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FDR and the Jews [Kindle Edition]

Richard Breitman

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Book Description

A contentious debate lingers over whether Franklin Delano Roosevelt turned his back on the Jews of Hitler’s Europe. FDR and the Jews reveals a concerned leader whose efforts on behalf of Jews were far greater than those of any other world figure but whose moral leadership was tempered by the political realities of depression and war.

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[Breitman and Lichtman] challenge the view that F.D.R. was remiss in helping [Europe's Jews] and plot stages in his development from aloofness to engagement. --Jerome Donnelly, America (05/06/2013)

"Breitman and Lichtman conclude that FDR was 'neither a hero of the Jews nor a bystander'. On the basis of meticulous research, using many fresh sources, they establish his good intentions beyond any doubt. But locating his words and deeds in their precise contexts, they elucidate what was feasible and distinguished when his conduct stemmed from prudence, cowardice or indifference." --David Cesarani, New Statesman, 31/05/2013

About the Author

Richard Breitman is Distinguished Professor in the Department of History at American University. Allan J. Lichtman is Distinguished Professor in the Department of History at American University.

Product details

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 1540 KB
  • Print Length: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (19 Mar. 2013)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B00BL7IVH0
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
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  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Enhanced Typesetting: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #623,415 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.0 out of 5 stars  51 reviews
111 of 125 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The vindication of FDR 1 Mar. 2013
By Paul Gelman - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
On December 1942, the first anniversary of FDR's speech about Pearl Harbour, four American Jewish representatives entered the Oval Office at noon. One of the was Rabbi Stephen Wise, who read to the president a portion about the Nazi extermination of the European Jews. He apppealed to FDR to bring this to the world's attention and "to make an effort to stop it".
Roosevelt's reply was that Hitler was an insane man and "the group which surrounds him is an example of a national psychopathic case", adding that "We cannot act toward them by normal means... That is why the problem is very difficult".
According to Professors Breitman and Lichtman, Roosevelt can be absolved of any blame regarding the controversial question about his efforts to save the Jews during the Holocaust. It was another book, namely that of David Wyman, in which Roosevelt was accused of abandoning the Jews.
The problem was much more complicated and the evolvement of Roosevelt's approach to the Jewish question and the Holocaust was done in four stages, or what the authors call "The four Roosevelts".
In the first period or stage, Roosevelt would hardly meet with Jewish leaders and was far from being in favour of relaxing immigration laws. In the second phase, Roosevelt's attitude toward the Jewish question was more relaxed and he tried to find various ways in order to facilitate the entry of immigrants into the USA. Enter Isaiah Bowman, the John Hopkins geographer and sporadic presidential adviser who was asked by Roosevelt to find a solution the the Jewish refugee problem in South America. However, in the end, Bowman discounted the capacity of foreign lands to accomodate Jewish refugees. Some diplomats and State Department officials simply refused to consider resettlements of refugees as consistent with the interests of the United States. From 1938 to 1941 at least some 40000 Jews from all nations emigrated to Latin America.
In the third phase, in 1939, Roosevelt changed his view again and thought that any effort to help the Jews would finally result in strenghtening America's isolationism.
In the fourth period, which started in 1943, Roosevelt changed his views again and did whatever he could in order to help and save European Jews from the claws of the Nazi beasts. He had to fight State Department officials , especially the notorious Breckenridge Long, because they were playing the bad guys in this tragedy and refused to issue visas. He denounced anti-Semitism and created the WRB which would take care of many relevant Jewish issues.
In short, FDR was, in the authors' words, neither a hero nor a bystander to the Nazis' persecution and then annihilation of Jews. He had to make painful trade-offs, and he adapted over time to shifting circumstances, however, "Roosevelt reacted more decisively to Nazi crimes against Jews than any other world leader of his time". Could he have done more? Yes, but he was limited by internal and external factors. Victory over the enemy would end the suffering of all peoples subject to Nazi rule, including the Jews. The claim made by the Israeli PM Netanyahu regarding the unwilingness of the Allies to bomb Auschwitz is ridiculed, and I personally concur with this view.
This book points out the limitations one has when writing about this issue. The problem starts when the historian is faced with the simple fact that FDR was one of the most private leaders in American history, who wrote no memoirs and did not leave precious revealing letters, notes, or memos. He frequently gathered information from informal emissaries and contacts and relied to a great extent on verbal communications, sending sensitive messages through private back channels. This problem made it hard on both authors who had to check and consult numerous new documents which contain perspectives about FDR's life experience and political career. In other words, much of what is written here is based on reconstructions of meetings with the president or other recollections of various people he met during his presidency. The authors have also made use of many untapped documents in various archives which were hitherto classified.
This book offers sixteen chapters which are arranged chronologically and form a penetrating and illuminating analysis of this tragic period and issue written in a very clear and vivid style. Highly recommended.
26 of 31 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Comparison of two recent books on FDR and the Holocaust 21 April 2013
By M. Cowan - Published on
I suggest you check out my review of both this book and the Medoff book on the same subject but with a different conclusion (see the link below).

