by Laurel Leff and Rafael Medoff
The release of previously unknown diaries written by U.S. diplomat James McDonald has attracted national media attention, in part because they refer to McDonald’s early warning, soon after Hitler rose to power in 1933, that the Fuhrer might be planning the mass murder of German Jews. But equally significant is that the diaries reinforce the fact that when it came to aiding Hitler’s Jewish victims, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was all talk and no action.
The New York Times reported last week that McDonald returned from a 1933 visit to Germany feeling extremely pessimistic about the fate of German Jewry, “a view he apparently shared with President Roosevelt, who seemed deeply concerned and said he wanted to find a way to send a warning message to the German people over the head of Hitler.”
Does that mean Roosevelt was indeed ready to help Germany’s Jews, contrary to what many historians have written?
Hardly. The historical record shows that despite FDR’s remark to McDonald, he never sent any such “warning” to the German people.
On June 16, 1933, Roosevelt met with his ambassador-designate to Berlin, William E. Dodd, Jr. to instruct him as to what positions he should take on various issues. Regarding the persecution of Germany’s Jews, Dodd’s published diary reports: “The President said, ‘The German authorities are treating the Jews shamefully and the Jews in this country are greatly excited. But this is also not a governmental affair. We can do nothing except for American citizens who happen to be made victims.” He said the U.S. should use only “unofficial and personal influence” on the Germans. The idea of a sending a deterrent warning to the German people was never mentioned.
On August 25, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt brought her friend Alice Hamilton, who had recently spent three months in Germany, to Hyde Park to give FDR a detailed eyewitness account of German brutality against the Jews. He still refused to publicly criticize Hitler.
James McDonald was not the only person to whom FDR offered empty promises on this issue. Judge Irving Lehman (brother of New York’s governor), together with longtime Roosevelt friend Henry Morgenthau Jr,. visited the White House on September 14, 1933, and asked the president to issue a statement about Germany’s Jews. Roosevelt said he preferred to make a statement about human rights abuses in Germany in general, without focusing on the Jews. But he did not do even that.
Throughout 1933, American Jewish Congress president Rabbi Stephen Wise repeatedly asked administration officials to urge FDR to publicly deplore Hitler’s treatment of the Jews. Those requests fell on deaf ears. In a private letter on October 15, an anguished Wise wrote that despite his many appeals, “We have had nothing but indifference and unconcern [from the White House] up to this time.”
If FDR had been sincere when he spoke to McDonald about sending a “warning” to the German people, there are many ways he could have done so. He could have imposed economic sanctions on Hitler. He could have opposed U.S. participation in the Berlin Olympics. He could have downgraded or suspended diplomatic relations. He did none of that.
At the very least, he could have raised the subject in his press conferences. FDR held 82 press conferences in 1933. The subject of the persecution of the Jews arose only once, and not because Roosevelt raised it. A reporter asked, “Have any organizations asked you to act in any way in connection with the reported persecution of the Jews over in Germany by the Hitler government?” The president replied: “I think a good many of these have come in. They were all sent over to the Secretary of State.”
It would be five years and another 348 presidential press conferences before anything about Jewish refugees would be mentioned again. Even then, when the subject came up, it didn’t go far. Typical was a reporter’s question, on September 2, 1938, as to whether the president had any comment on Italy’s order expelling 22,000 Jews. The president’s reply: “No.” During 998 press conferences over the course of his twelve years in office, FDR never sent that “warning” to the German people that he mentioned to James McDonald.
The McDonald diaries are a sad reminder of how an articulate president, whose expertise at communicating with the masses was demonstrated in such innovations as the fireside chat, fell silent when it came to the suffering of the Jews.