Historical Perspectives on Franklin D. Roosevelt,
American Foreign Policy, and the Holocaust


by Joseph J. Plaud, Ph.D., BCBA

Franklin D. Roosevelt American Heritage Center and Museum
Union Station, Second Floor
2 Washington Square
Worcester, MA 01604-4016 U.S.A.

Telephone: (508) 770-1515
E-Mail: plaud@fdrheritage.org
Website: http://www.fdrheritage.org



Franklin Delano Roosevelt served as President of the United States for a longer period of time than any other chief executive before or since, arguably during the most challenging twelve-year period in American history. The years of the Great Depression, New Deal, and Second World War are inseparable from the persona of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Doris Kearns Goodwin, for example, concludes that to the American people it seemed as if Roosevelt alone understood and acted on the complex and shifting relationship between domestic issues and foreign affairs. Footnote Roosevelt’s presence on the domestic and world stages during his twelve year tenure as President elicited a multitude of positive and negative reactions to his domestic New Deal agenda and the foreign policies which ultimately became linked to American entrance into the Second World War. Footnote Indeed, Roosevelt has been accused all at once of being simplistic, duplicitous, impenetrably complex, as well as commanding in his policy making strategies.


In the context of the sweeping domestic and international events that forever changed the relationship between the American people and their government during the years 1933 to 1945, it is not difficult to conclude that the Franklin D. Roosevelt Administration left a lasting legacy to the world.

In the context of the sweeping domestic and international events that forever changed the relationship between the American people and their government during the years 1933 to 1945, it is not difficult to conclude that the Franklin D. Roosevelt Administration left a lasting legacy to the world. The debate during the past 60 years is not whether Roosevelt and his government were influential, but whether on balance the Roosevelt presidency’s strengths outweighed its weaknesses. While there is certainly no easy answer to this question, an analysis of the major events and their consequences during the Roosevelt presidency may contribute to our understanding and ultimate judgment of the Roosevelt presidency itself. One such event of major importance during Roosevelt’s presidency was the Holocaust of European Jews. Between 1941 and 1945 approximately six million Jews were murdered at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators. Footnote The purpose of this paper is to analyze the relationship of the Roosevelt Administration to the Holocaust by providing a historiographical analysis of scholars’ views on what Roosevelt personally felt about the Jews, what Roosevelt and the American government actually knew about the nefarious policies of the Nazis toward the Jews, when they knew it, what they did about it (or tried to do about it), and what our knowledge of the Holocaust and the policies of the Roosevelt Administration means to the legacy of the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. In this process of evaluating historical accounts and conclusions regarding the Roosevelt Administration and the Holocaust, analysis will also be given to the behavioral and social psychological factors that may influence not only the historical record itself, but the judgement of particular historians, and ultimately our overall conclusions regarding FDR and his Administration in a time of crisis.


FDR and the Jews


The complexities of the present topic can be illustrated by the widely divergent views of FDR held by Adolf Hitler, the chief architect of the Holocaust, and Republican Representative Hamilton Fish of New York, a persistent critic of the New Deal and FDR, as well as author of the Fish Resolution in the House of Representatives in 1922. Footnote This resolution was the first to publicly advocate a cultural, religious, and historic homeland in Palestine for the Jews, and was ultimately adopted by the Congress and signed by President Warren G. Harding. To one of the ultimate anti-Semites in history, Adolf Hitler, FDR was “the arch-culprit for [the Second World War]...with his freemasons, Jews and general Jewish-Bolshevism.” Hitler even went so far as to tell a Spanish diplomat in August, 1941 that he had proof of Roosevelt’s “Jewish ancestry.” Footnote Indeed, anti-Semites in Germany and America referred to Roosevelt as “Rosenfeld,” and an article in the August, 1936 edition of The White Knight published an article referring to the New Deal as the “Jew Deal.” Footnote , Footnote In America during this tumultuous period “informational” pamphlets appeared such as What Every Congressman Should Know in 1940 (featuring a sketch of the Capitol building with a Star of David atop its dome) that proclaimed that the Jews were in control of the American government. Financier and FDR confidant Bernard Baruch was called the “Unofficial President” in the anti-Semitic literature of the time. The periodical Liberation, for example, accused FDR of loading his government with Jews, and spotlighted FDR’s supposed Jewish ancestry. Footnote


After he congratulated himself for being one of the great humanitarians in American history, a person who “has done more for the Jewish people than any single person not of their own race,” Republican Congressman Hamilton Fish accused FDR of “spiritual anesthesia” (to use the words of Ben Hecht). Fish concluded that FDR’s inexplicable decision not to take a stand to save European Jews may have been a deciding factor in Hitler’s execution of the Final Solution: “If such a definitive announcement had been made from the White House, it might well have stopped the megalomaniac Hitler or at least brought home the truth to the German and Polish people, most of whom probably knew little of Hitler’s extermination policy.” Footnote Fish’s condemnation of FDR for his complicity in the Nazi atrocities against the Jews raises the specter, far from Hitler’s contention that FDR was himself a Jew, that his “spiritual anesthesia” might have resulted from personal anti-Semitism, or at the very least a pervasive lack of concern for the Jewish people and their life and death struggle during the Holocaust years. It is fair to note for the record, however, that Hamilton Fish consistently opposed the policies of FDR during his tenure in the Congress from FDR’s home district in New York. It may also be instructive to note that Fish was defeated for reelection to Congress in 1944 in large part by FDR’s concerted efforts against his reelection. Footnote Nevertheless, though the Fish may be tainted, it is still important to investigate whether historians during the past 60 years have corroborated or in any way supported Fish’s view of the thirty second President. It is to this historiographical investigation that we first turn our attention.


Historical examination of FDR’s personal views supports a conclusion that the president was most concerned about the plight of the European Jews.

Although the issue of Western complicity in Hitler’s racial policies aimed against the Jews is both complex and controversial, historical examination of FDR’s personal views supports a conclusion that the president was most concerned about the plight of the European Jews. According to FDR historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, although anti-Semitism was a pervasive part of the world in which the Roosevelts (both Franklin and Eleanor) had grown up, FDR was himself not a racist. Goodwin cites statistics showing that FDR’s high level executive appointments favored Jews (15% of his top appointments at a time when Jews represented 3% of the U.S. population). Further, Goodwin argues, the fact that FDR was routinely criticized for his favorable policies toward the Jews in government testifies to the fact that he was no racist. FDR himself replied to these criticisms that “in the dim distant past, [my ancestors] may have been Jews or Catholics or Protestants. What I am interested in is whether they were good citizens and believers in God. I hope they were both.” Footnote


Frank Freidel reaches the same conclusion concerning FDR’s personal feelings toward the Jews. Freidel concludes that FDR wanted to aid the Jews from the beginning, but was unable to contain the racial atrocities perpetrated by Hitler just as he was unable to stop German militarism. Footnote Freidel argues that by his own behavior FDR showed himself to be “stubbornly” pro-Zionist and made repeated attempts to persuade Arabs (such as Ibn Saud) and powerful allies (such as Joseph Stalin) to work with the United States in the establishment of a Jewish homeland. Footnote Irwin F. Gellman believes that while FDR was not pro-Semitic, neither was he anti-Semitic. After the Nazis unleashed Kristallnacht, the Night of the Broken Glass, in 1938, FDR, concludes Gellman, was appalled, and reacted by welcoming eminent Western European Jews to the United States and authorized the issuance of thousands of visas with the explicit purpose of granting them to Jews. FDR also recalled the American ambassador from Berlin and started advocating for the convening of an international refugee conference at the French resort town of Evian-les-Bains. Footnote


After labeling FDR as the man most “idolized by Jews throughout the world” in the twentieth century, Saul S. Friedman also condemns his leadership in a time of crisis, yet concedes that on a personal level FDR was indeed “troubled” by the plight of the Jews. Friedman’s analysis is more a conclusion of disappointment about FDR’s lack of decisive action than a condemnation of FDR the man. Friedman notes that the Hyde Park files are filled with letters of praise from “the doomed, the saved, the hopeful.” Friedman also notes that FDR received kosher calendars, bogus checks guaranteeing him “365 days of happiness”, trees planted in his name in Eretz (now Israel) from children of the Jewish Sanatarium for Chronic Diseases in Brooklyn, blessings from Rabbi Stephen Wise (one of the most active Zionists in America), and even flattering poetry by none other than Albert Einstein. As the “boss” of the American government, Friedman chastens, FDR should have done more, much more; however, “FDR’s failure to live up to the Jews’ expectations lies not so much with the man but with the people who deified him....Ultimately, however, the blame for inaction lies with the faceless mass of American citizens.” Footnote


Part of FDR’s legacy is that he did much to counter the voices of prejudice in American society.

FDR’s supportive relationship with American Jews is also corroborated by Leonard Dinnerstein, who notes that when FDR died, political analyst Sam Lubell wrote “no group in the nation felt more homeless politically than the Jews.” Dinnerstein notes that most Jews saw FDR as their friend and their champion on a personal level. Although Dinnerstein also questions whether FDR could have done more to aid European Jews in a time of Holocaust, he ultimately concludes that FDR showed sensitivity to the needs of minorities, including Jews (who voted for FDR 3½ to 1 in 1932, and by at least 90 percent in 1940 and 1944), and part of FDR’s legacy is that he did much to counter the voices of prejudice in American society. Footnote


Wayne S. Cole also blames the general isolationist sentiment of American citizens (as well as in the Congress) as one of the major problem that limited FDR’s ability to take decisive action in foreign affairs, including aiding the European Jews. Footnote Robert Dallek concludes that FDR in fact did try through a variety of channels to influence the homicidal impulses of Adolf Hitler, even though Dallek wonders whether FDR could have or should have done more, in spite of the domestic and international constraints that limited his real power to give the Jews in Europe the desperate help they needed. Footnote Although there is some discrepancy among historians concerning the depth of culpability justifiably ascribed to FDR as President, the historical literature (with the exception of the dubious and vague innuendos of Hamilton Fish noted above) clearly gives us a picture of FDR as a man deeply concerned and personally sympathetic to the horrible plight of the Jews in Nazi Germany and its conquered environs. How he acted upon his sympathies and the ensuing historical debates of actual American government policies toward the Jews in the Holocaust era will be presented later in this examination; however, the conclusion that emerges from an examination of the historical literature is that Franklin D. Roosevelt was deeply concerned about the worsening plight of the European Jews. The search for understanding the actions of FDR and his government toward the Jews during the years of the Third Reich, historians conclude, goes far beyond the personally sympathetic persona of FDR himself.


The very fact that Wyman, certainly no Roosevelt apologist, still refers to FDR as the most prominent symbol of humanitarianism of his age, adds credibility to the conclusion that on a personal level FDR held no anti-Semitic views.

One of the most vocal critics of American policies toward the Jews during the Holocaust, David S. Wyman, in a book entitled The Abandonment of the Jews, does not even hint at the possibility that FDR might have been anti-Semitic. Page after page of Wyman’s analysis severely criticizes many elements of American government and society for its inaction during the crucial years 1941-1945. Wyman also states that given his general reluctance to take great political risks, combined with the election of a more conservative Congress in 1942, it would be difficult to have expected decisive action by FDR during the very period when tragic information concerning the Holocaust was reaching Washington. Footnote On a more personal note, Wyman concludes that FDR was disturbed by the Jewish problems, but in the end “the era’s most prominent symbol of humanitarianism turned away from one of history’s most compelling moral challenges.” Footnote The very fact that Wyman, certainly no Roosevelt apologist, still refers to FDR as the most prominent symbol of humanitarianism of his age, adds credibility to the conclusion that on a personal level FDR held no anti-Semitic views, despite the fact that Wyman ultimately concludes that the President was culpable for his executive inactions during the mounting crisis.


In an earlier historical analysis, Wyman also concludes that FDR was constrained to act within a quota system of immigration (a topic of later discussion), but did personally attempt to make the quotas fully available to Jewish refugees. Wyman concludes that “one may level the finger of accusation at Franklin Roosevelt for having done so little and at Congress for having done nothing. But the accuser will find himself [sic] simultaneously pointing at the society which gave American refugee policy its fundamental shape. Like the President, the majority of Americans condemned Nazi persecution. But most opposed widening the gates for Europe’s oppressed.” Footnote Therefore, the conclusion that FDR was himself an anti-Semite, a personal bigotry which may have provided the personal impetus for the documented executive indecision during the years of the Holocaust, finds no support in the historical record. Historians who are largely sympathetic to the person of FDR, such as Goodwin and Freidel, as well as persistent critics of FDR’s lack of forceful action to aid the European Jews such as Wyman, both go to great length to separate out Roosevelt the man and humanitarian from Roosevelt the President in a world of war and public opinion, most notably domestic American public opinion.


Summary and Conclusion: FDR and the Jews


Dallek concludes that FDR may have in fact shown more personal leadership than meets the eye, as he attempted to act through a variety of channels to influence both American allies and the Third Reich itself.

Historiographical analysis of FDR’s personal beliefs toward the Jews and his Presidential leadership on this issue during the years of the Holocaust reveals a general consensus that FDR was personally sympathetic to the plight of the European Jews, and although he took several steps to aid Jewish refugees, he could have and should have shown more vigorous and sustained leadership. Goodwin, Freidel, and Friedman conclude that FDR wanted to aid the Jews from the start, but was powerless to contain German aggression on any front before the war, and was unable to effect a diplomatic solution after joining the Allies in war against Germany in late 1941. Dinnerstein also faults FDR for not doing more to assist the Jewish refugees, but notes that FDR appeared to be very sensitive to the plight of the Jews. Cole points to the effects of American isolationism on FDR’s limited ability to show more presidential leadership on this issue, and Dallek concludes that FDR may have in fact shown more personal leadership than meets the eye, as he attempted to act through a variety of channels to influence both American allies and the Third Reich itself. Wyman is perhaps the most critical of FDR, as he concludes that FDR’s reluctance to take political risks may have contributed to inconsistent policies toward the Jewish refugees. However, Wyman also writes that FDR was troubled by the Jewish problems, and concludes that even though he was considered by many to be the era’s most prominent symbol of humanitarianism, FDR ultimately failed to do enough to be the moral leader called for by the global crisis.


Henry L. Feingold is also careful to separate Roosevelt the man from the actions and policies of the Roosevelt Administration. Feingold concludes that FDR sought a middle ground, a balance between his desire to help the Jewish refugees and the omnipresent and hostile domestic reactions and restrictive American immigration policies. Feingold argues that FDR never successfully found a middle ground, and it is therefore difficult if not futile to determine FDR’s personal role in then unfolding tragedy of the Holocaust. Rather, Feingold argues, it is to the State Department (as well as to the American Jewish leadership of the time) that historians have had to turn in order to make sense of American reaction to the Jewish problem. Footnote It is therefore to the official organ of foreign policy in the United States, the State Department, that we now turn our attention.


FDR, the State Department, and the Jews: Historical Interpretations of Significant Events, Policies and Administration Officials


One reason for investigating how historians have interpreted the persona of FDR in relation to his policies and actions toward the Jews is to demonstrate first hand that historians (even those most critical of the Roosevelt Administration vis-á-vis the Holocaust) have thus been caught in the middle of an analytical enigma. You see, the historical judgment of most scholars is that FDR was not an anti-Semite. FDR, historians generally tell us, was in his record of words and deeds a sympathetic character to the downtrodden, the weak, the helpless, the defenseless. The New Deal and the welfare state it helped to create, the international policies that FDR fostered, the United Nations that emerged from the ashes of the Second World War, are in part monuments to a man, practically indistinguishable from the persona of Franklin D. Roosevelt himself, as Doris Kearns Goodwin reminds us. 10 So why can it be so forcefully argued by historians that something went terribly awry for the European Jews during the presidency of FDR, and yet not be able to blame Roosevelt personally for the horrible consequences that he might have been able somehow to prevent by decisive action? If Roosevelt was no anti-Semite, and if on the whole he was a good or even great leader during some of the most trying circumstances in history, perhaps the answer lies in the personae of FDR’s foreign policy advisers. Perhaps the major State Department figures in the Roosevelt Administration were anti-Semites who themselves contributed (even indirectly) to the Holocaust of the Jews. Could it be the case, then, that much of the real culpability lies in the Department of State, and not in the White House? At the very least historical analysis of the interaction between FDR and his State Department will shed light on the progression of policies adopted to deal with the mounting Jewish refugee crisis.


Henry L. Feingold certainly led his historical investigation in the direction of the State Department, as have several other historians. Their conclusions provide further insight into this important topic, and illustrate some of the true complexities of the present analysis. Noting that a hidden casualty of domestic American anti-Semitism might have been FDR’s ability to strengthen his administration’s link to American Jewry, Feingold argues that the State Department was rigid in its enforcement of the Immigration Act, especially between the years 1938 to 1941, when many Jewish refugees could have been saved. Footnote Before we analyze the major figures in the State Department during the Roosevelt Administration, it will be instructive to review the major foreign policy initiatives (or lack thereof to some historians) concerning the European Jews conducted by the President and the State Department during the late 1930s until the end of the Second World War. Understanding the major elements of United States foreign policy decisions concerning the German Jews, from the world-awakening and overt terror of Kristallnacht to the closing days of the Second World War, is a complex study in itself. However, since many conclusions reached by historians during the past fifty years on the culpability of the Roosevelt Administration vis-á-vis the Nazi persecution of the Jews rest partly on analysis of foreign policy decisions, we will review some of the major themes that emerged during this troubling period in world history. Have historians agreed with the conclusions of Herbert Druks that “Roosevelt and the British acted in such a manner as to prevent the rescue of European Jewry. Their policies enabled the Nazi Germans and their European collaborators to slaughter six million Jewish men, women and children”? Footnote


The European Office of the Joint Distribution Committee in Paris in the summer of 1938 warned that mass emigration from Germany and German-held territories was impossible, especially after the Anschluss, because the immigrant countries had little capacity for absorption, not to mention continuing domestic unemployment problems which made Jewish immigration in large numbers a difficult prospect at best.

