With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Murray Polner: Review of Richard Breitman and Allan Lichtman's "FDR and the Jews" (Belknap, 2013)

Murray Polner is a book reviewer for HNN.

Years after World War II ended I often visited Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood, nicknamed the “Fourth Reich” because of its large number of Central European Jews who had escaped the Nazis, the Kissinger family among them. Whether they were eligible to vote or not, they overwhelmingly supported FDR, grateful for having been welcomed into the country. Nearby, a goodly number of them lived on the Upper West Side, all well-served by German-Jewish cultural and social societies and Aufbau, a literate, once-thriving German language Jewish newspaper.

Since then, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, elected four times with overwhelming American Jewish support, and revered by millions of other Americans for his New Deal reforms and efforts to win the war, has for decades been ironically subjected to revisionist, often bitter criticism for allegedly having forsaken European Jews in their time of greatest need.

Arthur Morse’s While Six Million Died in 1968 caused a sea change among many American Jews, when he charged that FDR had done far too little to rescue Jews caught in Hitler’s deadly trap. The non-Jewish David Wyman brought his condemnation of FDR’s supposed failures to the pages of Commentary, where he wrote that hundreds of thousands of imperiled Jews might have well been saved had the U.S. acted early and with courage. Soon after, his well-received book The Abandonment of the Jews set the tone for other books and articles. As a result, many readers and commentators, some far less temperate, soon began claiming that FDR was an anti-Semite (wrong) and that he and a cadre of State Department officials were motivated by intense dislike of Jews (right).

None of these charges of apathy and indifference and worse should have been surprising given the enormity of what later came to be called the Holocaust. In the midst of the most devastating and destructive war in recorded history, Europe’s Jews were singled out, slaughtered, gassed, and far from the concentration camps in Eastern Europe, vast numbers of Russian Jews were murdered by the Einsatzgruppen, German death squads. The historian Christopher Browning called them Ordinary Men, "working-class German volunteers who executed tens of thousands of Jews," most likely many of my father’s family among them. What was most difficult to believe, at least at the beginning of their carefully planned, systematic mass butchery was that it was conceived and carried out by a nation once known and respected for its historic cultural and intellectual achievements.

But FDR has also had his defenders, most notably William Rubinstein in his The Myth of Rescue: Why the Democracies Could Not have Saved More Jews from the Nazis and the historian Deborah Lipstadt, who once accused the British writer David Irving of denying that the Holocaust ever occurred and who then sued her for libel and lost in a British court. She and Michael Kazin blurbed FDR and the Jews, Kazin lionizing FDR “as a cunning politician who, in the dreadful context of his times, did more to aid Jews than any other leader in the U.S. or abroad.”

Into this explosive arena enter Richard Breitman, Distinguished Professor of History at American University and Allan J. Lichtman, who holds the identical rank at the same university. Their task, they explain, was to view FDR and his Jewish and non-Jewish advisors in the context of world war, economic depression and a good deal of domestic anti-Semitism. The result is a bit revisionist, critical at times, but essentially sympathetic to what FDR and his administration did and could not do, especially in answer to the contentious arguments raised in the eighties asking, first, why the U.S. did not bomb the railway lines and junctions to Auschwitz and its crematoria, and second, why the S.S. St. Louis was denied landing rights in Cuba and forced to return to Europe, its 937 refugee passengers abandoned to their fate in Europe.

For one thing, precision bombing of Auschwitz would not have been easy though it was certainly doable. Breitman and Lichtman, both Jewish, argue that it would, however, been nothing more than a symbolic gesture since “despite the contrary claims of FDR’s critics, the bombing of Auschwitz would not likely have forced the Nazis to cease or reassess the Final Solution.” In fact, some 250,000 more Jews were executed between the closure of Auschwitz and the end of the war. “In October 1944, for example, 98,000 Jews were killed by Germans and their Hungarian allies “without any recourse to Auschwitz.”

Moreover, the bombing could not have helped hundreds of thousands of Eastern European Jews who were dying far from the camps. In America, the authors stress, English-language newspapers and radio broadcasters largely disregarded the issue as did the presidential candidates in the election of 1944. Perhaps more significantly, American Jews leaders, other than a few ultra-Orthodox, were divided and essentially silent, including those who would later angrily condemn FDR for his so-called lack of assistance and concern.

