FDR and the Jews

FDR and the Jews

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by Richard Breitman, Allan J. Lichtman, Todd McLaren

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Nearly seventy-five years after World War II, a contentious debate lingers over whether Franklin Delano Roosevelt turned his back on the Jews of Hitler's Europe. Defenders claim that FDR saved millions of potential victims by defeating Nazi Germany. Others revile him as morally indifferent and indict him for keeping America's gates closed to Jewish refugees and


Nearly seventy-five years after World War II, a contentious debate lingers over whether Franklin Delano Roosevelt turned his back on the Jews of Hitler's Europe. Defenders claim that FDR saved millions of potential victims by defeating Nazi Germany. Others revile him as morally indifferent and indict him for keeping America's gates closed to Jewish refugees and failing to bomb Auschwitz's gas chambers. In an extensive examination of this impassioned debate, Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman find that the president was neither savior nor bystander. In FDR and the Jews, they draw upon many new primary sources to offer an intriguing portrait of a consummate politician-compassionate but also pragmatic-struggling with opposing priorities under perilous conditions. For most of his presidency Roosevelt indeed did little to aid the imperiled Jews of Europe. He put domestic policy priorities ahead of helping Jews and deferred to others' fears of an anti-Semitic backlash. Yet he also acted decisively at times to rescue Jews, often withstanding contrary pressures from his advisers and the American public. Even Jewish citizens who petitioned the president could not agree on how best to aid their coreligionists abroad. Though his actions may seem inadequate in retrospect, the authors bring to light a concerned leader whose efforts on behalf of Jews were far greater than those of any other world figure. His moral position was tempered by the political realities of depression and war, a conflict all too familiar to American politicians in the twenty-first century.

Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post - James McAuley
FDR and the Jews offers not a new body of facts…but rather a new perspective, a cogent and comprehensive study of Roosevelt's evolving opinions on the Jews…Breitman and Lichtman's carefully documented explication of this somewhat byzantine narrative…[is] remarkably clear…[and] provide[s] the perspective necessary to comprehend the complexities of what have become some of the most painful and politically charged memories in American foreign policy.
New York Times Book Review - David Oshinsky
Sadly, Roosevelt left behind a rather thin paper trail. He didn't write a memoir or record many White House conversations, and he refused to allow note-taking at his personal meetings. To fill this gap, Breitman and Lichtman have combed the archives of the leading players who did write down their thoughts and recollections, and the result is quite impressive. Even those who disagree with the book's conclusions must acknowledge the mountain of research on which they rest...The authors rightly note the squeamishness of America's modern presidents in dealing with genocide...Historically speaking, Roosevelt comes off rather well...[An] eminently sensible book.
Cleveland Plain Dealer - Alan Cate
While this incisively written study is unlikely to sway anyone whose mind is already made up, readers without fixed views will find plenty to ponder. And it will remind everyone not only of the enormity of the Holocaust but...the ultimate limitations of the presidency, no matter who holds the office.
America - Jerome Donnelly
[Breitman and Lichtman] challenge the view that F.D.R. was remiss in helping [Europe's Jews] and plot stages in his development from aloofness to engagement.
From the Publisher
"A well-organized, accessible study." —Kirkus
Los Angeles Review of Books - Jon Wiener
Thoughtful and persuasive...It poses a challenge to the theme that American Jews have no friends, that the gentile world has been at best indifferent to the survival of the Jewish people. It shows that, while there were some anti-Semites in the State Department, the best friend Jews had anywhere in the world in the 1940s was the government of the United States and its president FDR; that, while FDR put domestic political factors ahead of rescuing European Jews, he did far more than any other head of government to act to protect Jews facing death...It's the most responsible, reasoned, well-documented assessment of FDR's role.
Washington Post - James McAuley
At long last, two historians have sought to provide an analysis of Roosevelt's stance on the 'Jewish question' that avoids the tempting urge to judge the past through the lenses of the present...FDR and the Jews offers...a new perspective, a cogent and comprehensive study of Roosevelt's evolving opinions on the Jews...Breitman and Lichtman's carefully documented explication of this somewhat byzantine narrative proves immensely valuable in understanding the mechanics of what remain some of the most controversial decisions in the history of American foreign policy: the refusal to admit the Jewish refugees aboard the SS St. Louis to the United States in 1939 and the refusal to bomb the Auschwitz crematoria after their existence was discovered in 1942...Among the other accomplishments of this remarkably clear, concise but complicated history is the attention it devotes to American Jews, who were anything but unified during the war...[It] provide[s] the perspective necessary to comprehend the complexities of what have become some of the most painful and politically charged memories in American foreign policy. In short, FDR and the Jews is a narrative that resists the temptations of artificial drama and a work of scholarship that avoids facile categorization.
New Statesman - David Cesarani
On the basis of meticulous research, using many fresh sources, [Breitman and Lichtman] establish {FDR's] good intentions beyond any doubt. But by locating his words and deeds in their precise context, they elucidate what was feasible and distinguish when his conduct stemmed from prudence, cowardice or indifference. They do equal justice to the American Jewish leadership with whom he interacted. For good measure, they end by situating FDR in the spectrum of U.S. presidents who have confronted genocide. None has ever placed humanitarian intervention above political advantage or the national interest.
History News Network - Murray Polner
Breitman and Lichtman take pains to highlight what FDR did do to aid Jews fleeing Europe, and which has been largely ignored by his critics...Breitman and Lichtman conclude--wisely--that 'without FDR's policies and leadership,' the Germans and Italians would have beaten the British in North Africa and conquered, which would have ended all hopes for a future Israel (and put hundreds of thousands of more Jews in harm's way). And, they continue, even though the war always took priority over the rescue of masses of Jews 'Roosevelt reacted more decisively to Nazi crimes against Jews than did any other world leader of his time.'
Hadassah Magazine - Jack Fischel
FDR and the Jews...is not a defense of the president. The authors note that Roosevelt's primary objective, especially during his first term, was economic recovery, not confronting Congress to revise restrictive immigration law. Nevertheless, the American Jewish community trusted him and understood that he was the first president to intervene somewhat on behalf of their oppressed brethren abroad. The authors observe that Roosevelt was neither a savior nor an indifferent bystander, yet his efforts on behalf of the Jews was far greater than those of any other world leader.
Times Literary Supplement - George Bornstein
"FDR and the Jews aims for a balanced view...Roosevelt's actions during the Holocaust make a better showing than most, even if not as good as one might wish.
New Republic - Ira Katznelson
Level-headed yet deeply troubling, FDR and the Jews offers a history of American policy toward overseas Jews before and during World War II...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.
Choice - J. Fischel
[This] work, which includes formerly unpublished primary sources, attempts to present an objective account of FDR and the Holocaust. [Breitman and Lichtman] note that the president was neither savior nor indifferent bystander. Although Roosevelt displayed sympathy for European Jews, his response was often tempered by pragmatic considerations. Nevertheless, the authors conclude that Roosevelt's efforts on behalf of the Jews were far greater than those of any other world leader.
Sunday Times - Dominic Sandbrook
[A] meticulously researched history...As this book reminds us, politics offers not a simple choice between good and evil, but an agonizing choice between competing evils. Who among us can be sure [Roosevelt] chose badly?
Michael Kazin
This splendid book should banish forever the notion that Franklin Roosevelt was a blinkered anti-Semite who made little effort to stop the Holocaust. With dazzling research and astute judgments, Richard Breitman and Allan Lichtman portray FDR as a cunning politician who, in the dreadful context of his times, did more to aid Jews than any other leader in the United States or abroad.
Noah Feldman
One effect of Breitman and Lichtman’s book is that no one who reads it sympathetically can continue to believe that Roosevelt acting alone ‘could have’ simply devoted the efforts of the United States to stopping or seriously mitigating the Holocaust, even if he had known sooner of the Nazis’ plans.
Deborah E. Lipstadt
Anyone who wishes to be part of the conversation about FDR's response to the Holocaust would do well to read Richard Breitman and Allan Lichtman's FDR and the Jews. In a quiet and sober fashion it reexamines what is already known and lays out new and previously unknown information.
Richard Ben-Veniste
A penetrating analysis of the historical record, uncovering new sources and answering haunting questions that still linger after 75 years. A must read!
Library Journal - Audio
This scholarly book examines the question of whether Franklin Delano Roosevelt did enough to save Jews during the Holocaust. Breitman (history, American Univ.; Hitler's Shadow) and Lichtman (history, American Univ.; Predicting the Next President) explore the political and domestic pressures that influenced FDR's action or lack of it. Todd McLaren does a very good job reading the book, using different voices and accents for various characters. A few of the foreign terms are mispronounced, but that does not greatly impact the clarity of the presentation, or the understanding of the text. VERDICT Recommended for all history buffs and patrons interested in U.S. politics, especially FDR's presidency.—Ilka Gordon, Aaron Garber Lib., Cleveland
Kirkus Reviews
A thorough revisiting of the record concludes that Franklin Roosevelt's actions on the "Jewish Question" were mostly too little, too late. American University history professors Breitman (Hitler's Shadow: Nazi War Criminals, U.S. Intelligence, and the Cold War, 2011, etc.) and Lichtman (Predicting the Next President: The Keys to the White House, 2012 Edition, 2012, etc.) pursue several telling currents in FDR's record, namely the president's ability to keep the private separate from the public, his reliance on Jewish leaders and his evolving enlightenment toward Jewish issues as he neared the end of his life. The authors trace "four Roosevelts" who emerged as the conditions of his presidency changed depending on the priorities of economy or war. In his first term, FDR was consumed by domestic pressures to repair the economy, thereby putting political expedience before the pressure to speak out against Nazi virulence or ease immigration restrictions against refugees. The second, more activist Roosevelt emerged after the landslide of 1936, openly backing Jewish settlement in Palestine, encouraging and offering incentives for immigration (to a point), and being the only world leader to recall the ambassador to Germany after the events of Kristallnacht. The third FDR set his focus on the war effort and passed his Lend-Lease program, keeping his work for refugees on the back burner. The last FDR created the War Refugee Board and supported immigration to Palestine despite Britain's obstacles. However, the contradictions abound throughout--e.g., his long-lasting reliance on Jewish advisers like Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, yet failure to either inform the public about Hitler's Final Solution or bomb Auschwitz. A well-organized, accessible study finds FDR "neither a hero of the Jews nor a bystander to the Nazis' persecution and then annihilation of the Jews."

Product Details

Tantor Media, Inc.
Publication date:
Edition description:
Library - Unabridged CD
Product dimensions:
7.00(w) x 7.00(h) x 1.80(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 2: FDR Returns

A partly paralyzed FDR eased back into New York politics by endorsing Al Smith for governor in 1922. Smith had lost his governorship in the Republican landslide of 1920 and faced stiff Democratic opposition from publisher William Randolph Hearst. In a nifty maneuver, FDR also backed for Senator Dr. Royal S. Copeland the author of a medical column for the Hearst newspaper syndicate. Both Smith and Copeland won the Democratic nomination and the general election. Still, Hearst never quite forgave Roosevelt for backing Smith.

In the midterm elections of 1922, the Democratic Party gained an extraordinary 74 House and 6 Senate seats, coming close to recapturing control of Congress. Then in 1923, the “Teapot Dome” scandal exposed high officials in the Harding administration as profiting from the illegal sale or use of government property, including federal oil reserves at Elk Hill, California and Teapot Dome, Wyoming. After Harding’s death in August 1923, the untainted Vice President Calvin Coolidge stepped in as a surprisingly popular president at a time of peace and prosperity. Republican confidence rose and Democratic prospects for 1924 plummeted.

As the capstone of his abbreviated term, Coolidge and the Republican Congress culminated efforts to restrict immigration. In 1924, Congress limited permanently European immigration to nationality quotas of two percent, based on the census of 1890. Jewish leaders protested discrimination against U.S. citizens who had arrived since 1890, but they also endorsed restrictions based on the mental and physical fitness, moral character, and political ideology. “My associates and I are very vigorously opposed to unrestricted immigration,” prominent social worker and fundraiser Jacob Billikopf testified before the U.S. House of Representatives. He said, “We are opposed to the type of immigrant whose physique and mentality are impaired; to the immigrant with criminalistic tendencies; to any man or woman who comes with ideas and ideals which are not in harmony with the ideals governing our own country.” In their testimony, Jewish leaders avoided identifying Jews as a distinct race. Jews, they said, belonged to the “white race,” unlike unassimilable non-white Asiastics, who were not eligible for naturalized American citizenship.

Meet the Author

Richard Breitman is Distinguished Professor in the Department of History at American University.

Allan J. Lichtman is Distinguished Professor in the Department of History at American University.

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FDR and the Jews 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
BobbyboyNJ More than 1 year ago
Having read "Those Angry Years," by Lynne Olson this book details many more of the actions and issues that were occurring prior to WWII and during the war. The fine lines of diplomacy as well as the antisemitism still stings when you think of the horrible toll that transpired. I continue to hope that lessons were learned by all.
chloesmomst More than 1 year ago
I found this book to be too long and tedious to read. After reading the book, I did feel FDR was not antisemitic. But I felt just as strong that he did not do enough, soon enough for the Jews during WWII. In fact, as I read this book, I felt angry reading how politics, oil and re-election was then and now more important than human life.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago