A Tale of Four Roosevelts
The State Department at first didn’t want to unduly rattle the Germans, and later didn’t want to risk a rift with our British friends. The Republicans allowed their isolationist supporters to run roughshod over their moral sensiblities. Christian leaders, joined by at least some major Jewish organizations, said the extermination of Europe’s Jews was indeed a terrible thing, but the more important goal was to defeat the Nazis, for only the destruction of Hitler’s war machine could really make the world safe for all, including, by the way, whatever Jews might survive the Germans’ genocide.
That was the climate in which Franklin Delano Roosevelt repeatedly found reasons not to do the right thing—not to take in Jewish child refugees, not to meet (let alone enlarge) American quotas for European immigrants, not to force the British to let more Jews enter Palestine, not to bomb the gas chambers at Auschwitz when American warplanes were already busy destroying that concentration camp’s industrial plants, less than five miles away.
Ever since David Wyman’s landmark 1984 book, The Abandonment of the Jews, historians and journalists have generally described President Roosevelt as sympathetic to the plight of Europe’s Jews, but unwilling to risk political capital, endanger relations with U.S. allies, or divert military or financial resources on behalf of a people he knew were being systematically and gruesomely wiped out.
Now come two American University historians, Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman, with a slightly revisionist approach. They seek not to absolve Roosevelt for his inaction, but, as my latest parking ticket says, “to admit with explanation.” Here and there in FDR and the Jews, Breitman and Lichtman do argue that Roosevelt has gotten a raw deal in history—that, for example, it was reasonable to husband military resources and focus on destroying the Nazi war machine rather than bombing the rail lines to the death camps, or that, contrary to the Hollywood version of the story, the great majority of the 937 refugees on the German ship, the St. Louis, which was turned away from U.S. ports in 1939, were delivered safely to countries that were then considered protected from Nazi oppression. (That 254 later died in the Holocaust was, by the authors’ reckoning, tragic but not the result of American callousness.)
But their primary purpose is to posit that Roosevelt’s attitude toward the Holocaust developed in four stages, with varying degrees of resolve and effort, even if none of them amounted to a full-fledged commitment to intervene on behalf of the Jews. FDR started out as a bystander to Nazi persecution. “Like Lincoln facing the need to hold the Union together,” they write, Roosevelt put his political need to focus on the domestic crisis caused by the Depression ahead of mounting evidence of Nazi crimes. This first FDR wouldn’t meet with Jewish leaders and saw no cause to relax immigration restrictions.
In his second term, FDR, newly confident in his political stature and starting to take on his recalcitrant State Department, met with Rabbi Stephen Wise and other Jewish leaders and accepted their narrative about the Nazis’ grave intentions toward the Jews. This Roosevelt explored ways to loosen immigration quotas and publicly called for a Jewish homeland in Palestine and for an international effort to resettle refugees in South America.
But in 1939, at the worst possible moment, a third FDR reversed course, persuaded that any overt focus on the plight of Jews would fuel American isolationism, weakening his administration’s effort to find ways short of U.S. troop involvement to strengthen the battle against Hitler and endangering Roosevelt’s chances for a third term.
Finally, too little and too late, a fourth Roosevelt emerged in 1943, as the president—appalled by the wholesale genocide that U.S. newspapers were increasingly reporting despite the State Department’s efforts to tamp down on eyewitness accounts—denounced anti-Semitism, set up the War Refugee Board, and pressed the king of Saudi Arabia, without success, to accept Jewish resettlement in Palestine.
Breitman and Lichtman convincingly place Roosevelt’s ambiguity about the Jews at the intersection of his career-long acceptance of Jews personally and his practical, and sometimes opaque, calculations about political viability.
As governor of New York, he presided over about half of American Jewry; as a candidate for president, he said it was “foolish to call the Jews a materialistic race”; and as both governor and president, he relied on a striking number of Jewish advisors in prominent positions. On the other hand, although he grew up largely free of the reflexive anti-Semitism that pervaded his social class—his wife Eleanor, for example, “had harsh and commonplace stereotypes of Jews as pushy social inferiors,” the authors write—FDR as a student at Harvard supported a drive to reduce the number of Jews on campus, then six percent of students, because no group should have undue representation.
Ultimately, Breitman and Lichtman seem to protest a bit much when they argue that the character of the times and political pressures of the moment explain Roosevelt’s recalcitrance about directing America’s attention and resources against the murder of millions of Jews. As evidence of how hard such choices were at the time, the authors focus on the split within American Jewry. Rabbi Wise—founder of the American Jewish Congress, president of the Zionist Organization of America, and the Jewish leader FDR saw most often—emerges as the hero and conscience of this account, urging the president early and vociferously to speak out or see “a worldwide conflagration… against the Jews.” But FDR was also hearing from Jews, sometimes including Wise, who counseled reserve and even silence about the Nazis’ anti-Jewish acts for fear of fomenting more anti-Semitism at home and in Western Europe. The authors conclude that it sometimes looked as if “Jewish leaders hated each other almost as much as they hated Hitler.” If the Jews themselves couldn’t see a clear path toward effective action, how could the president?
Well, okay. Except that presidents are supposed to be able to rise above the narrow interests of the factions that make up the nation, and as Wyman demonstrated powerfully in Abandonment, even if Jewish groups, Christian churches, business leaders and the American public as reflected in opinion polling were all too willing to look away from the evidence of genocide, Roosevelt’s inaction was an amoral decision to put politics and pragmatism ahead of even a symbolic effort to rescue Europe’s Jews.
What, really, were the alternatives, Breitman and Lichtman ask. What could Roosevelt have done, given the domestic pressures of an isolationist opposition, an overtly anti-Semitic fringe, a hostile State Department, and the indifference of nearly the entire world, with only Rabbi Wise, Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau and a few dissident voices in the federal bureaucracy urging FDR to think in terms of rescue operations rather than focusing exclusively on defeating the Nazis on the battleground?
No doubt the authors have accurately portrayed the forces arrayed against Roosevelt doing what Wise urged in 1943: taking “active measures to save those Jews who can still be saved.” And surely they are right that “over the course of more than a decade as president, Roosevelt sounded at times like a Zionist, at times like a skeptic about Palestine’s capacity to absorb new settlers, and at times, when speaking to
anti-Semites, like an anti-Semite himself.”
But in the end, it is not enough to conclude that FDR “reacted more decisively against Nazi crimes than any other world leader.” As Breitman and Lichtman note in passing, it was Gandhi who said, “Action expresses priorities.”
Marc Fisher is senior editor of The Washington Post and author of After the Wall: Germany, the Germans and the Burdens of History.