FDR: Good for the Jews?

By Jon WienerMay 12, 2013

FDR: Good for the Jews?

FDR and the Jews by Allan J. Lichtman and Richard Breitman

WHEN GEORGE BUSH saw pictures of Auschwitz at Yad Vashem, Israel’s museum of the Holocaust, he said — with “tears in his eyes” — “we should have bombed it.” That’s what The New York Times reported in 2008. Could he have read The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust 1941–1945 by David Wyman? That’s the 1984 book that made the refusal to bomb Auschwitz the lasting symbol of FDR’s failure to help Jews in World War II Europe. Wyman, the grandson of two Protestant ministers and a historian at Amherst College, pointed out that American planes based in Italy were bombing industrial targets not far from Auschwitz in May 1944, and one day even bombed Auschwitz by mistake. Several Jewish groups and leaders had requested the bombing of the gas chambers or the rail lines leading to the death camp. The military opposed it, arguing their priority was defeating Hitler’s armies, not protecting Jews. The request got as high as John J. McCloy, FDR’s Assistant Secretary of War, who rejected it, noting simply, “No reply necessary.”

There’s an entire book about it: The Bombing of Auschwitz: Should the Allies Have Attempted It? by Michael J. Neufeld and Michael Berenbaum — a debate among 15 historians, including Martin Gilbert, Walter Laqueur, and Deborah Lipstadt, based on a 1993 conference at the Smithsonian Institution, sponsored by the National Air and Space Museum and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. Mostly they argue that bombing was feasible, but the US lacked the will to do it.

With their book FDR and the Jews, Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman hope to have the last word on the bomb-Auschwitz debate, as well as the larger one it stands for — whether FDR was a “bystander” to the Holocaust. The book — which would have been unthinkable before the 1960s — is significant not only for its new research and cogent argument, but also for what it reveals about the state of Jewish self-consciousness in America today. The authors’ conclusion is that FDR was not a “bystander.” He did more to help Jews than any other leader anywhere in the world. Although he decided on many occasions to overlook threats to European Jews, those decisions were based on astute political judgments about what the American public and Congress would accept. The bomb-Auschwitz proposal never reached FDR, they point out, so it’s wrong to say the decision was his. But even if the question had been posed to him, they say, he would have followed the advice of the military — especially since “every major American Jewish leader and organization that he respected remained silent on the matter, as did all influential members of Congress and opinion-makers in the mainstream media.” Finally, they argue, even if the Allies had bombed Auschwitz, it wouldn’t have saved very many Jewish lives because the Nazis had other “mechanisms” for the Final Solution, especially shooting Jews.

While the book ends by taking up the bomb-Auschwitz debate, it covers a great deal of other territory, dividing FDR’s responses to Hitler over 12 years into four phases — an approach that is thoughtful and persuasive. During his first term, 1933–37, he was a “bystander to Nazi persecution,” not because he was an anti-Semite or didn’t care, but because fighting unemployment and bank failures and winning a second term took precedence over everything else, including helping the Jews of Europe. After his triumphant reelection in 1936, as Hitler grew more menacing, FDR took action to loosen some immigration restrictions and to work on resettling European Jews elsewhere in the world — including Palestine; he pressured the British to keep it open to Jewish immigrants.

After World War II began, with Hitler’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, FDR began a third phase, putting war preparations and foreign policy first and setting aside Jewish anxiety about the millions living in Nazi-occupied Poland. At a time when isolationism was dominant in America, and FDR knew US support for Britain and the USSR was essential to the defeat of Hitler, he avoided any appearance of sympathy to Jewish concerns, believing — correctly — that Americans would oppose going to war to save European Jews. He argued privately that the best way to save Jews was to defeat Hitler.

Late in 1943, as victory came closer, he reversed course and took up Jewish issues, openly denouncing anti-Semitism and establishing a War Refugee Board to help rescue Jews who had not been killed. Again he worked to make Palestine a Jewish homeland, and, despite failing health, personally met with the Saudi king. While he didn’t bomb Auschwitz, he tried to do other things to help Hitler’s Jewish victims.

