Latest update: April 12th, 2013
The debate in the Jewish community over Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his response to the Holocaust has been bitter and emotional, a family divided against itself. On the one hand, FDR was the polio-stricken man who, after being knocked flat on his back, rose and revived an America that had been knocked flat on its back and then led it to wartime triumph over Hitler and to global destiny.
Many Jews still agree with the editors of The New York Times who, on the day after FDR’s death in 1945, wrote that “Men will thank God on their knees a hundred years from now that Franklin Roosevelt was in the White House in that dark hour when a powerful and ruthless barbarism threatened to overrun the civilization of the Western World.”
On the other hand, for nearly fifty years more than a few historians, most prominently Arthur Morse and David Wyman, have been assailing FDR as essentially callous and uncaring in the face of the reports of the Nazi exterminations.
As Wyman wrote in The Abandonment of the Jews, perhaps the most influential work on this topic in the last twenty-five years, “America’s response to the Holocaust was the result of action and inaction on the part of many people. In the forefront was Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose steps to aid Europe’s Jews were very limited. If he had wanted to he could have aroused substantial public backing for a vital rescue effort by speaking out on the issue. But he had little to say about the problem and gave no priority at all to rescue.”
For many Jews, reading this harsh criticism was, to say the least, disillusioning. The debate is fueled by FDR’s own record, which has become a communal Rorschach test. Consider the following chronology in a crucial period from mid-1943 to early 1944.
In late July, FDR endorsed a World Jewish Congress plan to rescue 70,000 Romanian Jews and intervened with the Treasury Department to approve the necessary license. A few days later, he listened as the Polish Underground’s Jan Karski, who had infiltrated both the Warsaw Ghetto and a concentration camp before coming to the United States, explained that the Nazis were eradicating the Jewish race and pleaded for Allied intervention. FDR noncommittally responded only, “Tell your people we shall win the war.”
A few weeks after that, FDR ignored a plea from a prominent writer and clergyman to warn Nazi satellite countries, which had most of the surviving European Jews, against further co-operation with Germany in the exterminations.
In October 1943, FDR refused to meet with representatives of hundreds of Orthodox rabbis marching in Washington to demand action to rescue European Jews. In November, FDR told State Department officials, through his undersecretary of state, that he wanted to do more to help the Jews. And, in January 1944, albeit under pressure both from his Treasury Department and Congress, he approved the creation of the War Refugee Board, which is credited with saving 200,000 Jews.
With this kind of grist for everyone’s historical mill, the debate might just as easily be resolved by throwing darts at the dates as by historical analysis. Historians, however, are not dart throwers by nature but more like competitive mountain climbers, each looking for an untracked route to the top of this Mt. Everest of historical controversies.
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In their new book, FDR and the Jews, American University history professors Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman bring to the debate a comparatively benign, it-could-not-be-more complicated perspective: “FDR was neither a hero of the Jews nor a bystander to the Nazis’ persecution and then annihilation of Jews. No simple or monolithic characterization of this complex president fits the historical record. FDR could not fully meet all competing priorities as he led the nation through its worst economic depression and most challenging foreign war. He had to make difficult and painful trade-offs and he adapted over time to shifting circumstances. Still, Roosevelt reacted more decisively to Nazi crimes against Jews than any other world leader of his time.”
Using essentially the same facts, the two historical camps reach different conclusions, like painters working in the same colors but taking different approaches to the use of black and white. All-out critics like Wyman only add black to their colors, producing dark, overpowering shades; Breitman and Lichtman mix in both black and white to create more subtle and complex tones (few serious historians are all-out FDR defenders).
Dark and overpowering gets attention, especially when the historical reputation of an American icon is being taken down a peg. Subtle and complex may have more long term appeal but can prove dissatisfying, especially to Jews, whose experiences in the mid-20th century were anything but subtle.
FDR and the Jews divides FDR into four different shape-shifting presidents. In his first term, FDR was a “bystander to Nazi persecution” of the Jews while he dealt with the Great Depression. The second, more empathetic FDR emerged after his 1936 reelection when he eased immigration barriers, supported the resettlement of European Jews in other countries, and “publicly backed a Jewish homeland in Palestine.” But after the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939, a third FDR “put internal security, foreign policy and military concerns” ahead of Jewish issues. The fourth and final FDR took shape in early 1944, when he created the War Refugee Board and denounced anti-Semitism as “an integral part of Hitler’s brutal attempt to rule Europe and the Western World.”
Fair enough. But as far as European Jews were concerned, wasn’t the most critical FDR the third one? In that period the Nazis implemented a plan to murder every Jewish man, woman and child on the European continent within their grasp using every 20th century industrial and scientific means at their disposal. By the time the fourth FDR emerged to create the War Refugee Board, the Nazis had already killed millions of Jews. As these historians acknowledge, “The president and his administration did not forthrightly inform the American public of Hitler’s grisly ‘Final Solution’ or respond decisively to his crimes.”
The FDR critics would hardly disagree. At its core, then, the dispute among these historians is not over what FDR objectively did or did not do. What they really disagree about is understanding and forgiveness.
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The critics cut FDR no slack – of course he had other concerns on his mind but he could have found the time to do more to save Jews. FDR and the Jews is all about context and understanding; for example, explaining that the first FDR paid little, if any, attention to the Nazis’ persecution of German Jews because he was grappling in his first term with the crisis of the Great Depression.
“Much like Lincoln facing the political need to hold the Union together while wrestling with the humanitarian imperative to abolish slavery,” FDR in his first term refused to jeopardize his domestic agenda by stoking domestic “ethnic antagonism,” i.e., anti-Semitism, over the Third Reich’s Jewish policies.
