FDR and the Jews. By Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman. Cambridge, MA: TBelknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013. 433 pp.
Article first published online: 26 JAN 2014
© 2014 Center for the Study of the Presidency
Presidential Studies Quarterly
Special Issue: Symposium on Historical Research
Volume 44, Issue 1, pages 178–179, March 2014
How to Cite
Jones-Branch, C. (2014), FDR and the Jews. By Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman. Cambridge, MA: TBelknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013. 433 pp. Presidential Studies Quarterly, 44: 178–179. doi: 10.1111/psq.12096
- Issue published online: 26 JAN 2014
- Article first published online: 26 JAN 2014
With FDR and the Jews, distinguished American University historians Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman have crafted a nuanced history of Roosevelt's record on Jewish issues before and during World War II. The authors engage a debate that has been ongoing since the end of World War II, that FDR either ignored the Jews in Hitler's Europe or that he saved millions by helping to defeat Nazi Germany. The truth, Breitman and Lichtman contend, lies somewhere in the middle.
Roosevelt has most often been criticized for refusing to allow Jewish refugees aboard the SS St. Louis to enter the United States in 1939 and for not bombing gas chambers and crematoria at Auschwitz. Breitman and Lichtman assert that this portrayal is inaccurate. According to them, Roosevelt went through four phases on Jewish issues. FDR was politically astute. During the first phase, he carefully considered the risk to his political future and his domestic and foreign policy agenda if he made Jewish issues a primary concern. He was aware of the depth of ethnic antagonism that pervaded the country during the Depression years. FDR was unwilling to risk his New Deal programs by antagonizing his political base, which consisted of northern industrial workers and southern working-class whites who distrusted Jews (pp. 64-65, 314).
Furthermore, State Department officials, who often held barely concealed anti-Semitic views, were reluctant to interfere in the politics of foreign countries. And, Roosevelt, according to the authors, “put political realism above criticism of Nazi Germany and the efforts to admit persecuted Jews into the United States” (p. 3). Rather than rebuking Nazi aggression at this junction, FDR instead conciliated Germany, believing that his efforts had averted war (p. 61). In his second phase and as Hitler became increasingly aggressive, Roosevelt was better positioned to address Jewish concerns. He used his executive powers to ease immigration restrictions to allow Jewish refugees to enter the United States. Roosevelt further publicly advocated for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Although he failed to support fully the 1938 Evian Conference on refugees, he was the only head of state to call his ambassador home after the violence of Kristallnacht. After Hitler invaded Poland in September 1939, FDR, in his third phase was far more concerned about “internal security, foreign policy, and military concerns,” which took priority over Jewish refugees, who some feared were also German spies or saboteurs (p. 318). Winning the war, in Roosevelt's estimation, was the surest way to save Europe's remaining Jews.
In the fourth phase, Roosevelt resumed his attention to Jewish issues by establishing a War Refugee Board, the only organization of its kind, to consider plans for postwar resettlement in Palestine despite the State Department's opposition to much of its efforts to rescue Jews. He attempted to ease Arab apprehensions about creating a Jewish homeland. Roosevelt also increasingly conflated American anti-Semitism with Nazism and denounced the systematic killing of Jewish people.
Breitman and Lichtman also advance a balanced analysis of Jewish leadership. They challenge some scholars' criticism of Jewish leaders' “allegedly timid response to the perils of European Jews” (p. 5). FDR integrated far more Jews into the American government than any previous president. There was no shortage of pressure from Jewish organizations throughout the Roosevelt years. But while they possessed moral suasion, they lacked political strength (p. 322). And, unfortunately, there was little cohesion over “ideology, political strategy, and tactics” (p. 321). Even if there had been, it is doubtful that they would have been able to significantly impact American foreign and domestic policy.
Breitman and Lichtman assert that American Jews cherished FDR's memory even after the horrors of Nazi death camps were revealed (p. 307). They understood the political and social limitations under which he operated. The authors acknowledge that throughout his four phases, FDR “often failed to turn humanitarian principles into action to benefit Jewish victims of Nazism” (p. 329). However, by drawing on more primary sources than previous studies about FDR, the authors clearly reveal that he did far more to respond to the “Jewish peril” than any other politician of his time (p. 329).