You know this is a Protestant country, and the Catholics and Jews are here under sufferance."
In writing this article I did not set out to criticize President Roosevelt and his administration. I, like so many Jews of my generation, had for years “remembered” him as a “protector” of the Jews. But as I continued to write, as memory piled on memory, fact upon fact, as I corroborated those facts in books and cyberspace, my image of the man and his approach to the Jews and the Holocaust gradually changed. By the end of researching this article I am still left with questions unanswered. Whatever Roosevelt’s underlying feelings towards the Jews and the Holocaust, his actions in responding to our tragedy did not reflect caring.
In a recent article,Historians debate: Could more Jews have been saved?, Dr. Robert Rozett, Yad v’Shem Director of Libraries, read a letter by Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer who did not attend the conference. Strongly disagreeing with Wyman Institute claims that the Bergson Group played a significant part in the rescue of European Jewry, Bauer wrote, “To claim today that [Hillel] Kook was responsible for saving lives in Budapest is a little short of preposterous… I do not doubt that the Bergson Group contributed very much to awareness of the Holocaust in the U.S., although by 1944, forty-eight percent of Americans were expressing anti-Jewish views, as Fortune Magazine told us. But all these controversies were marginal to any prospect of rescue. In a sense, the [U.S] Administration was right, as it was powerless to save the millions. The only answer [as FDR insisted] was to win the war and kill the murderers. Kook and [Rabbi Stephen] Wise could not do much about that.”
Beyond its obvious provocative tone two of Bauer’s remarks deserve repeating: 1. “by 1944 [with the murder campaign well underway and the American press daily reporting its progress], forty-eight percent of Americans were expressing anti-Jewish views;” and, 2.“the [US] Administration… was powerless to save the millions.”
Bauer’s first statements is correct, his second somewhat misleading. Certainly by 1944 it was too late “to save the millions.” But even at this late stage in the murder campaign Roosevelt could have ordered allied aircraft to bomb the killing centers and their railway feeder lines without interfering with the aerial conduct of the war. Even a token such effort would have given the inmates hope, would have disrupted the killing process forcing delays for reconstruction. Even short delays would have resulted in some lives saved at war’s end.
Perhaps Roosevelt’s most callous rationalization for not bombing was his comment reported by an aide decades later that, “Americans [read FDR] would be accused of ‘bombing these innocent people’ [already known to be condemned to death by Zyklon B!] at Auschwitz…” According to Elie Wiesel the inmates cheered as the bombers passed over Auschwitz, wished they would bomb the camps. He recalls that by then the inmates, "were no longer afraid of death--at any rate, not of that death."
In addition to the welfare of camp inmates Roosevelt expressed concern that targeting the camps would divert bombers from military targets. As Professor Bauer already noted administration policy to save the Jews, “was to win the war and kill the murderers,” and saving Jews by bombing would result in deferring victory. The other oft-mentioned military reason for not targeting the machinery of death was that American airmen’s lives could be lost. On the surface both reasons seem plausible… until it is realized that by 1944 the allies had air superiority and, as reported by Wiesel, American bombers passed directly over the Auschwitz gas chambers en route to industrial targets at Birkenau, five miles distant.
Perhaps it’s possible to understand American apologists as revisionists or in Denial; but a prominent Israeli historian and former director of Yad v’Shem?
In June, 1939 Roosevelt would not allow the 900 Jewish refugees aboard the S.S. St. Louis to enter the United States. They were forced to return to Europe.
Roosevelt policy between the wars
“In a 1939 Roper poll for Fortune magazine, Roper found that a majority of Americans (53 percent) felt that Jews were different from other Americans and should be restricted in various ways, including preventing Jews from "mingling socially where they are not wanted" and even deporting them to a "new homeland [my italics]." If this sounds familiar, both “deportation” and a “new homeland” anticipate Nazi policy steps toward systematic mass murder by five years! And compared to Professor Bauer’s 48% statistic for 1944, the level of Americans expressing antisemitic sentiments in 1944 was actually lower than in 1939. Bauer and his fellow apologists cite these statistics as evidence that Roosevelt at heart wanted to help, but popular opinion mad that impossible. But Roosevelt’s popularity was as secure as any president ever: not only elected but re-elected three times. He had the mandate and would use it when it served his ends. What was lacking was concern and interest in the fate of the Jews. Even assuming that the politician feared a public backlash he could, for example, have ordered his State Department, which he staffed with unapologetic antisemitic patricians, to at least stop throwing up barriers to Jews fleeing for their lives. At no time before and during the Holocaust did the number of Jews provided visas come close to the paltry allowance provided by the law.
