Some days it feels like Franklin Delano Roosevelt is still in the White House, jauntily waving his cigarette holder, tossing back his head and smiling as debate rages over his policies. The Obama administration’s first hundred days are so frequently touted as the second coming of FDR that some columnists have begun reminding the public that the economy actually tanked in Roosevelt’s second term and have even trotted out his disastrous 1937 Supreme Court-packing plan to illustrate the dangers of presidential hubris. Now, the forthcoming publication of the papers of Roosevelt’s refugee advisor has reignited a far more emotional controversy over Roosevelt’s legacy: whether he should be credited with having saved Jewish lives in Europe or blamed for having abandoned European Jewry to the Nazis.
It is an often bitter debate. The historical probing of Roosevelt’s moral failings, especially regarding his response to the Holocaust, tends to fall into the “you are either for him or against him” paradigm.
If Roosevelt were truly great, one school asks, then why didn’t he do more to help the Jews? Why didn’t he rescue more Jewish refugees and admit them to the United States? Why didn’t he bomb the railroads leading to Auschwitz? He failed in the face of the greatest crime in civilization’s history, and therefore, goes the subtext, he was not a great man.
The other school argues that Roosevelt, in successfully prosecuting the war, did more to save Jewish lives than any other person. In this telling, he was a great man, who did the most important thing he could do to save Jewish lives — he destroyed Hitler and Nazi Germany.
Both sides have their own spins on the refugee papers, which reveal that Roosevelt secretly conceived a plan in 1938 to find a refuge for German Jews in other countries. The pro-Roosevelt school claims the new documents demonstrate that Roosevelt’s heart was in the right place. The anti-Roosevelt historians dismiss the revelations as nothing new and point to the barriers that his administration later erected against Jewish refugees.
Why, 64 years after Roosevelt’s death, does his response to the Holocaust still provoke pitched battles between historians? After all, the world has changed several times over, and soon there will be no one left who, crouching on the living room floor, fiddling with the dials of the family’s radio, heard the new president tell the stricken country that “the only thing we have to fear is — fear itself.”
But one only has to recall the impact of those words to grasp why debates over Roosevelt are so emotionally charged. After that address, 450,000 Americans almost immediately sat down at their desks or kitchen tables and wrote the president to thank him, because his speech was the best thing any of them had heard in a long, long time. Roosevelt was the crippled man who put a crippled America back on its feet and then led it to wartime triumph over fanatical dictatorships. He was the presidential father for whom every generation since has yearned.
And that’s part of the challenge we face today in making sense of Roosevelt’s record. How do we examine the moral legacy of a leader through eyes that are moist with gratitude?
Roosevelt was beloved by so many Americans, and particularly by so many American Jews. That’s one reason there’s a real sense of betrayal when Roosevelt’s moral failings surface. As a result, the historical dialogue tends to become very polarized, with little in the way of middle ground.
The reality is that both sides in this debate have plenty of evidence they can marshal in making their respective cases. Not long after the 1938 rescue proposal, World War II began and Roosevelt’s calculations shifted. He was so fearful of fifth columnists and saboteurs — and of isolationist and antisemitic American public opinion — that in 1940 he allowed the State Department to block Jewish refugees from entering the United States, using American consuls in Europe, in the words of one State Department memorandum, “to resort to various administrative devices which would postpone and postpone and postpone the granting of the visas.” But then, in 1943, Roosevelt approved a plan brought to his attention by an important American Jewish supporter to rescue tens of thousands of Jews in Transnistria, then within Nazi-occupied Ukraine, and bring them to Palestine.
Rather than trying to squeeze Roosevelt into neat categories, let’s recognize him for who he really was: a tough-minded, politically dexterous leader who saved the lives of countless Jews by defeating Hitler but demonstrated cold-blooded indifference toward the fates of untold others when it was not politically expedient to do otherwise. It’s a record for which he deserves great historical credit but for which he also must pay a historical price — and it’s a record that dooms the rest of us to forever debate his elusive humanitarian legacy.
Gregory J. Wallance, a lawyer and author in New York City, is working on a book about the State Department’s response to the Holocaust.