Society (May 10, 2014)
Among American presidents, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt confronted the most agonizing challenges of reconciling politics and morality. For Lincoln, preserving the Union, whether or not it was stained by slavery, was paramount. Yet within two years of taking office the moral imperative of human freedom dictated his Emancipation Proclamation, even though its scope was confined to the very states whose secession had removed them from the reach of presidential authority. For Roosevelt, the devastation of the Depression and the looming danger of world war molded his political agenda. But the moral imperative of coming to the rescue of European Jews confronting annihilation, or even proclaiming his concern for them, eluded him and continues to indelibly stain his presidential record.
Lincoln has been revered for wrestling with the agonizing contradiction of human slavery in a nation whose Declaration of Independence proclaimed equality. Roosevelt continues to encounter intense criticism for his “abandonment of the Jews” (the title of historian David Wyman’s scathing indictment published nearly two decades ago). To the enduring shame of the United States, and its 32nd president, the memorable words of Emma Lazarus inscribed on the Statue of Liberty as the credo of the American promised land - “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” – were callously ignored while six million Jews were systematically exterminated. Yet Roosevelt’s most devoted, indeed reverential, supporters were then – and have remained ever since - American Jews.
Two new books add fuel to the fire of debate over the failure of the Roosevelt administration to respond to the Holocaust. FDR and the Jews, by Professors Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman of American University, stakes out the historiographical and moral middle ground between critics of Roosevelt’s dismal failure to rescue Jews and his unabashed defenders. FDR and the Holocaust by Rafael Medoff, founding director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, offers a sharp critique both of Roosevelt and the scholars who continue to absolve the president for his indifference to the looming annihilation of German, and eventually all European, Jews.
Roosevelt’s perception of Jews, Breitman and Lichtman recognize, had been nurtured within the conventional anti-Semitism of his aristocratic Hyde Park family and social class. As a New York state senator in 1912 he linked human progress to the “Aryan races.” A decade later he supported Jewish quotas at Harvard, his alma mater. In his first term, the authors concede, Roosevelt was a “bystander,” responding only tepidly, at best, to Nazi persecution while he was preoccupied with the domestic economic catastrophe of the Depression. In 1933 he informed William E. Dodd, his new ambassador to Germany, that persecution of Jews was “not a [US] government affair.”
The consequences of Roosevelt’s indifference were catastrophic. In the mid-1930s, only 20% of the American quota level for immigrants from Germany was met, depriving 60,000 German Jews of admission to the United States even under existing stringent immigration laws. After Kristallnacht (November 1938), when Jewish lives, synagogues and business were destroyed by rampaging Nazi mobs, Roosevelt would not press Congress to ease immigration restrictions. With war – and an election - approaching, he “sought to avoid giving any speck of credibility to the charge that Jews dictated his pro-Allied policies.”
Eventually, the authors claim, Roosevelt “shifted course and ministered to Jewish concerns,” loosening immigration restrictions and promoting plans to safely resettle European Jews (anywhere but in the United States). But even as Nazi persecution became mass murder, the president would not “jeopardize his political fortunes.” His cohort of Jewish advisers - Samuel Rosenman, Louis D. Brandeis, Herbert Lehman, Felix Frankfurter, Joseph Wyzanski, Benjamin Cohen – provided, at best, “wary counsel” on Jewish issues. He urged the British government to admit more Jews to Palestine, but his “hopes and efforts” to move German Jews to other countries excluded the United States. In a tortured multicultural evasion that any modern academic administrator would recognize, Roosevelt cited “the many religions that Hitler sought to abolish,” including Protestants, Catholics, Mohammedan, Hindu, Buddhist - and Jewish.
Three episodes provide the ultimate litmus test for Roosevelt’s enduring indifference to desperate European Jews who were seeking refuge from annihilation: the refugee ship SS St. Louis; establishment of the War Refugee Board; and the decision not to bomb the rail lines into Auschwitz or the gas chambers and crematoria that implemented Hitler’s Final Solution.
In May 1939 Cuban authorities denied entry to nearly one thousand German Jewish refugees who had arrived in Havana harbor from Hamburg on board the S.S. St. Louis. After a week of futile negotiation, during which a passenger from Buchenwald slit his wrists and jumped off the ship in despair, the captain steered the vessel along the coast of Florida toward Miami. Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. tried to persuade State Department officials, including Secretary of State Cordell Hull, to find a solution that would avoid the return of the refugees to Germany. But “politically pragmatic” Roosevelt, write Breitman and Lichtman, “decided not to risk political jeopardy through an uncertain battle with Congress over the fate of the St. Louis.” This was “a debatable judgment,” they conclude, “but cannot be interpreted as indifference to Jewish refugees.” Really?
“There is no truth to the notion,” they claim, “that American officials ordered the coast guard to prevent any passengers from reaching American shores.” That, however, is not the shared memory of four SS St. Louis survivors, revealed after publication of FDR and the Jews: “We saw the Coast Guard planes that flew around the ship to follow its movements. We saw the Coast Guard cutter that trailed us and made sure the St. Louis did not come close to the Florida coast. We heard the cutter blaring its warning to the St. Louis to stay away.” They conclude: “The Coast Guard planes and cutter were tragic symbols of a coldhearted government decision. It was President Franklin Roosevelt who decided our fate.” (http://www.stlouislegacyproject.org)
The establishment of the War Refugee Board (1943) marked a significant, if ultimately inadequate, turning point. Pressured by Morgenthau, Roosevelt acceded to its creation. But its work was impeded by presidential indifference, inadequate funding, and military concerns lest the war effort be undermined by attempts to save Jews. At best, Breitman and Lichtman acknowledge, the Board could “deploy the power of words.” They note that even Winston Churchill’s Cabinet did not create such a board, a comparison that “must weigh into any retrospective judgment.” Endorsing a declaration against Nazi atrocities, Board members hoped for “a strong declaration by the President.” It never came. That, too, must be weighed.
Instead, Roosevelt merely stated at a press conference that not enough refugees had escaped from Nazi-occupied territory to consider their admission to the United States. Only after the successful D-Day invasion in 1944 did he agree to the transport of one thousand refugees, mostly women and children, from Italy. With Roosevelt’s pledge that they would leave the United States when the war ended, they were confined to a camp in upstate New York.
Two months earlier, Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler had escaped from Auschwitz to provide detailed information about its extermination facilities and procedures. With nearly two million Jews already murdered there, and the deportation and annihilation of Hungarian Jews looming, their report was meant to provoke action to prevent further slaughter. American planes were already making bombing runs on German oil factories, some of which were located within five miles of Auschwitz. But they would not even be diverted to bomb the railroad tracks that led to the notorious “Arbeit Macht Frei” entrance sign. Military resources were, however, diverted by War Department officials to protect art, architecture, and Lipizzaner dancing horses.
Roosevelt, Breitman and Lichtman dryly note, “did not generally intervene in strategic targeting decisions.” Since even “key Jewish figures did not lobby the administration to bomb Auschwitz,” they reject any attempt to make American inaction “a symbol of Roosevelt’s alleged failure during the Holocaust.” Conceding, as they must, that Roosevelt “did little” to aid Jews, Brietman and Lichtman nonetheless rebuff “politically charged” criticism from revisionist historians for his tepid – at best – response. But exoneration can also be politically charged, and the passivity of Winston Churchill hardly is the only standard of comparison, or judgment.
In his withering analysis of Roosevelt’s “breach of faith,” historian Rafael Medoff challenges the findings of those who exonerate Roosevelt’s “inaction and indifference” to the plight of European Jewry. Medoff asks pointed, and necessary, questions: “Why were Jewish refugees turned away, even though America’s immigration quotas were largely unfilled? Why were Jewish refugee children denied haven, while British children were welcomed with open arms? Why did some Roosevelt administration officials not only ignore the plight of Europe’s Jews, but actually obstruct opportunities for rescue?” And why, in light of persistent presidential indifference toward the rescue of Jews, did more than 90% of American Jewish voters support Roosevelt in three presidential elections between 1936 and 1944?
