Born on May 11, 1891, in New York, into a prominent Jewish family, Henry Morgenthau Jr. studied architecture and agriculture at Cornell University. Around that same time, during WWI, his father, Sr., served as President Woodrow Wilson’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. In Constantinople, Sr. learned about the atrocities the empire was committing against the Armenian Christians - over one million murdered - and helped create the Near East Foundation, a private NGO to work with the US government to raise money and provide relief to survivors.
Meanwhile, Henry Jr. operated their farm, Fishkill Farms, which was near the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Hyde Park estate in upstate New York. They specialized in growing Christmas trees. Jr. was concerned about distress among farmers, and in 1922 he took over American Agriculturalist magazine, using it as a platform to upgrade agriculture, and to advocate for conservation, scientific farming, and reclamation. (One in four families were farming at that time.) Meanwhile, he helped his friend Franklin campaign for governor of New York. Once in that office, Roosevelt appointed Morgenthau state conservation commissioner and also chair of the governor’s agricultural advisory committee.
When Roosevelt became President of the US in 1932, he appointed Morgenthau chair of the Federal Farm Board. In 1934, when the Secretary of the Treasury passed away, Morgenthau took over. It did not escape the notice of anti-semites that Roosevelt had high-placed Jewish advisors, and Morgenthau laid low on anything that could be associated with “Jewish” interests. We note, sadly, that such restraint saw him not endorsing (though privately expressing concern for) increasing immigration quotas to help European Jews escape. He did support withdrawing our ambassador from Germany after Kristallnacht, and suggested Jewish havens in Africa, South America, and the Virgin Islands.
What Morgenthau did support, though, helped get the US through the war, including prior funding through the Lend-Lease Act of the UK and Russia, and later converting our commercial factories to make military products. As Treasury Secretary, he also oversaw keeping money out of enemy hands, including through American companies’ international associates, seizing billions in assets.
Reflecting what his father had done decades earlier, Morgenthau uncovered unnecessary delay by our State Department in forwarding money from the World Jewish Congress to a Swiss representative, out of professed fear it would fall into Nazi hands. This led to the realization that the US embassy in Switzerland had been instructed to stop transmitting information about the murder of Jews. Morgenthau took action. Ultimately, Roosevelt created the War Refugee Board in 1944. Thereafter, Morgenthau was a staunch ally in relocating survivors.
After Roosevelt’s death, Morgenthau soon resigned from the Treasury. In the 1940s he was elected chair of the United Jewish Appeal. Visiting Israel, he toured a kibbutz where Holocaust survivors lived. They had named their kibbutz Tal Shaḥar, Morning Dew, which is what Morgenthau’s name means. He passed away on 2/6/1967.