by Rafael Medoff
Another Presidents Day, another whitewash of a president’s “joke” about Jews.
The latest offender is Susan Butler’s Roosevelt and Stalin: Portrait of a Partnership, a recent entry in the very long list of books about Franklin D. Roosevelt. It “describes in meticulous detail the proceedings at the Tehran and Yalta conferences,” according to Kirkus Reviews. The Christian Science Monitor agrees that Butler has “a firm grasp on the details.”
Except for one detail that Butler skipped and the reviewers haven’t noticed: an unpleasant “joke” about Jews that Roosevelt told Stalin at Yalta in 1945. Butler is the latest in a long line of FDR-admiring authors and historians who have omitted or minimized what Roosevelt said to Stalin about Jews.
Ten years after Yalta, the State Department released the transcript of FDR’s conversations with Stalin–but several lines were censored because State feared it would harm Roosevelt’s image if the public knew what he said about Jews. U.S. News and World Report revealed the unpleasant truth: when FDR mentioned he would soon be seeing Saudi Arabian leader Ibn Saud, Stalin asked if he intended to make any concessions to the king, and “the President replied that there was only one concession he thought he might offer and that was to give him the six million Jews in the United States.”
Was the “we-don’t-want-Jews-and-he-wouldn’t-either” spirit of Roosevelt’s remark all in good fun, or did it on some level reflect FDR’s private feelings about Jews? Certainly it was not an isolated instance of such humor. For example, Roosevelt once joked that relatives might suspect his fifth child was Jewish, in view of the baby’s “slightly Hebraic nose.” FDR’s grandson Curtis recalled “hearing the President tell mildly anti-Semitic stories in the White House,” in which “the protagonists were always Lower East Side Jews with heavy accents.”
A number of other major studies of FDR or Yalta likewise have ignored Roosevelt’s remark about Jews, including Conrad Black’s Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom (2003) and S.M. Plokhy’s Yalta: The Price of Peace (2010).
FDR was far from the only president who enjoyed privately sharing humorous stories laced with ethnic stereotypes. A number of his predecessors and successors did, too.
Woodrow Wilson, for example, was notorious for telling jokes about “darkeys” and “coons,” sometimes with a faux accent and occasionally in less-than-private setting such as Princeton alumni dinners. Those remarks have been cited in recent testimony by scholars to the Woodrow Wilson Legacy Review Committee, which is considering demands by student activists to remove Wilson’s name from Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs.
Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were reported –after they left office– to have told jokes involving harsh ethnic stereotypes. Ronald Reagan was once caught in an “open mic” moment, joking about Italians and Irishmen.
As public disapproval of racism intensified over the years, the consequences of telling racist jokes became more severe. Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz was forced out in 1976 after word leaked of a crude joke he told about African-Americans. In 1983, Interior Secretary James Watt resigned after telling a harsh ethnic joke (about “a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple”).
Yet others have managed to weather the brief storms that their racist jokes caused.
Nothing happened to President Obama’s National Security Adviser, James Jones, after he told an unflattering joke about Jewish merchants in 2010. Vice President Joe Biden used a faux Indian accent to mimic telemarketers during a 2012 campaign speech. It was quickly forgotten; Biden’s propensity for gaffes has resulted in a general lowering of the bar when it comes to public reactions to his loose lips.
Presidential candidate Donald Trump, speaking to a Jewish audience in December, joked about Jews being canny negotiators and good at handling money. Even more than Biden, Trump is so well known for outrageous statements about ethnic groups (and many other subjects) that his Jewish remarks caused barely a ripple.
There may not be a clear public consensus today as to what should happen to a public figure who engages in racist humor. But surely the public is entitled to know if a president, or another elected official, has used such language. Presidents Day is a time to celebrate the accomplishments of our presidents, but it can also be a time for reflecting on some of the less than flattering aspects of our presidents’ records–if historians would candidly share that information with the public.