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Could FDR Have Done More to Save the Jews?

FDR and the Jews

by Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman
Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 433 pp., $29.95
Franklin Roosevelt Library
Franklin Delano Roosevelt with Henry Morgenthau Jr., his treasury secretary, February 9, 1934. Morgenthau was the only Jewish member of Roosevelt’s cabinet, and convinced him to form the War Refugee Board in early 1944.

Twenty-odd years ago, I went to the office of the immensely distinguished Harvard historian Bernard Bailyn to ask about objectivity in historical writing. Tolerating my sophomoric questions (in my defense, I was in fact a sophomore), the great man explained that historiography had three phases: heroic history, in which individuals are put at the center and imbued with moral qualities; whig history, in which the personalities recede and the flow of events is presented through a chain of inevitable causation; and a final, neutral type—he called it tragic history—in which the historian has no stake in the outcome. Neutral history, Bailyn explained, was the kind he wrote. “Critics said my book on Thomas Hutchinson was about 1968,” I remember him remarking. “But that’s ridiculous. I wasn’t even at Harvard the year the students took over University Hall. I was on sabbatical in Britain!”

I was pretty sure I was being kidded. But then, in the preface to The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson, Bailyn’s powerful account of the last civilian British colonial governor of Massachusetts, I found essentially the same typology in almost identical words.1 In the text, there was an acknowledgment that the events of the late Sixties and the Seventies had “sharpened” the author’s thinking about Hutchinson’s use of troops against public disorder and his limited ability to understand passionate political beliefs. Yet there was also a clear defense of neutral, tragic history. “I do not mean the sadness of it,” Bailyn wrote,

and I certainly do not mean the error or wrongness of it. I mean simply that we have knowledge enough of all the circumstances—material, cultural, political, even psychological—to enable us to catch glimpses of the whole of that distant globe and to know the limits within which men struggled.

Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman, historians at American University and authors of FDR and the Jews,2 aspire to the same sort of tragic history. In their telling, Franklin Delano Roosevelt has been by turns condemned for failing to save European Jewry and defended as having done all he reasonably could. The debate, they say, has been “unforgiving, passionate, and politically charged,” and they suggest that it has pitted “conservative backers of modern-day Israel” against “liberals” seeking to “defend their iconic president from what they see as unfounded smears.” The self-described goal of their book, by contrast, is “to capture the contemporary reality of FDR and other leaders, whose decisions were constrained by the past and projected into what the poet Longfellow called ‘the shadowy future.’”

Antiheroic interpretations of Roosevelt’s relation to the events of the European Holocaust have certainly predominated. Most influential has been David Wyman’s The Abandonment of the Jews, first published in 1984, which documented in a tone of understandable moral outrage the exceedingly small number of Jews—less than the legally available quotas—able to enter the United States as the Final Solution gathered force. The book explored a series of possible policies that were pursued too little or too late and described pivotal moments at which possible initiatives were dismissed. It also raised the question of whether it would have been feasible toward the end of the war to bomb railroads leading to Auschwitz or the death camp itself.

Although not preoccupied with Roosevelt, Wyman did put him at the “forefront” of the US response to the Holocaust, criticizing him for not “speaking out” or making rescue a “priority.” In an afterword to the 2007 edition, responding to the defense of Roosevelt in a book called The Myth of Rescue by William Rubinstein,3 Wyman wrote that “tens, possibly hundreds, of thousands more [Jews] could have been saved by a stronger and earlier commitment to rescue.”

Following the publication of Wyman’s book, the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, of which Wyman is chairman, has undertaken to assign moral blame directly to Roosevelt. In a new book published by the institute, FDR and the Holocaust: A Breach of Faith, Rafael Medoff, the founding director of the institute, argues that Roosevelt intentionally coordinated immigration policy to keep Jews out of the United States, and that his publicly expressed sympathy for Jewish refugees “was, to put it charitably, disingenuous.”

The core of Medoff’s argument is that Roosevelt privately supported views advocated by the geographer Isaiah Bowman, a decided anti-Semite who as president of Johns Hopkins imposed a formal Jewish quota as late as 1942. Bowman opposed the concentration of Jews in the United States or elsewhere and hence was skeptical of mass Jewish settlement in Latin America or Palestine. More than in Wyman’s original book, the recurring theme is that Roosevelt, the president of the United States, could have done much more than he did.

Writing against this background, Breitman and Lichtman face a tricky task. They say they aim to understand Roosevelt in his historical setting, not excuse him. Yet a good deal of their book is devoted to debunking what they consider myths—and that puts them in jeopardy of sounding apologetic. They divide Roosevelt’s attitude toward the situation of European Jews into four periods. In his first term, they say, Roosevelt did almost nothing to challenge rising Nazi anti-Semitism. Then, after he was reelected in 1936, as the refugee crisis of German Jews grew, Roosevelt mildly loosened immigration restrictions and, more important, proposed his own plan to resettle Jews outside Europe.

After Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, Roosevelt, intent on convincing Americans to enter the war, backed away from addressing the Jewish question out of fear that opponents would dismiss his pro-war view as pro-Jewish. Finally, beginning in late 1943, Roosevelt established the War Refugee Board charged with giving help to the refugees, condemned anti-Semitism, and tried to facilitate the creation of a Jewish state in his talks with King Saud on his return from Yalta.

