FDR and the Jews. by Breitman, Richard and Allan J. Lichtman

, December 30, 2013

FDR and the Jews. by Breitman, Richard and Allan J. Lichtman, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013, 433 pp.

Reviewed by Adrien Dallair

There is an on-going, contentious and passionate debate concerning America’s response to the Holocaust, and, specifically, about President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s record with regard to the Jews of Europe from 1933 to 1945. This debate features two seemingly irreconcilable viewpoints that leave little room for nuance. On the one hand, critics of FDR condemn the then-president for having stood by while Hitler and the Nazis persecuted the Jews of Germany and subsequently attempted to carry out their “Final Solution.” On the other, defenders of Roosevelt argue that the president did everything in his power to save the greatest possible number of Jews.

Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman, co-authors of FDR and the Jews “challeng[e] both extremes in this dispute” (p. 2). Averring that “[n]o simple or monolithic characterization of this complex president [FDR] fits the historical record,” Breitman and Lichtman argue that “FDR was neither a hero of the Jews nor a bystander to the Nazis’ persecution and then annihilation of Jews” (p. 315). They endeavour to strike a balance and to provide a non-partisan assessment of President Roosevelt’s record with regard to European Jewry. Unfortunately, they do not succeed.

At first blush, Breitman and Lichtman appear to remain faithful to their stated goal of arriving at a neutral assessment of FDR’s record. The authors are at their best when they discuss the pressures exerted upon, the conflicting priorities of, and the challenges faced by FDR. The book traces the phases FDR went through on Jewish issues—what the authors call the “four Roosevelts,” as he responded to the changing circumstances of his presidency. Thus, they show the way in which Roosevelt at various times throughout his time in office paid particular attention to some matters, while relegating others to lower priority.

The “first Roosevelt”—corresponding to FDR’s first term—did very little, if anything, to assist the Jews of Germany. In fact, according to Breitman and Lichtman, Roosevelt’s first term marked the only moment in FDR’s twelve-year presidency in which the president was a veritable “bystander to Nazi persecution” (p. 3). In the midst of a worldwide depression, FDR placed priority on economic reform and recovery. Restoring the health of the American economy was Roosevelt’s foremost objective, taking precedence over all else. As a result, FDR remained silent in the face of the escalating Nazi persecution of German Jewry. Not wanting to find himself on the end of a public antisemitic backlash in the United States, Roosevelt refused to expend any political capital in order to ease U.S. immigration restrictions against refugees. European Jewry, it would appear, had drawn the short straw.

The “second Roosevelt” emerged after the landslide election of 1936. With his election secured and the economy continuing to improve, FDR changed course—taking a greater interest in, and putting a greater emphasis on Jewish concerns. This more decisive and “now-activist Roosevelt” (p. 3) attempted to use his executive powers for the benefit of the Jews, namely, by loosening U.S. immigration restrictions and promoting the resettlement of Europe’s Jews to foreign lands. Nevertheless, in the absence of domestic and international support, FDR proceeded with caution and, ultimately, tempered his aims.

The outbreak of war in Europe in the fall of 1939 triggered the emergence of the “third Roosevelt.” FDR’s activism with regard to Jewish issues rapidly took a backseat to more pressing concerns: protecting the United States from potential enemy subversives and aiding the Allies in their struggle against the Axis powers. When the United States entered the war in December 1941, rescuing Europe’s Jews became a matter of even less concern. The overriding priority was achieving a military victory over the enemy. The remnants of European Jewry, FDR believed, could be redeemed only through Allied success on the battlefield.

Finally, in late 1943, with an Allied victory appearing likely, the “third Roosevelt” gave way to the “fourth.” Once again, FDR changed direction and “addressed Jewish issues with revived interest” (p. 4). This Roosevelt, however, would never match the activism of the “second,” as a result of his declining health and his preoccupation both with bringing the war to a successful close and preparing for the post-war world. Nevertheless, President Roosevelt approved the plan to establish the War Refugee Board, backed a declaration denouncing the crimes perpetrated against the Jews, and pursued plans for the post-war resettlement of refugees.

It would appear, then, that Breitman and Lichtman have succeeded in their endeavour to offer a fair, neutral, and balanced assessment of FDR’s record with regard to the Jews of Europe during his years in office, thereby providing a necessary corrective to a debate too often depicted as a zero-sum game. But this “balanced view” fails to withstand close scrutiny.

Though the main thrust of FDR and the Jews is that “FDR was neither a hero of the Jews nor a bystander to the Nazis’ persecution and then annihilation of Jews” (p. 315), the authors deliver a final verdict on Roosevelt that is, nonetheless, rather favourable. In fact, the authors paint a positive portrait of FDR, whereby his decisions, policies, and moral stance concerning Jewish issues appear as having been laudable on the whole. Although such an appraisal of FDR’s record with regard to the Jews is not problematic in and of itself—that is to say, it is not necessarily indicative of a biased assessment on the part of the authors—there is a forced quality to this particular evaluation. Indeed, further evaluation reveals that the authors undermine their efforts in three ways: first, by making exaggerated claims; second, by failing to reconcile glaring inconsistencies; and, third, by putting forth a number of untenable arguments.

One of the more sensational claims made by the authors concerns the “second Roosevelt.” According to Breitman and Lichtman, following his landslide re-election in 1936, “FDR finally smashed the bureaucratic barriers to the expanded admission of Jewish refugees to the United States” (p. 316, emphasis added). This is an astonishing statement, especially in light of the authors’ own admission that FDR was reluctant to fight for an increase in immigration quotas, in the face of public and congressional opposition to such a measure. Why, then, did they make such an unsupported assertion? Were they overeager to highlight Roosevelt’s role in loosening U.S. immigration restrictions, despite his modest success? In this instance the reviewer is willing to grant the authors the benefit of the doubt. This benefit will not be extended, however, with regard to other inconsistencies found in the book, namely, those pertaining to the War Refugee Board.

