The Battle Over FDR’s Record on Saving Jews From the Nazis

Museum curator fights back, saying a group of historians is misrepresenting how ‘Americans and the Holocaust’ exhibition portrays Franklin D. Roosevelt’s efforts to take in Jewish refugees in the 1930s and ’40s

James G. McDonald with Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion in 1949, while serving as the first U.S. ambassador to Israel.
Courtesy of the McDonald Family

On April 8, 1933, U.S. foreign policy expert James G. McDonald walked into a private meeting with the recently appointed German chancellor, Adolf Hitler. A tall Midwesterner who spoke German, McDonald later recounted how the führer described his plans for the Jews: “I will do the thing the rest of the world would like to do. It doesn’t know how to get rid of the Jews. I will show them.”

Hitler’s intentions were still unclear at the time, but this declaration was arguably one of the first clues of the mass extermination of 6 million Jews that was to follow. Three weeks after that fateful meeting, McDonald arrived for an overnight visit at the White House, where he debriefed his friend, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, about his trip to Germany.

According to a group of Holocaust historians, that meeting and others between McDonald and Roosevelt – in which the president is said to have made assurances to help Jewish refugees that he did not keep – are part of a trail of evidence that Roosevelt abandoned and ultimately doomed Europe’s Jews.

Roosevelt’s actions (or inaction) on the issue of Jewish refugees during World War II has been debated at length. Now, though, a 70-page study published by a group of eight Holocaust historians reignites that dispute, alleging that a current exhibition at the United States Holocaust Memorial  Museum in Washington D.C. “distorts and minimizes Roosevelt’s abandonment of Jewish refugees during the Holocaust” by excluding McDonald’s story from its narrative.

The special exhibition is called “Americans and the Holocaust” and seeks to examine “the motives, pressures and fears that shaped Americans’ responses to Nazism, war and the persecution and murder of Jews in Europe during the 1930s and ’40s,” according to the USHMM. It opened this spring and runs until 2021.

Franklin D. Roosevelt and James G. McDonald in 1935.
Courtesy of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

Rafael Medoff, head of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies that published the analysis on the exhibition, says “the real reason they have ‘blacklisted’ McDonald has to do with the museum’s new policy of actively promoting the claim that President Roosevelt did everything possible to save the Jews.”

Medoff, who has written extensively about Holocaust history for Haaretz and other publications, says McDonald’s efforts to secure help for Jewish refugees went unheeded by Roosevelt. McDonald had served as the League of Nations’ high commissioner for refugees coming from Germany, the vast majority of them Jewish, for over two years before quitting the position in December 1935. His resignation letter stated that “conditions in Germany which create refugees have developed so catastrophically that a reconsideration by the League of Nations of the entire situation is essential.”

‘Nonsense’

The exhibition’s curator, historian Daniel Greene, strongly rejects the accusation that the museum tries to paint an overly positive picture of Roosevelt or that it ignores McDonald’s role in order to serve that purpose.

The constraints Roosevelt faced in opening up America’s doors are well-known: He took office at the height of the Great Depression, with an increasingly isolationist public and Congress, and a State Department with anti-Semitic officials in key positions allegedly stymieing immigration efforts. These influences are explored in the exhibition.

“The exhibition in no way excuses President Roosevelt’s actions or inactions during the 1930s and ’40s,” Greene, an adjunct professor of history at Northwestern University, told Haaretz via email. “In fact, the exhibition directly asks: ‘What more could have been done?’ The notion that the exhibition puts forth the idea ‘that President Roosevelt did everything he could to save the Jews’ is nonsense. To the contrary: The exhibition instead asks why the rescue of Jews never became a priority for the U.S. government, headed by President Roosevelt.”

Filmmaker Shuli Eshel made the 2014 documentary “A Voice Among the Silent: The Legacy of James G. McDonald” (which was funded by the McDonald family), and contributed to the Wyman Institute’s study. She said the museum told her that McDonald’s story would be included in the exhibition.

