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Much has been written in recent weeks about the dangers posed to governments by the indiscriminate release of previously classified documents. Some think the antidote lies in even greater secrecy. Actually, what’s needed is greater transparency.
Transparency can actually eliminate one-sided leaks and is our best insurance of an informed public making an intelligent decision.
The lack of transparency is no small matter. For example, if transparency had been practiced during the Holocaust years, history might have turned out differently. American Jewry’s untarnished image of President Franklin Roosevelt remained intact only because Jewish leaders never revealed totally what FDR was saying in private.
At a December 8, 1942 meeting, Rabbi Stephen Wise, longtime leader of the American Jewish Congress and the American Zionist movement, headed a delegation of five Jewish leaders to the White House. Afterward, Wise said the president was “profoundly shocked by the Nazis’ mass murder of European Jewry,” that Roosevelt told them “the American people will hold the perpetrators of these crimes to strict accountability,” and that he promised the Allies “are prepared to take every possible step to save those who may still be saved.”
But another participant, Jewish Labor Committee President Adolph Held, privately told his colleagues that FDR began the meeting by joking about his choice of Gov. Herbert Lehman, a Jew, to head the postwar administration in Germany. Wise then spoke briefly about the atrocities. Roosevelt replied that he was very well acquainted with the massacres, but it would be “very difficult to stop them since Hitler was an insane man.”
FDR asked the Jewish representatives for their suggestions. Four of them spoke. The entire conversation on the part of the delegation lasted only a few minutes.
What would the American Jewish public have thought if it were known that Roosevelt spent 23 of the 29 minutes telling jokes and commenting on subjects other than Europe’s Jews?
Fifteen months later, Wise and fellow Zionist leader Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver met with Roosevelt. The British White Paper of 1939, which had almost completely shut the doors of Palestine to Jewish refugees, would expire shortly and Wise and Silver hoped the president would oppose its renewal.
The rabbis told the press afterward that Roosevelt said the U.S. “has never given its approval to the White Paper and had the deepest sympathy” for the goal of a Jewish National Home.
Once again, American Jewry felt confident it had a stalwart friend in the Oval Office.
But private accounts of the next day’s Cabinet meeting by Vice President Henry Wallace and Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. filled in some crucial blanks.
Roosevelt boasted to the Cabinet that he had told Wise and Silver “where to get off.” He berated the Jewish leaders, “Do you want to start a Holy Jihad? If you people continue pushing this recommendation [for a Jewish National Home in Palestine] on the Hill, you are going to be responsible for the killing of a hundred thousand people.”
It was only after this dressing down, Wallace wrote in his diary, that Roosevelt proceeded “to cause Rabbi Wise and Rabbi Silver to believe that he was in complete accord with them and the only question was timing.”
Not knowing Roosevelt’s true feelings, American Jews trusted their leaders’ assurances and gave FDR their overwhelming support. Roosevelt, convinced of Jewish support, felt little pressure to address Jewish concerns.
Though widely perceived by Zionists and other Jews as a devoted friend, Roosevelt repeatedly vacillated in his support for a Jewish state. A week before his death, he assured Saudi Arabia’s King Ibn Saud, a virulent anti-Zionist, that he would not adopt a stance hostile to the Arabs. He also informed Judge Joseph Proskauer, president of the American Jewish Committee, that “on account of the Arab situation, nothing could be done in Palestine.”
Roosevelt aide David Niles later said, “There are serious doubts in my mind that Israel would have come into being if Roosevelt had lived.”
Today, Barack Obama also feels confident that most American Jews support him, even though he expects Israel to give up the West Bank and accept a two-state solution with the Palestinian capital in part of Jerusalem – while at the same time he won’t press the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. All this before Israel and the Palestinians even start to negotiate a peace treaty.
Which brings us back to transparency. There is no question that elected and appointed officials who work closely with the president owe him their loyalty. But they also owe loyalty to their country.
Such officials, especially those who leave the administration mid-course, as several of Obama’s aides already have done, must decide if history will liken their words and actions to those of Rabbis Wise and Silver or to those of Vice President Wallace, Adolph Held, and Treasury Secretary Morgenthau.
Time will clear away the political and campaign verbiage, and history will record the truth for future generations. All will be judged and remembered for their words and deeds.
Until we get transparency, we should heed the warning of Mark Twain: “The history of our race, and each individual’s experience, are sown thick with evidence that truth is not hard to kill, and a lie, told well, is immortal.”
Lou Lapidus edited news and documentaries as chief film editor at WABC-TV in New York for 36 years.
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