You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Failure to Rescue

How FDR hurt Jewish would-be immigrants

Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Desperate to leave Amsterdam with his family in 1941, Otto Frank, not yet in hiding with Edith, Anne, and Margot, sought assistance from an old friend, Nathan Straus Jr., whom he had met in Heidelberg 33 years earlier. Straus had been put in charge of the New Deal’s Federal Housing Authority, where he superintended an $800 million budget for public housing. But his effort to secure visas for the Franks failed. “The State Department,” Richard Breitman and Allan Lichtman observe, “had already cut off most visas to Jews.”

During the prior seven years, some 127,000 Jews had arrived as refugees, making the United States the world’s largest receiving country. Within this period, however, 110,000 legally available quota spaces had been left unfilled, mainly because consuls in Europe were unprepared to certify that claimants would not become a public burden. In this, they brought into operation a key feature of American immigration law that excluded persons who were likely to be unable to support themselves in the United States. When Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland at the start of September 1939, ending the possibility of escape for German nationals, the waiting list for visas numbered 310,000—an unintentional death sentence for most. Moreover, as the quotas for citizens of Hungary, Romania, and Poland were tiny, the vast majority, even those who somehow managed to get to Western Europe, simply were ineligible to apply.

Level-headed yet deeply troubling, FDR and the Jews offers a history of American policy toward overseas Jews before and during World War II. With questions tangled and evidence mixed, Breitman and Lichtman—one with a longstanding scholarly engagement with refugee policy and the history of the Final Solution, the other a student of the lineage of contemporary conservatism in the United States—enter a deeply charged conversation about the degree of culpability of Franklin Roosevelt and, more broadly, the United States, as Hitler’s regime moved from extirpation to mass murder. Substituting cool reason and careful adjudication for polemic and accusation, their assessment of how the Roosevelt administration considered whether to remonstrate, to relax immigration policy, or to interdict the machinery for killing during the course of the Third Reich displays little patience for indictment. Assertively fair-minded, sometimes excessively so, FDR and the Jews pushes back against simplistic denunciations, and refuses to treat the era’s combination of constraints and decisions as a one-dimensional history of American abandonment. Situating Roosevelt within political and global circumstances, it weighs his actions with understanding and sympathy, though not always with approval.

The book’s primary avenue of approach to its ethically charged subject is to place policy choices within bureaucratic and political constraints. Its conclusion is very carefully formulated: characterizing Roosevelt neither as a hero nor as a bystander, it seeks to identify a coherent middle ground. Roosevelt’s “compromises might seem flawed in the light of what later generations have learned about the depth and significance of the Holocaust,” Breitman and Lichtman write. “Still,” they add, “Roosevelt reacted more decisively to Nazi crimes against Jews than did any other world leader of his time.” His response to genocide, moreover, was more robust than that of the subsequent American presidents who failed to confront mass extermination in Cambodia, Rwanda, East Timor, Sri Lanka, and other sites of sanctioned slaughter.

This appraisal raises a host of vexing questions about the historical record and about standards for judgment. What were the administration’s compromises? How were they motivated? Which wider political influences—inside federal agencies, especially the Department of State, in Congress, and in mass opinion—impressed themselves on presidential decision-making? What criteria should guide a fair-minded assessment? 

With rare exceptions, Washington did not formally challenge Hitler’s Jewish policies during the 1930s, even though many Americans were stunned to witness his regime’s brutality of speech and action. As Nazism first took hold, the president remained silent. During Roosevelt’s tenth week in office, the diplomat James McDonald remarked after a stay at the White House that the president had “larger fish to fry in Germany.” And of course not just in Germany.

Weeks later, on June 16, William Dodd, having just been recruited from the University of Chicago to serve as ambassador in Berlin, was summoned to the Oval Office for instructions. “The next subject we discussed,” his diary records, “was the Jewish problem. The president said: ‘The German authorities are treating the Jews shamefully and the Jews in this country are greatly excited. But this is not a governmental affair. We can do nothing except for American citizens who happen to be made victims. We must protect them, and whatever we can do to moderate the general persecution by unofficial and personal influence ought to be done.’ ”

Breitman and Lichtman judge Roosevelt harshly for this early policy of official silence, and for his failure to relax the zealous enforcement of visa policy. During the fiscal year 1935, just 20 percent of the German quota was utilized. Only 5,201 individuals were offered entry, despite a vastly higher demand, numbering some 60,000. All told, the authors conclude, “the first-term Roosevelt did little to assist Jews in Germany.”

