Let me make this clear, it was the Nazis who killed 6 million Jews and caused the death of maybe another 20 million people, directly or indirectly. The American people were against going to war or fighting to save Europe. The American Jewish Community was severely divided about immigration, especially with regards to Eastern European Jews, who had no direct access of escape from the ravages of WWII. The American movie industry, except for Warner Brothers, which was dominated by Jewish interests, refused to discuss Jewish problems in Germany or confront the Nazi treatment of the Jews. Winston Churchill did not save the Western World. The leadership of Franklin D. Roosevelt, his creation of the Arsenal of Democracy, millions of American forces and Russian blood on the Eastern front saved the world from the Nazi Hordes.
Over time, and even now, there have been a series of unfounded accusations, from a number of sources that accuse Franklin Delano Roosevelt of being anti-Semitic and not doing enough for the Jews of Europe, who became victims of the Nazi-inspired and initiated Holocaust. In truth, those accusations are, on their face, a blood libel, hysterical, simplistic, unfounded, historically flawed, and basically ridiculous. Every once in a while, some divisive, provocateur, like Rafael Medoff, publishes another screed trying to prove that FDR was a closet, or an overt anti-Semite.
Over the decades, I have answered his attacks, but basically, hardly anyone really reads Medoff, except people who have had this idea already planted in their minds. Medoff reflects the need of many Jews to explain the Holocaust with the idea that everyone was complicit. Of course, he ignores the fact that many American Jews opposed unlimited or even some Jewish immigration into the United States for a number of reasons: fear of more anti-Semitism, the desire for Jews to go to Palestine to eventually create a Jewish State, or even the idea that they didn’t want any more Eastern European Jews. Yes, there were many American Jews who wanted an “open door” policy on immigration. But, then as today, immigration has always been the 3rd rail of American politics. Since the early 1920s, there were very strict immigration laws passed in conservative Republican Administrations that restricted Eastern Europeans, especially Jews, Catholics from the Mediterranean Basin, Asians and people from the Middle East. In fact, those laws were on the books until the Kennedy Administration. They were based on the Census of 1890, which basically created quotas reflective of the American demographics that existed before the massive immigration that came to America before 1890. The 1921 Immigration Act created the Quota System and the 1924 National Origins Act made it permanent. Therefore, no president was able to change that policy, no matter what trauma existed with regards to international conditions especially any that involved Jews.
Over the decades, many people have asked me about these charges, and I have answered them in detail. But, in fact, what does it really matter? FDR is a hero to countless millions here and abroad. His record of remarkable accomplishments is quite secure.
In the hurly-burly world of politics, one could cite his failed plan for court re-organization, known as “Court Packing” or even his inability to rid the Democratic Party of its right-wing troglodytes in the Midterm elections of 1938, known as the “Purge!” One author, Warren Kimball, in his book, “The Juggler,” has written about FDR’s skills as a wartime statesman. Others have termed him the Sphinx. No matter how he was characterized, FDR was certainly the most guarded and secretive person ever to hold high office in American history. But, let us not forget, that after 1938, the New Deal was dead, and it was buried by the coalition of Southern Democratic reactionaries and northern Republics opposed to any expansion of the rights of minorities, the Labor movement, or the continuance of regulation on big business or the markets. These same people were the core of isolationism in America.
When FDR made his famous Quarantine Speech in October of 1937, he never mentioned Hitler or Mussolini or any other dictator by name, but talked of isolating these countries. He hoped that the storm isolationists created would fade away and allow the general public to become educated and even active in international policy. However, this was not the response that grew over time. In fact, it ended up intensifying isolationism views in more Americans. Roosevelt even mentioned in two personal letters written on October 16, 1937, that “he was ‘fighting against a public psychology which comes very close to saying “peace at any price.” In fact, hundreds of newspapers, especially ones owned by the Hearst and McCormick syndicates, editorialized calling for his impeachment.
