Holocaust scholars Michael Berenbaum and Rafael Medoff read the same book and sent in their reviews.
Giving Credit to FDR Where Credit Isn’t Due
By Rafael Medoff
Rafael Medoff is founding director of The David Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, which is based in Washington, D.C. and focuses on issues related to America’s response to the Holocaust.
Washington, DC—Forget what you’ve read about Raoul Wallenberg pulling Jews off trains in Nazi-occupied Budapest—Franklin D. Roosevelt is the one who deserves credit for their rescue. And that story about the refugee ship, the St. Louis, being turned away from America’s shores? Turns out we got it all wrong—FDR actually rescued the passengers of the St. Louis. And those infamous regulations imposed by the Roosevelt administration to discourage immigrants in the 1930s and 1940s? Not so; President Roosevelt “smashed the bureaucratic barriers to the expanded admission of Jewish refugees to the United States.” These are just a few of the rather startling claims made by Richard Breitman and Allan Lichtman in their new book, FDR and the Jews.
Those who are familiar with Wallenberg’s rescue mission know it was initiated and financed by a U.S. government agency, the War Refugee Board. When Jewish activists and members of Congress first proposed creating such a board in 1943, the Roosevelt administration fought against it tooth and nail. Under political pressure and faced with an election-year scandal, FDR belatedly and grudgingly established the Board. But he refused to give it meaningful funding (90 percent of its budget came from Jewish groups) and his State and War Departments refused to cooperate with it.
Yet, remarkably, Breitman and Lichtman, both professors of history at American University, characterize the Board as “[FDR]’s chosen instrument of rescue.” Thus in FDR and the Jews, Roosevelt gets to have it both ways, receiving credit for the life-saving work of the very agency that he tried to prevent from coming into existence.
The well-known voyage of the refugee ship St. Louis in 1939 likewise comes in for some radical revision at the hands of Breitman and Lichtman. They emphasize that the Roosevelt administration could not have admitted the vessel’s 937 passengers to the United States, since the quota for German immigrants was full at the moment—the only time in FDR’s 12 years as president that this was the case. But the authors do not give adequate consideration to the possibility of admitting the passengers to a nearby U.S. territory, the Virgin Islands—especially since the governor and legislative assembly of the Virgin Islands had recently offered to open their doors to European Jewish refugees. The administration was too quick to find technical reasons to keep Jews out; and Breitman and Lichtman are too quick to find excuses for what they did.
In the end, England, France, Belgium and Holland each accepted a portion of the St. Louis passengers; FDR and the Jews overstates the role of the Roosevelt administration in making that happen. (It was the Joint Distribution Committee that did the heavy lifting.) Once again, FDR gets to have his cake and eat it, too—the authors excuse his indifference to the St. Louis by pointing out that he was ill during one part of the crisis; yet they give him full credit when they are able to make it seem as if the administration found the refugees havens.
Breitman and Lichtman insist the refugees were “safe” in those countries. Apparently the passengers themselves didn’t think so, or so many of them wouldn’t have immediately tried to leave Europe again. A book-length study by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Refuge Denied, describes former St. Louis passengers desperately trying to sign up as Chilean construction workers (and all sorts of other things) to get out of “safe” Holland.
The search for far-flung havens that can be credited to FDR takes Breitman and Lichtman to Bolivia, to which a Jewish mining magnate named Mauricio Hochschild brought 20,000 German Jews in the 1930s. Since Hochschild had a few contacts with State Department officials—though they gave him no assistance—the authors insist those 20,000 should be counted as Jews whom the Roosevelt administration “likely helped save.”
The word “likely,” however, mysteriously vanishes when they get to their grand tally: Roosevelt “helped save the lives of well over 100,000 Jews,” they calculate. The problem is that even if FDR gets credit for every Jew who reached Latin America, the total is only around 35,000. How did Breitman and Lichtman arrive at “over 100,000”? By claiming, surprisingly, that every Jew who entered the United States within the immigration quota system also should be considered to have been “rescued” by President Roosevelt.
These were individuals who reached America not because FDR did anything to help them but, rather, in spite of the extra regulations and bureaucratic obstacles his administration created to keep them out. During most of FDR’s years in office, the quota from Germany remained less than half-filled. More than 190,000 quota places from Germany and Axis-occupied countries sat unused during the Hitler years. FDR did everything he could to keep refugees out, yet in FDR and the Jews, he is transformed into a hero who “saved” the few whom he failed to keep out. Breitman and Lichtman seem to have a very different definition of “saving Jews” than the rest of us.
