Prelude to Catastrophe: FDR's Jews and the Menance of Nazism


Franklin Roosevelt was the first great hero of American Jews. FDR's promise of economic and social justice was consonant with the mainstays of Jewish culture and with the ethos of the Old Testament and the prophets. And of course these themes were especially resonant during the desperate days of the Great Depression.

The Jews who so deeply admired Roosevelt made up the richest, most influential Jewish community in the world, leaders in government, commerce, and the arts. Yet by ...

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Prelude to Catastrophe: FDR's Jews and the Menace of Nazism

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Franklin Roosevelt was the first great hero of American Jews. FDR's promise of economic and social justice was consonant with the mainstays of Jewish culture and with the ethos of the Old Testament and the prophets. And of course these themes were especially resonant during the desperate days of the Great Depression.

The Jews who so deeply admired Roosevelt made up the richest, most influential Jewish community in the world, leaders in government, commerce, and the arts. Yet by the time Franklin Roosevelt died in office, six million European Jews had been murdered by the Nazis while neither FDR nor American Jews lifted much more than a finger to help them. How did the president, the nation he led, and American Jewry allow this to happen? There is no simple answer, but Robert Shogan seeks a partial explanation by examining the behavior of a handful of Jews, so close to Roosevelt and supposedly so influential that they could be considered "the president's Jews."

Most prestigious was Supreme Court justice Louis D. Brandeis. Next was Felix Frankfurter, Harvard law professor and later Supreme Court justice. Sam Rosenman, FDR's chief speechwriter from the time he was governor of New York. Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau was an old Dutchess County neighbor of Roosevelt's. Benjamin V. Cohen crafted the major financial reforms of the early New Deal. Their actions, and often inaction, illuminate the strengths and limits of interest-group politics, the system invented by FDR that dominated American politics for the remainder of the century. Taken broadly, the response of the president's Jews to the Nazi threat illustrates with heartbreaking intensity the dilemma of politics—the conflict between conscience and self-interest, between principle and expediency. With 8 pages of black-and-white photographs.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
FDR may have ended the depression and defeated fascists, but historians agree that his administration failed Europe's Jews. Shogan gives old questions a new spin by examining the actions of five men he calls "FDR's Jews": Supreme Court Justices Frankfurter and Brandeis, speechwriter Rosenman, Treasury Secretary Morgenthau, New Deal lawyer Cohen, and Rabbi Wise, leader of the World Jewish Congress. Shogan concludes that their Judaism kept them from pressing their patron too hard, particularly on issues that seemed too specifically Jewish. Given the times (the New Deal, as Shogan reports, was called by some the "Jew Deal") their caution is understandable, but Shogan doesn't analyze so much as recreate. These men aren't FDR's aides, allies, or appointees. With this problematic calculus, Shogan can imply a special responsibility for their failure to save Europe's Jews. This tone deaf quality permeates the book to the end, when he unearths President Truman's Jew, David Niles. The author congratulates him for his efforts on behalf of an Israeli state without mentioning how American attitudes had changed once the full scale of the Nazi extermination policy became known.
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
Kansas City Star
Shogan focuses on the few powerful Jews in President Franklin Roosevelt’s circle of advisers. . . . If Shogan’s Prelude to Catastrophe is the story of a few powerful Jewish men, it is also a lesson in the actual limits of Jewish influence in American life.
American Jewry will never cease to be haunted by the question: Could we have done more to rescue the victims of the Nazi Holocaust? It’s a question that has gained new resonance in our time, as the rulers of Iran race to complete a nuclear weapon. And it’s the question that occupies center place in a new book by the veteran reporter Robert Shogan. Prelude to Catastrophe offers a series of profiles of Jews who held positions of special political influence during the administration of President Franklin Roosevelt.
Jewish Book World
To the Jewish community of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a hero. He was seen by the Jews as their modern day Moses. For the first time in modern political history Jews were given a respectful seat in the world of politics—FDR even gave them a seat around his table. He was a rarity, the first president of the United States to allow Jews access to the inner sanctum of the White House. During the war FDR's privileged Jews were involved in a constant struggle to understand whether they were to pursue a Jewish or an American agenda. They knew how dangerous it was to split their allegiance. But they also knew full well that the Jews of Europe were being murdered and that the United States was doing nothing to stop the genocide. What should the president of the United States be asked to do? The Jews were caught in a cult of gratitude. Almost everyone was silent on the issue. FDR's go-to rabbi was Steven Wise, a close friend. FDR's chief speechwriter was Samuel Rosenman, who had been his speechwriter since Roosevelt was governor of New York. The author of the all-important New Deal was Benjamin V. Cohen. Henry Morgenthau was an old time neighbor of the Roosevelt family and as Secretary of the Treasury he became the first Jewish cabinet member. The only person who really pushed the president and even then only by writing a report—never face to face—was Henry Morgenthau. The Special Report to the President on the Murder of the Jews of Europe, written by Morgenthau's assistants, did, however, stimulate the creation of the Bermuda Conference and the War Refugee Board. But it was too little and too late to save most of the European Jews. The rest, as they say, is history.
Benjamin Ginsberg
With close ties to FDR, a number of Jews seemed to exercise considerable influence in the United States during the New Deal era. The president's Jews, however, were largely silent as Hitler murdered more than 6 million of their European brethren. In this troubling and compelling book, Shogan shows how the silence of good men, indeed, helped evil to triumph.
Alonzo L. Hamby
Emphasizing political opportunism, evasion, and denial, Shogan examines the efforts of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his most important advisers to come to grips with the lethal anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany. His biographical assessments, some of which may appear etched in acid, will add to the continuing conflict over whether the President and those around him could have prevented the Holocaust or at least saved multitudes from its genocidal fury.
The Jewish Star
Recently, a new book directs its scholarly attention exclusively to those Jews who, in effect, served as an informal Judenrat for the Roosevelt administration when it came to the fate of European Jewry. In these 285 pages, Shogan turns his pen on those prominent Jews who came together, both formerly and informally, to represent FDR’s political interests within the American Jewish community. Additionally, these same Jews falsely represented American Jewry’s interests within the halls of power in Washington.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781566638319
  • Publisher: Dee, Ivan R. Publisher
  • Publication date: 9/16/2010
  • Pages: 312
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert Shogan, a former prizewinning national political correspondent for Newsweek and the Los Angeles Times, has also written No Sense of Decency; Backlash: The Killing of the New Deal; Bad News: Where the Press Goes Wrong in the Making of the President; and several other highly praised books in American history. He now teaches in the Washington Center of Johns Hopkins University and lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
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Table of Contents


I Quandary in the Golden Land 3

II The Hidden-Hand Skipper 32

III The Passive Prophet 58

IV The Soul of Discretion 85

V The Troubleshooter 113

VI Bundles for Britain 141

VII The President's Rabbi 166

VIII One of Two of a Kind 195

IX The Mystery Man 219

Acknowledgments 243

Notes 245

Bibliography 261

Index 271

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