Over the years, as we have become more sensitive to minorities in the United States, Japanese Internment, and its justification, have been questioned by many. There were many arguments then, and later, over that action. At the time, supporters of the Internment cited Japanese barbarism in China, which eventually, with almost unprecedented brutality, including germ warfare and poison gas, would cause the death of 20 million Chinese. No one could discount the Japanese surprise attacks on Russia in 1904 and at Pearl Harbor in 1941. In reality, there was acute racism in California towards Japanese, exacerbated by their cultural and social isolation from the mainstream of American life in both California and Hawaii. There was also the legitimate concern among many fair-minded Californians about the fear for the lives of many of these Japanese citizens and resident aliens. But, be that as it may, only one Japanese internee died in the internment camps, but more than 65 million died during WWII, which was caused by German aggression in Europe and Japanese bellicosity in the Pacific. Isn’t that really the bigger story?
Over the decades, we had strict immigration laws in America prohibiting the immigration of the Chinese and Japanese from 1882 and 1907. There was the rise of anti-Semitism in America with the Depression, and therefore, endemic opposition to the immigration of Jews, and other Eastern Europeans, or non-Western European peoples. But, with all that in mind, over 150,000 Jews were able to get into America between 1933 and the beginning of the war, more than the entire world combined. This occurred despite a State Department dominated by conservative Republicans and southern Democrats. The people hardly wanted any immigration into America, no less Jews. One Gallup Poll in 1937 reflected that 77% of the public did not want one more German Jew to come into the country. Of course, the other failed efforts to enlarge the Immigration Quotas, or even to consider the bill to bring in refugee (Jewish) children was certainly not the fault of the Roosevelt Administration, whose allies in Congress proposed these efforts (Senator Robert F. Wagner, Sr, of NY, and Reps Emanuel Cellar, NY and Adolph Sabath of Illinois.). In fact, when it came to enlarging the German Quota of 27,000 immigrants, the Southern element of the Members of Congress, who were Democrats, were opposed 223 to 0. But, when it came to the controversial Lend Lease Program to aid beleaguered Britain, these same Members of Congress were in favor of it 223-0. Even after the merger of Austria into Germany, there were efforts were made to expand the quota, reflective of the added Austrians to the German Reich, but it was tabled, and thus disapproved.
Years ago, the public started to hear and read about FDR and the Holocaust, along with the specious claims that he was anti-Semitic. Many started to wonder why, that decades after the war this issue arose. Books from Arthur Morse, “While Six Million Died,” (1967) and David Wyman, “The Abandonment of the Jews,” (1984), questioned the motives of our State Department and explored the source and rationale of American anti-Semitism, which included voices like; Father Coughlin, Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh and countless others. But, why at this moment in the mid-1980s, did this issue begin to take hold? Was it because of new information, which previously hadn’t been available? Was it because Jews were more prosperous and felt freer to voice their bottled up angst over the anti-Semitism which dominated America in the Depression and pre-WWII years? Or was it over the idea of assimilation and their understanding that it was a great threat to the future of the Jewish people in America? In 1960, only 4% of the Jews intermarried in America. By 1984, when Wyman’s book came out, intermarriage had reached 50%. From many pulpits in America, conservative Rabbis railed against social and political liberalism, which seemed to justify intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews. Their target in 1984, was the greatest social liberal in our political history. Is it any surprise that it was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who led us out of the Depression and our potential social collapse? Thus, Franklin Roosevelt became the target of Jewish revisionism, as social liberalism and inclusiveness grew in modern day America. Let us also remember, that in 1930, Jews made up about 3% of the American population, and today the percentage has shrunk. In fact, regarding best estimates, Jews today account for about 1.6% of the general population. Maybe the people who warned of the threat to the Jewish people, regarding assimilation, were right. Therefore, why not attack the great symbol of liberalism?
In “A Life in the 20th Century, (1917-1950) by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr, (written in 2000), this quote is on page 307. “In the Eighties and Nineties, a furious controversy erupted over the supposed failure of the American and British governments to do more to save the Jews of Europe. Again, one wonders why this controversy suddenly exploded so many years after the fact. The word ‘holocaust’ was not even applied to Hitler’s extermination of the Jews until the Sixties; it did not acquire a capital letter until the Seventies.”
