President Franklin D. Roosevelt could have saved many Jews from the Holocaust without interrupting America’s war effort. The notion that there was a contradiction between rescuing Jews and fighting the Nazis was an excuse that the Roosevelt administration made at the time — and which, surprisingly, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum seems to be echoing today, according to the June 7 feature in the Detroit Jewish News.
The DJN article, describing the museum’s new exhibit on “Americans and the Holocaust,” quoted curator Daniel Greene asking, “Why didn’t the rescue of Jews become a priority?” The exhibit argues that “a major reason was that President Roosevelt’s clear aim in the war was defeating Hitler, a goal disassociated from the tragedy befalling the Jews.”
But there was no conflict between rescue and victory. There were numerous steps the administration could have taken that would not have interfered with the war effort. For example, thousands of U.S. cargo vessels, known as Liberty ships, brought supplies to Allied forces in Europe and North Africa, but when they were ready to return to the U.S., they were too light to sail and had to be weighed down with ballast (rocks and chunks of concrete). Jewish refugees could have served the same purpose.
President Roosevelt could have permitted the existing immigration quotas to be filled. In FDR’s 12 years in office, the German quota was filled just once and, in most of those years, it was less 25 percent filled. More than 190,000 quota places from Germany and Axis-occupied countries went unused. Allowing them to be filled would not have involved changing laws or igniting public controversy.
Perhaps the most famous example of what the U.S. could have done was to bomb Auschwitz or the railways and bridges over which Jews were deported. The DJN article noted that in response to requests to carry out such bombings in 1944, a Roosevelt administration official said that “the government’s priority was the earliest possible victory over Germany; incapacitating the extermination camps wouldn’t advance that goal.”
In fact, bombing the railways and bridges would have assisted the war effort because some of those routes were used by the Germans for military purposes as well. Moreover, U.S. planes were already bombing German oil factories (which were considered important military targets) that were located within the Auschwitz complex, fewer than 5 miles from the gas chambers. For those planes to have dropped a few bombs on the gas chambers and crematoria would not have delayed victory over the Nazis.
Even if such bombings would have only slowed down the pace of the mass-murder process, that would have been significant. At its peak, 12,000 Jews were being gassed in Auschwitz every day. Any interruption would have saved lives.
The DJN article continued: “Greene says he understands Roosevelt’s position” — a rather disturbing choice of words — because “throughout the war years, polls consistently showed that a huge majority of Americans disapproved of the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews — but nearly three-quarters of them were not willing to accept more refugees.”
But polls do not decide U.S. government policy; the president does. The American consular officials in Germany who took steps to suppress Jewish refugee immigration far below the amount allowed by law were not rogue agents who were conducting their own policies, nor were they acting in accordance with public opinion polls; they were implementing the policy of the president.
The “public sentiment” excuse also fails to address the fact that the governor and legislative assembly of the U.S. Virgin Islands offered, in 1938, to open their doors to Jewish refugees, a plan seconded by Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. It was not the public that blocked that proposal; it was FDR.
In any event, public attitudes toward admitting Jewish refugees were not static. By the spring of 1944 — once the tide of the war had turned and once Americans learned more about the mass killings — there was a significant shift in public opinion. An April 1944 Gallup poll — commissioned by the White House itself — found 70 percent of Americans supported giving “temporary protection and refuge” in the U.S. to “those people in Europe who have been persecuted by the Nazis.”
That poll was taken more than a year before the end of the war. It was late, but it was not too late, to rescue a significant number of Jewish refugees — with ample public support — if only President Roosevelt had shown an interest in doing so. Sadly, he agreed to grant temporary haven to just one token group of 982 refugees.
Making excuses for FDR’s abandonment of the Jews should not be part of the mission of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Dr. Rafael Medoff is founding director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and author or editor of 19 books about Jewish history and the Holocaust, the latest of which is Too Little, and Almost Too Late: The War Refugee Board and America’s Response to the Holocaust.