16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
R. M. Peterson
- Published on Amazon.com
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.
22 of 25 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
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.