“FDR and the Jews” offers not a new body of facts — the text reveals relatively little that wasn’t known — but rather a new perspective, a cogent and comprehensive study of Roosevelt’s evolving opinions on the Jews. These opinions, Breitman and Lichtman argue, are best understood in four distinct phases between 1932 and 1945.
The first, during Roosevelt’s first term, was indeed a phase of bystanding indifference, when “FDR refused to jeopardize his political future” by “rubbing raw the wounds of ethnic antagonism in the United States.” The second came after his reelection in 1936, when he began to “loosen immigration restrictions and to promote his own ambitious plans to resettle the Jews of Europe in other lands.” The third came after 1939, when he was preoccupied with entering the war in Europe and “feared that undue attention to the ‘Jewish Question’ would benefit his isolationist adversaries and stymie his foreign policies.” The fourth and final phase, they suggest, began in 1943, when he started condemning American anti-Semites as “playing Hitler’s game.”
(Harvard Univ.) - ‘FDR and The Jews’y Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman
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. As Breitman and Lichtman observe, Roosevelt’s critics have typically given these moments “emblematic moral weight” at the expense of emphasizing “their actual historical significance.” They are right to reverse that trend.
Among the other accomplishments of this remarkably clear, concise but complicated history is the attention it devotes to American Jews, who were anything but unified during the war. On the one hand, a large faction, led by Rabbi Stephen Wise of the American Jewish Congress, preferred to petition the White House for rescue assistance through the normal channels of government bureaucracy while, on the the other hand, a minority faction, under the auspices of the fiery lobbyist Peter Bergson, made public appeals meant to strongarm the government into action.
These differences are a seminal part of the story Breitman and Lichtman labor to tell, crucial to understanding the political milieu in which FDR did and did not formulate a policy toward the Jews. That is true for nearly all of the facts presented in “FDR and the Jews,” which provide the perspective necessary to comprehend the complexities of what have become some of the most painful and politically charged memories in American foreign policy.
In short, “FDR and the Jews” is a narrative that resists the temptations of artifical drama and a work of scholarship that avoids facile categorization. This is why Breitman and Lichtman’s decision to end their study with a comment of Felix Frankfurter’s is so appropriate. “The judgment of posterity,” the Supreme Court justice wrote, “must be corrected by that of the time.” Indeed, and especially for a subject as fraught as this one.
is a Marshall scholar at the University of Oxford.