Politicizing America’s Response to the Holocaust

by Rafael Medoff

Is criticism of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s response to the Holocaust all the work of Jewish historians acting out some kind of grudge against the non-Jewish world? Or could it be the handiwork of far-left America-haters trying to smear our country’s good name? Or perhaps it can be attributed to far-right political figures trying to drum up support for their positions?

In recent years, defenders of FDR’s Holocaust record have promoted one or another of these theories, depending on their particular political orientation. But none of them withstand careful scrutiny. Scholars who have raised questions about the Roosevelt administration and the Holocaust are not, in fact, part of some vast Jewish conspiracy, vast left-wing conspiracy, or vast right-wing conspiracy. The attempts to politicize the history of America’s response to the Holocaust are substituting name-calling for an honest assessment of a difficult chapter in our nation’s history.

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The first wave of FDR biographies and histories of the New Deal, Arthur Schlesinger’s three-volume series prominent among them, nearly deified the president who heroically led America out of the Great Depression and to the threshold of victory in World War II before dying tragically in office.  By the 1960s, however, the halo began to acquire some tarnish. Some younger historians began challenging conventional historical accounts, including the hagiographic treatment of FDR. (Barton J. Bernstein’s 1968 collection, Towards a New Past, offers interesting samples of this.) Critical assessments of the Roosevelt administration’s response to the Holocaust began with the journalist Arthur Morse’s book While Six Million Died (1968), followed by scholarly studies such as Henry Feingold’s The Politics of Rescue (1970), Saul Friedman’s No Haven for the Oppressed (1973), Monty Penkower’s The Jews Were Expendable (1983), and the two most exhaustive volumes on the subject, Paper Walls (1968) and The Abandonment of the Jews (1984), by David S. Wyman.

Roosevelt diehards strained to find an explanation for the scholars’ criticism of their hero.

Retired State Department official-turned-amateur historian Frank Brecher, writing in Holocaust and Genocide Studies in 1990, claimed that the common “personal background” shared by Feingold, Friedman, and Penkower (meaning that they are Jewish) made them suspicious about how “Christians [behaved] toward the Jews during the Nazi persecution.” This Jewish conspiracy theory failed, however, to account for the research findings of David S. Wyman and other non-Jewish historians.

Other FDR defenders approached it from a different perspective. Lucy Dawidowicz (in the pages of This World) charged that Wyman was not merely criticizing the president but was, in fact, “denouncing the United States.” Continuing in this political vein, Dawidowicz (writing in Commentary) argued that blame for the failure to rescue refugees should focus not on FDR but on “the Left in the United States.” Ignoring the strong pro-refugee stances taken by moderate left voices (such as The Nation and The New Republic) during the Holocaust, Dawidowicz skewered the American Marxist factions of the 1940s, and then linked them to “today’s Left, the heartland of anti-Zionism,” through an obscure anti-Zionist Jewish polemicist, Lenni Brenner, who had criticized FDR for abandoning the Jews.

Following in Dawidowicz’s political footsteps, divorce lawyer Robert Rosen, in his 2006 book Saving the Jews, alleged that critics of FDR’s response to the Holocaust were engaged in “America-bashing” and promoting “an anti-American version of history.” Similarly, radio talk show host Richard Garfunkel in 2009 claimed that those who have questioned Roosevelt regarding the Holocaust are guilty of “self-flagellation regarding America.” (Oddly, he also charged that they have unduly “elevated” FDR’s internment of Japanese-Americans above Japan’s human rights abuses.)

More recent attempts to politicize America’s response to the Holocaust have typically approached the issue from the opposite angle.

For Dr. Ariel Hurwitz (in his 2011 book Jews Without Power), it’s all a plot to wean Jewish voters away from the Democratic Party. The explanation for “the bitter criticism by Roosevelt’s detractors,” according to Hurwitz, is that “Roosevelt symbolizes the connection of Jews with the Democratic Party and with a liberal political outlook. Many today assail that connection and outlook, and attempt to prove that such an approach was wrong from the outset.”

