FDR – Friend of the Jews?

Shalom. Doing a two parter on the worrisome rise of anti-semitism abroad and the more subtle ways we are feeling it here in America. Part one is very specific and follows my completion of Robert Dallek’s lengthy “Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life.” Dallek is no Ron Chernow – I could put this one down for days without missing it – but still a worthy historian with a most worthy subject.

FDR was definitely one of the great American presidents, a shoo-in for Mt. Rushmore had construction not ended in 1941. One of the three greatest most would say. He brought us out of the Great Depression, his New Deal reforms were a giant step in humanizing the American industrial system and ensuring a minimal standard of living for all Americans, and he saved the free world by dragging us into WWII which would likely have been lost to Hitler without U.S. involvement. Reread that last statement. Remember that isolationism ruled our land after WWI, and it took all of Roosevelt’s political skills (and Pearl Harbor) to convince the American people that we couldn’t sit idly by as fascism and Nazism threatened the world. He also had to deal with Stalin, and with his own declining health.

What about FDR and the Jews? He wasn’t an anti-semite by my standards, but if he didn’t do anywhere near enough to try to save the six million who were being gassed and incinerated on his watch, just what was he?

Dallek writes this part of the story in a mostly forgiving way. Roosevelt wanted to help, Eleanor even more, but there were too many obstacles: Breckinridge Long who determined who got visas, the Congress with which he had too many other battles to fight, the German American population that was fully 30% of the U.S. population and didn’t love Jews, the uncertainty about bombing the tracks to Auschwitz (which the Germans might have circumvented so great seemed their desire to kill Jews.) The book has much detail on this. FDR insisted that military victory would be the only way rescue could take place. Unfortunately, millions died before the victory was achieved.

Telling is Dallek’s Epilogue. “Seventy-two years after Franklin Roosevelt passed away in the thirteenth year of his presidency, his reputation as a great president is secure… The amazing story of a man so severely handicapped by polio who overcame his disability to take on the arduous tasks of running for president four times and mobilizing the country to struggle through the Depression and war is a saga that has become the stuff of legend.” But, adds Dallek, “it was inevitable that a president who won four elections would become the subject of retrospective criticism.” Three areas of criticism persist: his failure to support antilynching laws for fear of losing southern support for the New Deal, his interment of 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry, and his timid response to the Holocaust. Says Dallek, “No issue in Roosevelt’s legacy remains as contested as his response to the Holocaust…” That is true to this day. Those who argue that FDR did “everything possible” are contradicted by Eleanor’s assertion that nobody did all they could have. Did Arthur Schlesinger have it right: “Silence. Denial. Complicity?”

So, do we Jews think less of FDR? Was he a great president regardless? Things to ponder. Best, Bill Rudolph

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