Jewish Journal


The FDR Exchange, Part 1: Did Roosevelt Fail the Jews of Europe?

by Shmuel Rosner

September 22, 2013 | 4:39 am

Professors Richard Breitman and Allan Lichtman
Photo by Vanessa Robertson (taken from the
American University Website).

Both of our guests in the following exchange are Distinguished Professors of history at American University in Washington, DC-

Richard Breitman received his B.A. from Yale University and his Ph.D. from Harvard University. He is author or co-author of ten books and many articles in German history, U.S. history, and the Holocaust. Professor Breitman served as director of historical research for the Nazi War Criminal Records and Imperial Japanese Records Interagency Working Group, which helped to bring about declassification of more than eight million pages of U.S. government records under a 1998 law. He is editor of the scholarly journal Holocaust and Genocide Studies.

Allan J. Lichtman received his PhD from Harvard University in 1973 with a specialty in modern American history and quantitative methods. He has published seven books and several hundred popular and scholarly articles. Professor Lichtman has lectured in the US and internationally and provided commentary for major US and foreign networks and leading newspapers and magazines across the world. He has been an expert witness in more than 75 civil and voting rights cases.  

The following exchange will focus on Breitman and Lichtman's recent high-profile book, FDR and the Jews (Belknap Press, 2013).


Dear Professors Breitman and Lichtman,  

Reading your book was a stimulating exercise in thinking about leadership. Of course, leadership is always complicated, and Presidential leadership in a time of crisis is probably the ultimate test. Your book, which deals specifically with FDR's policies and decisions that had impact on the Jews of Europe, is all about this ultimate test of leadership and your verdict is a mixed one: you seem to think that his heart and instincts were in the right place, but that maybe in retrospect, some of the policies he pursued were less bold than what was necessary.

It is a measured book – one which tries to avoid the common tendency toward engaging in a Monday-morning-quarterback type of discussion about Presidential policies: you try to see things as they were when the decisions were made, and not judge them based on what we know today. But your critics would argue (some of them did) that extraordinary circumstances demand extraordinary leadership – and hence, that your approach leads to a verdict which is too forgiving.

Take for example the famous case of the 1939 refugee ship St. Louis that was denied entry to the US. You argue in the book that there was little FDR could do for those refugees, as the quota for German immigrants was full at the time. In essence, this is one of many cases on which FDR gets a pass based on political and administrative constraints. But would it not be just to say that surrendering to such constraints under such dire conditions is the opposite of leadership?

I have to say that I was also somewhat puzzled by some political undertones that appear in the book, and portray the critics of FDR's reluctance to bomb Auschwitz as "conservative backers of modern-day Israel". Puzzled twice. Once because I'm not certain this criticism does justice to the many non-conservatives who have also had reservations about the US' policy at the time, and also because hinting at such a direction might lead to undermining your own case by mixing politics and the discussion of history.

I raise this issue in the context of my larger question about leadership, because it's related to the way we measure leadership. If you believe that the case against FDR was affected by political proclivities, is it possible that your relatively forgiving view was affected by political considerations as well? In other words – and I know this is a somewhat simplistic way of putting it- do you think that a Democrat (liberal?) would judge FDR and the Jews differently because his measurement tools are different from those used by a Republican (conservative?)?

Thank you for the book and for this exchange which I'm sure will be fascinating, 


(Professor Breitman will answer the first part- about the St.Louis affair- and Professor Lichtman will then address the second question about the book's political undertones)

Dear Shmuel,

You suggest that President Roosevelt failed as a leader during the St. Louis affair.  Let us review the immediate background. 

Beginning with the Evian Conference on Refugees, Roosevelt and his representatives made persistent efforts to persuade other countries to take Jewish refugees in, in part because there was no prospect whatsoever of getting Congress to raise quotas substantially. (He took soundings.) FDR also felt that very large numbers of Jews should migrate from Europe. 

The Roosevelt administration had some influence on Colonel Batista’s decision to harbor German-Jewish refugees waiting their turn to immigrate to the U.S.From November 1938 to May 1939 ship after ship carried Jewish refugees to Cuba. By the time the St. Louis was en route, 5,000-6,000 Jewish refugees clustered in Havana, and an anti-Semitic backlash emerged. The Cuban government changed its policy. Most of the St. Louis passengers were denied entry because their visas were technically good only for short-term visits.

Roosevelt’s highest foreign policy priority then was to get Congress to revise the Neutrality Acts, which prevented him from helping democracies opposed to Nazi Germany. If he had taken the passengers of the St. Louis into the U.S. illegally, he would have alienated a host of anti-immigration Southern Democrats whose votes he needed. Leaders in a democratic system with checks and balances often have to make difficult choices.

To allow the ship go back to Germany might have let Realpolitik triumph over morality. But to persuade Britain, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands to receive the passengers was a very satisfactory solution in the summer of 1939, as some of the passengers said at the time. Only later did the problems emerge, and nearly one-third of the passengers tragically fell victim to the Holocaust. 

Many people still believe myths--that the United States sent the ship back to Germany--that most of the passengers went straight to gas chambers that did not exist at the time. We tried to set the record straight regardless of differing views about Roosevelt’s choices.

Professor Richard Breitman.


Dear Shmuel,

Thanks for your thoughtful question. With respect to any political overtones of our work, your question puts together two different contexts. Our remark about “conservative backers of Israel” is from the introduction not the section on Auschwitz or the conclusion. It refers to those who have been most zealous is attempting to portray FDR as an exemplar of the evils that follow when a president allegedly does not give Jewish concerns a high enough priority.  We also note that on the other side liberals have sought to defend their iconic president from criticism. As most reviewers have recognized, our book is balanced and faithful to the historical record. We would have written a very different book if our aim was to make political points.

We do not whitewash FDR. “For most of his presidency Roosevelt did little to aid the imperiled Jews of Germany and Europe,” we wrote. But it is also true that, FDR was not monolithic in his policies and, “at times acted decisively to rescue Jews, often withstanding contrary pressures from the American public, Congress, and his own State Department.” Overall, FDR did not do all that was possible for imperiled Jews, but was far better for the Jews than his political opposition at home or any other world leader of his time. His record also compares favorably than that of later presidents facing genocide on their watch, even though they had the lessons of the Holocaust before them and far more military and diplomatic power than FDR.

Professor Allan Lichtman.

Tracker Pixel for Entry


View our privacy policy and terms of service.


The Israel Factor