May 25, 2014

Did FDR do all he reasonably could to save the Jews?

FDR and the JewsFDR and the Jews by Richard Breitman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An excellent, balanced book that shows that, on trying to save Europe's Jews, FDR was neither calloused and indifferent nor a saint.

The authors divide his presidency into four, roughly but not exactly matching his four terms in office, and look at what he did in each period. They also refute a number of myths, including one medium-sized and one big one.

The first roughly matches his first term. The second runs to about the time of the St. Louis liner in 1939. The third runs to about the time Nazi Germany overran Hungary in spring 1944. And, the fourth from there.

The authors note that the US economy was the first FDR's main concern. Even so, they say that he probably could have done a little bit more in chiding Hitler or more. That said, no country wanted to take in a lot of refugees in general during the Great Depression. That's not to mention anti-Semitism in the US, which was at roughly the level of pre-Vichy France, on average, I think we could say. If I were to give a grade, it would be a C-minus.

On the refugees, post-1924 immigration law had strict country quotas, and an anti-immigrationist Congress, not even counting hardcore segregationists, was in little mood to lift those quotas. This is something to remember later on.

Reassured of re-election, FDR II did challenge the Germans more, and did work, within in the system, to work around those quotas, and to pressure the British to do all they would and could to open up Palestine. FDR was also the only world leader to recall his country's ambassador for consultations after Kristallnacht. A solid B-plus, maybe higher, if I'm giving grades.

The St. Louis liner incident, while leading to FDR III, is more complex than many histories appear. Cuban strongman Bautista did not have absolute control of his country's wheels of power, and Cuba's president and foreign minister rejected the backdoor deal he had cut with Americans with some connection with FDR.

Myth says that all of the passengers went back to Germany and most died in the Holocaust. Reality is that while all went back to Europe, none went to Germany and almost 3/4 survived.

That said, why didn't FDR do more? Because, at this time, he was trying to get Congress to loosen up the Neutrality Act. He was afraid that intervening in the St. Louis would make the desired Neutrality Act changes look too narrowly pro-Jewish.

As the authors note, FDR III was about having the US ready for war, helping Britain be ready for war, and fight the war after September 1939, etc. Jewish issues in Europe were focused through this prism.

At the same time, FDR was already working around the anti-Semites among career staff in the State Department to do something to keep Jewish immigration hopes alive. At the same time, this is when Breckenridge Long, anti-Semitism at State personified, was appointed to one of the top political, non-careerist positions there. The authors don't make clear if this was part of solidifying his in-party stance before officially running for a third term (which he seems to have decided on after Kristallnacht) or what; that's a minor missing point.

After war started, it became harder to do much about Jews still in occupied Nazi territory. But, there was Vichy, before the North African invasion, Spain, and the moral voice of the Vatican. FDR did a moderate job with all.

Grade for FDR III? Flat C?

FDR IV, as noted, was at the tail end of the war. Here we run into the big myth, one that the authors note President George W. Bush perpetuated on a visit to Auschwitz: FDR decided not to bomb Auschwitz, or rail lines from Hungary.

After the Nazis took over Hungary, they did all they could, with Admiral Horthy slowing things for a while in the summer of 1944, to kill its 800,000 or so Jews. Why didn't FDR order bombing of the train lines to Auschwitz or even, even at the cost in Jewish life, Auschwitz itself? (Even some Jews supported this.)

First, FDR himself never heard about this. The idea of doing this got killed in upper levels of the War Department and Army. The authors note that John McCloy's late-life comments otherwise are highly self-serving and unreliable. (After April 1944 or so, the rail lines themselves were very reachable, and Auschwitz itself barely so, by bombers from Italy.)

Possible anti-Semitism of military folks aside, they were already overloaded with targeting requests for their bombers. And both they and FDR felt that winning the war was the surest way to save Jews.

Beyond that, the Nazis quite likely would have found some other way to kill Jews. Pre-Auschwitz, they used guns and mobile CO2 vans in the USSR, after all.

(As for the myth of bombing Auschwitz? Bibi Netanyahu also made that claim, in part to try to justify an attack on Iran. With both him and Bush, the specter of pre-emptive war was in the background.)

The Nazis then thought about negotiating over Hungary's Jews. But the price in US military material plus ideas of a separate peace with the West were far too high to pay, and were otherwise shady.

After that, Hungarians themselves tried some negotiations, but the Nazis ultimately quashed them. As any Jews set free would have to cross German-occupied territory, that was the end of that.

Otherwise, FDR's War Refugee Board, created at this time, did have regular contact with Raoul Wallenberg and helped him with his mission. The authors say that 100,000 Jews may have been saved from Hungary, and 200,000 overall.

Yes, a small amount out of 6 million, or even 800,000. But not negligible. Yes, FDR needed a nudge or two to create this board. But, he did so, he stood by it, and the nudges weren't that hard.

The fourth FDR gets a solid B.

In all of this, FDR continued to run the multiple gantlets (that's the right spelling, folks) of anti-Semitism in general, anti-Semitism and anti-immigrationism in Congress, and the fractiousness of various Jewish organizations, all while pushing against what seemed like the rock of Sisyphus, the anti-Semitism at State. A lot of people don't understand how deep this was. It was the traditional WASPs' anti-Semitism, one that sympathized hard with Britain and tried to get Roosevelt to agree to back a British white paper that would have officially retreated from the Balfour Declaration.

This isn't a whitewash by the authors; it's an honest evaluation of what FDR did, and didn't do, and why, and whether he could have done more.

Over all four terms, within the realities of American politics, the Depression and war, he probably gets a B, no lower than a B-minus.


As for FDR's alleged anti-Semitism? This is largely not true, but rather, people who want to guilt-trip FDR for not doing much, much more to save European Jews, and who pick certain comments of his out of context and distort them. Many of them use Peter Bergson, who comes off in this book as having a tiny following within Palestine and being generally untrustworthy, as a "foil" to show just what FDR could have done. Hogwash. Bergson did help push for the War Refugee Board. He did show other American Jews that they could perhaps be more vocal. Otherwise, he was regarded as an irritant by Jews in both the US and Palestine.

For a good refutation of all of these claims, see this excellent piece in The Nation, that came out at about the time of this book. In general, per this review, be wary of any piece by, or favorably touting, Rafael Medoff.


As for one-star reviewers of this book, on either Goodreads or Amazon? Well, there's Holocaust deniers everywhere. There's also ultra-Zionists everywhere, per the link to The Nation. You'll find other lowball reviewers, that aren't Holocaust deniers, are ultra-Zionists.

View all my reviews

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