FDR and the Jews

Belknap Press of Harvard University Press  2013


According to historians Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman, FDR “was neither a hero of the Jews nor a bystander to the Nazis’ persecution and then annihilation of the Jews.” Instead, this deeply complex president had to make “difficult and painful trade-offs” as he led a shaken nation “through its worst economic depression and most challenging foreign war.” These two fine scholars want especially to avoid the strident extremes of critical denunciation or ardent defense of Roosevelt's efforts to alleviate the suffering of European Jewry. Through careful documentation and balanced analysis, the authors trace the precise chronological process of FDR’s leadership. In this way, they show in detail how he adapted “to shifting circumstances” as he continuously tried to combine “principle and pragmatism.”

One obstacle in presenting a full view of FDR is that he actually was “one of the most private leaders in American history.” To penetrate such privacy and elucidate Roosevelt’s method of decision making, the authors have sedulously scrutinized the vast manuscript collections “in libraries and archives across the country.” They claim to “have drawn on more primary sources than any previous study about Roosevelt’s responses to Jewish issues before and during the Holocaust.” The more than three hundred pages of lucid historical narrative, joined with over seventy-five more pages of copious footnotes, can well support their broad authorial assertion.

Breitman and Lichtman discern four distinct stages in FDR’s developing response to the Jewish crisis. In the background of such development the authors remind us of the stark context: Roosevelt had always to contend with American insularity, nativism, bigotry, and anti-Semitism. After all, to so many in the American heartland, FDR was mocked as “President Rosenfield” and his bold New Deal agenda vilified as the “Jew Deal.”

In the authors’ view, FDR in his “first” phase felt compelled to “put recovery, reform, and party building well ahead of other priorities.” In his “second” stage, however, he admirably “defied public and congressional opinion” while enacting a humanitarian response to the Jewish crisis abroad. The “third” FDR coincides with the outbreak of World War II, and at this time he was preoccupied “with aiding Germany’s opponents and protecting the internal security of the United States.” In late 1943, the authors assert, a “fourth” FDR again “addressed Jewish issues with renewed interest.” At this point in his development, for example, Roosevelt established the War Refugee Board and worked “to secure a Jewish homeland in Palestine.”

The wider American populace offered scant encouragement for a bold emergency policy regarding European Jewry. The authors document that in 1939, two months after Kristallnacht, eighty-three percent of American poll respondents actually opposed a bill to allow more European refugees safe and legal entrance to the United States. What also complicated FDR’s decision making was the conflicting voices of established opinion. Jewish leadership, for example, was divided between the American Jewish Congress and the American Jewish Committee. The former, as exemplified by Rabbi Stephen Wise, lobbied for assertive action and pro-Zionist policies. In contrast, the wary and circumspect American Jewish Committee “preferred quiet diplomacy” in the fear that militant mass protest would dangerously “intensify anti-Semitism.” An even deeper division of opinion confronted FDR in his own State Department. Reactionary figures such as Cordell Hull and Breckinridge Long bitterly challenged progressive and pro-Jewish voices. Roosevelt’s Treasury Secretary and only Jewish cabinet member, Henry Morgenthau, Jr., continuously clashed with the arrogant and prejudiced Long. Roosevelt, the authors contend, “had always disliked the State Department.” However, when he confronted administrative problems,he would “add people or organizations to the task: he was not very good at subtracting.” Perhaps more timely and decisive “subtracting” would have actually enforced the principled and purposeful effects of FDR’s Jewish policy. As his close colleague, Treasury Secretary Morgenthau, lamented in 1939, “the point is the President has this. Nobody is helping him.” Index, notes, photographs.

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