Robert N. Rosen — a lawyer who holds an M.A. in history from Harvard — has undertaken the formidable task of defending America (more specifically, Franklin Roosevelt, his administration, and the American Jewish community) against charges of indifference to, and therefore moral complicity in, the Holocaust. On the whole he presents a convincing legal argument. He marshals his evidence ably, argues vigorously on behalf of his clients, and delivers a resounding verdict: far from being indifferent, the powers-that-were, acting on limited knowledge and within very tight practical constraints, did all they could to rescue the victims of the Holocaust
At times, however, Rosen seems to tie himself in logical knots. Much of the book is given over to an examination of American immigration laws, which prevented the Roosevelt administration from admitting meaningful numbers of Jewish refugees before the war broke out and escape became virtually impossible. Rosen repeatedly argues that Roosevelt’s hands were tied. Much as he wanted to, FDR simply couldn’t override laws on the books in order to save more Jews. Yet Rosen repeatedly praises FDR for ignoring the law in order to provide aid to the British in their fight against Hitler in the years before Pearl Harbor.
More disturbingly, while Rosen does a great deal to defend FDR against charges of anti-Semitism, he does this in large part by portraying him, convincingly, as a supremely practical politician maneuvering in a domestic culture (and government bureaucracy) that was overwhelmingly anti-Semitic and simply wouldn’t have tolerated a large influx of Jews from Europe. FDR himself may come off as concerned and earnest, but the charge of collective guilt that his critics would level against America goes unrebutted (and perhaps bolstered).
Ultimately, however, Rosen limits his own argument by focusing so intently on rebutting purely factual charges on purely factual grounds. The case against America for its role in the Holocaust (or lack thereof) arises not so much from factual questions as from ethical ones: To what extent is passivity or indifference morally equivalent to guilt or complicity? In the face of enormous evil, is “there’s nothing we could have done,” even when truthful, an adequate defense for not trying everything possible, including measures virtually certain to fail? Is failure to behave in superheroic fashion tantamount to cowardice? Rosen merely glances at these ethical issues in a brief postscript. A more extended treatment would have been welcome.