In his second term, however, the president did more. Alone among heads of government or state, Roosevelt recalled an ambassador after Kristallnacht in November 1938. Though Roosevelt resisted Congressman Emmanuel Celler’s request that he press Congress for an increase in the quotas allotted to Austria and Germany after the Anschluss, their number was combined, and entry from these countries reached 83,000 during the four years before Pearl Harbor, compared with a total of just 18,000 during the four years prior. This liberalization was accomplished when George Messersmith, the State Department official in charge of the Immigrant Visa Section, followed up on Roosevelt’s directive to deal with refugees humanely by instructing consulates in Europe not to deny visas solely because newcomers might become public charges. As a result, consular discretion widened, and the proportion of the German quota that was filled did increase, reaching 40 percent in 1937, compared with 27 percent the previous year.

Spaarnestad Photo/Hollandse Hoogte/Redux
Berlin in the aftermath of Kristallnacht, November 1938

The Évian Conference in July 1938, which was convened to consider the rapidly accelerating refugee crisis, would not have taken place without Roosevelt’s initiative and support. With some 50,000 Jewish refugees scattered across Europe; with the annexation of the Sudetenland having generated the movement of 30,000 Jews to Prague; with the Anschluss having led to the stripping of citizenship from an additional 180,000 Jews; with Germany having expelled 30,000 Polish Jews who were not received as citizens by the government of Poland; with Eastern Europe’s Jewish millions clearly in harm’s way—with all this, the president summoned the potential receiving countries to a meeting and helped to create a new Intergovernmental Committee (IGC) to advocate for refugee resettlement.

Breitman and Lichtman assess the “decisive Roosevelt”—between his landslide victory in 1936 and the attack on Pearl Harbor five years later—very positively. They label the Évian Conference “the world’s only ambitious international initiative for rescuing Jewish refugees during the Nazi era,” and they announce that FDR “finally smashed the bureaucratic barriers to the expanded admission of Jewish refugees to the United States.” But alas, here hyperbole trumps fact. The very terms of the Évian gathering precluded any effective response. In announcing a call for the conference, President Roosevelt made it clear that the United States would not relax its restrictionist laws, and that no other country would be expected to further open its doors. Moreover, as Secretary of State Cordell Hull quickly elaborated, Palestine also would be kept off the agenda at British insistence. When the meeting ended, The Christian Science Monitor rightly headlined, “Nations Loath to Give Asylum to Jews.”

Even as the Roosevelt administration haltingly stirred to help threatened Jews, there were significant countercurrents of exclusion. The president refused to back legislation supported by the Catholic Church and Jewish groups in 1939 that would have admitted 10,000 Jewish children outside the quota, each year for two years. He directed letters that lobbied for the bill’s passage to “File, No Action.” His support, Breitman and Lichtman concede, “might possibly have saved the children’s bill before the opposition mobilized effectively.” Nor did Roosevelt pursue a sustained program of emergency rescue. When the Department of the Interior produced a scheme to promote Jewish settlement in Alaska, like other such ideas it was left to wither. Even more important, an effort to unmask pro-German subversives perversely brought into question German-Jewish loyalty to the United States, and thus deterred more liberal policies of entry.

In this and other matters that concerned prospects for rescue, a crucial role was played by Breckenridge Long. He was a Missouri horse breeder and Democratic Party politician who had served in the State Department from 1917 to 1920. A generous donor to Roosevelt’s campaign in 1932, he was appointed the president’s first ambassador to Fascist Italy, where he was mesmerized by Mussolini. Long succeeded Messersmith in 1940 as assistant secretary of state for administration, a post he held until late 1944. Zealous about national security and personally anti-Semitic and xenophobic, Long tightened visa controls, successfully arguing for sharp restrictions and meticulous oversight.