One of the major arguments of FDR and the Jews is that criticism of Roosevelt’s response to the Holocaust is little more than Monday morning quarterbacking. Supposedly the critics came along decades later, looking back with the advantage of hindsight and failing to appreciate the tenor of the times in which the president operated. “Few of [FDR]’s contemporaries recognized the political or moral significance of the events we now scrutinize carefully,”Breitman and Lichtman contend.
To make this argument, they airbrush Roosevelt’s contemporaneous critics out of the historical record. FDR and the Jewsdoes not mention, for example, this March 15, 1943 editorial in the pro-Roosevelt political weekly The Nation, which declared: “You and I and the President and the Congress and the State Department are accessories to the crime and share Hitler’s guilt. If we had behaved like humane and generous people instead of complacent, cowardly ones, the two million Jews lying today in the earth of Poland and Hitler’s other crowded graveyards would be alive and safe.” Other liberal critics of FDR’s Jewish policy, such as The New Republic, PM and I.F. Stone, are likewise omitted.
The curious omission of Varian Fry
Perhaps the most remarkable omission is the rescue mission of Varian Fry. The young American journalist created a network that brought more than 2,000 Jews from Vichy France to the United States in 1940-1941—until his mission was terminated by the Roosevelt administration, which canceled his passport in response to a complaint by the Germans. The United States was not yet in the war; FDR wanted to maintain cordial relations with the Hitler regime. YadVashem of course recognizes Fry as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. It is not clear why Breitman and Lichtman felt Fry was not worth mentioning in their book.
Still, one could say FDR and the Jews is an improvement over Prof. Breitman’s previous work in several respects.
Breitman claimed in his 1987 book American Refugee Policy and European Jewry, 1933-1945(coauthored with Alan Kraut), for example, that FDR promised refugee advocate James McDonald in 1933 that he would publicly reprimand Germany for persecuting the Jews; Breitman touted that as proof Roosevelt really did care about the Jews. Some critics noted at the time that Breitman’s claim was based on a misreading of McDonald’s diary. Perhaps Breitman took that criticism to heart, because in FDR and the Jews, he and Lichtman acknowledge that at the 1933 meeting in question, McDonald “inferred correctly” that “the Administration would not publicly reprimand Germany….”
Breitman indicates he also has had a change of heart regarding the Bergson Group (the activists, led by Hillel Kook/Peter Bergson, who sponsored rallies, lobbying and newspaper ads to promote rescue). In his previous books, he barely recognized the group’s existence. In FDR and the Jews, he and Lichtman acknowledge that the Bergsonites“helped publicize the need to rescue Jews,”“helped to shape opinions in Congress,” and conducted a “vigorous” and “successful” lobbying effort that contributed to the creation of the War Refugee Board.
On the issue of bombing Auschwitz, too, Breitman’s position has matured. Previously, he made it seem as if Jewish leaders were evenly divided on the issue. In FDR and the Jews, however, he and Lichtman cite five Jewish leaders or organizations that advocated bombing, as well as one (the only one) who was against it. Actually, 30 different officials of Jewish organizations promoted the bombing idea; still, five to one is a step in the right direction.
These glimmers of progress are, however, undermined by a sour note of politicization that Breitman and Lichtman inject into the debate. They complain about statements by George W. Bush, Benjamin Netanyahu and “conservative backers of modern-day Israel” criticizing America’s failure to bomb Auschwitz, as if there is some conspiracy by the political right to misrepresent FDR’s record for contemporary partisan purposes.
In fact, conservatives have no monopoly on this issue. Prominent liberals have been just as vocal—sometimes more so—in criticizing Roosevelt’s response to the Holocaust. Bill Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Walter Mondale, George McGovern, and Golda Meir have all spoken out on the issue. So have historians associated with Labor Zionism, including Henry Feingold, Martin Gilbert and Arthur Hertzberg. And so have prominent Jewish peace activists such as Jeremy Ben-Ami, Seymour Reich and Ralph Seliger.
To ignore what these men and women have said or written in order to turn an important historical issue into a political football, adds one more troubling layer to this deeply flawed book.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt Was the Best: And that
is Not a Compliment!
