Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Jewish Community
Richard J. Garfunkel
Speech to be given at the Westchester Reform Synagogue of Scarsdale
December 16, 2004
Additional edits January 2006
In addressing you this morning I wish to thank Corrine Harris for inviting me back to share with you some of my thoughts on this important subject. Over the past 70 years one of the most wrenching questions that has faced our country and succeeding generations of both Jews and free people everywhere is what happened to the Jews from 1933-45? In other words, why did it happen, could it have been prevented, could some of it be prevented, whose ultimate fault was it, did the Western democracies fail, and what was the responsibility of its leaders? Could President Roosevelt have made a greater effort regarding this tragedy?
These are daunting questions that historians, and the average citizen alike, have been struggling now for almost 60 years after the true evidence of the Holocaust was revealed in the wake of the destruction and surrender of Nazi forces all over liberated Europe.
In a sense, over the past decades, much speculation has arisen over the role the United States played in this tragedy and what real relationship FDR had in its unfolding. Of course this tragedy did not start in 1933 but its seeds had germinated long before in the squalid shtetls of Eastern Europe and in the more sophisticated drawing rooms, clubs, venues and legislatures of modern Europe. The seeds of the Holocaust were sown deep in the consciousness of Europe over the past two thousand years and only in the period of “enlightenment” did the Jews of Europe start to experience the “partial” fruits of freedom. And yet, until the Second World War there was a locked-in Jewish ghetto in Rome that was supported by the Vatican.
Of course the key player in this drama was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd President of the United States, who was elected in November 1932, in the throes of the Great Depression, which had started with the stock market collapse of 1929. By the time of FDR’s election in 1932, the stock market retained only 17% of its value from the pre-crash month of September 1929. So in other words by FDR’s inauguration, that took place on March 4th of 1933, conditions had gotten a good deal worse and our social and economic situation was in virtual free-fall. Also please remember, that in 1933 the President was inaugurated in March, not January. That spring event was a vestige of the earlier years of our history when the winter precluded people from traveling. So there were four long months from the election until inauguration.
Therefore when FDR took the oath of office, on that cold wintry day in March of 1933, and stated that the “only thing we have to fear, is fear itself,” the economic situation in this country was quite grave. Ironically a month earlier on January 30th, 1933, Hitler and his Nazi brigands were taking the reins of leadership in Germany from the aging Chancellor Paul von Hindenburg. (1847-1933, WWI Field Marshall, President of Germany 1925-34. At Hindenburg’s death in August of 1934, Hitler assumed complete dictatorial power over Germany and abolished freedom of speech and assembly.)
We here are all old enough to remember most of that sordid history. Therefore this background foreshadows the upcoming events that would lead to first, the persecution of the Jews of Germany, and the emigration of many Jews from Germany, the expansion of Hitler’s Third Reich or Empire into Austria and the Sudetenland, and the coming of the Second World War. Eventually the war would cause the murder of at least 6 million Jews amongst the 67 million or so others who lost their lives in history’s greatest conflagration.
With respect to this background, the question that has been gnawing at Jews, all over the world, since that time, is what role could the United States have played in rescuing more Jews from the jaws of the Nazi onslaught. Of course the main player in that tragic drama was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. And the question that people still ask today is what was FDR’s relationship with the Jewish people, how did it effect his thinking and actions, and what was his true role in the drama regarding the tragedy of European Jews?
Franklin Roosevelt was born to a comfortable family in Hyde Park, New York on an estate called Springwood that overlooks the Hudson River just north of Poughkeepsie. FDR was a product of the “Gilded Age” and was the only son of James Roosevelt and his much younger second wife Sara Delano. James Roosevelt’s first wife Rebecca Howland (1831-1876) died earlier, and they had one son James Roosevelt Roosevelt, (1854-1927) known as “Rosie,” who was 29 years older than FDR.
FDR was the product of an adoring mother, and an aging father, whose health would start to deteriorate when FDR was an adolescent. He was home educated until he was sent to the Groton School for upper class privileged boys, which was directed by the Reverend Endicott Peabody (1857-1944, married FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt). FDR therefore was not only a product of his times, but also a captive of the prejudices and class structure that controlled America in the late Victorian Age. The Roosevelts socialized with their own landed class, and basically restricted much of their interaction within the large framework of the Roosevelt family, which had two distinct branches, the Oyster Bay family of Theodore Roosevelt and the Hyde Park or Hudson River family of James Roosevelt.
It was at one of these family gatherings that FDR first met his future bride Eleanor Roosevelt, a niece of President Theodore Roosevelt, (1858-1919, President of the United States 1901-1909) who was a fifth cousin of young Franklin Roosevelt. Later on they would be attracted to each other, and fall in love. The Roosevelts were distinctively an inward looking family and inter-marriage with cousins was not unusual. Even though FDR’s strong willed mother Sara was initially opposed to their marriage, and after they had a secret engagement for a year, they eventually were married in 1904 on St. Patrick’s Day in NYC. They were married on that day because of Uncle Teddy Roosevelt’s appearance in NYC for the parade, and he was able to give away the orphaned bride.
Of course, because of Eleanor Roosevelt’s well-chronicled early life, she had developed a sense of social conscientiousness. This was not completely unusual for persons of her class. This sense of social justice did not make her immune from prejudice and her early letters reflected her negative feelings to other races and religions, including Jews. But with her work at the Henry Street Settlement, she came in contact with many of the Jewish poor, the Jewish intellectuals and social workers who were trying to help them survive.
Eleanor’s activity had a great influence on FDR whose mother also believed in charity. Though the Roosevelt’s did not usually socialize with people outside of their class, they started to understand, at first hand, the inequities of society. Interestingly when one reads their early letters, it is Eleanor who expresses her disdain regarding the materialism of many of the noveaux riches Jews of the period. Throughout her life she would shy away from the symbols and trappings of the upper classes. In a sense she had inherited from her Uncle, and not from her drunken loutish father, the sense of the “rugged life.” Even in later years she saw Jews like Bernard Baruch (1870-1965, Chairman WWI War Industries Board, WWII Advisor to James F. Byrnes, advisor to Presidents) as dangerous flatterers, who would ingratiate themselves with the “powers that be” and to gain influence. (Harry Truman said, “Herman Baruch, (a banker, flatterer) wanted to be Ambassador to France, was a conniver like his brother (Bernard.)” (Off the Record the Private Papers of Harry S. Truman, by Robert Ferrell, Penguin, 1980 page 64.)
In those early days there is no evidence of FDR’s antipathy towards Jews or any other group. At Harvard, as an undergraduate, there is no evidence that he came in contact with any Jews. He was active in campus politics and spent an extra year there to edit the Crimson. Later after graduation he attended Columbia Law School and had a number of Jews in his class. As soon as Franklin began classes, Eleanor dashed off a lighthearted note inquiring about his first day “and whether you found any old acquaintances or had only Jew Gentleman to work with!” Franklin did not rise to Eleanor’s jibe in his response, nor did he point out the dissonance between her phrase and her work for desperately poor immigrants, many of whom were Jewish. He may have been raised by people who had class prejudices, but whose bias never extended to different races, ethnicities and religions. Sara never opposed him going to Columbia Law School which was approximately 30% Jewish, wherein Harvard was only 6% Jewish. (Sara and Eleanor, Jan Pottker, St.Martin’s Press, 2004, page 110.) Recently much has been written about the exclusion of Jews from the elite Ivy League schools. The efforts of Columbia’s long-time President Nicholas Murray Butler to limited Jews through a quota system came after FDR’s time there. In fact until the “Jewish Quota” came into almost universal use, the amount of Jews at Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Columbia continued to rise. See Stand Columbia and the Chosen for references to that history.
