Friday, June 01, 2018

FDR – The Paradox – Part 6

If there is one author and historian who would not be swayed by even the most logical and persuasive disputation that differed from his version of the “treatment” of Jews by the Roosevelt administration, it would be David S. Wyman, the author of “The Abandonment of the Jews”.  This book, published in 1984, almost 40 years after FDR died, can be credited with turning FDR’s loving reputation, especially with Jews, into one of suspicions.  (Mr. Wyman passed away just a few weeks ago.)  His claim throughout is that Roosevelt did not do enough to help the Jews caught up in the Holocaust, and cited a number of facts to substantiate his views.


His views are where the problems arise.  Note that Wymans’s interpretation of history has negatively impacted Roosevelt’s heretofore-pristine reputation. A recitation of history manufactured years after the event could be termed “revisionism.”  Here is a more detailed definition found in Wikipedia:

“At a basic level, historical revisionism is a common and not especially controversial process of developing and refining the writing of history. Much more controversial is the reversal of moral findings, which the heroes, ‘good guys’, or positive forces are depicted as villains, ‘bad guys’ or negative forces. This revisionism is quickly challenged by the supporters of the old view, often in heated terms. It becomes historical negationism, a form of historical revisionism that presents a re-interpretation of the moral meaning of the historical record. The term ‘revisionism’ is used pejoratively by people who charge that revisionists are distorting the true historical record.”

Using this definition, many could conclude that Mr. Wymans recitation of history is “historical negationism”. This does not necessarily mean that his facts are incorrect. It is that he spins the facts to suit his agenda with no effort made to explain the circumstances surrounding the facts.

FDR and the Jews

A recent [March 2018] book, “FDR and the Jews” takes a different approach to the question. The authors, Richard Breitman and co-author Allan J. Lichtman are both historians at American University, and Breitman is also the editor of Holocaust and Genocide Studies, the leading academic journal in the field. The Harvard University Press said this:

“Nearly seventy-five years after World War II, a contentious debate lingers over whether Franklin Delano Roosevelt turned his back on the Jews of Hitler’s Europe. Defenders claim that FDR saved millions of potential victims by defeating Nazi Germany. Others revile him as morally indifferent and indict him for keeping America’s gates closed to Jewish refugees and failing to bomb Auschwitz’s gas chambers.”  It continues:

“In an extensive examination of this impassioned debate, Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman find that the president was neither savior nor bystander. In FDR and the Jews, they draw upon many new primary sources to offer an intriguing portrait of a consummate politician—compassionate but also pragmatic—struggling with opposing priorities under perilous conditions. For most of his presidency Roosevelt indeed did little to aid the imperiled Jews of Europe. He put domestic policy priorities ahead of helping Jews and deferred to others’ fears of an anti-Semitic backlash. Yet he also acted decisively at times to rescue Jews, often withstanding contrary pressures from his advisers and the American public. Even Jewish citizens who petitioned the president could not agree on how best to aid their co-religionists abroad.

“Though his actions may seem inadequate in retrospect, the authors bring to light a concerned leader whose efforts on behalf of Jews were far greater than those of any other world figure. His moral position was tempered by the political realities of depression and war, a conflict all too familiar to American politicians in the twenty-first century.”

A Book Review

Here is what the Washington Post wrote in a review of the book:

“At long last, two historians have sought to provide an analysis of Roosevelt’s stance on the ‘Jewish question’ that avoids the tempting urge to judge the past through the lenses of the present… FDR and the Jews offers…a new perspective, a cogent and comprehensive study of Roosevelt’s evolving opinions on the Jews… Breitman and Lichtman’s carefully documented explication of this somewhat byzantine narrative proves immensely valuable in understanding the mechanics of what remain some of the most controversial decisions in the history of American foreign policy: the refusal to admit the Jewish refugees aboard the SS St. Louis to the United States in 1939 and the refusal to bomb the Auschwitz crematoria after their existence was discovered in 1942.”

I have chosen to concentrate on this book rather than the Wyman book since it provides a much more balanced and nuanced view of the historical background under which Roosevelt labored. It is interesting that there is significant emphasis on the two issues mentioned above in the review, the ship St. Louis, and the bombing of Auschwitz.  These are the two most mentioned incidents that most Jews cite when criticizing Roosevelt.

The SS St. Louis

What is not well known is the fact that the ship should not have left her port to begin with. The owners of the St. Louis, the Hamburg-Amerika Line, knew even before the ship sailed that its passengers might have trouble disembarking in Cuba. The passengers, who held landing certificates and transit visas issued by the Cuban Director-General of Immigration, did not know that Cuban President Federico Laredo Bru had issued a decree just a week before the ship sailed that invalidated all recently issued landing certificates. This information was withheld from the passengers.

More than money, corruption, and internal power struggles were at work in Cuba. Like the United States and the Americas in general, Cuba struggled with the Great Depression. Many Cubans resented the relatively large number of refugees (including 2,500 Jews), whom the government had already admitted into the country, because they appeared to be competitors for scarce jobs.  Hostility toward immigrants fueled both anti-Semitism and xenophobia. Both agents of Nazi Germany and indigenous right-wing movements hyped the immigrant issue in their publications.

When the St. Louis arrived in Havana harbor on May 27, the Cuban government admitted 28 passengers: 22 of them were Jewish and had valid US visas; 743 had been waiting to receive US visas. The Cuban government refused to admit them or to allow them to disembark from the ship.  On June 2, Bru ordered the ship out of Cuban waters.

