Buried by the Times: The Holocaust and America’s Most Important Newspaper
by Laurel Leff
Cambridge. 426 pp. $29.00
This book tells the story of how the most powerful newspaper in the world failed to inform its readers that the most terrible crime in history was taking place in occupied Europe. The New York Times did not ignore the Nazi persecution of the Jews. In fact, the paper ran hundreds of stories about it during the twelve years of the Third Reich, a handful of them on the front page. Its failure was to make no distinction between random persecution and genocide.
Laurel Leff, a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal who now teaches journalism at Northeastern University in Boston, demonstrates that the correspondents, the editors, and, especially, the publisher of the Times had the information they needed in order to grasp what was going on. Yet they quite cold-blood-edly downplayed the scale and significance of the unfolding tragedy: not inadvertently, but as a matter of policy. For the Times, the Holocaust was not a story.
Why not? As Leff writes, to have drawn attention to the genocidal aims and methods of Nazi anti-Semitism, or to focus on the fate of individual victims, would have imposed a duty upon the Times to mobilize public opinion. The newspaper would have been obliged, through its news columns and editorial pages, to raise the national consciousness and thereby put pressure on the U.S. government to save as many Jewish lives as possible. That, however, was precisely what Arthur Sulzberger, the publisher, and his senior staff were determined not to do. Instead, all reports of deportations, massacres, and death camps were fitted into a framework that required no action to be taken beyond the overriding aim of winning the war.
Thus, according to the paradigm that dominated the mentality of Times executives, the Jews were only one of many targets of Nazi barbarity. The notion that, as a people, they could have been singled out for a global “Final Solution” was, despite the overwhelming evidence, rejected. Even when the Nazis manifestly treated the Jews as a people or a race, Sulzberger denied that they were one. Indeed, he seems to have thought that taking at face value the Nazis’ intentions toward the Jews—as openly advertised in speeches, books, and propaganda—would somehow lower the Times to their level.
According to Leff, Sulzberger was no less adamantly delusional on the subject of Zionism. Although mortal peril had rendered the creation of a Jewish state imperative, the Times editorialized even against the formation of a Zionist army unit under British command, on the grounds that it would create dual loyalties in Allied countries. Sulzberger was also receptive to the private denunciations of Zionists by his Middle East correspondent, Alexander C. Sedgwick, who found the Zionist creed to be “not unlike that of the Nazis.”
Leff’s Excellent book is more than an indictment of the Times‘s willful myopia; it also investigates how and why it came about. Having been given considerable access to internal correspondence and personal files—for which the newspaper is surely to be commended—she is able to build up a picture of how the Times functioned. Her research into the minutiae of specific stories shows that differences in personality—for instance, whether a particular bureau chief was sympathetic to the Nazis or Vichy France—could make a difference in the handling of the news. But even when such personal factors are taken into account, in the end it was the prevailing ethos that determined the inattention to the Jews’ plight. Sulzberger’s editors did not need to be told explicitly that (as the Office of War Information had advised the press) “the Semitic question should be avoided.”
This tacit policy took many forms. At first, as Leff details, eyewitness accounts were treated with skepticism if they came from Jewish sources. Reports of Nazi atrocities against Jews were routinely given less prominence than those involving Christians or Czechs or, indeed, virtually any other category of victim. Protests on behalf of Jews, even by non-Jewish organizations, were played down, and acts of resistance by Jews went all but unnoticed.
Even the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943, which forced the Germans to divert forces from the Russian front for many weeks, made it onto the front page only once. By the time the dimensions of the Jewish calamity—“about half the estimated 4,000,000 Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe had been slain in an ‘extermination’ campaign”—were officially confirmed by the State Department in November 1942, the reaction of the Times was to bury the news on page ten, beneath two other related stories. And when the paper finally reported from the liberated death camps themselves, the fact that the vast majority of victims had been Jews was glossed over.
The facts set out by Leff are indisputable; the question of motive is more complex and speculative. Why did Sulzberger, a prominent member of the New York liberal Jewish community, turn a blind eye to an evil that threatened Jews everywhere? He had been ready to go to trouble and expense to help his own relatives in Germany to escape, but he was unwilling to give refugee writers any opportunity to work for the Times, let alone to use the paper as a platform to publicize their ordeals.
Apart from the influence he wielded through the news and opinion columns of the Times, Sulzberger also had access to the highest levels of government, at home and abroad. Yet he seems to have been pathologically averse to anything that might have been seen as special pleading for the Jews. True, there were anti-Semites in the U.S., too, who might blame Jews for dragging their fellow Americans into an unwanted war. After Pearl Harbor, however, this rationale for caution had lost whatever force it once had.
In Leff’s plausible judgment, the underlying reason for Sulzberger’s stubborn refusal to alter his attitude to the Jewish predicament, even after the end of the war, was an unspoken fear of putting at risk a century of successful Jewish assimilation in American society. Above all, he was wary of any new influx of European Jews into the United States. Assimilation, for Sulzberger, was a prize for which he was prepared to let other Jews make any sacrifice.
At the time, some Americans, and not only Jews, denounced the Times and its publisher for moral cowardice. Even Henry Morgenthau, Roosevelt’s Treasury Secretary and Sulzberger’s closest ally in the administration, was irritated by the Times‘s failure to support his efforts on behalf of Jewish refugees. But the government, too, had been presenting the fate of the Jews as a peripheral matter. Just as with attitudes toward Stalin, the mind-set of the Office of War Information when it came to the Jews dovetailed neatly with that of the Times. In its anxiety to avoid accusations of philo-Semitic bias, the Times thus willingly allowed itself to become an instrument of raison d’état.
In doing so, it committed multiple acts of betrayal. Turning down Albert Einstein himself, who had pleaded with him to assist the famous Berlin theater critic Alfred Kerr, Sulzberger claimed that he had to remain “dissociated from any movement which springs from the oppression of the Jews in Germany. Only in this way can the unprejudiced and unbiased position of the Times be understood.” In other words, as between oppressors and oppressed, the great organ of American liberalism would remain fastidiously neutral.
The Times betrayed the Jews of Europe by abandoning them. It betrayed its American readers by misleading them. And it betrayed its own exalted self-image by failing utterly to discharge its public responsibility in reporting the Final Solution.
Laurel Leff’s dispassionate and impeccably fair account builds on Deborah Lipstadt’s more general survey of the American press in those years, Beyond Belief (1985). As a portrait of the journalistic culture of the Times in wartime, it is unlikely to be superseded. Anybody who has worked in or for a newspaper will recognize the cast of characters, from the night editors who doggedly refused to see anything new in the tales of unspeakable Jewish suffering to the foreign correspondents in the Times‘s European and Middle Eastern bureaus: the careerist and the collaborator, the desperado and the dandy, the publisher’s nephew. Nothing changes as rapidly as the news; nothing changes as slowly as newspapers.
Is it unfair today to castigate the Times for its coverage of events, however traumatic, that occurred six decades ago? Not only is it fair, the exercise is also highly relevant to the present situation. For ours is a moment when anti-Semitism has returned with a vengeance, primarily focused now on Israel and its American ally. Now, as then, the Times sets the tone for much of the rest of the American press and other media. Yet even now, when the editors of the Times are acutely aware of the paper’s failures in World War II, they have responded to a sustained campaign of incitement and indiscriminate mass murder against Jews with, at best, neutrality. This book helps to explain why.