When Brandeis was “Ashamed” of America

by Rafael Medoff 

He may have been one of his generation’s most enthusiastic exponents of American patriotism, and in many ways he was the very symbol of Jewish pride in the United States, but eighty years ago this month, Justice Louis D. Brandeis bluntly told Secretary of State Cordell Hull that he was “ashamed” of his country. Brandeis’s remarkable conversation with Hull takes on new relevance in the wake of recent attempts by some partisans to rewrite the history of President Roosevelt’s response to the Holocaust.

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The rise to power of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party, in early 1933, was accompanied by sporadic outbursts of anti-Jewish violence that were encouraged by the new regime. American Jewish leaders such as Rabbi Stephen S. Wise harbored no illusions as to the gravity of the situation: “The letters I have seen and the people who have escaped and whom I am beginning to meet tell me stories which make it certain that the half, nay not even a tithe has been told,” Wise wrote to a colleague. “It is hell, truly worse than hell. Only Dante could have pictured the hell which Germany is become.” Some of this information reached the general press. In early March, for example, the Chicago Tribune ran an eyewitness account of “bands of Nazis throughout Germany carr[ying] out wholesale raids to intimidate the opposition, particularly the Jews.” Victims were “hit over the heads with blackjacks, dragged out of their homes in night clothes and otherwise molested,” with many Jews “taken off to jail and put to work in a concentration camp.”

Franklin Roosevelt campaigned for the presidency in 1932 as the self-described champion of “the forgotten man,” a humanitarian who cared about the downtrodden and the dispossessed. When it came to the Jews of Germany, however, FDR showed little interest.

Shortly before Herbert Hoover left office in March 1933, Jewish leaders sought a joint statement from Hoover and Roosevelt against the mistreatment of German Jews. FDR declined to take part.

Hoover nonetheless instructed the American ambassador in Germany, Frederic Sackett, “to exert every influence of our government” on the Hitler regime to halt the persecutions. By contrast, when William E. Dodd was chosen by Roosevelt later that year to replace Sackett, FDR informed Dodd that the persecution of German Jewry was “not a [U.S.] governmental affair” and therefore he should employ only “unofficial and personal influence,” except with regard to the handful of American citizens in Germany. A deeply disappointed Rabbi Wise confided to a friend that Roosevelt “has not by a single word or act intimated the faintest interest in what is going on” regarding the Jews in Germany.

Not only did Roosevelt refuse to speak out regarding German Jewry, but his administration also actively sought to discourage and disqualify German Jews seeking to immigrate to the United States. Although FDR inherited a strict immigration quota system from his predecessors, he made the situation much worse, by going above and beyond the law to suppress immigration below the legally permitted levels.

The annual quota of immigrants from Germany was 25,957, but the excessive scrutiny and extra requirements imposed by the Roosevelt administration ensured that in 1933, the German quota was only 5.3% filled (1,375 immigrants). The numbers improved only slightly in the years to follow.

It was against this background that Brandeis met with Secretary of State Hull in May 1933, at Brandeis’s home in Washington. The justice did not mince words. He argued that FDR should issue a statement openly and forcefully denouncing Hitler’s persecution of German Jewry, “the kind [of statement] W.W. [Woodrow Wilson] would have made.” While emphasizing the moral power of a presidential statement, Brandeis wanted FDR to go beyond rhetoric and open the country’s doors to the downtrodden Jews. He noted with dissatisfaction the sharp contrast between Roosevelt’s restrictionist immigration policy and what he called America’s “nobler past” of welcoming the persecuted. Justice Brandeis went so far as to say that he was “ashamed” of the administration’s refugee immigration policy, indeed that he “felt more ashamed of [his] country than pained by Jewish suffering.”

Sadly, Brandeis’s appeal had no impact. President Roosevelt refused to budge, and the private agony of American Jewish leaders only intensified. “FDR has not lifted a finger on behalf of the Jews of Germany,” Rabbi Wise wrote to a colleague in July. “We have had nothing but indifference and unconcern up to this time.” In November, he complained to another friend that on German Jewry, FDR was “immovable, incurable and even inaccessible except to those of his Jewish friends whom he can safely trust not to trouble him with any Jewish problems.”