Franklin grew up in a home with people who were products of the mid 19th century, but neither his father James, who was born in 1828, nor his mother Sara who was born in 1854, (1854-1941) exhibited any overt racial or religious prejudice. The senior Mr. James Roosevelt (1828-1900) dealt with Jews through his business interests and Jews were welcomed in his home. In 1933 Sara Roosevelt asked her friend New York Judge Benjamin Greenspan (famous for ruling in favor of the publication of the book G-d’s Little Acre) if she could attend an Orthodox Jewish service with his four children. She went and was “so thrilled and talked and talked about it, and the sincere piety shown by his children.” (Sara and Eleanor, page 288.) When some of her old acquaintances criticized her “for the type of people” she knew, her answer was “Oh, dear, I suppose I should change my ways and learn to be a snob.” (Sara and Eleanor, page 304.)
“In April of 1938 Sara humbly accepted the Einstein Medal for Humanitarianism, given by the Jewish Forum in honor of her broad sympathy and activities in alleviating the conditions of all people throughout the world who suffer from poverty, oppression and hatred” (Sara and Eleanor page 309.) Later in October of 1938 Sara Roosevelt became active in the effort to save German Jews and was in direct contract with the Women of the League for the Honor of Israel, regarding getting more orphaned Jews into the United States.
In 1940 for the second year in a row, Sara attended the large mother-daughter Hadassah tea for the purpose of aiding Palestine projects, including the resettlement off Jews escaping from Germany and Poland. Hadassah planted 700 trees in the Sara Delano Roosevelt Grove with monies from the previous event. Hadassah was able to resettle over 250,000 Jews and created orphanages to care for 9000 children. Among the many people attending the tea were her biographer and confidant Rita Kleeman, a Jewish woman and several members of the Warburg family and the mother of George Gershwin. She gave money to many organizations including the National Jewish Hospital. She was guest of honor at a dinner in 1940 of Youth Aliyah, which supported the transport of Jewish children to Palestine, and then at age 85 she traveled to Ontario to address the Toronto Hadassah meeting. (Sara and Eleanor, Jan Pottker) Right up until her death in 1941 she was concerned about the problems of refugee Jews in Europe.
One Jewish fellow at Columbia student commented that he did not like Roosevelt, but there seems to be scant evidence that they had much contact, since FDR missed a great many classes in the two years he was there. Many of his classmates from Columbia Law School, including his later head of the OSS, our first Secret Intelligence Agency, General William Donovan, (1883-1959, Columbia University LLB, Led the 165th regiment of the 42nd Division in WWI, recipient of the Medal of Honor and the DSC, head of the OSS WWII) were Republicans. (Donovan, who had a close association with FDR, as his personal emissary, and “spy” during the early days of World War II did not remember him in his classes from their days in law school.) (Donovan, America’s Master Spy, Richard Dunlap, page 25.).
Roosevelt had very little contact with minorities or Jews in those formative years. Eventually FDR was asked to run for the New York State Senate by his friend and mentor Judge John Mack, and he was elected twice from his home area of Dutchess County that included the Village of Hyde Park. His short time in the Senate was marked by some intense Democratic intra-party struggles and there he met Al Smith, (1873-1944. Member of the State Legislature 1903-14, Governor of New York 1918-20, 1922-28, Democratic nominee for President 1928, member of the Liberty Lobby) a rising star in the legislature, who would be a great influence on his future political life. After campaigning vigorously for the election of Woodrow Wilson in 1912, FDR was rewarded for his work with an appointment to the office of Assistant Secretary of the Navy, a post that his famous cousin Teddy Roosevelt had also served.
Of course in those tumultuous eight years that culminated with our entry in to World War I, FDR became active in both national and international politics. After the war he attended the Versailles Peace Conference in Paris and became familiar with the problem of Palestine, the ensuing Mandate and the cause of Zionism. Here he met Benjamin V. Cohen who was the counsel for the American Zionist movement (1919-21). Later Cohen would come to Washington D.C. and work for FDR and the New Deal. Cohen and his famous partner, the lawyer Thomas Corcoran (1900-1981, advisor to FDR, asst to the Attorney-General 1932-5) would author all of the early Securities laws that were the cornerstone of the famous First 100 Days of legislation. Roosevelt became a supporter of the Zionist Movement from that period through the rest of his life. (Cohen, 1894-1983, was born in Muncie, Indiana and received a Ph.b. from the University of Chicago he was awarded the highest grades in the school’s history and received his J.D. also from Chicago and his SJD from Harvard Law School. Unlike his overly ambitious partner Corcoran, Cohen would stay in government and serve as an advisor to FDR until his passing. Cohen would remain a Washington bureaucrat until almost his death at age 87. He always maintained an office in the Capital.)
Not long after his unsuccessful campaign for Vice-President in 1920, FDR, who was an ardent internationalist in the mode of Woodrow Wilson, was afflicted with Infantile Paralysis, or Polio. His public career was shattered, and after his close brush with death, his energies were strictly channeled towards recovery. At this time his old friendships waned, and he was left with a small circle of friends and supporters that included his wife, his friend and political advisor Louis Howe, (1871-1936, personal advisor, campaign manager, and closest personal confidant) and his secretary Marguerite “Missy” LeHand, (1898-1944 personal and private secretary to FDR 1920-41 when she suffered a stroke.) Of course there were some others, but they started to drift away and FDR who was always a self-contained and lonely individual restricted his new life to that small circle. In those dark days FDR sought recovery away from home and in the warm waters off South Carolina in a houseboat named the Larooco. There he re-discovered Warm Springs, Georgia, and he would use the natural warm waters at an old run-down resort to help his rehabilitation. Eventually he would buy the Warm Springs location for $201,000 or two-thirds of his personal estate.
After this phase of his life passed, FDR came in contact with Henry M. Morgenthau, Jr., (1891-1967, Secretary of the Treasury 1934-1945, Head of UJA 1947-51) a well-off country farmer from the Hudson River Valley, who published the leading New York State farmer’s journal the American Agriculturist. He was the son of statesman Henry Morgenthau, and was married to Elinor Fatman, who was a Lehman. They both had common interests in agriculture, and building upstate interest in the Democratic Party. The Roosevelts enjoyed the company of the Morgenthaus, with the two wives becoming quite friendly, and a lifelong friendship was started. Meanwhile as he continued to recover, FDR was asked by Al Smith to nominate him at the 1924 Democratic National Convention, and that is where FDR nicknamed Al Smith the “Happy Warrior.” FDR eventually was asked by Smith to nominate him again in 1928. Smith was nominated by the party this time and implored Roosevelt to run for Governor of New York. Of course, Smith, the first Catholic nominee for President, lost in a landslide, and FDR narrowly defeated Albert Ottinger (1878-?) for Governor of New York. Ottinger was Jewish, wealthy, the New York State Attorney General, conservative and the uncle of Richard Ottinger (my wife Linda worked for Ottinger from 1973 to 1981) who represented this district, in Congress, for many years. There was some anti-Semitism hurled against Ottinger, and FDR obviously and indirectly benefited from it, but he had nothing what ever to do with its promulgation. He reputed it, and the subject was soon forgotten. Of course Roosevelt’s running mate was Herbert Lehman.
