Monday, July 22, 2013

FDR, the Second World War and the Holocaust (Updated)

Laurence Zuckerman looks at US policy during the Second World War on the Holocaust in FDR's Jewish Problem The Nation 07/172013. He describes the problem he's addressing as follows:

No matter the evidence to the contrary, it has become received wisdom among many American Jews that Roosevelt deliberately and coldly abandoned Europe’s Jews in their hour of need.

This marks a dramatic reversal in the image of a president who won more than 80 percent of the Jewish vote in all four of his successful campaigns, who surrounded himself with Jewish advisers and was portrayed by Hitler's propagandists as Jewish (and not in a good way). Roosevelt brought thousands of Jewish professionals into government, prevented Hitler from overrunning Britain and Palestine (thus saving their large Jewish populations), chose to fight Germany first after the United States was attacked by Japan, and paved the way for New York’s first Jewish governor and senator.

Presidential scholars have consistently ranked Roosevelt as the best chief executive in the nation’s history for his handling of the Great Depression and World War II. But even among liberal Jews who still hold him in high regard for those achievements, his reputation has been tarnished as he has been viewed increasingly through the prism of the Holocaust. What started out in the late 1960s as legitimate historical revisionism — looking critically at what the Roosevelt administration and American Jewry did during the Holocaust — has morphed into caricature, with FDR often depicted as an unfeeling anti-Semite.

This is a complex topic with many aspects. But the basic reality of the situation was that once Germany occupied Poland and then eastern Russia, the only thing that could have stopped his systematic killing of Europe's Jews was the defeat of Germany by the UN Allies (the US, Britain, the USSR). And that's the reality around which US policy rotated.

The notion that the Roosevelt Administration and the US cynically abandoned the Jews of Europe to destruction or that they were indifferent to their fate is, for the most part, bad revisionist history. Even the more careful versions I've seen are unconvincing.

As Zuckerman explains, the historian Rafael Medoff is the current contemporary exponent of this particular brand of revisionism. And he explains that the current controversy goes back to a faction of the Zionist movement led by Peter Bergson and its criticism of mainstream Zionist leaders in the US:

In reality, Bergson is a minor figure in the history of the Holocaust. The accomplishments claimed by his champions are disputed by reputable historians, and the lessons of his actions are unclear. Born Hillel Kook, Bergson came to New York from Palestine in 1940 at the age of 25 as the representative of right-wing Revisionist Zionism, the bitter rival of the more mainstream leftist Labor Zionism and the antecedent to Israel's ruling Likud party of today. After news of the Holocaust was officially made public in November 1942, Bergson and his colleagues took out full-page ads in The New York Times assailing Roosevelt and demanding that he do more to save the Jews. They put on a pageant featuring Hollywood stars called "We Will Never Die." And they organized a 1943 march on the White House by 400 Orthodox rabbis.

Bergson clashed with mainstream American Jewish leaders, most notably Rabbi Stephen Wise, a dedicated liberal social activist and pillar of American Jewry, whose many posts included leader of the US Zionist movement. Wise was close to FDR and regarded Bergson’s attacks on the president as politically reckless. Like many American Jews at the time, Wise saw Roosevelt as an ally—an implacable foe of Hitler and a bulwark against American anti-Semitism, which was not insignificant in the 1930s and ’40s. Republican alternatives to FDR were not anywhere near as attractive. Wise was also active behind the scenes, lobbying the president to allow more refugees into the United States and to pressure the British to allow more into Palestine. (Wise’s disagreement with Bergson was magnified by the fact that they represented competing Zionist factions, a bitter rivalry that has for decades fueled attacks on mainstream Zionism both in Israel and the United States for its handling of the Holocaust.)
And just as superficial history of the Munich Agreement has become a stock slogan for war, so the myth of American collaboration in the Holocaust is being put to work as a contemporary slogan for war:

The stakes of this historical debate are high, because the myths that have been propagated about the actions of the United States during the Holocaust are being put to specific political uses today. In a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee last year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cited the failure of the Roosevelt administration to bomb Auschwitz to support the case for an attack on Iran. "They say that a military confrontation with Iran would undermine the efforts already under way, that it would be ineffective, and that it would provoke even more vindictive action by Iran," Netanyahu said. "I've heard these arguments before. In fact, I've read them before." He then quoted from an exchange of letters in which the US War Department said that bombing Auschwitz "would be of such doubtful efficacy that it would not warrant the use of our resources."
Zuckerman himself gives an example of an action that in retrospect might have saved more Jewish lives if it had been taken earlier, the creation of the War Refugee Board (WRB):

... when Henry Morgenthau Jr., the president's good friend and treasury secretary, confronted him with evidence that the State Department was blocking rescue efforts, the president immediately signed off on the idea of the WRB and issued an executive order creating it.

