Rescuing Roosevelt

The editors of this work give FDR far too much credit for his part in pre-WWII plans to save Jews.

Refugees and Rescue
Edited by Richard Breitman, Barbara Stewart McDonald and Severin Hochberg | Indiana University Press | 376 pages | $29.95
A memorable editorial cartoon by Arie Navon in Haaretz in early 1939 depicted an encounter between passengers on two Jewish refugee ships. One passenger calls to the other, “Where are you coming from, brother, and where are you going?” To which the other refugee replies, “To the Black Sea and back.” The poignant scene captured the sense of futility enveloping the Jewish world in the 1930s, as hundreds of thousands of Jews sought haven from Hitler but found all doors closed.
Until now, the virtually unanimous view among historians of America’s response to the Holocaust was that president Franklin Roosevelt did not undertake serious efforts to find a haven for the Jews. In Refugees and Rescue, coeditors Richard Breitman, Barbara Stewart McDonald and Severin Hochberg offer a startling revisionist perspective, in which Roosevelt is portrayed as laboring energetically to rescue German Jewry from Hitler.
“We have found some fundamentally new information about the president’s views and policies before and during the Holocaust,” the editors assert. “[President Roosevelt] conceived a series of initiatives as early as 1938 to resettle all Jews from Europe.”
FDR fancied himself an amateur geographer and was fascinated by the idea of moving large numbers of people from one locale to another to solve some social problem. As a result, when the German Jewish refugee crisis approached catastrophic proportions in 1938, Roosevelt pondered a number of proposals for mass resettlement of the refugees. But to credit FDR for “conceiving” them, as Refugees and Rescue does, is something else entirely.
Among the refugee resettlement proposals discussed in Washington in the late 1930s was one to settle Jews in the Orinoco River valley in Venezuela. That was suggested by a former Venezuelan minister to Washington, not by Roosevelt. The idea of setting aside an area near the Costa Rica-Panama border for refugees was proposed by the former US minister to Costa Rica, not FDR. Henry Ford, of all people, offered some of his property in Brazil as a haven for the Jews.
William Randolph Hearst thought the Belgian Congo could be a home for the refugees. Herbert Hoover and Bernard Baruch urged creation of a “United States of Africa,” in Rhodesia, Kenya and Tanganyika, for the Jews. Undersecretary of state Sumner Welles preferred Angola. Interior secretary Harold Ickes and his aides supported settling refugees in Alaska and the Virgin Islands. What these proposals had in common was that FDR neither conceived them nor took serious steps to bring them to fruition.
In the case of Alaska and the Virgin Islands, FDR did not merely ignore the proposals, but actually undermined them. He agreed with the State Department that “all kinds of undesirables and spies” would enter the islands disguised as refugees and from there sneak into the US, and he told Ickes to drop the idea lest it “hurt the future of present American citizens.”
When Ickes presented FDR with a plan to bring Jewish refugees to Alaska as laborers to develop its mineral-rich territory, Roosevelt countered with a watered-down version in which “not more than 10 percent would be Jews, and thus [we] would be able to avoid the undoubted criticism that we would be subjected to if there were an undue proportion of Jews.” Not many Jews would be saved, but at least Roosevelt might be spared the barbs of his anti-Semitic critics.
Oddly, the final outcome of the Alaska discussion is not mentioned in Refugees and Rescue. Readers who take the trouble to dig out Prof. Breitman’s 1987 book with Alan Kraut, American Refugee Policy and European Jewry, will find the rest of the story there. In early 1940, refugee sympathizers in Congress introduced the King-Havenner bill to permit foreign workers to enter Alaska outside the quota system. Despite Roosevelt’s supposed interest in having refugees colonize Alaska, “once the bill was introduced the president backed away from it,” Breitman wrote. As a result, “in spite of the many economic benefits that the bill contained for the development of Alaska, the bill died in subcommittee...”
The growing stack of resettlement proposals gathering dust on Roosevelt’s desk was a source of considerable frustration for refugee advocate James G. McDonald, the subject of Refugees and Rescue. McDonald resigned from his position as the League of Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 1935 because of the international community’s failure to address the refugee problem. Three years later, he was named chairman of Roosevelt’s Presidential Advisory Committee on Political Refugees, but that effort, too, achieved little.
There was one moment when it may have seemed to McDonald that FDR was on the verge of taking meaningful action. In a private conversation in November 1938 – on which Refugees and Rescue hangs much of its case – Roosevelt told McDonald the US might contribute to an international fund to resettle the Jews. The president said that “when practical plans emerge” in which “other governments and private agencies participate,” then “an appropriation by Congress might be conceivable.” Roosevelt spoke of a $400 million resettlement budget, of which the US might contribute $150 million.
Certainly that would have been a generous offer; but it was all theoretical. The Roosevelt administration quickly shot down resettlement proposals that involved US territory or were near America’s shores. Many other potential havens were uninhabitable. The British declared Palestine off-limits. What did that leave? And how would the financial participation of other governments be secured, especially if America did not take the lead?
Even when the British offered to help finance a mass resettlement project in Guyana, Roosevelt still refrained from seeking congressional assistance. By September 1939, McDonald told State Department official Robert Pell: “It is fairly obvious that the American government is not preparing to meet the British challenge on governmental financing...”
Every president from time to time tells interlocutors what they want to hear, regardless of whether he means it. FDR was no exception. In a diary entry in March 1944, vice president Henry Wallace noted – after a meeting between Roosevelt and Jewish leaders in which FDR misleadingly gave the impression that he supported their position on Palestine – “The president certainly is a waterman. He looks one direction and rows the other with the utmost skill.”
Historians must judge FDR on what he did, not what he hinted he might one day do. His statement to James McDonald regarding congressional funding for refugees, which Breitman et al. present as proof FDR wanted to save the Jews, is, in fact, further evidence that Roosevelt was willing to do very little to save them. Of course, that is hardly news, certainly not the “fundamentally new information” that Breitman and his coeditors are now claiming to have discovered.
In fact, it was Breitman himself, in a lecture in 1993, who said, “The president might have reversed the impression that the United States was willing to do little itself, if he had sought and won congressional approval for funding of refugee resettlement.”
That statement was as true then as it is today.
The writer is director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.