Review by Paul Rockower
FDR and the Jews by Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman, Belknap Press, 2013, ISBN 13: 978-0674050266, 464 pp. $9.88 (Kindle), $15.96 (Amazon hardcover).
Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s actions during World War II towards the slaughter of the Jews of Europe always posed an enigma. I speak as a lifelong Democrat and an American Jew—my family’s centenary in America was marked two years ago. I can still hear my grandmother speak so fondly of Roosevelt and how much they loved him, and yet so sadly at how he betrayed the Jewish people by not doing more to stop the Holocaust; I think such critiques are commonplace among many of that era. The charge that not a single Allied bombing was diverted to attack Auschwitz, or the train tracks leading to it, stood as a black mark on FDR’s otherwise extraordinary record.
In the prologue of FDR and the Jews, Professors Richard Breitman and Allan Lichtman also highlight the critics’ charge: “Conservative backers of modern-day Israel hold FDR out as an exemplar of indifference to Jewish peril and the horror of genocide.”
Breitman and Lichtman tack back to offer a rebuttal that encapsulates the argument of supporters of FDR, who argue that Roosevelt did “everything feasible to rescue European Jews and saved millions of potential victims by orchestrating the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II.”
In FDR and the Jews, the authors holistically examine Franklin Roosevelt through a contextual contemporary lens to explore Roosevelt’s relations with the Jewish people as a whole, and over multiple points in time and to give a broader understanding to his actions during WWII. The authors reveal a Roosevelt that, as governor of New York, spoke out forcefully against discrimination against Jews immigrating to America, as well as in support of a Jewish home in Palestine. Moreover, FDR was the first presidential candidate to condemn prejudice against the Jews.
FDR and the Jews offers nuance and shades of real academic perspective to a subject more often colored by passionate discourse. To the most dramatic accusations leveled at FDR, his refusal to offer asylum to Jewish refugees aboard the S.S. Saint Louis in 1939—an act that would later be perceived in historical memory as sending these Jewish refugees back to Nazi Germany, and his refusal to bomb the gas chambers and crematoria of Auschwitz, the authors argue “do not withstand close scrutiny…critics have given them emblematic moral weight.” The authors examine these charges with a degree of academic veracity as they seek to restore the “historical significance” of the events within the context of the times.
Breitman and Lichtman steer a course through Franklin Roosevelt’s background, personal relationship with Jewish friends, colleagues and advisors as well as his views on the ancient tribe. The authors construct a model of four phases that encapsulate FDR’s actions towards the issues affecting European Jewry and the “Jewish Question.”
During the first phase, which coincided with Roosevelt’s first term in office, the president neglected to address the rising Nazi persecution of Jews; however, this neglect needs to be viewed in the context of a president dealing with of the Depression and trying to implement a domestic and foreign policy agenda whose fragility would have been possibly torn asunder by the focus on ethnic and religious problems in Europe.
The second phase begins after Roosevelt’s re-election in 1936, after which FDR takes on a more pro-active approach to the situation of the Jews of Europe. At this point, Roosevelt worked to ease immigration restrictions in the midst of an America turned restrictionist in its immigration policies. Moreover, Roosevelt lent support to efforts to resettle European Jewry in other parts of the world—in the form of the Évian Conference, the ultimately unsuccessful conference on the resettlement of European Jewry, and also aided other schemes to resettle Jews in Latin America that had moderate degrees of success.
The authors explain the context of the American environment that Roosevelt was working in during these first two phases. The president was confronting a largely isolationist America that sought to insulate itself from the affairs of world, and a Congress that sought to tamp down immigration.
The third phase the authors highlight, beginning after 1939, is that of Roosevelt navigating the coming of the Second World War, and the role of America in it. As Europe marched toward war in the midst of Nazi aggression, FDR subsumed his activism on the “Jewish Question” into the broader goal of slowly mobilizing American public opinion, foreign policy and military focus on combating Nazi Germany, and remained wary of being perceived as “pro-Jewish” or focusing on “Jewish concerns” that would hinder the broader foreign policy goals of mobilizing the country against the Nazi threat. As such, Roosevelt was careful not to fight something perceived as a “Jewish war” and play into Nazi propaganda or nativist fears in a fragile American society that remained still quite isolationist and xenophobic.
In the fourth phase, circa 1943 onward, Roosevelt renewed his efforts to aid Jews trapped in Europe with the creation of the War Refugee Board, a governmental body that did some significant work to help save Jewry in Central and Eastern Europe. It was also during this period that Roosevelt took up the issue of Palestine and became a more forceful advocate for Palestine’s role as a home for Jewry after the war, including Roosevelt’s personal diplomacy with leaders in the Middle East. Moreover, the overriding focus of military and foreign policy conceptions were that the best way to help persecuted peoples in Europe was to win the war as fast as possible; the notion of humanitarian military intervention (i.e. bombing Auschwitz or the train lines to it) is something borne out of hindsight, and doesn’t especially reflect the realities, or even military capabilities, for much of the war period.
If there is a “bad guy” in the story, unfortunately, it comes across as the U.S. State Department. Characterized as patrician, quietly anti-Semitic and Arabist, the State Department and in particular Assistant Secretary of State Breckenridge Long garner most of the condemnation for efforts to limit immigration, leave immigrant quotas unfilled and restrict visas for Jews fleeing Europe. Moreover, the State Department resisted the War Refugee Board’s efforts to save Jews, as well as opposing presidential denunciations of Nazi carnage against Jewry and sought to check the amount of information coming out of Europe of the Nazi atrocities against the Jews.
The book also has its share of “good guys,” as it highlights the role of Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr.—whose Treasury Department challenged the State Department over mismanagement of refugee immigration. Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles and Labor Secretary Frances Perkins are also lauded for their efforts to resist and fight State Department intransigence towards the issuance of visas for European Jewry and assistance towards Jewish refugees.
Overall, FDR and the Jews is an excellent book for its complete examination of Roosevelt in the context of the period he loomed so large on the public stage. It neither deifies FDR, nor castigates his actions, but fills in an intricate picture of Roosevelt in the midst of a complex age, and in doing so, offers fascinating insight into this decisive period and president.