FDR and the Jews
October 24, 2004
Of course the question has been asked now for decades, could FDR have done more? It is a difficult one because of the context of the times, the conflict between Jewish groups before the war, and the increased level of anti-Semitism in the United States during the 1930’s.
During the 1930’s a xenophobic feeling became pervasive in America. A great deal of this xenophobia was focused against immigrants, refugees, and Jews in general. Much of this came from isolationists, in and out, of Congress. Much of it came out of the “revisionist” doctrines of the post WWI era. This revisionist thinking came from many Midwest German-Americans who were infuriated by the pro-British stance of the Wilson Administration during WWI. Many of these German-Americans (40% of the US population circa 1930) felt that the “Guilt Clause” that came out of the Versailles Treaty was patently unfair. As a consequence of our intervention in WWI, anti-German feeling reached a zenith in this country in 1917 and 1918. As a consequence of this feeling, German products were boycotted, German sounding names were changed, German was banned from the language curriculum of the high schools and generally there was a violent reaction to established German-American communities. As a result of this, a combination of reactions were fomented and actuated in the 1920’s. Historians and citizens, who were anti-British, questioned our effort and losses in WWI. This “revisionist” movement tried to bring discredit to the Wilson Administration and it somewhat started to influence public opinion. In a sense this stimulated and led to the “anti-war” and peace movements of the 1920’s.
In parallel to this discontent, the economic disaster that befell Germany had been exacerbated by the Allies demand for “reparations.” It is a long story, but to make it short, the resulting “hyper-inflation” and Depression in Germany, which foreshadowed our own economic collapse, led to open street warfare in Germany. The Nazi Movement, which used the Jews as their scapegoat, eventually took advantage of the resulting chaos and seized control of Germany. They made the hatred of Jews their mantra and public policy. This Jewish hatred spread to the United States, and infected many German-American national groups. Therefore, for the first real time, anti-Semitism started to grow dramatically. The German-American Bund and its rallies, along with the rise of neo-fascist American groups, who were opposed to the “Jew Deal” and FDR in particular, found fertile ground in the American Midwestern mainstream. Along with neo-fascist Protestant groups, Father Coughlin, a Catholic priest in Detroit, began his air ministry, reaching millions with his anti-Semitic, anti-British diatribes. Along with the widely admired Henry Ford, who was a virulent anti-Semite, their message was spread all over America. Coughlin lambasted the New Deal and its Jewish supporters, and Ford assailed the Jews through his Dearborn Gazette, in which he claimed that an international cartel of Zionist bankers, guided by the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” were out to control the world.
So the tone was set with people like Charles Lindbergh and his support of the American First Movement and conservative supported Liberty Lobby, which opposed all thoughts of intervention in Europe’s business. Even when FDR made his famous “Quarantine Speech” of 1937, public opinion was not swayed, but more divided. He was forced to back off his proposal to create “economic” boycotts against the “dictators” and to isolate and quarantine them. This would have been the start to a process to “strangle” the totalitarians before they grew to almost unlimited power. Of course this failed because the public opinion turned on FDR, and many newspaper editorials even called for his impeachment. FDR understood that getting too far in front of the public inhibited his ability to be effective. Therefore he turned to “less public” efforts to re-arm and to build “The Arsenal of Democracy.”
Because this is a long, involved and convoluted subject, and would take many more pages to give adequate coverage, I will sum up my thoughts in the next few paragraphs.
FDR had to balance many, many interests at one time. During the period between 1933 and 1938 over half the immigrants to the United States were Jewish, far above the quotas allowed for Germany and Austria. The “quota issue” became a hot button in Congress and the conservative FDR haters in that body threatened the termination of all quotas. Therefore many thousands of Jews reached the US through non-legal channels. The government tended to look the other way regarding this “underground” immigration. In regards to more “public” immigration process, like the “Oswego” community that involved a tiny amount of people (8000), the Jews were interned for basically the duration of the war and for public “show”. Therefore the public “saw” that Jewish immigration was not being prejudicially” favored. But realistically many hundreds of thousands of Jews found there way to America. But remember public opinion and Congressional pressure was totally against immigration and especially Jewish immigration. Also, at that same time, a vast majority of Jews left Germany (over 75% of the pre-war 500,000, or less than 1% of the population), assuming it would be until Hitler was overthrown or contained. Most went to Poland and other countries to the East and many went to France, Holland and other western European countries including England. But of course history proved that they weren’t secure outside of Germany, as long as they were within the grasp of the Nazi military.
The bottom line to this all is that the Jews did not face extermination in Germany between 1933- and the start of WWII. Even up to Kristalnacht, in late 1938, only a few thousand Jews had even been interned in camps no less executed. Many of the Jews that remained in Germany still thought that this “political” problem would “all blow over.” Many Jews did not want to give up their property, and their ancestral homes.Of course during WWII the ability to provide safe-haven or even escape for the vast majority of Jews that were killed, (from Germany, Poland, Russia, and Hungary) was impossible. With regards to bombing Auschwitz, Sir Martin Gilbert, who is the greatest living authority on the Holocaust, has covered those issues extensively. No trains ran in Germany during the daylight, and bombing railroad tracks does not work, and even if it did work by chance or luck, they were all repaired almost immediately. High altitude strategic bombing cannot destroy tracks. That type of bombing was way to inaccurate. Our heavy and medium bombers concentrated on railroad marshalling yards and inflicted considerable damage that took days to repair. But these yards had to be hit with multiple raids, and often were. Our long-range bombers could not effectively reach Poland, and if they could, they had to have round-trip fighter support, which wasn’t available until late in the war. By the time Auschwitz was determined to be the “killing camp” most of the Jews had been killed except those from Hungary. Auschwitz, in particular was a vast place and destroying it from the air would have taken multiple raids, if that effort were possible. In fact, there was much general opposition to bombing camps because that action would wind up killing basically Jews. By the way there is no record of FDR being asked to “bomb” Auschwitz. (See William vanden Heuval’s answer to Michael Beschloss in the accompanying documents.)
Remember by the time the Nazis, with their SS Einsatzgruppen troops, had moved into Russia over 2 million Jews had been killed in the field. The establishment of the camps was to relieve the troops of the job! Many were being psychologically affected and too many of the troops were tied down with the grisly work. Therefore the establishment of the “Death Camps.” Secrecy of the camps was of high priority and even people living nearby weren’t exactly sure what was going on. Most of the world was made to believe that these were work camps for the “war effort.” Only later on, in mid 1944, was the Jewish Agency, through the use of heroic volunteers, able to determine that Auschwitz-Birkenau was a terminus for Jews. Of course there were many other camps where Jews and others were either worked to death or merely executed. By then it was way too late to save the vast amount of Jews by attempting to destroy the heinous facility. Of course the only group left to murder were the 400,000 Jews of Hungary, and that saga is too long a story for here.
In retrospect, Lucy Dawidowicz, writes eloquently in her book The War Against the Jews 1933-1945, about the war aims of the Nazis, She chronicles and believes that one of the main war aims of the Nazis was to make Europe and the world Judenrein or free of Jews. Therefore they worked on this objective up until the last days of their existence. She rarely mentions FDR or his impact or lack of it one the fate of European Jewry.
Could more Jews have been saved? Of course! Could there have been a better humanitarian effort made? Possibly! But, all in all, the West and the United States came very close to losing the Second World War. It seems to me, that without the determined leadership of Franklin D. Roosevelt, no Jews would have survived no less the rest of the Western World. Without his effort to finally mobilize America into the engine of Europe’s liberation, a “Dark Age,” dominated by modern Visigoths and barbarians would have enveloped the whole planet.
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