A Modern-Day Haman? Three Candidates from FDR’s Era

by Rafael Medoff

At first glance, Haman would appear to be a unique historical figure. The arch villain of the Purim story used his position as senior adviser to the king of Persia to secure royal authorization for the mass murder of the country’s Jewish citizens, only to be foiled at the very last moment. One would be hard-pressed to find an individual in later history whose actions and fate closely parallel those of Haman.

Still, while it is important to tread cautiously when comparing historical personalities to those of our own times, the whole point of recalling episodes such as what transpired in ancient Persia is to learn lessons for our generation and ensure that such calamities do not recur. B’nai B’rith’s annual “Haman of the Year” award, which has been given to assorted dictators, terrorists, and other perpetrators of atrocities, is based on that premise. With that in mind, it is worth considering whether three particular officials of Franklin D. Roosevelt administration’s qualify as modern-day Hamans.

Candidate #1: Harold Hoskins

The Beirut-born son of American Protestant missionaries, Lt. Col. Harold Hoskins was

a U.S. army officer with a special interest in Middle Eastern affairs. In late 1942, President Roosevelt sent Hoskins to the Mideast to canvass Arab opinion, especially with regard to the Jewish-Arab conflict over Palestine.

Hoskins delivered his report to the president the following spring. The primary threat to the stability of the region, he claimed, was “world-wide [Zionist] propaganda.” Hoskins predicted that “if the issues of a Jewish political state and of a Jewish army continue to be pressed [by Zionist groups] at this time,” the Arabs would respond by instigating “a very bloody conflict” and would drag the Allies into it. This would plant “the seeds of a possible third World War.”

Hoskins argued that the only way to head off such a catastrophe was for the Allied powers to issue a declaration that all “public discussions and activities of a political nature relating to Palestine” were endangering the war effort and should “cease.” Although the administration had no legal means of enforcing such a speech ban, the practical impact of such an announcement would be to tar all public expressions of Zionism as undermining the war effort.  

Hoskins believed the Jews had their own wartime agenda–a Zionist agenda–which would undermine American interests and therefore should not be tolerated. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Haman’s argument to King Ahashverosh likewise focused on the notion that the Jews had a suspicious agenda of their own: “Their laws are different from other people’s; they do not observe even the king’s laws. And therefore it is not befitting for the king to tolerate them.” (Esther 3:8)

The State Department embraced the Hoskins proposal and presented President Roosevelt with the draft of an Allied decree banning public discussion of Palestine for the duration of the war. The president jotted “OK – FDR” on the text and returned it to the secretary of state. The British, who were anxious to muzzle Zionist protests and keep all but a handful of Jews out of Palestine, welcomed the plan. A date –July 27, 1943– was chosen for release of the joint Anglo-American declaration.

In the Purim story, Mordechai persuades the Jewish queen, Esther–his niece– to intervene against Haman. One might describe him as a pioneering Jewish lobbyist. In the Hoskins story, there was no single Mordechai-like figure, but rather an array of Jews who intervened, although not all for the same reasons.

Prominent American Jews caught wind of the plan and were furious. Millions of Jews were being slaughtered in Europe–by this time, the news of the Holocaust had been confirmed–and now the Allies were about to close off any hope that Palestine might yet be opened to those fleeing the Nazis. Congressman Emanuel Celler charged that “the joint statement will, with its ‘Silence, please,’ drown the clamor of the tortured Nazi victims pleading for a haven of refuge.”

American Zionist leader Rabbi Stephen S. Wise hurried to Washington to plead for cancelation of the proclamation–only to hear the president disingenuously claim to be “completely in the dark with respect to such statement.”

While the puzzled Wise contemplated his next steps, other Jewish figures began speaking out. Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. was no Zionist, but he complained that the proposed statement as an attempt “to deprive U.S. citizens of their constitutional liberties.” Presidential speechwriter Samuel Rosenman was anti-Zionist, but he too opposed the declaration. Rosenman reportedly said that if the statement were issued, “the Zionists would inevitably issue a shriek, a public controversy involving Senators, etc., would follow, which would ultimately give the Jews, whether Zionists or not, dangerous publicity as playing politics in a time of crisis.” In other words, Jews would be accused of being unpatriotic.

As in the Purim story, the highest authority in the land changed his mind in the eleventh hour. In the face of mounting criticism from the press and the Jewish community, Roosevelt decided Hoskins’ plan was too controversial, and dropped it.

But this episode did not have a happy Purim-style ending. The concept behind the Hoskins plan–that Jews settling in the Holy Land would lead to Arab violence against GIs in the Mideast–remained fixed in the thinking of the Allied leadership. As a result, throughout the Holocaust, the Churchill government, with the Roosevelt administration’s support, kept the doors to Palestine shut to all but a trickle of Jewish refugees.

Candidate #2: Isaiah Bowman

Time Magazine’s 1936 man of the year, Dr. Isaiah Bowman served as chief territorial adviser to President Woodrow Wilson at the Versailles peace conference, director of the American Geographical Society, and president of Johns Hopkins University. Bowman  arguably was the most prominent and respected American geographer of his time, and by the late 1930s, he was widely known as “Roosevelt’s geographer.”

Bowman first came to the president’s attention through his influential 1937 book, Limits of Land Settlement, which claimed there were virtually no places left in the world to which large populations could feasibly migrate. In the wake of the November 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom against Germany’s Jews, Roosevelt enlisted Bowman to undertake a two-year examination of settlement possibilities for Jewish refugees in South America, the Caribbean, and Africa.

Bowman and his team found virtually every country they studied to be unsuitable for “a large foreign immigrant group.” He warned that if the U.S. undertook “the importation of European population elements” to Latin America, then “we are likely to be charged with the importation of a European quarrel into America.” A better idea would be to “keep the European elements within the framework of the Old World,” he urged the president.

Bowman’s antisemitism was an important part of his worldview. He fired one of the most promising young historians on the Johns Hopkins faculty, Eric Goldman, on the grounds that “there are already too many Jews at Hopkins.” Bowman was convinced that “Jews don’t come to Hopkins to make the world better or anything like that. They came for two things: to make money and to marry non-Jewish women.” Worried that Hopkins was “becoming a practically Jewish organization,” Bowman in 1942 instituted a quota on the admission of Jewish students.

Throughout the late 1930s and into the 1940s, Bowman sent FDR numerous private memos recommending that Jewish refugees be settled only “in limited numbers here, there, and elsewhere…The absorption must be on such a limited scale in any one area that the people already established in the area will welcome the new settlers.” He wrote of what he called “the danger [of] Jewish control…if too many are allowed into the country and particularly the cities.” Bowman also warned the president that Jewish refugees admitted to regions in the Western hemisphere would be “constantly looking around for escape to the cities and particularly to the United States.”

In 1942, the State Department established an Office of Post-War Planning together with an advisory council. FDR chose Bowman to chair both. Housed in the Library of Congress, with a permanent staff of eight to ten and twenty to thirty researchers and consultants, Bowman undertook, at the president’s behest, a series of studies known as the “M [for Migration] Project.” Its purpose was to examine postwar population resettlement possibilities, with a particular emphasis on “problems arising out of racial admixtures and…the scientific principles involved in the process of miscegenation as contrasted with the opposing policies of so-called ‘racialism’.”

The M Project studies echoed Bowman’s personal view that there were no places left in the world for mass settlement, that mixing races was ill-advised, and that the admission of significant numbers of foreigners would endanger America’s racial well-being. “Our civilization will decline unless we improve our human breed. To support the genetically unfit and also allow them to breed is to degrade our society,” Bowman believed. “A people having staked out a territory as we have done in America certainly has the right to look after itself from the eugenic standpoint.” He also strongly defended America’s right to take preventive action “if it decides that its character will be improved by excluding certain populations.”

In its three years of work, the M Project produced hundreds of reports and memoranda, which it distributed to officials in various branches of the Roosevelt administration and positioned Bowman to wield considerable influence. He figured prominently in wartime discussions in both the White House and State Department regarding Jewish refugee settlement issues and Zionism. Bowman strongly opposed the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. FDR remarked to Bowman on more than one occasion “that U.S. policy on Palestine followed [Bowman’s] lead,” although it is more likely that Bowman simply helped reinforce Roosevelt’s preexisting skepticism regarding Jewish statehood.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was far more sympathetic than her husband to the plight of the Jews and the justice of Zionism, although she never made any Esther-like effort their behalf. Bowman did make one noted attempt to influence Mrs. Roosevelt–in a curious episode with slight echoes of Haman’s ill-fated approach to Queen Esther.

What happened was that FDR became of Eleanor’s interest in a 1943 report by Walter Clay Lowdermilk of the Agriculture Department, which found there was room in Palestine for several million additional immigrants. The president asked Bowman to have a talk with her. Bowman was annoyed that the “mischievous” First Lady was meddling in “questions beyond her understanding.” He even suspected that she might be “trying to get [his] ideas” so that she could “disseminate them in Jewish quarters” and thereby incite attacks against him. Bowman explained to Mrs. Roosevelt about what he claimed was Palestine’s limited ability to absorb Jewish refugees, the danger of angering the Arab world, and the risks of America being drawn into a Mideast conflict. He went so far as to characterize Zionism as no different “from Hitler’s Lebensraum.”

To what extent was President Roosevelt influenced by Bowman? Consider the remarks made by FDR at a private White House luncheon with Prime Minister Winston Churchill in May 1943. When the conversation turned to the postwar status of the Jews, Roosevelt spoke to Churchill, with obvious sympathy, about Bowman’s “solution.” FDR explained that he had commissioned Bowman to study “the problem of working out the best way to settle the Jewish question.”  Vice President Henry Wallace, who recorded the discussion in his diary, wrote that Bowman’s recommendation “essentially is to spread the Jews thin all over the world. The president said he had tried this out in [Meriwether] County, Georgia [where Roosevelt lived in the 1920s] and at Hyde Park on the basis of adding four or five Jewish families at each place. He claimed that the local population would have no objection if there were no more than that.”

This idea of “spreading the Jews thin all over the world,” instead of letting them enter America in any significant numbers, strongly appealed to FDR. Bowman’s perspective dovetailed with Roosevelt’s private complaints that many immigrants (FDR singled out Jews and “Orientals”) would never fully assimilate and therefore could not be completely trusted. This perspective likely was what lay behind the president’s policy of suppressing Jewish refugee immigration to America far below the levels permitted by the quota system.

Unlike Haman, Isaiah Bowman did not attempt directly to harm the Jews. But he did contribute to the philosophy that under girded the Roosevelt immigration policy that denied a haven to most Jewish refugees. Moreover, Bowman’s warnings to FDR about Arab opposition helped sabotage a British proposal to the U.S. to temporarily settle some European Jewish refugees in Allied-occupied Libya in 1943. That plan might well have saved at least several thousand Jews.

Candidate #3: Breckinridge Long

The son of wealthy Kentucky horse breeders, Breckenridge Long contributed generously to FDR’s 1932 presidential campaign and was rewarded with the post of U.S. ambassador to Italy. His dispatches to Washington from Rome praised the fascist Mussolini regime for its “well-paved” streets, “dapper” black-shirted stormtroopers, and “punctual trains.” Eleanor Roosevelt privately called Long a fascist.

Congressman Emanuel Celler (D-New York) characterized Long as “cold and austere, stiff as a poker, highly diplomatic in dress and in speech…[and] anti-Semitic.” Celler’s description is supported by entries in Long’s private diary. Long described Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf as “eloquent in opposition to Jewry and Jews as exponents of Communism and chaos.” Long saw himself as besieged by “communists, extreme radicals, Jewish professional agitators, [and] refugee enthusiasts” who were “all woven together in the barrage of opposition against the State Department which makes me the bull’s eye.” In one 1940 diary entry, he complained that refugee sympathizers, who were “largely concentrated along the Atlantic seaboard, and principally around New York” had “joined up with the small element in this country which wants to push us into this war.”

In early 1940, President Roosevelt promoted Long to Assistant Secretary of State, with a wide range of responsibilities, including the visa section. Soon Long was outlining a strategy to “delay and effectively stop for a temporary period of indefinite length the number of immigrants into the United States.” The key, he explained to his colleagues, was “to put every obstacle in the way and to require additional evidence and to resort to various administrative devices which would postpone and postpone and postpone the granting of the visas.”

