Misreading History: FDR an anti-Semite?

Rafael Medoff's review of 'FDR and the Jews' wrongly paints the authors as apologists for Roosevelt. The U.S. president was no particular friend of the Jews, but his overall sense of decency and democracy nevertheless worked in their favor. A response to Medoff.

Jack Schwartz
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Jack Schwartz

Rafael Medoff’s review of “FDR and the Jews,” which you recently published in Haaretz (“Giving credit where credit isn’t due”), paints the authors, Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman, as apologists for Franklin Delano Roosevelt. While Medoff knows a good deal about the subject, as is indicated by the title of his own book, “FDR and the Holocaust: A Breach of Faith” (published earlier this year by the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies), he has historical territory to defend and a personal investment in doing so. As founding director of the Wyman Institute, he has devoted a substantial intellectual investment to demonstrating that FDR responded with callous indifference if not outright hostility to the plight of Europe’s Jews. In this light, it might have been more instructive to use his critique as a forum for a debate with the authors.

A fair reading of Breitman and Lichtman’s book offers a more balanced picture that provides texture and context to the arduous and conflicting choices Roosevelt had to make in a rapidly changing landscape filled with political hostility at home and growing aggression abroad.

In Medoff’s review, FDR is not only the star player but the only significant performer, an all-powerful figure who can somehow save the Jews by an act of will, transcending the consensus of Congress, popular sentiment, foreign pressures and the internal struggles within his own administration.

A reluctant nation

Absent from this scenario is the American people. What was their response toward Jewish rescue? Polls from 1938 – the year of both the Anschluss and Kristallnacht – to late 1941, when the United States entered World War II, show significant anti-Semitism and widespread popular opposition to providing any haven for Jewish refugees. This was the political climate in which Roosevelt was operating as he gradually sought to rally a reluctant nation to oppose the burgeoning Axis threat.

National surveys taken by the American Jewish Committee and the Gallup and Roper organizations during this period – most critical to Jewish immigration before the gates closed – reflected this sentiment. In one poll, approximately 45 percent of respondents asserted that Jews had “too much power.” Other polls reported that upwards of 20 percent of the population considered Jews “a menace to America.” Even after the Anschluss, a poll found 75 percent of Americans opposed to admitting a larger number of Jewish exiles from Germany. Nevertheless, Medoff notes: “During most of FDR’s years in office, the quota from Germany remained less than half-filled.”

I cite here an authority who casts a different light on the situation. “In fact, after the Anschluss, FDR opened the German-Austrian quotas to full use ... and refused to expel 15,000 refugees who were in the U.S. on visitors’ visas despite treading on the outer limits of Congressional legislation.” The writer goes on to observe that in his convening of the 1938 Evian conference to find refuge for Europe’s Jews, “a humanitarian motivation on Roosevelt’s part may by no means be ruled out. ... [C]onsideration of the political realities of 1938 points to the conclusion that Roosevelt stood more to lose by taking the lead in calling the conference than he could gain.”

The writer concludes: “One may level a finger of accusation at Franklin Roosevelt for having done so little and at Congress for having done nothing. But ... U.S. refugee policy from 1938 to the end of 1941 was essentially what the American people wanted.”

And who is this writer who puts the situation in perspective? It is none other than
David S. Wyman, the very man for whom Medoff’s institute is named, and whose seminal 1968 book “Paper Walls” is a far more nuanced assessment of the situation than we are given to believe in revisionist history.

In fact, it was a coalition of conservatives in Congress, Republicans and Southern Democrats, who blocked any efforts by Roosevelt to allow even a token number of Jewish refugees on our shores. The initiatives came from either the Roosevelt Administration or its liberal allies in Congress. All were thwarted by the American right in Congress and its coalition of restrictionists, isolationists and anti-Semites, reinforced by a strident chorus of “patriotic” societies, from the American Legion to the Daughters of the American Revolution. It is no accident that these efforts to test the waters came from the Interior Department run by Roosevelt’s liberal ally Harold Ickes. They could not have been initiated without the president’s tacit approval.

Even when it came to admitting 20,000 Jewish children, the right would not relent. The Wagner-Rogers bill to do so – introduced by FDR’s New Deal ally Senator Robert Wagner of New York – was scuttled in Congress by a conservative coalition.

Blameless? Hardly

Could Roosevelt be faulted for not intervening more actively? Yes, as he could also be for acceding to the malevolent policies of his anti-Semitic undersecretary of state Breckinridge Long in keeping tens of thousands of Jews from our shores in the critical years before we went to war. Nor does the Breitman book shy away from this. It doesn’t try to expiate FDR but to examine the political context in which these events unfolded.

