Giving Credit to FDR Where Credit Isn't Due

The authors of a deeply flawed new study on Franklin Roosevelt's actions during the Holocaust credit their subject for small accomplishments while letting him off the hook for major failures.

Rafael Medoff
Rafael Medoff
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Rafael Medoff
Rafael Medoff

“FDR and the Jews,” by Richard Breitman and Allan Lichtman / Harvard University Press, 432 pages, $29.95

Forget what you've read about Raoul Wallenberg pulling Jews off trains in Nazi-occupied Budapest -- Franklin D. Roosevelt is the one who deserves credit for their rescue. That story about the refugee ship, the St. Louis, being turned away from America's shores? Turns out we got it all wrong -- FDR actually rescued the passengers of the St. Louis. And those infamous regulations imposed by the Roosevelt administration to discourage immigrants in the 1930s and 1940s? Not so; President Roosevelt "smashed the bureaucratic barriers to the expanded admission of Jewish refugees to the United States." These are just a few of the rather startling claims made by Richard Breitman and Allan Lichtman in their new book, “FDR and the Jews.”

Those who are familiar with Wallenberg's rescue mission know it was initiated and financed by a U.S. government agency, the War Refugee Board. When Jewish activists and members of Congress first proposed creating such a board in 1943, the Roosevelt administration fought against it tooth and nail. Under political pressure and faced with an election-year scandal, FDR belatedly and grudgingly established the Board. But he refused to give it meaningful funding (90 percent of its budget came from Jewish groups) and his State and War Departments refused to cooperate with it.

Yet, remarkably, Breitman and Lichtman, both professors of history at American University, characterize the Board as "[FDR]'s chosen instrument of rescue." Thus in “FDR and the Jews,” Roosevelt gets to have it both ways, receiving credit for the life-saving work of the very agency that he tried to prevent from coming into existence.

The well-known voyage of the refugee ship St. Louis in 1939 likewise comes in for some radical revision at the hands of Breitman and Lichtman. They emphasize that the Roosevelt administration could not have admitted the vessel’s 937 passengers to the United States, since the quota for German immigrants was full at the moment -- the only time in FDR's 12 years as president that this was the case. But the authors do not give adequate consideration to the possibility of admitting the passengers to a nearby U.S. territory, the Virgin Islands -- especially since the governor and legislative assembly of the Virgin Islands had recently offered to open their doors to European Jewish refugees. The administration was too quick to find technical reasons to keep Jews out; and Breitman and Lichtman are too quick to find excuses for what they did.

In the end, England, France, Belgium and Holland each accepted a portion of the St. Louis passengers; “FDR and the Jews” overstates the role of the Roosevelt administration in making that happen. (It was the Joint Distribution Committee that did the heavy lifting.) Once again, FDR gets to have his cake and eat it, too -- the authors excuse his indifference to the St. Louis by pointing out that he was ill during one part of the crisis; yet they give him full credit when they are able to make it seem as if the administration found the refugees havens.

Breitman and Lichtman insist the refugees were "safe" in those countries. Apparently the passengers themselves didn't think so, or so many of them wouldn't have immediately tried to leave Europe again. A book-length study by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, “Refuge Denied,” describes former St. Louis passengers desperately trying to sign up as Chilean construction workers (and all sorts of other things) to get out of "safe" Holland.

The search for far-flung havens that can be credited to FDR takes Breitman and Lichtman to Bolivia, to which a Jewish mining magnate named Mauricio Hochschild brought 20,000 German Jews in the 1930s. Since Hochschild had a few contacts with State Department officials – though they gave him no assistance – the authors insist those 20,000 should be counted as Jews whom the Roosevelt administration "likely helped save."

The word "likely," however, mysteriously vanishes when they get to their grand tally: Roosevelt "helped save the lives of well over 100,000 Jews," they calculate. The problem is that even if FDR gets credit for every Jew who reached Latin America, the total is only around 35,000. How did Breitman and Lichtman arrive at "over 100,000"? By claiming, surprisingly, that every Jew who entered the United States within the immigration quota system also should be considered to have been "rescued" by President Roosevelt.

These were individuals who reached America not because FDR did anything to help them but, rather, in spite of the extra regulations and bureaucratic obstacles his administration created to keep them out. During most of FDR's years in office, the quota from Germany remained less than half-filled. More than 190,000 quota places from Germany and Axis-occupied countries sat unused during the Hitler years. FDR did everything he could to keep refugees out -- yet in “FDR and the Jews,” he is transformed into a hero who "saved" the few whom he failed to keep out. Breitman and Lichtman seem to have a very different definition of "saving Jews" than the rest of us.

