The basic purpose of FDR and the Jews is to apply “close scrutiny” to two charges leveled against Franklin Roosevelt: “his unwillingness to admit to American soil the Jewish refugees aboard the SS St. Louis in 1939 and to order the bombing of gas chambers and crematoria at Auschwitz . . . His critics have given them emblematic moral weight. We have restored their actual historical significance.” (3) They argue convincingly that there is no evidence that Roosevelt made any decision about bombing the death camp, and that, if Roosevelt had taken executive action to admit the nine hundred passengers on the luxury liner, it might have hindered his eventually successful efforts to amend the existing neutrality act which enabled him to aid Britain in the war he was sure would come. They do not justify all of Roosevelt’s actions or lack of action on refugee matters. My grandmother, who came to the United States as a mother with small children in 1900, used to ask about any news story, “Is it good for the Jews?” Judging from this book, with regard to FDR, Breitman and Lichtman might have said something like: He was better for them than any conceivable alternate.
The book’s basic findings have been, according to the New York Times, generally endorsed by such an iconic Holocaust scholar as Deborah Lipstadt. I presume that most professional historians will similarly agree, as I do, that they provide a useful corrective to the view, given its most important statement in David S. Wyman’s The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust, 1941–1945 (1984) and in the works of less influential historians and publicists, which, in its most virulent form, makes Roosevelt all but an ally of Hitler. The authors note similar echoes in contemporary effusions of AIPAC, Benjamin Netanyahu, and George W. Bush (310–21). I would argue that as a group, the accusatory works mirror similar unwarranted attacks on Roosevelt’s collaboration with Stalin in defeating Hitler that began shortly after the president’s death. Surprisingly there is no detailed analysis of the works the authors attack. Wyman’s name does not appear in the text; he and several of the others are listed in the book’s first and subsequent notes. [End Page 29]
There are, basically, two separate narratives here, and they are executed in two different styles. Pages treating the efforts of Jewish leaders, both famous and obscure, to influence the president and his State Department are thoroughly footnoted, largely from archival sources. Those dealing with the president himself are mostly standard stuff from familiar secondary sources. The authors’ default biographer is the journalist Kenneth S. Davis. They complain that FDR “wrote no memoirs, and left precious few revealing letters, notes, or memos.” (5) But there are more than a thousand press conference transcripts; they cite one. There are twelve fat volumes of public papers; they cite none.
Their portrait of Roosevelt is unconvincing and sometimes slyly snide. After accurately recounting that FDR and his parents eschewed antisemitism and that he denounced it, and citing examples of Eleanor’s well-known slurs about Jews in her correspondence, they posit the contradictory, undocumented claims that: “Such attitudes were rife among FDR’s family and friends” and that “FDR had a common-place white Anglo-Saxon Protestant racial vision for his times.” (17, 13) And in dealing with his personal religious beliefs, they state without adequate evidence that “Franklin’s parents told him stories about his Dutch and Belgian Huguenot (Protestant) and early American ancestors.” (9) They fail to note Roosevelt’s public 1935 letter responding to a Detroit Jewish newspaper which asked about persistent rumors of his Jewish ancestry. Roosevelt, explaining that he was ignorant of the religion of his Dutch ancestors, wrote,
“In the dim past they may have been Jews of Catholics or Protestants. What I am more interested in is whether they were good citizens and believed n God. I hope they were both.”1
They give a good account of FDR’s War Refugee Board...