The question is not whether Roosevelt could have done more to help the Jews, but whether he tried more than any other world figure to do so. It was the U.S. that initiated the Evian Conference to rescue European Jewry. It failed because not a single nation invited to the meeting wanted to absorb any Jews. Riven by the worldwide depression, rampant nativism and ingrained racialism, the world’s countries shut their doors to the Jews. As it turned out, the U.S. under Roosevelt rescued 250,000 Jews from Nazism, more than any other nation. Medoff would dispute this number, but, let us hear again from David Wyman:

“The American contribution, though limited, went beyond that of any other country, both for the Nazi period as a whole and for the crucial years from 1938 to 1941.” All of this took place during FDR's tenure and if blame is going to be assigned, so must credit.

As for the St. Louis, Medoff's critique of FDR fails to note a critical point: that the
Roosevelt administration lowered quotas on Cuban sugar as part of an understanding that allowed 5,000-6,000 Jewish refugees to enter Cuba prior to the St. Louis and 2,000 subsequently. He acknowledges that the ship returned to Europe in June of 1939 prior to the outbreak of war, so that its 937 passengers were returning to havens in four democracies – England, France, Holland and Belgium. Almost three-quarters would survive the war. All could have been saved had Lawrence Berenson, the negotiator for the National Coordinating Committee, agreed to pay “the extortion” of $500 a passenger that Cuba (and also the Dominican Republic) demanded.

What about Auschwitz?

With regard to the bombing of Auschwitz, counting the number of Jewish leaders who were for or against it, or citing the second-guessing of politicians decades later, is beside the point. What is relevant is the military situation as it existed at the time. And, in the crucial summer of 1944, every available plane was needed by British Bomber Command and the U.S. Army Air Force to demolish French rail and road communications, interdict German troops and supply vital air cover for the invasion of Normandy, as well as to destroy the ferociously defended Ploesti oil fields.

American bombers took heavy losses in accomplishing this. The assumption that the air force could spare a few planes as it attacked German facilities near Auschwitz in a casual fly-by goes against all military thinking. The bombing of Auschwitz would have involved weeks of reconnaissance and planning, repeated sorties by squadrons of planes just to have a chance of success. In fact, the area around Auschwitz was well defended. American planes were at significant risk. And the political ramifications in the likely instance of U.S. planes being shot down and American boys being killed would have played right into the hands of Nazi propaganda, which was hammering away at the Allied campaign’s being “a Jewish war.” Moreover, precision bombing was a work in progress, and the probable result of bombing Auschwitz would have been the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands of Jewish prisoners. As for bombing the rail lines leading to Auschwitz, the Germans were successful in repairing rail damage within days. The likely outcome is that Jews simply would have perished on the trains rather than at the ramps.

And if Auschwitz had somehow been successfully bombed, what would have been the result? The escapees would have been hunted down and slaughtered by the Nazis and their willing collaborators. And even if the gas chambers were somehow damaged, can we imagine that the fate of the prisoners would have been any different at the hands of vengeful Nazi executioners? Dedicated to the annihilation of Jews, they had shown demonic imagination in the variety of ways they could commit mass murder beyond the death camps, as evidenced by the slaughter of 250,000 Jews after the gas chambers ceased operation.

Tens of thousands of Jews were sent on forced death marches in the last days of the war. Had it ended a week – or a month – later, thousands more would have died, likely more than would have been saved by bombing Auschwitz. What saved them was the timely destruction of the Wehrmacht. The Allied commitment to end the war as quickly as possible was the surest way to save the greatest number of Jews.

Which brings us back to Roosevelt and the Jews. In the summer of 1940, the U.S. was opposed to any involvement in a European war. Hitler had conquered Poland, Western Europe and France; England was reeling, America Firsters had a large following – including a significant cadre of the Republican Party.

It was at this moment that an ailing Roosevelt decided to run for a third term. There was simply no one else who could rally the nation and the Allies. It was FDR who engineered Lend-Lease and the passage of Selective Service. We should keep in mind that Congress acted to extend the draft by a single vote. Without this, we would not have had an army capable of facing the Axis when war came. As the president strengthened America’s hand against the Axis, his GOP presidential opponent Wendell Willkie accused FDR of being a warmonger.

And when war did come, it was Roosevelt who decided on the policy of “Europe first,” although many Americans would have preferred fighting Japan. With Rommel's Afrika Korps at the gates of Alexandria, it was Roosevelt who ordered hundreds of Lend-Lease tanks diverted from the Russian front to the British, thereby contributing to the Allied victory at El Alamein. Had the Germans seized Alexandria, the road to Palestine would have been open and the future existence of the Jewish state would have been bleak.

Roosevelt was not a particular friend of the Jews. Indeed, he held stereotypes of Jews – not unusual in his world of the time – which come out as gotcha “evidence” of anti-Semitism. But he had an overall sense of decency and democracy that worked in their favor.

In sum, Roosevelt will prevail over his detractors. His record on the Jews is far from perfect, but neither is the man: prudent, secretive, political to a fault. He was a statesman, not a saint. But in stopping Hitler he was the indispensable man.

Jack Schwartz, formerly an editor at several New York dailies, oversaw
Newsday’s book pages.

From left, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt and Soviet Premier Josef Stalin sit on the patio of Livadia Palace, Yalta, Crimea, on Feb. 4, 1945.Credit: AP

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