- American Responses to the Holocaust:New Research, New Controversies
The past decade has witnessed a surge of new scholarship concerning the responses of the American government, and American Jewry, to the Holocaust. Although only a small number of historians are actively engaged in this field, new research by this handful of veteran scholars, together with that of several newcomers, has shed fresh light on a number of important historical controversies. These include U.S. policy toward Nazi Germany in the 1930s; the search for havens for refugees, efforts by Jewish activists to influence American policy; the relationship between American Jewry and President Franklin D. Roosevelt; and, the most-discussed topic in this genre, the failure to bomb Auschwitz. Broadly speaking, the latest research reflects two trends. One is the uncovering of additional evidence that the Roosevelt administration squandered rescue opportunities and that some of its officials were motivated not only by political calculations but also by baser sentiments. The other concerns previously unknown instances of individual American diplomats, refugee advocates, and journalists attempting to aid the Jews. The new research has contributed significantly to scholarly understanding and at the same time has attracted substantial public interest and a widespread recognition that the lessons of those years may be useful in navigating some contemporary policy debates.1
President Roosevelt’s reluctance to explicitly criticize Hitler’s anti-Jewish policies in the early and mid 1930s—for fear of jeopardizing U.S.-German relations—has received considerably less attention than, for example, his later call for “quarantining” aggressive regimes. (His refusal to mention Nazi Germany by name in that famous 1937 speech could be considered telling, however.) A journalist, Erik Larson, recently cast a fresh spotlight on the subject in his New York Times bestseller In the Garden of Beasts, an account of William E. Dodd’s tenure as U.S. ambassador in Berlin, from 1933 to 1937. Admittedly, much of the attention [End Page 379] the book garnered was generated by its revelation that Dodd’s daughter, Martha, was romantically involved with both a Gestapo leader and a Soviet diplomat-spy. Inter alia, Larson brought to the fore new details about an important episode that is mentioned only in passing in Dodd’s published diary. In early 1934, Nazi government officials repeatedly harangued Dodd about an upcoming mock trial of Hitler to be held at Madison Square Garden, at the initiative of the American Jewish Congress. At the conclusion of that March 7 event, the Nazi regime was “convicted” of having “turned its face against the achievements of modern civilization.” Insulted, the Germans leaned on Dodd to prevent a repetition of the protest; he complied by working behind the scenes with presidential adviser Colonel Edward M. House to undermine plans to hold a second mock trial, in Chicago. They convinced one of the main speakers, former ambassador to Germany James W. Gerard, to cancel his appearance. Dodd argued that a mock trial would be inappropriate both because Hitler had decided “to ease up on the Jews,” and because such anti-Nazi protests might increase public sympathy for the Hitler regime. Dodd told House he had personally assured Hitler “that Chicago Jews were not so wild” as the New Yorkers. The second trial never took place. The episode is significant because it helps to illustrate the lengths to which some administration officials went to safeguard relations with Nazi Germany during that period.2
The major American Jewish protest movement against the persecution of German Jewry in the 1930s was a campaign to boycott German goods. Moshe R. Gottlieb’s 1982 study, American Anti-Nazi Resistance: An Historical Analysis, 1933–1941, is the only book-length scholarly treatment of the subject. On the question of the boycott’s impact, Gottlieb concluded that “the boycott hurt Germany . . . in almost every area of German industry, especially exports,” and that, in a few instances, it even resulted in “a temporary halt to the public manifestations of Hitler’s virulent anti-Semitic campaign.” Prof. Melvin I. Urofsky has suggested that the boycott would have had a better chance of undermining Hitler had it received earlier and stronger support from the major American Jewish organizations...