Following President Roosevelt’s issuance of Executive Order 9417, the War Refugee Board (WRB), established on January 22, 1944, was charged with the development and the execution of plans and programs for the rescue of victims of Nazi persecution, Jewish and otherwise. As Breitman and Lichtman rightly observe, FDR established the WRB “while under pressure from an increasingly assertive Congress” and “only at the prompting of Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. and his activist staff” (p. 263, emphasis added). The authors also explain how, throughout its tenure, the Board “remained underfunded, undermanned, and dependent on a military [i.e., War] and State Department with decidedly different priorities” (p. 325)—all problems that could have been remedied by the President, had he wished. Rafael Medoff in Blowing the Whistle on Genocide: Josiah E. DuBois, Jr., and the Struggle for a U.S. Response to the Holocaust (2009), corroborates the authors’ critical appraisal.1 It comes as a surprise, then, to find the WRB described as having been Roosevelt’s “chosen instrument of rescue” (p. 325). It would appear that Breitman and Lichtman allow FDR to have his cake and eat it, too, by giving him credit for the work done and the lives saved by the WRB2—even though it was an agency that Roosevelt, at best, established reluctantly, and, even then, did not allocate the necessary resources to effectively carry out its rescue operations.

More disturbingly, the authors make their case for Roosevelt on the basis of unconvincing arguments. For example, their perspective on the Évian Conference on refugees that was convened at the initiative of President Roosevelt in July 1938 is a textbook case of “cherry picking.” When discussing FDR’s motivation for convening the conference, Breitman and Lichtman write: “[n]o hidden political motive underlay Roosevelt’s humanitarian initiative. To the contrary, […] he had little to gain and much to lose politically” (p. 108) from such a conference. But ulterior political motives were exactly what Arthur D. Morse argues for in While Six Million Died: A Chronicle of American Apathy (1967). According to Morse, the anschluss between Germany and Austria provoked a public outcry in the United States for greater action on behalf of refugees. The State Department, wanting to counteract this outcry, deemed it preferable to “get out in front and attempt to guide the pressure, primarily with a view toward forestalling attempts to have the immigration laws liberalized.”3 Thus, a conference on refugees was seen not as a “humanitarian initiative” (p. 108) but as something very different, a means of “silenc[ing] the critics of apathy.”4 It seems clear, then, that contrary to what the authors of FDR and the Jews maintain, Roosevelt had, in fact, something to gain and little to lose politically from convening the conference that took place at Évian-les-Bains, France.

Why, then, did Breitman and Lichtman fail to mention of this interpretation of FDR’s motives for convening the Évian Conference? Certainly they were aware of it, because While Six Million Died is cited multiple times in the notes to their book. The reader is tempted to think that, in the absence of a counterargument, the authors intentionally chose not to engage with it. In any case, in the absence of Morse’s point, FDR is more easily cast in a favourable light.

The authors also utilize a number of arguments that fall into the category of “fallacies of relevance.” An example is the chapter entitled “Zionism and the Arab World.” Breitman and Lichtman argue that “[t]hrough action and not just words, Roosevelt helped stop the Nazis’ [sic] from extending the Holocaust from Europe to the Middle East and Northwest Africa” (p. 260). How so? The answer: by sending and redirecting war material, such as Sherman tanks and A-20 bombers, to British forces in Egypt and Libya—war material that, the authors point out, was used by the Allied forces to defeat Erwin Rommel’s forces at the Second Battle of El Alamein and to end the German threat to Alexandria, Suez, and Palestine. This in itself is a curious argument. But it gets more puzzling. “Roosevelt,” Breitman and Lichtman stress, “undoubtedly sent direct military aid to buttress British positions in Egypt and its [sic] hold on the Suez Canal—not to aid Palestine’s Jews” (p. 261, emphasis added). How this argument is in any way relevant to Roosevelt’s record with regard to the Jews of Palestine, or any other region for that matter, is unclear. The authors justify what this reviewer considers the digression by asserting that FDR “was conscious of the Nazi threat to Jews in the region, and his action helped to save them, regardless of his motivation” (p. 261). This argument is, at best, weak, and effectively can be summarized as follows: FDR should be given credit for saving the Jews of Palestine, not because he made a conscious decision to save them, but rather because of his decision to send war materiel to the Allied forces in Egypt—a decision that the authors openly admit had absolutely nothing to do with the Jews—had the indirect consequence of preventing them from falling into the hands of the Nazis. At this point, this reviewer feels that the neutrality of the book has been thrown into serious question.

FDR and the Jews purports to offer a balanced view of the Roosevelt record with regard to the Holocaust. Instead, the authors have written an apologia.


1.   The convergence in interpretations here is particularly noteworthy, since a number (if not the majority) of the theses put forward by Rafael Medoff—in particular, in his most recent study, FDR and the Holocaust: A Breach of Faith (2013)—directly contradicts those advanced in FDR and the Jews.

2.   The authors estimate that as many as 200,000 Jewish lives were saved as a result of the War Refugee Board’s efforts.

3.   Internal State Department memorandum prepared by the Division of European Affairs, cited in Arthur D. Morse, While Six Million Died: A Chronicle of American Apathy (Woodstock and New York: Overlook, 1998 [1967]), 203 (emphasis added).

4.   Arthur D. Morse, While Six Million Died: A Chronicle of American Apathy (Woodstock and New York: Overlook, 1998 [1967]), 204.

Adrien Dallaire

Adrien Dallaire is a doctoral student at the University of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.