President Roosevelt’s response to the Holocaust is a serious issue that merits careful consideration of the historical facts. Listing FDR’s Jewish acquaintances, or the number of Jews hired by his administration, tells us very little about his response to the Nazi genocide. A meaningful discussion of the issues needs to move beyond arguments along the lines of “some of his best friends were Jewish.” And name-calling likewise does little to enhance understanding of the issues.
Let’s briefly consider some of the steps FDR might have taken to aid Europe’s Jews – steps that were all proposed to the Roosevelt administration by Jewish organizations and other rescue advocates.
1. FDR could have spoken out. From the rise of Hitler in early 1933 to the Kristallnacht pogrom in late 1938, FDR held 430 press conferences. He never once raised the issue of Hitler’s persecution of the Jews.
2. The Roosevelt administration could have admitted more Jewish refugees to the United States. Not by asking Congress to liberalize the entire immigration system and not by starting a public debate over the contentious issue of immigration but rather by simply instructing the State Department to allow the existing quotas to be filled. With FDR’s knowledge and approval, the State Department set up a series of administrative obstacles that made it extremely difficult to qualify for a visa to the United States. As a result, from 1933 to 1945 the quotas from Germany and other Axis countries were almost always under-filled. More than 190,000 quota places from those countries sat unused – 190,000 lives that could have been saved if FDR had quietly given the word to his State Department.
Hence, what Mr. Garfunkel writes about how Congress opposed “the Sabath-Celler refugee bill to bring in basically 20,000 Jewish children” (he means the Wagner-Rogers bill) is irrelevant: FDR could have saved not 20,000 Jews but 190,000 Jews, without proposing any new bills.
3. Thousands of U.S. cargo ships, known as Liberty ships, brought supplies to Allied forces in Europe and North Africa, but when they were ready to return to the U.S., they were sometimes too light to sail, so they had to be filled with ballast – rocks and chunks of concrete – to give them added weight. Jewish refugees could have served the same purpose.
4. The president could have pressured the British to open Palestine to Jewish refugees.
5. If the administration had established the War Refugee Board in 1943 instead of fighting tooth and nail against its creation and establishing it in 1944, the WRB staff would have found ways to rescue more refugees. In addition, the Board should have been given appropriate funding by the U.S. government. Instead, 90 percent of its budget was supplied by private Jewish organizations.
6. Ransom overtures (through funds blocked until after the war) and other third-party negotiations with the Germans. Thus, for example, the Swiss were ready to accept thousands of French Jewish children but it took the State Department more than a year to provide the necessary guarantees, and the opportunity was missed.
7. The administration could have pressured neutrals near Axis countries (Spain, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey) to open their borders to refugees and keep them in temporary shelters until after the war. The U.S. also could have pressured the neutrals, the Vatican, and the Red Cross to take diplomatic action to aid the Jews. There could have been many more Raoul Wallenbergs if neutral governments encouraged their diplomats to take humanitarian steps.
8. The State Department could have quickly approved requests by Jewish organizations to send funds into Axis Europe to shelter or ransom Jews, instead of dragging its feet and undermining such requests.
9. FDR could have agreed to set up numerous temporary shelters for Jewish refugees, instead of just the one token camp in Oswego, New York, where 982 refugees were housed. Roosevelt’s apologists cannot hide behind claims that the American public was hostile to giving temporary shelter to refugees; an April 1944 Gallup poll found that 70 percent of Americans agreed that “our government should offer now temporary protection and refuge to those people in Europe who have been persecuted by the Nazis.”
10. Beginning in June 1944, U.S. warplanes could have bombed the railway lines leading to Auschwitz or the gas chambers and crematoria in Auschwitz. How do we know this? Because during the summer and autumn of 1944, American and British planes repeatedly bombed German oil factories adjacent to Auschwitz, some of them less than five miles from the gas chambers. (For the recollections of George McGovern, who was one of the pilots in the 1944 raids on the oil factories, see www.wymaninstitute.org/articles/2005-01-mcgovern.php.)
No wonder the Goldberg Commission, in its final report, concluded: “In general, the policies of both [the U.S. and British] governments toward Jews fleeing from Hitler’s grasp…was one of evasion and obstruction” and “The attitude which such policies revealed…was aptly characterized in the title of a memorandum dated January 18, 1944, entitled ‘On the Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of European Jews.’ ”
Evasion. Obstruction. Acquiescence. That sums up the Roosevelt administration’s response to the Holocaust.
Dr. Rafael Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and author or editor of 14 books about Jewish history, Zionism, and the Holocaust.