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400 pp., 61/8 x 91/4, 16 illus., 3 maps, notes, bibl., index

$49.95 cloth
ISBN 0-8078-2620-0

Published: Fall 2001

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Post-Holocaust Politics
Britain, the United States, and Jewish Refugees, 1945-1948

by Arieh J. Kochavi

Copyright (c) 2001 by the University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.


Ostensibly Britain came out of World War II with its empire and its political prominence in the international arena intact. But the war had exacted a heavy toll from the country's population and left its economy much weakened. More than 265,000 British soldiers had fallen in battle and about 90,000 civilians had been killed, two-thirds in German air raids. The war had cost Britain about one-quarter of its national wealth, and one-third of its merchant fleet had gone down. From £Ï476 million in August 1939 London's foreign debt increased sevenfold to £Ï3,300 million in June 1945. When the Conservative Party lost the general elections in July, the task of coping with this difficult economic situation fell to Labour.[1] For the next three years, until the implementation of the Marshall Plan in mid-1948, government policies were dictated to a large extent by the harsh reality the war had bequeathed to the country. That is, while London remained determined to play a significant role in shaping the postwar world, Whitehall gradually came to recognize that Great Power pretensions were a thing of the past, and the government began seeking ways of reducing overseas spending by, among other things, withdrawing British troops from abroad. Still, during the fiscal year 1946-47 Britain spent 18.8 percent of its national income on defense--overseas defense commitments more or less equaled the budgetary deficit for that year, as 457 million people in different parts of the globe were under British rule in 1945.[2]

In the postwar years, Britain also bore the brunt of checking Soviet expansionist ambitions. Not only had Russia taken over Rumania, Bulgaria, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and parts of Germany and Austria, but it was also striving to dominate events in Greece and Turkey, and Soviet soldiers were stationed in northern Iran. Assessing the new international situation this created, Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin concluded that Moscow sought the decline of the British Empire and was bent on replacing Britain in the areas it might evacuate. American cooperation was crucial for the British; without the support of the Americans, Britain's impact on the foundation of the postwar world would be critically reduced. But already a chill lay over its relations with Washington which made disagreements during the first few months after the war over a policy toward the Soviet Union inevitable.[3]

For the Americans, this attitude stemmed to a large extent from their long-standing misgivings vis-á-vis Britain's imperialist ambitions and their aversion to the Labour Party's socialist tendencies. The British ambassador to the United States, Lord Halifax, highlighted the warnings U.S. financial and business circles were sounding to the effect that "America should beware of countenancing any proposal to grant extensive credits to Britain, which would be likely to employ them to underwrite state Socialism," and added:

Whenever they find reason to complain of our actions, Americans do not fail to apply to us a number of ugly catchwords that owe much of their origin to the traditional mistrust of British policies and to the above-mentioned sense of rivalry, e.g., balance of power, sphere of influence, reactionary imperialist trends, colonial oppression, old-world guile, diplomatic double-talk, Uncle Sam the Santa Claus and sucker, and the like. Anti-British outbursts are as a rule the result of the propensity of Americans to oversimplify vexatious issues which lie beyond their immediate ken.[4]

Washington's priorities and objectives right after the war differed greatly from those of London. The Americans regarded the Pacific Ocean and East Asia, especially China, Japan, and Korea, as their sphere of influence, while they wanted to cut back their involvement in Europe as quickly as possible. Already at the Yalta Conference (4-11 February 1945), President Franklin D. Roosevelt had declared that Congress would not support the stationing of American forces in Europe for more than another two years. The Americans placed great hopes in the new United Nations Organization (UNO), set up especially to help resolve international disputes, and, to ensure its participation in the new body, were ready to accommodate the Soviet Union on a variety of points, including giving the USSR three votes instead of one.

President Harry S. Truman at first continued the policies of his predecessor. Thus in mid-June 1945 he refused, as Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill was urging, to keep Anglo-American forces about one hundred miles inside the Russian zone in Germany so long as Joseph Stalin had not acceded to various Western requests. Neither did Truman consult with Churchill before he informed Moscow that the United States had no territorial ambitions or ulterior motives in countries in East Europe, the Baltic republics, and the Balkans. Washington, furthermore, allowed the Soviets a free hand in Poland in exchange for their acceptance of a plan the Americans had introduced for voting procedures in the UN Security Council. Truman was aware of Stalin's fears that Anglo-American cooperation could be directed against the Soviets and wanted to dispel Russian suspicions. For example, only a few weeks after the war, the president dismantled the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) and declined an invitation from Churchill to stop over in London on the way to the Potsdam Conference. In many respects, the Americans played the role of mediator between Britain and the Soviet Union, a position first adopted by Roosevelt when he met with Stalin in Teheran (28 November-1 December 1943).