With Jews as with blacks, Roosevelt never initiated slurs against them nor behaved discourteously toward or about them. Most of the Jews Roosevelt knew well were from the scholarly tradition, especially jurists like Felix Frankfurter (1882-1965, Supreme Court Justice 1939-62, Professor of Law Harvard University) and Samuel I. Rosenman. During World War I, after FDR had brought Frankfurter home for lunch, Eleanor, unprejudiced though she was, described Frankfurter to Sara (Delano Roosevelt) as “an interesting little man, but very Jew”. She was less generous after a dinner at about the same time with Bernard Baruch. “The Jew party was appalling. I never wish to hear about money, jewels or labels mentioned again.” (Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Champion of Liberty, Conrad Black, page 154-6)
As Governor he came in contact and started to depend on influential Jews like Rose Schneiderman, (1882-1972, labor organizer) Belle Moskowitz (1877-1933) who was Smith’s chief of Staff in Albany, and Robert Moses, (1888-1981, Parks Commissioner of NY State, and NYC along with 10 other titles) who as Secretary of State, remained in his powerful state positions, and Sidney Hillman (1887-1946), a labor leader, founder of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, and with John L. Lewis, (1880-1969), head of the United Mine Workers, 1920-60, a founder of the CIO, who would become one of FDR’s allies with the labor movement. He appointed Samuel I. Rosenman to be his chief associate and this relationship would last until FDR’s death. Therefore important Jewish personages surrounded FDR, as Governor of New York.
As the Depression emerged from the Stock Market collapse of 1929, Roosevelt was re-elected overwhelmingly in 1930 (725,000 vote margin, then a record number!) and became the leading Democrat to challenge President Herbert Hoover in 1932.
Of course, during this dark period in American History, anti-Semitism started to emerge much more virulently on the American stage. In the post World War I period of the 1920’s, isolationism returned as a potent political force. The Wilson internationalists, who had favored the League of Nations and the World Court, were in full retreat. Out of this isolationism came a wave of revisionist writings decrying our effort in World War I. Midwestern German-Americans were stung by the anti-German hysteria of the First World War and started to question the rationale of the effort. This wave of anti-British feeling resonated within the hearts of the large German-American population. (40% of all Americans had German blood in 1930.) Along with these feelings, the rise of anti-Semitism in Germany started to spread to their American cousins. Eventually fed by the flames of Henry Ford’s (1863-1947, founder of the Ford Motor Company, supporter of anti-Semitic propaganda, financial backer of Adolf Hitler, see Max Wallace’s book American Axis, 2003) anti-Semitic newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, isolationism, hatred for the British, and anti-Semitism started to creep into the American political culture and lexicon.
In addition to this, in the wake of the Depression, the radio Priest Father Charles Coughlin, (1891-1979, Radio Priest from Detroit, publisher of Social Justice newspaper, re-printed famous Tsarist forgery “The Protocols of the Elder’s of Zion” an anti-Semitic series of lies, and founded the “Christian Front.) started to broadcast anti-Semitic ravings to an audience of millions. Along with his diatribes, American neo-fascist groups like the Silver Shirts started to attract members all over the heartland of America. Even in the New York City area of Yorkville, the German-American Bund started to emerge as a para-military political and social threat.
As we know FDR was elected President in 1932 and when he took office on March 4, 1933, he was focused on stopping the emerging panic as banks began to close all over the United States. Business collapses, farm foreclosures, bank closings, Hooverville shantytowns, breadlines, and 30% unemployment started to cause economic gridlock, and if action wasn’t initiated with a sense or urgency and immediacy the country could face civil insurrection and collapse.
Turning first to his economic advisors called the Brain Trust, FDR closed the Banks, restructured their debt, and started on what is called today the “100 Days.” As part of this activity he called upon Felix Frankfurter, of the Harvard Law School to start sending young lawyers down to Washington to staff the emerging New Deal. Roosevelt used many of the young Jewish lawyers, labor leaders and intellectuals to change the face and direction of government. People like Herbert Wechsler, David Reisman, Robert Stern, Paul Freund, Milton Katz, Milton Freeman. Charles Kaufman, Arthur Goldschmidt, Wilbur Cohen, Edward Bernstein, Abe Fortas, Dorothy Rosenmen, Jerome Frank, David Lilienthal, Isador Lubin, Nathan Margold, Lee Pressman and Paul Herzog among many others became famous as Felix’s hotdogs.
FDR also leaned on his strong relationship with Jews throughout his whole political life: Bernard Baruch, Henry Morgenthau, his Secretary of Treasury, David Niles, Anna Rosenberg (1902-83, Assistant Secretary of Defense 1950, first woman to reach that level at the Defense Department), Herbert Lehman, (1878-1963). Lt.Governor and Governor of New York, (1929-32, 1933-42) later US Senator, (1949-57) and the aforementioned Frankfurter, Ben Cohen, and Judge Rosenman.
Jews made up 3% of the United States’ population in the 1930’s but the New Deal, called the “Jew Deal” by anti-Semites, who often referred to FDR as that Jew “Rosenfelt,” but made up 15% of his administration. (FDR was elected with approximately 70% of the Jewish vote in 1932, and by 1944 he received over 93% of that vote.)
FDR’s willingness to work closely with Jews and even had them routinely staying with him at the White House or Hyde Park seemed to puzzle his most admiring neighbors. One of them did his earnest best to explain this phenomenon to his son- “It just goes to show you how smart FDR is to have all those smart Jews working for him!”
When the question was brought up about his ancestry, he stated, “In the dim distant past my ancestors may have been Jews, Catholics or Protestants, but what I am more interested in is whether they were good citizens and believed in G-D. I hope they were both. (His Dutch progenitor was one Claes von Rosenvelt.)
With regard to foreign policy, as it related to Jews, Roosevelt quite often leaned upon his personal relationship with Rabbi Stephen Wise (1862-1949, influential American Jewish leader). Wise brought up the subject of Jewish immigration with FDR as early as 1933 and the unfilled immigration quotas. But immigration was an extremely sensitive issue in the United States during the Depression Years. Roosevelt was sympathetic to the plight of the Jews, the Zionist hope for a homeland in Palestine, and the general crisis of the Jews in Germany. But domestic issues precluded any United States government activity at that time.
As Hitler consolidated his power in Germany more and more anti-Semitic legislation was drafted and passed in Germany. This intense climate of persecution started to cause Jewish emigration out of Germany. By the start of World War II almost 80% of all German Jews had left. There were German Jews that remained for many reasons. Many older Jews could not pick up and leave. Many would not abandon their generational roots. Many believed that this period would pass. My grandfather John Kivo (1884-1972) was an experienced world traveler in that period of the 20th Century. He had extensive business interests in Germany, was fluent in German and traveled there often in the period up to Kristallnacht. He told me first hand about his observations while riding on the trains of Germany and walking through the streets of some of the small manufacturing towns (Sebnitz was one I can remember). He observed anti-Semitic graffiti painted on the bridges, as his train proceeded along one of Germany’s rivers. I can recall distinctly him telling me that he read “Juden Todt.” and other epithets boldly painted on the bridge facades facing the train. When I asked him what his German-Jewish business colleagues said about the early Nazi horror stories that were reaching the West, they seemed to believe that this was all “politics” and that it would pass eventually. Of course it did not pass!
In and out of the United States, there was conflict in the Jewish community over what direction immigration should take. Many Zionist-leaning-Jews did not want vast immigration to the United States, but wanted any and all Jews to go to Palestine. They felt, without the resulting influx of large numbers of European Jews, there would be no future Jewish State! During that period there was a massive international Jewish effort to see the establishment of an independent Jewish State. That eventual state would solve the immigration question regarding the Nazi regime’s desire to deport all Jews from Germany. Of course there was massive opposition from the Arabs who shared the Mandate area. The British were also vigorously opposed to any “real” Jewish immigration into the Mandate area. They were afraid of disrupting the “religious” balance that currently existed, and they feared the reaction of other Arabs. The British were dependent on Arab oil concessions in Iraq and felt that any easing of the immigration quotas regarding European Jews would be disastrous to their interests. So generally speaking there were some changes regarding immigration, but they were much too small to address the coming crisis. Later on this issue of a Jewish Homeland would come up in American domestic politics. FDR steadfastly supported this issue throughout most of his career. American Zionists led by Stephen Wise, Abba Hillel Silver, (1893-1963 US Rabbi, Zionist Leader, chief spokesman in front of the UN on the Palestine Hearings, 1947) Julian W. Mack (1866-1943, American jurist and Zionist leader) and behind the scenes Louis D. Brandeis, (1856-1941, Supreme Court Justice 1916-1939, Zionist advocate) for the most part considered FDR a friend to their cause. During World War II meetings with the British (The Bermuda Refugee Conference of 1943) they insisted that Palestine not be even on the agenda. In the last few months of his life, and after the Yalta Conference in the Crimea, he met with King Ibn Sa’ud, who impressed on him the Arab hostility towards Zionism. In his report to Congress on March 1, 1945, Roosevelt declared that he had learned “more about the “Moslem problem, the Jewish problem, by talking with Ibn Sa’ud for five minutes” than he had ever known before. (Franklin D. Roosevelt his Life and Times, edited by Otis Graham Jr. and Meghan Robinson Wander, GK Hall & Co., 1985.)
Of course, in the last few months of his life, FDR did assure both the Zionists in America of his continued support and the British and the Arabs that he would not unilaterally force a Zionist state on them without their consent. This dualism is not easily answered. In a sense FDR was continuing his balancing act with his British Allies. He understood their deep reliance on both India and their long relationship with the Arabs. Certainly he wanted not to threaten their unity with extraneous issues not related to winning the war in both Europe and Japan. He was unaware that the Atomic Bomb would be successfully tested in the coming months, and therefore he looked forward to a long bitter and bloody struggle to subdue and conquer Japan. Roosevelt was also exhausted by his 12,000+ mile trip back and forth to Yalta. FDR, by that time ad been quite sick for almost a year, and the stress regarding his campaign for re-election in 1944 and the pressures of the war were taking a great toll on him. In a sense he was trying to focus on the continued effort leading to victory and he would let nothing else interfere with that goal.
In America there was great opposition to any type of emigration during the Depression, because of welfare, unemployment, and the opposition of the labor unions. There also has been an ongoing controversy over how much the American Jewish community did for European Jewry before the war. In 1984, a commission, Chaired by former UN Ambassador and Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg, (1908-1990, Secretary of Labor 1961, Supreme Court Justice 1962-65, UN Ambassador 1965-8) came to the stark conclusion that American Jewish groups did not do enough. Though there was controversy over the harshness of the report, the final report, approved by the commission and written by Professor Seymour Finger (1915-1990, Head of International Studies at CCNY 1972-81, former diplomat, Senior Fellow at the Ralph Bunche Institute, author of American Jewry in the Holocaust, 1984) of the Graduate School of the City University, concluded that the failure of Jewish organizations was a result of disunity, under-financing, and lack of political influence. Moreover their leaders were afraid of stirring up anti-Semitism in the United States and impeding the Allied war effort. Ambassador Goldberg said, “that the failure to act forcefully hurt most in the years between Hitler’s ascent to power and America’s entry into WWII.” Again this was a consequence that resulted from a “divided” Jewish community. Some were like all Americans; they did not want more hungry-mouthed immigrants. Others, feeling the sting of American anti-Semitism, feared an escalation of hatred coming from xenophobic anti-Semitic nativist groups. There were also some, but very few, who were prejudiced against Eastern European Jews.
With respect to America’s xenophobia regarding the Jews, immigration and our entrance into World War II short of being attacked, in 1937 two out of five Americans voiced anti-Jewish sentiment. In March of 1938, 41% of Americans believed that Jews had too much power, and 50% believed that they were to blame for their own persecution. After the German invasion of Austria and the resulting Anschluss, FDR asked for a greater expansion of the German immigration quota, Congress rebuffed him. Regarding this effort, when Congressmen Emmanuel Cellar of NY, and Adolph Sabath (1866-1952, Member of Congress for 44 years) of Ill., introduced a bill to increase the quota, they were told by their southern colleagues, that if they continued their efforts, the quota would be removed by Congress. Their bill was withdrawn. Ironically when there was talk of opening the quotas or increasing them, almost all of the European countries demanded an “equal” opportunity to deport their “Jews” to the United States. In a sense it spread the virus of “Judenrein” which the Nazis had originally authored. When Senator Robert F. Wagner, Sr., (1877-1953, US Senator from NY 1927-49) proposed a bill, with Congresswoman Edith Rogers, to bring German refugee children into the United States (20,000 who were understood to be almost all Jewish), the bill was forced to be withdrawn for lack of support. Later a bill to allow English children to come to the United States sailed through without opposition.
In fact, Harry S Truman, (1884-1972, President of the United States 1945-53) a man revered by many Jews as a great friend of the Jewish people and the one who recognized the State of Israel, was from a virulently anti-Semitic background. Even though he had a Jewish partner in the haberdashery business, named Eddie Jacobson, (1891-1955) he was never far from his anti-Semitic roots, as his letters attest. He had only a “cordial relationship with Jacobson- but (later) needed Jews for the 1948 nomination.” (Harry Truman and the Crisis Presidency, Bert Cochran, Harper & Row, 1973, page 96)
Even Truman, when President, was told of the vast, but still generally hidden evidence of the massive killing machines of the “death camps,” initially stated, that “the Jews brought it upon themselves!” (Recently quoted from an article by William Safire, in The NY Times in the summer of 2003.)
Of course Truman also said “The Jews claim G-d Almighty picked ‘em out for special privilege. Well I’m sure he had better judgment. Fact is I never thought G-d picked any favorites.” (Off the Record– The Private Papers of Harry S. Truman, edited by Robert Ferrell- Penguin Books, 1980, page 41.)
“Miami is nothing but hotels, filling stations, Hebrews and cabins.” (Truman, by David McCullough, Simon and Shuster, 1992, page 286)
Bluma Jacobson, Eddie’s wife said “Eddie and I were never at the Truman’s house.” (Plain Speaking, by Merle Miller, GP Putnam, 1973)
“Truman courts the Jews, and had David Bernstein, a prominent Zionist (from Missouri) on the 1948 campaign committee.” (Harry Truman–and the Crisis Presidency, Bert Cochran, Harper & Row, 1973, page 96).
“Truman had grown weary of the constant pressure exerted by the American Zionists. Truman announced he no longer believed in resolution aiming at the creation of a Jewish State.” (A History of Zionism, by Walter Laqueur, Holt-Rinehart, 1972, page 570.) And of course this was after Truman had learned of the disaster of the Holocaust.
