Why FDR Decided to Rescue Jews from the Holocaust in 1944

As mentioned in my last blog post, President Franklin Roosevelt showed little interest in the fate of Europe’s Jews until January 16, 1944. On that date he had a meeting with officials from the Treasury Department, including Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr. and a man in his thirties named John Pehle. These men presented to FDR a report which detailed the State Department’s attempts to “stop the obtaining of information concerning the murder of the Jewish people of Europe.” The report revealed that State Department officials blocked cables about Nazi atrocities that reliable informants tried to send to the U.S.

 

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Henry Morgenthau, Jr. 1944

Fortunately for Morgenthau and Pehle, FDR was receptive to a report of State Department wrongdoing. A major reason for this was the recent testimony of Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long. The House of Representatives was debating whether to ask FDR for a refugee rescue agency that would be separate from the State Department. Congress held private hearings with witnesses testifying for and against the new agency.

Breckinridge Long testified that another agency was not needed because “we have taken into this country, since the beginning of the Hitler regime and the persecution of the Jews, until today, approximately 580,000 refugees.” Most members of the House initially believed Long’s story. Then Long made a mistake by allowing his testimony to be published. A few news outlets and Jewish organizations pointed out the inconsistencies in Long’s statement. According to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the number of Jews who came in under national quotas between January 1, 1933 and June 30, 1943 totaled only 166,843–far from Long’s claim of 580,000.

The press made Long a laughingstock, and members of Congress who supported the new agency were more determined than ever. The Senate planned to put the rescue agency to a vote, and polls showed it would pass.

FDR hated the idea of a scandal, especially in an election year like 1944. Long’s false testimony and the Treasury Department’s report on State Department duplicity were enough to convince FDR to create the War Refugee Board. He made his decision in his twenty minute meeting with Henry Morgenthau and John Pehle.

Why FDR Showed Indifference to Jews during the Holocaust

Before President Franklin Roosevelt created the War Refugee Board in January 1944, he showed little interest in the plight of Europe’s Jews. His indifference wasn’t caused by a lack of information. FDR had read reports that revealed the Nazi plan to exterminate the Jews. He also met with Jan Karski, a Polish underground leader, who witnessed the gassing of Jews in a concentration camp. Since he knew what was going on, why did FDR fail to act on proposals to rescue the Jews until 1944?

One problem was FDR’s personal opinion of European immigrants. In his April 23, 1925 column for the Macon Daily Telegraph, FDR wrote that immigration to the U.S. should be restricted to those who had “blood of the right sort.” FDR happily upheld the strict immigration quotas he inherited from previous presidents and even left quota slots unfilled. More than 190,000 additional immigrants from Germany and other Axis countries could have entered the U.S. between 1933 and 1945, without the quotas being exceeded.

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Official Presidential Portrait of FDR

The president’s callous attitude toward immigrants influenced his choice for Assistant Secretary of State, the chief government official in charge of refugee matters. FDR appointed his friend Breckinridge Long to the job. Long had no intention of relaxing the strict immigration laws. On October 3, 1940, Long wrote in his diary “I left him [FDR] with the satisfactory thought that he was wholeheartedly in support of the policy which would resolve in favor of the United States any doubts about the admissibility of any individual.” FDR generally left State department officials in charge of refugee and immigration issues. He knew his desire to limit immigration would be taken care of by Long.

Anti-Semitic feeling among American voters influenced politicians including FDR. Public opinion polls taken during World War II showed one-third of the American public was anti-Semitic. When voters show little sympathy for a group of people, elected officials have little incentive to act.

Yet not all politicians were as insensitive as FDR to the European Jews. For example, some members of Congress drafted the Wagner-Rogers bill. If passed, the bill would have allowed 20,000 Jewish children to enter the U.S. outside the immigration quota. Even though the children were supposed to return to Europe after the war, many members of Congress and the public opposed the bill. The president’s cousin, Laura Delano, commented that “twenty-thousand charming children would all too soon grow into 20,000 ugly adults.” When the bill crossed his desk, FDR wrote “no action” on it.

