Friend or Foe?

Conversations with leaders on president Franklin Delano Roosevelt's stance towards the Jews.

Ibn Saud Roosevelt 521 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Ibn Saud Roosevelt 521
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Was president Franklin Delano Roosevelt a friend or foe of the nascent State of Israel? Were the president’s decisions during World War II honorable or unconscionable? Did his actions result in an intentional failure to rescue Jews trapped in the Holocaust of Europe or was he plagued by war demands that outweighed those decisions? Criticism of the president is highly controversial. Roosevelt was, after all, commander-in-chief during America’s darkest days while being handicapped by a crippling disease.
The Jewish community was particularly enamored of him. The president had appointed many Jews to public office and had a number of Jewish advisers. He condemned anti-Semitism and was popular enough to be elected to four terms in office.
However, while supporting the Jews verbally, the president failed to take action that might have drastically altered the outcome of the war for countless Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Similarly, he did not press vigorously for a Jewish homeland in then- British Mandate Palestine.
Members of the Irgun Delegation to the United States and the New Zionist Organization of America, under the leadership of Hillel Kook and Benzion Netanyahu (the father of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu), attempted to influence the administration but had little success in changing the facts on the ground. At the time, most Jews in America were Democrats.
They did not want to criticize the president during the war. These organizations, therefore, sought the help of Republicans and initiated a vigorous advertisement campaign across the country which virtually birthed the Jewish lobby in America.
Despite the pressure they applied at the highest levels, Roosevelt sought a very different course of action from that which his public rhetoric indicated. His motivations included national security concerns as well as a personal closeness which he developed with Ibn Saud.
Washington’s contacts with the Saudi king were tied to military and political issues, primarily the need for Saudi oil concessions and for US control of an air base at Dharan, which were essential to fuel the ongoing war in the Pacific. The question arises whether or not Roosevelt did forgo the opportunity to help the Jews escape the death sentence of Nazi Europe in favor of the overriding goal of defeating the Axis Powers, which would be very difficult to accomplish without his alignment with King Abdulaziz.
David Wyman, author of Abandonment of the Jews, felt that the president was duplicitous in his actions.
“He was very concerned not to get the Arabs upset... he kept saying that he didn’t want to see a massacre. He couldn’t put a number of American divisions over there to protect the Jews... but there’s no doubt about it, he was playing both sides against the middle. It was a very devious policy.”
Wyman believed, nonetheless, that Roosevelt wanted to help the Jews but found himself in an awkward position with no good solution.
“He didn’t know what to do. I think he was concerned about the Jews; I think he favored a Jewish state... but not to the extent of alienating the Arabs – which is the only way you’re going to have a Jewish state.”
WHILE REASSURING Rabbi Stephen Wise and Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, leaders of mainstream Jewish organizations, Roosevelt was simultaneously telling Arab leaders that he would not do anything without their consent. This position reflected policy going back to 1939 when, in the earliest chronicled documents of the foreign relations of the US, the Saudi king was assured that no action would be taken which departed from the position which had been maintained to that point in regard to Jewish self-rule.
By 1941, King Ibn Saud approached the US with a request for financial aid. The request was initially turned down. He then asked instead for a loan of road engineers and a mission of agricultural and irrigation experts. This second request found a receptive audience within the State Department.
Hitler’s plan to deal with “the Jewish problem” was well underway by this time.
The Irgun Delegation and the New Zionist Organization were putting additional pressure on the Roosevelt administration to help rescue the Jews of Europe. This demand for action was hampered by the beginning of important negotiations for American rights of air transit over certain parts of Saudi Arabia.
It would seem logical that Roosevelt could have made agreements with Ibn Saud to gain advantages in Arabia at the expense of the Jews. When presented with this hypothetical scenario, however, the US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Parker T. Hart, did not think this was the case.
“No, no, no. I don’t take stock in that one at all. I don’t think that’s true. I don’t believe there was any deal of that kind. In fact, I don’t think there was any real deal between them except that they were going to try to be friends – that he made a pledge that, of his own accord, that he would not undertake a policy which would be harmful to either side – but he particularly mentioned the Arabs, of course, to Ibn Saud. He said, ‘I wouldn’t undertake a course of action that might be harmful to you, certainly without consulting with you before I do it.’ I’m paraphrasing what he said, but that is basically what he said.”
