Rethinking Roosevelt


y Meredith Jacobs
Managing Editor

In their new book, FDR and the Jews ($29.95, Harvard), Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman, both professors in American University’s history department, utilize hundreds of new sources and years of historical research to present a balanced view of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Breitman had previously written about Roosevelt, but was frustrated by the lack of documentation available as Roosevelt famously did not allow for written records of his meetings.

In the mid-1990s, papers from Sumner Wells, Roosevelt’s under secretary of state, were donated to the Roosevelt Library. This was the opportunity Breitman had been looking for.

His research led him to Wells’ diary and an entry in April 1938 in which he wrote that FDR wanted to get the Jews out of Europe.

“Now, I have to do the book,” he thought.

When his literary agent suggested an approach that he estimated would take him 10 years to complete alone, he turned to AU colleague Allan J. Lichtman for help.

“I was not easily convinced,” said Lichtman, who thought the story on FDR and the Jews had been told. Breitman convinced him that while the story had been told, it was incomplete and not historically sound. No one had looked at FDR’s relationship with the Jews from the entirety of his life. And, some of the books were written by authors who were not professional historians, “[Historical research] is hard, tedious, lonely work,” said Lichtman. “It’s not for everyone.”

“A lot of previous work was political argument disguised as history to prove a point,” he continued. He cautions against reading history backwards and looking at events through a contemporary lens.

“Jews, at the time, were Roosevelt’s biggest supporters,” said Breitman.

“Overwhelmingly,” echoed Lichtman.

“But the predominate view of FDR and Jews today is negative,” said Breitman.

There are those who “hold out everything negative and ignore the positive,” said Lichtman. Using the same standards, “We could prove Abe Lincoln was a racist and didn’t do enough.”

The authors also compared FDR to his political rivals at the time, much in the way people living then would have.

It’s easy to say “he should have done something else,” said Lichtman. “Everything can be perfect in hindsight.”

The writers put Roosevelt’s decisions in the greater context of what was happening both nationally and globally. Decisions on the Holocaust were not made in a bubble but had to be balanced against economic strife at home and a world war abroad.

According to Breitman, there are two symbols of alleged American indifference to the Holocaust: the SS St. Louis and the decision not to bomb Auschwitz. “Both are off,” especially, if one “doesn’t understand historical constraints.”

In November 1938, after Kristallnacht, with U.S. immigration quotas for Jews full, Roosevelt pushed Latin American countries to take the immigrants.

“Americans were against more immigration, and FDR was advised that Congress was not only opposed to opening up immigration, it was inclined to cut it even further,” explained Breitman.

FDR made a ruling that German and Austrian Jews in the U.S. on visitors’ visas could stay. For this, he got flack from Congress.

He instructed Wells that finding a place for Jewish immigrants was high priority. Ambassador Laurence Steinhardt, the only sitting Jewish American ambassador, met with foreign ministers in Latin America and emphasized that it was very important to America that they allow the Jews in.

FDR personally met with Cuban strongman Col. Fulgencio Batista in the hope that Cuba would accommodate more German Jews. Batista had been seeking a reduction from the U.S. in the sugar tariff. So perhaps it was no surprise that days later, Batista would announce during a speech in New York City that Cuba was pleased to help FDR with the terrible situation in Europe.

Cuba charged $500 for tourist visas. By May 1939, there were 5,000 to 6,000 German and Austrian refugees in Cuba.

But, as the St. Louis sailed, Cuba, under pressure from Cuban anti-Semites, changed its policies. The 22 passengers with Cuban immigration visas were allowed in. Those with tourist visas were not.

At the time, FDR was very sick. The situation was being handled by the State Department. Permitting the passengers to disembark in Miami, even temporarily, would have, according to the book, “ruined FDR’s Good Neighbor Policy and undermined America’s standing in Latin America,” at a time when war was approaching.

According to Breitman and Lichtman, Treasury Secretary Morgenthau intervened and had the Coast Guard quietly track the St. Louis while he negotiated with other countries.

Transcripts of phone calls between Morgenthau and Secretary of State Cordell Hull and Morgenthau and the Coast Guard commander, “made it plain that the point of this tracking was to keep alive the chance to find a solution.”

Popular culture, as seen in movies like The Voyage of the Damned, add to the fiction that the Coast Guard was attempting to prevent passengers from landing in the U.S. The authors make clear the complexity of the situation: “They could not legally enter the United States without jumping ahead of other Jews on the waiting list. They could not enter as visitors without a place of return. The administration’s political calculus was almost as clear as the legal situation. If the president tried to evade immigration laws, his opponents in Congress would exploit his vulnerability to reduce chances of revising the Neutrality Acts [laws passed in the 1930s to keep the U.S. out of war].”

“People think FDR sent them to death camps, but there weren’t death camps then. There wasn’t a war then,” explained Lichtman.

“He couldn’t violate the law, and he couldn’t allow them to jump those on the waiting list,” added Breitman. “Either way was a big problem.”

According to Lichtman, FDR was facing having to mobilize an isolationist Congress and public and motivate them for war. “The last thing he wanted was a fight in Congress on immigration.”

Ultimately, Belgium, the Netherlands, England and France accepted the refugees who thought they had been saved. It was only after Belgium, the Netherlands and France were taken over by the Nazis that the passengers were taken to the camps.

The decision not to bomb Auschwitz, both historians say, was also considered and rejected by other countries, including Great Britain. Said Breitman, “The Nazis killed before and after the death camps. Bombing [Auschwitz] would have made killing less efficient.”

“At best,” added Lichtman, “it would have affected the edges of the Holocaust.”

What was more effective was Roosevelt’s War Refugee Board, which according to the authors, saved an estimated 200,000.

“The World Refugee Board was the only organization set up by a government anywhere in the world to rescue Jews,” said Lichtman.

In the end, the authors argue that FDR must be judged for the time in which he lived. “All these decisions were made under extreme uncertainty. We had an army smaller than Belgium,” said Lichtman. The U.S., following common practice in those days, had ramped down its military following World War I. In the ’30s, we were demobilized except for the Navy and that was only because of commerce. He continued: “The U.S. of the ’30s is not the U.S. of today.” It was only by the end of the war that the U.S. achieved the status of a major world military power.

“People want a moral exemplar,” concluded Breitman.

“Presidents are not saints,” agreed Lichtman. “To be a successful president, you have to be supremely political. It’s easy for those who are out of power to criticize.”

Breitman and Lichtman will be speaking on FDR and the Jews tomorrow at 4 p.m. at Politics & Prose on Connecticut Avenue.

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