In my next post, I’ll discuss why FDR changed his mind and created the War Refugee Board in January 1944.

Source: Passionate Crusaders: How Members of the U.S. War Refugee Board Saved Jews and Altered American Foreign Policy during World War II by Heather Voight

Why it Matters that Donald Trump did not Mention Jews on Holocaust Remembrance Day

Fact: Donald Trump failed to mention Jews in his statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Question: does his failure to mention Jews make a difference?

In an opinion piece, The Jewish Journal says that since Mr. Trump asked a descendent of Holocaust survivors to write the statement, it must be acceptable. It is possible that the original draft might have mentioned Jews and Mr. Trump simply decided not include them in the final statement. Yet historically what presidents say, or fail to say, does have consequences.

For example, in the 1940s some of FDR’s staff members urged him to make statements emphasizing the importance of rescuing Jews, but he would either have those words buried in a later paragraph of his speech or chose not to use them at all. FDR’s prevarications ensured that the rescue of Jews would not be a priority.

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Entrance to Auschwitz Concentration Camp Photographer: Jochen Zimmerman

Even when nearly all the Jews had been murdered, FDR preferred to use the term “victims of enemy oppression” rather than refer to Jews specifically when he created the War Refugee Board, an agency that was designed to help victims of the Holocaust from 1944-1945. Most of the victims, though certainly not all, were Jews.

The Jewish Journal suggests that Mr. Trump deserves an apology from his critics. After all, he is not Jewish, so how could he be expected to know that more Jews died in the Holocaust than any other group, or that the Nazis employed “unprecedented resources” to “identify and annihilate the Jews?” Well, I am not Jewish, and yet I know these facts.

I might be more willing to give Mr. Trump the benefit of the doubt if he had shown any love or tolerance for any other group of people than rich white men during his campaign and thus far, his presidency. Yet he fails to denounce the Ku Klux Klan and threatens to create a Muslim registry. These are not hopeful signs. Should Mr. Trump change course, however, I would be happy to acknowledge it.

Sources:

Statement by the President on International Holocaust Remembrance Day January 27, 2017.

https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/01/27/statement-president-international-holocaust-remembrance-day

#Never again by Jonathan Greenblatt CEO of the Anti-Defamation League January 29, 2017.

HTTP://blog.ADL.org/Greenblatt/neveragain

Back story behind the Holocaust statement proves Trump’s a mensch. By Rabbi Dov Fischer, Jewish Journal opinion, January 31, 2017.

http://jewishjournal.com/opinion/214118/back-story-behind-Holocaust-statement-proves-trumps-mensch/

 

“We Like Ike”: The Presidency of Dwight Eisenhower

Dwight Eisenhower already had his famous nickname while growing up in Kanas. “Little Ike” also had such a temper that he once beat his fists against a tree until he started bleeding. His mother bandaged up his hands and tried to teach him to control his temper. Ike took the lesson to heart. Throughout his life Ike would reign in his emotions because he wanted people to like him.

He did not, however, share his mother’s pacifist views. The only time Ike remembered making his mother cry was when he left for West Point. After World War II, General Eisenhower returned home as a hero. Ike’s popularity was so great that both political parties wanted him to be their candidate for president. Ike didn’t want to declare his politics right away. By 1952, Eisenhower felt disenchanted with the policies of President Truman and agreed to run as a Republican.

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Official Portrait of Dwight Eisenhower

Unlike other presidential candidates, Eisenhower was not an intellectual. The only books he enjoyed were western novels. Instead of great speeches, Eisenhower preferred to use sayings such as “Everybody ought to be happy every day. Play hard, have fun doing it, and despise wickedness.” A war-weary public found his simple style appealing.

