Progressives Confront FDR’s Response to the Holocaust

by Rafael Medoff

Note: The Aug.5-12, 2013 issue of the political weekly The Nation features a 3,000-word article denouncing those who have questioned President Franklin Roosevelt’s response to the Holocaust. However, the editors of The Nation have declined to publish the following 900-word reply.

In early 1943, at the very height of the Holocaust, one of America’s most prominent journalists denounced President Franklin Roosevelt’s response to the Nazi genocide in remarkably harsh terms.

“You and I and the President and the Congress and the State Department are accessories to the crime and share Hitler’s guilt,” she wrote. “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.”

This stunning critique of FDR’s Jewish refugee policy was authored by none other than Freda Kirchwey–a staunch New Dealer, Roosevelt supporter, and editor in chief of the liberal political newsweekly The Nation. What Kirchwey wrote in 1943 is particularly relevant in view of The Nation‘s publication, this month, of an essay zealously defending Roosevelt’s response to the Holocaust and claiming that criticism of FDR is all a plot by political conservatives and rightwing Zionists to drum up support for Israel. (“FDR’s Jewish Problem,” August 5-12, 2013)

Evidently the essay’s author, journalist Laurence Zuckerman, was not aware of the Holocaust record of the magazine for which he was writing. It is a record that is admirable–and that completely refutes Zuckerman’s thesis.

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 1941, FDR’s administration devised a harsh new immigration regulation that barred the admission of anyone with close relatives in Europe–on the grounds that the Nazis might compel them to spy for Hitler by threatening their relatives. The Nation‘s editors denounced that theory as “reckless and ridiculous.” Nation editor Kirchwey blasted the espionage claim as “an excuse concocted by the [State Department]” to keep refugees out and “a good story with which to win popular support for a brutal and unjust restriction.”

In 1944, Kirchwey authored a particularly insightful and moving appeal for U.S. action against the deportation of Hungary’s Jews to Auschwitz. The millions of European Jews already killed were victims of both “Nazi ferocity and Allied indifference,” she wrote. “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 Roosevelt administration’s claims that it was impossible to rescue the Jews was just a flimsy excuse, Kirchwey emphasized. “[U.S.] troopships which have delivered their loads at Mediterranean ports could be diverted for a single errand of mercy. Transport planes returning from India or the Eastern Mediterranean could carry out of Hungary the 10,000 children to whom Sweden has offered shelter….The last opportunity to save half a million more lives cannot be treated as a matter of minor concern… [W]e must hurry, hurry!”

In the years since the Holocaust, numerous prominent progressives have followed in the footsteps of Kirchwey and The Nation, by frankly acknowledging FDR’s failings in this regard.

For example, 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 Hitler, “failed the test of civilization.”

At the opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1993, then-President Bill Clinton pointed out 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.” (p.97)

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.”

Prominent progressives have a long and admirable record of honestly acknowledging FDR’s failings alongside his achievements. President Roosevelt’s response to the Holocaust is no more defensible than his internment of Japanese-Americans or his troubling record concerning the rights of African-Americans. Recognizing that fact does not endanger the legacy of the New Deal or diminish FDR’s accomplishments in bringing America out of the Depression or his leadership to victory in World War II. It merely acknowledges Roosevelt’s flaws as well.

(Dr. Rafael Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, and author of 14 books about Jewish history and the Holocaust. His latest is FDR and the Holocaust: A Breach of Faith.)