FDR and the Holocaust: A Breach of Faith - Print Edition

Lichtman and Breitman is essential reading on this topic, because it reminds us of the virulent anti-Semitism that pervaded the American community even through 1944 and later. It is difficult to believe how much of the worst anti-Semitism was voiced on the floors of both houses of Congress as late as 1944. The authors demonstrate in a rather convincing manner that had FDR appeared to be supporting policies that would send American boys to die in Europe for the purpose of rescuing Jews, he would not have been able to get Congress to approve re-armament or permit aid to England, all of which were essential to defeating Hitler. Even Jewish leaders were opposed to asking Congress to liberalize the immigration laws to permit more Jewish refugees into the country because they feared, with ample justification, that Congress would further restrict those laws, not liberalize them. Little tidbits like the opposition of the labor unions, which often had Jewish leadership, to permitting more refugees into the country are eye-opening. (The reason is that this opposition occurred in the early 1930's, when the unemployment rate in the US was close to 20%, and long before Chrystal Nacht, when we finally appreciated that the Nazi's were serious about their intention to murder Jews.)

So there is some merit to FDR's claim that openly helping to save Jews, or even the perception that he was doing so,risked undermining public support for the war effort against the Axis. On the other hand, FDR is known to have expressed some pretty nasty views about Jews on his own and perhaps did need that excuse for failing to act to save them.

The Jewish community was justified in supporting FDR politically, notwithstanding his refusal to help rescue Jews in Europe, because he was the only political leader likely to bring the US into the battle against Naziism militarily.

But on the ultimate question of whether FDR could have done more, and whether that failure was due to his inherent anti-Semitism, the Medoff book is more convincing. There was no reason why 75% or even 90% of the immigration quotas went unfulfilled, when there were hundreds of thousands of qualified applicants. No one can explain why permitting the use of existing quotas to permit refugees into the country would have created political problems for FDR. He had not created those quotas and all he would be doing in letting those quotas be filled would be to follow the law. Putting the blame on a bunch of blatant anti-Semites in the State Department (and there were plenty of those) does not excuse FDR, because they were his appointees, and he could have controlled the policies of his own cabinet. Moreover, Medoff (and even the Lichtman/Breitman book) reveal that on occasions FDR specifically approved or directed the restrictions on immigration levels or other rescue efforts. Too often, deliberate technical restrictions were created that were not justified and could only be explained by an intentional decision to prevent as many Jews as possible from getting to the US. For example, German Jews who were kicked out of their jobs and professions and were unable to bring any assets with them if they left Germany were denied visas to the US because of concern that, because they were unemployed and had no money, they would become public charges. If they still had family in Germany, they were denied entry for fear that they might be blackmailed into spying for Germany. The list of absurdities goes on and on.

There is also the question of whether FDR could have done anything anyway. Once WWII started, it was virtually impossible to rescue many Jews. But this does not apply to the situation prior to 1941, and perhaps many of the hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews who died after the Nazi's took control of that country in 1944 could have been saved. But we will never know, because no attempt was ever seriously considered.

There is also an incident that neither book covers--the offer of the Philippines to take 30,000 Jewish refugees and perhaps even more, during the years 1939-41. This is reported in a movie recently released, entitled "Rescue in the Philippines . . ." At that time, the Philippines was a US territory and needed US approval, which was denied. Finally, around the last week of November, 1941, the State Department approved letting in 10,000 refugees, but at the rate of only 1,000 a year. Two weeks later, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and not one Jewish refugee got to the Philippines under this arrangement. What could possibly have justified the State Department's refusal?

