September 24, 2013
The FDR Exchange, Part 2: Roosevelt’s Legacy and The Holocaust
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.
Thank you for your interest in our book.
Professor Richard Breitman and Professor Allan Lichtman.