‘FDR and the Jews’

‘FDR and the Jews’

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt meets with leaders of the Jewish Welfare Board.

In January 1933, Adolph Hitler browbeat and bluffed his way to the chancellorship of Germany. Weeks later, Franklin Delano Roosevelt took the oath for the first of four terms as president of the United States.

Neither could imagine they would soon face off as leaders of the free and fascist worlds. That juxtaposition lasted until early 1945, when the president was felled by a cerebral hemorrhage and the Nazi dictator took his life in a Berlin redoubt.

During the intervening 12 years, the pair stood at the center of cataclysmic events, with the very outcome of Western civilization at stake. No two men could have been more diametrically opposite in their personal, political, moral, or ethical dimensions, and in no sphere were these traits more striking than in their worldview and their treatment of the Jews.

While Hitler’s unspeakable record in this regard has been amply documented and denounced, Roosevelt’s is still being tallied, a subject of fitting and extended debate among scholars, ideologues, and the extended Jewish community. Middle ground is a rare commodity here, but American University professors Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman attempt to stake out just such territory in “FDR and the Jews,” published last year by Belknap/Harvard University Press.

The two historians meticulously analyze and explicate FDR’s personal feelings and appraisal of the Jews as a people; his political calculus and penchant for secrecy in the way he dealt with them as he did with all of his constituencies; and the persistent allegations about what he knew of the Final Solution, when he knew it, and whether he did enough to combat it.

Dr. Breitman and Dr. Lichtman also dissect two of the most contentious accusations against Roosevelt: that he callously prevented the docking in the United States of the SS St. Louis after the German vessel transporting more than 900 Jewish refugees was turned away by Cuba in 1939, and that he failed to order the bombing of gas chambers or the railroads leading to them in 1944, when it seemed feasible to do so.

Their profile of the enigmatic Hudson Valley patrician and master of the Machiavellian arts who forever refashioned the presidency is thoughtful, crisp, and unapologetic. If there are any judgments to render on arguably one of the top three chief executives in U.S. history (Lincoln and Washington are the others; readers are free to rank them), Dr. Breitman and Dr. Lichtman do so with balance and dispassion, showing a sure feel for the fraught, unprecedented situations of the 1930s and ’40s.

FDR clearly exceeded all of his predecessors in support from Jews. He reciprocated by appointing them to key positions during his governorship of New York and the presidency. Fully 15 percent of his choices were Jewish, an astounding number for the time. He also nominated a second Jewish justice to the Supreme Court (Felix Frankfurter joined Louis Brandeis after Benjamin Cardozo’s death) and was so openly groundbreaking that his programs were derisively dubbed the “Jew Deal.”

Perhaps this was due to Roosevelt being shielded to some extent from the anti-Semitism of his privileged class by parents who instilled tolerant attitudes for the times in their doted-upon only child. Roosevelt’s formidable mother, Sarah Delano, even addressed a Hadassah group just before her death.

Despite this, FDR most assuredly indulged in stereotyped banter about Jews as an undergrad at Harvard (where he later voted as an overseer against raising their admissions quota above 6 percent), with his cronies in Albany and Washington, and with Stalin at Yalta. Yet these utterances seem more generic than genuine, flippant reminders of a politically incorrect age and country-club condescension.

By contrast, Eleanor Roosevelt clung to crude anti-Semitic attitudes through her early years, especially during FDR’s Washington service as assistant secretary of the Navy during World War I. She is quoted by Professors Breitman and Lichtman in one particularly vicious reference: “The Jew party [for Bernard Baruch] was appalling. I never wish to hear money, jewels, or sables mentioned again,” and in another, characterizing Felix Frankfurter as “an interesting little man but very Jew.”

However, as her marriage to Roosevelt faltered, her larger world blossomed, and her metamorphosis into a human rights icon gained traction over the decades. She ultimately would surpass her husband in both the depth and understanding of oppressed people everywhere and in her support for Israel. (See the excellent analysis by Warren Boroson in the July 26, 2013 issue of the Jewish Standard.)

After being partially paralyzed by polio, FDR ran for governor of New York in 1928 against state attorney general Richard Ottinger, a Jew. His ticket, which included Herbert Lehman of the then-renowned banking house, carried downstate Jewish and Catholic blocs while doing well among upstate WASPs, a superb balancing act Roosevelt would elevate to national heights four years later, when he won the White House in a landslide.

Dr. Breitman and Dr. Lichtman divide his presidential policies vis a vis the Jews in four phases. The first, lasting until re-election in 1936, was a sort of benign neglect resulting from the domestic exigencies of the Great Depression. FDR kept his criticism of Germany’s growing outrages muted and did not meet with Jewish leaders for more than three years. He was also shackled by Congressional isolationism and the Neutrality Acts, a national mood of hostility to immigration, and an anti-Semitic State Department wedded to the restrictive practices of the Hoover years.

The second phase unfolded in 1937. By now, Roosevelt thought Hitler was mad. German edicts to humiliate and disenfranchise Jews as a race dismayed him. He began issuing executive orders loosening immigration quotas over the objections of the State Department, endorsed a homeland in Palestine for the Jews, pressed the British to keep the immigration doors open there, launched a global search for countries willing to take in refugees, and helped foster the 1938 Evian Conference (largely a failure) on their plight. FDR also was the only head of government to recall his ambassador from Germany after Kristallnacht.