Medoff is the appropriate historian to ask these questions. In FDR and the Holocaust, and in a virtual avalanche of articles since its publication, he builds upon his discoveries in the Central Zionist Archives in Jerusalem to bolster his indictment of Roosevelt. These documents reveal that in 1933 American Zionist leader (and sycophantic Roosevelt loyalist) Rabbi Stephen S. Wise reported “nothing but indifference and unconcern” from the President regarding Hitler’s mistreatment of Jews. Five years later the president, claiming that there was only room in Palestine for 100,000-150,000 new immigrants, urged Wise to consider “a second choice for the Jews.” In a meeting with Jewish Congressmen five years later, Roosevelt expressed his unwillingness to press the British government to cancel its White Paper policy that stifled Jewish immigration to Palestine.
There were alternatives to passivity, even if none proved successful in overcoming Roosevelt’s resistance or Wise’s deference. The Bergson Group led by Hillel Kook, one of the founders of the right-wing Irgun resistance force in Palestine, persistently lobbied government officials and organized massive protest rallies. They were, however, anathema to most American Jews: too loud, too pushy, too “Jewy.” At the suggestion of a senior adviser to Vice President Henry Wallace, four hundred (mostly Orthodox) rabbis arrived in Washington in October 1943, just days before Yom Kippur, to conduct a protest march against the indifference of the Roosevelt administration to the increasingly desperate plight of European Jews.
Predictably, some Jewish members of Congress had tried to dissuade the rabbis from making “their bearded appearances” in the nation’s capital. New York Democratic Representative Sol Bloom advised one of them that it would be “very undignified for a group of such un-American looking people to appear in Washington.” After stopping at the Lincoln Memorial, where they sang the national anthem, the rabbis gathered in Lafayette Park. A delegation was greeted at the White House gate across the street by Roosevelt’s press secretary, who informed them that the president’s busy schedule prevented a meeting. In fact, Medoff recounts, Roosevelt had nothing scheduled between lunch and a late afternoon ceremony at a nearby air base. Then again, the president was only heeding the advice of his close adviser and trusted Jewish friend Samuel Rosenman not to meet with a rabbinic delegation.
Roosevelt’s unresponsiveness to the plight of Jews, Breitman and Lichtman indicate, seems to have served as a model for his successors to emulate. Jimmy Carter did not respond to Pol Pot’s slaughter of one-fifth of his own Cambodian population. Bill Clinton did nothing to stop the genocide of 800,000 Rwandans, and neither he nor his predecessor George H.W. Bush acted vigorously to restrain the Serbian slaughter of Muslims in Bosnia. Neither George W. Bush nor Barack Obama intervened effectively to stop the slaying of innocents in Darfur. Obama remained paralyzed by indecision and inaction in response to the slaughter of 100,000 Syrian civilians by the Assad regime.
The extermination of six million Jews during the Holocaust remains the standard for horrific barbarism toward innocent people – and official American indifference. As Medoff indicates, the debate continues over Roosevelt’s acquiescent culpability. Was it bias or bureaucratic indifference? Was Roosevelt anti-Semitic, indifferent, or merely a shrewd leader protecting his political base? Throughout the pre-war and war years, Breitman and Lichtman conclude, Roosevelt was – for better or worse – consistent: the best way to protect Jews, he insisted, was to win the war. But by 1945, few Jews in Europe remained alive to protect. It is damning with faint praise to claim, as they do, that Roosevelt did more for Jews than any other world leader.
Upon his death the Rabbinical Assembly of America, representing Conservative Judaism, praised Roosevelt as an “immortal leader of humanity and a peerless servant of God.” The veneration of American Jews for the president who did so little for their endangered European counterparts, including their own family members who had remained behind, still challenges comprehension. Are they to be blamed for their cowardice in remaining silent, pitied for their timidity, or viewed with empathy for the nagging dilemma of divided loyalty that plunged them into paralyzing silence?
The American Jewish community was demographically divided. Descendants of the German Jews who had arrived in the mid-19th century were, by 1933, settled, prosperous, and assimilated. But they remained apprehensive lest Jews, whether they were proud Zionists in Palestine or merchants in Venice and peasants in Eastern Europe, would bring opprobrium upon American Jewry. To avoid any insinuation of divided loyalty they faithfully abided by Louis D. Brandeis’s dictum as he rose to prominence in American public life: Jews must demonstrate above all else “loyalty to American institutions.”
