Wednesday, 17 April 2013
Born to Protestant wealth and privilege, the Roosevelts were hardly immune to the prejudices of their time. Before entering the White House, Eleanor described the future Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter as “an interesting little man but very Jew” and, after attending a function for the Wall Street financier Bernard Baruch, complained: “The Jew party was appalling. I never wish to hear money, jewels and sables mentioned again.” Franklin went even further, using anti-Semitic banter to charm world leaders like Joseph Stalin who were known to fear and hate Jews. Indeed, it was the ability of the Roosevelts to set aside these prejudices that seemed to distinguish them from so many others of their class. When it mattered most, their nobler instincts took over.
Times have changed. All presidents are subject to the tides of revisionist history, their legacies constantly in flux. For Roosevelt, the most controversial scholarship concerns a troubling moral question: What, exactly, did he do in his 12 years in office to protect the Jews of Europe from Nazi genocide? And the answer, many now believe, is: Not nearly enough.
Starting in the 1960s, a flood of books appeared with self-evident titles like “No Haven for the Oppressed” and “While Six Million Died.” But the most influential account by far was David S. Wyman’s “Abandonment of the Jews,” published in 1984. Wyman, the grandson of two Protestant ministers, considered numerous parties responsible for America’s tepid response to the Holocaust, including a badly divided Jewish community, a nest of virulent anti-Semites in the State Department, and a distracted president largely indifferent to humanitarian concerns he felt were beyond his control, no matter how enormous the scope.
“FDR and the Jews,” by Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman, history professors at American University, is the latest, and most thoughtful, entry into this scholarly minefield. And much like Wyman’s book, though with a very different premise, it traces the American roots of this story. Sadly, Roosevelt left behind a rather thin paper trail. He didn’t write a memoir or record many White House conversations, and he refused to allow note-taking at his personal meetings. To fill this gap, Breitman and Lichtman have combed the archives of the leading players who did write down their thoughts and recollections, and the result is quite impressive. Even those who disagree with the book’s conclusions must acknowledge the mountain of research on which they rest.
And the main conclusion is this: While saving the Jews of Europe was never a high priority for Roosevelt, he did more for them than any other world leader at the time, despite the enormous obstacles he faced at home. It’s the ultimate middle-ground approach. Breitman and Lichtman are not shy about pointing out the failures of previous books on the subject, which they claim are either too forgiving of the president or not forgiving enough. “Our work challenges both extremes in this dispute,” they write, adding: “Unlike other authors, we examine F.D.R.’s decision-making as president from the perspective of his life experiences and full political career.”
Assuming office at the height of the Great Depression in 1933, the same year that Adolf Hitler took power in Germany, Roosevelt concentrated naturally on domestic affairs. Bank failures and unemployment dwarfed any concerns about Nazism. Had he wanted to help Europe’s Jews at this point, the president might have lobbied to bring more of them to America while they were still free to leave. But this required the will to loosen the nation’s strict immigration quotas, a risky political stance. Few Americans would have welcomed more immigrants when jobs were so scarce, and Jews were among the least popular of those seeking admission. Even a modest bill in Congress to admit some Jewish children in 1939 hit a brick wall of prejudice. “I should prefer to let in 20,000 old Jews who would not multiply,” a former undersecretary of state told the bill’s sponsor. Roosevelt didn’t intervene.
By the late 1930s, a new set of problems had emerged. German and Japanese aggression had convinced Roosevelt that war was coming and that the United States would soon be involved. But isolationist sentiment was very strong; Americans, with painful memories of World War I and its aftermath, were wary of repeating past mistakes. As Breitman and Lichtman make clear, the now desperate situation facing Jews in Germany and surrounding lands actually complicated the president’s attempt to prepare the nation for war. “The more Roosevelt risked on initiatives for Jews,” they note, “the less he thought he could carry Congress and the public with him on broad issues of foreign policy.” Appearing too “pro-Jewish” could jeopardize the mobilization process. Confronting Nazi tyranny was one thing; fighting to save an unpopular minority from extinction was quite another.