Of course FDR, like all leaders, acted not just on the basis of his own beliefs and feelings, but in response to political pressure. FDR and the Jews addresses the conflicting demands put forward by Jewish organizations, but from my perspective there’s not enough here about how Jewish leaders and organizations organized rallies and found allies — how they engaged in public persuasion and political pressure that got FDR to act. There is some damning material about the refusal of some Jewish organizations to engage in popular politics, but to their credit, Rabbi Stephen Wise and the American Jewish Congress organized rallies in March 1933 in Madison Square Garden, and Columbus Circle, and Brooklyn, and tens of thousands participated. But the American Jewish Committee and B’nai B’rith condemned “boycotts, parades, mass meetings and other similar demonstrations” on behalf of Jews in Germany. They argued that “agitation serves only to furnish the persecutors with a pretext to justify the wrongs they perpetuate,” and that quiet diplomacy and lobbying was the best approach. Others countered with an argument that has become familiar in more recent times in another context: silence equals death.

It’s fascinating to see what moved Rabbi Wise to organize mass rallies: “If we do not,” he wrote, “there will be Socialist Jewish meetings [and] Communist Jewish demonstrations.” This brief quote strongly suggests that the left was a key to mobilizing the center, if only to preempt them on this key issue.

The Madison Square Garden rally — March 27, 1933 — was a great one. It featured the Catholic Al Smith and prominent Protestants including an Episcopalian bishop and a Methodist bishop, along with Senator Robert F. Wagner, the president of the AFL, and the Republican who ran against FDR for governor in 1930 — a truly impressive interfaith lineup. Smith, who had been the first Catholic to run for president, said “the only thing to do with bigotry,” whether anti-Catholic or anti-Jewish, “is to drag it out into the open sunlight and give it the same treatment that we gave the Ku Klux Klan.” Thousands more attended rallies in Los Angeles, Baltimore, Newark, and Washington, DC — the United Press estimated that a million people had participated in hundreds of protests, “one of the largest political demonstrations to date in American history.”

Jews could organize and campaign and appeal and negotiate, but they lived in a world of limited possibilities and counter pressures and bureaucratic inertia and open hostility. It was FDR’s task to assess those possibilities and deal with those hostilities. This book is very much about politics as “the art of the possible,” rather than an exercise in what Max Weber criticized as “the politics of ultimate ends.”

There’s no question that a lot of Americans didn’t care about the fate of the Jews in the 1930s, including some of FDR’s top advisors. But the authors remind us that a lot of people don’t care about the fate of Darfur today and didn’t care about Kosovo or Rwanda in the 1990s. Jews are among them. It’s hard to get people to do something to help strangers.

Could FDR have done more? Breitman and Lichtman’s answer is “certainly yes.” He could have taken in Jewish children as refugees; he could have filled — or even enlarged — immigration quotas for Jews from Europe; he could have pressed the British harder to let more Jews enter Palestine. Maybe he would have succeeded. But it’s hard for us to be sure. As the authors show, FDR was the master politician of his time, so his judgment of what was possible counts for quite a bit. And given that, the people second-guessing him today are probably wrong.


There was a time, not so long ago, when American Jews were not obsessed with the Holocaust. For 25 years after World War II, a book like FDR and the Jews was unnecessary — indeed unthinkable. American Jews loved and revered FDR for leading the Allies in defeating Hitler. Before the 1960s, few thought of the Holocaust as a singular historical event. Yes, American Jews spoke of “the six million.” But for Jews and non-Jews alike, it was the deaths of 50 million people that defined the war. Jews understood themselves to be one group among many that suffered immense and heartbreaking losses. Anne Frank was often quoted on this theme: “we’re not the only people that have had to suffer,” she wrote; “sometimes it’s one race, sometimes another.”

In the years following World War II, 1946–48, as Peter Novick showed in his crucial 1999 book The Holocaust in American Life, the leading Jewish organizations unanimously rejected the idea of a Holocaust memorial in New York City. The American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Congress, and Jewish War Veterans all opposed a monument — on the grounds that it would be “a perpetual memorial to the weakness and defenseless of the Jewish people” and thus would “not be in the best interests of Jewry.” Again Anne Frank was quoted: she wrote that she longed for a time “when we are people again, not just Jews.” That was pretty much the story for 25 years after the war.

