Delivered to President Roosevelt by Treasury Secretary Morgenthau, 13 January, 1943
Introduction: President Roosevelt was handed the damning Treasury Department, Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of Jews (background to the Report will be discussed next week) more than a year before the first stirrings of what would become the controversy surrounding his position to not bomb the gas chambers at Auschwitz. Whether a response to criticism by Treasury or his failure to bomb the gas chambers, one year after receiving the Report he authorized the creation of the War Refugee Board (WRB), an agency to be funded not by the government, but by donations from the Jewish community. And, keeping in line with his firm belief in "fairness," WRB''s mandate was to not discriminate between "refugees." All were to be treated equally, whether Jews facing death, or non-Jews facing homelessness. Typical of all previous such gestures (the 1938 Evian Conference; the 1943 Bermuda Conference), the WRB was supposed to be a toothless and ineffective gesture. Even so it''s young staff were able to overcome State Department obstruction and save at least some Jews. Auschwitz itself was provide yet another year to operate and two million more Jews died in its gas chambers.
Was the president an antisemite? By the standards of the day, Roosevelt must have overcome his upbringing in order to develop and maintain long and apparently close friendships with some Jews. On the other hand neither had he completely shed his inherited biases, as his lecture to his friend Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau demonstrates: “You know this is a Protestant country, and the Catholics and Jews are here under sufferance.” But whatever his private feelings Roosevelt did provide Jews political opportunities beyond anything previous, and many in the Jewish community even today remember him as a promoter of Jewish inclusion and, considering that antisemitism was as widespread and dangerous in the United States as it was in Europe before and during the Holocaust years, it is not surprising that American Jews also viewed him as protector.
If antisemitism was not his primary motive, what else might suggest the president’s indifference towards the unfolding Holocaust? What else explain his inaction that would eventually inspire his Treasury Department to charge the administration with acquiescence “in the Murder of Jews”?
Franklin Roosevelt was reputed to be an astute politician and a hands-on commander in chief in the conduct of the war. Which raises the question: did the Jews play a part in his conduct of the war?
By mid-1944 Roosevelt and his generals knew that Germany was on its last leg. The Allies ruled the skies over Europe and the Wehrmacht was at a standstill, all but trapped in Russia. Although not yet lost both sides knew Germany was in retreat on all fronts, a fact not lost on Hitler, hence his shift from the war lost to that other war, the war against the Jews.
Personnel involved in just transporting Jews to their deaths exceeded 10,000. How many thousands more were involved in rounding up the victims; how many to operate and guard the death camps and concentration camps? How much transport otherwise needed to carry troops and provisions in defense of the homeland were redirected instead to carrying Jews to Auschwitz? Manpower, transport, fuel, all dangerously in short supply: all diverted from killing soldiers to killing Jews.
And this, I believe, was Roosevelt’s intention: masquerading in the guise of an act of humanity (the shorter the war, the more Jews saved) allowing the Holocaust to proceed was actually a war aim, providing opportunity and encouragement for Hitler to divert military resources from the front to the Holocaust, a planned diversion of resources which would otherwise have been available in fighting the Allies.
The decision to not bomb Auschwitz, to allow Germany its pyrrhic victory, was a strategic decision, a calculated alternative to Allied war losses.
FDR’s policy was truly “rescue through victory.” But those “rescued” were not to be the Jews.
Postscript, What if Roosevelt had lost the election?
With the intensity of antisemitism among Americans generally, the enthusiasm of America’s elites regarding Hitler and his National Socialist experiment in social engineering (see my earlier American eugenics and the Nazi connection), the isolationist and non-interventionist mood of the United States, it is worth considering the possible fate of the Jews had Roosevelt lost the 1940 election.
The two most popular and charismatic figures on the American stage of the day, Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh, were both considered possible presidential candidates for the Republican Party. Both were antisemites and both admirers of Hitler and his National Socialist program of social engineering. Both had even received Germany’s highest civilian honor, the Service Cross of the German Eagle. Also, both were not only isolationists but actively supported Germany’s invasion of Poland. Lindbergh even defended the invasion in a Readers Digest article, insisting that, “our civilization depends on a Western wall of race and arms which can hold back... the infiltration of inferior blood (even his language reflects Hitler rhetoric).” With public sentiment strongly isolationist and opposed to involvement in the European war there is more than a possibility that the United States under either as president would at the least have remained neutral in World War II. But the United States was also strongly anti-Communist. Lindbergh might have sat out a strictly European war, but would he have resisted an alliance with Hitler in the crusade against the “godless” Communists?
Recall that it was American eugenicists who inspired and trained German eugenicists; that American financiers, the Carnegies and Rockefellers and others, who built and funded the schools and universities that would justify the extermination of the Jews. American eugenics even preceded Germany by decades in the quest for an American Aryan ideal.
In a “neutral” America the survivability of the Jews might have been uncertain. But in an America allied with Hitler in his crusade against “godless Russian Bolshevism,” a member of a victorious Axis alliance?
In the end the two populists chose not to run and Roosevelt was reelected. In the end whatever loyalty the president might have felt towards some American Jews, his allegiance, even compassion, clearly ended at America’s continental shoreline.
Recent writings in this Series: