Sunday, April 01, 2018

FDR – The Paradox – Part 4

  1. a statement or position that seems self-contradictory but in reality expresses a possible truth.
  2. a self contradictory and false proposition.
  3. a person, situation, act etc. that seems to have contradictory or inconsistent qualities.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, considered by most to hold the title of “Prince of Probity” (I confess, I made that phrase up), at least on the surface, seems to be one of the last presidents who would be characterized as paradoxical. Yet, look at the definition in number 3 above. “a person that seems to have contradictory or inconsistent qualities.” So how do these inconsistent qualities manifest themselves? Despite FDR’s predilection to surround himself with Jews, and received an average of 87 percent of the Jewish vote in his four elections, why are there a number of voices who maintain that at the least, he did not do enough to save Jews from the holocaust, and at the most, he himself was an anti-Semite?

There have been thousands of books published about the Holocaust. In fact there are 75,000 held at Yad Vashem in Israel alone. In addition, Yad Vashem holds 125 million document pages on the subject. Many of these chronicles express strong opinions related to Roosevelt’s attempts, or lack thereof, to save the millions of Jews who were caught up in Hitler’s web.

One of the problems associated with books written (some of them years after the events occurred), are subject to changing times. All presidents are subject to the tides of revisionist history, their legacies constantly in flux. For Roosevelt, the most controversial scholarship concerns a troubling moral question: What, exactly, did he do in his 12 years in office to protect the Jews of Europe from Nazi genocide? And the answer, many now believe, is: “Not nearly enough.” The paradox here is evident.

A Balanced Book

However, in a review of a book published in 2013 titled FDR and the Jews, by Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman, David Oshinsky, a Pulitzer Prize winning History Professor at NYU maintains the authors attempt to unravel this dilemma in a relatively balanced manner. He writes, “Franklin Roosevelt enjoyed the overwhelming support of American Jews during his presidency, and the reasons are clear.  In his three-plus terms from 1933 to 1945, he led the war against Hitler, supported a Jewish homeland in Palestine, appointed a Jew to the Supreme Court, chose another to be his secretary of the Treasury and surrounded himself with Jewish advisers who helped shape the laws that revolutionized the role of government in American life — what some critics sneeringly called the ‘Jew Deal.’ Then, of course, there was Eleanor Roosevelt, whose concern for minorities fused the bond even tighter. When Roosevelt died in 1945, the Rabbinical Assembly of America described him, almost supernaturally, as an ‘immortal leader of humanity and a peerless servant of God.’”

As described above, FDR has been exposed to “the tides of revisionist history, and his legacy have been constantly in flux.”  Did he do “not nearly enough” to protect the Jews of Europe from Nazi genocide? His critics generally cite three factors they consider paramount.  The Holocaust itself, the bombing of Auschwitz, and the episode with the ship named St. Louis.

The Jewish Condition

Regarding FDR’s approach to the Holocaust, NPR, in an interview with the authors above wrote the following: “The subject of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's relationship with the Jewish community is complicated, multidimensional and contentious. On the one hand, the former New York governor won Jewish votes by landslide margins and led the Allies to victory in World War II, defeating Nazi Germany. Some of his closest advisers and strongest supporters were Jews, including Felix Frankfurter, whom he named to the Supreme Court, speechwriter Samuel Rosenman and Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau.”

NPR continued, “On the other hand, FDR said little and did less on behalf of Jews trying to get out of Germany in the 1930s. He has been faulted for not diverting military resources to destroy the Nazi infrastructure of genocide and for not pushing Britain to admit more Jewish refugees to Palestine. Some have even accused him of abandoning the Jews.”

“In summing up FDR’s record, Breitman and Lichtman write that ‘his compromises might seem flawed in the light of what later generations have learned about the depth and significance of the Holocaust. But, they add, Roosevelt reacted more decisively to Nazi crimes against Jews than did any other world leader of his time.’”

Under the Circumstances

“In some ways, that's a statement about Roosevelt's world and the inadequacies of other world leaders at the time,” Breitman tells NPR's Robert Siegel. “But that comparison tells us something: that the world of the 1930s and the 1940s was a very different place, and that Roosevelt had both political constraints and international constraints that we don't often think about today.” In this way, Breitman says, “FDR’s track record was markedly different from that of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

“I think Churchill has the reputation of being philo-Semitic [or appreciative of Jews and Jewish culture] but didn't often back it up with actions. And Roosevelt has the reputation for being unsympathetic but in fact did a number of things behind the scenes which show at least some concern,” Breitman observes.