It has been documented that in the first year of FDR’s presidency he had been aware that the German Jews were being discriminated against, though not murdered. FDR worked behind the scenes beginning in 1933 to allow the immigration from Germany to America of more Jews than were normally allowed under prevailing law (immigration policy itself will be further analyzed in a later section). For example, it has been estimated that between 1933 and 1940 approximately 105,000 refugees from the Nazis immigrated to America, a number that exceeded any other country in the world (only Palestine, taking in about 55,000 during the same time period even came close to the United States Jewish immigration figure). Footnote Saul S. Friedman notes that the European Office of the Joint Distribution Committee in Paris in the summer of 1938 warned that mass emigration from Germany and German-held territories was impossible, especially after the Anschluss, because the immigrant countries had little capacity for absorption, not to mention continuing domestic unemployment problems which made Jewish immigration in large numbers a difficult prospect at best. Footnote The British were aware of this situation in America, as the head of the British delegation to the Bermuda Conference, Richard Law, wrote to British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden: “In the United States...there is added to the pressure of the Jewish organizations the pressure of that body of opinion which, without being purely anti-Semitic, is jealous and fearful of an alien immigration per se and in contradistinction to the position at home, that body of opinion is very highly organized indeed. The Americans, therefore, while they must do their utmost to placate Jewish opinion, dare not offend “American” opinion.” Footnote


The sad tale of the ship St. Louis, however, is stunning testimony to the limits of American immigration policy during this period. The St. Louis left Germany bound for Cuba in 1939 with almost 1,000 Jewish refugees on board. The ship was turned away from Havana and for weeks tossed in the ocean in sight of the lights of Miami, Florida. Although attempts were made to get the U.S. government to provide sanctuary for the refugees (including a personal telegram to FDR that went unanswered), the ship was forced back to Germany, where subsequent records indicate that many of the St. Louis passengers ultimately ended up living and dying in Nazi concentration camps. Footnote


FDR also ensured the full use of existing quotas, and invited 32 governments to join the United States in setting up an international committee to facilitate the flight of the Jews from Nazism at the Evian-les-Bains conference in France.

Robert Dallek maintains that in the fall of 1938 both Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini considered FDR powerless in exerting any influence over the actions of the Munich conference which ceded the Sudetenland to Germany, dismembering Czechoslovakia in the process. Although British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announced that he had achieved “peace for our time,” it was clear to FDR that war was imminent, and related to this, FDR felt that he could do very little to help Germany’s 500,000 persecuted Jews. Footnote Dallek notes that FDR continued to address the mounting crisis and persecution of European Jews in a number of ways, including combining the German and Austrian immigration quotas to allow for continued Austrian Jewish immigration once Austria ceased to exist after being swallowed up by Germany. FDR also ensured the full use of existing quotas, and invited 32 governments to join the United States in setting up an international committee to facilitate the flight of the Jews from Nazism at the Evian-les-Bains conference in France. No government offered its homeland for Jewish resettlement, and the weakness of this so-called international committee was shown in October when FDR appealed to Chamberlain to put pressure on Hitler to use the committee to ensure orderly Jewish emigration. Chamberlain replied to FDR that he should use his own embassy for such purposes. Footnote


Senator Robert F. Wagner of New York, a key ally to FDR in the Senate, proposed in 1939 an immigration bill designed to allow 20,000 German (i.e., Jewish) refugees into the United States beyond set immigration quotas. Relating the unfolding St. Louis story to a nationwide radio audience on June 7, Wagner pleaded with the American public to put pressure on the Congress (more specifically the House and Senate immigration committees). The public demurred and Wagner’s bill failed, though attempts were made to amend the bill to allow 20,000 refugee children in under existing quota limitations. Wagner opposed amending the bill for fear that allowing only refugee children into America under existing immigration quotas would have the untoward effect of excluding even more adult refugees than under existing immigration laws. Senator Robert Reynolds of North Carolina, whom Saul S. Friedman describes as “the man in Congress who syncretized all of the alien phobias, fascist sympathies, and Jew-hatred in the country” even attempted to suspend immigration for an indefinite period on the heels of Wagner’s attempt to loosen immigration restrictions. Friedman reports that “both the Wagner and Reynolds bills were defeated in 1939, and it is ironic that in their last moments the two were joined. It was a fitting testimonial to the hesitance of the administration, the disorder within the Jewish community, and the hostility of the American people, 60 percent of whom had told George Gallup that they opposed the Wagner Bill.” Footnote The words of Senator Reynolds himself at this critical time give some hint of the conditions under which FDR had to operate in terms of Jewish immigration. Reynolds went so far as to print in the Congressional Record that the net result of immigration was “systematically building a Jewish empire in this country.” Footnote


In August, 1940 the Portugese freighter Quanza, a ship filled with over 300 passengers, including 83 Jewish refugees fleeing from France, was allowed to dock in Norfolk, Virginia. Asylum was granted to all passengers -- many of whom at the time believed they had to return to Europe, and the Nazis.

In the ensuing months, at the prodding of Eleanor Roosevelt and refugee groups, FDR established a special procedure to expedite the granting of visitor visas to refugees in Spain, Portugal, and Southern France. The President’s Advisory Committee (PAC) was charged with screening the names of potential refugees. When Eleanor discovered in the fall of 1940 that the PAC and its chairman James McDonald were moving more slowly than the mounting refugee crisis demanded, FDR conferred with Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles, who referred the issue to Breckenridge Long, the head of the State Department’s visa section. Long informed FDR that many of “Eleanor’s refugees” were in fact German spies (the so-called fifth column), and by playing on FDR’s fears Long justified to the President his more cautious approach to immigration under the guise of national security. Long’s typical response to the mounting Jewish refugee problems is illustrated by Michael N. Dobkowski. In a letter to Cordell Hull in 1943, Long stated that “there are very few Jews in places of probable danger such as their precarious position is Spain. All the other Jews who need help are within the confines of Germany or occupied territory but there is no help that we can give them short of military destruction of German armies and the liberation of all the oppressed peoples under its jurisdiction...It is quite improbable that Germany would permit the departure of Jews even if we could bring ourselves to the point of negotiating with the enemy during the course of the conflict.” Footnote Although by 1943 the situation was far worse for the European Jews under Nazi control than it had been in 1940, and the ability of the United States to approach the refugee situation diplomatically was practically nonexistent due to America’s entrance into the war in late 1941, given the sluggish pace of the State Department to aid Jewish refugees prior to American entry into the Second World War, it is questionable whether the situation would have been much different in 1943 had the United States still been an officially neutral power.


Although the United States did not intervene earlier to allow the Jewish passengers of the St. Louis to seek American asylum, in August, 1940 the Portugese freighter Quanza, a ship filled with over 300 passengers, including 83 Jewish refugees fleeing from France, was allowed to dock in Norfolk, Virginia. Asylum was granted to all passengers--many of whom at the time believed they had to return to Europe, and the Nazis, as in the case of the St. Louis. This action, again initiated by Eleanor Roosevelt, stands in stark contrast to the earlier tragedy of the St. Louis. Footnote At the same period it is known that FDR also became aware, through refugee advocate Joseph Buttinger and Eleanor, of a letter written by a Jewish doctor of the heinous conditions in a French refugee camp, complete with the doctor’s prediction that if the United States did not do something to increase immigration many European Jews would die. Doris Kearns Goodwin concludes from this mixed record of foreign policy initiatives up to the end of 1940 that the battle to save Jewish lives by immigration to America was lost. Further, Goodwin tells us, “Eleanor’s failure to force her husband to admit more refugees remained, her son Jimmy later said, ‘her deepest regret at the end of her life.’” Footnote David S. Wyman reaches the same conclusion, namely that until 1941 a window remained open for the Jewish refugees because the Nazis were up to this point still willing to permit the Jews to leave by “emigration, not extermination.” Footnote


“Roosevelt was not indifferent to the plight of the Jews. On the contrary, Nazi crimes profoundly disturbed him, and he looked forward to the day when Nazi leaders would face the consequences of their actions. Yet at the same time, he saw no effective way to rescue great numbers of Jews from Hitler’s Europe while the war continued.”

