“I never let my right hand know what my left hand does,” Franklin Delano Roosevelt once boasted. Thanks to the dearth of diaries and private papers, several generations of FDR scholars have had to rely on the testimony of administration officials to learn what exactly he held in either hand. In no other category has the president’s improvisatory approach to public policy affected his reputation than his posture towards the Jews; his habits, according to Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman’s FDR and the Jews, “did not make it easy for later generations to sort out his calculation of trade-offs on Jewish issues.” Some of the most serious charges include keeping the St. Louis and its cargo of European Jewish refugees adrift in the Caribbean and rescinding plans to bomb railroad lines to Auschwitz in 1944 and 1945. The Batista regime in Cuba, the authors counter, bore the responsibility by reneging on agreements (and bribes); one of the Roosevelt administration’s ad-hoc executive boards persuaded Belgium, France, Britain, and Holland to accept the refugees. Of the 620, 365 survived the war. Hollywood would immortalize the trauma in Voyage of the Damned, in which Faye Dunaway and an adrift supporting cast crunched on lines through chiffon, veils, and pancake makeup. As for Auschwitz, the authors claim that FDR never approved battle plans — they shift the blame to Secretary of war Henry Stimson, a public servant in the Elihu Root school (he deserves a new biography) and an anti-Semite of the old patrician school.
In addition, Breitman and Lichtman argue that FDR “reacted more decisively” to the Nazi threat against Jews than any other world leader, including Winston Churchill. His own State Department, chaired by vacillating Southern Democrat Cordell Hull, did him no favors; Assistant Secretary of State, Breckinridge Long, an anti-Semite and enemy of radicals, fought every attempt to expand refugee quotas. For a while the public agreed. The authors note a 1939 poll showing nearly half of Americans agreeing that Jews had too much influence in the country. A proposal to provide sanctuary for European Jews in South American countries met the resistance of leaders who had no use for “traders” and “intellectuals.” FDR did not flinch from denouncing Nazi atrocities, even as he mitigated the specific threat to Jews by castigating Nazi as a threat to all civilization. Credit goes to Henry Morgenthau, a Roosevelt crony and secretary of treasury whose post-war plan to devolve Germany into an agricultural Silver Age state the president dismissed. American Jews, which formed an essential component of FDR’s coalition, may have been frustrated by the tortoise steps but they never abandoned the president: the majorities by which they reelected Roosevelt are staggering.