FDR's father raised him to not be anti-Semitic at a time when anti-Semitism was common to their class. During his presidency, however, Roosevelt feared that expressions of his concern for the Jews of Europe would inflame anti-Semitism in the U.S. According to Lichtman, that fear affected how FDR and other leaders of the era dealt with the Jewish question.

“The 1930s and '40s were a time in America when there was a considerable amount of anti-Jewish, anti-black and even anti-Catholic sentiment and people were worried about upsetting the social order in America,” Lichtman says. “But, let me say, this is the poison of anti-Semitism; that the fear of anti-Semitism is often greater than the reality of anti-Semitism. And it was more fear that tended to paralyze key players in the '30s and '40s than necessarily the reality of anti-Semitism.”

But it wasn't just FDR who was afraid. American Jews were also nervous about rocking the boat and bringing a wave of anti-Semitism upon themselves. According to Breitman, “The American Jewish community was divided both over how much they could accomplish politically and how they should go about it.”

Understanding FDR's Limitations

In the end, despite struggling for the political will to aid Jews in Europe, FDR's relationship with American Jews remained strong.

“The Jews revered FDR,” Lichtman says. “They voted for him more strongly than any other ethnic, religious or economic group in the United States. And even after the camps were liberated and the horrors of the Holocaust came to be revealed, the Jews still loved FDR. But they understood his limitations; they understood he was not perfect. But they also understood how much better he was for the Jews than any political alternative in the United States or, for that matter, anywhere in the world.”

“That's the critical thing,” Breitman says, “that we tend, today, to look back and say he didn't do this or he didn't do that. The people who lived in his world saw him against the context of who else was there. And they appreciated the fact that he was better than his predecessors and his rivals.”

Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

There was one other factor that exercised great influence on the subject of whether to allow a greater number of immigrants (regardless of religion) into the country, one that has not received the consideration it deserves. In essence the Great Depression had produced an unemployment rate that was unimaginable. As an example, during the 1920’s other than a short uptick in 1920 and 21, the average unemployment rate was about 6%.  The 1930’s were 15% or higher from 1931 till the end of the decade, with a rate of 20 to 25% through 1932 and 1935.  As a result, an environment of desperation flooded the country. This is how the official archives of the U.S. Department of Labor describes the problem:

“Massive unemployment had a profound social and emotional impact upon American workers and their families. The movement of population, historically a response to economic opportunity, changed drastically when opportunity dried up. Immigration from abroad virtually stopped. The long-term shift from farm to city slowed significantly and there was, in fact, some reverse migration. The great population movement of the thirties was transiency the worker adrift in a sea of unemployment.”

The actual numbers tell the same story. In the period spanning the years 1932 through 1939, in a work force that totaled 50 million (on average), the unemployed totaled 10 million (on average) workers each year.  It is not surprising therefore that a Pew Research Report published in 2010 stated:  As now, Americans in the 1930s worried about immigrants, whether legal or not, taking jobs from native-born Americans: Two in three thought “aliens on relief” should be sent back to their “own countries.”

The Holocaust Museum publishes a Holocaust Encyclopedia. It states, “At the beginning of the Great Depression in 1930, President Herbert Hoover issued instructions banning immigrants “likely to become a public charge.”  Immigration fell dramatically as a result.

Though Franklin D. Roosevelt liberalized the instruction, many Americans continued to oppose immigration on economic grounds (that immigrants would “steal” jobs). A Fortune magazine survey in 1938 confirmed this since it showed that fewer than 5% of Americans were willing to raise immigration quotas to accommodate refugees.

Many who sought a safe haven from persecution during the 1930s and 1940s found their efforts thwarted by the United States’ restrictive immigration quotas and the complicated, demanding requirements for obtaining visas.

Public opinion in the United States did not favor increased immigration, resulting in little political pressure to change immigration policies. These policies prioritized economic concerns and national security.

If FDR was paradoxical, how about the American people?  When they, or their parents or their grandparents passed the Statue of Liberty, did they believe for themselves, but then forget the lines they saw that read “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Author’s Note:  Starting in the 1960s, a flood of books appeared with self-evident titles like “No Haven for the Oppressed” and “While Six Million Died.” But the most influential account by far was David S. Wyman’s “Abandonment of the Jews,” published in 1984.  Mr. Wyman was the most vociferous, and the most persistent critic of FDR.  I had planned to cover some of his thoughts in next month’s article, and still will do so.  However, ironically, his death was announced just three days before this article was sent to the publisher.


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