Schlesinger continues, “Very likely, as the historian Peter Novick suggests in, ‘The Holocaust in American Life,’ it was because of the decline of anti-Semitism and the rise of intermarriage in the United States came to be seen in some Jewish circles as a threat to the very survival of an American-Jewish community. Those seeking to repel the menace of assimilation seized on the Holocaust as the last bond holding Jews together and the vital means of restoring a sense of Jewishness. The Holocaust became, in Novick’s words, ‘virtually the only common denominator of American Jewish identity in the late 20th century.’ ”
Frankly, many were saying this long before Peter Novick (1934-2012) expressed these thoughts in his book written in 1999. Years before, when he expressed these same thoughts, he was excoriated for those views. In fact, he was called a self-hating Jew!
In truth, the Holocaust and its implications were not even perceived in 1939. Schlesinger writes, “Yet the American and British governments had intimations of the Final Solution as early as August 1942.” That November, after confirmation of dread reports by Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles, Rabbi Stephen Wise went public in a dramatic press conference. WISE SAYS HITLER HAS ORDERED 4 MILLION JEWS SLAIN IN 1942, was the headline in the “New York Herald Tribune.” As a result, in December, both Roosevelt and Churchill issued a joint statement condemning, “the bestial policy of cold-blooded extermination!” Interestingly, to these same revisionists, Rabbi Stephen Wise is now an excoriated co-conspirator with FDR in the effort to keep Jews out of America. Nothing could be further from the truth! How come this story wasn’t on the front page of the “NY Times,” but buried deep inside a paper owned by Jews?
But, how often did I hear the specious, “Fake News” that FDR never had a Jew to the White House or that he never said anything about the killing of Jews. These baseless attacks, from my perspective, were an effort by a consortium of conservative Jews, anti-assimilationists and other Roosevelt haters to promote the idea that the Roosevelt Administration kept all Jews out of the United States. They cited the case of the “Saint Louis” as proof, as if that issue was almost as large as the Holocaust. In the same way, the Japanese Internment, to some, dwarfed the totality of WWII and the war crimes of the Japanese, which easily equaled Germany’s and had started years earlier.
The German ship, “Saint Louis” was one of three ships that brought passengers, including Jews, to Cuba at that time. Cuba, in 1939, because of the influence of local Nazis, was putting onerous restrictions on Jewish immigration. Already 6,000 Jewish immigrants were living in Cuba, most without legal documentation. Also a house-to-house check was being made to locate all German refugees, and there was great fear from the Joint Distribution Committee in the United States that a pogrom was being planned if more Jews were granted asylum. When a $500 cash bond was put up for each passenger, amounting to $500,000, the Cubans refused. There were definitive conflicts between Batista and Manuel Benitez, who was receiving bribes for each illegal alien allowed into Cuba. Strongman Colonel Fulgencio Bastista wanted his “cut” or would end the practice. Two other ships had already just arrived, the British ship “Orduna” and the French ship, “Flanders.” Within a twenty-four hour period more than 1200 refugees had arrived from three European ports. The Cubans had just passed a law limiting the number of immigrants to 1500 who could be yearly allowed to land. Eventually, after a collapse in negotiations, the ship left port and while off Florida, on June 4, the figurehead President Bru relented and said that they could land for $650 per head. The Joint Committee (Jewish Agency) refused to pay the extra $150 per person. They thought there would be more ships and the price would continue to escalate. The “Saint Louis,” amidst the negotiation with Cuban and the American officials, who were trying to get around our strict immigration laws, turned towards Europe. The JDC was besieged with criticism from the American Jewish community and its friends, but felt they were being blackmailed by the Cubans. It has been erroneously reported that the passengers were “returned to Germany and certain death for all abroad.” 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. War had not been declared. Over 75% of the Jews living in Germany, at the time of Hitler’s ascendancy to power, had either voluntarily emigrated from Germany or had been forced out. German policy was “Judenrein” not extermination.
