The President of the United States may be the final arbiter of actions taken by the Executive Branch of government, but political forces constantly compel the President toward the edges of expediency, inaction and stalemate. For some, doing nothing is the right thing to do.
And so was the complex interplay that formed the White House of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He, like Lincoln, invigorated dissent by appointing a band of rivals to advise him. During his term FDR faced the Great Depression, a nation hedging toward isolationism and eventually the two front war we now call World War II. In the midst of these great moral and operational difficulties, rumors first, then confirmed reports, of Hitler’s response to his anti-Semitism rose. FDR lead a nation that wanted its domestic problems repaired first, its people put back to work, its national pride restored. For the most part, FDR’s cabinet reflected the America-First policy.
FDR and the Jews documents, in great detail, the moral questions facing the President and the nation. It details FDR’s sometimes ambivalent, sometime active, and often seemingly non-empathetic position with regards to the Jews of Europe. It also captures the spirit of a leader who believed he must act “like a physician who must daily operate in life-and-death situations” and “simply could not afford to let himself feel too acutely the pain of those who suffered; doing so would impair his professional performance.”
FDR was raised not to be anti-Semitic. And as governor of New York, he presided over the largest Jewish population in the United States. Yet when it came to Europe, he was apprehensive that if he acted sympathetically toward the Jews, he might inflame domestic anti-Semitism. Even as FDR’s closest Jewish advisors, like Henry Morgenthau, who identified State Department interventions to block Jewish immigration to America and Palestine, advocated for action, FDR waited. The book also documents how, some leaders of Jewish organizations urged caution, sharing the president’s concern that aid to Jews in Europe, or a large influx of Jewish refugees, would negatively affect the American Jewish equation.
Early on, Richard Breitman and Allan Lichtman write the following paragraph that effectively summarizes the book:
“Still, at times, Roosevelt acted decisively to rescue Jews, often withstanding contrary pressures from the American public, Congress and his own State Department. Oddly enough, he did more for the Jews than any other world figure, even if his efforts seem deficient in retrospect. He was a far better president for Jews than any of his political adversaries would have been. Roosevelt defied most Republican opponents and some isolationist Democrats to lead political and military opposition to Nazi Germany’s plans for expansion and world domination.”
The author’s create a construct of “four Roosevelts” to highlight the complexities of leadership and the development of a leader sustained in power over four terms.
The first Roosevelt, focused on domestic policy, pushed aside concerns over Nazi persecution to rebuild the US economy. The second Roosevelt, informed by leaders like Rabbi Stephen Wise, publically supported the Zionist Movement’s call for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, while also working to resettle refugees in South America.
In 1939, however, the third of FDR’s personas arose, this one worried that focus on Jewish issues in Europe would derail nascent efforts to support Europe’s war against Hitler and that year’s election.
Remember, that unlike Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia or Mussolini’s Italy, Roosevelt had to face re-election during these tumultuous years. In a letter to Judge Samuel Rosenman, he called the 1940 election “a narrow escape—not for personalities [including himself], but for ideals.” It is sometimes difficult for people to see history beyond the moment. We talk of our last election as the “most contentious”, but such an assessment doesn’t hold up to history. In the 1940 election, Roosevelt was not worried about the Republicans and their tax policy, he was worried about those “who thought in terms of appeasement of Hitler—honest views of most of them, and views based on the materialism in which they view not only themselves but their country.”
The fourth and final Roosevelt evolved in 1943, denouncing anti-Semitism as international reports brought eyewitness accounts to the public consciousness (despite his State Department’s attempts to quell those reports). This Roosevelt created the War Refugee Board and helped orchestrate acceptance of Jewish resettlement in Palestine against the advice of some senior advisors.
Breitman and Lichtman write a very readable history that revolves around these four Roosevelts. They mine extensive sources, many of them new to FDR-era scholarship, to provide myriad personal and official accounts. Readers who understand the enormity and complexity of the global situation in the ‘30s and ‘40s will see FDR and the Jews as reinforcement of existing world views. For those who cannot understand the failure of a great nation to come rapidly to the rescue of a people facing genocide, the logic of the book will not deter their sense of abandonment and despair. It may also help people understand the more modern politics of Darfur, Bosnia and Rwanda. For those not familiar with the America’s political and humanitarian positions leading up to, and during World War II, the authors offer the best introductions available since David Wyman’s 1984 book, The Abandonment of the Jews.
The critical point of FDR and the Jews is to remind its readers not simply of Roosevelt’s actions and failures to act, but to convey a sense of the context in which he and America operated. Political leaders feared that diverting resources toward humanitarian efforts would prolong the war, and that in fact, the only way to save the Jews or Europe would be to end Hitler’s reign. American Jews voted overwhelmingly for FDR not because of his stalwart support for them or for their relatives in Europe, but because he was the best alternative at the time, anywhere in the world. So say the authors.
Roosevelt certainly did act decisively in many ways throughout his long career as president, but in FDR and the Jews, he comes across as a Hamlet-like character, arguing for action while failing to act. Claudius, Gertrude and Laertes all bring death through action while Hamlet brings death through inaction. Shakespeare’s play concluded cynically that both action and inaction lead to death. Perhaps FDR’s attempt to balance reason and fear led him to the same conclusion.