The Jews Should Keep Qui­et: Franklin D. Roo­sevelt, Rab­bi Stephen S. Wise, and the Holocaust

Rafael Med­off

  • Review
By – March 17, 2022

There is a long­stand­ing debate about Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s actions — or inac­tions — in response to the Holo­caust. Accord­ing to one school of thought, Roo­sevelt — con­strained by eco­nom­ic depres­sion, pub­lic iso­la­tion­ism, and wide­spread anti­semitism — did what he could to aid the Jews of Europe, all while nav­i­gat­ing the polit­i­cal shoals of pre-Pearl Har­bor Amer­i­ca to pro­vide vital aid to Britain and pre­pare the Unit­ed States for war. By con­trast, Roosevelt’s crit­ics main­tain that he could have tak­en a num­ber of steps at no polit­i­cal cost that would have saved hun­dreds of thou­sands of lives.

Rafael Medoff’s lat­est book, The Jews Should Keep Qui­et, lends weight to the more crit­i­cal view. That’s not because it reveals new facts regard­ing Roosevelt’s tepid response to learn­ing that the Nazis had embarked on a pro­gram to mur­der every Jew in the ter­ri­to­ries they con­trolled. Medoff’s account of those facts — includ­ing the president’s fail­ure strong­ly to con­demn Hitler’s ear­ly per­se­cu­tion of the Jews, US restric­tions on refugee immi­gra­tion, and the fail­ure to dis­rupt the 1944 mass slaugh­ter of Hun­gar­i­an Jews by bomb­ing the gas cham­bers and the rail­roads ser­vic­ing them — is chill­ing­ly com­pre­hen­sive. But that sto­ry has long been known.

What’s new and star­tling in The Jews Should Keep Qui­et is the ample evi­dence it con­tains of Roosevelt’s anti­se­mit­ic atti­tudes, which Med­off sug­gests may have account­ed at least in part for the president’s lack of a more force­ful response to Jew­ish per­se­cu­tion and, ulti­mate­ly, to Hitler’s Final Solution.”

As Med­off notes, there would have been noth­ing unusu­al in a man of Roosevelt’s back­ground hav­ing anti­se­mit­ic beliefs, since such atti­tudes were wide­spread in Amer­i­can soci­ety at the time. Still, Roosevelt’s ver­bal expres­sion of anti­semitism while he was pres­i­dent — and at times of unprece­dent­ed per­se­cu­tion and then mass mur­der of Jews — is significant.

Med­off relates that Rab­bi Stephen Wise told Roo­sevelt about Poland’s threat to expel Jews from land their fam­i­lies had owned for cen­turies in 1938. Roo­sevelt replied with an anec­dote that sug­gest­ed anti­semitism in Poland was sim­ply a response to the fact that the Jew­ish grain deal­er and the Jew­ish shoe deal­er and the Jew­ish shop­keep­er” were con­trol­ling the Pol­ish economy.”

The pres­i­dent spoke in a sim­i­lar vein when dis­cussing the return of Jews to pro­fes­sions from which they had been barred by the col­lab­o­ra­tionist Vichy regime fol­low­ing the lib­er­a­tion of North Africa in Novem­ber 1942. Roo­sevelt sug­gest­ed that the num­ber of Jews in any pro­fes­sion should not exceed the per­cent­age of Jews in the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion; by way of expla­na­tion, Roo­sevelt said that this would fur­ther elim­i­nate the spe­cif­ic and under­stand­able­com­plaints which the Ger­mans bore towards the Jews in Ger­many, name­ly, that while they rep­re­sent­ed a small part of the pop­u­la­tion, over fifty per­cent of the lawyers, doc­tors, school teach­ers, col­lege pro­fes­sors, etc. in Ger­many were Jews.”

What­ev­er the sta­tis­ti­cal accu­ra­cy of Roosevelt’s asser­tion, for him to speak of under­stand­able” Ger­man com­plaints” about the Jews in Jan­u­ary 1943 — two months after the Allies had pub­licly con­firmed that the Nazis were try­ing to exter­mi­nate the Jew­ish peo­ple — is appalling.

And in an exchange with Stal­in at the Yal­ta Con­fer­ence, held in ear­ly Feb­ru­ary 1945, Roo­sevelt joked that he would offer to give six mil­lion Amer­i­can Jews to Sau­di Ara­bia as a con­ces­sion” at an upcom­ing meet­ing. When an aide lat­er referred to this con­ver­sa­tion and used the word kikes,” Roosevelt’s report­ed reac­tion was to laugh.

Cer­tain­ly, the polit­i­cal con­straints on Roo­sevelt cit­ed by his defend­ers were very real. Hitler’s ear­ly years in pow­er coin­cid­ed with dev­as­tat­ing eco­nom­ic depres­sion in the Unit­ed States, which led to anti-immi­grant sen­ti­ment. Fol­low­ing Amer­i­can involve­ment in World War I, iso­la­tion­ism, as reflect­ed by the Amer­i­ca First Move­ment, was also polit­i­cal­ly pow­er­ful. And the 1930s and 40s may well have been the high water­mark of anti­semitism in the Unit­ed States.

In these cir­cum­stances Roo­sevelt, who clear­ly per­ceived the Nazi threat to Amer­i­can secu­ri­ty, was bat­tling to obtain and keep approval for mil­i­tary aid to Britain. It would not have been unrea­son­able for him to be wary of sup­port­ing mea­sures that could be depict­ed as reflect­ing his desire to lead the Unit­ed States into a war for the Jews.”