As for the S.S. St. Louis, it departed Hamburg in May 1939 for Havana, a dramatic if abortive journey popularized by the film The Voyage of the Damned. Cuba had by then given sanctuary to 5,000-6,000 Jewish refugees but pressured by Cuban anti-Semites it unexpectedly refused to allow them to land, or so the authors claim. FDR was ill at the time and the State Department handled the details and rejected the possibility of a haven in the Virgin Islands. FDR has also been accused of ordering the Coast Guard to take all measures to prevent passengers from landing on American soil, a charge the authors rightly deem false since no documentary evidence exists that an order of such magnitude was ever given. Argentina. meanwhile -- with a sizable Jewish population -- and Brazil and Mexico also sharply limited the number of refugees permitted entry. But surely the U.S. could have done more to relieve the situation even as the authors claim that Cuba and Lawrence Berenson its Washington-based lobbyist “bear much of the responsibility,” a rather lame and unconvincing conclusion. Surely desperate men, women and children could very well have been granted a haven somewhere on U.S. territory. Here FDR displayed a lack of nerve. But Roosevelt, the authors hasten to explain, “politically pragmatic, decided not to risk political jeopardy through an uncertain battle with Congress over the fate of the St. Louis -- which could have cost him capital with Congress in his battle to revise the Neutrality Act” -- and his single-minded goal of aiding Britain’s war effort, write the authors. In the end, the St. Louis was forced to return to Europe, 254 people dying eventually in Nazi-controlled Europe, while about one-third managed to find safety in Britain. Ironically, some thirty months later 2,000 Jews were granted asylum in Cuba “primarily by paying exorbitant fees and bribing Cuban officials.”

The authors recognize that during his first two terms in office FDR did little to rescue trapped Jews. His attention was riveted on the home front, where the Depression was wreaking havoc, joblessness rising, and misery widespread. To ask that European Jews be welcomed en masse when millions were without work placed enormous political constraints on his administration. Nor was anyone sure that many Americans, far less tolerant than today, would welcome masses of Jewish refugees, many of them falsely alleged to be radicals. In truth, many Americans simply did not care much for Jews, as evidenced by the enormous popularity of Catholic radio priest Charles Coughlin, an anti-Semitic fundamentalist, with Roman Catholic churches and their parishioners. In Brooklyn, for example, the Daily Table, the diocesan newspaper, and the Christian Front thugs in Manhattan’s Yorkville section made no secret of their loathing for Jews. Elsewhere, racists and fascists like Gerald L.K. Smith, the German American Bund, Liz Dilling -- who passionately hated FDR -- and William Dudley Pelley and his Silver Shirts flourished, at least until Pearl Harbor.

By mid-1940 and his third term events were moving quickly in Europe. The Nazis had swept across western Europe and were threatening Britain, giving rise to FDR’s opponents in America First, the non-interventionist mass movement whose influential members included Chester Bowles, William Saroyan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Norman Thomas, e.e. cummings, Walt Disney, Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter Alice Longworth Roosevelt, Sinclair Lewis, and progressive Midwestern politicians. Even so, FDR believed his first duty was to save Britain, and so he enacted Lend-Lease, sent U.S. destroyers to the beleaguered island nation, and supported the first peacetime draft in American history.

But even given those constraints, could FDR have done more to save Jews from the Nazi machinery of death? Speaking of contemporary revisionists, Breitman correctly and perceptively told an NPR interviewer after the book’s publication that “the world of the 1930s and the 1940s was a very different place, and that Roosevelt had both political and international constraints that we don’t think about today.” In effect, books written long after the war either overimplified or chose to overlook the very hard choices FDR faced.

It was only in 1943 -- and especially in 1944 -- that FDR started acting to rescue European Jews in the face of anti-Semitic State Department bureacrats and its immobile Secretary of State Cordell Hull and his odious subordinate Breckinridge Long, who obstructed every rescue plan that crossed his desk.

Breitman and Lichtman take pains to highlight what FDR did do to aid Jews fleeing Europe, and which has been largely ignored by his critics. In 1938, he proposed that Latin America be opened to Jewish refugees -- by war’s end some 40,000 Jews were actually given sanctuary in Latin America. It was FDR who recalled the U.S. ambassador to Germany after the pogrom of Kristallnacht, a symbolic move but still, the U.S. was the only nation to do so. Much later he would meet with Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia and ask him to agree to allow Jews to move to Palestine, a request Ibn Saud rejected. Most importantly, FDR, close to Jewish advisors who were themselves divided (Henry Morgenthau and Samuel Rosenman; Frances Perkins the first woman cabinet member, a non-Jew, was the strongest administration advocate for rescuing Jews) eventually established the War Refugee Board, which though weakened by bureaucratic impediments, saved the lives of possibly 200,000 refugees. Breitman and Lichtman conclude -- wisely -- that “without FDR’s policies and leadership,” the Germans and Italians would have beaten the British in North Africa and conquered, which would have ended all hopes for a future Israel (and put hundreds of thousands of more Jews in harm's way). And, they continue, even though the war always took priority over the rescue of masses of Jews “Roosevelt reacted more decisively to Nazi crimes against Jews than did any other world leader of his time.”