The requests by Ibn Saud for an agricultural mission were eventually approved.
The War Department saw it as an opportunity to press its desire to acquire air rights from the Saudis for a route across the country which would shorten the ferrying distance between Khartoum and Karachi and would be more secure than the route they were using at that time via Cairo. Knowing that such a plan would cause Ibn Saud to fear Axis reprisal, it was decided that Lend- Lease aid would be the best way to get the king to cooperate.
Ambassador Hart confirmed the king’s need for assistance.
“We had a very strong proprietary feeling about getting that oil flowing. We also had a very strong feeling that the king absolutely had to have some income. He was absolutely flat when I got there in 1944.”
Hart believed that Roosevelt was sympathetic to the Arabs.
“Franklin Roosevelt was, I think, concerned that the Arabs would be totally neglected in the sweep of sympathy for the Jews.”
When the same hypothetical scenario was presented to Ambassador Richard Murphy, his response was that the Jewish statehood movement was not an important concern for Roosevelt.
“Roosevelt and Zionism.... frankly I don’t think he put that much thought into it. It became much more of an issue in [president Harry] Truman’s time.”
One may argue, however, that Roosevelt was well aware of the issues facing Jews in those days. Undoubtedly, news of the death camps had reached Washington. The vigorous advertising campaign and early lobbying pressure applied by the New Zionist Organization and Irgun Delegation may have been the most important elements in forestalling an outright pro-Arab policy in the US in the early 1940s. The effects of that campaign were that public awareness was aroused to such a degree that the White House was forced, during both the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, not to abandon the idea of a Jewish state in Palestine despite suggestions to the contrary.
One such suggestion emanated from an Arabist and Office of Strategic Services adviser, Colonel Harold Hoskins, who suggested that the Jews be transferred to the uninhabited region of northern Cyrenaica (Libya). Similar alternatives emerged, including one mentioned in a State Department Memorandum of Conversation, September 27, 1943, in which Hoskins remarked: “As to Jewish refugees who may wish to move out of Europe, the President said that he was still working on the possibility of at least a certain number of them being settled in the trans-Andean portions of Colombia in South America. As to the solution to the Palestine problem, the president stated that his own thinking leaned toward a wider use of the idea of trusteeship for Palestine – of making Palestine a real Holy Land for all three religions, with a Jew, a Christian and a Muslim as the three trustees.”
Roosevelt did not, however, act on these ideas. Instead he sent Hoskins to Saudi Arabia to discuss the future of Palestine with the king. The president sent along substantial gifts for Ibn Saud. These are indicated in Hoskins’s post-travel report, in which he wrote: “I also showed to the president photographs of the presentation of the jeep and of the walkie-talkie to the king, as well as photographs of the irrigation project at el Kharj, 75 miles south of Riyadh.”
Hoskins believed that the talks had been a diplomatic success – particularly because of his ability to speak Arabic.
“The fact that he could talk to me directly in Arabic, often without anyone else present, allowed him to be more frank than would otherwise have been the case since his best interpreters are not Saudi by birth.”
IN AUGUST 1943, the US proposed the establishment of a consulate in Dharan.
The Saudis responded reluctantly. Roosevelt pressed on, affirming his good faith in correspondence to the king, whom Roosevelt referred to there as his “great and good friend,” saying, “I am glad of this opportunity to reiterate my assurance that it is the view of the Government of the United States that, in any case, no decision altering the basic situation of Palestine should be reached without full consultation with both Arabs and Jews.”
Thereby, any action of the president to advance the plan for a Jewish state in Palestine was frozen. The year 1944 marked the beginning of proposals by the US for the construction of an airfield near Dharan.
The American Resident in Saudi Arabia presented the request on July 29.
“As has been already explained to Your Excellency, the United States military air forces are responsible for heavy air traffic between points in North Africa and India, and the responsible authorities believe that a direct route between Cairo and a point near Dharan would materially facilitate the movement of this traffic, and aid in the prosecution of the war.”
With the war in full swing, Dharan came to be considered a national security concern.
