“FDR and the Jews” Authors Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman Speak at Center for Jewish History
On Thursday, March 7th from 6:30 to 8 pm, distinguished historians Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman delivered a lecture at the Center for Jewish History, moderated by Elizabeth Borgwardt, on their new non-fiction book, Roosevelt and the Jews. Franklin Delano Roosevelt is a hero to the majority of Americans. He is consistently ranked by historians as one of the greatest U.S. presidents of all time and one of the greatest men of the 21st century. With the exception of revisionists on the right who apologize for Herbert Hoover and revisionists on the left who tend to judge historical figures by contemporary moral standards, he enjoys a sterling reputation.
The conventional wisdom is that his war-time leadership of the Allies, and the ultimate triumph over the Axis powers and the Nazis during World War II is confirmation of his greatness, and presumptive proof of his beneficence with regard to the Jews – but is that really the last word on the matter?
Even many ideological opponents appreciate his accomplishments as a wartime president. Against the backdrop of FDR’s deification, his relationship with Jews, especially those who lived during his presidency, is considerably more complicated.
For all his accomplishments, domestic and foreign, the Holocaust occurred on Roosevelt’s watch. He was President from 1933 to 1945, and this greatest of American presidents was unable or unwilling to prevent the greatest genocide of all time. Even as he spoke of Manichean battles between good and evil, Jews perished by the millions, gassed in Nazi death camps or worked to death in concentration camps.
Nevertheless, historians Breitman and Lichtman argue that drawing blanket conclusions about Roosevelt’s complicity in the Holocaust oversimplifies a complex topic with many contributing factors and contradictory pieces of evidence.
Those who have studied Roosevelt’s relationship with American Jewry (hardly a monolithic block) and efforts to save European Jews from the Nazis tend to fall into two camps. One holds that Roosevelt was a hero who risked his political reputation to help save as many Jewish refugees as he could. The other vilifies FDR as at best apathetic about the plight of the Jews and, at worst, a downright anti-Semite.
Breitman and Lichtman claim that both extremes do not hold up to historical scrutiny, although there are elements of truth in both. A focus on the domestic politics of America in the 1930 and 1940s, combined with an examination of Roosevelt’s personal views and priorities, yields a considerably more complicated picture. Past historians (although both speakers were reluctant to name names) have erred in attempting to cast judgments rather than trying to understand FDR as a product of his time.
Breitman and Lichtman make a balanced argument, noting that FDR, as the politician supreme, was careful not to get ahead of what the domestic political consensus would allow. They make some eye-opening points that run counter to the traditional FDR narrative. For instance, of all the parts of his coalition, organized labor was among the most reluctant to allow Jews fleeing Nazi persecution into the U.S. under the immigration laws of that time. He placed the unions’ concern with domestic employment above the welfare of the Jews. He also faced rampant anti-Semitism in the State Department and on the airwaves.
The speakers also discussed the pros and cons of the Jewish interest groups and their strategies to bring public pressure on Roosevelt to raise the alarm about the Holocaust – they credit the differing approaches of both Rabbi Steven Wise and Peter Bergson as being partially effective in moving the public.
The authors contended that perhaps Roosevelt’s greatest mistake, and missed opportunity, was in failing to rally the country during his “first 100 days” period, when his influence was at a peak, and the recent memory of Kristallnacht provided the chance to override the complacency, isolationism, and anti-Semitism that would be a constant impediment to effective action in subsequent years.
If there was any flaw in Breitman and Lichtman’s talk, it was their unwillingness to interrogate the specific claims and methodology of those Roosevelt scholars who fall into the alleged camps of worshippers and haters. Thus, they leave themselves open to the criticism of railing against straw men. In striving for a “balanced approach,” is it possible that Breitman and Lichtman are dismissive or willing to oversimplify the arguments of their peers?
That is a question that this journalist is not equipped to answer. To be fair, however, they only had about an hour to speak and they were likely reluctant to get bogged down in a he-said-she-said historians spat when much of the audience (this writer included) presumably would not be familiar with the works and scholars in question.
Regardless, Breitman and Lichtman make a compelling and persuasive case for their thesis. Furthermore, they deserve to be commended for investigating parts of FDR’s life that are not often tied into his relationship with the Jews. For instance, they deal heavily with his pre-Presidential years, when a lack of public scrutiny meant he was more free to speak his mind. In addition, rather than accepting Roosevelt’s words at face value, they consider such complicating factors as when and to whom the President was speaking.
The former variable is highly significant because at different times in his presidency, Roosevelt was forced to adapt to shifting political realities and constraints. Bearing in mind this crucial and oft-overlooked factor, Breitman and Lichtman divide Roosevelt’s presidency into four distinct periods: the first hundred days, his second term, wartime and late in the war. In assessing what Roosevelt said, did and could have done to assist Jewish victims of the Holocaust, context is everything.
The latter variable, namely the question of to whom the President was speaking, is predicated on the assumption that, like all effective politicians, FDR often told people what they wanted to hear as opposed to what he really thought. Asserting his actual views with any degree of certainty is a difficult task, especially given that, unlike many past and future presidents, Roosevelt did not keep meticulous records of his conversations. The authors note that much historical scholarship on Roosevelt is based on reconstructions of meetings on the part of those with whom he was dealing.
Thus, many of the conversations with advisers and Jewish leaders that Roosevelt scholars have relied upon to make their arguments are in fact reconstructed from second-hand accounts. For instance, there is no transcript of the President’s conversation with Cuban dictator Fulgencia Batista, whom he persuaded to accept some Jewish refugees.
What can be said for certain, though, is that Roosevelt did more for the Jews than other world leaders, including British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, whom the authors notably indicate was all talk and not much action.
Although unwilling to pick a fight with Congress over extending quotas for said refugees in America, Roosevelt went out of his way to ease restrictions for Jews when it came to acquiring the necessary visas to immigrate. If the President truly was an anti-Semite an isolationist, he would not have taken these steps.
Still, the fact remains that Roosevelt did not use the bully pulpit to call attention to the plight of the Jews in Europe, likely because he feared that doing so would harm his political prospects and work against his goal of unifying the country against the Axis. He was wary of playing into his opponents’ accusations that he was pro-Jewish, bolstered by the fact that there were many Jews in his cabinet.
With anti-Semitism and isolationism both prevalent in America at the time, there was a real danger that if Roosevelt emphasized saving the Jews as a reason to go to war, it would undermine his painstaking efforts to forge a consensus for action.
The authors addressed the popular present-day idea of the Allies’ bombing the death camps and train tracks leading into them. Roosevelt’s critics cite that idea as one way the Allies could have reduced the casualties of the Holocaust. If the President was truly devoted to saving Jews, surely he could have proposed such actions himself? Breitman and Lichtman maintain that FDR was not involved in that decision-making process and no key decision maker in the Allied Command ever came close to suggesting or implementing it.
Responding to audience questions, the authors indicated that intelligence at the time indicated that the Germans and their minions were readily capable of repairing the damage quickly and that such efforts were not worth the risk and cost in Allied resources.
Like many great historical works, FDR and the Jews raises more questions than answers. Readers who prefer clear-cut answers and moral conclusions may find this frustrating. However, for those who prefer a more nuanced, objective approach to history that is nonetheless still accessible to laymen, Breitman and Lichtman have put together something truly unique and worthwhile.
The authors mentioned at the beginning of the evening that the role of a “public historian” is above all to tell the truth, and attempt to educate the public in a way that will redound to the general good. This book, and the evening’s events, certainly accomplished that goal.