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.”

Breitman and Lichtman make much of Roosevelt’s sense of ownership of the plan that would lead to the ill-fated Évian Conference, at which the world’s democracies made it quite clear that they had no interest in accepting seven or eight million European Jews in order to solve the “Jewish problem” by resettlement. Breitman was one of the editors of the collection of documents from which the evidence of Roosevelt’s personal involvement is drawn.5 The conversations certainly reflect the kind of enthusiasm that Roosevelt could confer on a policy proposal that he himself dreamed up.

But enthusiasm does not guarantee results, and Roosevelt, the consummate politician, generally had excellent instincts for softening his enthusiasms when they proved unrealistic. There was in fact no incentive for other countries to act, especially when the United States itself was doing so little. Here Breitman and Lichtman could have done more to take account of the three main historical forces that blocked Jewish resettlement—global unemployment, persistent global anti-Semitism, and British colonial sensitivity to Arab feelings against a Jewish state. These rendered Roosevelt’s plan naive. If it is understood against this background, then it seems more like what politicians do when they have few good options for action themselves: they pass on responsibility to others who will publicly share the failure.

As the war in Europe began, Roosevelt more or less gave up trying to help the Jews in order to pursue his overwhelming goal of getting the United States to overcome neutrality and enter the war. This was a herculean task. Even Roosevelt’s own liberal inner circle included many who were skeptical. In February 1940, at a dinner for Lord Lothian, the British ambassador, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, Attorney General Robert Jackson, and Solicitor General Francis Biddle argued to Frankfurter that Hitler “was satisfying the aspirations of the youth of Germany.” In response, Frankfurter was “almost angry,” Ickes wrote wonderingly in his private diary. “He declared that we might just as well say that Capone had given leadership to the youth of Chicago.” A month later, Ickes noted that “Frankfurter, I think, wants us to go further than any of the rest of us do. I believe that he would be willing actually to go to war.”

In this isolationist environment, focusing on the Jewish situation would have looked like partiality—and it would have been terrible domestic politics. Even Frankfurter tried to avoid partiality. When his eighty-two-year-old uncle Solomon was taken to Dachau after the Anschluss, he said nothing to Roosevelt, preferring to appeal for help to the German sympathizer Lady Nancy Astor, whom he had met at Cliveden earlier in the 1930s. She went to the German ambassador and got Frankfurter’s uncle released, and Frankfurter rewarded her with a scolding for her politics. The view of many Jews around Roosevelt, and of the president himself, was that the goal of winning the war was paramount. This would help Jews more than any other result; but it was also, quite simply, more important. The universalism of the war effort was perceived not merely practically, but morally.

In 1943, the systematic Nazi program to exterminate the Jews was not yet called the Holocaust; but it began to be seen a bit less obscurely in Roosevelt’s circles. The president then founded the War Refugee Board at the prompting of Henry Morgenthau. The State Department, a redoubt of anti-Semitism that had hampered the easing of quotas, also stood in the way of the board’s efforts in the years that followed. The board had little budget and less power; yet it did have several notable successes, most famously facilitating Raoul Wallenberg’s extraordinary efforts to save tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews. It is probably reasonable to suggest both that it could have been set up earlier, and that it was unlikely to have had much impact until the tide of the war in Europe turned toward the Allies. The board had a part in the vexed efforts to make sense of German initiatives to ransom at least some Romanian Jews. Breitman and Lichtman think that the offers should not have been taken seriously, as they indeed were not. The goal was to win the war.

Two symbolically charged stories in particular concern Breitman and Lichtman. The first is the failure in the last stages of the war to bomb railroads from Hungary to Auschwitz on which thousands of Hungarian Jews would be carried to their deaths in 1944, or alternatively to bomb the gas chambers or crematoria. At the prompting of the World Jewish Congress, the War Refugee Board raised the bombing of the railroads with the War Department, and actually prepared a memorandum advocating bombing the machinery of death, reasoning that collateral damage to camp residents would be outweighed by the benefits of slowing the killing. The War Department, however, had no interest in either plan. Its officials were focused on military targets, and rejected out of hand civilian suggestions for humanitarian missions with the limited air resources at their disposal.

One little-known point acknowledged by Breitman and Lichtman is that, at least toward the end of the war, bombing Auschwitz would not have been logistically impossible. Indeed, in the summer of 1944, the US 15th Air Force flying out of Foggia, Italy, actually bombed industrial targets within the Auschwitz complex. Breitman and Lichtman argue that requests for bombing never reached Roosevelt, who in any case did not second-guess military commanders on operational questions.

More important, they note that in October 1944 alone, “Hungarians and Germans killed an additional 98,000 Jews in Hungary without any recourse to Auschwitz.” The Germans, they conclude, were determined to kill as many Jews as possible even if faced with defeat. There is ultimately no way of knowing for certain whether bombing would have made a significant difference for the Jews of Hungary. The authors’ strong implication is that the difference would not have been great.

