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Henry Morgenthau, Jr., who operated a Christmas tree farm neighboring the New York State estate of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and became U.S. Secretary of the Treasury in 1934, was born in New York City on this date in 1891. Morgenthau was a champion of American farmers, who constituted some 25 percent of the American population in the 1920s. He was a fiscal moderate, in principle against deficit spending, and some economists hold him responsible for the very slow pace of recovery during the Great Depression, despite Roosevelt’s New Deal. Morgenthau also established that Social Security would be funded by new taxes rather than from the general budget. Morgenthau was one of the few officials in government genuinely concerned about rescuing European Jews from the Nazi onslaught, and is credited with rescuing up to 200,000 through the War Refugee Board, but he was crossed by the State Department at every juncture. In 1944 he proposed a plan for postwar Germany that would strip the country of all heavy industry and basically turn it into a huge farm. When the plan was leaked, it was exploited by the Nazis to urge the German people to persevere in their lost cause so that Germany would not, in the words of Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, be turned into “a potato field.” Morgenthau remained an advocate for harsh treatment of the vanquished country, but he was disregarded by President Truman. He completed his life working with Jewish philanthropies and serving as a financial advisor to the nascent State of Israel, and died in 1967. Among his three children is Robert M. Morgenthau, Manhattan district attorney from 1975 to 2009.
“[O]fficials dodged their grim responsibility, procrastinated when concrete rescue schemes were placed before them, and even suppressed information about atrocities.” —Henry Morgenthau, Jr.