When I resolved to enter into the public conversation about “FDR and the Jews” by Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman (Belknap Press, $29.95), a much-talked-about book, I was reminded of the disenchantment that some Democrats felt toward President Obama when he abandoned the “public option” in Obamacare. Obama was taking a progressive stance on health care, to be sure, but was he progressive enough?
The same question arises in connection with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s actions (and inactions) when it came to the rescue of Jews during the Holocaust. Indeed, the authors of “FDR and the Jews” are navigating between two versions of history: “Conservative backers of modern-day Israel hold FDR out as an exemplar of indifference to Jewish peril and the horrors of genocide,” they write. “Still, at times Roosevelt acted decisively to rescue Jews, often withstanding pressures from the American public, Congress, and his own State Department.”
The book is fair-minded and even-handed, which means that authors — both of whom are distinguished professors of history at American University — neither endorse nor condemn Roosevelt on the issue of Jewish rescue. Their fundamental assumption, however, is that “even if FDR had been more willing to override domestic opposition and twist arms abroad, he could not have stopped the Nazis’ mass murder of some six million Jews.”
They dig deeply into Roosevelt’s nature and background. They credit his struggle with polio as a crucial experience that, indirectly, “prompted him to seek advice and assistance from . . . persons outside the mainstream,” including Jews, who were largely excluded from the inner circles of American politics in that era. But the fact that he turned to Jewish counselors did not mean that he would or could ignore the intense political pressures on his presidency.
“His anti-German orientation, his detestation of religiously based politics, and his reliance on Jewish advisers all suggested that FDR would strongly respond to the rise of Hitler and the Nazis in Germany,” the authors write. “However, the Great Depression and the dire threat it posed to American prosperity and social stability overrode other considerations.” At a time of unemployment, for example, he did not insist on loosening the immigration laws to allow Jewish refugees to enter the United States more freely.
One important factor that “FDR and the Jews” singles out is what the authors call “America’s own ‘Jewish Question,’” that is, the targeting of the Roosevelt administration by domestic anti-Semites for “its alleged subservience to the Jews,” an issue that would distort American policy throughout the 1930s and during World War II. Even Jewish leaders, in fact, were reluctant to pressure Roosevelt in light of the virulence of native anti-Semitism; Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, for example, conceded privately that he “was giving my full moral support to the Administration despite its obvious shortcomings and multitudinous defects,” and concluded that Jewish interests were best served by keeping FDR in office: “Hitlerism…must go,” he confided to Felix Frankfurter, “and FDR…must stay.”
Against the indifference and even outright hostility of other world leaders, Roosevelt stands out as a sympathetic ally of the Jewish people. He was the only one to recall his country’s ambassador from Nazi Germany in protest against the atrocities of Kristallnacht, for example, and Joseph Kennedy, who favored appeasement of Nazi Germany, complained about the president’s utopian plan for rescue of European Jewry: “FDR dreams of moving Jews not only out of Germany but out of all Central and Eastern Europe,” he wrote. “This would mean a new homeland. Palestine wouldn’t hold them all, so FDR thinks of Angola….”
Paradoxically, it was the outbreak of World War II, which facilitated the escalation of Hitler’s war against the Jews, that tamped down Roosevelt’s concern for the plight of the Jews. “We shall do all in our power to be of service to your people in this tragic moment,” he told Rabbi Wise. But he met with Jewish leaders on only a single occasion to discuss “what we call the Holocaust,” and Roosevelt — “who was politically and emotionally stingy when it came to the plight of the Jews” — promised nothing and did nothing concrete to impair the deportation and murder of Jews in Europe.
“FDR’s sympathetic but essentially noncommittal response to Rabbi Wise and his delegation typified the wartime president’s approach to Jewish issues,” explain the authors. “Either Roosevelt did not see the plight of European Jews as one that compelled decisive presidential engagement, or he continued to worry that whatever he might do would backfire, impairing the war effort.”
On the hot-button issue of whether U.S. armed forces could have slowed down the machinery of mass murder, the authors declare Roosevelt to be not guilty. “Roosevelt played no apparent role in the decision not to bomb Auschwitz,” they write. “Even if the matter had reached his desk, however, he would not likely have contravened the military.” Above all, they urge us to put the highly speculative question into its historical context: “Every major American Jewish leader and organization that he respected,” they pointed out, “remained silent on the matter, as did all influential members of Congress and opinion-makers in the mainstream media.”
Breitman and Lichtman conclude that FDR was “neither a hero of the Jews nor a bystander to the Nazis’ persecution and then annihilation of the Jews,” which leaves us exactly where we started out. By insisting that we judge Roosevelt according to the realpolitik of his times, however, they remind us that we should not judge the past by what we know — or think — today. “Roosevelt lived during the war and the Holocaust,” they conclude, “but he inhabited pre-Holocaust world.”
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris” (W.W. Norton/Liveright), published in 2013 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.