In early 1943, at the height of the Holocaust, a prominent journalist denounced President Franklin Roosevelt’s response to the Nazi genocide in harsh terms: “You and I and the President and the Congress and the State Department are accessories to the crime and share Hitler’s guilt,” she wrote. “If we had behaved like humane and generous people instead of complacent, cowardly ones, the two million Jews lying today in the earth of Poland and Hitler’s other crowded graveyards would be alive and safe…. We had it in our power to rescue this doomed people and we did not lift a hand to do it—or perhaps it would be fairer to say that we lifted just one cautious hand, encased in a tight-fitting glove of quotas and visas and affidavits, and a thick layer of prejudice.”
This stunning critique of FDR’s Jewish refugee policy was written by none other than Freda Kirchwey, staunch New Dealer, Roosevelt supporter and editor in chief of The Nation. Evidently journalist Laurence Zuckerman was not aware of the Holocaust record of the magazine for which he was writing when he wrote “FDR’s Jewish Problem” [Aug. 5/12]. It completely refutes Zuckerman’s thesis that criticism of FDR’s Holocaust record is all the handiwork of conservatives and right-wing Zionists to drum up support for Israel.
The Nation spoke out early and vociferously for US action to rescue Europe’s Jews. After the 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom, it called for admission to the United States of at least 15,000 German Jewish refugee children. (The administration declined to endorse the proposal.) The Roosevelt administration’s refugee policy “is one which must sicken any person of ordinarily humane instinct,” Kirchwey wrote in 1940. “It is as if we were to examine laboriously the curriculum vitae of flood victims clinging to a piece of floating wreckage and finally to decide that no matter what their virtues, all but a few had better be allowed to drown.”
In 1941, FDR’s administration devised a harsh new immigration regulation that barred admission to anyone with close relatives in Europe, on the grounds that the Nazis might compel them to spy for Hitler by threatening their relatives. The Nation denounced that as “reckless and ridiculous.”
Numerous prominent progressives have followed in The Nation’s and Kirchwey’s footsteps by frankly acknowledging FDR’s failings in this regard. Walter Mondale called President Roosevelt’s 1938 refugee conference in Evian, France, a “legacy of shame” and said the participants “failed the test of civilization.” At the opening of the US Holocaust Museum in 1993, President Clinton pointed out that under the Roosevelt administration, “doors to liberty were shut and…rail lines to the camps within miles of militarily significant targets were left undisturbed.”
Nancy Pelosi, in her autobiography, recalled with pride how her father, Congressman Thomas D’Alesandro, broke with FDR over the Holocaust and supported the Bergson Group, which challenged FDR’s refugee policy. George McGovern, in a 2004 interview about the missions he flew near Auschwitz as a young bomber pilot, said: “Franklin Roosevelt was a great man and he was my political hero. But I think he made two great mistakes”: the internment of Japanese-Americans, and the decision “not to go after Auschwitz…. God forgive us…. There was a pretty good chance we could have blasted those rail lines off the face of the earth [and] interrupted the flow of people to those death chambers, and we had a pretty good chance of knocking out those gas ovens.”
Progressives have a long and admirable record of honestly acknowledging FDR’s failings alongside his achievements. Roosevelt’s response to the Holocaust is no more defensible than his internment of Japanese-Americans or his troubling record on the rights of African-Americans. Recognizing that fact does not endanger the legacy of the New Deal or diminish FDR’s accomplishments in bringing America out of the Depression or his leadership in World War II. It merely acknowledges his flaws as well.
RAFAEL MEDOFF, founding director,
The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies