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.
Dear Professors Breitman and Lichtman,
I read your answer(s) with great interest and I reread several passages in the book. My question was about the role of leadership in times of peril, and I must say I am not yet satisfied with the answer. While you refer in detail to the example (St. Louis), and briefly to the tone and content of the book ("we do not whitewash FDR"), there's still the larger issue of whether the fact that he "did little" - as you state - to save the Jews of Europe should discredit him as a leader.
This isn't an easy question. The impression one gets from the book is of a President quite convinced that aiding the Jews might imperil the larger war effort. According to your book (page 189), the President believed that "talking publicly about Nazi killing of Jews would only supply ammunition to both Nazi propaganda and isolationists". In fact, as the reader tries to understand this lack of urgency in dealing with the mass killings of Jews he might conclude that it isn't the President that was at fault but rather the American people. The President was hesitant because he thought that the "people" would not approve of any action whose aim is the saving of Jews.
And yet, is mass murder not the time when a President has to disregard public opinion to do the right thing? And what about the American people - should they talk more about this moral failure to come to the rescue of European Jews (that is, if you think it is a moral failure)?
Thanks again for your thoughts,
We have noted your dissatisfaction. Let us try one more time to make our positions clear.
We present a great deal of evidence that Roosevelt adapted to different situations over the course of his long tenure as president. You can find other writers who will make sweeping black-or-white statements about him and his entire presidency, but we are not among them.
Last time you asked about his leadership during the St. Louis affair. This time you move into the period of the war and the Holocaust, where FDR was concerned about charges that American Jews were trying to force the U.S. to join the war, and after Pearl Harbor, about Nazi propaganda mirrored by some isolationists that the Allies were fighting a war because of the Jews and on behalf of the Jews. These charges had both domestic and foreign policy repercussions. They soon even had military repercussions, given the fact that American troops first encountered French and German forces in North Africa, where French and Arab opinion was a factor.
We think Roosevelt recognized that anti-Semitism was a significant force at home and abroad. Given the risks he was taking in foreign policy--aiding the Allies short of war, preparing the American public for possible entrance into the war, emphasizing the war in Europe, undertaking a dangerous amphibious invasion of French North Africa--he was unwilling to take on further risk speaking out directly about the Holocaust. We think he was overly cautious. We criticize him for being too fearful of anti-Semitism and insufficiently responsive to Jewish concerns in this period. We criticize him even more for relying on someone like Breckinridge Long in an important administrative position in the State Department.
To argue that his reticence about what we call the Holocaust discredits him as a leader is a very subjective judgment. We recognize your right to make this judgment, but it is not ours. Neither was it Gerhart Riegner's judgment, and he might be considered an expert witness. It sets up an absolute moral standard for judging a president. It assumes that speaking out would have had powerful effects, but it seems quite clear that it would not have affected Hitler and the Nazi regime at all. It might have affected some of Germany's allies.
In any case, we do state that Roosevelt's legacy would look a lot better if denounced Nazi anti-Semitism and mass killings earlier. He did finally speak out in 1944, one reason why we have a more positive appraisal of what we call the fourth Roosevelt.
Thank you for your interest in our book.
Professor Richard Breitman and Professor Allan Lichtman.