Americans were so opposed to intervening on behalf of Britain, that in the last Gallup Poll taken before the attack on Pearl Harbor, 90% of the public said that American should not physically help Britain even it meant their invasion and collapse! Actually between 1933 and 1937 only 40,000 Jews came legally to the United States, Of course many had left Germany for other countries, never expecting their lives to be threatened outside of Hitler’s grasp. They never anticipated a world war and they surely never expected to be victims of the “Final Solution.” After Kristallnacht, almost all Jews filled the American national origin quota and over 110,000 Jews legally immigrated to the United States. In fact during those years over half of the immigrants to the United States were Jewish. There was also much illegal immigration and the administration did not make an effort to prevent it from happening.
From a political perspective Roosevelt was being attacked from all quarters on his international positions. Knowing the American people were against any type of immigration he urged the British to allow more Jews into Palestine. In that regard FDR attempted to bring worldwide attention to the need to find places of refuge for Jewish immigrants. In 1938, President Roosevelt proposed a major conference to discuss aiding refugees, and the United States invited twenty-nine nations to meet that summer at Evian-les-Baines, France. But nothing of value came from the meeting. Of course there was no war going on, so there was no concept of an immediate threat to the life and limb of European Jewry.
As early as 1924 there were very strict immigration laws regarding national origin. In 1930, because of the severity of the economic depression, President Herbert Hoover ordered the State Department, whose Consular Division issued entry visas to applicants, to be quite strict in enforcing restrictions against persons “likely to be become a public charge.” Unfortunately when it came to Jews these actions were taken with unusual severity. Under FDR, Breckinridge Long, (1881-1958) who headed that division of the State Department, and who had wide spread Congressional support, exercised tremendous prejudice against Jews when it came to visa applications. He did not believe that there was a “universal right of anyone to enter the United States.” The Roosevelt Administration admitted over 90,000 German Jews, about 18 percent of the Jewish prewar German population. Long disliked and resented Jewish and Catholic leaders and felt they all hated him. In the summer of 1940 he wrote a memo to James Dunn and Adolph Berle (1895-1971,former member of the “Brain Trust”, asst. Secretary of State 1938-44) that he advised our counselor people overseas to “put every obstacle in the away of and to require additional evidence and to resort to various administrative devices which would postpone, and postpone the granting of visas.” (Franklin Roosevelt, Champion of Freedom, Conrad Black, page 815.) Author Conrad Black believes that FDR must have been aware of Long’s actions. But of course there is no proof of that. But even though the Wannsee Meeting wasn’t to be held until 16 months later there was a profound amount of Nazi murders of Jews, and there was an opportunity during that period to get more Jews out of Europe.
Only when Secretary Morgenthau became aware of Long’s actions did he come straight to the President. With that knowledge at hand, FDR created by Executive Order the War Refugee Board. In January of 1944, this Board was to facilitate and attempt to rescue any and all refugees that could be reached. Again it is hard to believe that FDR was really aware of Long’s actions, and by that time (1942-3) there would be no real purpose for him to support those actions.
Of course the America’s mindset was preoccupied with domestic issues during the Great Depression, and when war clouds started to darken the European horizon with regard to the rise of totalitarian governments, FDR started his lonely effort to re-arm America, but faced constant opposition from an isolationist Congress. When he made his famous “Quarantine Speech,” in October of 1937, he called for the economic quarantine of “aggressor” nations through sanctions; he was vilified in the press. He was castigated in Congress and was threatened with impeachment. He was so rocked from the negative reviews, from friend and foe alike, that he was literally shocked into silence. The public was horrified that any President would have the foolishness to risk America getting into another European or foreign war.
Roosevelt understood the dual problem of a Nazi victory in Europe and the lack of preparedness in the United States. Of course up until the time of Kristallnacht only a few thousand Jews had been arrested and incarcerated in “concentration” camps, a term and a system invented and used by the British in dealing with Irish revolutionaries. But let us not underestimate the total disaster that Germany was becoming for the Jews. Even though relatively few had been killed, the Nazi State was systematically depriving Jews of almost everything from their ability to work, interact with others, freedom of movement and the raw basics of life. Eventually Jews, in Germany, would, with rare exceptions, be all rounded up and incarcerated in concentration camps. Not long after Kristallnacht, Hitler invaded Poland and World War II broke out in Europe, and as a result most of Europe’s Jewry would be trapped forever in Eastern Europe beyond the Oder Rover. We now know that one of the ultimate war plans of Hitler and his Nazi cohorts was the elimination of European Jewry. In her well regarded and documented book The War Against the Jews. Lucy Dawidowicz outlines the massive effort to kill Jews even when the war was apparently lost. The late Ms. Dawidowicz was able to systematically trace the development of the Nazi plan to eliminate European Jewry. She shows how the Nazis were willing to sacrifice military objectives to facilitate the “war aim” of killing Jews. Therefore, nothing short of total victory against the Nazis would alleviate the threat against the remaining Jews under their control. Most of the Jews were killed in the last two years of the war, as they were a people living in hostile lands, and caught between two surging armies and retreating armies. The vast numbers of European Jews lived mostly in Poland, Lithuania, the USSR, Hungary and Romania. They were far beyond the reach of allied armies. When the Nazis started their murderous campaign against the Jews it was done by forward units of the SS called Einsatzgruppen. This monstrous campaign tied up thousands of soldiers and ordinance, and in actuality it wound up being psychologically debilitating to many of those who carried out those heinous acts. For those issues of morale and logistics the “death camps” were designed. Of course this also enabled the Nazis to maintain much more control over the “truth” regarding their actions. By forcing millions eastward by train, they were able to convince most that these activities were part of a re-settlement program. With the construction of these “death camps” a veil of secrecy descended over their true motives and actions.
“In the post-war years men who had held leading positions in the Jewish community in Germany expressed remorse for their underestimation of the threat that National Socialism posed to Jewish existence, for their unrealistic optimism, for their failure to foresee the outlines of the Final Solution. They blamed themselves for not having urged early and total emigration and for the consequent loss of thousands of lives.” Lucy Dawidowicz, (The War Against the Jews 1933-45, Penguin Books, 1975, page 415).
According to Martin Gilbert, (1936- ) the renowned British historian, and greatest living expert on the Holocaust, even though the Allies knew that Jews were being killed and that there were “death camps’ that were facilitating that effort, the location of the main terminus at Auschwitz-Birkenau was never identified until mid 1944. After an incredible effort staged by volunteers of the Jewish Agency to penetrate the transportation cattle cars, evidence reached the World Jewish Congress. With this evidence, the Jewish Congress was able to warn the Allies about the Nazi’s intentions to deport the 400,000 Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz. This was the last large remaining group of Jews to be deported. Warnings went out by President Roosevelt and with simultaneous and coincidental bombings of Budapest and many of their public buildings, the Hungarian Fascist government did attempt to slow down the deportation. But later on, after a hiatus of a few months, and under pressure from the German authorities, and the overthrow of the Hungarian Regent Admiral Horthy (1868-1957, Regent of Hungary until 1944), deportations began with earnest.
