The Failed Presidency of Franklin Roosevelt: Indifference to the Fate of the Jews

Great leaders rise to the challenges of the times. Franklin Roosevelt, who knew very little about economics, tried “experimentation” to end the Great Depression, but those experiments extended the Depression’s effects. Roosevelt, allegedly ahead of the American public, sensed the danger of Hitler to the world’s peace, but he did little or nothing to educate the public or to prepare the nation for war. And Roosevelt was repeatedly informed about Hitler’s treatment of the Jews, even about evidence of the Final Solution, but again and again he failed to lift a finger to come to their aid. It was a moral failure that Roosevelt partisans continue to downplay and ignore.

In 2018, a group of Holocaust historians released a report criticizing the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum for effectively whitewashing FDR’s feeble approach to Hitler’s war against the Jews. In the report, entitled “Distorting America’s Response to the Holocaust,” 10 historians, led by Rafael Medoff, shine an uncomfortable light on FDR’s reluctance to publicly acknowledge, let alone take any decisive steps, to save Jewish lives both before and during the war.

When American Jews, including rabbis, brought the facts about the Holocaust to FDR’s attention, it made no difference in the administration’s response.

After Hitler came to power in 1933, American Jewish organizations proposed a boycott of German goods, which the Roosevelt administration opposed, calling it “a racial or political boycott” of German products. That same year, American Jews urged the president to publicly criticize Hitler’s growing persecution of Jews, yet not once in 82 press conferences held that year did FDR speak out against Hitler’s conduct. This emerged as a pattern of inaction and indifference by FDR throughout the 1930s, culminating in the administration’s refusal to take any steps to open America’s doors to more Jewish refugees attempting to flee Nazi rule and persecution. FDR’s administration even unrelentingly opposed the Dominican Republic’s courageous offer to admit 100,000 German Jews. The report notes that FDR’s State Department “actively pressured the Dominican haven organizers from bringing in refugees.” The pressure worked — only 1,000 Jewish refugees made it to the Dominican Republic; the other 99,000 presumably met their fate in Hitler’s Final Solution. Medoff notes that even where existing immigration/refugee quotas for visa applications would have permitted 190,000 more Jews to escape their horrible fate, the Roosevelt administration left those quota spaces unused from 1933 to 1945.

Even when the world learned about the 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom, FDR, writes Medoff, “was initially reluctant to comment at all on the terror. And after Kristallnacht, the Roosevelt administration opposed a plan by the Virgin Islands to settle large number of Jewish refugees. FDR’s administration, Medoff states, “opposed settling substantial numbers of Jewish refugees in any locale in proximity to the U.S. mainland.” FDR also gave no support to the Wagner–Rogers bill that would have admitted 20,000 child refugees from Germany.

When news of the Holocaust started making its way into the world’s capitals, including Washington, and American Jews, including rabbis, brought the facts to FDR’s attention, it made no difference in the administration’s response. In one instance, Medoff reports, FDR refused to meet with a group of rabbis, exiting through the back door of the White House. And FDR’s adviser Samuel Rosenman reportedly told friends that the president privately spoke about the rabbis using “language that would have pleased Hitler himself.” There is much more damning information in this regard in this 71-page document. In 2019, Medoff published the book The Jews Should Keep Quiet: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, and the Holocaust, where he expands on many of the issues raised in the report, including FDR’s insistence on keeping Jews away from America.

Then there is Jay Winik’s book 1944: FDR and the Year That Changed History (2015). Winik is mostly an admirer of FDR’s wartime leadership, but he casts a critical light on FDR’s failure to adequately respond to the Holocaust. Winik notes that the Roosevelt administration learned about Hitler’s Final Solution from escapees from Auschwitz-Birkenau, German industrialist Eduard Schulte, Swiss journalist Benno Sagalowitz, Geneva lawyer Gerhart Riegner, Jan Karski of the Polish underground, and numerous American Jewish leaders. By as early as November 1942, Winik writes, “the essentials of the Final Solution were emerging with alarming clarity.” But instead of using his stature as a world leader and his inspiring rhetoric to highlight and condemn the genocide, FDR responded with “silence” and a “seeming refusal to see, hear, or speak evil of the death camps.” Winik compared FDR’s failure to do anything about the Holocaust, his circumspection “that set the tone of administration policy,” to Neville Chamberlain’s ineffectual response to Hitler’s demands at Munich. (READ MORE from Francis P. Sempa: Neville Chamberlain, Hero?)

Winik claims that FDR’s failure here should not dim his “greatness.” But, as noted above, great leaders rise to the challenges of their times.

Perhaps the most devastating indictment of FDR’s approach to the Holocaust is in David Wyman’s The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust, 1941-1945, which appeared in 1984 and built upon works such as Arthur Morse’s While Six Million Died (1967) and Henry Feingold’s The Politics of Rescue (1970). Sol Stern, in a comprehensive article in Tablet entitled “Franklin Roosevelt Betrayed Europe’s Jews,” reflects on these and other books that revealed “the moral debacle of the Roosevelt administration’s silence” in response to the Final Solution. He notes that early Roosevelt biographers such as James MacGregor Burns, Frank Freidel, and Eric Goldman effectively absolved their hero of any failure regarding his response to the Holocaust. Stern bluntly concludes that Franklin Roosevelt’s administration “obstructed practical proposals for saving Jews facing extermination, just as it had previously blocked asylum for hundreds of thousands of Jews fleeing Nazi persecution.”

We know that Franklin Roosevelt shared the anti-Semitism of his era, especially among blue-blooded members of the upper class. He didn’t care much for “Orientals” either, which may partly explain his willingness to order 120,000 men, women and children of Japanese ancestry into internment camps after Pearl Harbor. Which raises the question: Why haven’t liberals and progressives “canceled” FDR?

Click here for parts one, two, and three of this series on the failed presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

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