In the United States, a nation thousands of miles and an ocean away from Auschwitz, the degree to which the Holocaust has, in the words of the late historian Peter Novick, “come to loom so large in our culture” is a unique case in collective memory and national self-understanding.

In 1980, for instance, decades before the push for museums on the Mall to commemorate the African American or Native American experience, Congress unanimously approved the establishment of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on nearly two acres of federal land in the shadow of the Washington Monument. The Holocaust, it would seem, ranks with the horrors of slavery and the extermination of Native Americans as scars on the face of our national history.

What is more, an apparent resurgent guilt over American indifference to the plight of European Jews in World War II has manifested itself even in the nation’s highest office. On a 2008 tour of Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem, George W. Bush was struck by the U.S. military’s refusal to destroy the train tracks that led to Auschwitz. “We should have bombed it,” he said, with tears in his eyes. When was the last time an American president wept for a historical atrocity that occurred on American shores?

Novick published an entire book on this phenomenon in the late 1990s titled “The Holocaust in American Life,” but the American obsession with it — specifically with the question of whether the “greatest generation” was cruelly indifferent to it at the time — endures, especially in the frequent academic investigations of the subject.

This is why, for the most part, these studies cast Franklin Roosevelt and his Cabinet as either bystanding villains or thwarted heroes, and their titles alone suggest the tenor of the debate they frame. In the villain camp, for instance, there is, among many others, David Wyman’s almost canonical “The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust, 1941-1945.” In the hero camp, we have the likes of William Rubinstein’s “The Myth of Rescue: Why the Democracies Could Not Have Saved More Jews From the Nazis.”

‘FDR and The Jews’y Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman (Harvard Univ.)

There is a feeling that Roosevelt belongs to one camp or the other, as the gravity of the event seems to necessitate a final ruling. The fundamental and obvious risk with these interpretations, however, is anachronism. Each comes dangerously close to superimposing a contemporary understanding of the Holocaust on 1940s Washington and seeks to condemn or exonerate Roosevelt based on his knowledge of an unprecedented catastrophe that did not yet have a name even in Europe, much less in the United States.

At long last, two historians have sought to provide an analysis of Roosevelt’s stance on the “Jewish question” that avoids the tempting urge to judge the past through the lenses of the present. As Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman — both at American University — conclude in “FDR and the Jews,” their fine new interpretation: “FDR was neither a hero of the Jews nor a bystander to the Nazis’ persecution and then annihilation of the Jews. No simple or monolithic characterization of this complex president fits the historical record.”

“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.”

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.

James McAuley is a Marshall scholar at the University of Oxford.


By Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman

Belknap/Harvard Univ. 433 pp. $29.95