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Former U.S. official defends 1946 gold accord with Swiss

WASHINGTON, April 6 (JTA) — Congressman Joseph Baldwin was outraged in the summer of 1946. After learning the details of an agreement the U.S. government negotiated with Switzerland on the return of Nazi-looted gold, Baldwin complained in a telegram to President Truman that he was “profoundly disturbed” that the United States had settled for $58 million when reliable estimates put the amount of gold transfers at $300 million. Dean Acheson, then acting secretary of state, replied to Baldwin in a July 24, 1946, letter assuring the New York Republican that “there was no reasonable evidence that Switzerland had purchased $300 million worth of gold looted by Germany.” Documents recently unearthed from the U.S. National Archives have raised questions about what the United States knew during and immediately after World War II about the Swiss role in handling Nazi- looted gold. The 1946 Washington Agreement between the United States and Switzerland and the broader issue of the role the United States played in tracking and recovering Nazi loot will be addressed in a report due out later this month. “We can’t shine the spotlight of history on other countries if we don’t do the same” with respect to the U.S. role, Undersecretary of Commerce Stuart Eizenstat, who is compiling the report, told a recent gathering of Jewish leaders. Postwar documents recently uncovered include a February 1946 document report that was used by the negotiators. “It is definitely known that the Swiss received at least $398 million worth of gold from Germany during the course of the war,” the report states. The “absolute minimum which is to be classified as loot,” the report states, “is $185 million,” and it concludes that $289 million “would represent a reasonable settlement.” Last month, the Swiss National Bank acknowledged that it received 1.7 billion Swiss francs worth of German-looted assets during the war, which translated at the time to roughly $400 million. The figures detailed in the State Department report were well-known to members of the U.S. negotiating team, including Seymour Rubin, who initialed a draft of the letter Acheson sent to Baldwin. Rubin, 82, is the only surviving senior American negotiator and he has found himself the subject of considerable attention amid renewed scrutiny of the Washington Agreement. In addition, the former State Department lawyer made headlines recently when he said some money deposited by Holocaust victims in New York banks might have been confiscated by the U.S. government. Critics, including the World Jewish Congress and Senate Banking Committee Chairman Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.), have denounced the 1946 agreement as a sellout. But in an interview, Rubin defended the agreement he helped fashion half a century ago. “The agreement accomplished what we set out to accomplish — the elimination of German influence in Switzerland,” said Rubin, who was 32 when he was named deputy chief of the U.S. negotiating team. “Nobody, including Senator D’Amato, seems to understand that back in those days, we were talking about preventing a resurgence of German influence in the neutral countries. “That was the primary objective of these negotiations, and we accomplished that 100 percent.” While acknowledging that $398 million worth of looted gold may well have passed through Switzerland, Rubin said that at the time of the negotiations “there was no credible evidence that all of that money remained in Switzerland.” Regardless of whether the looted gold remained in Switzerland was not supposed to be a consideration in the negotiations, according to the State Department report. The $58 million in gold agreed to under the 1946 settlement was turned over to the Allies and distributed through the Tripartite Gold Commission to European governments whose treasuries had been plundered by the Nazis. When asked whether he had any regrets about signing off on Acheson’s letter declaring that there was “no reasonable evidence” that Switzerland had received $300 million worth of looted gold, Rubin said, “I suppose I should be ashamed of myself, but I ain’t gonna belabor using one word rather than another word.” A WJC official said Acheson’s letter to Baldwin raised “moral questions” about the way the State Department attempted to justify the settlement. “Our issue simply remains: Did the State Department lie to the Congress and therefore to the American people? I think Dean Acheson’s letter speaks for itself,” the official said. Meanwhile, Rubin, who remained active in restitution issues after leaving the State Department, has other recollections about the role the United States played in recovering World War II era assets. In a recent letter to Eizenstat, he said that in 1959, the U.S. government shortchanged by at least $5.5 million Jewish groups seeking restitution. “A situation very like that in Switzerland existed in the United States,” wrote Rubin, who served as the American Jewish Committee’s legal representative as it worked with other Jewish groups in the 1950s to recover heirless assets that Holocaust victims had deposited in American banks. During the war, U.S. authorities froze all German and “enemy alien” funds held in U.S. banks. “Of these, many were deposits of Jews or other persecutees seeking refuge for their funds in America, mainly in New York banks,” Rubin wrote. Swiss banks also likely transferred such funds to the “safe haven of American branches,” he said. In the 1950s, Congress passed legislation allowing release of funds where ownership could be established. About the same time, Jewish organizations examined bank records in New York and estimated that $6 million existed in heirless assets, according to Rubin. Negotiations ultimately yielded only $500,000, and Rubin said that he reluctantly recommended accepting it. The money was turned over to the Jewish Restitution Successor Organization for distribution to Holocaust survivors and heirs of victims. In his letter, Rubin urged Eizenstat to investigate the issue, saying, “To the best of my knowledge, there has never been a re-evaluation of this paltry amount.” Jim Desler, a spokesman for Eizenstat, said the issue would not be covered in the Eizenstat report due out later this month. The fate of heirless assets “is a useful thing to explore, but the focus of our research efforts is on tracking Nazi assets, rather than the disposal of individual assets,” Desler said. The WJC, for its part, said the issue raised by Rubin needs to be clarified and examined, but that larger questions — including the fate of billions of dollars in looted Nazi gold — continue to take precedence.