Does FDR Deserve the Blame?

This review by Prof. Laurel Leff, author of Buried by The Times and member of the Wyman Institute’s Academic Council, appeared in the January 2007 issue of Moment magazine:

By Laurel Leff

Review of: Saving the Jews: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Holocaust, by Robert N. Rosen; and Roosevelt and the Holocaust, by Robert Beir and Brian Josepher.

Some families engage in what might be called the in-law excuse. If someone in the family won’t visit Grandma Sophie in Boca Raton, give Cousin Max a discount on aluminum siding, attend Aunt Shirley’s wedding or name a baby after Great- Uncle Shmuel, it’s never that relative’s fault. He or she would love to help, according to family lore, but a no-good spouse stood in the way.

In Robert N. Rosen’s Saving the Jews: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Holocaust, FDR assumes the role of the hapless relation. Rosen, a Charleston, South Carolina, lawyer and amateur historian who has written a book about the Jews of the Confederacy, takes on the substantial body of scholarship critical of America’s response to the Holocaust. In his influential 1984 work, The Abandonment of the Jews, historian David S. Wyman shattered the myth that the U.S. government, including the President, was unaware of the true extent of the Holocaust, arguing that America’s unwillingness to bomb Auschwitz and accept Jewish refugees cost thousands of lives. Since then, historians have had plenty of unflattering things to say about Roosevelt and his response to the Holocaust, but Rosen is convinced that this 688-page book proves otherwise. In his version, Roosevelt did more for the Jews than he’s given credit for and whatever he didn’t do—and there’s much—was not his fault: Congressional isolationists, State Department bureaucrats, military leaders and the American public all kept him from doing more to help European Jews both before and during the war, Rosen argues.

If FDR is the hapless spouse, Rosen is the deluded family member. He handles FDR with velvet gloves—all bad decisions are inevitably someone else’s fault—and is oblivious to the inconsistencies in his own narrative. After all, the President wasn’t some well-intentioned but weak-willed younger brother; he was the leader of the free world whose acumen and strength Rosen lauds in every other context.

The in-law excuse is feeblest when considering Roosevelt’s dealings with the State Department. Rosen acknowledges that the State Department was rife with anti-Semitism, xenophobic officials who interpreted immigration laws to keep refugees out, suppressed information about the Final Solution and sabotaged rescue efforts. Roosevelt, he says, relied on his duplicitous assistant secretary of state, Breckinridge Long, and was allegedly both ignorant of these activities and powerless to change them. Yet Rosen fails to explain why Roosevelt valued the opinion of a man whose pro-Mussolini views as ambassador to Italy in the 1930s were well-known. Nor does he explain why Roosevelt put Long, with his well-known anti-immigrant sentiments, especially when it came to East Europeans, in charge of refugee affairs as the head of the Visa Division. There, Long did everything in his power to limit the number of refugees allowed to enter the United States. In spite of a steady stream of complaints, Roosevelt kept Long in charge of deciding their fates until 1944 when, in part due to Congressional pressure, the President relieved State of the responsibility and established the War Refugee Board.

Rosen is most confused in discussing the government’s response to demands to bomb Auschwitz in 1944. He titles the chapter “‘The First Victims Would be the Jews’: Why FDR Did Not Order the Bombing of Auschwitz,” indicating that the ever-compassionate President would have issued the order but for his concern for Jews imprisoned there. Within the chapter, however, Rosen vacillates over whether FDR even knew such a request had been made. Ultimately, he concludes that Roosevelt did not. Even had he known, Rosen speculates, FDR would surely have objected because the bombs might have destroyed Jews along with the crematorium. In any case, Rosen argues, the President wouldn’t have made the decision himself; he would have deferred to “military decision-makers” who advised against such a mission. Thus, Roosevelt is able to simultaneously be ignorant, sympathetic and blameless.

Through these gyrations, Rosen overlooks a more recent and serious indictment of the government’s response. According to Joseph Bendersky in The “Jewish Threat,” military officials never even investigated whether bombing Auschwitz was militarily feasible. (Although Rosen cites Bendersky’s 2000 book, he doesn’t seem to have assimilated its main argument, or much else published in this decade, including my book, Buried by the Times: The Holocaust and America’s Most Important Newspaper.) More than all the technical debates on bombing’s efficacy, the failure to even consider that option highlights the low priority the Roosevelt Administration assigned to saving the Jews.

Just as Rosen argues that Roosevelt had to defer to military leaders and State Department bureaucrats, the President was supposedly powerless to help Jews in the face of overwhelming Congressional and public opposition. Indeed, efforts to liberalize immigration laws to allow in more Jews from Nazi-controlled Europe provoked hostility, a political reaction FDR understood well. Yet, to describe FDR as supine suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of him. Roosevelt certainly saw public and congressional support as vital to accomplishing his policy goals, but he seldom treated public opinion as an immovable obstacle.

Roosevelt constantly read the press, requested polls, chatted with friends and advisors to determine not only what beliefs the public held, but how firmly. What’s striking about his approach to public opinion on this issue is how little he did to learn what it was or to shape his message to influence it. When the administration wanted to admit 1,000 Jewish refugees in 1944 for a limited stay in upstate New York, it did. Otherwise, there is no evidence that FDR monitored or measured, let alone tried to modify, American attitudes toward saving European Jews.