The United States Air Corps had been flying to the Far Eastern war theater via Iraq and Bahrain. The airstrip at Bahrain was not considered suitable for heavy planes because of its soft soil. Dharan, on the other hand, was desirable. Its terrain was suitable and it would save each plane 220 miles of travel. On November 9, 1944, an “Internal Statement Prepared in the Division of Near Eastern Affairs” affirmed that “American military authorities consider that the construction of an airbase near Dharan at the earliest possible moment is necessary for the prosecution of the war in the Pacific.”
Colonel John W. Bowen of the War Department concurred: “The acquisition of a military airfield at Dharan is considered to be a military necessity.”
Ambassador Parker T. Hart further explained the rational for pursuing Dharan: “It was intended to save mileage or kilometrage on the route that went from Cairo to Karachi and then hooked into other carriers from there, to provision the Far Eastern lines of combat because at that particular time we didn’t have the Pacific under our control. Later, when the Pacific passed under American control the war against the Japanese could be fought from the United States westward, rather than from Cairo eastward, and India eastward.”
Dr. Alex Raphaeli, a leader of the Irgun Delegation to the US and, later, a wellknown Israeli industrialist, acknowledged the importance of the Saudi airbase and oil concessions.
“The interest of FDR and the American government in Saudi [Arabia] was because Saudi [Arabia] controlled the oil fields... the biggest oil fields... and because a great part of the world, including the enemy of the United States, Japan, – Japan was still in the war when FDR went to see Ibn Saud – was still in the war. And Japan was getting its oil from Saudi Arabia. The idea, from the American point of view, not the Jewish, was to protect America against enemies and to make it difficult for them to get supplies of oil from which the whole war machine moved.”
IT WASN’T until early the following year, 1945, that an agreement was finally reached for the construction of an airfield at Dharan.
On February 14 the president met the king aboard the USS Quincy at Great Bitter Lake, Egypt. There Roosevelt spoke to Ibn Saud about the Jewish problem.
In a Memorandum of Conversation the king is said to have expressed his desire that the Jews be returned to the lands from which they were driven, stating that the Arabs and the Jews could never cooperate, neither in Palestine nor in any other country, and that Arabs would choose to die rather than yield their land to the Jews.
State Department documents detail Roosevelt’s reaction: “The president replied that he wished to assure His Majesty that he would do nothing to assist the Jews against the Arabs and would make no move hostile to the Arab people.”
Ambassador Richard Murphy did not put much credence in the hypothesis that the king and the president were allied in thought and purpose at the expense of the Jews.
“I don’t think that Ibn Saud figured, frankly, much at all as an individual on Roosevelt’s personal screen. No, no. I mean he was old, very near to death, the president, when he met Ibn Saud.”
This opinion mirrored that of historian Walter Laqueur, who stated, “Look, don’t forget at this time Roosevelt was a very sick man and, in ’44-’45, and half the time he didn’t know what goes on. So one should be a little careful, you know.”
These assumptions are arguable. Roosevelt and Ibn Saud had more in common than foreign policy. The king spoke of being the “twin” brother of the president – in years, in responsibility as chief of state, and in physical disability. The Foreign Relations of the United States documents are quite insightful in this matter: “The president said, ‘but you are fortunate to still have the use of your legs to take you wherever you go.’ The king replied, ‘It is you, Mr. President, who are fortunate. My legs grow feebler every year; with your more reliable wheel-chair you are assured that you will arrive.’ The president then said, ‘I have two of these chairs, which are also twins. Would you accept one as a personal gift from me?’ The king said, ‘Gratefully.
I shall use it daily and always recall affectionately the giver, my great and good friend.’” In the Memorandum of Conversation between Saudi Ibn Saud and Roosevelt aboard the USS Quincy, the president encouraged the king to take an interest in agriculture and irrigation, relating his own interest in farming and stating that he was a farmer. Roosevelt said that he hoped to help develop Arab desert lands after the war concluded.
“His Majesty thanked the president for promoting agriculture so vigorously, but said that he himself could not engage with any enthusiasm in the development of his country’s agriculture and public works if this prosperity would be inherited by the Jews.”