But as Med­off notes, many few­er Jew­ish refugees were allowed to come to the Unit­ed States than the quo­tas of the time allowed. This is attrib­ut­able to the delib­er­ate efforts of US con­sular offi­cials to obstruct the grant of visas to Jews by any avail­able bureau­crat­ic means. Breck­en­ridge Long, an old friend of Roosevelt’s who became head of the visa sec­tion at the State Depart­ment in 1940, sent an infa­mous memo to his sub­or­di­nates instruct­ing them to delay and effec­tive­ly stop for a tem­po­rary peri­od of indef­i­nite length the num­ber of immi­grants into the Unit­ed States.” This could be done, he said, by putting every obsta­cle in the way and to require addi­tion­al evi­dence and to resort to var­i­ous admin­is­tra­tive devices which would post­pone and post­pone and post­pone the grant­i­ng of the visas.”

Although I do not find the evi­dence he cites con­clu­sive (diary entries by Long that could have been self-serv­ing), Med­off says that Roo­sevelt knew and approved of what Long was doing. But whether he specif­i­cal­ly knew of it or not, he must sure­ly have been aware of the ris­ing cho­rus of pleas that the US admit more refugees from Hitler. Under these cir­cum­stances, it was his respon­si­bil­i­ty to find out why the com­bined immi­gra­tion quo­tas from Ger­many and Aus­tria were not being filled. Sim­ply by pick­ing up the phone or send­ing a cable, Roo­sevelt could have cor­rect­ed this sit­u­a­tion with no atten­dant publicity.

America’s great­est fail­ure in respond­ing to the Holo­caust was that it did not afford a haven to more refugees from Nazism dur­ing the years 1933 – 40. Dur­ing those years, 190,000 avail­able places in the com­bined immi­gra­tion quo­tas for Ger­many and Aus­tria went unfilled. Had America’s day-to-day immi­gra­tion prac­tices not been inten­tion­al­ly restric­tive, near­ly 200,000 lives could have been saved.

Why didn’t Roo­sevelt inter­vene with the State Depart­ment to force it to allow the immi­gra­tion quo­tas to be filled? In addi­tion to his wartime state­ments, Med­off cites numer­ous exam­ples from Roosevelt’s pre-pres­i­den­tial writ­ings stress­ing the need to spread out Jew­ish immi­grants around the coun­try to thin out their influ­ence and pre­vent them from dom­i­nat­ing var­i­ous pro­fes­sions. It’s hard to avoid the con­clu­sion that Roosevelt’s neg­a­tive feel­ings about Jews con­tributed sig­nif­i­cant­ly to his appar­ent indif­fer­ence to their fate at the hands of the Nazis.

Nor were Jews the only group about whom Roo­sevelt gave vent to eth­nic prej­u­dices. In a 1925 col­umn for the Macon Dai­ly Tele­graph, he warned that Japan­ese immi­grants are not capa­ble of assim­i­la­tion into the Amer­i­can population.…[a]nyone who has trav­eled in the Far East knows that the min­gling of Asi­at­ic blood with Euro­pean or Amer­i­can blood pro­duces, in nine cas­es out of ten, the most unfor­tu­nate results.” Is it like­ly that these views did not con­tribute to Roosevelt’s deci­sion to intern Amer­i­can cit­i­zens of Japan­ese extrac­tion, when no such action was tak­en against Ger­man or Ital­ian Americans?

So how should Amer­i­cans, and par­tic­u­lar­ly Jew­ish Amer­i­cans, view Roo­sevelt? It seems clear that the ven­er­a­tion near­ly uni­ver­sal­ly accord­ed Roo­sevelt by World War II – era Jews — and still by many Jews today — is mis­placed. But that does not mean that he is unwor­thy of any respect.

In addi­tion to his lead­er­ship dur­ing the Great Depres­sion — which, what­ev­er its eco­nom­ic impact, great­ly ral­lied the morale of the Amer­i­can peo­ple — Roo­sevelt saw the threat posed by Hitler, and deft­ly took steps to counter that threat, notwith­stand­ing the iso­la­tion­ist sen­ti­ment preva­lent in the coun­try at the time. He suc­ceed­ed in get­ting the Con­gress to enact nec­es­sary amend­ments to the Neu­tral­i­ty Act, approve the Lend-Lease pro­gram, and insti­tute a mil­i­tary draft. Once Amer­i­ca joined the war, he agreed with Churchill that the Allies should fol­low a Ger­many first” mil­i­tary strat­e­gy, although it was Japan that had launched the cat­a­stroph­ic, sur­prise attack on Pearl Harbor.

A fair eval­u­a­tion of Roosevelt’s response to the Holo­caust must also take account of America’s record of doing lit­tle or noth­ing to inter­vene in oth­er twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry geno­cides. From Arme­nia to Bosnia, from Nige­ria to Bangladesh, and most recent­ly in Rwan­da, the Unit­ed States failed to take action, even when that could have been done at rel­a­tive­ly low risk to US armed forces.

Nor, except in the case of Bosnia (a Euro­pean coun­try), has inac­tion by the Unit­ed States stirred much con­cern on the part of the Amer­i­can pub­lic. Per­haps, in addi­tion to eval­u­at­ing the actions and inac­tions of our lead­ers, we should think crit­i­cal­ly about our own sen­si­tiv­i­ty to events beyond our shores.

Howard F. Jaeck­el is a retired attor­ney and a mem­ber of the Jew­ish Book Council’s Board of Directors.

Discussion Questions