But it is likely that the State Department, often the brunt of criticism for its hostile Jewish policy, was just following the president’s lead. On only one occasion before Germany’s declaration of war did Roosevelt even respond to Nazi treatment of the Jews. In 1938 Germany unleashed its pogrom known as Krystallnacht. The president briefly recalled his ambassador to Hitler for “consultations.”
Roosevelt, in his hesitation to assist Europe’s Jews is most often described as caring but unable. Most often the Immigration Acts of 1921 and 1934 are pointed to as “having tied his hands;” his assertion that the U.S. does not interfere in the internal affairs of other country is another. Certainly public opinion and the Congress were antisemitic and/or isolationist and that was a reality. But when the president felt the issues important he showed no hesitation in “untying” his hands, as his 1937 end-run around the Constitution demonstrates. Faced with an obstructionist Congress opposing important policy initiatives Roosevelt attempted to stack the Supreme Court to counter the Congress.
American antisemitism between the world wars
Three factors played into Jewish concerns before, during and in the years following the Holocaust: American antisemitism, eugenics, and concentration camps.
Antisemitism: In the interwar years Antisemitism in the United States was comparable to that of Germany. In 1923 multiple polling surveys for president had the populist antisemite Henry Ford defeating the Republican incumbent, President Harding, by wide margins. In 1940 many in the Republican Party wished that Charles Lindbergh, American hero and spokesman for the isolationist America First Committee run against Roosevelt. But he preferred Congress over the presidency. A flavor of such a presidency is described in his In 1941 Des Moines speech: “Instead of agitating for war, the Jewish groups in this country should be opposing it in every possible way for they will be among the first to feel its consequences. Tolerance is a virtue that depends upon peace and strength. History shows that it cannot survive war and devastation.” Against the backdrop of Germany and the unfolding Holocaust it takes little imagination to appreciate the implied threat (see also, Wallace, 2003, The American Axis). And the consequence of either of them having become president would likely have been that I would not be here to write this today.
Eugenics: Although not directly targeting the Jews, America’s eugenics movement was another area of concern. Eugenics intended to create for America a, “white, blond-haired, blue-eyed master Nordic race.” The “Unfit,” anyone not included as “Nordic,” would be eliminated from the gene pool. Two methods of “elimination” were proposed. Sterilization, the more “humane,” first became law in a state in 1887; by 1983 more than “65,000 individuals were sterilized in 33 states.” A second method to purify America’s gene pool was eugenicide. According to a principal scientist in the movement, “the first method which presents itself is execution… Its value in keeping up the standard of the race should not be underestimated." Although never actually adopted by the American movement (some medical enthusiasts did euthanize by starvation and inducing lethal infections), for America’s German student movement it would become the method of choice (see also Kuhl, Stefan, 1994, The Nazi Connection). American eugenicists played a significant advisory role in inspiring and assisting Congress to write the discriminatory immigration acts of 1921 and 1924 which resulted in legal barriers to the Jews during the Holocaust.
Concentration camps: And a final issue that must have fed anxiety among American Jews was that this most liberal administration of the model for world democracy Had, like Germany, built its own concentration camps. As eugenics did not immediately describe the Jews as target, likewise the camps were built to house another mistrusted minority, Japanese-Americans. But, as with eugenics, against the backdrop of the Holocaust their existence represented an existential question mark for the Jews.
American Jewry and antisemitism
A major issue for many historians, including those mentioned above, is the silence by most American Jewish leaders in face of the unfolding Holocaust. And while the criticism is valid, it should be viewed against the backdrop of the conditions that existed at the time: American antisemitism; American eugenics; American concentration camps. American Jews had good reason maintain a low profile.
Nor are we American Jews much more secure today. Post-Holocaust threats include the 1953 trial and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and the frenetic anti-communist (-semitic) witch-hunt called McCarthyism spanning the decades of the 1950’s and 60’s.
And in 1986, when Jonathan Pollard hit the headlines, Jewish leaders again were mute for the most part or worse, attacked Pollard’s “treason.” Pollard, a proud and vocal Jew and Zionist, was a threat to the Jews.
Imagine for a moment that Pollard had been British or Chinese rather than a Jew. How might those hyphenated communities have reacted? As one who followed the events closely I recall no reports regarding any response from those communities at the arrests of the Walker family or Chin, both of whom were also in the headlines during the Reagan Administration’s Year of the Spy. While Pollard was tried and convicted of a single count of espionage on behalf of Israel, an ally, for a period of two years, the Walkers and Chin were convicted of decades-long espionage on behalf of “enemy states,” the Soviet Union and Communist China.
A survey by the World Jewish Congress done in 1998 concluded that, “the Pollard case seemed to be their [American Jews] worst nightmare come true.” American Jewry’s reaction was visceral and, more than any amount of protest or denial, demonstrates the depth of American Jewish insecurity in a Diaspora homeland we think of and insist is “exceptional.”
Other writings in this series: