas with its human cargo, the governments of the world—from Washington, D.C., to London to Buenos Aires—debated its fate. In Washington, FDR’s Treasury secretary, Henry Morgenthau Jr., maneuvered strenuously to win permission for the ship to dock in an American port. Morgenthau, who had established himself as the conscience of the administration on the Jewish refugee crisis, dispatched U.S. Coast Guard ships to follow the St. Louis as it journeyed north along the Eastern Seaboard, so he could keep track of the ghost vessel in case the government allowed it to land.

Morgenthau was so integral a member of Roosevelt’s inner circle that he was known as “the assistant president.” He was of German Jewish ancestry and Democratic Party royalty. His father, New York real estate mogul Henry Morgenthau Sr., had been one of President Woodrow Wilson’s major financial backers and served as Wilson’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. Henry Jr., who ran a Hudson Valley farm near the Roosevelt family’s Hyde Park estate, would develop a long personal and political relationship with FDR. When Franklin’s privileged life was suddenly turned upside down by the ravages of polio, Morgenthau was one of the few political advisers who remained close to him, keeping his spirits up with games of Parcheesi.

After he was elected to the White House in 1932, Roosevelt—who was the first presidential candidate to campaign against anti-Semitism—appointed Morgenthau and several other Jews to prominent positions in his administration. Fifteen percent of FDR’s top appointees were Jewish, at a time when Jews represented less than 3 percent of the population. Bigoted enemies of the New Deal enjoyed a ditty about Franklin and First Lady Eleanor—who was known as a champion of African American civil rights—that went, “You kiss the niggers / and I’ll kiss the Jews / and we’ll stay in the White House / as long as we choose.” There were even rumors that Roosevelt himself was Jewish.

Morgenthau was acutely sensitive about the anti-Jewish sentiments that prevailed in the country, not least in the nation’s capital, where private clubs would restrict membership to white Christians until well into the 1960s. And despite his wealth, political status, and deep history with the president, he always remained somewhat insecure with Roosevelt, who was not immune to some of the prejudices of his day. Looking back on his long service with the president, Morgenthau later said, “He never let anybody around him have complete assurance that he would have a job tomorrow. . . . The thing that Roosevelt prided himself the most about was, ‘I have to have a happy ship.’ But he never had a happy ship.”

One of the least happy aspects of the Roosevelt presidency was the bitter internal battle over the plight of European Jews. FDR was a man of conscience but also an intensely political creature. The president—who was briefed from time to time in the White House by longtime supporters such as Rabbi Stephen Wise of New York and other Jewish leaders—was keenly aware of the imminent danger facing the Jewish population in Hitler’s increasingly hostile dominion. In the spring of 1938, a year before the voyage of the St. Louis, Roosevelt began discussing a plan to rescue millions of German Jews and resettle them in ten sympathetic countries. He vowed that he would request $150 million from Congress to implement the plan.

But Roosevelt found himself ensnared in political complications. He faced powerful nativist and anti-immigration sentiments in Congress, which reflected the mood of the country—feelings that had only hardened in the Depression’s savagely competitive job market. The president, who knew that he was widely perceived as a friend of the Jews, wanted to avoid appearing too beholden to them. This became particularly urgent as the 1940 presidential election neared, with FDR aiming for an unprecedented third term. In the final analysis, the president believed that the only way that the people facing Nazi persecution might be saved was through U.S. military intervention against Hitler. And with prominent isolationist crusaders like Charles Lindbergh labeling the looming European conflict a Jewish war, FDR realized that this was another reason not to appear too impassioned about the refugee crisis.

As the debate raged within the administration, millions of lives hung in the balance, including those on board the St. Louis. If Henry Morgenthau was the voice of moral imperative in Roosevelt’s government, then Breckinridge Long, the assistant secretary of state in charge of immigration, was its avatar of cynicism. Long used his bureaucratic wiles to frustrate Roosevelt’s efforts to ease the restrictive immigration policies of the Depression era. In June 1940, he circulated a memo among his department officials, proposing that they delay for an “indefinite length [of time] the number of immigrants [allowed] into the United States. We can do this by simply advising our consuls to put every obstacle in the way and to require additional evidence and to resort to various administrative devices which would postpone and postpone and postpone the granting of the visas.”

As a result of Breckinridge Long’s delaying tactics, 90 percent of the quota places reserved for refugees from Hitler’s and Mussolini’s dark realms were never filled. This meant that another 190,000 souls who could have escaped were trapped inside Europe’s burning building.

One Morgenthau aide later called the Long cabal within the State Department “an underground movement . . . to let the Jews be killed.” At one point, Morgenthau himself—who always tried to restrain himself in these debates so as not to appear a “special pleader” for the Jews—felt compelled to confront Long directly. “Breck, we might be a little frank,” began the gentlemanly Treasury secretary. “The impression is all around that you are particularly anti-Semitic.”

Long was convinced that he was being persecuted by “the communists, extreme radicals, Jewish professional agitators [and] refugee enthusiasts.” He was part of the State Department’s deeply entrenched, high-born culture—a WASP aristocracy that regarded immigrants, particularly those non-Christian newcomers from central and eastern Europe, as socially offensive and potentially subversive. Anti-Jewish attitudes in this insular club were so deeply ingrained that they were reflexive.

Perhaps not surprisingly, then, when young Allen Dulles was serving in the U.S. embassy in Turkey, his first overseas posting after World War I, he fell for the most notorious anti-Jewish fabrication in history. One day the young American diplomat was given a copy of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion by a British reporter who had fished the scurrilous document out of a secondhand bookstore in Istanbul’s old European quarter. The Protocols purported to offer a secret plan for Jewish world domination, and included tales about Christian children being sacrificed for Passover feast rituals and other lurid fantasies. By the time Dulles got his hands on the book, which was the creation of the Russian czar’s anti-Semitic secret police, the document had been widely denounced and discredited. But Dulles took it seriously enough to send a coded report about the secret Jewish “plot” back to his superiors in Washington.

Atavistic ideas about exotic Jewish “outsiders” were still widely prevalent in the State Department in June 1939 as the St. Louis lingered along the Eastern Seaboard, its food and water supplies running low. In the end, the Long faction in the Roosevelt administration would prevail in the debate over the ship. Captain Schroeder was forced to turn his ocean liner around and return to Europe, docking in Antwerp, Belgium, on June 17 after a month at sea, and disgorging the men, women, and children on board to their fates. Less than three months later, Hitler invaded Poland, and Europe went to war. More than 250 of the St. Louis’s passengers would be swallowed by the Holocaust.

As the war began, the struggle to save Europe’s Jews was far from over. President Roosevelt continued to be pushed and pulled by both sides of the increasingly tumultuous refugee debate. Initial reports about the mass evacuations of Jews to death camps in the German and Polish countryside were vague. The State Department bureaucracy bottled up much of the information, so there was a great deal that Roosevelt never saw. Humanitarians like Rabbi Wise desperately sought solid evidence of the Nazi extermination machine, which they knew was essential in order to convince FDR to take decisive action.

This was the desperate situation as Dulles began monitoring European developments—first from his OSS office in Rockefeller Center and later from his post in Bern. Among Dulles’s confidential sources was a German industrialist who was the first prominent figure inside the Nazi domain to provide credible information about the early stages of the Final Solution. The stories that the industrialist brought across the Swiss border were almost too monstrous to believe. The information that began flowing into neutral Switzerland, the listening post for war-torn Europe, should have helped force drastic Allied action. But it did not.

On July 17, 1942, Heinrich Himmler’s luxurious private train—equipped with a dining room, shower, and even a screening room—pulled into Auschwitz, a backwater town in the swampy flatlands of southern Poland. Word quickly spread about the Reichsführer’s unusual visit, soon reaching Eduard Schulte, the chief executive of a major German mining company with property in the area. What had brought Himmler to this forlorn destination? Schulte reckoned that it must have something to do with the rapidly expanding prison camp outside town, where IG Farben had built a factory to utilize the camp’s slave labor.

It is not widely recognized that the Nazi reign of terror was, in a fundamental way, a lucrative racket—an extensive criminal enterprise set up to loot the wealth of Jewish victims and exploit their labor. The chemical giant Farben was at the forefront of integrating concentration camp labor into its industrial production process, with other major German corporations like Volkswagen, Siemens, and Krupp following closely behind. Himmler’s SS empire moved aggressively to cut itself in on the spoils, extracting sizable payments from these companies for providing them with a steady flow of forced labor. Schulte, who was afraid that the rapidly expanding Auschwitz complex would begin to intrude on his own company’s mining properties, immediately took a wary interest in Himmler’s visit.

Schulte himself was not a Nazi, but he had good contacts in those circles. His deputy at the mining firm belonged to the Nazi Party and, in fact, knew Himmler. To ingratiate themselves with the party, the firm’s board of directors had loaned the local Nazi chief a company-owned villa that was located in a nearby forest. It was here that Himmler and his entourage were to be entertained that evening.

When Himmler arrived for the party at the company villa, Schulte was still unaware of the horrific reason he had come to Auschwitz. Himmler was there to witness one of the camp’s new gas chambers, a white brick cottage known as “Bunker 2,” in action. That afternoon Himmler watched as a group of 449 Jewish prisoners, recently transported from Holland, were marched into Bunker 2 and gassed with Zyklon B, the pesticide produced by IG Farben. The execution process took a full twenty minutes, and the victims’ frantic death cries could be heard even through the chamber’s thick walls. Afterward, the bodies were dragged from the building by camp orderlies wearing gas masks and thrown into nearby incinerators. One of the triumphs of German engineering was to devise a convenient incineration process whereby the burning of the corpses provided the heat for the furnaces. Fritz Sander, the engineer who invented the system, later lamented the fact that he could not patent his creation because it was considered a state secret.

Himmler observed the grotesque procedure unfold that afternoon in “total silence,” according to Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss. Later on, at the villa, he showed little strain from his day’s chores. The Reichsführer broke from his austere routine by enjoying a cigar and a glass of red wine. In deference to the female guests, the details of his camp tour were not discussed.

Eduard Schulte was sickened when, a week and a half after Himmler’s visit, he finally learned what had occurred during the Reichs-führer’s tour of Auschwitz. It confirmed his deepest fears about the Third Reich, a regime he had observed from its earliest days with a growing sense of dread. Schulte had met Hitler in Berlin back in February 1933 at a gathering of industrialists whom the Nazis wanted to shake down for political contributions. After listening to his rambling diatribe, Schulte concluded that Hitler was a dangerous lunatic who would lead Germany to ruin.

There was nothing rebellious or offbeat about Schulte. He was, in nearly every way, a typical specimen of the German bourgeoisie—a hardworking, conservative family man whose only indulgence was a passion for hunting. But he was the type of man who resented the steady encroachments of the Nazi state on his private life. In order to keep his position with the mining firm, he had been forced to join the Nazi-run German Labor Front. Even to maintain his hunting habit, he needed to belong to a state-run hunters club. He fumed when his two boys came home one day in Hitler Youth uniforms, though his wife reminded him it was compulsory and said he was making mountains out of molehills. But in Schulte’s mind, the “brown poison,” as he called it, was seeping everywhere.

It pained Schulte, who had a close Jewish friend while growing up, to see Jews being made scapegoats. He was a tall, outgoing, assertive businessman, but he had a feeling for the underdog that might have been reinforced by his own physical disability. At the age of eighteen, while going to the aid of some railroad workers, Schulte’s left leg was crushed under the wheel of a freight car and had to be amputated. Outfitted with an artificial leg, he continued to get around with vigorous determination for the rest of his life, although with an obvious limp.

When Schulte heard about the unfolding horror at Auschwitz, he knew he had to act. From what he could piece together, the macabre display of German efficiency overseen by Himmler that day was part of an official policy of mass extermination that was now under way in the Nazi empire. The policy had been formally approved earlier that year by the Nazi high command at a conference held on January 20, 1942, in an SS villa on Lake Wannsee in suburban Berlin. The Wannsee Conference, run by Himmler’s ambitious deputy Reinhard Heydrich, laid out a plan for the elimination of Europe’s Jewry through a network of death factories. By lending the proposal a legal veneer, Heydrich assured the complete administrative cooperation of the German bureaucracy. Even the title assigned to the program of mass butchery—the Final Solution—conjured a civil servant’s dream of a job well done.

Heydrich, who called himself “the chief garbage collector of the Third Reich,” saw his gas ovens as a humane solution to the “Jewish problem.” He considered himself a cultured man. The night before he was assassinated by Czech partisans, who threw a bomb into his open car as it slowed for a hairpin curve, Heydrich attended a performance of a violin concerto written by his father, Richard Bruno Heydrich, a highly regarded German opera singer and composer.

The Final Solution was meant to remain secret, with most of the death camps located in remote outposts of the Nazi empire. But as the systematic killing got under way, many people became aware of the mounting barbarity. One day in early 1942, an IG Farben official named Ernst Struss was returning home on a train after inspecting the company’s factory that was affiliated with Auschwitz. A German worker also riding on the train began talking loudly about the nightmare at the camp. Great numbers of people were being burned in the compound’s crematoria, he said. The smell of incinerated flesh was everywhere. Struss jumped up in a rage. “These are lies! You should not spread such lies.” But the worker quietly corrected him: “No, these are not lies.” There were thousands of workers like himself at Auschwitz, he said. “And all know it.”

Eduard Schulte was not one of those men who could deny or hide from such a truth. On July 29, 1942—within twenty-four hours of learning about the assembly line of death at Auschwitz—the mining executive was on a train to Zurich, determined to put the information in the hands of the Allies. The trip across the border carried a high degree of risk. And Schulte, a prosperous, fifty-one-year-old businessman with a wife and family back in Breslau, had much to lose. But the revelations about Auschwitz and the Final Solution that Schulte was carrying to Zurich filled him with an overriding sense of urgency.

After arriving in Zurich, Schulte kept to his normal routine when doing business in Switzerland, checking into the Baur-au-Lac, a luxury hotel on the lake where he was an honored guest. He then phoned Isidor Koppelman, a Jewish investment adviser he knew whose services his company had used. Schulte was determined to get his information in the hands of international Jewish organizations, which he thought could prevail on the Allied governments to take action. The next day, meeting in his hotel room, Schulte gave Koppelman his shocking report. The investment adviser sat in silence, taking it all in. Schulte said he realized what he was reporting seemed too outrageous to believe, but it was absolutely true. And if the Allies failed to act, there would be few Jews left in Europe by the end of the year. Schulte discussed the next steps that Koppelman should take to get the word out, then checked out of the hotel and returned to Germany.

The circuitous and troubled route that Schulte’s critical message took over the next several weeks through diplomatic and political channels reveals much about the failure of this bureaucratic labyrinth to confront the war’s soaring humanitarian crisis. And, once again, at the core of this failure was the poisonous culture of the U.S. State Department.

Through Koppelman’s efforts, Schulte’s message was delivered to Gerhart Riegner, the young Geneva representative of the World Jewish Congress. Riegner, in turn, was intent on relaying the information to the president of the World Jewish Congress in New York—none other than Rabbi Stephen Wise, FDR’s confidant and the leading voice of alarm in the United States about the Jewish crisis. The problem for Riegner was that he was compelled to use the services of the American Legation in Bern to dispatch the confidential cable to Wise. The U.S. diplomats in Switzerland thought young Riegner seemed to be in a state of “great agitation” as he related Schulte’s story. U.S. minister to Switzerland Leland Harrison, an old colleague of Dulles’s who was soon to be reunited with him in Bern, took a decidedly skeptical view of the account; in his dispatch to Washington, Harrison dismissed it as nothing more than “war rumor inspired by fear”—although he did concede that some Jews were dying due to “physical maltreatment . . . malnutrition, and disease.”

The State Department later sent the OSS a summary of the report that had originated with Schulte. Allen Dulles, still working out of the OSS offices in New York at the time, was one of those who received the message. The State Department flatly refused to believe Schulte’s account, calling it a “wild rumor inspired by Jewish fears.” Even Harrison’s concession that some Jews were dying as a result of the “privations” of war was stripped out of the State Department memo.

The State Department decided not to notify Rabbi Wise—whom Foggy Bottom officials considered a thorn in their side—about his Geneva deputy’s efforts to reach him. It took a full month for Rabbi Wise to receive Riegner’s report. When the telegram finally arrived in New York on August 28, it came not through U.S. diplomatic channels, but British. The State Department also did not see fit to pass along the Schulte revelations to President Roosevelt.

In frustration with the information bottleneck, Rabbi Wise finally held a press conference two days before Thanksgiving, announcing that Hitler had already killed about two million European Jews and had plans to exterminate the rest. The New York Timesburied the story on page 10, The Washington Post on page 6. The press was reluctant to highlight such an explosive story since it lacked official government sources.

Dulles, who was soon headed to Switzerland, could have been one of these sources for the U.S. press. While still stationed in New York, he began sending out veteran reporters—under diplomatic cover—to gather intelligence in various forward posts in the European war zone. One of these reporters, a thirty-seven-year-old, Berlin-born, multilingual, former NBC correspondent named Gerald Mayer, was sent to Bern in April 1942. Soon after Schulte’s report began circulating, Mayer also began filing stories about the Final Solution with the New York OSS office. “Germany no longer persecutes the Jews,” began Mayer’s first stark dispatch. “It is systematically exterminating them.”

But Dulles did nothing to publicize Mayer’s reports. They, too, remained buried in the government bureaucracy. Along with the Schulte bombshell, these alarms would have made a loud noise, particularly in the New York echo chamber. They might have finally blown apart Washington’s institutional inertia on the refugee question. But this was not part of Dulles’s agenda.

History would give Dulles one more chance to alert the world to the ongoing genocide. In Switzerland, he would hear directly from men like Schulte and others who had risked their lives to save the Jews. In Bern, the evil was not so remote—it was all around.

After arriving in Switzerland, Dulles took his time setting up a meeting with Eduard Schulte. When the two men finally did come together in spring 1943 for a furtive meeting in Zurich, it was an amiable enough occasion; they had met fifteen years earlier, they realized, in the New York offices of Sullivan and Cromwell, which represented Anaconda Copper, a partner of Schulte’s mining firm.

The fate of the Jewish people was still of great urgency to Schulte—likely made even more urgent by the fact that during his trips to Switzerland, he had fallen in love with a younger Jewish woman who lived in Zurich. But Dulles expressed little interest in Schulte’s information about the Final Solution. More intrigued by the political and psychological mood of the German people and how they could be won over by the Allies, Dulles asked Schulte to write up a memo on the state of the German nation. It was Hitler’s people, not his victims, whom the intelligence official thought important to understand.

This was characteristic of Dulles’s meetings with German informants while he was stationed in Bern. Fritz Kolbe, an efficient foreign service official who kept rising to higher posts in the German government despite his stubborn refusal to join the Nazi Party, was another mole who risked his life to give the United States rare insights into the operations of the Reich. One night, with documents stuffed down the front of his pants, Kolbe crossed into Switzerland and made his way to Dulles’s residence in Bern. Like Schulte, Kolbe was well aware of the risk he was taking. After this first meeting with the American spy, Kolbe drew up his will. He also left Dulles a letter for his young son in case he was caught and executed. Dulles was untouched by Kolbe’s request. The OSS agent sized him up as “somewhat naïve and a romantic idealist,” which was not good for Kolbe, since Dulles always regarded these types as expendable.

But Kolbe had important information to impart, and he kept risking his life to smuggle Nazi documents across the border. During another meeting with Dulles, in April 1944, Kolbe handed over a thick sheaf of Nazi cables revealing that Hungary’s Jews, who had remained secure late into the war, were about to be rounded up and deported to the death camps. Dulles’s report on this meeting was one of the few from Bern that ended up on the president’s desk in the White House. But there was nothing in Dulles’s communiqué about the imminent fate of Hungary’s Jews. And there was nothing about the possibility of bombing rail lines to the death camps—and even the camps themselves—as informants like Schulte were urging the Allies to do.

Instead, Dulles chose to focus the president’s attention on another topic that he had discussed with Kolbe over glasses of Scotch in his drawing room. Underground Communist organizing seemed to be gaining strength in Germany as the Nazi war effort faltered, Kolbe had informed the U.S. agent. This was the emergency that Dulles thought the White House needed to hear about.

Dulles continued to receive Nazi documents about the fate of Hungary’s Jews from Kolbe over the next seven months. One German cable reported that 120,000 Jews in Budapest, including children considered unfit for work, were soon to be “taken to the Reich territory for work in the labor service.” The Nazis were always careful to use euphemisms like “labor service” in their communications. By this date, Washington was well aware that Hungary’s Jews were headed to Auschwitz. And yet Dulles’s communiqués to OSS headquarters used the same banal language as the Nazis, referring blandly to the “conscription” of Hungary’s Jews.

When Dulles’s communications from Bern to Washington were declassified decades later by the government, scholars were able to decipher his wartime obsessions. Dulles’s interest was absorbed by psychological warfare tricks, such as distributing counterfeit stamps behind enemy lines depicting Hitler’s profile as a death’s skull, and other cloak-and-dagger antics. He was also deeply engaged with mapping out grand postwar strategies for Europe. But few of his more than three hundred communiqués mentioned the killing of Jews—and none carried a sense of urgency about the Final Solution.

This glaring blank spot in Dulles’s wartime record continues to confound academic researchers decades later, though they remain reluctant to pass judgment on the legendary spy. “Why did Dulles choose not to emphasize the Holocaust in his reports to Washington?” wondered World War II historian Neal H. Petersen in his edited collection of Dulles’s OSS intelligence reports. Petersen clearly struggled to answer his own question. “Whatever his reasoning,” Petersen concluded with scholarly restraint, “his reticence on this subject is among the most controversial and least understandable aspects of his performance in Bern.”

In April 1944, Rudolf Vrba, a nineteen-year-old Jew from a village in Czechoslovakia who had survived for nearly two years in Auschwitz, escaped from the camp with Alfred Wetzler, a childhood friend, by hiding in a pile of wood planks for three days and nights without food or water. They tied rags across their mouths to muffle the coughs that would have betrayed them to the SS patrols that were methodically searching the camp for them. On the third night, when they finally felt it was safe to make their escape, Rudi and Fred emerged from the pyramid of wood and began crawling under the moonless sky across a muddy field toward a cluster of birch trees in the distance. The two friends were determined to return home, not just to save their own lives but to bear witness to what was happening inside Auschwitz.

Their journey was harrowing. At one point, they were chased up a mountainside by a German patrol, with dogs snarling and bullets flying behind them. Along the way, they were helped by Polish peasants, who fed the famished teenagers potatoes and coffee and guided them toward the Slovak border. Two weeks after crawling out of the woodpile in Auschwitz, they were home and—after being put in touch with Oskar Neumann, the chairman of the local Jewish Council—they began telling their horrific tale. While the fundamental facts about the death camps were widely known by then, Rudi and Fred’s forty-page report was the most thorough and specific to emerge from Auschwitz up to that point. It described the management and daily routine of the camp, and included haunting details about how the prisoners were killed: “The unfortunate victims are brought into Hall B, where they are told to undress. To complete the fiction that they are going to bathe, each person receives a towel and a small piece of soap issued by two men clad in white coats.”

In mid-June, nearly two months after the escapees wrote down their account, the Vrba-Wetzler report was finally smuggled into Switzerland. A British correspondent named Walter Garrett got his hands on a copy, which he took to Allen Dulles on June 22. While the journalist sat with Dulles in his apartment on Herrengasse, the spy read the entire report. “He was profoundly shocked,” Garrett later recalled. “He was as disconcerted as I was and said: ‘One has to do something immediately.’”

Dulles’s pantomime of concern clearly convinced the British reporter. But in fact Dulles had begun receiving reports about the mass extermination of Jews over two years earlier, before he even left the United States for Switzerland. Authoritative reports on the Holocaust had continued to flow into his hands ever since his arrival in Bern, from informants like Schulte and Kolbe.

“One” should indeed have finally taken drastic action. At that point, many of Hungary’s Jews might still have been saved if Allied will had been sufficiently marshaled. Instead, Dulles sent off a routine cable on the Vrba-Wetzler report to Secretary of State Cordell Hull, a man Dulles knew would not lift a finger to help the Jews, even though he was married to a Jewish woman. It was Hull who had advised FDR to reject the ill-fated passengers of the St. Louis. And it was Hull who had blocked Schulte’s report from getting to Rabbi Wise through State Department channels.

Through the efforts of an exiled Jewish businessman in Geneva and a group of students he recruited to make fifty mimeograph copies of the Vrba-Wetzler report, the eyewitness account of life and death inside Auschwitz finally broke in the Swiss press and was then picked up by The New York Times and the BBC. In the ensuing uproar, President Roosevelt and other world leaders successfully pressured the Hungarian government to stop the deportations of its Jewish citizens. But the reprieve didn’t last long; in October 1944 Hitler ordered a Nazi takeover of the government in Budapest and the death trains soon began rolling again.

In the final months of the war, as the United States and Britain finally opened a second front in the war, and Hitler’s forces were caught in an inexorable vise between the Red Army in the east and the Anglo-American military machine in the west, Roosevelt and close advisers like Morgenthau began contemplating the Nazi regime’s postwar fate. The glory that was European civilization had gone up in “human smoke,” in Nicholson Baker’s words. But FDR was determined to keep the vow that he made repeatedly throughout the war. He would bring to justice the perpetrators of this unprecedented degradation of life. The Third Reich would be put on trial and its reign ground to dust.

Once again, however, Allen Dulles and his allies had other plans.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!