FDR and the Jews

Richard Bre­it­man & Allan J. Lichtman
  • Review
By – October 1, 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.

Peter E. Korn­blum holds a Ph.D. in Eng­lish from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia at Berkeley.He taught Eng­lish in the High School Divi­sion of the New York City Depart­ment ofE­d­u­ca­tion from 1981 through 2007.

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