Prof. Deborah Lipstadt has in recent lectures likewise claimed that some criticism of FDR is “a means of trying to pry Jews loose from their contemporary support of the Democratic Party.” Lipstadt’s politicization of the debate goes further and attempts to link it not only to American politics but Israeli politics as well: “It’s not by accident that the critics of FDR and the American Jewish establishment during the Nazi era emerged after Menachem Begin’s Likud broke the Laborite monopoly on power in Israel, with its electoral victories in 1977 and in the 1980s.”

These lines of argument have found their most strident and widely-publicized exposition in an essay by journalist Lawrence Zuckerman in The Nation (in August 2013) and in the new book FDR and the Jews, by professors Richard Breitman and Alan Lichtman.

In Zuckerman’s view, historians who mention the disunity among American Jews in the 1940s are implying “that today’s American Jews should not allow themselves to be divided on Israel” and therefore should not support “a settlement freeze and a withdrawal from the West Bank.” Zuckerman claims that critics of America’s abandonment of the Jews are trying to “equate the Jews of contemporary Israel with the victims of the Holocaust” in order to build support for Israeli policies.

Breitman and Lichtman use a similar argument to frame their new book-length defense of Roosevelt. They begin the book with a warning that “Conservative backers of modern-day Israel” are pointing an accusing finger at FDR as an example of “indifference to Jewish peril” that threatens Israel. They conclude the book by accusing President George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of “seizing” upon America’s failure to bomb Auschwitz as “justification” for policies that Bush and Netanyahu have advocated, such as action against Iranian nuclear weapons.

What all these interpretations of the criticism of FDR share is a profound misunderstanding of who criticized the Roosevelt administration then, who has criticized it in retrospect, and why. Whether they are political conservatives who see it as “America-bashing,” political liberals who see it as an attack on the Democratic Party, or dovish Zionists who see it as an assault on the Israeli Labor Party, the politicizers of America’s response to the Holocaust simply get it all wrong.


Since it was the political newsweekly The Nation that published both Lawrence Zuckerman’s essay (and through its book publishing arm) the aforementioned book by Robert Rosen, it is more than a little ironic that one of the harshest critics of FDR’s Jewish refugee policy at the time was–The Nation.

In early 1943, at the very height of the Holocaust, Nation editor Freda Kirchwey, in a signed editorial, wrote:

“You and I and the President and the Congress and the State Department are accessories to the crime and share Hitler’s guilt. If we had behaved like humane and generous people instead of complacent, cowardly ones, the two million Jews lying today in the earth of Poland and Hitler’s other crowded graveyards would be alive and safe. And other millions yet to die would have found sanctuary. We had it in our power to rescue this doomed people and we did not lift a hand to do it—or perhaps it would be fairer to say that we lifted just one cautious hand, encased in a tight-fitting glove of quotas and visas and affidavits, and a thick layer of prejudice.”

The Nation spoke out early and vociferously for U.S. action to rescue Europe’s Jews. After the 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom in Germany, the journal called for admission to the U.S. of at least 15,000 German Jewish refugee children. (The administration declined to endorse the proposal.) The Roosevelt administration’s refugee policy “is one which must sicken any person of ordinarily humane instinct,” Kirchwey wrote in 1940. “It is as if we were to examine laboriously the curriculum vitae of flood victims clinging to a piece of floating wreckage and finally to decide that no matter what their virtues, all but a few had better be allowed to drown.”

In 1944, Kirchwey wrote that the millions of European Jews already killed were victims of both “Nazi ferocity and Allied indifference. It is untrue to say that little could have been done, once the war was started, to save the Jews of Europe. Much could have been done. At most stages Hitler was willing to permit his Jewish victims to substitute migration for deportation and death. But the other countries refused to take in refugees in sufficient numbers to reduce by more than a fraction the roll of those destined to die.” 