Eisenhower won the election by promising to end the Korean war. He even vowed to go there himself. Though he did end the fighting, he did so by stepping up aerial bombardment of North Korea and threatening to use the atomic bomb. Whether he would have used the bomb is questionable, but Eisenhower’s tough talk led to a peace agreement. From that point on Eisenhower liked to say he was “waging peace” by keeping America out of foreign wars.

The supposedly peace loving president allowed America to stockpile nuclear weapons, however. He also secretly authorized spying on Russian nuclear missile sites. Meanwhile, he invited Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to a summit that would have limited nuclear testing. During the summit, an American spy plane was shot down by the Soviets. Eisenhower had to admit that he knew about the spy mission. An angry Khrushchev left the peace summit. No agreement on nuclear testing was reached.

Eisenhower’s administration has been criticized for failing to respond to domestic issues, especially civil rights. During his presidency the Supreme Court decided that public schools should be desegregated. Eisenhower didn’t believe that a law would change the hearts of Southern whites. When nine African American students tried to integrate a white high school in Little Rock Arkansas, a white mob threatened the students’ safety. Despite his disagreement with the Supreme Court, Eisenhower sent in the National Guard to protect the students.

Although Eisenhower believed in saving money, he also believed in many of the FDR’s programs. Eisenhower expanded the number of people eligible for Social Security and left labor laws in place. He also added a project of his own. The Federal Highway Act of 1956 pledged federal funds would be used to build interstate highways. The highways insured that the automobile became the primary means of travel for Americans instead of trains.

 

Heather Voight Talks about her Book Passionate Crusaders: How Members of the U.S. War Refugee Board Saved Jews and Altered American Foreign Policy during World War II on Back Porch Writer Podcast

Heather Voight on Back Porch Writer podcast. I talk about my history book and the process of writing it. http://www.blogtalkradio.com/backporchwriter/2015/09/15/author-heather-voight-joins-kori-on-the-back-porch

Passionate Crusaders Cover LARGE EBOOK

My History Book FREE on Amazon Kindle

To my readers: My book, Passionate Crusaders: How Members of the US war Refugee Board Saved Jews and Altered American Foreign Policy during World War II, will be FREE from Thurs. April 9 through Saturday April 11 here:

http://amzn.to/1GDI2qq on Amazon Kindle. If you don’t have a Kindle but know someone who likes free books, spread the word! Thanks.

My History Book FREE on Amazon Kindle this Sunday

To my readers: My book, Passionate Crusaders: How Members of the US war Refugee Board Saved Jews and Altered American Foreign Policy during World War II, will be FREE Sunday, March 29 here:

http://amzn.to/1GDI2qq on Amazon Kindle. If you don’t have a Kindle but know someone who likes free books, spread the word! Thanks.

Surprising Facts about US Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt, 1918

Theodore Roosevelt, 1918

As a young boy, Theodore Roosevelt often struggled to breathe at night because of his asthma. Although modern doctors would be appalled, Roosevelt’s doctors suggested that the boy smoke cigars to improve his symptoms.

The family thought Roosevelt’s brother, Elliot, later father of Eleanor Roosevelt, was most likely to succeed. Elliot struggled with alcoholism, however. Theodore soon outpaced his brother both physically and mentally. He was a voracious reader and would read almost anywhere about almost any subject. Even as president he snuck a few minutes between appointments to read nature books.

While in office he expanded the authority of the president. Roosevelt believed that the president could do whatever the law didn’t specifically prohibit him from doing.

Roosevelt engaged in a number of presidential firsts. He was the first president to understand and use the press to gain public support for his programs. In fact, Roosevelt enjoyed talking with the press so much that he spoke to a reporter during his morning shave. Roosevelt was also the first president to invite an African American (Booker T. Washington), to dinner at the White House.

Although he enjoyed being president, Roosevelt was disappointed to preside over the country in a time of peace. He believed that he could not be a great president without steering the nation through a great crisis.