Goodwin also concludes that Eleanor Roosevelt first understood the depth of the horror of the Holocaust in December, 1942 after reading the Riegner report in the newspaper. This report revealed that in Poland over two-thirds of the Jewish population had been massacred (nearly 3 million Polish Jews). On December 8, 1942 FDR met with Rabbi Stephen Wise, as well as Adolph Held of Jewish Labor Committee and Maurice Wertheimer of the American Jewish Congress. FDR agreed during the meeting to issue a public warning against war crimes and assured the group that “we shall do all in our power to be of service to your people in this tragic moment.” In November FDR did request a new war powers bill to suspend the immigration laws that were interfering with “the free movement of persons, property and information into and out of the United States.” The President’s request was not approved by Congress. Footnote In the spring of 1943 FDR also attempted to address the plight of the European Jews at the American-British Bermuda Conference for refugees. He also engaged in negotiations for the rescue of approximately 100,000 European Jews, and actively encouraged Arab-Jewish talks on Palestine, though no major positive consequences emerged from any of these efforts. Robert Dallek concludes that “Roosevelt was not indifferent to the plight of the Jews. On the contrary, Nazi crimes profoundly disturbed him, and he looked forward to the day when Nazi leaders would face the consequences of their actions. Yet at the same time, he saw no effective way to rescue great numbers of Jews from Hitler’s Europe while the war continued.” Footnote


In the summer of 1943 the American Jewish community began to expand its activities on behalf of the European Jews. In July, a meeting entitled the Emergency Conference to Save the Jewish People of Europe met in New York City, and Jewish leaders and sympathetic politicians (such as Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and former President Herbert Hoover) discussed rescue plans. FDR pledged through a prepared statement to continue to make repeated endeavors to save the European Jews until the Nazis were crushed. Although the Emergency Conference advocated the formation of a specific governmental agency charged with rescuing the Jews and the establishment of Jewish havens in Palestine and Africa, no major step was taken by the Roosevelt Administration to implement any significant policy on behalf of the persecuted Jews. Goodwin suggests that FDR’s ultimate desire of winning the European war as quickly as possible, thereby saving the Jews in the process, was paramount in his thinking on this issue, and therefore on his foreign and domestic policies concerning the European Jews. Footnote Goodwin also cites Wyman’s objection to this interpretation on grounds that none of the rescue proposals discussed by gatherings such as the Emergency Conference would have diverted significant military or other war-related goals or in any other way compromised the war effort, though Goodwin ultimately concludes that no one military operation would have . Footnote Arthur Morse, in one of the earliest detailed historical studies of the topic, also concludes that even though the Roosevelt Administration thought of itself as being particularly sensitive to the Jewish refugee situation, in fact indecisiveness, and lack of appropriate military planning were fatal blows to the world Jewish population. Footnote


Compounding this international rebuke, the Vatican itself rejected FDR’s developing plan for fear of retaliation by the Nazis against the Catholic Church in Germany!

In October, 1943 FDR spoke to the Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees meeting in Washington, D.C. to announce that he was attempting to receive Vatican backing in the development of a suitable area to admit Jewish refugees in unlimited numbers. The British and French objected to Roosevelt’s proposal, citing the tired argument that the surest way to help the Jews was to win the war against the Nazis as soon as possible. Compounding this international rebuke, the Vatican itself rejected FDR’s developing plan for fear of retaliation by the Nazis against the Catholic Church in Germany! Footnote


By January, 1944 FDR authorized Henry Morgenthau, the highest-ranking Jewish appointee in the government as Secretary of the Treasury, to form a War Refugee Board (WRB). The goal of the WRB was to “develop positive, new American programs to aid the victims of Nazism while pressing the Allies and neutrals to take forceful diplomatic action in their behalf.” Goodwin notes that the WRB’s director, John Pehle, noted years later that “if only it [the WRB] had been set up earlier, things might have been different. Finally there was a place where rescue advocates could go; finally there was a claimant agency mandated to aid the victims of Nazism.” One thing the WRB accomplished early in its existence was getting FDR to make much stronger statements against the Nazis, such as accusing Hitler and his lieutenants of “the wholesale systematic murder of the Jews,” calling the Third Reich’s crimes “the blackest crimes in all history” which would not go unpunished by the Allies. The WRB also persuaded FDR to establish an emergency shelter for Jewish refugees in a former army camp in Oswego, New York. While applauding such affirmative and humanitarian actions, Goodwin questions whether earlier actions (around 1939-40) might have influenced other countries to do more, and perhaps even stopped the killing process itself. Footnote


While the Roosevelt Administration started on a bolder plan of action to aid the European Jews, a request for Allied bombing of German-controlled railroad lines reached the desk of Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy. McCloy, Goodwin concludes, nevertheless was not stirred to action and dismissed the operation as impractical. Pehle and the WRB responded to this inaction by making another request to McCloy to bomb the concentration camps themselves to stop the slaughter. McCloy again dismissed the request, this time citing that the camps were out of maximum air range of Allied bombers and fighters. Goodwin is not supportive of the veracity of McCloy’s claims. She cites the fact that American bombers had in fact flown directly over Auschwitz several times that spring in search of the I. G. Farben petrochemical plant. Goodwin recounts that when Jan Karski and Elie Wiesel were later allowed to see aerial reconnaissance photos taken during these flights, “with a magnifying glass we could actually read the names and numbers of the Hungarian Jews standing in line waiting to be gassed. Yet McCloy claimed the target was too far away.” Footnote


The preceding analysis makes clear that historians have been able to identify many important events, decisions, and policies which both helped some European Jews and created significant difficulties for the vast majority of the condemned in terms of immigration to America or other countries, or Allied military operations designed to interfere with the activities of the Nazis in executing their Final Solution. Who were the major figures in the State Department during these crucial years, and more specifically, who among them adhered to the rigidity of the 1924 Immigration Act (and its 1929 amendment) and were otherwise responsible for the major State Department policies surrounding Jewish immigration in the years preceding and during the Holocaust?


A more recent analysis of the inner workings of the State Department during the Roosevelt Administration by Irwin F. Gellman provides many insights in examining the helm of the ship of state during FDR’s long tenure as President. Sitting atop the pyramid in the State Department was Cordell Hull. Gellman concludes that while Hull was not himself an anti-Semite, as Secretary of State he did little to assist German Jews in their flight from Nazism. Hull, a deliberate if not slow-paced administrator, did not react with alarm to the increasingly hostile warnings issued by Hitler against the German Jews. Gellman notes that German anti-Semitism was not a new phenomenon in the 1930s: German attempts to blame its own Jewish citizens for economic and political troubles had been heard and tried without major success many times in German history, and Hull knew it. By 1936 the most visible Zionist in America, Rabbi Stephen Wise, asked Hull to put pressure on Great Britain to allow continued immigration into Palestine. Although Hull spoke with Wise that summer, nothing came of the talks, and no real pressure was brought to bear on the British. Gellman concludes that Hull’s reticence to become personally involved in Jewish affairs stemmed from his fear that public advocacy for the Jews (so-called philo-Semitism) would damage his future Presidential ambitions.


Complicating this fact, concludes Gellman, was the religious heritage of Hull’s wife, Frances Hull, a descendent on her father’s side of Austrian Jews. Hull feared that his wife’s Jewish heritage would cause even more significant political difficulties. Hull was keenly aware of his portrayal in printed materials being distributed nationally. For example, Hull was infuriated with the August, 1936 edition of the American Bulletin, which was entitled “Cordell Hull--Slave of Morgan and Jews.” Hull also was cautious about a high profile account appearing in his friend Drew Pearson’s nationally syndicated newspaper column praising Hull for summoning the German ambassador into his office to protest Germany’s treatment of its Jewish population. These high-profile pairings of Hull with the Jewish cause led Hull to withdraw his public advocacy for the Jews even further. Gellman notes that as late as 1943 Hull avoided public dealings with the Jewish refugee question, and refused to meet with American Jewish leaders, such as Rabbi Stephen Wise. Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, noting Hull’s withdrawal from Jewish refugee issues, wrote a pointed letter excoriating Hull that if he “were a member of the Cabinet in Germany today, you would be, most likely, in a prison camp, and your wife would be God knows where.” Presenting his indictments of Hull to FDR in January, 1944, Roosevelt immediately granted permission to Morgenthau to establish a new rescue agency, the War Refugee Board, Footnote as discussed above.


Sumner Welles worked successfully with the President on several major policy decisions designed to aid the European Jews.