By Michael Berenbaum
Michael Berenbaum is the Director of the Sigi Ziering Institute: Exploring the Ethical and Religious Implications of the Holocaust, located at the American Jewish University (formerly known as the University of Judaism), in Los Angeles.
Los Angeles—The easiest way to get booed by a Jewish audience is to tell them that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s record regarding the Holocaust is less vile than they have been accustomed to hearing.
The American Jewish community has developed a preferred narrative with respect to American policy during the war. American Jewish leaders were timid and divided, unwilling to press Judeo-centric issues— the fate of the Jewish people under Nazi Germany – for fear of being labeled parochial and spurring antisemitism by exercising Jewish power. And Roosevelt, assured of the Jews’ adoring support, was indifferent to the fate of their brethren. American Jews serving in government were unwilling to risk power, position and prestige to advance Jewish interests. In order to get ahead, they went along.
Now along comes a new book by Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman that may just force a rethinking of these long held beliefs.
If Fox News had not given the words “Fair and Balanced” a bad reputation, one could characterize their treatment of FDR and his administration as fair and balanced. Breitman is both an American historian and a Holocaust historian. His co-author is a student of the American presidency and has written on theAl Smith presidential campaign of 1928, the first in which a Roman Catholic ran for President. Entitled Prejudice and Old Politics,it deals with the year FDR was first elected Governor of New York—running against a Jew—and with Herbert Lehman as his Lieutenant Governor. Both authors are Distinguished Professors of History, the highest position a university bestows upon the very best of its faculty.
A word on their methodology: Breitman and Lichtman have done extensive research. They consider FDR’s record on the Jews and the Holocaust within the context of his historical times, his full agenda for the nation and the other issues that came across his desk. They are also deeply mindful of the political timetable that FDR faced and the other herculean problems that confronted him and his administration—such as the Depression and the World War.
They also treat Roosevelt’s early background. FDR’s parents were surprisingly free of the antisemitism that marked their class and religion. Eleanor Roosevelt, whose solidarity with the Jews is legendary, grew up as an antisemite and had to overcome her youthful prejudice, FDR did not.
From the rough and tumble of New York politics, Roosevelt had learned some seemingly timeless lessons. Non-Jewish politicians should steer clear of the battle among Jewish leaders. Jewish leaders cannot turn on or off a Jewish bloc, and would even deny that there was a Jewish vote if it were in their interest. Jews do not only vote on Jewish issues but on all social, political and security issues. Antisemitism can be present even when hidden from view, and Jews are quite talented; a wise political leader can use all the talent he can get.
Unlike many Holocaust historians, Breitman and Lichman never isolate Jewish issues from the rest of the presidential agenda.Thus, the FDR of 1933—facing the full impact of the Depression and having been elected to address unemployment and economic malaise—had very different priorities than the President of 1939 who had an acute sense of impending war and the personal mission of making his isolationist nation ready for war—even as he made the most personal of decisions to run for a third term and break the precedent set by George Washington.
Presidents have different political options immediately after election or reelection and before the election cycle for the next Congress begins.And any President has more limited options as he faces reelection. So they understand when the President can act forcefully and when he deferred action for fear of endangering the rest of his agenda.
On the Jewish question, FDR often operated alone, against Congress, against significant members of his own administration. He enjoyed the support of his Jewish staffers and Jewish advisers, such as Felix Frankfurter and his Secretary of the Treasury, longtime friend and neighbor, Henry Morgenthau, Jr. They also understood and supported Roosevelt’s full agenda. They were at times reluctant to go to the well too often for fear that they would be regarded merely as parochial and thus compromise their influence. There is little evidence for their timidity or for their lack of concern. There is ample evidence that they wanted to preserve the power of their positions, but there is also ample evidence that they were concerned about their fellow Jews.
FDR was an indifferent administrator; he was more powerful as one who charted policy and persuaded the American people about its direction. He played off rivalries within his cabinet and sub-cabinet and among his supporters. He also played on the ambitions of his numerous enemies. He did not trust the State Department even as it was staffed with men of his class, religion and school background—Groton and Harvard. His Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, wanted to replace FDR in 1940; he was ineffective and was undercut by Undersecretary Sumner Wells, who was close to the President and enjoyed his company. Even though Hull’s wife was of Jewish ancestry, Wells was the one sympathetic to the Jews. His fall in 1944, orchestrated by Hull and based on a homosexual incident several years earlier, left the Jews without an ally in the State Department, without someone who could crack the entrenched antisemitism of many of its senior staff.
