by Rafael Medoff
It’s not easy turning down a request from the president of the United States.
But seventy years ago this week, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first three choices to head the U.S. delegation to an important international conference turned him down. It was a conference on how to save Jews from the Nazis. And that was a job that nobody seemed to want.
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After the Allies confirmed, in late 1942, that the Nazis were systematically massacring millions of European Jews, there was a rising tide of calls, especially from the British parliament and church leadership, for concrete Allied assistance to Jewish refugees.
To deflect this pressure, the Roosevelt and Churchill administrations decided to hold a conference that would give the appearance of concern without actually doing very much.
The island of Bermuda was chosen for the event. World Jewish Congress cochairman Nahum Goldmann correctly surmised that the remote setting was selected so that “it will take place practically in secret, without pressure of public opinion.”
Who would chair the U.S. delegation?
Myron Taylor, a veteran diplomat with experience in refugee issues, was the administration’s first choice. But he turned down the offer, saying he was too busy with his work on postwar planning. Yale University president Charles Seymour said no because his board of trustees objected.
Supreme Court Justice Owen Roberts, too, said “No, thanks” to the president. On April 8, 1943, he wrote FDR that “the business of the court is in such shape” that he could not spare the time for the refugee conference.
Roosevelt wrote back to express regret that Justice Roberts “cannot go to Bermuda—especially at the time of the Easter lillies!” Such flippancy was typical of FDR’s tone when it came to matters concerning the catastrophe of Europe’s Jews.
The exchange with Roberts, and one briefing by State Department officials, was the extent of the president’s interest in the Bermuda conference.
The conference opened on April 19, 1943. The American delegation was headed by last-minute selection Harold W. Dodds, president of Princeton University. He and his colleagues arrived armed with guidelines that guaranteed no meaningful result would emerge from the conference.
There was to be no special emphasis on the plight of the Jews, nor any policies adopted that would benefit Jews in particular. The U.S. would not agree to the use of any trans-Atlantic ships to transport refugees, not even troop supply ships that were returning from Europe empty. And there would be no increase in the number of refugees admitted to the United States.
The British delegates, for their part, refused to even discuss Mandatory Palestine as a possible refuge. The British also shut down the idea of negotiating with the Nazis for the release of Jews, on the grounds that, as one official put it, “many of the potential refugees are empty mouths for which Hitler has no use.” The release of large numbers of Jews “would be relieving Hitler of an obligation to take care of these useless people,” he asserted.
The delegates also rejected the idea of food shipments to starving Jews as a violation of the Allied blockade of Axis Europe–even though the Allies had previously made an exception for German-occupied Greece.
All of these limitations left the delegates at Bermuda spending a large amount of time on very small-scale steps, such as the possible evacuation of several thousand non-Jewish refugees from Spain to the Libyan region of Cyrenaica. (That plan never materialized.) When the conference ended, the two governments kept the proceedings secret rather than admit how little they had accomplished.
The dismal failure of Bermuda was summed up in the headline of an advertisement placed in the New York Times by the activist Bergson Group: “To 5,000,000 Jews in the Nazi Death-Trap, Bermuda was a Cruel Mockery.”
When it came to saving European Jews, nobody had much interest.
But when it came to saving European artwork, however, that was another story.
An editorial in the New York Times in May, headlined “Europe’s Imperiled Art,” pleaded for government action to rescue “cultural treasures” from the battle zones. Sadly, the Times showed considerably less interest in U.S. government action to aid imperiled Jews in Europe.
Six weeks later, the Roosevelt administration established a U.S. government commission “for the protection and salvage of artistic and historic monuments in Europe.”
Who would chair this new rescue agency? When President Roosevelt replied to Justice Roberts’ note declining the Bermuda job, FDR had joked, “You can tell the Chief Justice that while I yield this time, I will issue a subpoena for you the very next time you are needed!” There was no need for a subpoena this time around. Roberts may have been too busy to spare the time for the rescue of Jews, but he had no trouble finding the time to chair a commission to rescue art and monuments.
The efforts of the Roberts Commission, and the teams of “Monuments Men” who carried out its work in Europe, have been chronicled in several recent books. They will also be the subject of a movie starring George Clooney and Matt Damon that will be released later this year.
One can only hope that the movie, while highlighting the achievements of the Monuments Men, will also note the tragic failure of the Roosevelt administration to recognize that rescuing human beings is as important as rescuing paintings.