Jews were Saved–But Not by FDR

by Rafael Medoff

Raoul Wallenberg’s heroic rescue of Jews in Nazi-occupied Budapest (including future U.S. Congressman Tom Lantos and his wife-to-be Annette) has gained appropriate and widespread recognition in recent years. But now, incredibly, two authors are suggesting that it was President Franklin Roosevelt who really deserves the credit for making Wallenberg’s mission possible.

Officials of a U.S. government agency called the War Refugee Board were the ones who, in 1944, persuaded Wallenberg to go to Budapest and financed his work. But Richard Breitman and Allan Lichtman (in “Rethinking Roosevelt,” Washington Jewish Week, May 23, 2013) want to give FDR credit where credit isn’t due. They assert that what they call “Roosevelt’s War Refugee Board” was responsible for “saving an estimated 200,000 [Jews]” during the Holocaust. The Board “was the only organization set up by a government anywhere in the world to rescue Jews,” said Lichtman.

President Roosevelt did indeed establish the Board–but before doing so, he fought tooth and nail against its creation. In other words, he was against it before he was for it–in the process causing unnecessary delays and missing opportunities for saving many more lives.

Throughout 1943, the Roosevelt administration rejected requests by Jewish organizations to create an agency to rescue Jewish refugees. At the same time, ironically, it did establish an agency to rescue medieval artwork and architecture from war-torn Europe. 

When the activist Bergson Group initiated a congressional resolution, in late 1943, calling for creation of a refugee rescue agency, the administration sent Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long to Capitol Hill to testify against it.

Long’s wildly inflated statistics about U.S. aid to refugees sparked a backlash that ended up advancing the resolution. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously approved the measure, and a vote before the full Senate was scheduled in January 1944.

This congressional pressure, combined with behind the scenes lobbying by Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. and his staff, was what compelled FDR to undertake the election-year gesture of creating the War Refugee Board. 

Indeed, Morgenthau himself later remarked: “After all, the thing that made it possible to get the President to act on this thing [was] the [congressional] resolution to form this kind of a War Refugee Committee.” Morgenthau called it “the Resolution in the House and in the Senate by which we forced the President to appoint a [War Refugee] Committee.”

Even after the Board was created, FDR did next to nothing to advance its work. He refused to give it more than token funding; 90% of its budget came from private Jewish organizations. And his State Department and War Department repeatedly refused to cooperate with the Board’s rescue initiatives.

To portray President Roosevelt as a savior of the Jews because of his creation of the Board does a disservice to the historical record. The Bergson Group and Secretary Morgenthau and his aides were the ones who forced Roosevelt’s hand. And the courageous and imaginative staff members of the War Refugee Board, and their agents in Europe, including Raoul Wallenberg, are the ones who deserve credit for the rescue of those 200,000 refugees, not Roosevelt. If FDR had his way, the Board would never have come into existence at all. 

May 2013