The president also began consulting openly with religious leaders such as Rabbi Stephen Wise, but still felt he lacked political capital to expend on purely “Jewish questions.” His policies, when he left any fingerprints on them, never were described as being formulated to ease their deprivations. They always were subsumed into the greater European refugee and immigration crisis. Adding another layer of complication was the chronic rivalry among American Jewish organizations. A united front in this regard proved somewhat elusive throughout the war.

In the third phase, beginning in 1939, Dr. Breitman and Dr. Lichtman describe a reactive FDR pivoting to security concerns after Germany invaded Poland. Spies, aliens, and saboteurs took precedence over the Jewish refugees of Europe. The president beefed up the FBI, finally managed to loosen the Neutrality Acts, inaugurated a draft, put the nation on a war footing, and pursued the official line that the best way to save Jews was by defeating Hitler rather than by fighting a “Jewish war.” It was during this time of controlled hysteria that FDR ordered the internment of Japanese-Americans.

A flashpoint for the tensions can be seen in the SS St. Louis incident. The German vessel bound for Cuba carried Jewish refugees with what they believed were valid landing permits. During the crossing, Cuban officials bowed to home-grown anti-Semitism (or lack of sufficient bribes) and revoked the papers. The St. Louis lingered in Havana harbor before beginning a waterborne odyssey to give officials in Europe and the United States time to find safe havens for more than 900 passengers. A return to Germany meant sure death.

The Coast Guard did not prevent the vessel from docking in the United States, as has been reported, but it did keep tabs on it. If, as Dr. Breitman and Dr. Lichtman posit, Roosevelt had admitted the passengers, he would have exceeded immigration quotas and enraged Congress while working for revisions to the Neutrality Acts. The White House refused intervention but acted in concert with humanitarian organizations and still-free European countries to find homes for the refuges, the vast majority of whom survived the war.

The events that bespoke the fourth phase of FDR’s Jewish policies began with sporadic reports about the Final Solution originating in 1942 from Rabbi Wise, not the White House. Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau Jr., the cabinet’s only Jew and FDR’s Hyde Park neighbor, grew increasingly frustrated with State Department silence and confronted Assistant Secretary Breckinridge Long.

Mr. Long, an old Roosevelt political ally and probably the single greatest impediment to Jewish immigration over the years, stonewalled as much as he could, exposing his intransigence and virtual stranglehold on visas and refugee flow. This occurred as Jewish leaders lost their only high ally at State when Undersecretary Sumner Welles was hounded from office over imminent disclosures of his homosexuality, allowing Mr. Long and his clique even more sway.

However, the internal dissension and fallout did prompt Roosevelt to create the War Refugee Board in January 1944, representing the first time the government put its imprimatur behind saving Jews and other civilians through the efforts of an official agency. He backed a declaration denouncing the Nazi genocides and also distanced himself from retrograde British policies on Palestine. And the president’s vision of a postwar United Nations with universal human rights began to firm up.

According to Dr. Breitman and Dr. Lichtman, no official request for the bombing of Auschwitz reached Roosevelt’s desk during this period, and American Jewish leaders did not agitate for action. The British rejected petitions for the mission and Churchill wrote only one memo in support. Roosevelt was never one to micromanage his military, and the official strategy of defeating the Nazis first as the best way to save Jews, coupled with the vagaries of “precision” bombing, prevailed.

On his sea voyage home from the Yalta Conference in February 1945, Roosevelt made a personal pitch to King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia to coexist with Jews in Palestine, enumerating why such an arrangement could be beneficial to both parties. He was rebuffed coldly. Two months later, an exhausted, enfeebled chief executive died at his Warm Springs, Georgia, retreat.

Where do we set the bar with FDR to calibrate both his relationship with the Jews and his efforts or lack thereof to save them? Dr. Breitman and Dr. Lichtman establish a series of baselines defined by the political, economic and cultural realities of the day, the priorities of war, and the assets and liabilities of Roosevelt’s dazzling virtuosity.

It should be readily apparent that he did more for Jews at home and abroad than would have Herbert Hoover, Alf Landon, Wendell Willkie, or Thomas Dewey. Or that he won the war faster than any of them would have if they had been commander in chief. All except possibly Hoover and Willkie seemed to lack his instincts on humanitarian issues. And all were woefully short of his political acumen.

Yet FDR leaves many Jews feeling somewhere between disappointment and bitterness. Is this more a function of hindsight and subsequent revelation rather than the drumbeat of real-time history unfolding? Although FDR ached consistently for the Jews, Dr. Breitman and Dr. Lichtman emphasize that he was often hobbled or overridden by his internal political instincts and external political realities, some as unappetizing as his need to get into bed with southern segregationist Democrats.

While this book will not – and should not – still the debate, it adds several layers of complexity and perspective to the FDR portrait. It may even sway certain readers enough to add a plus or a minus sign to grading him out at a B on his handling of the Jewish challenge, although a scholastic mark seems almost pitifully mocking and insufficient considering the enormity of the stakes.

Dr. Breitman and Dr. Lichtman pay their subject grudging respect throughout by noting, as one aide said, that FDR had the ability to turn empathy on and off like a faucet. With the Jews it was mostly on, but, unfortunately, he produced only a trickle when a torrent was needed.

Jonathan E. Lazarus is a former news editor of The Star-Ledger. His parents were ardent Roosevelt supporters and he tends in that direction.

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