Soon after their meeting, the king did, however, grant Roosevelt the desired rights to the Dharan base construction on the condition that the field and fixed installations would pass to the Saudi government at the end of the war. The US forces would be allowed to use the base for three years following the war and American commercial airlines would receive most-favorednation status when the field was eventually opened to civilian aviation.
THIS WAS the policy followed by Roosevelt.
While pacifying the Jews at home with hope of a possible Jewish state, he simultaneously negotiated with Ibn Saud for oil concessions and an airbase in Dharan, thus initiating the dual foreign policy which continued for decades, even to the present.
The total contents of the private discussions between the two men on the USS Quincy are unknown.
Is it possible that the president agreed, in return for rights to Dharan, not to support a Jewish state in Palestine? In an interview in October of 1993, prime minister Yitzhak Shamir discussed the relationship between Roosevelt and Ibn Saud. Having been directly affiliated with those acting to pressure the US government to rescue the Jews of Europe and to press for a Jewish homeland, Shamir spoke from personal experience not only about Roosevelt but about the Zionist efforts and lack thereof.
“Until this time there was not any Zionist Jewish activity in America. Roosevelt didn’t like the Jewish people. Now it is known. At this time it was not so known. But he didn’t like Jews.”
Shamir resented the timidity of American Jewish leaders of the day.
“And the Jews, the Jewish leaders, that had been near to Roosevelt, his friends, Stephen Wise, Rabbi Stephen Wise, at this time, was completely under Roosevelt’s influence and they didn’t try, he never tried to convince Roosevelt to become more sympathetic towards the Jewish, the Zionist intentions.
And when the news came from Europe about the Holocaust, Roosevelt refused to accept it and refused to give any publication to it, to publish it, because he refused to become, in world opinion, the protector of Jews! The defender of Jews!” While mocking the efforts of Wise, the prime minister praised the work of Hillel Kook’s Irgun Delegation. Shamir laid blame at the feet of the president for rejecting, denying and ignoring the Jewish plight.
“He thought that it would be harmful for the coalition, for the Allies. This was the idea.
And in this approach he accepted the British line, the British approach, because the British saw the same – and it was the duty, and it was the duty of Kook, the duty of Hillel Kook, that there is a place for me to do something! And he developed a great propaganda for a Jewish state in Israel, for the rescue of the Jewish refugees from Europe, for bringing all of them to Israel, for saving them from the death camps! “And he organized various petitions to Roosevelt, to the Allied forces, to make something against the death camps in Europe! To attack them! To bombard them! And in such a way to stop all this cooperation of the extermination of Jews, and I think it was possible, not 100% but it was possible, to save a part of them. And Roosevelt refused to read about it, and the same with the British. They’d been together. They agreed to it. And in the meantime Roosevelt died. The war was won by the Allies. Truman was not like Roosevelt. He was not a great friend of the Jews but he was not against Jews. He didn’t have this dislike for Jews as Roosevelt had.”
When asked what the prime minister thought about the possibility that Roosevelt had been more concerned with retaining oil concessions and the air base at Dharan than in saving the Jews of Europe, Shamir first discounted the idea, then pondered it more deeply and, finally, seemed to surprise himself with his own conclusion.
“Maybe. It was not the only factor but it was a part of his hostile attitude towards Zionism.
Could be well understood. It was handy to have an American influence in the Middle East. And he met once with Ibn Saud, the king of Saudi [Arabia]. And, well, of course it’s possible! I can say that most of the establishment officials of the United States have been anti-Zionist. Not after Roosevelt’s death. This changed, gradually. This changed because Truman was different.”
The prime minister continued after a few moments of thought.
“I’m not sure because there was nothing in contradiction between these both interests – the Jewish interests and the American interests.
There has not been any contradiction between them. But maybe Roosevelt gave, of course there is no doubt of it, he gave more importance to the American interests. Oil interests and all that. But I know one thing, for the Jews, for the Jewish people he had a dislike.
“He didn’t have a positive reason for supporting the Jewish state. And of course the Saudis...
it may be that – nobody knows the content of his conversations with Ibn Saud. Nobody knows about it. But maybe that Ibn Saud told him, Let the Jewish, let the Jewish problem aside. Maybe. Maybe he talked with him and Roosevelt accepted it. Maybe. Maybe.”
Maybe he did.