by Rafael Medoff
The news that former Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau will be one of the keynote speakers at this week’s rally against the Iran deal is significant in more ways than one.
For decades, he has been one of New York’s most prominent Democrats–as district attorney for thirty-four years and, before that, as his party’s nominee for governor. That alone makes his stand against Iran noteworthy, since the battle over Congressional approval of the agreement now revolves largely around whether Democrats will feel that party loyalty requires them to support the Iran agreement.
What also makes Morgenthau’s stance noteworthy is that his view is based in part on his actual experience with Iran’s terror ties. One of the last major cases he pursued as district attorney involved banks that were laundering billions of dollars for Iran. Tehran was funneling some of that money to the terrorist groups Hezbollah and Hamas. When Morgenthau warns that the Iran deal will enable Tehran to increase its support of terror, he is speaking from first hand experience.
Morgenthau’s position also brims with historical significance. In a sense, he is reprising his father’s role of speaking truth to power.
In late 1943, three senior aides to Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr.–all of them non-Jews–presented him with evidence that the State Department had been suppressing news of the mass murder of European Jewry and blocking opportunities to rescue Jewish refugees. They pleaded with him to bring the information directly to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Secretary Morgenthau hesitated. In a postwar interview with filmmaker Martin Ostrow, Morgenthau’s daughter, Joan (Robert’s sister), explained the source of her father’s reluctance: “My father’s relationship with the President was…one of the most important things to him in his life [and] he didn’t want to push things too far…as a Jew he felt that he needed almost to be extra careful to be sure that he was speaking first as an American and only secondly as a Jew…he didn’t want to push it as a Jew.”
But the constant reports about the mass murder of Europe’s Jews weighed heavily on Morgenthau, and the pressure from his staff was relentless. In January 1944, he went to the president. Just at that moment, the activists known as the Bergson Group were sponsoring newspaper ads, holding rallies, and lobbying Congress for action to save the Jews.
In his plea to FDR, Morgenthau pointed to the protests and the growing clamor on Capitol Hill. He urged FDR to create a new government agency rescue refugees, warning the president that if he failed to act, Congress would embarrass him by publicizing his indifference. It was an election year. Roosevelt got the message; he established the War Refugee Board. The board went on to help rescue more than 200,000 refugees in the final 15 months of the war.
Interestingly, there is a connection between Robert Morgenthau, the Iran debate, and President Roosevelt’s response to the Holocaust.
In the past, Morgenthau has strongly defended FDR on this point, arguing that Roosevelt did the best he could to help the Jews. In fact, in a 2011 op-ed, he went so far as argue that since the Allies’ victory in North Africa spared Palestine from being conquered by the Nazis, Roosevelt should be credited with “rescuing” the 500,000 Jewish residents of the Holy Land. (According to that logic, one might say Josef Stalin “rescued” the Jews of Moscow because he defeated the Germans at Stalingrad.)
Professors Richard Breitman and Allan Lichtman liked Morgenthau’s argument so much that they repeated it –even copying some of his language (although without attribution)– in their recent book FDR and the Jews, which strongly defended Roosevelt’s Holocaust record.
Little did they imagine that Morgenthau, of all people, would end up pulling the rug out from under them. Here’s what happened. After FDR and the Jews came under criticism from a number of scholars, Lichtman and another historian told the Jerusalem Post that the real motive of their critics in questioning FDR, is to say, “Look, we can’t trust America! Look how it abandoned the Jews in their hour of greatest need. We should go ahead and attack Iran.”
That was hitting below the belt. Historians should engage other scholars’ arguments and ideas. Speculating –without evidence– on their motives is an attempt to question someone else’s credibility because you’ve run out of legitimate arguments.
Democrats are not obliged to defend every single thing Franklin Roosevelt ever did. George McGovern, for one, took a more nuanced approach. The 1972 Democratic presidential nominee and U.S. senator once said: “Franklin Roosevelt was a great man and he was my political hero,” he said in the interview. “But I think he made two great mistakes in World War Two.” One was the internment of Japanese-Americans; the other was the decision “not to go after Auschwitz…God forgive us for that tragic miscalculation.”
Likewise, Robert Morgenthau is saying, in effect, that Democrats are not obliged to support every single position taken by a Democratic president. Sometimes, a person must voice his conscience and speak truth to power, regardless of party loyalties. That was true in 1944; it is just as true today.