In the end, no one can prove that FDR used the excuse, that he could not let the public think that we were fighting a war to save Jews,to hide his own unwillingness to help, but the more one reads and thinks about it, the more one comes to the conclusion that FDR could have done a lot more but for his own inherent bias.

As stated above, read the Lichtman/Breitman book to get a better understanding of the frightening political and social climate of the 1930's and 1940's, but keep in mind that there is too much about FDR's actions (rather, inactions) that the book does not, and cannot, explain.
19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars This should put to rest a nagging controversy, but it probably won't 30 April 2013
By R. M. Peterson - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Over the past two decades or so, there has periodically appeared in my peripheral vision of cultural affairs wrangling over whether FDR, as president, should have done more (some would phrase it, "much more") to save the European Jews who were being persecuted and exterminated by the Nazis and their cohorts. So when FDR AND THE JEWS came out, written by knowledgeable historians and published by a responsible publishing house, I read it to see if there was anything to the controversy.

In a nutshell, authors Breitman and Lichtman are mildly critical of FDR on a few issues or regarding a few statements, but in the main, and after painstaking analysis, they conclude that FDR was unusually sympathetic towards the plight of the Jews and that he did more on their behalf than any other world leader did or any other American political leader of the time might reasonably have been expected to do. Although they don't put it in these terms, to me the only possible grounds for criticizing FDR are if you believe that the President of the United States has much more power to act unilaterally than he actually has or if your only yardstick for judging FDR is responsiveness to Jewish concerns - i.e., if you adhere to a single-issue view of politics (ignoring that FDR was president during first the Depression and then during World War II).

The book considers, in exacting detail, five different matters regarding FDR's responsiveness to Jewish interests: 1) easing or lifting quotas on the immigration of Jews to the United States: 2) encouraging and/or implementing the resettlement of Jewish refugees elsewhere in the world (for example, Palestine, Guiana, Angola, Madagascar); 3) denouncing Hitler and the Nazis; 4) support for a Jewish state in Palestine; and 5) bombing of the gas chambers and crematoria at Auschwitz and/or railways and junctions leading to it.

Some of these are, to a large extent, red herrings. What good would more strident and frequent denouncements of Hitler and the Nazis have done? "The United States had no leverage with the Nazi regime at all and no military capacity to do more than it was already doing to win the war. It was far easier for the Nazis to kill than for any outside power to intervene against them." And regardless of how one comes out on the debate of whether it made sense from a military perspective of allocation of finite resources to bomb Auschwitz, the proposal to do so never reached FDR, so it is fundamentally unfair to charge him with some sort of failure or insensitivity on that score.

To me, one of the more interesting points was FDR's fervent desire to find an alternative homeland for the unwanted and displaced Jews of Europe. In 1939 and 1940, FDR and two of his closest advisors discussed the idea of canceling the World War I debts of Britain, France, and the Netherlands in return for ceding the British, French, and Dutch Guianas to the United States as havens for Jewish refugees. They considered whether some sort of joint protectorate might be established to govern the Guianas "until incoming refugees set up their own government." To me, that is a startling phrase, for it is a telltale indication that the indigenous peoples didn't matter, at least not enough to enter into the calculus. The same could be said about Churchill's proposal to use the former Italian colonies of Eritrea and Tripolitania (part of present-day Libya) as Jewish havens. And, of course, the same can be said about Palestine. But FDR was not really sensitive to any moral claims of any Arab Palestinians; like so many others, he thought they could and should simply relocate somewhere outside Palestine. He discussed the matter with Ibn Saud shortly after Yalta. FDR requested the Saudi king's assistance in addressing the plight of the Jews of Central Europe. In response, Ibn Saud suggested giving them the choicest lands and homes of the Germans. FDR continued to press Ibn Saud, rhetorically asking how relatively few Jews (at least compared to the number of Arabs in the Middle East), confined to Palestine, would cause any trouble for the Arabs. That elicited this response from Ibn Saud: "What injury have the Arabs done to the Jews of Europe? It is the `Christian' Germans who stole their homes and lives. Let the Germans pay." That this view had moral legitimacy is something that neither FDR nor his successor appeared to recognize.