The Nation was far from the only voice on the left challenging FDR on the Jews. The other major liberal political newsweekly, The New Republic, was equally outspoken on the issue. One 1943 editorial warned that if the Allies remained indifferent, “they will make themselves, morally, partners in Hitler’s unspeakable crimes…If the Anglo-Saxon nations continue on their present course, we shall have connived with Hitler in one of the most terrible episodes of history…If we do not do what we can, our children’s children will blush for us a hundred years hence.” The August 30, 1943 issue included an extraordinary 20-page supplement titled “The Jews of Europe: How to Help Them” –a direct rebuke to the Roosevelt administration’s claim that nothing could be done to help the Jews except winning the war. “It is not yet too late,” the editors wrote, “to retrieve ourselves and to prevent our being recorded in history as the tacit accomplices of this most terrible of all crimes.”

Meanwhile, famed investigative journalist I.F. Stone, writing in the liberal New York City daily PM, suggested that President Roosevelt, in his apathetic response to the persecution of Europe’s Jews, was guilty of “an unwillingness to do more than indulge in sentimental gestures when confronted by human suffering.” Melvin Lasky, in the pages of another prominent journal of the left, The New Leader, accused the American and British governments of “sympathetic mumbo-jumbo and do-nothingism” and “a disgraceful moral emptiness.”


Part of the debate over America’s response to the Holocaust has revolved around the activities of the Bergson Group, a coalition of activists who used newspaper ads, rallies, and Capitol Hill lobbying to challenge Roosevelt’s refugee policy.

The politicizers routinely apply the label “right wing” to the Bergsonites, forcing them into a simplistic right-versus-left framework. Blurring Zionist politics and American politics, the “right wing” label makes it appear that everyone in the story divides neatly into two camps: FDR, the Democratic Party, the Israeli Labor Party and Jewish liberals on one side; the Bergson Group, the Republicans, the Likud, and assorted Jewish and Christian conservatives on the other side.

But that division simply never existed.

The core leaders of the Bergson Group were a handful of Zionist activists in Europe and Palestine who were affiliated with the militant Irgun Zvai Leumi underground. Hillel Kook (who in the U.S. adopted the name Peter Bergson), Samuel Merlin, Eri Jabotinsky, Yitshaq Ben-Ami, and Alex Rafaeli were followers of the founder of Revisionist Zionism, Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky. But they were active in the Irgun, not the Revisionist Zionist party.

The distinction between the Irgun and the Revisionists may seem subtle, and apparently it has been lost on some less than scrupulous historians. But it is, in fact, a distinction of some significance. The Irgun was an illegal militia devoted, in the 1930s, to fighting Palestinian Arab terrorists and smuggling Jews from Europe to Palestine and, in the 1940s, to armed revolt against the British occupation of Palestine. Unlike the Revisionist Party, the Irgun did not take positions on social and political issues. Revisionists, with their embrace of free market capitalism and demands for compulsory arbitration for labor disputes, might justly be regarded as “right wing,” as against the left-wing Labor Zionists, who championed socialism and class struggle. Participation in the Irgun, by contrast, did not necessarily make one “right-wing” in Zionist politics and, indeed, more than a few Irgunists (as well as members of its splinter faction, the Stern Group) later became prominent on the Israeli left. Kook and Merlin, in fact, were among the earliest advocates (circa 1974) of creating a Palestinian Arab state in the territories Israel won in the 1967 war.

If the Bergson Group activists were not automatically attached to right-wing positions in the world of Zionist politics, they exhibited even less loyalty to the “right” when they operated on the American scene. The individuals whom they recruited to the leadership circle of their U.S. movement typically came from the left. Playwright Ben Hecht, who authored the group’s most famous and controversial newspaper ads, was active in numerous progressive causes, especially black civil rights. Another Bergson Group leader, Harry Selden, later co-founded (with Eleanor Roosevelt) the leftwing National Committee for an Effective Congress. Bergson’s Washington, D.C. lobbyist, Maurice Rosenblatt, created the Anti-McCarthy Clearing House. Illustrator Arthur Szyk, who was known as the group’s “one-man art department,” found himself accused by the House Un-American Activities Committee of supporting Communist front groups (and suffered a fatal heart attack as a result). Another senior official of the Bergson Group, Sidney Kluger, had co-chaired Students for Roosevelt for Governor (of New York) and was a lifelong friend of Henry Wallace.

The roster of endorsers who appeared on the Bergson Group’s letterhead and newspaper ads was remarkably bipartisan: there one found arch conservative newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst alongside FDR’s own Interior Secretary, Harold Ickes; Republican and Democratic congressmembers alike; prominent African-American, Irish-American, and Italian-American political and cultural figures; and authors and intellectuals from across the political spectrum. Far from being a “right-wing” cause, the Bergsonites demonstrated that rescue was one issue that transcended ordinary political labels. They built a veritable rainbow coalition for rescue.

A similar bipartisan spirit was very much in evidence when my organization, The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, several years ago organized a petition to Yad Vashem, urging recognition of the Bergson Group. The petition was signed by prominent Israelis from across the political and religious spectrums: Meretz Party leaders Shulamit Aloni and Yossi Beilin along with rightwing political figures Moshe Arens and Shmuel Katz; leftwing cultural notables David Grossman and A.B. Yehoshua next to nationalist intellectuals such as Yossi Ahimeir of the Jabotinsky Institute and Yisrael Medad of the Begin Center; arch-secularist author Yoram Kaniuk and United Torah Judaism Knesset Member Rabbi Avraham Ravitz; and the former president and deputy president of the Israeli Supreme Court, Meir Shamgar and Mishael Cheshin. The following year, a separate petition to Yad Vashem on the same issue, but signed only by American rabbis, again reflected this remarkable consensus: its 400 signatories featured Union for Reform Judaism president Rabbi Eric Yoffie alongside Yeshiva University chancellor Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, Jewish Theological Seminary dean Rabbi Daniel Nevins, and Reconstructionist Rabbinical College president Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz.


Contrary to Deborah Lipstadt’s theory connecting criticism of FDR or the American Jewish leadership to the election of Menachem Begin in 1977, many of the historians in question not only preceded Begin but in fact came from the camp of his political rivals. In 1968, for example, Prof. Yehuda Bauer, well known as a man of the left, criticized the Roosevelt administration’s response to the Holocaust and added, “[I]t is somewhat difficult to put all the blame for complacency on British or American statesmen, some of whom could not exactly be described as friends of the Jews, when Jewish leaders made no visible attempt to put pressure on their governments for any active policy of rescue.”

Prof. Henry Feingold, whose 1970 book The Politics of Rescue concluded that “European Jewry was ground to dust between the twin millstones of a murderous Nazi intent and a callous Allied indifference,” was for many years chairman of the Labor Zionists of America. Dr. Martin Gilbert, who has described himself as “a supporter of the [Israeli] Labor Party,” wrote in his 1981 book, Auschwitz and the Allies, that the Roosevelt and Churchill administrations were guilty of “failures of imagination, of response, of Intelligence, of piecing together and evaluating what was known, of co-ordination, of initiative, and even at times of sympathy.”

Prof. Arthur Hertzberg, the historian, Jewish leader, and outspoken critic of Begin, wrote in 1984 that the Roosevelt administration and the other Allies “were well and currently informed about the tragic fate of the Jews, certainly by 1942, and did little to mitigate it.” The Israeli Holocaust education group Lapid, which is far from the Likud on the political spectrum, staged a mock trial in 1990, in which the Allies were found by the presiding judge to have abdicated both their “legal obligation” and their “moral obligation” to bomb the death camps. The judge was Labor Party Knesset Member Shimon Shetreet.