During FDR’s second term, he was far more receptive to Jewish concerns. He used his Executive Powers against a reluctant Congress, an uninterested electorate, and against the opposition of labor and the bureaucratic machinations of his own State Department to loosen immigration restrictions. He backed efforts at resettlement—including Palestine and Latin America—but clearly never successful enough to have a genuine impact on the problem of Jews seeking to flee Germany. FDR also backed Zionist aspirations for continued immigration to Palestine against British opposition. Yet, in comparison—and the comparisons are unflattering to all—he did more for the Jews than any other leader of his time.
His response to Kristallnacht was to recall his Ambassador, but he did not to sever diplomatic relations. That was more than any other world leader did, but that may not be a compliment. Americans of all religions and all political persuasions were genuinely outraged by what they saw in Germany, as they had internalized the American value of freedom of religion. Unfortunately, that that did not translate into support for immigration.
As war loomed on the horizon, Roosevelt was less willing to alienate those political forces as he needed all the support he could get to combat isolationism, to advance Lend-Lease and to get the United States ready for the war—which he well knew was unavoidable.
In the first years of the war, when the fate of the world free world was literally in his hands alone, the President gave almost all his attention to the war effort and was but occasionally interested in the Jewish question. Unfortunately, this coincided with the most intense German efforts to realize their goal of the “Final Solution to the Jewish Problem.” These were the very months when the President, the political leadership, the press and the public were most concerned about the war, whose outcome was uncertain. And these were the months when Einsatzgruppen were killing Jews bullet-by-bullet, town-by-town, when ghettos were being emptied and Jews deported to the death camps. Millions of Jews were murdered in 1942 during the bleakest year in all of Jewish history.
In the last 18 months of his life, FDR could be more confident of the final outcome of the war and concentrated his increasingly limited energy on the post-war world and with it to think again of the Jews. As the authors write:
The fourth Roosevelt came late to the task. His chosen instrument of rescue, the War Refugee Board–the only agency of its kind in the world–lacked the resources and authority for an immensely difficult task. Throughout its tenure, the board remained underfunded, undermanned, and dependent on a military and State Department with decidedly different priorities. Still, the board helped to save as many as 200,000 Jewish lives, in addition to the more than 100,000 saved by FDR’s second-term initiatives for refugees. If established earlier, the War Refugee Board would likely have saved some additional Jewish lives, but cessation of the Nazis’ mass murder of Jews required the military defeat of Germany and their allies. (325)
Despite what some critics intent on preserving the preferred narrative of the American Jewish Community might say, this is no whitewash of FDR. A careful reading of this book is not one that either Roosevelt’s defenders or his attackers might prefer. But it is fair and balanced, critical where criticism is warranted and careful in both the tone and the content of its accusations. Breitman and Lichtman conclude:
FDR was neither a hero of the Jews nor a bystander to the Nazis’ persecution and then annihilation of Jews. No simple or monolithic characterization of this complex president fits the historical record. FDR could not fully meet all competing priorities as he led the nation through its worst economic depression and most challenging foreign war. He has to make difficult and painful trade-offs, and he adapted over time to shifting circumstances. His compromises might seem flawed in the light of what later generations have learned about the depth and significance of the Holocaust, a term that first came into widespread use many years after FDR’s death. Still, Roosevelt reacted more decisively to Nazi crimes against Jews than did any other world leader of his time. (315)
And the authors emphasize that FDR’s record compares favorably with that of his predecessors and his successors. Woodrow Wilson did nothing about the Armenian Genocide. Despite his emphasis on human rights, President Jimmy Carter was ineffective with regard to the auto-genocide in Cambodia. Both Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton did little on Yugoslavia, and while Clinton later reversed his position and bombed Kosovo, he stood by with regard to Rwanda, which he says is his greatest regret with regard to his presidency. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have been weak on their response to Darfur and the Sudan, and one wonders how history will judge Obama’s failure to lead his war-weary nation to do something significant about Syria.
So to say that Roosevelt was the best is hardly a compliment.
Still, however intense our criticism of FDR’s inaction, we must be grateful that he helped prepare England for war and supported the Soviet Union with resources and military equipment to withstand the German assault. He prepared the home front and America’s military industrial might for war. Above all, he got an isolationist nation into the war, as the only way to end the Holocaust was to defeat Hitler, a defeat that came too late for most of European Jewry.