- FDR and the Jews by Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman
This book reflects an ambitious agenda, one that encompasses the examination of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s involvement in controversial issues related to the Holocaust. Richard Breitman and Alan J. Lichtman have ably synthesized existing research, but they have also made use of their own archival research. Readers will be grateful for their dispassionate examination of a subject that has often generated more heat than light.
The theme “Roosevelt and the Jews” has been debated since the 1930s, and especially after the appearance in 1967 of Arthur Morse’s While Six Million Died: A Chronicle of American Apathy. Since then, historians both popular and professional have asked provocative questions: What did the Roosevelt administration do for the imperiled Jews of Europe? Could FDR have done more? Or did Roosevelt “abandon” [End Page 126] the Jews? Could the Allies have bombed the gas chambers at Auschwitz? Did FDR acquiesce in imposing bureaucratic restrictions on Jews seeking entry into the US?
I remember my own first encounter with Arthur Morse’s book. Having been raised in a strongly pro-FDR household, I found his indictment of the Roosevelt administration’s alleged indifference shocking and disturbing. Since the 1960s, the debate Morse helped engender has remained emotional. Still, its tone has grown calmer, thanks in part to the sound scholarship reflected in books such as the one under review.
The authors divide their book into four chronological segments, roughly corresponding to Roosevelt’s four terms. Early on, Breitman and Lichtman discuss FDR’s evolving attitudes toward Jews and their place in the crisis gradually overtaking the West. The authors relate matters of concern to Jews, such as Zionism and domestic antisemitism, to Roosevelt’s political needs. They show, for instance, how calls to issue more visas to refugees foundered on widespread concern about competition for jobs. Still, for a variety of reasons, Jews were gravitating towards Roosevelt anyway; the president had reason to fear a backlash against immigration more than his possible abandonment by Jewish voters. Nor was this confidence misplaced: perhaps four out of five Jewish voters chose Roosevelt over his opponents in 1940 and 1944.
When appropriate, Breitman and Lichtman praise the American president, e.g., for his administration’s role in assisting Jews to find refuge in Cuba and other countries (mainly in Latin America). Elsewhere, they depict a gullible leader not immune to the prejudices of his time and class. In fact, FDR was ill-served by his self-confidence and egotism. The president seems to have swallowed too many tales about the infiltration of Jewish refugee groups by Nazi agents (p. 177); convinced himself that the notorious Breckinridge Long, who lorded over the visa process in the State Department, was not an antisemite; and wrongly believed his personal diplomacy with King Ibn Saud could reconcile Arabs to Jewish immigration to British Mandatory Palestine.
As in so many other areas, when he mused about Jewish issues, FDR paid close attention to public opinion. Only when the electorate seemed ready to accept bold policies did Roosevelt act. The president’s most dramatic commitments to rescue were made only after he had secured reelection in 1944. As the authors put it, “the wartime Roosevelt [1941–1944] had shied away from taking risks on Jewish issues, except for small steps taken behind the scenes” (p. 206). For example, the president had hoped in vain in 1942 that Pope Pius XII would denounce the Nazi genocide, thus making it easier for the White House to do so. The authors acknowledge (but do not explore in depth) FDR’s fear of lending credence to Nazi propaganda that he was waging a war on behalf of the Jews. In other instances, they seem to accept interpretations that exonerate Roosevelt, notably the idea that all Jews in Hitler’s Europe were prisoners whose only salvation lay in the quickest possible Allied victory—a plausible, though overstated thesis from which many scholars...