After Cuba denied entry to the passengers on the St. Louis, the press throughout Europe and the Americas, including the United States, brought the story to millions of readers throughout the world. Though US newspapers generally portrayed the plight of the passengers with great sympathy, only a few journalists and editors suggested that the refugees be admitted into the United States.

An Uncomfortable Non-Decision

Here is the uncomfortable part:  After leaving Cuba, the ship sailed so close to Florida that they could see the lights of Miami, some passengers on the St. Louis cabled President Franklin D. Roosevelt asking for refuge. Roosevelt never responded. The State Department and the White House had decided not to take extraordinary measures to permit the refugees to enter the United States. A State Department telegram sent to a passenger stated that the passengers must “await their turns on the waiting list and qualify for and obtain immigration visas before they may be admissible into the United States.”

The ship sailed back to Europe and four countries were found to accept the passengers, England, France, Belgium, and Holland.  The following year, after the Nazi German invasions of Belgium, France and the Netherlands in May 1940, all the Jews in those countries were at renewed risk, including the recent refugees.  By using the survival rates for Jews in various countries, Thomas and Morgan-Witts, the authors of Voyage of the Damned, estimated that 180 of St. Louis refugees in France, 152 of those in Belgium, and 60 of those in the Netherlands survived the Holocaust. Including the passengers who landed in England, of the original 936 refugees (one man died during the voyage), roughly 709 survived the war and 227 did not.

Fortune Magazine poll at the time indicated that 83 percent of Americans opposed relaxing restrictions on immigration. President Roosevelt could have issued an executive order to admit the St. Louis refugees, but this general hostility to immigrants, the gains of isolationist Republicans in the Congressional elections of 1938, and Roosevelt's consideration of running for an unprecedented third term as president were among the political considerations that militated against taking this extraordinary step in an unpopular cause.

Roosevelt was not alone in his reluctance to challenge the mood of the nation on the immigration issue. Three months before the St. Louis sailed, Congressional leaders in both US houses allowed to die in committee a bill sponsored by Senator Robert Wagner (D-N.Y.) and Representative Edith Rogers (R-Mass.). This bill would have admitted 20,000 Jewish children from Germany above the existing quota.

Auschwitz, Bomb/Don’t Bomb

As to the most contentious revisionist claim — that Roosevelt could have blunted Hitler’s killing machine by ordering the rail lines to Auschwitz destroyed — Breit­man and Lichtman provide a measured response. There is little doubt, they write, that Allied planes were capable of reaching this destination by mid-1944. Industrial complexes in the area were already being bombed. The problem was that the War Department viewed the project as a diversion from more important military targets. Opposition was such that the matter never appears to have reached the president’s desk.

How successful the precision bombing of Auschwitz would have been, given the mixed results elsewhere, is a matter of debate. What is undeniable, however, is that close to 250,000 Jews were murdered in the months between the capture of this death camp and the German surrender in May 1945. When it came to the Final Solution, the Nazis were demonically resourceful. They found ways to kill Jews to the very end.

Interestingly, I came across the following that seems definitive in its conclusion to this question:  “During a meeting of the Executive of the Jewish Agency held June 11, 1944 chaired by David Ben-Gurion, in a discussion on rescue, Isaac Gruenbaum, the head of the Rescue Committee of the Jewish Agency, proposed that the Allies be urged to bomb death camps in Poland such as Auschwitz and Treblinka. The Executive members were overwhelmingly opposed (11-1) to this proposal. The discussion ends with Ben-Gurion stating, ‘The view of the board is that we should not ask the Allies to bomb places where there are Jews.’”

This is what appeared in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in 2013: “With regard to the bombing of Auschwitz, counting the number of Jewish leaders who were for or against it, or citing the second-guessing of politicians decades later, is beside the point. What is relevant is the military situation, as it existed at the time, and, in the crucial summer of 1944, every available plane was needed by British Bomber Command and the U.S. Army Air Force to demolish French rail and road communications, interdict German troops and supply vital air cover for the invasion of Normandy, as well as to destroy the ferociously defended Ploesti oil fields.”

Haaretz continued: “American bombers took heavy losses in accomplishing this. The assumption that the air force could spare a few planes as it attacked German facilities near Auschwitz in a casual fly-by goes against all military thinking. The bombing of Auschwitz would have involved weeks of reconnaissance and planning, repeated sorties by squadrons of planes just to have a chance of success. In fact, the area around Auschwitz was well defended. American planes were at significant risk.

“And the political ramifications in the likely instance of U.S. planes being shot down and American boys being killed would have played right into the hands of Nazi propaganda, which was hammering away at the Allied campaign’s being a ‘Jewish war.’ Moreover, precision bombing was a work in progress, and the probable result of bombing Auschwitz would have been the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands of Jewish prisoners. As for bombing the rail lines leading to Auschwitz, the Germans were successful in repairing rail damage within days. The likely outcome is that Jews simply would have perished on the trains rather than at the ramps.”

Author’s Note: This is the last article in this series.  An interesting review of the Breitman/Lichtman book follows. I think it confirms the paraadoxal nature of the president, and I would hope it might apply to this series as well: “While this incisively written study is unlikely to sway anyone whose mind is already made up, readers without fixed views will find plenty to ponder. And it will remind everyone not only of the enormity of the Holocaust but…the ultimate limitations of the presidency, no matter who holds the office.”—Alan Cate, The Cleveland Plain Dealer


Post a Comment

<< Home