Will Biased FDR Biographers Mislead Obama?

By Dr. Rafael Medoff

The recent Time magazine cover depicting Barack Obama as a Franklin D. Roosevelt look-alike dramatically illustrated the widespread expectation that the new president intends to govern in the spirit of FDR and the New Deal. This perception has been reinforced by an Obama spokesman’s confirmation that the president-elect is currently reading Jonathan Alter’s book about Roosevelt’s first hundred days, as well as Jean Edward Smith’s biography, “FDR.”

Mr. Alter told reporters, “It’s just nice that we’re going to have a president that has a strong sense of history.” True enough, but one hopes the new president will be careful to separate the wheat from the chaff, because when it comes to the issue of FDR’s response to the Holocaust, Smith’s book is deeply flawed.

Smith acknowledges that the U.S. failed to take significant measures to help the Jews in Europe–but he 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 for enacting tight immigration quotas–but he ignores the fact that Roosevelt could have saved many refugees just 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 Roosevelt administration created bureaucratic obstacles to reduce refugee immigration to levels far below what the law permitted. During the years the Nazis were slaughtering six million European Jews (1941-1945), nearly 190,000 quota places from Axis-controlled countries sat unused.

Next, Smith blames the State Department for abandoning the Jews. That’s true–but it should not absolve Roosevelt. The State Department did not create its own foreign policy. It answered to the president. Assistant Secretary Breckinridge Long, who was in charge of refugee matters, reported to the president on his efforts to keep refugees out. In one notorious incident, Roosevelt assured Long that he would not let refugee advocates “pull any sob stuff” on him.

Then Smith blames the realities of war. He speculates that if FDR had been personally asked to order the bombing of Auschwitz, he understandably would have rejected “any diversion of military resources from the central effort to defeat Germany.” Smith neglects to mention that Auschwitz could have been bombed without diverting from the war effort, and in fact Allied bombers repeatedly struck German oil factories near Auschwitz, some less than five miles from the gas chambers.

Meanwhile, the author of another new FDR biography, Prof. H.W. Brands of the University of Texas, is likewise making excuses for Roosevelt’s response to the Holocaust. Appearing on the Diane Rehm radio show on November 19, Brands repeated the FDR-immigration quotas myth, claiming there was nothing FDR could have done to increase Jewish refugee immigration to the U.S. because he “could not unilaterally change the immigration laws.” Evidently Brands, like Jean Edward Smith before him, is unaware of those 190,000 unused quota places.

Brands also claimed that until U.S. bombers controlled the skies over Germany in 1944, “there wasn’t anything that the United States could do about [the mass murder of the Jews].” Of course there was. For example, the Roosevelt administration could have let Varian Fry continue rescuing Jews in Vichy France in 1941 instead of canceling his passport. Roosevelt could have pressured the British to open Palestine to Jewish refugees. FDR could have directed that empty troop supply ships returning to the U.S. be used to bring back refugees to be sheltered for the duration of the war.

As for the idea of bombing the death camps, Brands said that “Roosevelt’s military advisors to a person said, no, do not bomb the camps, do not bomb the rail lines.” Another half-truth. The War Department’s senior officials took that position because, as a matter of principle, they opposed using any military resources for humanitarian purposes. (Although, ironically, none of them protested when General Patton diverted U.S. troops to rescue the Lipizzaner dancing horses.) The War Department never even undertook a study to determine the feasibility of bombing the camps. It simply rejected the requests outright.

Like Franklin Roosevelt, Barack Obama will begin his presidency with a focus on America’s economic problems. But also like FDR, President Obama will soon face a series of foreign policy challenges, including the question of how the United States should respond to the mass murder of innocent people abroad.

Whether the issue is the genocide perpetrated by Arab militias against black Africans in Darfur, or the genocide that Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad dreams of carrying out against Israel, the new president will face difficult decisions regarding U.S. intervention abroad. Hopefully his perspective will not be unduly influenced by the FDR-did-no-wrong apologetics that characterize the work of some of Roosevelt’s biographers.

(November 2008