He closed the office at State that participated in the IGC, and deployed his authority to sharply limit the approval of visa applications, especially after late June and early July 1941, when the process was centralized in Washington and American consulates in Germany were closed. That year he instructed American consuls to turn down visa applicants who had relatives in Germany, Italy, or the Soviet Union. “In effect,” Breitman and Lichtman acknowledge, “the instruction barred from entry Jews in greatest peril from despotic rulers.”

These and other impediments to entry excluded between 62,000 and 75,000 refugees who could have crossed the Atlantic between 1940 and 1942. Their ability to qualify was blocked by the addition of detailed and intricate security reviews, and the need for affidavits from persons who were not immediate relatives. A bit too laconically, Breitman and Lichtman note that “Long’s commitment to reducing the influx of purportedly dangerous foreigners effectively undermined FDR’s professed commitment to the cause of Jewish and non-Jewish refugees.”

This formulation begs the question of why the president would keep in charge of this issue a person whose views were so hostile to any program of rescue. Long’s diary, cited too sparingly in Breitman's and Lichtman’s book, amply reveals Long’s ugly zealotry. In September 1940, he proudly mused about the care he was taking “to limit authorization of visas to the end that the law be observed.” Referring to Rabbi Stephen Wise and other Jews lobbying for a more generous policy, Long complained in December 1940 that they were seeking to place him “in an embarrassing position,” and noted, in September 1941, that “each one of these men hates me. I am to them the embodiment of a nemesis. They each and all believe every person, everywhere has a right to come to the United States. I believe that nobody, anywhere has a right to enter the United States.” Eight months earlier, in January 1941, he had lamented that the Gestapo “is now sending two trainloads a week, 500 on each train, out of Germany, through France and Spain to Portugal.... The cost is $485 per person,” and “payments are made in this country.” This movement, he wrote, “is sinister, because the German Government only gives permits to persons they want to come to the United States. It is a perfect opening for Germany to load the United States with agents.”

The most positive period in Breitman’s and Lichtman’s account is the war years, especially after the president had been informed that organized killing had begun. In October 1942, Roosevelt announced that war criminals would be accountable at war’s end; in December, the Allied governments assailed Hitler’s efforts at extermination. Later, in 1943 and 1944, Roosevelt created the War Refugee Board (WRB), which brought together the Departments of War, Treasury, and State to help rescue Jewish remnants. He supported more open Jewish immigration to Palestine despite British opposition. And when Long finally returned to Missouri, and responsibilities for visa implementation fell into the more sympathetic hands of Adolph Berle Jr., administrative flexibility became more generous, and efforts at evacuation and relocation to safe havens became more systematic and, at times, effective.

Popperfoto/Getty Images
Child refugees from Vienna, December 1938

Still, this new activism was qualified. There would be no military interruption of the Final Solution, lest the war effort suffer, despite the fact that air raids in Upper Silesia had shown that a precise assault on death-camp facilities might well have succeeded. The new WRB had only $250,000 to spend; and having lost its battle to bomb the camps when Roosevelt heeded the advice of his generals, its impact was no more than symbolic. Even Roosevelt’s Zionism blew hot and cold: privately he assured King Ibn Saud that no moves to change the status of Palestine would be made without Arab consent.

“I only wish we could do more,” Roosevelt told New York Governor Herbert Lehman in March 1938. Why did he not? One of the main thrusts of FDR and the Jews is the attempt to explain, and frequently to excuse, presidential inaction. The reasons that Breitman and Lichtman adduce for Roosevelt’s restraint cluster in two principal lines of argument. The first is an assessment of how President Roosevelt “cautiously threaded his way through competing priorities.” The second is a comparative appraisal with how other leaders acted, then and later.

A careful characterization of the president’s motives is central to the book’s search for a convincing middle course between accusation and defense. What Breitman and Lichtman seek to explain is not whether, but why, Roosevelt “was politically and emotionally stingy when it came to the plight of Jews.” In so doing, they take on the burden of accounting for decisions that at the time—not just in retrospect—seemed ethically questionable. During the Évian Conference, The New York Times journalist Anne O’Hare McCormick, who had just won a Pulitzer Prize for her foreign reporting, sharply disapproved of Roosevelt’s failure to open the gates, arguing that a “great power free to act has no alibi for not acting.” Nearly six years later, in January 1944, Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau Jr. handed President Roosevelt a report written by a staff member, Josiah DuBois Jr., titled “Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of this Government in the Murder of the Jews.” Upbraiding Breckenridge Long and the policies of the State Department, the document “warned that without drastic changes in America’s approach to Nazi atrocities, the United States would have to share historic responsibility for this extermination of an entire people.”