And, in roundabout fashion this leads me to the point that FDR AND THE JEWS, in addition to addressing the historical brouhaha posed by the title, is also worthwhile as enriching our understanding of FDR himself. He truly was a confident, complex, chameleon-like person. One small anecdote: "Roosevelt had innate confidence that he could personally solve problems that eluded others. After attending a presidential session on the Middle East [shortly before FDR's meeting with Ibn Saud], Herbert Feis said, `I've read of men who thought they might be King of the Jews and other men who thought they might be King of the Arabs, but this is the first time I've listened to a man who dreamt of being King of both the Jews and the Arabs.'" Was it just FDR or was it American hubris, American exceptionalism even?

My problem with the book is that it is too detailed for what I needed - and that obviously is MY problem; it is not really a fault in a responsible work of history. For those who want just an abstract or summary, read the Introduction and the final chapter (some twenty-two pages total). The details are in the 300 pages between them. For scholars and sceptics, those details are appropriately footnoted and indexed. The authors cover a mass of detailed information as expeditiously as reasonably possible, and the writing is as lucid as one could want.

In many respects, FDR AND THE JEWS deserves five stars. But because I had to keep pushing myself to get through the mass of detail, I am settling for four.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A good acount, but misses the basic points 16 Nov. 2013
By Prof W. D. Rubinstein - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I haven't read this book until now. I have an established position about this controversy, as I m the author of The Myth of Rescue-Why the Democracies Could Not Have Saved More Jews From the Nazis (1997). This i a balanced and well-researched work, which rightly dismisses the more absurd charges levelled against FDR, but it does not go far enough. In particular, it fails to note that,after 1940-41, the Jews of Nazi-occupied Europe were no longer refugees, who could emigrate, but the exact opposite, prisoners of Hitler, who were forbidden to leave, prior to genocide. It also fails to note that very many plans for rescue made by Jewish and pro-refugee groups in the democracies, which I discuss at length in my book, all of which were hopeless- all, without exception- since no one could get around the fact that it was impossible to free the Jews in Hitler's empire without liberating Europe mile by mile- which the three Allies were in the process of doing. Finally, it greatly exaggerates the number of Jews saved by the War Refugee Board, clearly to show that the Roosevelt administration actually did something. The figure of 200,000 Jews saved by the WRB is a wild and manifest exaggeration, especially in relation to its role in stopping the deportation of Hungarian Jewry- the book does not actually consider the other claims, even more implausible, made on behalf of the WRB. This was not for want of trying, but because the task it set itself was impossible without liberating Europe.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars It's About Time Historians Set the Record Straight 24 May 2013
By Reader 47 - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I'm delighted that some respected historians are finally setting the record straight and showing how FDR was not an apathetic anti-Semite and did his best to save many Jews in a hostile American and world climate. This book dovetails with William Rubinstein's "The Myth of Rescue," and Robert Rosen's "Saving the Jews," which Alan Dershowitz himself praised. Too many people distorted the "St. Louis" situation as well as the fact that bombing Auschwitz would not have helped. FDR's sending the British tanks against the wishes of many in this country turned the tide at El Alamein, and really saved the population of Jewish Palestine from the Final Solution, something Breitman and Lichtman discuss and that the Jewish Daily Forward also agreed with. By getting the U.S. into WWII and winning the war as fast as possible, FDR saved the remaining world's 12 million Jews. Rosen also mentions this and the El Alamein key to saving then Jewish Palestine, later Israel. And FDR did his level best to try to get a homeland in then Palestine for the Jews and was shocked at Ibn Saud's hatred. And he kept Jewish immigration to that area open by pressuring the British from 1936-1939. What really galls me is that short of the NY Times giving its fine analysis of this book, I have not seen any reviews of it in other major papers such as the LA Times. In fact, all the LA Times did was give rabid FDR opponent Raphael Medoff a forum to attack FDR for making anti-Jewish jokes, and not looking at his real record. Isolationist Charles Lindbergh never told anti-Semitic jokes and would not allow such talk in his house, but his 9/11/1941 speak about "Jewish warmongers" said it all (Olson, "Those Angry Days") Get real! The view of FDR as hostile to the Jews should not be engraved in stone. It is all wrong. Blame the Nazis and those who collaborated with them. Not every one else. And Nazi Germany was a police state. It would kill or imprison anyone who opposed their exterminating Jews. Public protest on this was not allowed. Only military intervention could stop it. In short, read this book!
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