After a lifetime of reading, collecting Rooseveltia, and listening to commentary on Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his career, I have come to three distinct conclusions. The first and foremost conclusion is that FDR was the greatest friend the Jewish people have ever had. The second conclusion is that Roosevelt haters, inside and outside, the Jewish community have an unfounded, specious, political agenda in sullying his name. The third conclusion is that the amount of uninformed people who comment on FDR and his legacy has grown and is a product of misconception, rumor, anti-Semitism, anti-liberalism and scapegoatism.
Paid professional provocateurs continue to publish half-truths and insinuations for their political and monetary agenda. They continually indulge in the fulmination of hatred and revisionist history. They rarely, if ever, consider the conditions at the time or the divisions within the country and the Jewish community on issues as radioactive as: immigration, neutrality, religious toleration and acceptance. They take advantage of innate Jewish insecurities and the fears of some of the members of the Jewish community regarding assimilation and its liberal roots. As to inane assertions that off-handed remarks by FDR or anyone else, on race or religion is an indicator of one’s true feelings or politics is also ridiculous. I maintain that everyone has made an off-handed remark about someone at one time or another. The proof of that can be found in the words of two great friends of the Jewish people; Eleanor Roosevelt and Harry S Truman. There are ample examples of their lapses into prejudicial speech. But like FDR, talk, especially idle talk, is cheap. Actions speak louder than words. Their public record and actions, despite of the tenor and climate of their era, was overwhelmingly progressive, inclusive, and forward thinking.
As to FDR’s positions:
- FDR appointed more Jews to top positions in his administration than the previous 31 presidents combined and all the presidents combined after until Bill Clinton
- FDR confronted anti-Semitism, in and out, of his administration, and was an unintended victim of it himself
- FDR opposed the British White Paper of 1939, that severely limited Jewish immigration into Palestine
- FDR worked for international solutions to the problem of anti-Jewish bigotry and hatred within Germany and many Eastern European Countries
- FDR supported the establishment of a Jewish State in Palestine, despite the opposition of the British, the oil interests, and postwar need for Arab oil.
- FDR, through his influence with the Catholic Church, silenced Father Coughlin and his anti-Semitic diatribes
- FDR supported the politically unpopular “Morgenthau Plan” for the post war dismantling of Germany and forced Churchill to sign on to its promulgation *
- FDR never opposed the bombing of the railroad tracks to Auschwitz or the bombing of that death camp. Any claim that differs with that reality is specious. No bombing, if possible, or authorized, could have been more than marginally successful in saving a small portion of the last group of Hungarian Jews to be transported and murdered. In fact, the issue never came to his desk or attention. ***
- Was FDR complicit in a “secret” conspiracy to keep Jews out of the United State? Assuredly, no!
- There was more opposition to any immigration to the United States after World War II began. Many Americans feared, and believed, that even Jews let into America could be extorted into becoming Fifth Columnists by Nazis holding their relatives as hostages.
- Was FDR focused on the problem of keeping Great Britain in the war against Germany? Assuredly, yes!
- Was Lend-Lease more important to Congress and the Southern Dixiecrats than the Wagner-Rogers Bill on refugee children? Yes, by a ratio of 223 to 0.
- Could FDR do anything about the Saint Louis? No! There were already 6000 Jews with illegal papers in Cuba, who were being pressured by pro-German interests lobbying the Bru/Battista government. There was even strong opposition from the American Labor movement for more undocumented immigration.
- Did any Jews on board the Saint Louis go back to Germany? No! **
* 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.)
** Of the 936 Jews on board who had left Hamburg, 29 disembarked in Havana, 907 sailed back to Europe; 288 disembarked in England and lived through the Holocaust. The remaining 619 went to France, Belgium and Holland. The 392 of 619 who had disembarked at Antwerp, survived the war. The remaining 227 were murdered by the Nazis. The US Holocaust Museum estimates more than two-thirds of the passengers survived the war. Also, in June of 1939, it certainly was not yet the Holocaust.
*** 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.
FDR and his mother Sara Delano were lifetime Zionists and made those positions abundantly clear. 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.
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.
FDR’s public and private letters, though one could claim there could have been editing of some, do not reflect any anti-Semitism. But there were plenty of anti-Semitic inferences and remarks by Eleanor in her early years. FDR went out of his way to integrate American Jews into Washington public service. Felix Frankfurter, sent his little “hot dogs” from the Harvard Law School and recruited others from the University of Chicago and elsewhere to populate the cadres of the New Deal; (Read “The Making of the New Deal”, the Insiders Speak, by Katie Louchheim, Harvard Press 1983) Herbert Wechsler, David Riesman, Robert Stern, Paul Freund, Milton Katz, Milton Freeman, Charles Kaufman, Arthur Goldschmidt, Paul Herzog, among numerous others. Note that FDR approved the Morgenthau Plan to dismantle a post-war Germany and turn it into an agricultural state. He even forced Churchill to approve that concept at the Quebec Conference. But, also please note Harry S Truman’s remarks regarding the meeting at Potsdam (the first Big Three meeting after FDR’s death). Truman remarked that the Jews were “all alike.” They couldn’t keep themselves from meddling in the German question. Henry L. 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.)
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!” (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)
FDR had a strong relationship with Jews throughout his political life; Morgenthau, Baruch, David Niles, Sam Rosenman, Anna Rosenberg, Frankfurter, Ben Cohen, Lehman, and numerous others. From a social perspective FDR had few friends if any. His only true friends after Livingston Davis were Marguerite “Missy” Lehand, Louis M. Howe, Lucy Mercer Rutherford, Laura Delano and Margaret Suckley. He was basically a lonely man, who was extremely discreet and favored his own council and his intimate circle of advisors, cousins, and intimates. He was friendly with many of Eleanor’s vast circle of friends, and spent much of his pre-war time with them at Val-Kill to relax.
FDR understood the vicious level of anti-Semitism in the United States and chose to deal with it in a subtle style. He understood the criticisms of Henry Ford, Father Coughlin, the Silver Shirts, Charles Lindbergh and the American First Movement, the German American Bund, and numerous other bigots in the State Department, in the Congress and out in the public. He spent a great deal of his energy and time confronting, fighting against and defeating those forces.
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.
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)
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 with no opposition.***
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.
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.