FDR Had His Kissinger, Too

by Rafael Medoff

Henry Kissinger was not the first Jewish adviser to an American president who urged his boss to refrain from rescuing Jews.

According to transcripts of Oval Office tapes recently released by the Nixon Presidential Library, Secretary of State Kissinger told the president, in 1973, that even “if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern.” Kissinger’s remark is obviously appalling. But it’s equally disturbing to recall that when Soviet Jews were being shipped off to gas chambers –during the Holocaust– two prominent Jews gave then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt similar advice.

But when Jewish organizations urged President Roosevelt to rescue Jews from the Nazis, FDR’s Jewish advisers gave him Kissinger-style advice. More than 1.5 million Jews living in German-occupied portions of the Soviet Union, such as Ukraine, Lithuania and Latvia, were murdered by the Nazis. Many of them were lined up in front of huge pits and shot; many others were shipped to German death camps in Poland.

One of FDR’s top advisers and speechwriters was Samuel Rosenman, a leading member of the American Jewish Committee. Rosenman, a deeply assimilated Jew, was uncomfortable calling attention to Jewish concerns. After the 1938 Kristallnacht pogroms, he warned FDR that admitting German Jewish refugees to America would “create a Jewish problem in the U.S.” In 1943, when 400 rabbis marched to the White House to plead for a rescue effort, Rosenman counseled Roosevelt to snub “the medieval horde.” Rosenman also tried to undermine the 1943 campaign by rescue advocates and Treasury Department officials for creation of a government agency to save Jewish refugees. The agency, called the War Refugee Board, was eventually established despite his opposition.

In 1944, the leaders of the board asked FDR to issue a statement threatening to prosecute anyone involved in persecuting Jews, and pledging to provide havens for Jewish refugees. Rosenman watered down the declaration, for fear that giving the Jews attention “would intensify anti-Semitism in the United States.” He deleted three of the six references to Jews, removed the offer to shelter refugees in America, and added three opening paragraphs about the Nazis’ mistreatment of “Poles, Czechs, Norwegians, Dutch, Danes, French, Greeks, Russians, Chinese Filipinos – and many others.”

Another prominent Jewish defender of FDR’s policy toward European Jewry was Congressman Sol Bloom, a Democrat and chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. The Roosevelt administration chose him as a U.S. delegate to its sham refugee conference in Evian, France, in 1938, and to its equally farcical refugee conference in Bermuda five years later. Afterward, Bloom declared, “I as a Jew am perfectly satisfied with the results” – prompting one Jewish periodical to charge that Bloom had been “used as a stooge to impede Jewish protests against the nothing-doers of the Bermuda conference…”

Bloom worked closely with the administration to block congressional resolutions supporting rescue and Jewish statehood. He even backed the State Department’s proposal to ban all public discussion of the Palestine issue for the duration of World War II.

Jewish leaders were furious over Bloom’s actions. A document I recently discovered in the Central Zionist Archives, in Jerusalem, quotes Synagogue Council of America president Dr. Israel Goldstein as saying that “no Jew should ever occupy the position of chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.”

The problem was not that a Jew who reached such a position of power might turn against his people. The problem was that in those years, and even in more recent times, the only kind of Jew who could rise to such a powerful post in the first place was one who was willing to cast aside Jewish concerns. The only kind of Jew whom Roosevelt – or Nixon – would take into his inner circle was one who would tell him what he wanted to hear when it came to Jewish issues. Indeed, one State Department official privately referred to Sol Bloom as “easy to handle” – a way of saying he could be trusted never to make trouble on Jewish matters.

On the newly released Nixon-Kissinger tapes, Kissinger remarks that the genocide of Soviet Jewry would be “maybe a humanitarian concern,” but certainly “not an American concern.” Samuel Rosenman and Sol Bloom likewise believed that humanitarian concerns such as rescuing Jews contradicted, or might be seen as contradicting, America’s true interests.

Not everyone saw it that way. A few years ago, my Wyman Institute colleagues interviewed former senator and presidential nominee George McGovern about his experiences as a pilot who flew over Auschwitz in 1944 to bomb German oil plants nearby. McGovern said that if his commanders had told the pilots about the death camp and offered them the option of undertaking a bombing raid strictly for humanitarian (rather than military ) purposes, “whole crews would have volunteered.” They understood, he said, that the war against the Nazis was not just a military struggle, but also a fight for principles and values such as basic human decency and concern for the persecuted. Likewise in Kissinger’s time, there was strong public support for U.S. intervention on behalf of Soviet Jewry. The truth is that the American public has often been much more humanitarian-minded than some of its presidents –and their nervous Jewish advisers– ever recognized.

(As published in Ha’aretz, December 17, 2010)

December 2010