Again, to reiterate, up until Kristalnacht, under 1000 Jews had been killed in Germany from 1933 until late 1938. Even up until the war, which started on September 3, 1939, a relatively small percentage of the remaining Jews from the 1930 population of 500,000 had been killed. In June of 1939, few in Europe really believed there would be a “real” war, no less a World War. Few Jews, outside of Germany, thought their lives were imminently at risk, and the Low Countries and France were not invaded until the spring of 1940. Most Jews believed that Germany only was interested in ridding itself of Jews. But, it is true, that many Jews wished fervently to get out of Europe. These are incontrovertible facts reported in numerous histories of that era. This intense climate of persecution started to cause voluntary and forced Jewish emigration out of Germany. By the start of World War II almost 75% of all German Jews had left the country.
In truth, as it is part of the public record, most Americans opposed being involved in both world wars. In the last Gallup Poll of November, 1941, not long before the Pearl Harbor attack, about 90% of the responders to the pollsters stated that they did not want to go to war to save Great Britain.
Again, Jews made up 3% of the population in the 1930’s. The New Deal, called the “Jew Deal” by anti-Semites, who often referred to FDR as that Jew “Rosenfelt.” After all, Jews 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 appointed, cumulatively, more Jews to office than all the previous 31 administrations and all that followed until the Clinton Administration!
With regards to foreign policy, as it related to Jews, Roosevelt quite often leaned upon his personal relationship with Rabbi Stephen Wise. Wise brought up the subject of Jewish immigration with FDR as early as 1933 and the unfilled immigration quotas. But, why was the German quota virtually unfilled in 1933 and 1934? Basically, Germans weren’t coming to the US in those years. They were very happy with Hitler. As for Jews in Germany, most believed before the horrid Nuremberg Laws of 1935, that the anti-Semitism of Hitler’s rhetoric would be ameliorated or even disappear. Many Jews thought they were too important to the economy and the social and cultural structure and fabric of Germany. They felt they weathered other terrible storms. As Hitler consolidated his power in Germany, more and more anti-Semitic legislation (the aforementioned Nuremberg Laws) was drafted and passed in their Reichstag (the so-called German parliament).
Let us understand that in 1930, Americans of German descent were the largest group in the United States (some estimates that 30% of the American population had German roots). In 1940, over 1.2 million Americans had been born in Germany and even today the largest European ethnic group in America is German, with over 17% of the population or 56 million people. Many Germans in America were enthusiastic over the recovery of Germany from the ravages of the Versailles Treaty, they believed that the Jews were the cause of all their post war problems and the failure of the Weimar Government. They were highly influenced by the large trade with the “new” Germany and a great many Germans who traveled to America to visit their relatives talked of the success and order brought to Germany by Hitler and the Nazis. In the period of the middle to late 1930s, we saw the rise of the German-American Bund.
Therefore, with all that in mind, is it not hard to imagine that there was tremendous pressure in the United States, crossing all ethnic and political differences, including the American Labor movement that opposed more immigration, especially of Jews. There was still significant unemployment, anti-Semitism had risen during the Depression, and it was aided and abetted by German-Americans, happy with Hitler.
Thus the issue of Jewish immigrations was not solely in the hands of President Roosevelt or his administration. Even among his “Kitchen Cabinet” of Jewish advisers: Morgenthau, Rosenman, Rabbi Wise, Benjamin V. Cohen and a number of others there was no definitive consensus on what action could be taken. Even former Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg, who headed a 1984 commission on this subject, came to the 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, Head of International Studies at CCNY 1972-81, former diplomat, a Senior Fellow at the Ralph Bunche Institute, and the author of “American Jewry in the Holocaust,” 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.
In conclusion, there is no doubt that if FDR had not been re-elected in 1940, and aid was not extended to Britain, a peace party would have emerged in that country to compromise with Germany. If that peace was actuated, one could conclude that the continued resistance by the Soviet Union could have easily ended with a defeat or a brokered peace. Obviously, with Germany ruling Europe and an entente cordiale with Britain and the British Empire, the future of the world would have been different, and the survival of Jews in America would have been in doubt. Why would their future be in doubt? The pressure from German-Americans, other traditional anti-Semites, isolation from the rest of the world, trade embargoes, Nazi propaganda flooding the country’s non-Jewish media, would have caused a severe reaction against Jewish owned business, Jewish cultural interests, the media (Hollywood, the theater) which they were deeply involved and with the businesses that they excelled in and led.