Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

FDR and the Jews

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

FDR and the Jews

Article excerpt

FDR and the Jews. By Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman. Cambridge, MA: TBelknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013. 433 pp.

With FDR and the Jews, distinguished American University historians Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman have crafted a nuanced history of Roosevelt's record on Jewish issues before and during World War II. The authors engage a debate that has been ongoing since the end of World War II, that FDR either ignored the Jews in Hitler's Europe or that he saved millions by helping to defeat Nazi Germany. The truth, Breitman and Lichtman contend, lies somewhere in the middle.

Roosevelt has most often been criticized for refusing to allow Jewish refugees aboard the SS St. Louis to enter the United States in 1939 and for not bombing gas chambers and crematoria at Auschwitz. Breitman and Lichtman assert that this portrayal is inaccurate. According to them, Roosevelt went through four phases on Jewish issues. FDR was politically astute. During the first phase, he carefully considered the risk to his political future and his domestic and foreign policy agenda if he made Jewish issues a primary concern. He was aware of the depth of ethnic antagonism that pervaded the country during the Depression years. FDR was unwilling to risk his New Deal programs by antagonizing his political base, which consisted of northern industrial workers and southern working-class whites who distrusted Jews (pp. 64-65, 314).

Furthermore, State Department officials, who often held barely concealed anti-Semitic views, were reluctant to interfere in the politics of foreign countries. And, Roosevelt, according to the authors, "put political realism above criticism of Nazi Germany and the efforts to admit persecuted Jews into the United States" (p. 3). Rather than rebuking Nazi aggression at this junction, FDR instead conciliated Germany, believing that his efforts had averted war (p. 61). In his second phase and as Hitler became increasingly aggressive, Roosevelt was better positioned to address Jewish concerns. He used his executive powers to ease immigration restrictions to allow Jewish refugees to enter the United States. Roosevelt further publicly advocated for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Although he failed to support fully the 1938 Evian Conference on refugees, he was the only head of state to call his ambassador home after the violence of Kristallnacht. …

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