One of the major arguments of “FDR and the Jews” is that criticism of Roosevelt's response to the Holocaust is little more than Monday morning quarterbacking. Supposedly the critics came along decades later, looking back with the advantage of hindsight and failing to appreciate the tenor of the times in which the president operated. "Few of [FDR]'s contemporaries recognized the political or moral significance of the events we now scrutinize carefully," Breitman and Lichtman contend.

To make this argument, they airbrush Roosevelt's contemporaneous critics out of the historical record. “FDR and the Jews” does not mention, for example, this March 15, 1943 editorial in the pro-Roosevelt political weekly The Nation, which declared: "You and I and the President and the Congress and the State Department are accessories to the crime and share Hitler’s guilt. If we had behaved like humane and generous people instead of complacent, cowardly ones, the two million Jews lying today in the earth of Poland and Hitler’s other crowded graveyards would be alive and safe." Other liberal critics of FDR's Jewish policy, such as The New Republic, PM and I.F. Stone, are likewise omitted.

The curious omission of Varian Fry

Perhaps the most remarkable omission is the rescue mission of Varian Fry. The young American journalist created a network that brought more than 2,000 Jews from Vichy France to the United States in 1940-1941 – until his mission was terminated by the Roosevelt administration, which canceled his passport in response to a complaint by the Germans. The United States was not yet in the war; FDR wanted to maintain cordial relations with the Hitler regime. Yad Vashem of course recognizes Fry as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. It is not clear why Breitman and Lichtman felt Fry was not worth mentioning in their book.

Still, one could say “FDR and the Jews” is an improvement over Prof. Breitman's previous work in several respects.

Breitman claimed in his 1987 book "American Refugee Policy and European Jewry, 1933-1945" (coauthored with Alan Kraut), for example, that FDR promised refugee advocate James McDonald in 1933 that he would publicly reprimand Germany for persecuting the Jews; Breitman touted that as proof Roosevelt really did care about the Jews. Some critics noted at the time that Breitman's claim was based on a misreading of McDonald's diary. Perhaps Breitman took that criticism to heart, because in “FDR and the Jews,” he and Lichtman acknowledge that at the 1933 meeting in question, McDonald "inferred correctly" that "the Administration would not publicly reprimand Germany…"

Breitman indicates he also has had a change of heart regarding the Bergson Group (the activists, led by Hillel Kook and Peter Bergson, who sponsored rallies, lobbying and newspaper ads to promote rescue). In his previous books, he barely recognized the group's existence. In “FDR and the Jews,” he and Lichtman acknowledge that the Bergsonites "helped publicize the need to rescue Jews," "helped to shape opinions in Congress," and conducted a "vigorous" and "successful" lobbying effort that contributed to the creation of the War Refugee Board.

On the issue of bombing Auschwitz, too, Breitman's position has matured. Previously, he made it seem as if Jewish leaders were evenly divided on the issue. In “FDR and the Jews,” however, he and Lichtman cite five Jewish leaders or organizations that advocated bombing, as well as one (the only one) who was against it. Actually, 30 different officials of Jewish organizations promoted the bombing idea; still, five to one is a step in the right direction.

These glimmers of progress are, however, undermined by a sour note of politicization that Breitman and Lichtman inject into the debate. They complain about statements by George W. Bush, Benjamin Netanyahu and "conservative backers of modern-day Israel" criticizing America's failure to bomb Auschwitz, as if there is some conspiracy by the political right to misrepresent FDR's record for contemporary partisan purposes.

In fact, conservatives have no monopoly on this issue. Prominent liberals have been just as vocal -- sometimes more so -- in criticizing Roosevelt's response to the Holocaust. Bill Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Walter Mondale, George McGovern, and Golda Meir have all spoken out on the issue. So have historians associated with Labor Zionism, including Henry Feingold, Martin Gilbert and Arthur Hertzberg. And so have prominent Jewish peace activists such as Jeremy Ben-Ami, Seymour Reich and Ralph Seliger.

To ignore what these men and women have said or written in order to turn an important historical issue into a political football, adds one more troubling layer to this deeply flawed book.

Rafael Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies. His latest book is “FDR and the Holocaust: A Breach of Faith."

Franklin D. Roosevelt, subject of the new book 'FDR and the Jews'Credit: Courtesy

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