America continued to play down the import of London's views at the Potsdam Conference (17 July-2 August 1945). Here Truman's main objective was to get Stalin to reconfirm Soviet agreement to join the war against Japan. Wanting to terminate their military and economic obligations in Europe, the Americans did not regard territorial disagreements there as impinging on U.S. security, let alone justifying the repercussions of a rift with the Russians. This explains Washington's flexibility and readiness to comply with Russian demands and why Truman did not adopt Churchill's firm stand against Soviet intentions vis-É-vis East Europe.[5]

Nothing, however, could have prepared the British for Truman's abrupt announcement, on 21 August, of the immediate termination of the Lend-Lease Agreement. This effectively ended American economic assistance and was a severe blow for Britain. For three months (13 September-6 December 1945), the British and the Americans engaged in a series of tough negotiations about the terms of a new loan. London's hopes of receiving an interest-free loan of $5 billion quickly evaporated--Britain was to receive $3.75 billion at 2 percent annual interest, to be repaid over fifty years, beginning on 31 December 1951. The loan was made conditional on Britain meeting a variety of demands, which included a comprehensive agreement on protective and commercial tariffs, disbanding the sterling bloc, and allowing the free exchange of the pound sterling vis-É-vis the U.S. dollar within one year following approval of the agreement. After a fierce debate in Parliament that brought to the surface much bitterness toward the United States, the agreement was approved by a vote of 345 to 98 with 169 abstentions. Most Conservative members, including Churchill, abstained. On 10 May 1946, the Senate approved the agreement by 46 to 34; the House voted 219 in favor and 155 against on 13 July. Britain came in for sharp criticism in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate. The main argument in favor of the agreement was the need to stand by Britain in view of the escalating tension with the USSR. Almost a year, however, passed between Washington's sudden scuttling of the Lend-Lease Agreement and Truman's signing of the law approving the loan to Britain on 15 July 1946.[6]

Another snub at Britain's international standing came with the initiative of U.S. secretary of state James F. Byrnes to convene the Council of Foreign Ministers (CFM) in Moscow (12-31 December 1945). Byrnes first approached the Soviet commissar for foreign affairs, Vyacheslav Molotov, and only afterward asked Bevin for his opinion. When Bevin appeared to hedge, Byrnes made it clear that he intended to go to Moscow even if the British foreign secretary decided not to participate.[7]

One of the issues the Allies failed to resolve at the CFM meeting was Iran. When crisis erupted there a short time later, it served as a catalyst for Anglo-American rapprochement on a policy toward the Soviet Union. The Americans adopted an unyielding stance toward the Soviets during the months of March-May 1946, and close cooperation between Washington and London compelled the Soviets to withdraw their troops from Iran. Cooperation between the two Western powers continued through discussions of the CFM in Paris in the spring of 1946, when Byrnes and Bevin rejected out of hand Russian demands concerning the peace agreement with Italy. This time it was the Americans who stood firm against Soviet expansionist aims. The result was a one-month interruption in the CFM discussions; during the second stage (15 June-12 July 1946), East-West disagreements were resolved, each side accepting the idea that it would not interfere in regions falling within the other's sphere of influence.[8]

Another sign of Washington's renewed commitment to Europe was the anti-Soviet speech Byrnes gave in Stuttgart on 6 September in which he emphasized that American soldiers would remain in Germany as long as the other powers kept their armies there. When, on 12 March 1947, in a joint session of the two houses of Congress President Truman introduced what was to become known as the Truman Doctrine, it signaled a turning point in relations between the United States and Britain. The president highlighted the need to "support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures" and asked Congress to authorize economic assistance to Greece and Turkey as well as to send military and civilian personnel there.[9] This came after the Foreign Office had informed the State Department that, as of 31 March 1947, Britain would have to halt all aid to both these countries because of its own economic difficulties. Significantly, the Truman Doctrine owed much to Bevin's efforts from the moment he became foreign secretary.

