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).