Rosen doesn’t dwell solely on Roosevelt’s inaction. He cites FDR’s willingness to call two international conferences to deal with the Jewish problem, in Evian in 1938 and Bermuda in 1943; his issuance of executive orders to open up the German and Austrian quota after the Anschluss and to establish the War Refugee Board; and his interest in resettlement schemes, from proposals to move German Jews to South America in the 1930s, to efforts to open Palestine to survivors at war’s end. But, for every expression of concern, Roosevelt’s critics can point to one of indifference; for every action he took, there are dozens he did not.

The real issue is how important saving the Jews was to the overburdened and increasingly ill President. How much mental energy and political capital did he expend to uproot anti-Semitism in the State Department; to pressure the military to explore rescue options; to persuade the American people that it was in the interest not just of the Jews, but of all humanity to try to stop the slaughter of innocent millions? Sadly, the answer has to be not much.

When responsibility shifts from those standing in Roosevelt’s way to the President himself, Rosen has another ready answer for why saving the Jews wasn’t a priority: It shouldn’t have been. Rosen accepts the administration’s contention that winning the war as quickly as possible should have been its only objective. To suggest anything else was, and is, un-American. “One of the key assumptions of the Roosevelt decriers is that American Jews ought to have placed loyalty to European Jews ahead of loyalty to America,” Rosen claims.

This argument is disingenuous. Rescue advocates were exceedingly careful to avoid proposals that would interfere with the war effort. The question is not whether American Jews had a loyalty to their fellow Jews above their loyalty to Americans but whether they had an additional moral obligation as Jews to push for rescue. Although he doesn’t say it in so many words, Rosen’s clear implication is that they didn’t. American Jews, with the exception of “a few immigrants, aliens and foreigners in their midst in the 1940s,” were thoroughly integrated into American society, Rosen writes, and “had put the evils of Europe behind them.” So much so that these integrated Americans were embarrassed by the 1943 “March of the Rabbis,” when 400 bearded, mostly black-hatted,Yiddish-speaking rabbis descended from all over the country on Washington, DC, to demand that their government do something for European Jewry.

Rosen perhaps unwittingly recreates the wartime split between successful, assimilated Jews, including most of those in Roosevelt’s inner circle, who eschewed advocating as Jews or for Jews, and those with stronger Jewish identities who urged action. Rosen acknowledges neither the divide, nor the fact that American Jews were more than just torn by their dual identities. Many—maybe even most—American Jews were first-or second-generation European Jews whose relatives were being marched into gas chambers. To them and to the rabbis who sought a hearing in Washington, the Holocaust was not about abstract foreign policy but the murder of their families.

Along with a bad case of hero worship, Rosen’s identification as an American and only an American explains his shrill defense of Roosevelt’s Holocaust record. It fuels his bizarre claim that FDR’s scholarly critics, myself included, must harbor hidden foreign sympathies, most particularly for Israel’s hard-right Irgun faction. It leads him to argue repeatedly and vigorously for propositions that no one would deny—that Roosevelt’s leadership was critical in winning the war and that American Jews played a role in the combat. Rosen is so willing to overreach that he actually makes the argument that the Roosevelt Administration most strenuously denied during the war—that Americans were fighting to save the Jews. “FDR and millions of American soldiers, sailors, and airmen fought and died to stop Hitler’s Holocaust permanently,” Rosen writes. That may have been the result, but it wasn’t the reason.

Robert Beir was one of those sailors; yet he doesn’t feel obliged to defend Roosevelt at all costs. Roosevelt and the Holocaust: A Rooseveltian Examines the Policies and Remembers the Times—a not-altogether successful blend of memoir and historical analysis—chronicles Beir’s metamorphosis from an FDR idolater to a more nuanced critic. As a boy growing up during the Depression, he adored Roosevelt for his compassion and commitment to restoring a broken society. As a young Naval officer during World War II, Beir depended upon his commander-in-chief’s dynamic leadership. As a mature business executive, however, Beir began to have qualms about Roosevelt’s record during the Holocaust. A board member of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, he read widely on the American response to the Holocaust and ultimately qualified his devotion. In the book, Beir, with the aid of professional writer Brian Josepher, clearly and crisply recounts key controversies of the day: the turning away of Jewish refugees aboard the German oceanliner S.S. St. Louis in 1939, the State Department’s restrictive immigration policies and the question of whether to bomb Auschwitz. Beir ends up repeatedly faulting Roosevelt for his “lack of leadership.” Still the book doesn’t deliver what is probably wanted from a first-hand account—an accounting of how Americans perceived the unfolding catastrophe. Beir understands that this is a central question but he can do little more than regret that he remembers so little.

Like Rosen’s book, Beir’s account is noteworthy not for its research or analysis but for its revelations about what it means to be a member of the American family. The son of well-to-do, assimilated Jews of German descent, Beir’s early encounters with anti-Semitism convinced him that social acceptance was not assured, that he was both a Jew and an American and that sometimes those identities were in conflict. It is Beir’s willingness to recognize the tension that makes him less conflicted. He can see both the weaknesses and the strengths of his country and its indomitable but flawed wartime leader. By contrast, Rosen so much wants to be part of the American family that he brooks no criticism of it. Perhaps those least sure of a family’s loving embrace most stubbornly overlook its imperfections.