Opinion writer March 11, 2013

On April 12, 1945, my grandfather approached me as I played outside the house and asked where my mother was. He looked stricken, and so I quickly followed him inside and heard him say words that made my mother burst into tears: President Roosevelt had died. My mother’s grief and panic were so palpable — her brother was fighting in the Pacific, her brother-in-law was fighting in Europe — that it scared me. In our house, FDR was not merely the president. He was a god.

He is a god no more. His New Deal is no longer solely credited with ending the Great Depression — World War II did that — and the war in Europe was not won, as we all once thought, primarily by the United States but more so by the Soviet Union. Yet these, to my mind, are trifles compared to the criticism that Roosevelt was passive in the face of the Holocaust. It’s not that he did nothing, it’s that he did nothing much.

Richard Cohen writes a weekly political column for The Washington Post. View Archive

This accusation of immense moral failure — or indifference — is now being addressed by a new book, “FDR and the Jews,” by Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman. It sets out to find a middle ground and instead makes things worse. It is a portrait of a president who, in the authors’ own words, “did not forthrightly inform the American people of Hitler’s grisly ‘Final Solution’ or respond decisively to his crimes.” This is a Roosevelt who almost always had a more pressing political concern — American isolationism, American anti-Semitism, a fear and hatred of immigrants — and who stayed mum while a bill to allow 20,000 Jewish children into the United States died in Congress.

Roosevelt inattentively also permitted a cabal of heartless anti-Semites in the State Department to control the country’s visa policies. Desperate Jews, fleeing from the Nazis, were denied asylum in the United States. One of them was Otto Frank. His daughter Anne perished at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

Both FDR and his wife, Eleanor, were genteel anti-Semites — although the president had Jewish aides and one close Jewish friend, his neighbor Henry Morgenthau Jr. Eleanor, a woman not afraid to confront her own prejudices, later became a champion of Jewish causes, but the record for the president on this score is hardly as redeeming. As late as 1943, at the Casablanca Conference, he sympathized with a French general’s observation that the Jews were overrepresented in the professions. FDR referenced the “understandable complaints which the Germans bore towards the Jews.”

Breitman and Lichtman, both historians at American University, prove adept at demolishing several straw men: It was a subordinate, not FDR, who refused to bomb Auschwitz to put the gas chambers out of commission; the United States did not send the Coast Guard to stop the now-infamous refugee ship St. Louis from reaching America. And it is true as well that FDR supported programs that did, the authors reckon, save 100,000 Jewish lives — hardly a footnote, especially to those who were saved.

But it is also true that Roosevelt did not even mention the mass murder of Jews until 1944, by which time most of Europe’s Jews had been killed. He showed almost no leadership on this issue, refusing to confront nativist anti-Semitism and fear of foreigners. He did little to warn either Germany or its satellites — Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, among others — that they would pay for their treatment of the Jews. And while nothing could deter Hitler from trying to kill every last Jew, the satellites grew increasingly less zealous as it became clear that they were on the losing side. It took an outright German invasion of Hungary for more than 400,000 of its Jews to be murdered.

Roosevelt was a man of his times. His anti-Semitism was so common it would have been almost noteworthy if it were absent. But Thomas Jefferson, too, was a man of his times — a slaveholder like his Virginia contemporaries — yet his greed or his hypocrisy can hardly be overlooked or, maybe, forgiven.

It is the same with Roosevelt. His exuberant humanity, his political brilliance, his triumph in possibly saving the American free enterprise system — all this and so much more cannot negate the fact that he did not confront the biggest crime in all history with everything at his disposal.

Back in 1945, my mother thought a god had died. We know now he was just a man, not so great as he once appeared. Increasingly and deservedly, his reputation is being consumed by the very Holocaust he ignored.

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