With regard to the issue of possible Allied bombing of “death camps,” in retrospect, there is no evidence that either the bombing of Auschwitz would have ended the killing or even retarded it. Mainstream Jewish opinion was against the bombing of the those facilities even after they were identified as “death camps’ rather than as “work camps.” Only President Roosevelt or General Eisenhower could have ordered the bombing and there is no record of any kind that indicates that either one was ever asked to issue such an order, even though Jewish leaders of all persuasion had clear access to them both. In a similar vein, the bombing raids on the IG Farben/Monowitz production plants succeeded in hitting only 2.2% of the targeted buildings. Gilbert points out that the details and the secret nature of Auschwitz and even its name were not confirmed until the escape of two prisoners in April 1944, two years after the murderous process had begun. It would be folly to believe that FDR was besieged by Jewish leaders led by Secretary Morgenthau urging him to bomb Auschwitz. In fact no mainstream Jewish leader or organization made that request. On August 9, 1944, the first such request came to John McCloy, (1895-1989) the Assistant Secretary of War (1941-5), regarding the bombing of Auschwitz, by Leon Kubowitzki, head of the Rescue Committee of the World Jewish Congress, in which he forwarded, without endorsement, a request from Mr. Ernest Frischer of the Czechoslovak State Council (in London exile.) Ironically Mr. Kubowitzki argued against the bombing of Auschwitz because “the first victims will be Jews.” With regard to whether John McCloy ever actually asked FDR about the bombing, there is no evidence of any meeting and no evidence in any of his extensive interviews or in his personal papers that the subject was brought up. But, in a recent book, The Conquerors by Michael Beschloss, he asserts that John McCloy had told Henry Morgenthau III, that he had asked FDR about bombing the camps.
“By early June, when over one-third of the remaining Hungarian Jewish community had been deported to Auschwitz, Jacob Rosenheim, a leader of the world’s orthodox Jews, and others wrote Morgenthau, the War Department and Joseph Pehle of the War Refugee Board imploring them to bomb the railway lines from Hungary to the death camp at Auschwitz.” Joseph Pehle, who was a great advocate for the Jews, wrote McCloy expressing his doubts about the about bombing of Auschwitz. The War Refugee Board determined that the bombing of the tracks would do little to stop the killing, because they would be swiftly repaired. Later McCloy used about the same language and rationale to veto any further requests to bomb Auschwitz itself. (The Conquerors, by Michael Beschloss, page 64.)
For decades after World War II, McCloy insisted that he had never talked to the President on that subject. He told Washington Post reporter Morton Mintz in 1983 that he never talked with FDR about the subject. Even David Wyman in his 1984 book, The Abandonment of the Jews, wrote that the bombing requests “almost certainly” did not reach Roosevelt. Later McCloy, in an interview in 1986, three years before his death, had an unpublished exchange with Henry Morgenthau III, who was researching his book, Mostly Morganthaus, claimed that he had spoken to FDR about the bombing of Auschwitz, Supposedly FDR “made it very clear” to him that the bombing would do no good, and “we would have been accused of destroying Auschwitz by bombing these innocent people.” Of course McCloy was telling this to Morgenthau’s son, decades after his father, Henry Jr. had referred to him as an “oppressor of the Jews.” Maybe McCloy’s true feelings were exposed when he also stated to Morganthau’s son, “I didn’t want to bomb Auschwitz…It seemed to be a bunch of fanatic Jews who deemed that if you didn’t bomb, it was an indication of lack of venom against Hitler…” (The Conquerors, Michael Beschloss, page 65-7.)
Of course the reading of the aforementioned transcript of the McCloy-Morgenthau interview nowhere mentions any conversation regarding the request to bomb Auschwitz!
(Comments on Michael Beschloss’ The Conquerors, by William vanden Heuval) The exact quote was the following
Henry Morgenthau III: “But didn’t he ‘Morgenthau’ get involved in the bombing of Auschwitz that was all ex post facto.
John McCloy: “They came to me and wanted me to order the bombing of Auschwitz. He ‘Morgenthau’ wasn’t involved in that nor was the President…”
Auschwitz was raised peripherally as the conversation with Mr. McCloy was about to end. He was 88 years old –never in all of the extensive interviews he gave in his life, nor in his papers, is there any indication of his ever discussing the bombing question with the President. Henry Morgenthau III never cited the interview in the family memoir nor in his frequent public appearances in discussions relating to the Holocaust.” (Comments on the Michael Beschloss’ The Conquerors, by William vanden Heuval.)
David Ben-Gurion, (1886-1973, Prime Minister of Israel 1949-63) the Chairman of the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem, and later the first Prime Minister of Israel, in June of 1944, responded to a proposal that the Allies be asked to bomb the extermination camps. At a meeting presided over by Ben-Gurion, the Jewish Agency voted eleven to one against the bombing proposal.
There is no doubt that according to intelligent reports, “It is clear from this analysis that nothing was known by those (Allied Combined Intelligence Unit who prepared a Top Secret report on the principal sites of German synthetic oil production. At Auschwitz-Monowitz. It was clear, ‘progress has been made with the construction’ of the Buna plant.”) who made it of the purpose, or role of Birkenau and it’s sidings.” (Auschwitz and the Allies, by Martin Gilbert, Henry Holt, 1981, page 331.)
In other words there were many air reconnaissance photos taken over the area that included Auschwitz, and there were also numerous raids, late in 1944, directed at the various known industrial plants in the near vicinity, like the synthetic oil production plant at Monowitz. But unfortunately when Allied long-range bombers were able to make flights from our airbase in Foggia, Italy, with log-range fighter support, they were unaware of what was going on down below in the “death camps.” Could they then have bombed the marshalling yards at Birkenau? Yes, they could have, but by that time all activity had really ceased and the Germans by November 29, 1944 were dismantling the crematoria at Auschwitz, and making efforts to re-locate, or kill the balance of the Jews that remained. By the December 27th roll call, 18,751 Jews remained. In fact during some of those late December days when the crematoria was being dismantled, errant bombs dropped by Allied raiders did hit Auschwitz killing some German guards.
Also, with regard to the bombing of railroad tracks, leading to any of the known “death camps,” no Axis trains were able to run during daylight, for fear of destruction from the air. Tracks were virtually impossible to hit from high-level strategic bombing. Even when individual tracks were hit and destroyed they were almost immediately repaired. Low-level medium bomber and fighters had a greater effect on rail lines but they did not have the range to hit rail targets in Poland. Most of the important railroad destruction came with massive continual strategic daylight bombing of marshalling yards near railroad stations. The effect on this type of bombing was worthwhile, but German work crews, numbering thousands, would spend the nights repairing these yards. Remember, as Martin Gilbert points out, “the details and even the name of Auschwitz were not confirmed until the escape of two prisoners in April, 1944. The Nazis treated the Auschwitz, like every other extermination camp, as a top-secret project.
Franklin Roosevelt was a confirmed “German-hater.” He told the NY Times in August 1944 “if I had my way, I would keep Germany on a breadline for 25 years!” He wrote Cordell Hull, (1871-1955, US Secretary of State 1933-44) “Every person in Germany should realize that this time Germany is a defeated nation… and that the whole nation has been engaged in a lawless conspiracy against the decency of modern civilization.” It was FDR who advocated, against the wishes of Winston Churchill (1874-1965) the policy of “unconditional surrender” and a tough peace. He said that Germany should be dismembered and their leaders punished. Roosevelt never rejected the “Morgenthau Plan” that called for the economic destruction of post-war Germany, authored by Henry M. Morgenthau. Even when Secretary of War Stimson (1867-1950, US Secretary of War 1940-45) took a softer line and complained about its brutality to the President, he found FDR unwavering in its support, for the concept of a destroyed industrial state, surviving only on agriculture. Whether the plan was sensible or not, or whether the plan was even viable, Truman scrapped the plan and accused Morgenthau of Jewish vindictiveness.
