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Jewish Journal

Was FDR to Blame?

by Leonard Fein

April 19, 2001 | 8:00 pm

Scholars will doubtless continue to debate Franklin Roosevelt's actions -- and inaction -- regarding the Holocaust. What did he know? When did he know it? Didn't he care, or did he really believe that the best and quickest way to help the Jews was, as he repeatedly argued, to win the war?

Sidney Zion is no scholar. To say of Roosevelt that he was actually a "co-conspirator in the murder of the Jews " is to stretch the RICO act beyond imagination. A co-conspirator presumably knows the intent of the conspiracy and shares in that intent. For so serious an indictment, Zion provides not a scintilla of evidence. He would have us believe that Roosevelt "blocked every effort to rescue Europe's Jewry," yet the only overt act of which he accuses Roosevelt is his refusal to permit the refugees aboard the St. Louis to enter America -- this in 1939, before there was any evidence that genocide was Hitler's plan. (In fact, as far as the evidence goes, there was not yet a plan for genocide.) In retrospect, we can understand the gravity of the St. Louis episode; imagine what Hitler learned from it. But then everything is more clear in retrospect than in prospect. Before there was the Holocaust, a holocaust was unthinkable. (Even now, it is scarcely imaginable.)

What, then, can Zion have had in mind? Is his animus toward the New Deal, or toward Stephen S. Wise, so profound as to warrant his bloated language regarding Roosevelt's role in the Holocaust? Or is his entire screed an effort to set up his last sentences, where he has it that it was Ben Hecht who "got FDR to create the War Refugee Board?" Ben Hecht has long been a darling of the right, the more so of those who shared Menachem Begin's views on how to craft a Jewish state in Palestine rather than David Ben-Gurion's. But the War Refugee Board, created only in January 1944, was principally the product of Henry Morgenthau Jr.'s intervention. Morgenthau, then secretary of the Treasury, belatedly was made aware of the perfidy of the State Department, and especially of the assistant secretary of state, Breckenridge Long. It was Long, plainly an anti-Semite, who blocked every effort to help in the rescue of Europe's Jews. In this ongoing effort, he was well-aided by the British, whose official policy noted with concern "the difficulties of disposing of any considerable number of Jews" as proposed by the rescue plans. On Dec. 20, 1943, Morgenthau ordered the preparation of a background paper that would detail State's behavior with respect to the Jews. On Jan. 16, 1944, he met with the president and presented him with the paper; on Jan. 22, the president established the War Refugee Board.

Could Roosevelt have done more? Of course. Could he have acted earlier? Surely. Was he a "co-conspirator?" There is no evidence whatever to support this claim. In interpreting history, one is generally best advised to seek the simplest explanation that fits the known facts. Given the unprecedented enormity of what was happening to the Jews, given the attitudes of our closest allies, the British, given the subversion by the State Department of even modest rescue plans, given very considerable anti-Semitism in this country, and given the entirely plausible argument that winning the war quickly would put an end to the genocide, it is difficult in the extreme -- nay, more than difficult, downright noxious -- to suggest that Roosevelt was actively complicit in the slaughter.

Whatever Zion's motives, his problem, it seems to me, is that he sees no ground between those he defines as "Roosevelt apologists," historians and others who claim there was nothing more Roosevelt could have done, and his own dramatically different view. But the obvious middle ground is that Roosevelt, like every president before and after, was imperfect. He did not know everything we know, his plate was full, and so forth. Our contemporary judgment issues more in sorrow that in outrage. And Sidney Zion might also want to consider this: Absent Roosevelt, would America have entered the war at all?

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