In the historic 1932 presidential election, Franklin Delano Roosevelt got stronger support from the Jewish community than any other constituency. The same was true in 1936. Yet despite FDR’s strong Jewish support and appointment of record number of Jews to key positions, two falsehoods have emerged to tarnish his legacy. First, it is widely believed that FDR denied a shipload of refugees from Nazi Germany safe harbor in the U.S. and that they were returned to their oppressors and killed. As meticulously documented in Richard Breitman and Allan J.Lichtman’s new book, FDR and the Jews
, this is false. The ship returned all passengers to democratic countries and none went back to Germany. Second, many, including former president George W. Bush, believe that FDR jeopardized Jewish lives by failing to bomb concentration camps. The authors also refute this common belief. If you are among those who believe that historical truth matters---and the Republican Party seems to believe otherwise---than you will cheer the authors for writing this book.
I visited the renovated FDR Museum and Presidential Library in Hyde Park last month and there were three separate installations on “FDR and the Jews.” FDR’s approach to Jewish concerns was divided into three time periods, and provided a level of detail that seemed out of proportion to the average level of visitor interest.
This experience led me to a new book, FDR and the Jews, that really sets the historic record straight. The book dispels many false charges against FDR’s record, and its greatest accomplishment---particularly in light of the current struggle to enact comprehensive immigration reform—may be to remind readers of the real history of immigration in the United States.
Jews and Immigration
The history of immigration that most Americans know is a heartwarming story. Some learn about the sharp restrictions on Asian-Americans, but that the U.S. sharply restricted Eastern European immigration in the 1920’s and just prior to the Nazi takeover is much less known.
Jews were the chief target of these restrictions. And after President Hoover unilaterally changed immigration laws to require that prospective immigrants not be a potential “public charge” but have clear evidence of employment---a hurdle few Jews could overcome---Jewish immigration to the United States ground to a halt.
And it ground to a halt just as the Nazi Party was destroying Jewish lives in Germany. At the time when Jews began seeking a way out of this nightmare, the United States under Hoover erected barriers that prevented German Jews from even using the small immigration quotas allotted to them.
This was the immigration environment FDR inherited when he took office in March 1933. He was also dealing with a Great Depression. Problems faced by German Jews were understandably not FDR’s top concern at that critical moment in U.S. history.
FDR allies like Rabbi Stephen Wise tried to get Hoover’s “public charge” restriction lifted, but confronted an avowedly anti-Semitic State Department that did not want more Jews in the United States. In fact, the authors remind us that many if not most Americans did not want more Jews in the United States, with overt Anti-Semitism rampant.
Further, with one third of the nation’s workforce unemployed, there was fierce opposition to accepting more immigrants to compete with Americans for jobs. While the authors find some fault with FDR for not doing more to help German Jews during his first term, they also recognize that he was limited by an anti-immigrant environment and could not squander political capital on issues outside the economy.
The SS St.Louis
After his re-election in 1936, FDR responded to the growing crisis faced by German Jews with strong efforts to find countries that would accept refugees. Among these nations was Cuba. Jews fleeing Germany sought to stay in Cuba until they became eligible for entry to the U.S., which explains why in May 1939 the SS St. Louis and its 937 passengers arrived in Havana.
This story became famous through the film, The Voyage of the Damned. It supposedly shows how even progressive FDR “turned his back on the Jews.” But this popular account of FDR’s alleged treachery is false. Here is the actual story.
While the ship was en route to Cuba, pressure from anti-Semites forced the Cuban government to invalidate the passengers’ tourist documents. When they were denied entry after arrival, their relatives in the United States urged the White House to admit the passengers. But these passengers could not enter the U.S. without jumping ahead of other Jews on the waiting list. And as the authors point out, had FDR tried to evade immigration laws, the president would have lost any chance he had to increase Jewish immigration in Cuba and potentially into the U.S.
Whereas the Hollywood film says 600 of the 937 passengers died in concentration camps, the truth is that all were returned to western European democracies. 254 of the 937 perished years later in camps after countries like Belgium were taken over by the Nazi’s. If not for FDR’s actions, “5000-6000 other Jews would not have found refuge in Cuba,” and as many as 2000 Jews entered Cuba precisely because FDR’s handling of the SS St. Louis crisis did not cut off this option.
The claim that FDR could have bombed Auschwitz in 1944 has been repeated by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and former President George W. Bush. But as the authors point out, the primary goal of the U.S. was winning the war. The Germans did not need gas chambers to kill Jews, having murdered untold numbers in firing squads or in mass shootings. And the vast majority of Jews were killed prior to the bombing of the camps even becoming a potential military option. Further, neither the military nor any major American Jewish leader nor organization ever called for such action.
FDR’s Legacy and the Jews
FDR confronted a Great Depression, World War, and the largest array of challenges of any leader in U.S. history. He did more for the Jews than any world leader during the 1940’s, and was their most influential political advocate during his presidency. Yet he was not perfect. Breitman and Lichtman describe how he could have done more in situations, and provide all the facts necessary for reader to make their own decision.
We are confronted with so many falsehoods about the past that one greatly appreciates the work of outstanding historians practicing their craft in the best tradition of the profession. Richard Breitman and Allan Lichtman have done precisely that in FDR and the Jews
, and they have provided a “case closed” on some of the controversial chapters in FDR’s great legacy.
Randy Shaw is the author of the newly released, The Activist’s Handbook, Second Edition: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century
. His previous books include Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century