Franklin Roosevelt

Froosevelt

FDR’s Official Presidential Portrait

Though he was a Democrat and his distant cousin Theodore a Republican, Franklin always admired Theodore. Theodore gave his cousin Franklin his blessing on more than one occasion. He supported Franklin’s marriage to his niece, Eleanor. He also supported Franklin’s desire to become a politician. After Theodore’s death, animosity grew between the two branches of the Roosevelt family. Theodore’s sons saw themselves as the natural heirs to their father’s success, but none of them came close to Franklin’s political achievements.

After a series of political appointments, FDR was diagnosed with polio. In 2003, scientists called that diagnosis into question. They suggested that FDR might not have had polio, but Guillain-Barre syndrome, an aggressive form of neuropathy. Regardless of the medical cause, FDR’s paralysis made him terrified that he might become trapped in a fire. His home at Springwood near Hyde Park, NY has an elevator that FDR could operate by pulling ropes in case the electricity failed.

Like his cousin Theodore, FDR had a good relationship with the press as president. As a result, he was rarely photographed in his wheelchair. While trying to get the nation out of the Great Depression, he created a variety of government programs that became well-known. There was almost nothing FDR would not try in order to stimulate the economy. For example, he tried to move the Thanksgiving holiday backwards so that consumers would have more shopping days before Christmas.

President Franklin Roosevelt and Few Civil Rights for African Americans

Despite the efforts of his wife Eleanor and African American leaders, President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration made little progress on civil rights.

New Deal programs discriminated against blacks. For example, under the Works Progress Administration, blacks received less pay than whites for the same work. This was especially true in the South. The discrimination was somewhat eased by the intervention of Eleanor Roosevelt, who personally viewed the struggles of blacks during visits to WPA projects. She wrote, “It is all wrong to discriminate between white and black men!”

FDR agreed to sign an executive order barring discrimination in the WPA. One million black families benefited from WPA wages. However, discrimination in other parts of the New Deal persisted. The Federal Housing Authority refused to help blacks trying to buy houses in white neighborhoods. The National Recovery Administration persisted in paying black workers less than whites. Even the Social Security Act excluded the menial jobs that most blacks held.

Applicants waiting for jobs in front of Federal Emergency Relief Administration office

Applicants waiting for jobs in front of Federal Emergency Relief Administration office, 1935

For black leaders, however, the most frustrating issue was FDR’s stance on the anti-lynching bill introduced in Congress in early 1934. Although twenty-six African Americans were killed by mobs the year before, FDR took no stance whatsoever on the bill. The Amsterdam News commented on FDR’s lack of support for the bill using the headline “Here’s Mr. Roosevelt’s Message on Lynching.” The article contained one sentence, “In his annual message to Congress last Friday President Roosevelt had the following to say about lynching:” That sentence was followed by a large blank space.

FDR tried to explain to African American leaders why he could not back the bill. He told NAACP Executive Secretary Walter White, “I did not choose the tools with which I must work.” In order get votes for New Deal programs, FDR felt he couldn’t antagonize Southern Democrats by supporting a bill they found offensive. He told critics “you have to wait, even for the best of things, until the right time comes.” Apparently FDR never thought there was a right time to support an anti-lynching bill. Although members of Congress proposed other anti-lynching bills during his long presidency, he never backed them.

In contrast to her husband, Eleanor publicly backed the anti-lynching campaign. When Walter White asked her to attend a NAACP art exhibit called “A Commentary on Lynching,” Eleanor lent her support. Interestingly, FDR did not attempt to stop his wife’s actions. Perhaps FDR agreed with her privately, but Eleanor’s actions also encouraged to blacks to switch their allegiance from the Republican party of Abraham Lincoln to FDR and the Democrats. Ever the politician, FDR was likely happy to have his wife express her feelings to get the African American vote while he placated Southern voters by saying nothing.

Sources:

The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project at George Washington University

The Roosevelts: An Intimate History by Geoffrey Ward and Ken Burns

No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin