by Dr. Rafael Medoff
Yet another new biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt is climbing the sales charts and getting positive reviews from the media–despite its whitewash of FDR’s response to the Holocaust.
Jean Edward Smith’s 880-page book, ‘FDR’, published by Random House, acknowledges that the U.S. failed to take significant measures to help the Jews in Europe. But Smith refuses to assign any of the responsibility to President Roosevelt. Again and again, he tries to find other parties to blame.
First, Smith blames Congress. He claims Roosevelt was “sympathetic to the plight of the Jews,” but his desire to help them faced “insurmountable obstacles” because “the Immigration Act of 1924 was unyielding, and the Seventy-Eighth Congress was in no mood to consider changes.”
Smith fails to mention that Roosevelt could have saved many refugees by quietly permitting the existing immigration quotas to be filled–without changing a single law. The quotas from Hitler-controlled countries were almost never filled, because the administration created bureaucratic obstacles to reduce refugee immigration to levels far below what the law allowed.
During Hitler’s first year in power, 1933, less than six percent of the German quota was filled. During the entire period of Hitler’s reign, 1933-1945, less than thirty-six percent of the German and Austrian quota places were used. During the years the Nazis were slaughtering six million European Jews (1941-1945), nearly 190,000 quota places from Axis-controlled countries sat unused. Those 190,000 lives could have been saved without asking Congress or touching the immigration laws.
Next, Smith blames the State Department. “The State Department’s striped-pants set (particularly those charged with immigration matters) was permeated with genteel anti-Semitism,” Smith writes. That’s true–but it doesn’t absolve Roosevelt. The State Department did not create its own foreign policy. It answered to the president, and it implemented his policies.
The top State Department official for refugee matters, Breckinridge Long, certainly was antisemitic. But Long’s views and actions were no secret; he reported to the president on his efforts to keep out refugees. And the president approved. In one instance, when Long complained to the president about refugee advocates who were urging FDR to be more lenient, Roosevelt assured Long that he would not let refugee supporters “pull any sob stuff” on him.
Then Smith blames the military. He says that requests to bomb Auschwitz were rejected by the War Department because it opposed “any diversion of military resources from the central effort to defeat Germany.” And he speculates that if FDR had been asked about the bombing idea, he understandably would have rejected it for the same reason.
But Smith nelgects to mention that Auschwitz could have been bombed without diverting from the war effort. In the summer and fall of 1944, U.S. bombers repeatedly struck German oil factories near Auschwitz, some less than five miles from the gas chambers. How much of a “diversion” would it have been to take a few minutes and aim a few bombs at the mass-murder facilities…?
Smith also blames American Jews. “The American Jewish community itself was divided,” he emphasizes, as if that excuses FDR’s inaction. It’s true, as Smith notes, that some assimilated Jews close to Roosevelt were afraid to ask for special action to help the refugees. But other Jews did ask for action. Various Jewish groups urged the administration to admit more refugees, to pressure the British to open Palestine, and to bomb Auschwitz or the rail lines leading to it. FDR’s failure to act was not because American Jews didn’t ask him to.
Ironically, while Smith tries to blame U.S. inaction on Congress and American Jews, the one time FDR did take meaningful action to help Europe’s Jews was when he was forced to do so–by Congress and American Jews.
That happened in late 1943, when aides to Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. discovered the State Department was sabotaging rescue opportunities and blocking the transmission of news about Nazi massacres. At the same time, the maverick Jewish activists known as the Bergson Group organized a campaign of full-page newspaper ads, rallies, and Capitol Hill lobbying, culminating in the introduction of a Congressional resolution urging creation of a U.S. government agency to rescue Jews.
The hearings on the resolution attracted national attention, and a report compiled by the Treasury staff threatened to blow the lid off the scandal. Morgenthau presented the report to FDR and urged him to pre-empt Congress by establishing a rescue agency. The president’s hand was forced–thanks to American Jewish activists, Congressional pressure, and Roosevelt’s Jewish cabinet member. But you wouldn’t know that from Smith’s ‘FDR’.
Reading Jean Edward Smith’s account of a Roosevelt who could do no wrong when it came to the Holocaust is like going back in time–back to the years when presidents were regarded as beyond reproach. Thankfully, that era has long since ended. It’s a pity Smith doesn’t seem to realize it.