FDR and the Jews by Richard Breitman & Allan Lichtman. Harvard University Press, 2014 paper.

There has been considerable speculation about Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s reluctance to deal with the refugee problem that arose in the 1930s with the triumph of the National Socialist Regime in Germany. Why did the Roosevelt Administration not do more to assist Jewish refugees fleeing Europe? In fact, that Administration failed to take any action that would indicate its disapproval of the Nazi Regime, at least, not until Kristallnacht in 1933. Was this due to indifference?

It must be remembered that there were huge numbers of unemployed in the U.S. at this time, and it was difficult to talk about admitting refuges that would only add to the jobless figures. As governor of New York for a term in 1928, Roosevelt had dealt with significant unemployment and not always successfully.

The authors of FDR and the Jews, Richard Breitman and Allan Lichtman, believe that Roosevelt’s response to Adolf Hitler is better understood by dividing it into phases. Roosevelt and his Administration were initially bystanders concerned about the crisis in Europe but unwilling to get involved as suggested by their response to the MS St. Louis.

In 1939 the MS St. Louis, a luxury liner with 900 Jewish refugees on board, attempted to land its desperate passengers first in this country, then Havana. We would only admit as many refugees as the quotas from Germany and Austria-Hungary would allow. FDR worried that the admission of any additional European Jews would jeopardize support for his New Deal legislation.

We then attempted to getting around our immigrant restrictions by trying to find other opportunities and homes for Jews in other countries, and particularly Palestine. Palestine had been considered by European Zionists as the most desirable destination for Jewish refugees because they would face less Anti-Semitism there. But to promote this alternative, Roosevelt would have to gain the permission of the British. The Brits were, at this time, trying to convince the Arab world to drop their long resistance to granting permission to Jews who wished to settle in Palestine but with little success. Bought or seized from Arab pastoralists and arborists, the land would be used to establish agricultural colonies. It was argued that Jews settled in agricultural kibbutzim and following better farming practices would make more efficient use of the land than the herders and orchard keepers that were occupying this dry land.

Roosevelt became more alarmed after the Germans invaded Poland and began deporting its Jewish population. However, emigration to Palestine was not a likely solution since Polish Jews were not farmers but merchants and traders. We had hoped that Latin American countries would accommodate and make good use of those Jews who had applied for admission to the U.S.  By 1939, there was a waiting list of six thousand for American entry.

Any alternative required Roosevelt to confront Anti-Semitism in the U.S. Our ambassador to the United Kingdom at the time, Joseph Kennedy, father to a subsequent U.S. president, was a pronounced Anti-Semite, arguing that we should not allow Germany’s  “Jewish problems” to get us involved in a European war. We should stay out of the war, unless we were attacked. He and others in the Roosevelt Administration were also responding to a new and unfounded fear of foreign spies and saboteurs.

Congress responded to this pacifist sentiment by passing the Neutrality Acts of 1935-1939 banning shipments of food and war materiel to belligerents. But the Act failed to satisfy the isolationists.

The Roosevelts, Franklin joined by Eleanor, stuck to their argument that the best way to save Jewish lives was to win the war as quickly as possible. But the U.S. kept to its neutrality, unwilling to take any action that would appear otherwise. We refused the offer of exchanging trucks for Jewish lives. We refused to bomb the approaches to death camps – Auschwitz and others. We did not intervene in Adolf Eichmann’s horrendous murder of Hungarian Jewry in 1944.

By 1944 FDR was formulating the ground rules for a postwar international peace-keeping body. (Though the war had not yet been won!) He asked that nations outside of the French-British entente should have a voice. These countries demanded the creation of post-war institutions that would ensure a peaceful future.

Toward the end of FDR and the Jews, the authors ponder an important point. If the judgment of any historical period is corrected by its posterity, then it is no less true that the present has the opportunity to shape that historic past as well.

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