The most important person in the story of America’s response to the Holocaust, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was not mentioned even once in coverage of the new “Americans and the Holocaust” exhibit at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. But perhaps that’s not surprising, since Roosevelt is reduced to such a minor figure in the exhibit itself.
The exhibit blames the Roosevelt administration’s failure to aid European Jewry on public opinion, former President Herbert Hoover and a few bad guys in the State Department — but never the president. Most Americans recall FDR as a strong, decisive leader, but in the Holocaust Museum’s new exhibit, he becomes the Incredible Disappearing President.
When the exhibit does mention Roosevelt, it is to excuse and minimize his responsibility for own policies. For example, the exhibit defends FDR’s refusal, from 1933 to 1938, to publicly criticize Hitler’s persecution of the Jews. A text panel claims that “the accepted rules of international diplomacy obliged them to respect Germany’s right to govern its own citizens and not intervene on behalf of those being targeted.”
Obliged to respect Hitler’s brutality? Presidents Van Buren, Buchanan and Grant protested the mistreatment of Jews in Syria, Switzerland and Romania, respectively. President Theodore Roosevelt protested the persecution of Jews in Romania. The U.S. government, under President William Taft, canceled a Russo-American treaty to protest Russia’s oppression of Jews. President Woodrow Wilson inserted clauses protecting minorities in the Paris Peace Conference agreements. There was ample precedent for Franklin Roosevelt to speak out; he chose not to.
On the crucial issue of Roosevelt’s immigration policy, the exhibit omits important information. The exhibit does not mention that clergy (rabbis), professors and students could have been admitted — within the existing law — with no numerical limit. Nor is there any mention of FDR’s rejection of the proposals that were made to admit refugees temporarily to U.S. territories such as Alaska or the Virgin Islands.
Of course, acknowledging those options would have conflicted with the exhibit’s theme of a weak, hapless Roosevelt who had no choice but to follow public opinion — an FDR who was a prisoner of the immigration policies initiated by the Hoover administration. The exhibit simply ignores the numerous extra requirements and burdens which the Roosevelt administration itself imposed upon visa applicants.
In a particularly egregious misstatement, the exhibit claims that “most [German Jews] did not have enough money to qualify for immigration” to the United States. Presumably that gets Roosevelt off the hook for the low level of German Jewish immigration.
But in fact, nothing in U.S. law required a visa applicant to possess a specific sum of money. There was no monetary threshold for immigrants. Individual U.S. consuls in Germany decided whether they thought an applicant had sufficient means — or American relatives — to support them. And the consuls made those decisions in accordance with the president’s overall policy of suppressing refugee immigration below the limits allowed by law. As a result, the quota from Germany was filled in only one of FDR’s twelve years in office, and 190,000 quota places sat unused during that period.
The exhibit claims that there was nothing President Roosevelt could do to admit more refugees, because most of the public was against increasing immigration, even as the Holocaust’s atrocities were becoming known. Presumably that gets FDR off the hook once again.
But once again, the exhibit is distorting the historical record. The exhibit shows many polls from the 1930s and early 1940s demonstrating public opposition to immigration. But it fails to explain that after the tide of the war turned in 1943 and substantial information about the massacres reached America, public opinion did change. The exhibit omits the April 1944 Gallup poll which found 70 percent of the public in favor of granting temporary haven to Jewish refugees for the duration of the war.
Daniel Greene, the exhibit’s lead curator, was quoted in the Washington Jewish Week saying that the exhibit asks, “Why didn’t rescue ever become a priority?” But that’s the wrong question.
Rescue didn’t have to become a priority in order for Jews to be saved. There were numerous steps the Roosevelt administration could have taken that would have involved minimal effort and would not have interfered with the war effort.
For example, the president could have permitted the immigration quotas to be filled. That didn’t require an act of Congress or a public controversy. All he had to do was quietly instructed the State Department to admit the maximum number allowed by law. Or Roosevelt could have permitted empty troop transport ships returning from Europe to carry refugees. Those ships 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.
Perhaps the best-known example of what the United States could have done, without making rescue a priority, was to bomb Auschwitz, or the railways and bridges over which Jews were deported. U.S. planes repeatedly flew over Auschwitz in 1944 when they bombed oil factories that were adjacent to the death camp. For those planes to have dropped a few bombs on the gas chambers and crematoria, or on the transportation routes leading to the camp, 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.
Unfortunately, the exhibit gets too caught up in making excuses for Roosevelt to acknowledge these facts. But making excuses for FDR’s abandonment of the Jews should not be part of the mission of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Rafael Medoff is founding director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and the author of 19 books about Jewish history and the Holocaust.