Once war came, Roosevelt’s slim interest in the “Jewish Question” became slimmer still. Consumed by events on both the European and Pacific fronts, he appeared to wish the question away. According to Breitman and Lichtman, Roosevelt met only once with Jewish leaders during the war “to discuss what we call the Holocaust.” When he was pressed on the matter, his reply was always the same: the best way to save the Jews of Europe was to defeat the Nazis as quickly as possible, and that was exactly what he intended to do.
How, then, does this new portrait of Roosevelt differ from the damning one drawn by the revisionists? The answer rests on how one measures the president’s gestures and accomplishments against the pressures he faced to do even less. In 1938, for example, Roosevelt recalled his ambassador to Germany to protest Kristallnacht, the Nazi pogrom. It was little more than a symbolic act, but he was the only head of state to do so. Over protests from his notoriously anti-Semitic State Department, moreover, Roosevelt encouraged efforts to settle European Jews in Latin America — about 40,000 of them made it there from 1938 to 1941 — and pressed the British to keep Palestine open to Jewish refugees. Most important, perhaps, was his approval of the War Refugee Board in 1943, which, while often ignored and always underfunded, worked with heroes like Raoul Wallenberg throughout Nazi-occupied Europe to save untold thousands of Jews.
As to the most contentious revisionist claim — that Roosevelt could have blunted Hitler’s killing machine by ordering the rail lines to Auschwitz destroyed — Breitman and Lichtman provide a measured response. There is little doubt, they write, that Allied planes were capable of reaching this destination by mid-1944. Industrial complexes in the area were already being bombed. The problem was that the War Department viewed the project as a diversion from more important military targets. Opposition was such that the matter never appears to have reached the president’s desk. How successful the precision bombing of Auschwitz would have been, given the mixed results elsewhere, is a matter of debate. What is undeniable, however, is that close to 250,000 Jews were murdered in the months between the capture of this death camp and the German surrender in May 1945. When it came to the Final Solution, the Nazis were demonically resourceful. They found ways to kill Jews to the very end.
In their conclusion, the authors rightly note the squeamishness of America’s modern presidents in dealing with genocide. Woodrow Wilson, a true idealist, virtually ignored Turkey’s slaughter of a million or more Armenians, while Jimmy Carter, a human rights crusader, did nothing to prevent Pol Pot from exterminating 20 percent of Cambodia’s population. The Clinton administration took several years to respond militarily to the “ethnic cleansing” of Muslims in Bosnia, which required only air power, not soldiers on the ground, and it never confronted the mass killings in Rwanda. More recently, Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama employed little more than words to condemn the atrocities in Darfur. Historically speaking, Roosevelt comes off rather well.
Indeed, an even stronger case might be made for him than the one put forth in this eminently sensible book. Roosevelt masterfully prepared a skeptical nation for a war against global tyranny. Always viewing Hitler as his primary enemy, despite the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he supplied the Soviet Union with much of the matériel it needed to defeat the Nazis on the Eastern front, an extremely controversial move. The American landing in North Africa in 1942, bolstering British troops there, may well have saved that region’s Jews from extermination. And the final defeat of Germany, costing hundreds of thousands of American lives, ended the Holocaust for good.
Early in 1945, following the Yalta conference with Churchill and Stalin, the president traveled to the Middle East, saying he’d most likely never “get over here again.” Roosevelt had always considered himself a master of persuasion, but his key meeting with the Saudi king Ibn Saud did not go well. Noting that Europe’s surviving Jews had suffered “indescribable horrors,” he assured the king that allowing them into Palestine would improve the land for Arabs as well as Jews. Ibn Saud was unmoved. Cooperation with Zionists was impossible, he replied; that door was closed. Returning to America, the exhausted president actually apologized to Rabbi Stephen Wise, a prominent Jewish leader, for failing “your cause.” Roosevelt died the following month at the Little White House in Warm Springs, Ga. — sadly aware, one suspects, of the unceasing bloodshed between Jews and Arabs that lay ahead.
David Oshinsky holds the Jack S. Blanton chair in history at the University of Texas and is a distinguished scholar in residence at New York University.
Posted @ 12:29