The failure of the second CFM meeting in Moscow (10 March-25 April 1947) further deepened Anglo-American cooperation. On 5 June, Secretary of State George C. Marshall, who had replaced Byrnes in January, gave his famous speech at Harvard University giving his vision of the rehabilitation of all of Europe through American financial assistance. The initiative for a joint plan, he said, needed to come from Europe, and it was Britain, under Bevin's leadership, that organized the European response to the American challenge that eventually brought about the Marshall Plan. Cooperation between Britain and America, which expanded as tension increased between East and West, could not, however, obscure the fact that relations were unequal. Whenever Washington's interests and priorities contradicted those of London, the Americans took unilateral action. As we will see, this became evident in the way the White House dealt with the Jewish DP problem and the Palestine question. When in the course of 1947 Britain's economic situation worsened, partly because of U.S. conditions for repayment of the loan, London became even more dependent on Washington, which further limited its ability to influence U.S. policies.[10]

Washington's interest in the Middle East increased after World War II because of the region's significant oil reserves. This was, however, very much "British territory." Britain viewed the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, and the adjacent regions as its "natural dominion," for Egypt, Cyprus, and the Sudan had been under British rule ever since the end of the nineteenth century. When the Ottoman Empire was dismembered following World War I, Britain obtained a mandate over Iraq, Transjordan, and Palestine. During World War II, London accorded top priority to the defense of Egypt and the Suez Canal. By the end of the war, the Middle East was still vital for Britain's strategic interests, while its rich oil reserves would prove essential for Britain's economic rehabilitation. There were British soldiers in almost every Middle Eastern country, from Iran in the east to Libya in the west and Eritrea and Ethiopia in the south. British military installations could be found throughout the area, while the largest of Britain's overseas bases was the one near the Suez Canal, where about two hundred thousand soldiers were stationed.

Consequently, Bevin and the chiefs of staff were eager to bolster Britain's hold over the Middle East. One way of doing so was by creating new military alliances between Britain and the Arab countries, particularly Egypt, Transjordan, and Iraq, and by directing regional economic and social development. For example, on 22 March 1946, Britain recognized the official independence of Transjordan but immediately concluded a "Treaty of Alliance" with it that gave Britain certain military prerogatives. Egypt proved less amenable. The Anglo-Egyptian agreement of 1936 had allowed Britain to station troops in the region of the Suez Canal and in the Sinai and to reoccupy Egypt in case of war, but the Egyptians now wanted Britain to evacuate all its forces from the country.[11]

Whitehall's Middle Eastern policy had its detractors at home, too. In the winter of 1946, Prime Minister Clement Attlee and Chancellor of the Exchequer Hugh Dalton began to express doubts about the advantages of keeping military control of the Middle East. In late March, Attlee suggested disengaging from areas where there was a risk of confrontation with the Soviets. For Attlee, the growing nationalist movements in the Arab world signaled that Britain would not be able to maintain land, sea, and air bases in the region forever. Britain could withdraw from the Middle East and establish a line of defense that would cross Africa from Lagos to Kenya, where a large proportion of the British forces could be stationed. With Commonwealth defense concentrated in Australia, Kenya would constitute Britain's hub in the eastern half of the planet. The Arab countries and the Arabian desert were useful as a buffer zone between Britain and the Soviet Union. But the Cabinet Committee on Defence, led by Bevin, rejected Attlee's plan in early April 1946.[12]

In October 1946, Bevin and Egypt's prime minister Sidqi Pasha reached agreement on a draft treaty according to which the British agreed to depart from Cairo, Alexandria, and the Nile Delta by 31 March 1947 and from the rest of Egypt by 1 September 1949. For their part, the Egyptians agreed that in case of aggression by any of the country's neighbors, the British could be allowed back to their former bases in Suez and the Egyptians would cooperate with them as they had done in the course of World War II. The Egyptian Parliament, however, rejected the draft agreement reached in London, and at the end of January 1947, Sidqi's successor, Nokrashi Pasha, broke off talks with Britain and announced that Egypt would bring the matter before the United Nations.[13]

These developments prompted Attlee to repeat his argument in favor of Britain evacuating the Middle East. The chiefs of staff, however, remained adamant that the empire's overall strategic considerations required continued British rule over the Middle East while Bevin thought that the prime minister exaggerated the price Britain would be paying for insisting on retaining its status in the region. Nor did Bevin believe in the chances of an agreement with the Russians to convert the Middle East into a neutral zone. If a vacuum were created in the area, he maintained, the Russians would be quick to fill it, which meant that any British withdrawal would have serious consequences for its position worldwide. Once more Attlee came around to the position taken up by Bevin and the chiefs of staff. In general, the prime minister left his foreign secretary to steer Britain's foreign policy and usually backed his decisions in the cabinet.

