There is a longstanding debate about Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s actions — or inactions — in response to the Holocaust. According to one school of thought, Roosevelt — constrained by economic depression, public isolationism, and widespread antisemitism — did what he could to aid the Jews of Europe, all while navigating the political shoals of pre-Pearl Harbor America to provide vital aid to Britain and prepare the United States for war. By contrast, Roosevelt’s critics maintain that he could have taken a number of steps at no political cost that would have saved hundreds of thousands of lives.
Rafael Medoff’s latest book, The Jews Should Keep Quiet, lends weight to the more critical view. That’s not because it reveals new facts regarding Roosevelt’s tepid response to learning that the Nazis had embarked on a program to murder every Jew in the territories they controlled. Medoff’s account of those facts — including the president’s failure strongly to condemn Hitler’s early persecution of the Jews, US restrictions on refugee immigration, and the failure to disrupt the 1944 mass slaughter of Hungarian Jews by bombing the gas chambers and the railroads servicing them — is chillingly comprehensive. But that story has long been known.
What’s new and startling in The Jews Should Keep Quiet is the ample evidence it contains of Roosevelt’s antisemitic attitudes, which Medoff suggests may have accounted at least in part for the president’s lack of a more forceful response to Jewish persecution and, ultimately, to Hitler’s “Final Solution.”
As Medoff notes, there would have been nothing unusual in a man of Roosevelt’s background having antisemitic beliefs, since such attitudes were widespread in American society at the time. Still, Roosevelt’s verbal expression of antisemitism while he was president — and at times of unprecedented persecution and then mass murder of Jews — is significant.
Medoff relates that Rabbi Stephen Wise told Roosevelt about Poland’s threat to expel Jews from land their families had owned for centuries in 1938. Roosevelt replied with an anecdote that suggested antisemitism in Poland was simply a response to the fact that “the Jewish grain dealer and the Jewish shoe dealer and the Jewish shopkeeper” were “controlling the Polish economy.”
The president spoke in a similar vein when discussing the return of Jews to professions from which they had been barred by the collaborationist Vichy regime following the liberation of North Africa in November 1942. Roosevelt suggested that the number of Jews in any profession should not exceed the percentage of Jews in the general population; by way of explanation, Roosevelt said that this “would further eliminate the specific and understandablecomplaints which the Germans bore towards the Jews in Germany, namely, that while they represented a small part of the population, over fifty percent of the lawyers, doctors, school teachers, college professors, etc. in Germany were Jews.”
Whatever the statistical accuracy of Roosevelt’s assertion, for him to speak of “understandable” German “complaints” about the Jews in January 1943 — two months after the Allies had publicly confirmed that the Nazis were trying to exterminate the Jewish people — is appalling.
And in an exchange with Stalin at the Yalta Conference, held in early February 1945, Roosevelt joked that he would offer to give six million American Jews to Saudi Arabia as a “concession” at an upcoming meeting. When an aide later referred to this conversation and used the word “kikes,” Roosevelt’s reported reaction was to laugh.
Certainly, the political constraints on Roosevelt cited by his defenders were very real. Hitler’s early years in power coincided with devastating economic depression in the United States, which led to anti-immigrant sentiment. Following American involvement in World War I, isolationism, as reflected by the America First Movement, was also politically powerful. And the 1930s and ‘40s may well have been the high watermark of antisemitism in the United States.
In these circumstances Roosevelt, who clearly perceived the Nazi threat to American security, was battling to obtain and keep approval for military aid to Britain. It would not have been unreasonable for him to be wary of supporting measures that could be depicted as reflecting his desire to lead the United States into “a war for the Jews.”
But as Medoff notes, many fewer Jewish refugees were allowed to come to the United States than the quotas of the time allowed. This is attributable to the deliberate efforts of US consular officials to obstruct the grant of visas to Jews by any available bureaucratic means. Breckenridge Long, an old friend of Roosevelt’s who became head of the visa section at the State Department in 1940, sent an infamous memo to his subordinates instructing them to “delay and effectively stop for a temporary period of indefinite length the number of immigrants into the United States.” This could be done, he said, by putting “every obstacle in the way and to require additional evidence and to resort to various administrative devices which would postpone and postpone and postpone the granting of the visas.”
Although I do not find the evidence he cites conclusive (diary entries by Long that could have been self-serving), Medoff says that Roosevelt knew and approved of what Long was doing. But whether he specifically knew of it or not, he must surely have been aware of the rising chorus of pleas that the US admit more refugees from Hitler. Under these circumstances, it was his responsibility to find out why the combined immigration quotas from Germany and Austria were not being filled. Simply by picking up the phone or sending a cable, Roosevelt could have corrected this situation with no attendant publicity.
America’s greatest failure in responding to the Holocaust was that it did not afford a haven to more refugees from Nazism during the years 1933 – 40. During those years, 190,000 available places in the combined immigration quotas for Germany and Austria went unfilled. Had America’s day-to-day immigration practices not been intentionally restrictive, nearly 200,000 lives could have been saved.
Why didn’t Roosevelt intervene with the State Department to force it to allow the immigration quotas to be filled? In addition to his wartime statements, Medoff cites numerous examples from Roosevelt’s pre-presidential writings stressing the need to spread out Jewish immigrants around the country to thin out their influence and prevent them from dominating various professions. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Roosevelt’s negative feelings about Jews contributed significantly to his apparent indifference to their fate at the hands of the Nazis.
Nor were Jews the only group about whom Roosevelt gave vent to ethnic prejudices. In a 1925 column for the Macon Daily Telegraph, he warned that “Japanese immigrants are not capable of assimilation into the American population.…[a]nyone who has traveled in the Far East knows that the mingling of Asiatic blood with European or American blood produces, in nine cases out of ten, the most unfortunate results.” Is it likely that these views did not contribute to Roosevelt’s decision to intern American citizens of Japanese extraction, when no such action was taken against German or Italian Americans?
So how should Americans, and particularly Jewish Americans, view Roosevelt? It seems clear that the veneration nearly universally accorded Roosevelt by World War II – era Jews — and still by many Jews today — is misplaced. But that does not mean that he is unworthy of any respect.
In addition to his leadership during the Great Depression — which, whatever its economic impact, greatly rallied the morale of the American people — Roosevelt saw the threat posed by Hitler, and deftly took steps to counter that threat, notwithstanding the isolationist sentiment prevalent in the country at the time. He succeeded in getting the Congress to enact necessary amendments to the Neutrality Act, approve the Lend-Lease program, and institute a military draft. Once America joined the war, he agreed with Churchill that the Allies should follow a “Germany first” military strategy, although it was Japan that had launched the catastrophic, surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.
A fair evaluation of Roosevelt’s response to the Holocaust must also take account of America’s record of doing little or nothing to intervene in other twentieth-century genocides. From Armenia to Bosnia, from Nigeria to Bangladesh, and most recently in Rwanda, the United States failed to take action, even when that could have been done at relatively low risk to US armed forces.
Nor, except in the case of Bosnia (a European country), has inaction by the United States stirred much concern on the part of the American public. Perhaps, in addition to evaluating the actions and inactions of our leaders, we should think critically about our own sensitivity to events beyond our shores.
Howard F. Jaeckel is a retired attorney and a member of the Jewish Book Council’s Board of Directors.