In other words, the Bergson Group's biggest feat [in the claims of some of its admirers] is something that President Roosevelt created. He should have done it earlier and it could have been more effective, but doesn't he deserve some of the credit for the 200,000 Jewish lives the WRB saved? [my emphasis]
But to give an idea of the complexity of these arguments, William J. vanden Heuvel in a 1996 speech, America, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Holocaust, talked about the WRB:

The War Refugee Board was created in January, 1944, by President Roosevelt immediately upon presentation of the case for doing so by Henry Morgenthau. There were thousands of refugees stranded on the outer peripheries of Nazi Europe. With the invasion of Italy in 1943, thousands more sought safety in camps in the south. Tito's success in Yugoslavia enabled many to escape from Croat fascism and Serb hatred. But these were refugees who were already saved. These were not escapees from the Death Camps. Under pressure from Roosevelt and Churchill, Spain kept open its frontiers, stating as its policy that "all refugees without exception would be allowed to enter and remain." Probably more than 40,000 refugees, many of them Jewish, found safe sanctuary in Spain. Makeshift transit camps in Spain, Portugal, Italy, and North Africa housed them in abysmal conditions. Those who fought for these refugees to come to America were right to do so. I have been part of the International Rescue Committee all of my adult life and have worked with refugees in Berlin, Hungary, Angola, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Cuba and Cambodia. Refugees are generally powerless and voiceless. Governments have to be reminded constantly of our humanitarian responsibilities. But perhaps the allied nations can be forgiven in the midst of a war for survival for not doing more for refugees whose lives had already been saved. Perhaps not. In remembering what we did not do, perhaps we can measure our response to today's tragedies and ask whether we--now the richest, most powerful nation in history--have responded adequately to the "ethnic cleansing" of Bosnia, to the genocide in Rwanda, to the Killing Field of Cambodia. [my emphasis]
In other words, Vanden Heuvel's presentation, which makes basically the same argument that Laurence Zuckerman against the position of historians like historian David Wyman have taken, blaming FDR for "the abandonment of the Jews," in the title of Wyman's famous work, points out that the WRB's work can scarcely be credited with saving Jews from the Holocaust. But he doesn't present that as cynicism or sinful inaction on FDR's part. Rather, he's looking at the factual record of which refugees it was with whom the WRB dealt. Getting history right can be complicated. And trying to ram it into easy slogans is usually done at the expense of history, rather than at the expense of the slogan.

Tom Segev's book The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the Holocaust (1993) deals at some length with some of the potential rescue options. William Rubinstein also lookos at the rescue claims in The Myth of Rescue: Why the Democracies Could Not Have Saved More Jews from the Nazis (1997), whose title reflects his skeptical conclusion.

The Wilson Quarterly (21/4-Autumn 1997) in an unsigned review of Rubinstein's book writes:

Before World War II, Nazi policy was to expel as many Jews as possible, not to kill them. The claim by Wyman and other critics that the West erected "almost insuperable barriers" to their emigration while "'there was still time,'" Rubinstein says, is belied by the facts: 72 percent of Germany's Jews, and an even higher percentage of Jewish children, "managed to flee before this became impossible [in late 1940], one of the greatest rescues of any beleaguered group in history." After Kristallnacht in November 1938 made it obvious that Jews had no future in Adolf Hitler's Germany, no new Western barriers .to Jewish immigration were raised, he notes. "On the contrary, more Jews left Germany in 1939 than in any other year." Britain radically liberalized its immigration policies for their benefit. ...

Wyman and others have indicted the Allies for failing to bomb the gas chambers and crematoriums at Auschwitz. That possibility was widely discussed by Jewish leaders and British and American officials in the summer of 1944, notes [Richard] Levy, a retired aeronautical engineer, in an extensive analysis of the controversy ["The Bombing of Auschwitz Revisited: A Critical Analysis," Holocaust and Genocide Studies Winter 1996]. Only the heavy bombers of the U.S. 15th Air Force, based in Italy, were capable of striking at Auschwitz, and the targets, including underground gas chambers, would have required very heavy bombing. The raids could well have failed to destroy all the gas chambers, would have impinged on the war effort, and probably would have killed or wounded thousands of the Jewish inmates. That would have given the Germans a pretext for blaming the deaths at Auschwitz on Allied bombing. For these reasons, Leon Kubowitzki of the World Jewish Congress in New York and David Ben-Gurion of the Israeli "government-in-embryo" in Palestine opposed the idea at the time. Writes Rubinstein: "Only. by winning the war as quickly as possible, and destroying the Nazi scourge, could the surviving Jews of Europe be liberated."
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