Of course after FDR’s death and Truman’s swearing in, a period of obvious transition was set in motion. When James Byrnes was sworn in as the new Secretary of State in July of 1945, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson had a heart to heart talk with Truman about Germany. He warned Truman about the problems of occupying that defeated country, and also warned him about “the problem of our Jewish people here.” In other words he was reinforcing the future “isolation” of Henry Morgenthau, especially on the issue of Germany and vengeance. He also warned Truman against Bernard Baruch’s demand for harsher treatment of Germany. Truman remarked that the Jews were “all alike.” They couldn’t keep themselves from meddling in the German question. Stimson told him that from now on he should start ignoring Morgenthau on Germany. When Truman invited Stimson to the Big Three conference, he stated, “Don’t worry. Neither Morgenthau, nor Baruch, nor any of the Jew boys will be going to Potsdam. (The Conquerors, Michael Beschloss, page 246.)
For sure Roosevelt never talked in that manner or believed in that way. He had allowed Secretary of Treasury Morgenthau to attend the Quebec Conference, and to promote his idea, the Morgenthau Plan, for the dismantling and dismemberment of Germany and turning it into a collection of agricultural states. Of course whether that really would have happened is pure conjecture. FDR did listen to Morgenthau and his ideas on Germany. FDR was the sole author and original advocate of the “unconditional surrender” edict, against Churchill’s wishes. When the news of the Quebec Conference was revealed to the world, Joseph Goebbels, (1897-1945) the Propaganda Minister of Nazi Germany, exploited the news from Quebec and the revelation of the Morgenthau Plan and Churchill’s endorsement. No matter how it was accomplished, Churchill initialed the Morgenthau Plan for post-war Germany. Goebbels claimed, “Roosevelt and Churchill agreed to the Jewish murder plan.” German radio announced that Roosevelt’s “bosom” friend Henry Morgenthau, the “spokesman of world Judaism” was singing the same song as the Jews in the Kremlin,”- dismember Germany, destroy its industry and “exterminate forty-three million Germans.” (The Conquerors, by Michael Beschloss, page 144.)
As events turned out, with FDR’s death, and the development of the Atomic Bomb, along with the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, Morgenthau’s Plan would have probably been “ dead in the water.” FDR also understood the changing realities in Europe as the war there was coming to a halt. But he was totally unaware of the Atomic bomb being able to work, and he always thought that he could handle Stalin, in a way, to forestall a fractured peace and a divided Europe and world.
The claim is false that FDR did not identify Jews specifically in the repeated Allied war warnings that the Nazis, collectively and individually, would be held accountable for their barbaric crimes. There was a time earlier in the war when it was thought best not to identify the Jews specifically in the reporting of Nazi crimes. Interestingly it was Churchill who started this practice of not drawing attention to the Jews, for fear it would be seen as special pleading and would fuel Nazi propaganda.
“In 1942 FDR made it clear through governmental statements and messages to the mass rallies organized in those years that Nazis would be held collectively and individually accountable for their crimes against the Jews.” Even with this strong statement Rabbi Stephen Wise, head of the American Jewish Congress, prevailed upon Felix Frankfurter to visit with FDR in September of 1942 and to remonstrate with the President. According to Frankfurter the President had assured him that most of the deportations of Jews was for forced labor. The decision to exterminate every Jew in Europe, and millions of others was only taken at Wannsee in January 1942, when all doors had been closed… (Franklin D. Roosevelt, Champion of Freedom, Conrad Black, page 815). (I have no idea over the veracity of this account. FDR certainly knew this was not true as indicated by his June 1942 statement, and by the various news reports. Also Frankfurter knew it was not true that there were mostly deportations for the purpose of forced labor.)
In 1944 FDR, in his statement to the people of the United States and of Europe, March 24th, said, “In one of the blackest crimes of all history—begun by the Nazis in the days of peace and multiplied by them a hundred times in time of war- the wholesale systematic murder of the Jews of Europe goes unabated every hour…it is therefore fitting that we should proclaim our determination that none who participate in these acts of savagery shall go unpunished…That warning applies not only to the leaders but also to their functionaries and subordinates in Germany and in the satellite countries. All who knowingly take part in the deportation of Jews to their death in Poland or Norwegians and French to their death in Germany are equally guilty with the executioner. All who share the guilt shall share the punishment.” (Comments on Michael Beschloss’ The Conquerors, by William vanden Heauval.
In summation, what motivated FDR’s thinking? FDR in the second half of his life had few personal friends, and was obviously a product of American aristocracy? He was brought up in a privileged atmosphere like few other Americans. He was educated at the best private schools usually reserved for the financially and socially elite. (Again see The Chosen and Stand Columbia.)
Through all of this, he probably went through an epiphany with regards to his crippling by polio. He was always a Democrat like his father, and became a progressive like his famous cousin Theodore Roosevelt. He learned about the disadvantaged through his wife’s social concerns, and his experience in New York State politics with the reformer Al Smith. He understood the politics regarding minorities that made up New York, and he learned principles from his association with Woodrow Wilson. Through his life he indulged in some small examples of class prejudice, but all in all, through his vast collections of letters, both personal and private, there is no real example of bigotry. With regard to his associations with Jews they were novel and advanced for the period. He had an “open” friendship with Henry Morgenthau who served in his cabinet for 12 years. Morgenthau suffered, in the cabinet, from being a Jew and a confidant of FDR. Many of his contemporaries felt they could not deal with him and FDR on an even footing. Secretary Morgenthau, for those and many other reasons, felt quite insecure in Washington, and never even bought a house there. He lived in a rented apartment during his 12+ years in Washington. He was not a religious man, and like many German-Jewish upper class Americans of his day, he wanted to be considered 100% American. In his son’s book Mostly Morgenthau, this attitude is stressed over and over. He, like many of his family and his peers, felt much more comfortable assimilated within the mainstream of America than with the poor immigrant co-religionists flocking in from Europe. One can feel the sense of loneliness of being a stranger in a strange land when one reads Max Frankel’s account of his early days, in the late 1930’s, as a young Jewish immigrant in New York, in his autobiography The Times of My Life and My Life with The Times.
FDR appointed many, many Jews to high office, and had a comfortable, but distant relationship with most of his contemporaries. FDR was a secretive man, who always said, “I never let the right hand know what the left hand is doing.” He had a small circle of intimates who loyally worked for him. Almost all were paragons of discretion. He trusted Jews and one of his most famous statements came when he was asked about whether Truman would be acceptable as a vice-presidential running mate (in 1944). He said “Clear it with Sidney!” (Sidney “Simcha” Hillman, president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, a labor advisor to FDR, and director of the CIO-Pac.)