Robert Dallek also notes Hull’s 1943 position against promising unlimited relief for Jewish refugees, as well as his positions that North Africa should be used only as a temporary depot for a limited number of Jews, and that FDR should not ask Congress to relax immigration restrictions or bring in any more Jewish refugees as temporary visitors. Footnote Saul S. Friedman concludes that like FDR, Hull was no anti-Semite, though he did nothing to address the urgent plight of the Jewish refugees because he feared that public advocacy would hurt his own political future. Friedman also notes that Hull declined to run for Vice-President in 1940 for fear of his wife’s Jewish ancestry becoming a campaign issue, as well as the negative impact it would have on his wife. Footnote Arthur D. Morse also argues that Hull’s ineptitude in effectively dealing with the Jewish problems went beyond mere bureaucratic incompetence; it placed burdens and otherwise negatively affected a member of the State Department who had acted on behalf of Jewish refugees, Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles.


When Undersecretary of State William Phillips stepped down from his post after 3 years of service, FDR replaced him with Sumner Welles (after an internal struggle between Welles and R. Walton Moore). It was not long into Welles’ tenure that it became apparent that the policies concerning the Jewish situation would be different from those of his predecessor. For one thing, Sumner Welles worked successfully with the President on several major policy decisions designed to aid the European Jews. Gellman concludes that Welles became the most sympathetic Administration figure in considering the increasingly desperate complaints from American Jews. Welles did serve as a voice of concern to FDR, with whom he maintained a close personal relationship throughout his tenure at State. Welles pressured the British to end restrictions on immigration to Palestine (and their opposition to a Zionist state), and funneled important and sensitive information on the systematic slaughter of European Jews to Rabbi Stephen Wise. When he later was forced to resign by a combined plot hatched by Cordell Hull and ambassador William Bullitt, Rabbi Wise wrote to him “your vision and your wisdom, your courage and effectiveness cannot long be lost to the American people, which cherishes your service, as my fellow Jews in all free lands will, when the whole story can be told, bless your name.” Footnote Historians such as David Wyman also note that Sumner Welles and Adolf Berle were largely sympathetic to the Jewish cause, yet were themselves victims of inaction. Footnote


Gellman also focuses on the activities of Assistant Secretary of State Wilbur Carr, who by 1933 had spent 40 years as a diplomatic bureaucrat. Carr consistently fought against increasing immigration quotas for Jewish refugees, despite the fact that he invariably advocated for increased staffing and a larger State Department budget. Given Carr’s familiarity with past President Herbert Hoover’s LPC test for the granting of visas, a depression-induced attempt to restrict potential immigrants who were “likely to become potential charges,” this nebulous requirement combined with Carr’s advocacy of restrictive immigration policies aimed against the Jews significantly limited the State Department’s abilities to respond to the mounting crisis. Although Labor Secretary Frances Perkins directed her department’s Bureau of Immigration to assist German Jews qualify for visas (on humanitarian grounds), the State Department objected, largely due to the actions of Carr and his boss, Undersecretary of State William Phillips, and of course Breckenridge Long, who like Carr were both outspoken in their anti-Semitic beliefs. Henry L. Feingold reasons that Long’s constant moves to tighten Jewish immigration underlined the Administration’s charade concerning its supposed interests in the refugee situation. Footnote Feingold also blames Secretary of State Cordell Hull, who seldom involved himself in immigration matters, both because he elected not to enter into such controversial decisions (as discussed above), and because he was frequently out of the country, focused on other issues such as the establishment of reciprocal trade agreements. Footnote


“Few in Congress showed concern about saving the European Jews. The majority of church leaders were silent on the issue; the intellectual community remained inert. Even the American Jews, who did more than anyone else to publicize the slaughter and press for action, were hampered by a lack of unity...Such divisions weakened the pressure on Roosevelt, allowing him to fall back on his rationale that the most important thing he could do to help the Jews was to win the war as quickly as possible.”

While Doris Kearns Goodwin seems to fault FDR in part for not doing more to actively advocate for the European Jews, she also acknowledges Eleanor Roosevelt for her consistent if not heroic efforts to put pressure on FDR to aid the Jews, as well as the humanitarian efforts of Secretary of the Treasury Morgenthau and WRB director John Pehle. Goodwin also lays significant blame at the feet of Breckenridge Long in the State Department, and John McCloy in the War Department for their intransigence and bureaucratic incompetence in the face of human tragedy. We have seen that other historians such as Robert Dallek, Saul S. Friedman, Arthur D. Morse, and Irwin F. Gellman also implicate Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Undersecretary of State William Phillips and Assistant Secretary of State Wilbur Carr in effectively blocking urgently needed action during the refugee crisis and Holocaust (though Gellman and Goodwin also acknowledge the good works of Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles in facilitating workable strategies to aid the European Jews). Ultimately, though, Goodwin places the blame on the American political landscape: “Few in Congress showed concern about saving the European Jews. The majority of church leaders were silent on the issue; the intellectual community remained inert. Even the American Jews, who did more than anyone else to publicize the slaughter and press for action, were hampered by a lack of unity...Such divisions weakened the pressure on Roosevelt, allowing him to fall back on his rationale that the most important thing he could do to help the Jews was to win the war as quickly as possible.” Footnote


Summary and Conclusion: FDR, the State Department, and the Jews


The activities of the State Department figure prominently in this historiographical analysis of the Roosevelt Administration and the Holocaust. Feingold concludes that the State Department’s rigid enforcement of immigration quotas had the indirect effect of condemning the European Jewish refugees. Dallek argues that American diplomats were powerless in exerting any influence over German policies toward the Jews. Dobkowski and Wyman conclude that after 1941 the State Department’s window of opportunity to allow immigration of Jews to America was closed, and subsequent to that period, Goodwin emphasizes that American foreign policy focused upon winning the European war as quickly as possible as the mechanism to the Jews. Wyman argues that more effective coordination of foreign policy initiatives with other Allied powers integrated with military rescue proposals, such as the plans discussed at the Emergency Conference, could have had positive consequences for the refugees without diverting significant military or other war-related goals. Morse concurs that indecisiveness by FDR and the State Department coupled with a lack of appropriate military planning failed the European in a time of imminent crisis. Goodwin, Gellman, Dallek, and Friedman cast a critical eye on the pattern of indecisive actions by State Department officials such as Cordell Hull, Breckenridge Long, John McCloy, William Phillips, and Wilbur Carr. Sumner Welles emerges as the only major State Department figure during this period to show an active and consistent pattern of advocacy on behalf of the European Jews, the only other major Roosevelt Administration officials to show similar patterns of advocacy being Treasury Secretary Morgenthau and WRB director John Pehle (and of course Eleanor Roosevelt in an unofficial capacity).


Robert Dallek also makes an interesting historical conclusion in his analysis of American foreign policy during the Roosevelt years: “In the months between March and December 1938, sentiment against relaxing immigration laws increased both at home and abroad: mass opinion in the United States against easing restrictions rose from 75 to 83 percent, while new immigration barriers went up all over Latin America. Opposition in the American Congress to changing the immigration law seemed insurmountable; even a sympathetic spokesman for the Jews like Senator Elbert Thomas of Utah opposed revision....In the refugee crises, then, as with other problems...Roosevelt allowed domestic and international constraints to limit him to a series of small gestures.” Footnote
It is to this topic of FDR’s presidency within the context of a participatory democracy and American public opinion and policy that we now turn in our search to uncover historians’ conclusions and judgments about America’s role in the Holocaust.


American Public Opinion, Immigration Policies, and the Roosevelt Administration


Historical analysis of American immigration policies and public opinion during the years FDR was trying to shape solutions to the Jewish problem underscores the constraints under which the President was forced to work. Ewa Morawska points out that between 1820 and 1940 nearly forty million people entered the United States. Jewish immigrants, usually classified as “East Europeans” were further sub-classified into subcultural groupings depending upon the country of origin. Footnote John Higham notes that when Eastern European Jews started settling in the great American cities in the 1880s, their reception was less than cordial. Footnote For example, in 1882 The New York Tribune noted that “numerous complaints have been made in regard to the Hebrew immigrants who lounge about Battery Park, obstructing the walks and sitting on the chains. Their filthy condition has caused many of the people who are accustomed to go to the park to seek a little recreation and fresh air to give up this practice.” Deborah E. Lipstadt notes the consistent position taken against Jewish immigration by the American press, which frequently phrased the issue in terms of economic dislocation, unemployment, and higher taxation for Americans as a result of Jewish immigration. Footnote


Anti-Semitic demonstrations first started appearing in the South in the 1890s. In Louisiana, for example, Jews’ lives were threatened and their stores destroyed by debt-ridden farmers. In southern Mississippi in 1893 night-riders destroyed many farmhouses owned by Jews. Northern discrimination usually took the form of personal insults and taunts. Higham concludes that these anti-Semitic actions created a prevailing perception among the American native citizenry that “Jews were capable of dominating or ruining American business.” American anti-Semitism continued into the twentieth century, upholding the Shylock stereotype that Jews were immoral, unmannerly, vulgar, and greedy people. Due to the growing European persecution of Jews in the years after the First World War, as Europe itself was in the midst of chaotic social, political, and economic crises, the United States Congress moved to limit increasing Jewish immigration. For example, during the years 1920-21 almost 120,000 Jews immigrated to the United States. The time was ripe, a Minnesota Congressman stated, for “a genuine 100 per cent American immigration law.”