Indeed, leadership in the Jewish community required affirmation of the inherent compatibility of Judaism and loyal Americanism. As Joseph M. Proskauer - lawyer, judge and rising leader of the anti-Zionist American Jewish Committee during the 1930’s (and its president during the war years) – asserted: “the Jews of American suffer from no political schizophrenia… . We are bone of the bone and flesh of the flesh of America.” That required Proskauer, New York Times publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger (notorious for burying reports of the Holocaust as news unfit to print), and other distinguished members of “Our Crowd” and Roosevelt’s inner core of advisors, to remain silent in the face of an unprecedented Jewish – and world – catastrophe.
The newer and far larger cohort of American Jews, immigrants and their children with roots in Eastern Europe, demonstrated their loyalty to the United States with their passionate political embrace of Roosevelt. No one experienced the excruciating torments of this devotion more acutely than Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, leader of the American Jewish Congress who counted himself as a friend of the President. Wise knew, as early as 1933, of the “war of extermination that Hitler is waging.” The “timid and fearful German-Jews,” in Germany and the United States, infuriated him. And he had already learned that Roosevelt “has not by a single word or act intimated the faintest interest in what is going on.” Yet Wise remained loyal and deferential to the president, pressing Brandeis (who also remained silent) to speak out publicly about the Nazi menace.
Wise knew that Roosevelt’s Jewish advisers (he had in mind Morgenthau and financier Bernard Baruch) could be “safely trust[ed] not to trouble him with any Jewish problems.” He also knew that the president, “immovable, incurable and even inaccessible” to those who pressed him to act, “has not lifted a finger on behalf of the Jews of Germany.” But Roosevelt, Wise realized, was not the problem. “I wonder how much we have gained,” he lamented, “by walking warily, by being afraid to be ourselves, by constantly looking over our shoulders to see what impression we make upon others.” He predicted: “if we are done in the end, it will not merely be because of the effectiveness of our foes but because of the timidity and cowardice of ourselves.”
“If only he [FDR] would do something for my people,” Wise lamented in 1943. But he would not go public with his concerns. One year later, in a belated moment of anguished self-insight, Wise wondered (in a letter to Justice Felix Frankfurter) “whether I am getting to be a Hofjude [Court Jew].” By then, however, he had long since become Roosevelt’s devoted enabler, willing to relegate Jewish issues to the sideline to protect the president, his own access to the White House, and his leadership role in the American Jewish community.
Historian Henry Feingold, author of The Politics of Rescue, has claimed that any indictment of Wise or American Jews for their failure to mobilize public opinion and pressure on Roosevelt to help beleaguered European Jews “cannot produce authentic history.” To be sure, it was not “realistic” to expect the Roosevelt administration to act to save Jews, even when they floated past Miami on their way back to Hamburg. But why was it unrealistic to expect American Jewish leaders to speak out rather than remain silent when the survival of six million Jews hung in the balance? American Jews were indeed powerless to save Jews in Europe, but they surely were not powerless to protest – loudly – against the Final Solution or the silence of Roosevelt and his loyal Court Jews.
Such was the American Jewish dilemma. The core bargain of acculturation – the repeatedly asserted compatibility of Judaism and Americanism – paralyzed American Jews between 1933 and 1945, and arguably still does. During the worst catastrophe in Jewish history since the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE and the loss of national sovereignty that followed, leaders and their followers, with few exceptions, remained silent. American Jews made their choice clear: they would stand with their president, who provided them with passports to American respectability even as besieged European Jews were denied entry to the United States and condemned to death.
With their silence, American Jews hoped to demonstrate - to anyone (and there were many) who might doubt their loyalty to their new promised land - that they were genuine Americans. But a new generation of American Jews may yet confront a similar quandary. If the survival of six million Jews in the State of Israel is imperiled by an impending nuclear attack while an American president dithers, will they once again cower in fearful silence?