How FDR’s Decree Against Zionism Was Barely Averted

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

Jewish history is replete with episodes in which a harsh decree that a ruler planned to issue against his Jewish subjects was narrowly averted, usually through miraculous circumstances. What is not well known is that sixty years ago this week, President Franklin Roosevelt was planning to issue a harsh decree against Zionism–until the last-minute intervention of his Jewish advisers.

This extraordinary series of events began to unfold in late 1942. Senior State Department officials were becoming increasingly worried by a series of rallies and newspaper ads calling for the creation of a Jewish army. The Jewish army campaign was the work of a maverick Zionist activist from Jerusalem, Peter Bergson. Fearing that Bergson’s campaign would arouse the Arab world against the United States, the State Department persuaded President Roosevelt to send Beirut-born Lt.Col.Harold Hoskins as his special envoy to the Middle East to canvass Arab opinion.

In April 1943, Hoskins delivered his bombshell final report to the president. It predicted that “world-wide [Zionist] propaganda” and “Arab fear of American support for political Zionism with its proposed Jewish State and Jewish Army” would soon provoke mass violence between Jews and Arabs in Palestine, which would undermine the Allies’ position in the region and force them to divert troops to restore peace. Hoskins urged the Allies to issue a statement declaring that all “public discussions and activities of a political nature relating to Palestine” were endangering “the war effort” and should “cease.” Secretary of State Cordell Hull sent the plan to the White House. The president jotted “OK – FDR” on the proposal and returned it to the State Department for implementation. The British embraced the Hoskins plan, and July 27 was chosen as the date for release of the joint Anglo-American declaration against Zionism.

The decree would have dealt a harsh blow to the Jewish people. Precisely at the moment when a Jewish refuge in Palestine was most needed for Jews fleeing Hitler Europe, the Allies would be declaring Palestine off-limits for the duration of the war and silencing Zionist protests.

But a twist of fate soon changed the course of history. First, a delay: to head off potential opposition, Hull decided to seek the approval of Secretary of War Henry Stimson–but that meant waiting until Stimson returned from vacation in early August. Meanwhile, Hull decided to discuss the plan with the most prominent Jewish Congressman, Sol Bloom, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Bloom endorsed it, but recommended that Jewish leaders be informed ahead of time, beginning with presidential speechwriter Samuel Rosenman, a prominent member of the American Jewish Committee.

Rosenman was briefed by the president himself on July 31, 1943. FDR complained to him about the Bergson group’s newspaper ads, and asked Rosenman to pressure American Jewish leaders to curtail their efforts to create a Jewish state.

Rosenman was against Zionism, but he feared Zionist activists would simply ignore the Anglo-American statement and thus stir up antisemitism by making Jews appear unpatriotic. Rosenman discussed the matter with two of FDR’s top Jewish advisers, Ben Cohen and David Niles, as well as with Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, who shared his concerns.

Other Jews in Washington were similarly alarmed. Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. was “inexpressibly shocked” to hear of this attempt “to deprive U.S. citizens of their constitutional liberties.” Financier Bernard Baruch, a sometime adviser to the president, caught wind of the plan and expressed objections. While Morgenthau and Baruch were lobbying behind the scenes, the story was leaked to Washington Post columnist Drew Pearson. With the news out in the open, U.S.Congressman Emanuel Celler charged on the floor of the House that “the joint statement will, with its ‘Silence, please’ drown the clamor of the tortured Nazi victims pleading for a haven of refuge.”

Now Secretary of War Henry Stimson weighed in–against the decree. An early supporter of the Jewish army idea, Stimson had signed some of the Bergson group’s newspaper ads on the subject. He informed Secretary Hull that the planned statement was unwarranted since the predictions of violence in Palestine were “alarmist.”

With the story in the press, his Jewish advisers clamoring against it, and even the War Department opposed, FDR realized the plan was getting too hot to handle. At a meeting in Quebec between Roosevelt and British prime minister Winston Churchill on August 22, the two leaders decided to hold the plan “in abeyance.” It was never revived.

Isaiah Berlin, who was an official of the British Embassy in Washington at the time, later remarked that “there was some Esther involved in averting that particular Haman-Hoskins.”

Berlin’s analogy to the episode in ancient Persia, upon which the Purim holiday is based, was far from precise. But 1943 was indeed a time when Jews were the victims of genocide, and a handful of prominent American Jews who seldom advocated Jewish interests did (whatever their motives) raise their voices against a decree that would have dealt another blow to the Jewish people at their most desperate moment.

Sadly, most of the Jews who lobbied to block the Anglo-American statement failed to support the efforts by the Bergson group and others to convince Roosevelt rescue refugees from Hitler. Only Treasury Secretary Morgenthau took an active role on behalf of rescue, and he ultimately played a crucial role in persuading FDR to establish the War Refugee Board, which helped save more than 200,000 Jews towards the end of the war. If there was an “Esther” in Washington in 1943, it was Henry Morgenthau.

August 2003