Alf Landon, Unlikely Friend of the Jews

by Rafael Medoff

Seventy-five years ago this week, Republican presidential nominee Alf Landon suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of President Franklin Roosevelt, winning only two states and 36% of the popular vote. Landon’s share of the Jewish vote, just 15%, was one of the lowest ever received by a presidential candidate, before or since. Yet in the years following his loss, Landon emerged as an unlikely advocate for rescuing Jews from Hitler and creating a Jewish state.

A successful oil industry executive, Landon was elected governor of Kansas in his first run for public office, in 1932. Two years later, he was the only Republican governor in the United States to win re-election, which catapulted him onto the short list of prospective presidential nominees for 1936.

Landon had few Jewish acquaintances and no particular interest in issues of Jewish concern. The Jewish community of Kansas was miniscule –just 8,600, less than one half of one percent of the state’s populace– so he had little political incentive to delve into Jewish affairs.

Nonetheless, even before becoming a national public figure, Landon, in early 1933, publicly condemned “the inhuman treatment now accorded the Jews in Germany.” In retrospect that may not seem like such a bold statement–except when one notes that President Roosevelt, concerned about upsetting U.S.-German relations, did not bring up the plight of German Jewry at any of the 82 press conferences he held that year (nor at the next 348 press conferences he held between 1933 and 1938). Even Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, Roosevelt’s staunchest Jewish supporter, privately complained about FDR’s “indifference and unconcern.”

Although most Republicans (like most Americans in general) opposed additional immigration, Landon broke ranks and endorsed the 1939 Wagner-Rogers bill, which would have permitted the immigration of 20,000 German Jewish refugee children outside the quota system. Laura Delano Houghteling, cousin of the president and wife of the U.S. Commissioner of Immigration, typified opposition to the bill when she remarked that “Twenty thousand charming children would all too soon grow up into twenty thousand ugly adults.” One of the children who could have qualified to come to the U.S. under Wagner-Rogers was Anne Frank.

Today it is a given that Jewish leaders and lobbyists establish relationships with political figures on both sides of the aisle. Maximum political effectiveness requires good ties to Democrats and Republicans alike. Former presidents and presidential candidates, regardless of their political ideology, are assiduously courted, because of their continuing influence within their parties and on public opinion. Gov. Landon, despite his defeat in 1936, remained an important force in the GOP.

Yet Landon was not on the Jewish leadership’s radar screen. Most mainstream Jewish leaders were strong supporters of President Roosevelt, the Democratic Party, and the New Deal. They would not risk angering the White House by building ties to the GOP.

They also sometimes demonized FDR’s opponents. Rabbi Wise, for example, was appalled that newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, a conservative critic of the New Deal, had endorsed Landon’s presidential bid. “Anyone whom Mr. Hearst nominates is sure to be imperilling to American ideals and, if victorious, perhaps fatal to our American democracy,” Wise claimed. Ironically, Hearst would later become a vocal advocate of U.S. action to rescue Jews from the Holocaust.

More militant factions in the Jewish community did not feel such political constraints. In the early 1940s, the U.S. wing of the Revisionist Zionists, led by Benzion Netanyahu (father of the current Israeli prime minister) decided to establish their own ties to former President Herbert Hoover, Gov. Landon, and other leading Republicans. They sent Eliahu Ben-Horin, a Zionist pioneer-turned-author and political activist, to Kansas in early 1943 to make Landon’s acquaintance.

The former GOP nominee told Ben-Horin that the Revisionists’ position paper demanding mass European Jewish immigration to Palestine and immediate creation of a Jewish state was “the most excellent statement on this great problem that I have ever read.” Landon volunteered for “active service in this highly important humane cause.”

In my interviews with Prof. Netanyahu, he has described how surprised Ben-Horin was to discover that Gov. Landon was so easily won over to the Zionist cause. “If Jewish leaders had approached Landon earlier, he would have jumped in then and had even more impact,” Netanyahu told me.

Landon subsequently served as keynote speaker at a Revisionist gathering, and helped recruit prominent Republican speakers for some of their other events. Most important, Landon had a hand in the decision to include a pro-Zionist plank in the 1944 Republican Party platform, which Netanyahu and his colleagues had been pushing.

That 1944 GOP plank called for “the opening of Palestine” to “millions of distressed Jewish men, women and children drive from their homes by tyranny,” and creation of “a free and democratic [Jewish] Commonwealth.” It was the first time either major political party embraced Zionism. The Democrats, later that year, were compelled to match it with a nearly-identical resolution in their own platform. Jewish statehood had at last become a genuinely bipartisan cause, thanks in no small part to the efforts of unexpected friends such as Alf Landon.

November 2011