Some of the exculpatory reasons cited by Breitman and Lichtman are humanitarian. At the start of the Third Reich, as an example, the administration “worried that concessions for the resettlement of German Jews would encourage regimes in Eastern Europe to oppress their ‘surplus’ Jews in the hope of dumping them elsewhere.” Others are political. “The more Roosevelt risked on initiatives for the Jews, the less he thought he could carry Congress and the public with him on broad issues of foreign policy.” A restrained and careful president is portrayed as fearing the loss of political capital should he press for more generous refugee policies—even for the docking in an American port of the St. Louis, the woeful ship that returned to Europe with its cargo of refugees after the Cuban government turned the ship away in May 1939.

Sometimes Breitman’s and Lichtman’s argument gets ahead of what can be known. Though “we have no direct evidence,” the authors speculate that Roosevelt feared the loss of Catholic votes should he denounce Germany’s murder of the Jews before the Pope, who anyway never did denounce it. The president, they further surmise, “feared that his involvement in publicity about what we call the Holocaust would divide the American people and add to the widespread perceptions at home and abroad that Jews manipulated his policies.” This claim is likely correct, as it matches the views of many Jewish leaders, including those in the administration; but it, too, is based purely on conjecture.

Despite this unevenness, the portrayal of Roosevelt as primarily motivated by the New Deal’s wider policy agenda, including his wish to confront Hitler, is broadly persuasive. As Breitman and Lichtman implicitly contend, Roosevelt was a president, not a pope. He was called on to decide when, and when not, to speak and to act, motivated primarily by a wish to address the great problems of the day in a manner that would sustain him and his party politically. Yet a critical question lingers. When, and with respect to which matter, should presidents be held to a standard that rises above such considerations?

In explaining the president’s decisions, which largely remained confined by ordinary political and policy considerations, Breitman and Lichtman might have relied less heavily than they do on adjectives such as “fearful” and “cautious.” Instead they could have presented Roosevelt as an assertive strategic actor, a person who fashioned decisions about the Jewish question in light of the order of his priorities, his perception of the political climate, and his navigation of conditions not of his choosing.

The most important of these conditions, as Aristide Zolberg argued in A Nation by Design, his magisterial history of immigration policy, was the widespread acceptance, as if it were a fact of nature, of an immigration system based on tight and often discriminatory quotas that had been legislated in 1924. The very existence of this system made it possible—indeed, inescapable—that some Jews would be able to flee to the United States while many more would not. Despite dramatic changes to the global situation that no one had projected years before the fall of Weimar, there simply was no prospect that political majorities could be mobilized to change the basic features of American immigration policy, especially during the Depression. More than any other aspect of the situation, it was this legal inheritance that confined the administration’s room for meaningful maneuver, and thus shaped its range of choice.

It is possible to tell this story evenly and with fair-minded understanding, as Breitman and Lichtman often do, without exaggerating the administration’s achievements, as they too often do. It is not especially effective, and begins to seem apologetic, to remind us that, however little Roosevelt did, others sought to do less. Breitman and Lichtman compare the president’s slow response with the plight of Hungarian Jewry during the war and with the inaction of Winston Churchill and his Cabinet; but as a source of historical explanation, that is utterly beside the point.

The book’s focus on ethical questions does remind us that not all decisions are like all other decisions. President Roosevelt’s policies about Jews were calculated the way he calculated other strategic options: politically. But some choices fall in a different, more fundamental, dimension. There are moments in history when political considerations must give way to moral ones. That is what Anne McCormick meant when she wrote that Jewish rescue “is not a question of how many more unemployed this country can safely add to its own unemployed millions. It is a test of civilization.” And that is what Josiah DuBois implied when he charged the United States with complicity in Hitler’s murders. These judgments still sting. 

Ira Katznelson is Ruggles professor of political science and history at Columbia University, and president of the Social Science Research Council. He is the author most recently of Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time (Liveright).