Contemporary Labor Zionists who have questioned America’s response to the Holocaust are actually following in their movement’s tradition. The U.S. Labor Zionist monthly Jewish Frontier blasted the Allies’ 1943 Bermuda conference on refugees as “one of the outstanding moral fiascos of this war,” and bluntly criticized the Roosevelt administration for “refusing to do anything effective for the rescue of the European Jewish refugees.” The editors of the Labor Zionist youth movement journal Furrows in 1943 likewise accused the British and American governments of having “refused to take any practical steps towards saving the Jews of Europe from the hands of the Nazi murderers.” Furrows called FDR’s admission of 982 refugees in 1944 “tragi-farcical,” and Labor Zionist official Marie Syrkin denounced Roosevelt’s gesture as “impressive neither as a practical measure of alleviation nor even as a gesture.”


As for the suggestion that critics of FDR are trying to woo Jewish voters away from the Democratic Paraty, consider what some of the most prominent Democrats have said on the subject. Then-Vice President Walter Mondale, in a 1979 speech, called President Roosevelt’s 1938 refugee conference in Evian, France, a “legacy of shame.” He said the U.S. and other participants in the conference, by refusing to open their doors to Jews fleeing Hiter, “failed the test of civilization.” 

Since Prof. Richard Breitman is based at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, he must know that at the museum’s opening in 1993, then-President Bill Clinton pointed out in his keynote address that under the Roosevelt administration, “doors to liberty were shut and even after the United States and the Allies attacked Germany, rail lines to the [death] camps within miles of militarily significant targets were left undisturbed.” He has also called FDR’s rejection of the refugee ship St. Louis “one of the darkest chapters in United States history.”

Then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, in her recent autobiography, recalled how she broke with a Democratic president over human rights (in China) and described with pride how her father,  Democratic congressman Thomas D’Alesandro, broke with FDR over the Holocaust: “Although he was a New Deal Democrat and followed Franklin D. Roosevelt’s lead, there was one area in which he disagreed with the administration. Daddy supported an organization called the Bergson Group, which had rallies, pageants, and parades focusing attention on the plight of European Jews during World War II and calling for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, which was not yet the administration’s policy.”

Former presidential nominee George McGovern, in a 2004 interview, discussed the missions he flew near Auschwitz as a young bomber pilot in 1944: “Franklin Roosevelt was a great man and he was my political hero. But I think he made two great mistakes in World War Two” — the mass internment of Japanese-Americans without due cause, and the decision “not to go after Auschwitz…God forgive us for that tragic miscalculation.” McGovern said: “There is no question we should have attempted…to go after Auschwitz. There was a pretty good chance we could have blasted those rail lines off the face of the earth, which would have interrupted the flow of people to those death chambers, and we had a pretty good chance of knocking out those gas ovens.”

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Certainly there are political leaders who see aspects of America’s response to the Holocaust as buttressing their positions on some contemporary issues. There is nothing inappropriate about that. If they were pretending to be objective historians or journalists, while distorting the historical record to support their political positions, that would be wrong. But they are political leaders who openly take a particular position and sincerely believe the historical record validates their perspective.

Benjamin Netanyahu surveys the failure of the Free World to rescue Jews from the Nazi genocide and fears the international community cannot be relied upon to rescue Israel from Iranian threats of nuclear genocide. Shimon Peres made the same point in his 2010 Yom HaShoah address at Yad Vashem. Then-Foreign Minister Golda Meir, speaking at the United Nations in 1956, explained Israel’s military action against Egypt by recalling the world’s apathy in the 1930s when “a dictator arose who, like this disciple of his [Nasser], informed the world in advance of his bloodthirsty plans…the people of Israel are not likely to forget what the threat of total extermination means.” For that matter, Obama administration officials cited America’s weak response to the Rwanda genocide to justify intervention in Libya.

Ultimately, the attempts to politicize FDR’s response to the Holocaust fall flat because they ignore the reality of the broad consensus–then and now–that the Roosevelt administration’s response was severely flawed. This is a perspective that cuts across party lines. Prominent Democrats as well as Republicans, Jewish liberals and conservatives, Likud and Labor supporters alike refuse to return to the days when criticism of FDR was unthinkable and dissidents such as the Bergson Group were shunned and written out of the history books.

August 2013