One of the questions that has been foremost in the minds of Holocaust historians and the Jewish community since World War II centers around the actions and policies of President Franklin D. Roosevelt as the Nazi agenda became clear resulting in millions of Jews perishing in the death camps. In his latest book, THE JEWS SHOULD KEEP QUIET: FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT, RABBI STEPHEN S. WISE, AND THE HOLOCAUST, Rafael Medoff, the founding director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies augments traditional documentation of the Holocaust with recently discovered materials that fosters a reassessment of Roosevelt’s actions. Building on Wyman’s work, particularly his PAPER WALLS: AMERICA AND THE REFUGEE CRISIS 1938-1941, THE ABANDONMENT OF THE JEWS: AMERICA AND THE HLOCAUST, 1941-1945 , and his documentary, THE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: AMERICA AND THE HOLOCAUST, Medoff paints a very unflattering portrait of Roosevelt’s handling of the Jewish question during World War II along with his duplicitous treatment of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise and Jewish leadership during the war.
This chapter in American immigration history is hard to ignore and Medoff’s work does a better job chronicling and analyzing US policy than previous historians in terms of Roosevelt’s private attitude toward Jews that motivated him to close America’s doors and shut down Jewish access to Ellis Island in the face of Nazi extermination. The reader will be exposed to Roosevelt’s convictions as early as 1931 and it is obvious that Jewish leadership should have tempered expectations once the New York governor assumed the presidency.
Medoff’s focus centers around Roosevelt’s relationship with the Jewish community in particular their titular leader Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, in addition to how the president’s State Department implemented an immigration policy that he totally supported. What is clear is that Roosevelt played Wise like a fiddle. The president described by numerous biographers and scholars as a “master manipulator” knew just what string to play upon in dealing with Wise in order to keep his true feelings about Roosevelt’s non-existent refugee policy out of the public eye. The president would use dinner engagements, personal notes, oval office visits and other gestures to keep criticism to a minimum. Medoff effectively argues that Roosevelt’s practice of “glad-handing” and making policy-related promises he had no intention of keeping was especially effective with Wise and Jewish leaders who were profoundly reluctant to press Roosevelt to follow through on his unfulfilled pledges. The dilemma for Jewish leadership was should they criticize a president whose domestic agenda they totally embraced.
Jews themselves realized their precarious position in American society. High levels of anti-Semitism, accusations they were trying to drag the United States into war in Europe, and hardships from economic depression exacerbated Jewish concerns. The publicity afforded Charles Lindbergh’s isolationist views and the anti-Semitic diatribes of Father Charles Coughlin who had over 3.5 million radio listeners unnerved the Jewish community.
The examples of Roosevelt’s vague promises, lack of interest, political calculations, and outright apathy presented by Medoff are many. Each is based on sound research, mostly appearing in other monographs, but there is a new element of seriousness and commitment in the author’s arguments. This is not to say that Wise and his cohorts should not share some of the blame for the lack of an American response. Wise’s “tendency to embrace the likeminded and exclude those whom he felt politically and religiously uncomfortable ultimately weakened his hand as a national Jewish leader.” However, no matter Wise’s faults it was Roosevelt who must accept the blame for America’s lack of empathy and his own political calculations when confronted by the Nazi horrors.
Examples of Roosevelt’s actions are many. His support of Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long who was in charge of the visa section of the State Department whose policy was to create as many obstructions as possible to thwart any attempt to lift barriers to Jewish immigration is clear in the documents. Long’s strategy was clear, “put every obstacle in the way and require additional evidence to resort to various administrative devices which would postpone and postpone the grinding of the visas.” In case after case the two men were on the same page to prevent any opportunity to allow numbers of Jews to enter the United States. The possible use of the Virgin Islands as a haven for small numbers of Jews was rejected. The ship, “The St. Louis” with 907 passengers was denied admission to the United States and turned back to Europe. The Evian Conference in 1937 and the later Bermuda Conference of 1943 were farces to make it appear that something might be done when in fact nothing was offered.
When evidence of the extermination of Jews was being disseminated to London and Washington, Roosevelt administration policy was to delay and delay in not confronting Germany for its atrocities until the United States entered World War II. Even after Kristallnacht in 1938 any American comments left out any criticism of Germany as well as references to Hitler, Goebbels, and others by name. When Gerhart Riegner, the World Jewish Congress representative in Switzerland cabled allied leaders in August 1942 providing evidence of the depth of Nazi atrocities, which was followed by a second telegram from Yitzchak and Recha Sternbuch rescue activists in Europe, in addition to reports from the Jewish Agency in Palestine the following month saw the State Department try and keep the information from Wise to prevent what the Roosevelt administration was learning from reaching the public. In fact, it took eighty-one days for Assistant Secretary of State Sumner Wells to get back to Wise that confirmed his greatest fears. This was part of a pattern pursued by the Roosevelt administration who took advantage of Wise’s fear that if he pushed too hard it would create an anti-Semitic backlash that Jews were trying to push their own wartime agenda. More and more Wise feared he was seen as Roosevelt’s “court Jew,” and Medoff points out that the Rabbi had a habit of embellishing Roosevelt’s responses of support in saving the Jews and the tragedy that befell them.
Medoff leaves no stone unturned in delineating Roosevelt’s deceitfulness. He describes numerous examples of Roosevelt’s opposition to the rescue of Jews; not enforcing immigration quotas; talking out of both sides of his mouth depending on his audience; refusing to reign in the State Department; refusing to support the admission of Jewish children, but had no difficulty allowing the admission of British children who were endangered by Nazi bombing; refusing to consider bombing Auschwitz and other concentration camps, while at the same time assisting the Polish Underground through the air; creating obstacles for the creation of the War Refugee Board and then underfunding it, are among many actions taken or not taken by President Roosevelt. Medoff also explores what may have been Roosevelt’s motivations as he points to his family’s societal views which were decidedly anti-Semitic. The author points to numerous statements by Roosevelt bemoaning the mixture of Jewish and Asiatic blood with American blood. He wanted these groups to be spread out across America to reduce their impact on American society. He saw America as a “Protestant country” with the Jews and people of other backgrounds present only based “on sufferance.” With these types of beliefs, it is not surprising that he was disposed to oppose the admission of too many Jews during the war.
Wise does not emerge unscathed by Medoff’s analysis. The author points to Wise’s own ego issues brooking little or no opposition by Jews to his leadership in the Jewish community. Examples include Hillel Silver or groups outside the Jewish community like Peter Bergson and his group that was much more effective in pressuring Roosevelt to support the War Rescue Board. Wise spent an inordinate amount of time dealing with his opponents’ criticism, time that could have been spent fighting to rescue Jewish refugees and pressuring the president. Medoff is quite correct in pointing out that Wise was a flawed leader with his own powerful ego much like Roosevelt and perhaps that is in large part why he was able to swallow his own principles and do the President’s bidding in controlling negative Jewish commentary and actions against his “friend in the White House.”
Some might argue that Medoff’s monograph is too polemical in spots, but to his credit he provides supporting documentation for his viewpoints, integrates a great deal of the comments made by Wise and Roosevelt, and he tries to integrate differing viewpoints. All in all, Medoff has written a serious analysis and though he has reached what some might consider a scathing indictment of Roosevelt, in many instances his commentary is dead on.