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Could FDR Have Done More for the Jews?

In response to:

Could FDR Have Done More to Save the Jews? from the May 8, 2014 issue

To the Editors:

Regarding the possibility of rescuing Jewish refugees from the Nazis, the choice was not between what was morally desirable and what was “realistic,” as Noah Feldman claims [“Could FDR Have Done More to Save the Jews?,” NYR, May 8]. There were numerous realistic steps that President Franklin D. Roosevelt could have taken that would not have involved challenging the immigration quotas or diverting from the war effort. All of these rescue steps were proposed, at the time, by prominent progressives and New Dealers, such as Nation editor Freda Kirchwey, Democratic congressman Emanuel Celler, and investigative journalist I.F. Stone.

Consider, for example, immigration. The quota system permitted a maximum of 25,957 German citizens to immigrate to the US each year. Yet during Roosevelt’s twelve years in office, the German quota was filled in only one year; and in most of those years, it was less than 25 percent filled. A total of nearly 190,000 quota places from Germany and Axis-controlled countries sat unused during the Holocaust years. FDR did not have to confront Congress or ignite public controversy over the issue—all he had to do was quietly instruct the State Department (which administered immigration) to permit immigrants to enter up to the maximum number allowed by law.

In 1938, the governor and legislative assembly of the US Virgin Islands offered to open their territory to Jewish refugees. When the refugee ship St. Louis approached America’s shore the following spring, Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. proposed permitting the passengers to stay in the Virgin Islands temporarily on tourist visas. Interior Secretary Harold Ickes also urged using the islands as a haven. But FDR personally blocked the proposals for a Virgin Islands haven. The administration claimed that Nazi spies might sneak in, disguised as refugees (even though no such spies had ever been discovered among Jewish refugees).

Noah Feldman notes that Richard Breitman and Allan Lichtman, in their book FDR and the Jews, claim that the impact of bombing Auschwitz or the railways leading to the camp “would not have been great.” George S. McGovern, who was in a better position to judge this issue, felt otherwise. In 1944, the future US senator and presidential candidate was one of the young bomber pilots who flew over Auschwitz, bombing German oil factories nearby. Here’s what he told Wyman Institute interviewers in 2004:

There is no question we should have attempted…to go after Auschwitz. There was a pretty good chance we could have blasted those rail lines off the face of the earth, which would have interrupted the flow of people to those death chambers, and we had a pretty good chance of knocking out those gas ovens.

In any event, the Roosevelt administration rejected the bombing requests on different grounds. Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy responded to the requests by claiming that the administration had conducted a “study” that had found that such bombing raids were not feasible because they would require “diverting” bombers from elsewhere in Europe.

But both of McCloy’s claims were false. There is no evidence any such study was conducted. As for the claim about “diverting” planes, the fact is that at that very time (in 1944), US bombers (such as McGovern’s) were already flying over Auschwitz as they bombed oil factories less than five miles from the gas chambers. Thus no “diversion” would have been necessary. (The US did, however, divert military resources for other purposes—such as the recovery of historic paintings and the rescue of the Lipizzaner dancing horses.)

Some of the other steps that prominent progressives suggested at the time:

• Thousands of US cargo ships brought supplies to Allied forces in Europe. When the empty ships were ready to return home, they had to be filled with ballast—rocks and chunks of concrete—so they would not tip over. Jewish refugees could have served the same purpose.
• President Roosevelt could have pressured the British to quietly open Palestine to Jewish refugees. To avoid antagonizing the Arabs, the boats could have landed at nighttime at out-of-the-way locations.
• FDR could have agreed to set up numerous temporary shelters for Jewish refugees, instead of just the one token camp in Oswego, New York, where 982 refugees were housed. An April 1944 Gallup poll (commissioned by the White House) found 70 percent of Americans said they agreed that “our government should offer now temporary protection and refuge to those people in Europe who have been persecuted by the Nazis.”

In short, if President Roosevelt had the will to help the Jews, ways could have been found—ways that would not have involved tampering with the immigration system or undermining the war effort in any way.

Rafael Medoff
Founding Director
The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies
Washington, D.C.

Noah Feldman replies:

Nearly all the possibilities raised by Mr. Medoff—filling the German immigration quota, bombing Auschwitz, and re-settlement in mandatory Palestine—were addressed in my review. The disagreement, assuming any exists, seems to turn on the word “realistic.” Legally, Roosevelt could have altered Hoover-era interpretations of the immigration laws to admit the full complement of immigrants from Germany; but under late Depression conditions, he judged that it would be too politically costly to do so. Logistically, bombing the death camp at Auschwitz was possible from the summer of 1944; but the War Department did not consider it a military target.

In theory, Roosevelt could have pressured Britain to increase Jewish migration to Palestine; but Britain’s interest in avoiding wartime opposition from the Palestinian Arab population matched the US wartime interest in keeping as many British troops as possible free to fight the Germans. As for the moral indignation that informs Mr. Medoff’s letter, it seems to me to be both comprehensible and appropriate as a response to the tragedy of European Jewry.

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