The quotas were limited to 2 percent of the number of foreign-born residents of each nationality group in 1890, and after 1927 a total quota of 150,000 would be divided in proportion to the distribution of national origins in the white population of the United States in 1920. According to Higham, America’s welcome mat to Jewish refugees had been withdrawn.

The first strike by the Congress came at the hands of a new Republican majority and Representative Albert Johnson, the incoming chair of the House Committee on Immigration. The first legislation was an immigration suspension bill, followed by a percentage bill that in the Senate version would limit European immigration to 5 percent of the number of foreign-born of each nationality present in America at the time of the last census, conducted in 1910. The House persuaded the Senate to drop the quota from 5 to 3 percent of the 1910 census. As Higham concludes, the practical result of this bill would be to hold the new immigration--including Jews--to an annual maximum of a quarter of a million without affecting the normal flow from northwestern Europe! In his last days of office, President Woodrow Wilson pocket-vetoed the quota bill (there is no record of his personal reactions in refusing to sign the first American immigration quota bill into law). The new President, Warren G. Harding, summoned a special session of Congress and then proceeded to sign the bill into law, thereby creating the natively hostile and restrictive atmosphere that a future President, FDR, would have to deal with in the face of a growing Jewish immigration crisis in the 1930s.


In May, 1922 the immigration law was extended for another two years with little public resentment. There was even a move in the fall of 1922 to further reduce the quotas from 3 to 2 percent, and base the numbers on the 1890 rather than the 1910 census, thereby even further limiting the number of Eastern European immigrants allowed to come to America. Ultimately it was decided to defer the immigration issue to 1924, when President Calvin Coolidge (refusing to hold a meeting with immigrant leaders) signed a new immigration bill that allowed for an average of 287,000 immigrants per year to enter the United States during the late 1920s. The new immigration law also required Eastern Europeans to obtain a special “immigration visa” from an American consul abroad, quotas that were filled by counting the number of visas issued rather than counting the actual immigrants as they arrived in America. The quotas were limited to 2 percent of the number of foreign-born residents of each nationality group in 1890, and after 1927 a total quota of 150,000 would be divided in proportion to the distribution of national origins in the white population of the United States in 1920. According to Higham, America’s welcome mat to Jewish refugees had been withdrawn. Footnote


William E. Leuchtenburg concludes that the push for American immigration restriction in the years surrounding and proceeding the First World War was based in part on pseudo-scientific racism (partly aimed at the European Jews). Footnote American public opinion, according to Higham, was largely supportive of repeated and continually restrictive Congressional attempts in the 1920s to limit the immigration of Jewish people into America. This pervasive American attitude concerning the Jewish people continued well into the 1930s, and FDR was sensitized by the majority opinion of his voting public, as were the elected members of Congress from his own Democratic Party. On the floor of the House of Representatives, for example, John Rankin of Mississippi stated that “the immigration laws which we passed some years ago have been of inestimable benefit to the American people. I do not want to see those laws destroyed or abridged...Instead of breaking down our immigration laws, they should be strengthened and enforced. We cannot afford to throw down the bars of immigration, or open wide our gates to every disgruntled element throughout the world. Instead of inviting more aliens to add to our troubles, I would much prefer to see us deport a great many who are here now” [italics added]. Footnote It is not surprising, then, that during this period Roper polls confirmed that even though most Americans were disapproving of Hitler’s racist policies against the Jews in the early to mid 1930s, most Americans were “unwilling to assist the Jews in practical ways, especially if it meant allowing more Jewish immigration into the U.S.” Even in 1938, when a question was posed to a representative sample of the American people “What kinds of people do you object to?,” Jews were mentioned by 35 percent of the respondents (with the next highest number of 27 percent going to “noisy, cheap, boisterous and loud people”)! A 1939 Roper Poll found that 53 percent of Americans sampled reported that Jews were different from everyone else, and that these differences should lead to restrictions in business and social life. Footnote This was the domestic political climate in which FDR found himself as the Jewish crisis compounded in tragedy each year.


Michael N. Dobkowski uses actual historical documents to show how indifferent Americans were in general to the plight of the European Jews during the Holocaust years. For example, in the Saturday Evening Post, Raymond G. Carroll writes “permit me to suggest two reasons why the admission of perhaps 500,000 Jewish refugees cannot be viewed quite so simply as a matter of humanitarianism. The first is that there is a powerful current of anti-foreignism and anti-Semitism in particular running close to the surface of the American public mind, ready to burst out into violent eruption on relatively slight provocation” [italics added]. Footnote Dobkowski points out that domestic hysteria surrounding Jewish immigration reached such a high pitch that in 1939 in New York City a rampant rumor proclaimed that Jewish-owned department stores were firing Americans and hiring refugees to such a degree that customers needed to carry German dictionaries whenever they went shopping! The persistence and wide-spread nature of this rumor actually caused two large department stores, R. H. Macy and Bloomingdale, to place newspaper ads to specifically deny this rumor. Footnote Sharon R. Lowenstein concludes that even as late as 1944 the FDR Administration “failed to act...not because of naivete or wartime conditions but because it considered the issue largely in terms of domestic politics and judged those incorrectly.” Footnote

             
Esther Rosenfeld concurs that FDR and his Administration were subjects of an American public opinion that in one poll in 1939, for example, revealed that 42 percent of Americans believed that hostility towards the Jews resulted from unsavory Jewish characteristics themselves. Rosenfeld also cites immigration policies and American public opinion in the years preceding and leading up to European Jewish persecution as “fatal lessons” to the world. Citing the quota system established in the 1920s by the Congress and supported by Presidents Harding and Coolidge, Rosenfeld concludes that the immigration system it set up “proved woefully inadequate in addressing the needs of thousands of Jewish refugees who sought shelter from the horrors of Nazism.” Rosenfeld argues that refugee advocates during the 1930s hoped that the humanitarian ideals held by FDR in his New Deal would ultimately translate into revitalized immigration policies, but such was not to be the case because “although President Roosevelt may have sympathized with the refugee advocates’ viewpoint, he had largely removed himself from the decision-making process. Instead it was the State Department, led by extreme restrictionist Breckenridge Long, that determined U.S. refugee policy.” It was the restrictive American immigration policies from the 1920s to the end of the Second World War, immigration policies that helped sustain a Jewish refugee crisis, according to Rosenfeld, that created and maintained post-war immigration policies that addressed the needs of Jewish refugees. A primary post-war immigration policy was the Stratton Displaced Persons Act, for example, which permitted immigration to the United States for Jews listed with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency (UNRRA) camps. This policy was eventually extended to all European Jewish refugees. Footnote


Frank W. Brecher cautions that while most historians have concluded at least to some extent that America, its people, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and his government are guilty of apathy bordering on equal guilt for the Holocaust, such conclusions are fundamentally flawed. David S. Wyman’s conclusions can be summarized as follows: FDR could and should have done more to harness the humanitarian impulses of the American people; immigration laws should have been radically changed to rescue more European Jews, especially before 1941, when 200,000 German Jews could have been rescued; and strategic military operations could have saved the lives of several hundred thousand Jews. Wyman’s analysis places a special onus on the policies of the United States of America during the entire period of the Holocaust. Wyman’s thesis is that small but significant changes in American immigration and national policies, with the strong support of a popular and humanitarian President, could have saved at least one sixth of the European Jews slaughtered by the barbaric Nazis. Sharon R. Lowenstein, however, points out that the advice that FDR received throughout the years of refugee crisis by his advisers and refugee advocates was both timid and divided. Lowenstein concludes that a more united response by refugee advocates might have made a difference in American policy toward the European Jews. Footnote


Brechter concludes that all the major condemnations of American foreign policy during the Holocaust years leveled by Wyman et al. are tenuous at best, given the significant complexities of the American society and its relationship to its Allies, as well as its military operations, and the questionable ability of its President to change policies by fiat.

