FDR and the Jews, by Richard Breitman and Allan J Lichtman
FDR and the Jews
Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman
The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press
There are some historians who like nothing better than courting controversy. Pick a contentious topic, light the fuse with a highly-provocative argument and watch a public debate (and sales) explode. FDR and the Jews might seem to be such book, except that having picked a hot topic, Richard Breitman and Allan J Lichtman then do everything possible to keep it from blowing up. For this thoughtful and well-researched book is nothing if not a plea for cooler heads to prevail.
Until at least the 1960s, President Franklin D Roosevelt was generally revered by the Jewish community in the United States for his role in the defeat of Nazi Germany. Subsequent historians began questioning FDR’s policy towards European Jews, culminating in the controversial 1984 study by David S Wyman, The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust 1941-1945. Wyman argued that the Roosevelt administration knew about the Final Solution in great detail and yet, in effect, did little or nothing to stop it.
Moreover, its response to those European Jews seeking asylum in the United States was wholly inadequate. As a result, thousands, perhaps even millions, died who might otherwise have been saved by earlier intervention.
Today the historical debate remains intense. “This ongoing quarrel is unforgiving, passionate, and politically charged,” write Breitman and Lichtman. “Conservative backers of modern-day Israel hold FDR out as an exemplar of indifference to Jewish peril and their horror of genocide. The survival of Israel, they claim, depends on avoiding his errors. Liberals, in turn, defend their iconic president from what they see as unfounded smears.’”
FDR and the Jews is an attempt not just to add balance to the debate, but also to see policy in the context of the time. In many ways, the task is not helped by Roosevelt himself. Unlike many later presidents, FDR was at great pains to avoid having conversations taped or even minuted. He rarely took notes himself and did not keep a private diary. So at crucial moments, the archival record is missing or incomplete.
Breitman and Lichtman have mined other archives extensively in an attempt to fill in the gaps. Their conclusion, unsurprising but not unimportant, is that we need to take a more nuanced view.
The authors note that FDR, for most of his presidency, did little to help European Jews, and had policy considerations that mattered more to him. The president worried that overt support for these European Jews, particularly if it meant increased immigration, would have a negative impact on his political position at home. And while “he hesitated, other American officials with far less sympathy for Jews set or carried out policies”.
Still, at times, according to the authors, Roosevelt acted decisively to rescue Jews, often withstanding contrary pressures from the American public, Congress and his own State Department.
His political adversaries, some of them openly anti-Semitic, would almost certainly have been worse for Jews at home and abroad. And, crucially, it was FDR’s decision to lead the political and military opposition to Nazi Germany from 1941 onwards that eventually helped bring the Holocaust to an end.