Longtime FDR friend and soon-to-be cabinet member Henry Morgenthau, Jr. and New York judge Irving Lehman visited the White House in September 1933 to request a statement about the plight of Germany’s Jews. FDR told them he preferred to make a statement about human rights abuses in Germany in general, without focusing on the Jews. In the end, however, he made no such statement. In the eighty-two press conferences FDR held in 1933, the subject of the persecution of the Jews arose just once, and not at Roosevelt’s initiative. It would be five years, and another 348 presidential press conferences, before anything about the Nazi persecutions would be mentioned again.

Although personally discomfited by Hitler’s treatment of the Jews, Roosevelt was unwilling to strain American-German relations by publicly complaining about such human rights abuses. State Department official Herbert Feis later characterized the U.S. policy of not criticizing Hitler’s persecution of the Jews in the 1930s as based on a fear of “hurt[ing] our chances of securing the cooperation of the Nazi regime in international economic and political affairs and disarmament by interfering to protect the Jewish and other minorities in Germany.”

Still, it hardly should be surprising that the overwhelming majority of American Jews cast their ballots for Roosevelt in 1936 and later. The New Deal embodied principles that strongly appealed to first and second-generation American Jewish workingmen and women. Even if FDR seemed unduly cautious on matters affecting Europe’s Jews, his Republican opponents generally were more isolationist and more sharply anti-immigration. Jewish votes for Roosevelt did not represent an endorsement of his policies regarding German Jewry, but rather an endorsement of his domestic policies and a recognition that on foreign policy, the alternative might be even worse.

Nonetheless, a new book tries to make the case that American Jewish support for FDR is evidence that his policies were good for the Jews. Richard Breitman and Allan Lichtman, in “FDR and the Jews,” assert that at the time, American Jews “thought FDR had done a great deal for persecuted Jews.” Their “proof” is that in late 1938, “a panel of distinguished Jews and Christians awarded him the American Hebrew Medal.” Breitman and Lichtman seem unaware of the time-honored practice –not just among Jews, but among all groups seeking favor with the White House– of heaping praise, awards, and honors upon those in power. In this particular case, in fact, the statement accompanying the medal praised FDR as being “responsible for the Evian Conference.” The conference had taken place just a few months earlier, and it was not yet obvious what a toothless farce it had been. Is it conceivable that any Jewish group, a year or two later, would have given any political figure an award for his role in the Evian conference?

Breitman and Lichtman use the same disingenuous device regarding the president’s mother. Their first chapter opens with a dramatic account of Mrs. Sara Roosevelt receiving an award from a Jewish organization in 1941. This is presented by the authors as evidence that Sara “made friends with Jews and engaged in charitable work for Jewish causes.” Sara is praised for supposedly giving young Franklin “the wise counsel needed to escape the anti-Semitism that was so common among upper-class Protestants.” The book even features a photo of FDR with his mother, accompanied by a caption declaring that “Franklin’s parents instilled in him religious tolerance…”  All of this will surprise anyone who is at all familiar with the personal prejudices of Roosevelt family members, including his mother. Numerous FDR biographers mention this fact and cite such unflattering statements about Jewishness as the one written by Mrs. Roosevelt to her daughter-in-law after meeting Henry and Elinor Morgenthau for the first time: “Young Morgenthau was easy and yet modest and serious and intelligent. The wife is very Jewish but appeared very well.”

How, then, do Breitman and Lichtman imagine they can get away with their revisionist view of the president’s mother?  Presumably they are counting on short memories. It is probably safe to assume that not many readers of “FDR and the Jews” will recall what Prof. Breitman wrote on page 245 of his 1987 book, American Refugee Policy and European Jewry, 1933-1945:  “The president’s mother was anti-Semitic, his half-brother even more so.”

Jewish awards to members of the First Family are a sociological and political curiosity, but little more. A better gauge of American Jews’ private feelings about FDR’s refugee policies are statements such as the ones made by Justice Brandeis to Secretary of State Cordell Hull, and the words of anguish voiced by other prominent American Jews in those dark and troubling years. The fact that Jewish leaders chose to keep their sentiments behind the scenes does not mitigate the moral failure of Franklin Roosevelt to say even a few words about the plight of German Jews or permit them to enter the United States up to the limits allowed by law.

(August 2013)

Published on the web site of the Louis D. Brandeis Society – http://brandeiscenter.com