Greene, however, says there was not enough room in the wide-ranging exhibition – which looks at decisions made not just by the U.S. government but also by the country’s media, individuals, organizations and even Hollywood – to include McDonald’s story. He emphasizes that the museum has worked to preserve and share McDonald’s legacy by co-publishing four volumes of his diaries and sponsoring public programs about his work.

The "Americans and the Holocaust" exhibition at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Joel Mason-Gaines / United State

“This exhibition covers 12 critical years of American history, and not every event or person who played a role in it can be addressed,” Greene told Haaretz. “Exhibitions are only one way the museum educates the public and advances research about this history, and the museum has committed many resources to telling McDonald’s important story.”

He adds that the eight historians making allegations against the exhibition have “consistently misrepresented the content of ‘Americans and  the Holocaust.’”

The anti-Semitism question

The battle between Medoff, the Wyman Institute and the museum predates this exhibition, and includes their criticism of museum historians who edited McDonald’s papers (the first volume of which was published in 2007). Medoff and his colleagues said their characterization of Roosevelt in them overstates his efforts to help Jewish refugees.

“It was the familiar story of FDR occasionally acting interested but never taking serious steps to open American doors or helping refugees,” Medoff says, citing unfilled immigration quotas in some of the prewar years as an example of what Roosevelt should have done differently.

“This was the policy of Roosevelt: To suppress immigration below legal limits to make it difficult to qualify for a visa,” he adds. “FDR’s vision of America was an America that was overwhelmingly white and Anglo-Saxon. He did not want Jews or other minorities to come in,” Medoff says, referring to private comments the president was quoted as saying, often in second- and thirdhand accounts.

The data show that most Jews did struggle to get U.S. visas, and most did not get one. But some 132,000 Jews – about a quarter of Germany’s Jewish population at the time, found refuge in the United States.

Medoff goes further and accuses FDR of anti-Semitism, citing a passage in the diaries of Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. (who was Jewish). In it, there is an account of a conversation he had with a fellow administration official who told him Roosevelt had told him that America was a Protestant country, “and the Catholics and Jews are here under sufferance.”

James G. McDonald with Golda Meir and his daughter, Barbara McDonald Stewart, in 1948.
Courtesy of the McDonald Family

Medoff also offers an example from the Yalta Conference of February 1945 when, according to the autobiography of Charles E. Bohlen – a senior State Department official who was part of delegation – Roosevelt told Joseph Stalin he would soon be seeing Saudi Arabian leader Ibn Saud. When Stalin asked if he intended to make any concessions to the king, the president allegedly smiled and said the only concession he might offer was 6 million American Jews.

Prof. Yehuda Bauer, academic adviser to Yad Vashem and professor emeritus of history and Holocaust Studies at Hebrew University, cautioned against judging Roosevelt’s actions in black-and-white. “It’s a mixed picture,” he says. To describe it otherwise “is just wrong. It completely ignores the reality.”

That reality includes what Bauer describes as strong anti-immigration and anti-Semitic sentiments, or simply indifference to the danger Jews faced, especially in the U.S. state and war departments. “It’s absolutely nonsense to say FDR was either pro-Jewish or anti-Jewish,” he says. Bauer also notes that by the end of 1935, Roosevelt had instructed officials to interpret visa restrictions more liberally, which resulted in what he describes as a “considerable increase” of visas to German Jews by the mid- to late ’30s. Demand surged at the end of 1938 when panic set in after Kristallnacht and tens of thousands more requests for visas came in yet U.S. immigration policy stayed the same. But unlike previous years, the quota was filled for Jews requesting visas from 1938 to 1939, according to Bauer.

Prof. Dina Porat, Yad Vashem’s chief historian, says that in 1938, “No one thought the Jews would be murdered. They thought that, at most, they would be put in concentration camps.”

“To call Roosevelt anti-Semitic is too easy and too populistic,” she adds.

