GENEVA -- After the first full review of secret Red Cross files from World War II, an eminent Swiss historian has concluded that the international humanitarian organization failed to provide all possible assistance to Jews being exterminated by Nazi Germany. The International Committee of the Red Cross, which authorized the research, acknowledged in reply that the lack of succor for millions of Jews in German death camps constituted "the worst defeat in the history of its humanitarian mission." The findings, in a book published recently in Switzerland, took some burnish off the Red Cross, which for more than a century has been a symbol of impartial humanitarian action on battlefields and disaster sites around the world. Although Jewish groups previously have charged the ICRC with inadequate action against Nazi killings, the new findings carried authority here because they resulted from the first unrestricted survey of the organization's own archives in Geneva. The historian, Jean-Claude Favez, said the ICRC fell short of its ideals because of pressure from a determinedly neutral Swiss government and, more important, failure to grasp that the Jewish Holocaust was so extraordinary it required responses beyond traditional Red Cross standards. "In the use of international law, the ICRC, confronted with juridically unnamed victims who turned to it, often sought not the means to act, but on the contrary a justification for not acting, so as not to disturb the conventional missions on which, in its eyes, its very existence stood," Favez concluded. In its reply, the present ICRC leadership declared that international law then gave it no authority to challenge German treatment of civilian prisoners and that attempts to do so were rebuffed by the Nazi government. The Geneva Conventions on civilians in wartime were adopted in 1949. A public appeal against the exterminations, suggested but rejected by Red Cross committee members in 1942, would have done no good and could have jeopardized regular assistance to prisoners of war in other Nazi camps, a statement declared. In addition, it pointed out that, despite some information, the scope of killing in Nazi concentration camps was not as fully recognized at the time as it is now. "Beside the horrifying scale of the Final Solution, as it is known and perceived today, the ICRC's achievements appear insignficant," the statement concluded. "The ICRC feels that the meager results yielded by the considerable efforts made at the time and in the prevailing circumstances represent the worst defeat in the history of its humanitarian mission and exemplify the failure of an entire civilization." Favez, who has done previous work on World War II, said in an interview that Allied governments failed along with the Red Cross to concentrate attention on the plight of Jews. Britain already had troubles in Palestine, he noted in explanation, and Allied leaders, grappling with an entire world at war, argued that the best way to save Jews was to do whatever necessary to defeat Hitler. "The Red Cross shared the same blindness as the Allies on this question," he added. "But what is more troubling is that the ICRC is a humanitarian organization. That is the difference." Favez, 50, rector of Geneva University, entitled his French-language book, "An Impossible Mission?" He said that after eight years of research he was most troubled by the ICRC's failure to change its position as information gradually became available on the enormity of what was going on in the death camps. "Because in 1942, the information is not totally clear," he said. "But by 1943 and 1944, information becomes clear-cut, and nevertheless there is no reevaluation." Jacques Moreillon, an ICRC committee member, took the lead nine years ago in persuading the committee to open its files for an authoritative look at what was done during the Holocaust. He said he realized the need for independent research during service in 1969 and 1970 as head of the Red Cross delegation in Israel, where the organization's wartime record was repeatedly attacked. "I came to the conclusion that we owed it to ourselves to really know what happened, what we did do and what we did not do," he said in an interview. Moreillon, by then director of legal and administrative services, said he took advantage of controversy stirred by the 1978 movie "Holocaust" to bring the issue before the ICRC's 25-member governing committee. Committee members voted unanimously to open the files for the first time, and Moreillon chose Favez because of his reputation as an impartial historian and because of his Swiss citizenship. The biggest surprise, Moreillon said, was Favez's finding that the ICRC could have saved many more Jewish lives in the later years of the war in countries such as Hungary and Romania, allied with Germany but not so oppressively controlled and occupied. These findings were preceded last fall by another book, "Facing the Holocaust in Budapest," that came to similar but more severe conclusions based on Red Cross files on Hungary. Written by Arieh Ben-Tov, an Israeli lawyer and Auschwitz survivor, the study hit hard at Red Cross policy in Budapest and called the wartime ICRC president, Max Huber, a "small-minded man." Also unexpected, Moreillon said, was Favez's demonstration that the Swiss government played a significant role in persuading the committee not to issue a moral appeal against Nazi death camps in 1942. The Bern government feared its neutrality would be challenged by Nazi Germany, Favez wrote, basing his conclusion on government files. Committee members at the time debated in knowledge that the appeal would have done no practical good, Moreillon said. "The debate was not, 'Something horrible is happening and we can save many lives,' " he said. "It was, 'Something horrible is happening and we cannot stay silent.'" After some hesitation, the committee voted to stay silent.