Brecher calls historical analysis such as the one offered by Wyman as well as similar arguments discussed in this paper by Arthur Morse, Saul S. Friedman, and Henry L. Feingold, examples of questionable scholarship. Brecher points out that “radical differences” exist in these historical accounts of America’s response to the Holocaust, including the extent to which Nazi Germany could have been pressured to cancel its homicidal actions against the Jews, the feasibility of Allied rescue of the Jews after 1941, when Hitler decided upon the Final Solution at the January, 1942 Wannsee Conference, and the ability of the American Jewish leadership, even had it not been so divided, to influence governmental policy regarding immigration and rescue. Brechter concludes that all the major condemnations of American foreign policy during the Holocaust years leveled by Wyman et al. are tenuous at best, given the significant complexities of the American society and its relationship to its Allies, as well as its military operations, and the questionable ability of its President to change policies by fiat. Brecher cautions that “we can fault the United States rescue policy as being unnecessarily cautious on military grounds, or overly deferential to its ally, Britain, but the case is still to be made that the root of that policy is in America’s moral obtuseness or specific dislike of the Jews.” Footnote


Brecher’s conclusions are echoed by Richard Breitman and Alan Kraut, who caution us that “a final verdict grounded on scholarly investigation rather than on self-serving accusatory exchanges born of bitter reminiscences and frustrations is probably still years away. Available evidence, however, already suggests the need for a revised perspective on the prewar period...the internecine conflict was a manifestation rather than a cause of Jewish frustration...Those who believe that Jews in the 1930s enjoyed political power far out of proportion to their numbers, contained only by the community’s own internal battling, indulge themselves in illusion.” Footnote Brecher concludes that a scholarly case has yet to be made that “America abandoned the Jews, failed to rescue them, or considered them expendable.” The available evidence does support the fact, according to Brecher, that the social norms of America during this critical period coincided with a prevailing view of the national interest as well as an acute perception that America itself was in far too precarious a position “to devote scarce resources to the saving of a distant, widely disliked people in the grasp of the common enemy.” Footnote


Summary and Conclusion: American Public Opinion and Immigration Policies


Historical analysis generally supports the conclusion that American public opinion concerning Jewry had an ultimate consequence of contributing to the inability of larger numbers of Jewish refugees to escape Nazi territories during the 1930s and 1940s. Leuchtenburg traces the racism in American society that contributed to restrictive immigration policies toward the Jews to the years surrounding and proceeding the First World War. Higham points to organized anti-Semitic activities in American cities to the mid to late nineteenth century. Dobkowski also points to the indifference of American society to helping the Jews on humanitarian grounds to escape Nazi Germany.


Lowenstein concludes much of the indecision evidenced by the Roosevelt Administration, as late as 1944, was primarily a product of negative American public opinion concerning the European Jews. Rosenfeld, citing a 1939 poll revealing that 42 percent of Americans believed that hostility towards the Jews resulted from unsavory Jewish characteristics themselves, only reinforces the conclusion that many Americans had a perception problem concerning the desperate plight of the Jews during this period. Lowenstein focuses the historical analysis less on the mood of the American public than the inconsistent advice FDR received by his advisers and refugee advocates. Lowenstein wonders whether a more united response by refugee advocates might have caused a stronger response by both the Administration and the American public. Wyman is very critical of the American response, and it is not difficult to conclude that Wyman advances the thesis of American public complicity in the Holocaust. Brecher is one of the only voices that advocates a more cautious interpretation that America may not have contributed to the Holocaust in the indirect ways that other historians have concluded. According to Brecher “radical differences” exist in these historical accounts of America’s response to the Holocaust, which makes it difficult to conclude that a more supportive American public opinion as well as foreign policy might have made a difference for the Jewish refugees. Breitman and Kraut echo Brecher’s points, and conclude that the internecine conflict was a manifestation rather than a cause of Jewish frustration.


Psychological Perspectives on the Holocaust and Those Responsible


The historiographical analysis in the preceding sections has uncovered divergence of scholarly opinion concerning interpretations of the role of the American government and the American people in the European Holocaust of the Jews during the Second World War. This analysis has generally supported the conclusion that FDR was sensitive to the plight of the Jewish refugees, and at times acted in a coordinated and efficient manner to intervene on their behalf. FDR’s record as President in this domain, however, contains several inconsistencies that have caused even the most sympathetic historians, such as Doris Kearns Goodwin, to wonder why the President did not exert more executive leadership on this important humanitarian issue. Further, historiographical analysis of the United States Congress and State Department, as well as evaluation of American public opinion toward the Jews have led historians such as David S. Wyman to conclude the following: “Anti-Semitism was no stranger on Capitol Hill...it was, in fact, an important ingredient in the sharp hostility to refugee immigration that existed in Congress....The pervasiveness of anti-Semitism in the United States during the late 1930s and the war years was confirmed by national public-opinion polls....These attitudes raised formidable barriers to the development of an American initiative to save European Jews.” Footnote


Responses and their consequences do not occur in isolation, but in the context of a given set of environmental stimuli. One important consequence of this fact is that behavior occurs within certain environmental domains, and may vary quite dramatically as environments change.

It is difficult to reconcile the equivocal conclusions of historians on FDR’s role in the Holocaust given the widespread and strongly corroborated perception, as Wyman tells us, that FDR was “the era’s most prominent symbol of humanitarianism.” Footnote How can we understand the inconsistencies in FDR’s policies toward the Jewish refugees preceding and during the years of the Second World War? Part of the answer to this intriguing question may lie in the environment in which FDR operated as President of the United States. Historical accounts offered by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Frank Freidel, Saul S. Friedman, and Wayne S. Cole, for example, allude to the importance of understanding the President in the context of his times in order to explain why FDR did not act more forcefully on the Jewish immigration and direct military operations issues.

Data gathered from social scientific laboratories also lends support to this conclusion. Social scientists have long known that behavior is largely a function of its stimulus control. Behavior analysis is an environment (situation)--response--consequence contextual system. Responses and their consequences do not occur in isolation, but in the context of a given set of environmental stimuli. One important consequence of this fact is that behavior occurs within certain environmental domains, and may vary quite dramatically as environments change. Footnote


The behavior of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his top advisors are not immune from the influence of such behavior principles, and therefore in analyzing (and ascribing blame for) the Holocaust, a scholar might be well-served to take into account the social factors under which the principal figures operate, and at least in part judge their behaviors in terms of such factors.

We therefore know that if a person, even the American President, responds in one way in a given stimulus situation and then acts differently in another stimulus situation, we can state that such a person has come under differential stimulus control. The behavior of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his top advisors are not immune from the influence of such behavior principles, and therefore in analyzing (and ascribing blame for) the Holocaust, a scholar might be well-served to take into account the social factors under which the principal figures operate, and at least in part judge their behaviors in terms of such factors.


The divergent conclusions reached by David S. Wyman and Frank W. Brecher concerning the culpability of all levels of American government speak to a fundamental issue in social psychology, namely that it is quite common to assume that the behavior of another is caused by internal dispositions that underestimate prevailing situational influences, what is known as the fundamental attribution error. Footnote According to Robert A. Baron and Donn Byrne, overemphasizing dispositional causes while underestimating the effect of situational causes is a function of the fact that when a person observes another person’s behavior, the observer tends to focus on the other person’s overt actions. In other words, the context of the behaviors often retreats into the background, receiving less attention or perhaps being ignored completely. Footnote


It is also quite common, social psychologists find, for individuals to evaluate their own positive behavior in terms of internal traits and characteristics, but to blame their failures and shortcomings on external or situational factors, the so-called self-serving bias. Footnote Certainly FDR was not loath to take personal responsibility for the many triumphs of the New Deal, but is it justifiable to blame the President and his government for the fact that the Nazis engaged in unspeakably atrocious actions against the Jews during their reign of terror in the 1930s and 1940s? At some point all politicians must address the issue of personal responsibility, however, many of David S. Wyman’s conclusions, as well as those of Henry L. Feingold, Herbert Druks, and Saul S. Friedman tend to downplay the importance of environmental and situational constraints on the behavior of FDR and his advisers.


The purpose of the foregoing analysis of the importance of situational events in understanding behavior is not meant to excuse the exercises of evil behavior that existed in anti-Semitic and Nazi assemblages during the period. Rather, the purpose of this exercise in historical analysis has been to help us understand why individuals such as FDR (who most people would not describe as evil) act the way they do. Why didn’t FDR act as boldly and consistently on behalf of the European Jews as we might have expected him to act given his humanitarian behavior in other domains, most notably in his New Deal policies? The answer remains somewhat elusive despite the many historical examinations discussed in this paper.


Concluding Remarks: FDR and the World Turned Upside Down


Historians differ in their appraisals of FDR, the Roosevelt Administration, and the American people in relation to the ghastly undertakings of the Nazis against European Jews in the 1930s and 1940s. The Holocaust was and is one of the most incomprehensible episodes in all of human history. Some historians such as David S. Wyman seek to uncover American collaboration and complicity in this tragedy. Others such as Frank W. Brecher demand more convincing evidence before American culpability, even indirectly, can be established. Most historians, such as Doris Kearns Goodwin and Irwin F. Gellman take a more cautious approach, selectively criticizing FDR, his government, and his people for not doing more, perhaps when more could have been done, to avert the tide of Nazi racial hegemony that ultimately contributed to the slaughter of millions of innocent European Jews.