Still, by 1940, Roosevelt had suggested German Jews could be entering the United States as spies, reinforcing rumors and fears circulating at the time. By the end of 1941, the Americans had entered the war.

Medoff himself has faced criticism from fellow historians of the period.

In a 2013 letter to The Nation, in response to an article the progressive magazine had published investigating the polarized debate over Roosevelt and his approach to Jewish issues, Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman – co-authors of the book “FDR and the Jews” and history professors at American University – cited Medoff as their chief critic. Breitman was among the editors of McDonald’s papers. The two described Medoff as a“long-standing FDR critic who assails all those who do not follow his party line.”

The historians wrote: “The real story of FDR and the Jews is how a humane but pragmatic president navigated competing priorities during the Great Depression, foreign policy crises and World War II. We do not whitewash FDR. ‘For most of his presidency Roosevelt did little to aid the imperiled Jews of Germany and Europe,’ we wrote [referring to their book]. Still, FDR was not monolithic in his policies and ‘at times acted decisively to rescue Jews, often withstanding contrary pressures from the American public, Congress, and his own State Department,’” they wrote, again quoting from “FDR and the Jews.”

The "Americans and the Holocaust" exhibition at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Joel Mason-Gaines / United State

‘Abandonment of the Jews’

McDonald held several key positions in the 1930s and ’40s. During his time at the League of Nations, Roosevelt promised him that Congress would funnel $10,000 toward the refugee effort – but the money never arrived. McDonald’s reported frustration with the lack of international help for refugees prompted his resignation in 1935, which he hoped would call attention to the Jews’ desperate plight.

He continued to advocate for European Jewry, as a member of Roosevelt’s Consultative Committee for Political Refugees and also as a member of the American delegation to the U.S.-convened Evian Conference in July 1938, for countries to deal with the growing Jewish refugee crisis – efforts that led to little or no action.

“My research shows that McDonald got frustrated by Roosevelt’s abandonment of the Jews,” Medoff says. He says an address McDonald made to a B’nai B’rith convention in 1943, when he said “political leaders are more interested in being re-elected than saving lives,” was a veiled reference to the American president.

“McDonald was close to FDR ... but he was too close to make a scandal and not close enough to persuade Roosevelt to do something more meaningful and assertive in rescuing Jews,” says Shlomo Slonim, the James G. McDonald professor emeritus of American history at Hebrew University.

In the ’30s and ’40s, serving under first FDR and then President Harry Truman, McDonald met many Jewish leaders – including David Ben-Gurion, the then-head of the Jewish community in British Mandatory Palestine – as he worked to find a safe haven for Jewish refugees. McDonald became convinced Palestine should be their refuge and, as an appointee to the 1946 Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry, was tasked with advising on Jewish immigration there. The committee recommended 100,000 Jewish refugees be allowed to enter Palestine, but advised that it should be neither a Jewish nor Arab state.

McDonald was considered an important interlocutor between Truman and leaders of the pre-state Jewish community in Mandatory Palestine. Despite the committee’s recommendations otherwise, he was a vocal advocate for the creation of a Jewish state.

For example, he is featured in a short 1946 film called “Land of Hope,” intended to sway public opinion in favor of allowing Jewish refugees to be allowed into Mandatory Palestine. In it, he says Jewish refugees should be allowed to make a home there, where their bodies could be “rebuilt and their spirits healed.”

“Here is the answer for the Jews still left in Europe. The bright sun of Palestine is their key, if not their only hope,” he intones, his voice speaking over images of young Jewish farmers working in their fields. “The land is there. The friendly hands and hearts are there. As the pilgrims in our own America found their own refuge at Plymouth Rock, the Jews of Palestine will find their rock and their redemption.”

Two years later, Truman appointed him the U.S. special representative to Israel and in February 1949 his status was upgraded to ambassador. In his 1953 book “What Price Israel?” Alfred M. Lilienthal wrote that a complimentary copy of McDonald’s book “My Mission in Israel 1948-1951” was sent to every rabbi in the United States.