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President Franklin Delano Roosevelt

*Editor’s Note: This is part V in a series from Dr. Grobman. You can read Part IV, here

Stephen S. Wise and other American Jewish leaders and organizations were unaware of the change in the visa policy, which occurred in June and July 1940. This is clear from a letter found in Stephen S. Wise: Servant of the People: Selected Letters, edited by Congregational Minister Carl Hermann Voss. 


On September 17, 1940, Wise wrote a confidential letter to Otto Nathan, a confidant and an economic advisor in the former German Weimar Republic. In it he declared: “With regard to the political refugees, we are in the midst of an unmanageable quandary.” He and other Jewish leaders presented the State Department with lists of people they wanted to be admitted to the US, and then heard the consuls “do nothing” about these requests. A few Jews managed to “slip through,” but Wise feared that consuls were under instruction from the State Department “to do nothing,” which, if true, “would be infamous beyond words.” 

Wise assumed that friends of Roosevelt in the State Department feared that “any large admission of radicals to the United States might be used effectively against him in the [election] campaign. Cruel as I may seem, as I have said to you before, his re-election is much more important for everything that is worthwhile and that counts than the admission of a few people, however imminent be their peril.” 

As previously noted, some members of Congress and the American public believed Jews coming from Eastern Europe were radicals, perhaps even Communists, who would become a “fifth column.” Historian Zosa Szajkowski wrote that in the 1930s, some American officials “advised” American Jews to “decide whether they were more interested in protecting the nearly five million American Jews from intensified anti-Semitism that would result from an ‘influx’ of refugees, or in the aiding a very small number of German Jews to come.” 

Opponents of immigration exercised substantial political power observed historian David Wyman. They included many members of Congress, Daughters of the American Revolution and the American Coalition of Patriotic Societies, representing the interests of 115 different organizations with a total membership of 2.5 million, and veterans’ organizations. The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and the American Legion wanted to end immigration. In the early 1940s the Legion counted 28 senators and 150 congressmen in their organization 

Roosevelt was “willing to spread the Jews… all over the world” as he himself said, but did not want them to enter the US in any significant numbers, asserted historian Ted Morgan. Historian Rafael Medoff noted the president “understood the political advantage of creating the impression that in his heart, he was genuinely concerned about the plight of Europe’s persecuted Jews.” When Congressman Emanuel Celler (D) asked Roosevelt administration officials about commissioning American ships to rescue Jews, they told him the US would have to “divert shipping for the transportation of war materials and troops for refugees.” As Medoff points out, Portuguese liners traversing between Lisbon and the US every six weeks and other neutral ships were available to transport Jews. Liberty ships that carried soldiers to Europe returned without any cargo and required weight to ensure they would not capsize.  

The need for a ballast was well known. Medoff quotes an article in the Baltimore Jewish Times in May 1943 how Liberty ships were “frequently going out of their way to find ballast,” while the Allies were able to ship tens of thousands of Polish refugees to Iran, Uganda and Mexico. These were the same ships American officials claimed were not available to save Jews. 

Jewish Advisors in the Roosevelt Administration 

Adding to the situation was Roosevelt’s attitude toward Jews, which “was complicated,” Morgan asserted. He surrounded himself with Jewish advisors—Henry Morgenthau, Jr., Secretary of the Treasury; Samuel I. Rosenman, one of the president’s key advisors; US Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter; Benjamin V. Cohen, one of the key architects of Roosevelt’s New Deal–whom he liked and respected. 

One of the reasons for this affinity, Morgan claimed, is that he knew Jews were not a political threat to his presidential ambitions. “Rosenman and Frankfurter were Jewish ‘Uncle Toms.’” Rosenman never raised the issue of the refugees and did not want the immigration quotas changed. Frankfurter called Henry Morgenthau “a stupid bootlick,” although Frankfurter was “was more interested in New Deal legislation than in the plight of the Jews.” Actually Frankfurter, who sent Roosevelt endless messages lauding his foreign policy successes, made him “more of a bootlick” than Morgenthau, “who did not hesitate to come to grips with the president on refugees.” 

To be sure, Morgan said Roosevelt was incensed by the persecution of the Jews and wanted to do something to alleviate their suffering. Yet Morgan noted that he also harbored “a residue” of social antisemitism he inherited from his mother, his half-brother Rosy and his uncle Delano. Historian David Kranzler quoted a well-known idiom of the period that illustrated the adoration Jews held for Roosevelt. “Die velt, yene velt, und Roosevelt [This world, the other World to Come and Roosevelt]. For many Jews, it came to mean, “What’s good for Roosevelt, is good for the Jews.” 

This view of Roosevelt is not surprising. Kranzler wrote that a day after Roosevelt’s inauguration in 1933, Rabbi William F. Rosenbloom of New York’s Temple Israel, explained to his congregation that the election had been a watershed in American history. “No president, not excepting Washington, Lincoln, and Wilson has assumed the office with so universal and genuine hope on the part of the people that he will prove to be a Messiah, the Messiah of America’s tomorrow.” 

Resettlement of Jews 

Historian Henry Feingold noted that “despite a great deal of talk and activity, resettlement of Jews played virtually no role in actually rescuing refugees. The overwhelming number of Jews who did succeed in leaving the Nazi inferno did so by infiltrating rather than resettling. The exception was those who enlisted in the Zionist Pioneering movement or those who became involved in Sousa [in the Dominican Republic] or the British Guiana project. A number of experts had repeatedly warned the Roosevelt Administration that “resettlement at was at best a dubious proposition in the twentieth century.” 

With regard to unemployment, in 1939 the rate was 17.2 percent; in 1940 14.6; and in 1941 9.9 percent according to Kimberly Amadeo, an expert on the U.S. economy. Yet David Brody in his essay “American Jewry, The Refugees and Immigration Restriction, (1932-1942),” quoted Refugees at Work, a 1940 study conducted by Columbia University, indicating that since 1933 the refugees had not supplanted American workers. They had essentially increased employment through their “transplanted skills.”  

He added that an article by Felix S. Cohen in the March, 1940 issue of Contemporary Jewish Record destroyed the economic reasons against immigration. With regard to unemployment, “laws restricting immigration have the same economic consequences as pneumonia or birth control; that is to say, the removal of the potential producers and consumers from our society.” 

Callous and Unconscionable Conduct 

Summarizing the callous and unconscionable behavior of the American government’s immigration policy during World War II, Feingold recalled the explanation a rabbi once gave to Representative Emanuel Celler (D-NY), a Jewish member of the House Judiciary Committee: “Had six million cattle been slaughtered, there would have been some outcry, at least from animal lovers. But, in the case of fellow human beings, there was only eerie silence.” 


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Dr. Alex Grobman is the senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society and a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. He has an MA and PhD in contemporary Jewish history from The Hebrew university of Jerusalem. He lives in Jerusalem.