With regard to politics, FDR was a bold man, but could be described as James McGregor Burns did, as being the combination of the “lion and the fox.” FDR knew innately, from his long and agonizing experience with Woodrow Wilson, regarding his last months in office, that if a politician gets too far ahead of his constituents, and looks over his shoulder and sees no one following, he is in trouble. FDR knew also from his experience in World War I and the struggles over the League of Nations, that alliances are fragile. FDR understood the need to build a unified people for the war against totalitarianism, and he also knew the difficulty of keeping the Allies together. FDR thoughts were always focused on the defeat of the Nazis and the Japanese aggressors. He also knew that the public would not fully back a war to “save the Jews!” Quite often he heard feedback that American participation in the war was being egged on by the Jews and the British. Long before Pearl Harbor, he was hearing this every day first hand from the popular Charles Lindbergh (1902-1972) and his American First Group and his Liberty Lobby allies. FDR fought an undeclared war against German U-Boats in the Atlantic, and stated in his Four Freedom’s State of the Union Speech of January 6, 1941, that the ultimate security of the United States would depend on an Allied victory over fascism. Aware of the public’s fear of direct involvement in the war, Roosevelt carefully avoided any open statement regarding an intention to intervene in the conflict. This combination of pragmatism and idealism characterizing this famous speech epitomized Roosevelt’s public style.
Later that year FDR met with Winston Churchill on the cruiser Augusta off Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, and authored the framework of the Atlantic Charter. This remarkable meeting and document set the course for future conferences during the war and for the eventual victory that came in 1945.
In summation, with all we know today, could the Holocaust been avoided? Could many more Jews have been saved? Who bares responsibility for this chain of events that destroyed not only 6 million Jews, but also 61 million others? Was the West partially at fault?
Only the early destruction of Hitler and his Nazi brigands could have prevented most, if not the entire Holocaust. How that could have been accomplished will be debated forever. Could the West have saved more Jews? Yes! Could the West have saved more of the eastern Jewish community? In most cases very little of the eastern European Jewish community could have been saved. Would massive bombing of the “death camps” saved Jews? In retrospect the destruction of Auschwitz would have backed up the timetable of death quite a bit. Would that have helped? Probably so! But, all in all, Lucy Dawidowicz states that “killing the Jews” was a war aim of the Nazis and nothing but destroying the Nazis would have put a halt to that effort. Certainly once the war was begun, and Europe was overrun little could be done. But French complicity in the hunting down, and deportation of Jews is a great stain on the West. Also the fact that the French hid behind their so-called vaunted Maginot Line, when Germany attacked Poland contributed to the success of Germany and sealed the fate of Europe’s Jews.
In retrospect there some obvious conclusions that can be drawn regarding the above questions. More Jews could have been rescued by a greater effort by the United States. Every extra Jew saved would have been a “blessing,” but attitudes in America, from all quarters, were against immigration, certainly not pro-Jewish and certainly against a unilateral effort by the President to get us into the war, especially on behalf of the Jews. Divided Jewish thinking in this country also hindered the effort to change public opinion to force a greater and more overt effort to rescue Jews. Unfortunately there were very, very few Jews who had the opportunity to be rescued after the beginning of hostilities in September of 1939. Could more Jews have been rescued by an easing of immigration laws from Eastern Europe? Probably not! They had no access to freedom, they were overrun quickly in Poland, and they had little help from unfriendly fascist allied governments in the neighboring countries. In the Soviet Union they had no thoughts or ability to leave Russia or the Ukraine even if they wanted to.
Was the President complicit in a “secret” conspiracy to keep Jews out of the United States? Assuredly no! FDR was again much more focused on the problem of keeping England in the war against Germany. All of his efforts were to keep the Congress and the military supplying Britain with the “tools of war.” He knew that he must make America “The Arsenal of Democracy” first.
Were the Jews a victim of domestic American politics? There is no doubt that FDR, under the pressure from the America First xenophobes, who were loosely aligned with the Liberty Lobby, and other anti-interventionist groups, understood the problem facing the future of the United States. He also knew that to make an issue out of Jewish immigration, or to be seen as leaning over to help non-English speaking foreigners was political suicide. He felt that he needed to be able to build an argument based on American self-interest. Would an effort by him to ease Jewish or other refugee immigration restrictions hurt his re-election bid in 1940? Probably yes! Even later in the war when the effort was made to bring Jewish children into the country on a humanitarian basis, the Congress balked. On the other hand, the Congress never balked when it came to British children. Roosevelt only ran for a third term with the idea of being the only one who could eventually save this country from eventually falling under the “boot” of fascist oppression. In retrospect none of the contenders for the nomination of the presidency in 1940 had shown any proclivity, in their careers, to be pro-Jewish or certainly pro-interventionist. Whether his successor would have been Taft, Willkie, Garner, Farley, or someone else, there was no indication that anyone of them would have even continued support for Britain, no less worked to ease immigration quotas. Roosevelt took great risks opposing the “neutrality” laws, backing “Lend-Lease,” arming our freighters and sending out our fleet into the Atlantic to fight an undeclared naval war against Germany. But until Pearl Harbor the America public stood wholeheartedly against going to war, no matter how great the potential threat. After Pearl Harbor all things changed. The United States, under the inspirational leadership of Franklin D. Roosevelt was able to mobilize and unite the country into a mighty force.
Of course in the words once said by Winston Churchill, “Franklin Roosevelt was the greatest man he had ever known.” President Roosevelt’s life, he said, must be regarded as “one of the commanding events of human destiny.”
FDR, the Soldier of Freedom, the author of the Atlantic Charter, the creator of the Arsenal of Democracy, the initiator of Lend-Lease, and the architect of world-wide victory over the forces of darkness and evil was the key player and force in producing the effort that saved all of our lives here today. Without his leadership and immense effort, the war would probably have been lost. No Jew would have been safe in the new or the old world. Israel would have never existed and the western culture as we know it would have been snuffed out as a new Dark Age emerged.
FDR, His Life and Times, an Encyclopedic View, edited by Otis L. Graham Meghan Robinson Wander, 1985, GK Hall
The Making of the New Deal, edited by Katie Louchheim, 1983, Harvard Press
The Roosevelt: Lion and the Fox, James Macgregor Burns, 1956 Harcourt Brace
The Soldier of Freedom, James MacGregor Burns, 1970, Harcourt Brace
The Roosevelt Chronicles, Nathan Miller, 1979, Doubleday
FDR, a Biography, Ted Morgan, 1985, Simon and Shuster
Dealers and Dreamers, Joseph Lash, 1988, Doubleday
Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy 1932-4, Robert Dallek, 1979, Oxford University Press
Before the Trumpet, Young Franklin Roosevelt 1882-1905, Geoffrey C. Ward, 1985 Harper and Row
A First Class Temperment, the Emergence of Franklin Roosevelt, Geoffrey C. Ward, 1989, Harper & Row
Franklin D. Roosevelt, A Rendezvous with Destiny, Frank Friedel, 1990, Little Brown
Comments on Michael Beschloss’ The Conquerors, by William vanden Heuval, Roosevelt Institute, March 2003 Newsletter
Article: US Jewry Faulted in Holocaust Report, NY Times, March 21, 1984
The Jewish Week-American Examiner- Letter to the Editor, February 21, 1982
The War Against the Jews –Lucy Dawidowicz, 1977 Penguin Books
World War II– Martin Gilbert, 1989, Henry Holt
The Allies and Auschwitz-Martin Gilbert, 1981 Owl Book
Mostly Morgenthau– Henry Morgenthau III, 1991, Tichnor-Fields
The Conquerors-Michael Beschloss, 2002, Simon & Shuster
The Times of My Life and My Life with the Times, Max Frankel, 1999, Random House
Donovan, America’s Master Spy, Richard Dunlap, 1982 Rand McNally,
Franklin D. Roosevelt, Champion of Liberty, Conrad Black, 2003, Public Affairs NY