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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.