But in at least one crucial sense, the third Roosevelt was responding “decisively” to Hitler’s crimes by devoting every human and physical resource at his command to Hitler’s destruction. In July 1942, while the battle for North Africa between British and German armies hung in the balance, a German force called Einsatzkommando Egypt was assembled in Athens, awaiting word that Cairo had fallen. In that event, the Einsatzkommando Egypt – effectively, a mobile Auschwitz – would land and start slaughtering Jews in Egypt and Palestine, where 500,000 Jews lived.
That the Einsatzkommando Egypt did not wipe out the Jews of Palestine (and dynamite any physical evidence, especially the Western Wall, that the Jewish people ever existed there), was, according to FDR and the Jews, due in part to FDR, who diverted American A-20 bombers and 300 Sherman tanks to the British armies, which may have tipped the balance at the crucial November 1942 battle of El Alamein.
FDR and the Jews doesn’t directly mention the reason the British were able to fight at all in North Africa – FDR’s Lend-Lease policy, which he single-handedly conceived in late 1940 when Britain stood alone against Germany and had run out of cash to buy American arms.
FDR didn’t create Lend-Lease or ship Sherman tanks to North Africa to save the Yishuv. He did it to remove a mortal threat to the United States. But unquestionably his wartime leadership saved the Palestinian Jews, the seed of the state of Israel. FDR and the Jews argues that FDR did “more good for the Jews there [in North Africa and Palestine] than his inconsistency and dissembling did harm.” By this logic, FDR – and the 400,000 American soldiers who died in the war – saved the approximately two million Jews in Europe still alive when Germany surrendered.
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Perhaps it’s time to reexamine Elie Wiesel’s verdict on FDR and the American response to the Holocaust: “Proud as we are of the generosity that America showed in fighting against Nazi Germany, we are embarrassed and dismayed by its behavior toward Hitler’s Jewish victims.” The linkage between FDR’s war leadership and saving countless Jewish lives is not a new concept but never before have two such preeminent Holocaust historians given it such a vivid endorsement. The teachable moment of the publication of FDR and the Jews is that we should be a little more proud and a little less embarrassed.
Reconciliation, of course, is not the same as absolution. It was FDR’s great moral failure that he did not explain that linkage to the American people and make certain that his bureaucracy conducted itself accordingly, which is where his critics find their traction. FDR and the Jews suggests that the third FDR did not give the great speech that would have cemented his place in the moral history of America because he wanted to “to unite the nation and blunt Nazi propaganda by avoiding the appearance of fighting a war for the Jews.”
But Abraham Lincoln, also fighting a war for the country’s survival, did give such a speech to his largely racist countrymen in the Northern states – twice. In the Gettysburg Address in 1863 he described the country’s “new birth of freedom” and then in the Second Inaugural in 1865 he explicitly told the American people that all along they had been fighting because of slavery – and would keep on fighting until it was no more, regardless of the cost in blood.
For all FDR’s great vision – he saw the threat Hitler posed earlier and more clearly than any European leader other than Winston Churchill – he failed to grasp, after receiving the reports of the exterminations, that the war was being fought to remove an affliction of both the Jews and the rest of humanity so monstrous that it transcended even national survival.
Perhaps you had to be there. On the day FDR died, senior American commanders entered a newly liberated Buchenwald sub-camp. George Patton, for all his legendary toughness, became physically ill, while Dwight Eisenhower turned white. Eisenhower ordered American military units to tour the camp. He said, “We are told that the American soldier does not know what he was fighting for. Now, at least he will know what he is fighting against.”
At Nordhausen, an Austrian-born Jewish soldier in the Fourth Armored Division of the Third Army recalled of his fellow American soldiers, “it did not sink in, what this was all about, until we got to Nordhausen.”
Had he at least better grasped the profound moral implications, FDR might have reined in his Cabinet departments. But the State Department, whose bureaucracy was managed by anti-Semitic callous aristocratic diplomats, ran amuck, blocking the first reports in August 1942 of the exterminations and then sabotaging rescue efforts, including the plan to rescue 70,000 Romanian Jews that FDR had personally approved. It took more than a year and a half before FDR, with a scandal over the State Department’s conduct about to explode, vested Jewish rescue in the newly created War Refugee Board.
For all its success, however, the War Refugee Board was unable to persuade the War Department to bomb the rail lines leading to Auschwitz. FDR and the Jews makes a convincing case that FDR played “no apparent role in the decision not to bomb Auschwitz,” but also concedes that, had the issue gotten to the Oval Office, he likely would not have reversed a military decision.
The point, of course, is not simply whether the bombing would have stopped the killings, which is debatable since other means were available – “the SS and German police had shot Jews in large numbers before and after the use of gas chambers” – but that even one bombing raid, like one great speech, would if nothing else have been an enduring moral statement.
But as the latest entry in the debate, FDR and the Jews has made an undeniable contribution even beyond the depth, balance, and integrity of its research. Two major historians have firmly stated that FDR’s contribution to saving Jewish lives through his war leadership must be weighed in any historical verdict, along with his failures.
We will never fully come to terms with FDR and his response to the Holocaust – the debate will go on until the end of time – but we can now have a degree of peace with our role in the Holocaust as a nation and as an American Jewish community – in effect with ourselves.
After all, isn’t that what the debate really is about?
About the Author: Gregory J. Wallance is a lawyer and writer in New York City and a long-time human rights activist. His most recent book is “America’s Soul in the Balance: The Holocaust, FDR’s State Department, and the Moral Disgrace of An American Aristocracy.”
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