The historical synthesis that emerges from this investigation is that as President FDR made many attempts over the entirety of his tenure to loosen immigration restrictions and to advocate international cooperation in the implementation of policies designed to aid the European Jews. Eleanor Roosevelt was also instrumental in keeping the pressure on her husband to advocate for the Jewish refugees.


The historical synthesis that emerges from this investigation is that as President FDR made many attempts over the entirety of his tenure to loosen immigration restrictions and to advocate international cooperation in the implementation of policies designed to aid the European Jews. Eleanor Roosevelt was also instrumental in keeping the pressure on her husband to advocate for the Jewish refugees. Further, FDR’s State Department, though composed of several high ranking officials who were themselves anti-Semitic, worked with the President as well as other executive branches such as Treasury and Labor, as well as with other Allied governments, on some constructive policy issues and information dissemination regarding the European Jews. There is very little evidence to support that prior to 1941 (when Hitler shut the gate to Jewish emigration) any high ranking U.S. government official knew the true villainous intentions of the Nazis to carry out a Jewish extermination policy, and it was the firmest belief of all Allied governments that the European Jewish people would best be served by the most vigorous prosecution of the war against Germany. Therefore, no major independent military operations designed to liberate concentration camps or disrupt the flow of refugees into the camps were ever undertaken.


While some historians such as Wyman, Feingold, Druks, and Friedman condemn FDR and the machinations of the American government and people for not doing more, other historians such as Brecher, Breitman, and Kraut point out that it is tenuous at best to believe that more could have been done given the complexity of the times and the issues at hand. Other historians such as Goodwin, Dallek, Gellman, Dinnerstein, and Cole wonder, even lament over whether more could have or should have been done to aid the Jews by FDR, by the State Department, by the Congress, by the American Jewish leadership, by the American people, and by other Allied governments and people. Most historians in the latter group ultimately ascribe blame for not doing more to the system itself, to the mood and temperament of a world caught up in conquest and bloody war. Clearly historians such as Morawska, Higham, Leuchtenburg, and Rosenfeld point to the complexity of immigration policies that made it almost impossible to open the gates to sufficient numbers of Jewish refugees during a time when escape from Nazi barbarism was possible.


We have also briefly reviewed salient psychological literature which supports the contention that putting the onus on Allied leaders and governments in a post-hoc fashion for the Nazi atrocities against the Jews is not a simple or perhaps justifiable course of action, even though it is for most moral persons very difficult to understand, for example, why FDR did not order the bombing of Nazi concentration camps. In the absence of any compelling confirmatory data, the vitriol bestowed upon FDR and his administration by some historians may largely be a function of a fundamental attribution error, motivated by intensity of the issue itself. Clearly, in order to properly gauge FDR’s behavior during these troubled times, we must place his actions within the context and contingencies of the era, and within such a context ask ourselves what concrete steps should the Administration have taken to rescue the Jewish refugees in the face of overwhelming domestic public opinion against extraordinary measures, restrictive immigration laws going back to the previous two decades, Congressional inflexibility, and ultimately a two-front world war? The verdict of most historians is that FDR and his Administration might have done more for the Jews, but considering the political and social climate of the times, some historians conclude that it is astonishing that FDR was able to do anything at all for the European Jews, short of waging an all out military war against Nazi Germany.


We have seen in this analysis many examples of the fact that FDR despaired over the unfolding European Jewish situation. It is also clear that FDR was genuinely troubled by his inability to be more and do more for the Jewish people, even though his ultimate aims of liberating the Jews in Europe by destroying the Nazis was ultimately successful. The reader who like Hamilton Fish disdained the New Deal and most of its implications finds little difficulty in laying the onus on FDR and his government directly. Many historians have attempted during the past 60 years to understand the complexities of this issue precisely in part because FDR is commonly seen as one of the great leaders and humanitarians of our time, a leader whose policies and personality literally saved a generation of desperate Americans, and who in the process, as Goodwin concludes, became inseparable from the government that he led in crisis and triumph for so many years.


Several noted executive actions taken by FDR during this period stand out in multiple instances as pro-active and positive approaches to dealing with an increasingly complex and tragic situation for the Jewish people.


It is the prevailing historical judgment that FDR and most probably his government could have done more legally, politically, and militarily to save the European Jews caught in the middle of Nazi hegemony, conquest, and domination. Even though historians such as Wyman are entirely critical of the FDR Administration, we shouldn’t allow admissions of failures to cloud over or erase the many positive attempts and partial successes FDR achieved on behalf of the Jewish refugees beginning in 1933. It is also the prevailing judgment of most scholars that the American people and even the American Jewish leadership could have done more, but this does not mean that effective policies were not at times implemented, or that successes were not at times achieved. If FDR, the American government, and its people can to some extent be legitimately blamed for not doing more, then the present historiographical analysis points to the inescapable conclusion that great leaders and democratic governments can err through the very systems and policies they erect to freedom and democracy. A lesson can surely be learned here, so that perhaps present and future governments and leaders can examine their own behavior in context of the complexities of international law and diplomatic initiatives of the day. Given the hostility to increased Jewish immigration shown by the American people, the United States Congress, and the American media, as well as the inconsistent advice offered to FDR by his trusted advisers and pro-refugee groups, the pro-Jewish public and private statements made by the President, as well as several noted executive actions taken by FDR during this period stand out in multiple instances as pro-active and positive approaches to dealing with an increasingly complex and tragic situation for the Jewish people.


FDR did not live to see the closing days of the Second World War or witness first hand the extraordinary tragedies of the Holocaust revealing itself as Allied forces liberated the numerous death camps erected by the Nazis. FDR himself, as “Mr. Republican” Robert Taft noted, “literally worked himself to death in the service of the American people.” Footnote The historians studied here who view FDR’s behavior within the context of the times, would probably agree (albeit, more dispassionately) with the judgment of the New York Times that “men [sic] will thank God on their knees a hundred years from now, that Franklin D. Roosevelt was in the White House...It was his hand, more than that of any other single man, that build the great coalition of the United Nations...It was his leadership which inspired free men in every part of the world to fight with greater hope and courage. Gone, now, is this talent and skill...Gone is the fresh and spontaneous interest which this man took, as naturally as he breathed air, in the troubles and the hardships and the disappointments and the hopes of little men and humble people.” Footnote


In terms of the legacy left to us by FDR, in context of his policies toward the Jewish refugee crisis of his presidency, Doris Kearns Goodwin sorts out and sums up the complexities best:


[FDR] believed that winning the war was the best means of rescuing the Jews. And there was merit to his belief. By the time the news of the systematic murder of the Jews reached the West in mid-1942, it was too late to mount a massive rescue effort short of winning the war as quickly as possible. But Roosevelt’s intensity of focus blinded him to a series of smaller steps that could have been taken--the War Refugee Board could have been established earlier and given more authority; the United States could have applied more pressure on Germany to release the Jews and more pressure on neutral countries to take them in; the United States Air Force could have bombed the train tracks and the concentration camps. “None of these proposals guaranteed results,” Holocaust scholar David Wyman admits. “But all deserved serious consideration...Even if few or no lives had been saved, the moral obligation would have been fulfilled.” But in the end, Roosevelt’s strengths far outweighed his weaknesses. Despite confusions and conflicts, clashing interests and disparate goals, the American people were successfully combined in an unparalleled national enterprise. Indeed, at times, it seemed as if Roosevelt alone understood the complex and shifting relationship between the nation’s effort at home and its struggle across the globe. “More than any other man,” historian Eric Larrabee concludes in his study of Roosevelt’s wartime leadership, “he ran the war, and ran it well enough to deserve the gratitude of his countrymen then and since, and of those from whom he lifted the yoke of the Axis tyrannies. His conduct as Commander in Chief...bears the mark of greatness.” Footnote


In the end all good people despair that more was not done to aid the European Jewish people during the years of crisis and Holocaust. Our judgment of the Roosevelt era and the presidency of FDR himself depends to some extent on our evaluation of his imperfect and inconsistent leadership vis-á-vis the Jewish problem. In the final analysis, though, prevailing historical opinion generally supports the contention that we have more to learn than to condemn in the policies of FDR during the Holocaust years, lessons that could probably be applied today in American foreign policy directed towards some point on the ever-changing globe where nationalism, religious and racial intolerance and hatred prevail.

Dr. Joseph J. Plaud is the President and Founder of the Franklin D. Roosevelt American Heritage Center and Museum.
 
 
 
   
 
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