The story of the SS St. Louis is the other charged tale that Breitman and Lichtman take on. As depicted in the Hollywood film Voyage of the Damned, and repeated orally for two generations, the story focuses on 937 German Jewish passengers who embarked from Hamburg for Cuba in May 1939. Denied admission despite having tourist visas, the passengers waited in Havana harbor, where one committed suicide. The ship then headed for Miami, but could not enter the United States, and eventually returned to Europe. The movie version of the myth indicated that most of the passengers subsequently perished.

Drawing on recent work by other historians,6 Breitman and Lichtman show that the received story is inaccurate to the point of being misleading. The Cuban government had previously accepted significant numbers of Jewish refugees, not least because of Roosevelt’s pressure. In the case of the St. Louis, the Cuban government sought higher prices than had previously been paid—some $500 per passenger. Jewish leaders negotiating on their behalf were unwilling to give in to what they saw as blackmail. The Dominican Republic offered to take the refugees at a similar price, but the offer was ignored. Roosevelt could not have allowed the Jews to skip ahead of others on the waiting list without incurring significant political costs, specifically to his hopes of revising the Neutrality Acts that kept the US from aiding Britain.

Far from ignoring the passengers’ plight, the Roosevelt administration brought pressure through the State Department on European nations to take the refugees. In June 1939, well before the war began in September, the St. Louis passengers were settled in Belgium, Britain, France, and the Netherlands. None was returned to Germany. Many passengers considered this result superior to landing in Latin America, and the leaders negotiating on their behalf considered the outcome a success because the refugees were safe in non-German Europe. Of the 937 people aboard, a total of 254, roughly a quarter, later found themselves trapped in Western Europe after Germany took over the continent, and they were murdered, mostly in Auschwitz and Sobibor. The rest survived the war. About half eventually immigrated to the United States.

Should a historically informed recognition of Roosevelt’s constraints and calculations change our moral assessment of the man, or the events in which he was involved?

One effect of Breitman and Lichtman’s book is that no one who reads it sympathetically can continue to believe that Roosevelt acting alone “could have” simply devoted the efforts of the United States to stopping or seriously mitigating the Holocaust, even if he had known sooner of the Nazis’ plans. This form of reasoning rests on the heroic fantasy that the president of the United States can change the course of history on his own, by sheer force of will. But presidents are presidents only because they are enmeshed in institutions that limit freedom of action. Chief among these is the structure of democratic politics, in which some degree of public support is necessary for important policy undertakings. Had Roosevelt made an impassioned public moral case for Jewish immigration into Depression-era America, or urged war to protect the Jews from genocide, it seems overwhelmingly likely that he would have failed to convince the American public of either goal. Roosevelt could not have averted or even substantially mitigated the Holocaust on his own.

Today, we are accustomed to the idea that a president might invoke humanitarian aims such as the prevention of genocide as a justification (real or imaginary) for wars that also serve the national interest. Such was not the case in Roosevelt’s age. Indeed, Roosevelt was surely correct that most Americans would actually have been less inclined to enter the war if saving the Jews was an overt purpose. Those who focus on Roosevelt’s lack of personal concern for the Jews could be entirely correct—but they are forgetting that the voters who elected him cared even less, and in many cases hated the Jews far more.

A deeper and more pressing question raised by Breitman and Lichtman’s book, however, is what sort of moral standards we ought to use when judging people retrospectively. By treating Roosevelt as a politician whose decisions and actions respond to the demands and limitations of the situation, the authors offer an implicit answer. History, even tragic history, moralizes. Their unstated standard, I think, is the pragmatic one associated with Max Weber’s ethic of responsibility, according to which the politician ought to concentrate on the foreseeable consequences of action, not on abstract principle. We should judge Roosevelt as having done well if he did all he could, subject to the limitations of real-world politics and power. Tragic history emphasizes external forces and limitations on knowledge. By this standard, Breitman and Lichtman suggest, Roosevelt acted adequately, and occasionally better than that.

Yet Weber’s essay “Politics as a Vocation”7 recognizes another approach, an absolute ethic of conscience, or ultimate ends, which he associated not coincidentally with religion. Unquestionably some version of this ethic is in play for those who cannot contemplate without fury America’s, or Roosevelt’s, rather ineffectual efforts to prevent the deaths of six million Jews. What matters from this standpoint is not what America realistically could have done, but what it should have done, as a matter of absolute moral obligation, regardless of the cost or constraint. Weber rejected such an ethic as inappropriate to the very nature of politics. Nevertheless there are circumstances in which the absence of strong moral judgment would itself be monstrous. Not as a matter of pragmatic, forward-looking politics, but as a matter of humanity, we should be able to look back with horror at the global confluence of circumstances that gave rise to the Holocaust. Placing blame is a secondary issue: what must be morally primary is revulsion.