Evaluated abstractly, these four phases would not change the perception created by Wyman and others that Roosevelt cared little for the fate of European Jewry. The success or failure of Breitman and Lichtman’s argument depends on their detailed account of the constraints that Roosevelt faced in each of these periods and the political priorities he sought to pursue. By entering into the constant and constantly changing cost-benefit analysis of the kind that an active politician always makes, a reader may begin to see things as Roosevelt did. But this tragic historical approach will fail to convince anyone whose moral analysis begins with the premise that conscience rather than pragmatism should inform the decisions of political leaders.

Jews mattered a great deal in Roosevelt’s first term in office—but not the Jews jeopardized by Hitler’s almost simultaneous rise to power in the spring of 1933. Far more than any previous president, Roosevelt came to rely upon Jewish-American advisers as he entered national office. The brain trusters who helped craft the first New Deal were not in the main Jewish (although Adolf Berle’s father, a former professor of applied Christianity at Tufts University, had written a pro-Zionist book dedicated to Louis Brandeis4). But the second New Deal was shaped decisively by Felix Frankfurter, Benjamin Cohen, and a team of young, mostly Jewish protégés (“Felix’s happy hotdogs”), all of whom were inspired by the moderate-progressive political philosophy of then Justice Louis Brandeis. Criticism of the New Deal in general and Roosevelt in particular frequently adverted to the Jewish identity of these advisers. And Roosevelt himself, though of Dutch Christian stock, was subjected to anti-Semitism already in his first term. The rumors of his Jewish ancestry, later exploited by Nazi propagandists, were printed, for example, in the Wichita Revelator as early as 1936.

Roosevelt had not had particularly close Jewish advisers earlier in his political career or as governor of New York. In his social milieu there was casual anti-Semitism, and letters between Eleanor Roosevelt and Franklin’s mother, Sara, reflect the unpleasant attitudes of that day and class. After a party for Bernard Baruch, Eleanor wrote that “the Jew party was appalling. I never wish to hear money, jewels, and sables mentioned again.” And after meeting Frankfurter for the first time, Eleanor commented that he was “an interesting little man but very Jew [sic].”

Roosevelt himself was perfectly capable of expressing such attitudes throughout his life when it seemed politically or socially appropriate. Yet he had been friendly with Frankfurter since they met at the Harvard Club in 1906. The occasion for Eleanor’s anti-Semitic comment was that Roosevelt had invited Frankfurter, then his colleague in the Wilson administration, to a private lunch with just the two of them in 1918.

Almost as soon as Roosevelt took office, the Jewish community began to apply pressure to ease restrictions on Jewish immigration from Germany. Roosevelt was approached on this question by his treasury secretary, Henry Morgenthau Jr.; by Frankfurter; by his former lieutenant governor Herbert Lehman, now the governor of New York; his brother Judge Irving Lehman; Judge Julian Mack; and others close to the president. Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, the first woman cabinet member, who was not Jewish but was a New Yorker with close ties to heavily Jewish labor unions, also pressed the case.

The difficulty was not just the quota system, but an interpretation of that system implemented under President Herbert Hoover during the Depression. According to the law, the State Department had to deny visas to those whom it believed likely to become a public charge. The realities of high unemployment, not to mention the skyrocketing costs of relief, had led Hoover’s administration to interpret the requirement strictly.

Roosevelt did nothing to change the Hoover administration’s interpretation, much less to raise the quota. In fiscal 1935, Breitman and Lichtman show, Jewish immigration from Germany consisted of just 5,201 people, one fifth of the legally available quota. Breitman and Lichtman attribute Roosevelt’s inaction to fear of provoking further anti-Semitism and opposition to his administration by publicly acting to allow more Jewish immigration. They point to rising nativist and anti-Semitic sentiment. Roosevelt would have paid a political price for admitting more Jews, and he was unwilling to do so. Between 1934 and 1936, they say, his inaction “may have” denied slots to 60,000 potential German immigrants, most of them Jewish. Although the authors do not say so directly, it is plain that the situation of German Jews did not weigh heavily on Roosevelt in this period.

That changed, not so much because of Roosevelt’s decisive reelection in 1936, as the authors suggest, but because of the Anschluss in March 1938. Roosevelt responded to the immediate crisis for Austrian Jews by unilaterally combining the German and Austrian quotas, which allowed a larger number of well-off Austrian Jews to get visas; the full quota of 27,370 was filled in that year. Roosevelt also responded by dreaming up his own plan for getting “all the democracies to share the burden” of Jewish emigration. If the half of world Jewry that was not already in the United States could be divided among eight or ten countries, Roosevelt told an associate, “there wouldn’t be any Jewish problem in three or four generations.”

  1. 1

    Bernard Bailyn, The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 1974). 

  2. 2

    The title is perhaps a bit unfortunate, suggesting as it does the old punchline about the elephant and the Jewish question. There is some discussion of Zionism throughout, but the book is really about FDR and the Holocaust. Disclosure: two sentences from me appear on the back jacket of the book. I read the manuscript carefully before writing them, and the views here have not been affected by having written them. 

  3. 3

    William Rubinstein, The Myth of Rescue: Why the Democracies Could Not Have Saved More Jews (Routledge, 1997). 

  4. 4

    Adolf Augustus Berle, The World Significance of a Jewish State (Mitchell Kennerley, 1918). 

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