London's decision to maintain dominance over the region, however, was beset by difficulties.[14] Not only had the talks with the Egyptians reached an impasse, but efforts to set up bases in Cyrenaica also proved unsuccessful. Unable to win Arab support for its solution to the Palestine question, Britain announced in February 1947 that it would transfer the issue to the UN. That same month the cabinet made two further momentous decisions. On 20 February, Attlee announced in Parliament his government's intention to transfer authority in India by June 1948, and the following day Britain informed the United States that budgetary constraints forced it to halt all economic and military support to Greece and Turkey. In the summer the UN Security Council failed to reach a decision on Egypt's protest against the British occupation, leaving Britain for the time being in control of its bases near the Suez Canal.[15]

In Palestine Britain was less successful. Britain's policy in the late 1930s had revolved around safeguarding its interests in the Arab world. Jewish immigration to Palestine was considered a highly sensitive issue. During the first three years after Hitler had come to power in Germany, more than 130,000 Jews had arrived in Palestine, resulting in an 80 percent increase of the Jewish community there. (In 1935 alone 62,000 Jews entered Palestine.) In April 1936, alarmed by the scope and nature of the immigration, the indigenous Arab population called a general strike directed against the Mandatory government, which intensified into a revolt that lasted until 1939. In mid-1937, the Peel Commission, set up by Whitehall to look into the causes of the revolt, recommended partitioning Palestine into two independent states, one Jewish and one Arab, and limiting the scope of Jewish immigration for the next five years to twelve thousand persons annually. Though these recommendations were not adopted, the British did restrict Jewish immigration to Palestine. Thus during 1937 and 1938, just as the situation of the Jews in Central Europe worsened, fewer than twenty-four thousand Jewish immigrants were able to make it into Palestine.[16]

The need to secure the goodwill of the Arab states also dictated London's position at the Evian Conference in July 1938, which had been convened at the invitation of President Roosevelt to find a solution for the increasing number of Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria. Lord Winterton, the British representative at the conference, ignored Palestine as a possible haven for part of the Jewish refugees. Before the conference, the Americans and the British had already reached an understanding, which would hold until the end of the war, to the effect that Britain would not ask the United States to change its immigration laws and the United States would refrain from insisting that the British allow Jewish immigration into Palestine. Wishing to forestall the clamor the Jewish community in Palestine was sure to make, as well as pacify American public opinion on the latter issue, the British were relatively generous in the Jewish immigration they allowed into Britain until the outbreak of the war. As a result, from Hitler's rise to power until London declared war on Germany, Britain absorbed approximately fifty thousand Jewish refugees, while during this same period, the United States took in fifty-seven thousand Jewish refugees.[17]

The White Paper of May 1939, which was intended to help enlist the support of the Arabs on the eve of the looming conflict in Europe to the side of Britain, envisioned the establishment, within ten years, of an independent Palestinian state with an Arab majority. It provided for the immigration of seventy-five thousand Jews for a period of five years (any further immigration would be conditional on Arab consent), and it limited the sale of land by Arabs to Jews.[18] The White Paper policy was largely ignored soon after the outbreak of World War II. Although the limitations on immigration and the sale of land were implemented, no steps were taken toward creating a Palestinian state. Churchill was outspoken in his opposition to the White Paper from the moment he joined the government as first lord of the admiralty, in September 1939, and also later, when he became prime minister (May 1940), which proved critical in eroding its validity. Churchill opposed the efforts of cabinet ministers and of the army high command to gain Arab support at what seemed almost any price.[19] For the Yishuv, these restrictions on immigration were of course a spur to intensify its illegal immigration activities (Hebrew: Ha'apala).

The Patria incident is a tangible illustration of Britain's change of policy toward illegal Jewish immigration. In early November 1940, two Ha'apala ships, the Pacific and the Milos, which had sailed from Rumania with 1,771 refugees aboard, were intercepted off the coast of Palestine. A third vessel, the Atlantic, which also had sailed from Rumania and had 1,783 refugees on board, was intercepted and brought into the port of Haifa on 24 November. The British Mandatory authorities transferred the illegal immigrants (ma'apilim) from the first two vessels to another ship, the Patria, on which all of them would be deported to Mauritius. Not only was this the first time since the outbreak of the war that the British decided to deport illegal immigrants instead of deducting their numbers from the legal immigration quota, but the British high commissioner in Palestine added that none of them would be allowed into Palestine even after the war had been concluded. In response, the Haganah (the Jewish underground defense organization directed by the Jewish Agency for Palestine) decided to sabotage the ship's engines so as to prevent the deportations. On 25 November, while the transfer of the passengers from the Atlantic was still in progress, there was an explosion on board the Patria. Clearly miscalculated, the charge proved too powerful for the body of the ship, which went down drowning 267 ma'apilim.

During discussions of the incident in the War Cabinet, Lord Lloyd, the colonial secretary, suggested that since most of the illegal immigrants had come from Central Europe, "it was reasonable to assume that the enemy had taken steps to ensure the presence among them of enemy agents." Still, the cabinet decided to allow those who had survived the Patria incident to remain in Palestine and to deport to Mauritius only those refugees who at the time of the explosion had still been on the Atlantic. This angered Lieutenant General Archibald Wavell, the British commander in chief in the Middle East, who immediately warned of several dangerous consequences: widespread disturbances by Arab Palestinians, increased influence of the Mufti, undermined confidence in the British in Syria and in Egypt, and intensified anti-British activity in Iraq that would force the cancellation of the opening of the Basra-Baghdad road. Churchill was unimpressed by the general's dramatic assessment and maintained that Arab loyalty would depend on British military success.[20] Incidents such as the Patria and, later, the Struma aroused much anger in the Yishuv. The Struma sank in February 1942 off the Turkish coast with only one survivor out of the total of 769 people on board, after British authorities had refused to admit the refugees into Palestine.[21]

Bitterness in the Yishuv toward Britain increased as the war progressed because of London's policy toward the rescue of European Jews. Even though U.S. policy was not much different, most of the rancor was directed at the British because, even though they refused to allow their own country to serve as a haven, they might have lifted restrictions on the entry of Jews into Palestine. Again, apprehension over Arab reaction in case large numbers of Jewish refugees made it to Palestine influenced Whitehall's attitude regarding several rescue proposals. More than ten thousand immigration certificates of the seventy-five thousand allocated by the White Paper would remain unused at the end of the war. Had it not been for the limitations on immigration, more Jewish refugees could have reached Palestine. While naturally London's and Washington's priorities were directed toward securing victory in the war, some more goodwill might have saved more Jews.[22]

No change regarding a political settlement of the Palestine problem occurred until mid-1943, when cabinet discussions began to focus on the future of the Holy Land. These deliberations led in July 1943 to the setting up of a cabinet committee, headed by the home secretary and a member of the Labour Party, Herbert S. Morrison, which was asked to come up with a long-term policy for the region. On 25 January 1944, the cabinet approved the committee's proposals for the partition of Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state, but the cabinet decided to keep its decision secret until after Germany's defeat. In the course of 1944, the Foreign Office, led by Anthony Eden, opposed the partition plan, to the point of trying to undermine it. The chiefs of staff, for their part, emphasized the strategic importance of the Middle East for Britain and warned that adoption of the proposals would provoke the Arabs not just in Palestine but throughout the Middle East, threatening the outbreak of another revolt. This in turn would significantly harm the British war effort in Europe and the Middle East because it required the movement of British troops out of Italy and northern Europe to Palestine. The opponents of partition were strengthened by personnel changes in the Middle East when two supporters of the plan (not necessarily for reasons of Zionist sympathy) were replaced by persons who opposed it. Edward Grigg was appointed British minister resident in the Middle East in place of Lord Moyne, who had been assassinated in November 1944 by members of LHI (Hebrew acronym for Israeli Freedom Fighters, called by the British the "Stern Gang" after the name of its founder); and the high commissioner, Harold A. MacMichael, was replaced in September by Lord Gort. At the end of 1944, because of differences of opinion in his party and the cabinet and the assassination of Lord Moyne, who had been a close friend, Churchill ordered a suspension of cabinet discussions of the partition plan until after the general elections in Britain.[23]

Within a few months after the war it was clear that many of the Jews who had survived the Holocaust could not or did not want to return to the countries that had been their homelands in Eastern Europe or to rehabilitate themselves there and instead wished to go to Palestine. In their utter distress, the Jewish DPs formed the embodiment of the unspeakable tragedy that had been inflicted upon the Jewish people during the Nazi years and were a constant reminder of the horrors World War II had unleashed. Decision makers in London, however, continued to adhere to the principle that had guided them since the late 1930s, that is, enforcing a strict separation between the problem of the Jews in Europe and the Palestine question. On this issue there was no significant difference between the Conservatives and the (ostensibly pro-Zionist) Labour Party, which won the first postwar election. But by the mid-1940s, there was a different domestic political constellation in the United States, the Cold War had set in, and international power relations were shifting accordingly, with Britain seeing a noticeable decline in influence--all factors that were in favor of the Zionists when Britain set about confronting the problem of the Jewish DPs in Europe.

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