by Dr. Rafael Medoff
A new biography of Franklin Roosevelt is climbing the sales charts and getting rave reviews from the media–despite the fact that it severely distorts FDR’s record on the Holocaust.
Roosevelt’s response to the Nazi genocide has been well documented by historians. He permitted only a small number of Jewish refugees to enter the United States, often leaving the existing immigration quotas as much as 90% unfilled. He almost never publicly mentioned Nazi atrocities against the Jews. He refused to pressure England to open Palestine to Jews fleeing the Holocaust. His administration rejected pleas to bomb the Auschwitz death camp in 1944, even though U.S. bombers were striking German oil factories less than five miles from the gas chambers.
But Conrad Black’s new 1,280-page book, ‘Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom’, presents a kinder, gentler view of Roosevelt’s response to the Holocaust. Black’s book is a throwback to the days before researchers had seriously examined Roosevelt’s record on the Holocaust, when biographers of FDR used to routinely claim that he had done all that was possible to help the Jews in Europe.
Consider Black’s description of the events leading to the one meaningful step FDR did take against the Holocaust, the creation of the War Refugee Board. According to Black (p.927), when Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr., and his aides presented FDR (in January 1944) with a report about the Nazi genocide and the State Department’s secret obstruction of rescue opportunities, Roosevelt “agreed with most of what his visitors told him … [and] the War Refugee Board was set up.” Roosevelt “was determined to act, initially by setting up refugee centers in the United States. He accepted 1,000 Jewish refugees from Italy and placed them in a camp in Oswego, New York, and announced his plan after the fact to the Congress.”
In other words, in Black’s version, as soon as Roosevelt learned the facts, he acted swiftly and courageously to save Jews from the Holocaust.
Now here’s what really happened.
In the autumn of 1943, members of the Treasury Secretary’s staff discovered that the State Department had been sabotaging rescue opportunities and blocking the transmission of Holocaust information to the United States.
At the same time, pressure was building up in Congress for action on rescue. The maverick Jewish activists known as the Bergson group had organized a campaign of full-page newspaper ads and public rallies, culminating in the introduction of a Congressional resolution urging the creation of a U.S. government agency to rescue Jews from Hitler.
By January 1944, the resolution had been approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and was headed for adoption by the full Senate. Treasury staffers led by Josiah DuBois authored a searing 18-page report titled “Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of the Jews.” Morgenthau decided he would bring the report to the president, and convince him that “you have either got to move very fast, or the Congress of the United States will do it for you.” Ten months before election day, the last thing FDR wanted was a public scandal over the refugee issue. He quickly agreed to do what the Congressional resolution requested, by creating the War Refugee Board.
The War Refugee Board was understaffed and underfinanced, but during the final 15 months of the war, it played a key role in numerous rescue initiatives, including facilitating and financing the life-saving work of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg in Budapest. All told, some 200,000 Jews were rescued thanks to the efforts of the War Refugee Board.
Black likewise distorts the record on the issue of America’s failure to bomb the death camps. He does not mention that American bombers repeatedly struck German targets within miles of the Auschwitz gas chambers. Instead, he insists that “if Roosevelt…had realized the centralized manner of the German liquidations of the innocent, [he] would surely have ordered a systematic campaign of bombing the gas chambers…” Wrong again. Historians long ago demonstrated that the president received detailed information on the extent and nature of the Nazi genocide well before the spring of 1944, when the bombing idea was first considered.
Here and there, Black expresses disappointment with FDR’s Jewish policy, but he still manages to sugarcoat it. He writes: “Even at this late date [March 1944], the President was not throwing open the doors of America, other than as a temporary refuge.” Actually, Roosevelt never ‘threw open the doors’ as a temporary refuge. He admitted one token group of nearly 1,000 Jewish refugees, not because he was so “determined to act,” as Black puts it, and not in defiance of Congress, as Black implies. Rather, he did it because of constant pressure from the War Refugee Board and criticism from Congressmen and the media.
Not everyone celebrated Roosevelt’s election-eve Oswego gesture. Marie Syrkin, writing in the Labor Zionist journal Jewish Frontier that summer, called the admission of the Oswego refugees “impressive neither as a practical measure of alleviation nor even as a gesture,” since the United States could easily have admitted so many more. That year alone, more than 55,000 quota places (91%) remained unfilled.
And that is the central flaw of Conrad Black’s account of FDR and the Holocaust. Failing to see the forest for the trees, he exaggerates the significance of FDR’s few-and-far-between gestures and fails to fully come to grips with the fact that Roosevelt could have done so much more. In the end, as David S. Wyman wrote in his 1984 best-seller ‘The Abandonment of the Jews,’ “the era’s most prominent symbol of humanitarianism turned away from one of history’s most compelling moral challenges.”