Jewish thinking about World War II was transformed by the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem in 1961. That trial, Novick shows, marked the first time that what we call the Holocaust was presented to the American public as a historical event in its own right, distinct from Nazi barbarism in general. The word “Holocaust” came into common usage only at that point, as the official Israeli translation of the term they use at Yad Vashem — “shoah.” The next big step in what we can call “Holocaust consciousness” came with the 1973 Yom Kippur War, which suggested briefly the vulnerability of Israel, and the final step came in 1993 with the opening of the official United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. Its theme is that Jews were victims, and gentiles were either persecutors or guilty bystanders. Wyman’s Abandonment of the Jews placed FDR firmly in the latter camp.

Thus, starting in the 1970s, official Judaism made the Holocaust in general and Auschwitz in particular the center of Jewish self-consciousness in America. That has meant that Jewish organizations have emphasized the status of Jews as victims. The criticism of FDR has been part of this larger phenomenon, in which Jewish organizations like the Simon Wiesenthal Center bombard Jews with scare stories about renewed threats of anti-Semitism from neo-Nazis in America. The central question was a frightening one: if FDR wouldn’t stop the genocide of the Jews in the 1940s, would anybody do anything different today? The implication is that, when adversity threatens, the Jews have had no friends, which means that constant vigilance and suspicion of others are necessary, along with unquestioning support for an Israel that is mighty and uncompromising.

It’s this context that gives the book FDR and the Jews its significance today. It poses a challenge to the theme that American Jews have no friends, that the gentile world has been at best indifferent to the survival of the Jewish people. It shows that, while there were some anti-Semites in the State Department, the best friend Jews had anywhere in the world in the 1940s was the government of the United States and its president FDR; that, while FDR put domestic political factors ahead of rescuing European Jews, he did far more than any other head of government to act to protect Jews facing death.

But a survey of the response to FDR and the Jews suggests that the authors have not succeeded at changing minds. Even though it’s the most responsible, reasoned, well-documented assessment of FDR’s role, many official and semi-official spokespeople continue to argue that Jews had in FDR a president who didn’t care whether they lived or died. Moment Magazine, founded by Elie Wiesel, declared in a review by Marc Fisher: “Roosevelt’s inaction was an amoral decision to put politics and pragmatism ahead of even a symbolic effort to rescue Europe’s Jews.” Richard Cohen wrote in The Washington Post that Roosevelt’s “triumph in possibly saving the American free enterprise system [. . .] cannot negate the fact that he did not confront the biggest crime in all history with everything at his disposal.”

Meanwhile on the other side, those who would be expected to agree with Breitman and Lichtman, do agree: Michael Kazin, editor of the socialist magazine Dissent says, “This splendid book should banish forever the notion that Franklin Roosevelt was a blinkered anti-Semite who made little effort to stop the Holocaust.” In The New York Times Book Review, David Oshinky argued that “an even stronger case might be made” for FDR “than the one put forth in this eminently sensible book. Roosevelt masterfully prepared a skeptical nation for a war against global tyranny. […] And the final defeat of Germany, costing hundreds of thousands of American lives, ended the Holocaust for good.”

Despite the alarms raised by Jewish voices and groups on the right, the fact is that Jews in America since World War II have not been facing hostility or threatened or under siege. American Jews have become the best-educated and wealthiest ethnic group in American society, and among the most politically effective. There’s hardly been a time or place in history when Jews have been so secure. Indeed another theme of official Judaism is that Jewish identity in America today is threatened by this very security and prosperity: American Jews are not particularly religious and are intermarrying in increasing numbers, and thus, the argument goes, Judaism in America faces extinction because of successful assimilation.

Meanwhile, the bomb-Auschwitz issue has been given a new life by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who last year cited FDR’s failure to bomb Auschwitz as a justification for a pre-emptive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. He gave the speech not in Jerusalem but in Washington, at a conference of AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which calls itself “America’s pro-Israel lobby.” The Jerusalem Post summarized Netanyahu’s message: “You can’t trust the United States of America” to help the Jews.


John Wiener is a contributing editor to The Nation and hosts a weekly afternoon drive-time interview show on KPFK 90.7 FM in Los Angeles.

LARB Contributor

Jon Wiener is a professor of history emeritus at UC Irvine. His most recent books are Set the Night on Fire: L. A. in the Sixties, co-authored with Mike Davis, and  Historians in Trouble: Plagiarism, Fraud, and Politics in the Ivory TowerHe is a contributing editor to and on the board of directors of Los Angeles Review of Books,  a contributing editor to The Nation, and host of a weekly afternoon drive-time interview show on KPFK 90.7 FM in Los Angeles.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.