It was not as if Long was crafting his own policy behind the president’s back. Long regularly briefed Roosevelt on his efforts to suppress immigration, warning the president that refugee advocates were trying to bring in foreigners who “are not of the desirable element.” In a typical diary entry, from October 1940, Long mentioned meeting with FDR to discuss “the whole subject of immigration, visas, safety of the United States, procedures to be followed…I found that he was 100% in accord with my ideas.”

On one occasion, Long personally blocked the granting of visas to 292 German Jewish refugees because he believed they had been pacifists during World War One. “They would have the same attitude about this country as was indicated in the last war,” Long explained to a colleague. “If this country is not worth fighting for, it is not worth coming to.”

Long lobbied the president against attempts by refugee advocates, in 1940-1941, to open U.S. territories such as Alaska or the Virgin Islands to settlement by European Jews. Long persuaded the military authorities to declare the Virgin Islands a closed military zone that it would be legally impossible for refugees to enter.

In June 1941, at Long’s initiative, the administration adopted a stringent new policy of rejecting all visa applicants who had close relatives in German-occupied territory. The new edict affected significant numbers of European Jews.

Detailed information about the mass murder of Jews in Europe began reaching the State Department, from U.S. diplomats in Switzerland, in mid-1942. Long and his colleagues did their best to prevent the information from reaching American Jewish leaders and the press. When those efforts failed, they instructed the U.S. legation in Switzerland to stop forwarding atrocity reports to Washington.

In mid-1943, Treasury Department officials uncovered evidence that the atrocity news was being withheld, and asked Long to provide copies of State Department correspondence on the matter. Long doctored one of the telegrams, in an attempt to hide the instructions that had been sent to Switzerland. His tampering with the document was uncovered by  the Treasury staff, setting the stage for a major conflict between the two departments over the refugee issue.

In the meantime, Long appeared before the House Foreign Relations Committee in November 1943, to testify against a resolution urging U.S. action to rescue Jews. In his appearance, Long falsely claimed that 580,000 persecuted Jews had found haven in the United States since the rise of Hitler, when the actual number of refugees admitted was less than half that figure, and not all of them had been Jews. Exposes of Long’s false testimony by the press and Jewish organizations caused a major embarrassment for the Roosevelt administration.

Meanwhile, aides to Treasury Secretary Morgenthau had compiled a report documenting the State Department’s obstruction of rescue and were urging him to bring it to President Roosevelt. In the Purim story, Mordechai told Queen Esther of Haman’s genocide plan and urged her to speak to Ahashverosh. Esther hesitated to intervene with the king because that would conflict with the palace rule of waiting until she was called upon. Morgenthau, for his part, had always been reluctant to raise Jewish concerns with the president. He had to be pressured by the non-Jewish “Mordechais” on his staff to do so.

King Ahashverosh, embarrassed to realize that Queen Esther herself would be one of the targets of the genocide plan that he had authorized, quickly disposed of Haman. And he went a step further– he “slipped off his signet ring, which he had removed from Haman, and gave it to Mordechai…” (Esther 8:2)

President Roosevelt, embarrassed by the negative publicity that Long’s testimony had generated, demoted Long. And FDR went a step further–he issued an executive order to create the War Refugee Board, the rescue agency that refugee advocates had sought. Secretary Morgenthau and his senior aides were put in charge of the new board. At first glance, it would appear to have been a reversal of fortune reminiscent of the Purim story.

But the parallels go only so far. While the execution of Haman and his supporters rescued Persia’s Jews from genocide, the demotion of Breckinridge Long and the creation of the War Refugee Board did not translate into the rescue of most European Jews from genocide. Roosevelt’s immigration policy remained unchanged; only a small percentage of the quota spaces from Germany and Axis-occupied countries were filled. The War Refugee Board received almost no government funding (90% of its budget was supplied by Jewish organizations), and other branches of government, such as the State Department and War Department, often refused to cooperate with its initiatives. The board’s unorthodox rescue methods did play a major role in saving some 200,000 Jews during the final fifteen months of the war–but those lives were saved despite the White House’s continuing indifference, not because of any genuine reversal of American policy.

And this, perhaps, is the most useful lesson of any attempt to search for modern incarnations of the ancient Persian villain: even if neither Harold Hoskins, Isaiah Bowman, nor Breckinridge Long precisely meet the criteria to qualify as a modern-day Haman, their sordid records amply demonstrate that one need not be a Haman to facilitate Jewish suffering.

March 2016