Actions Speak Louder Than (Even Ugly) Words
Newly released tapes of President Richard Nixon’s private conversations in 1973 include a remark that antisemitism will increase in the United States if American Jews “don’t start behaving.” As outrageous as that comment was, it should be kept in mind that Nixon was not the first American president to privately express antisemitic sentiments — nor is it clear how such views affected those presidents’ policies regarding Jewish concerns.
Nixon made the statement in a February 21, 1973 telephone call with the evangelist Billy Graham, in which Graham claimed Jewish opposition to Christian missionizing was causing antisemitism.
“Antisemitism is stronger than we think,” Nixon commented. “You know, it’s unfortunate. But this has happened to the Jews. It happened in Spain, it happened in Germany, it’s happening — and now it’s going to happen in America if these people don’t start behaving… it may be they have a death wish. You know that’s been the problem with our Jewish friends for centuries.”
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt embraced a bizarre blame-the-Jews theory of his own. At the Casablanca Conference in 1943, Roosevelt told Free French leaders that the number of Jews entering some professions in liberated North Africa “should definitely be limited,” lest there be a recurrence of “the understandable complaints which the Germans bore towards the Jews in Germany.”
Nor was that FDR’s only unkind remark about Jews. A recently discovered account of a 1939 conversation between Roosevelt and then-senator Burton Wheeler quoted FDR as saying, “You and I, Burt, are old English and Dutch stock. We know who our ancestors are. We know there is no Jewish blood in our veins….” And a recent book about the owners of The New York Times, by scholars Susan Tifft and Alex Jones, quoted FDR complaining about a “dirty Jewish trick,” which he claimed the Times’ owners had used to keep their newspaper within the family.
Roosevelt’s successor also evidently harbored less than pleasant sentiments about Jews. A diary by then-president Harry Truman, discovered in 2003, included this passage from 1947: “The Jews, I find, are very, very selfish. They care not how many Estonians, Latvians, Finns, Poles, Yugoslavs or Greeks get murdered or mistreated as D[isplaced] P[erson]s as long as the Jews get special treatment. Yet when they have power, physical, financial or political neither Hitler nor Stalin has anything on them for cruelty or mistreatment to the under dog.”
The diary entry was consistent with earlier evidence that Truman had privately described New York City as a “kike town,” referred to his Jewish friend and business partner, Eddie Jacobson, as his “Jew clerk,” and wrote to his wife Bess about someone in a poker game who had “screamed like a Jewish merchant.”
Across the Atlantic, another democratic leader seems to have concurred with the blame-the-Jews theory. An unpublished article by Winston Churchill, written in 1937 and discovered in the Churchill archives by Cambridge University historian Richard Toye in 2007, claimed that Jews were “partly responsible” for the mistreatment that they suffered. Churchill denounced the “cruel and relentless” persecution of the Jews but then criticized German Jewish refugees in England for their willingness to work for less pay than non-Jewish laborers, which — he claimed — caused antisemitism.
Some of Churchill’s earlier statements about Jews and communism indulged in antisemitic stereotypes, such as referring to the Russian Bolshevik leadership as “Semitic conspirators” and “Jew Commissars.”
Yet, paradoxically, Churchill seems to have sympathized with Russian Jewish pogrom victims and strongly endorsed Zionism. Did the private statements by Churchill, Roosevelt, Truman or Nixon affect their public positions on Jewish issues?
Roosevelt expressed sympathy for the Jews being massacred by the Nazis but refrained from taking meaningful steps to help them. He expressed support for the idea of creating a Jewish national home in British Mandatory Palestine, but he took few concrete actions to advance that goal.
Churchill supported the Zionist cause throughout his career, often vigorously so and in the face of fierce opposition within his own Cabinet. Yet when it mattered most, his support was more in the realm of rhetoric than action. As prime minister during the Holocaust years, Churchill left in place the harsh White Paper policy that kept all but a handful of Jews from entering Palestine, thus trapping them in Hitler’s inferno.
Truman, for his part, urged the British to admit Holocaust survivors to Palestine, but he never seriously pressured London to do so (for example, he opposed any linkage between England’s Palestine policies and its request for a huge postwar American loan). Truman is fondly remembered for granting diplomatic recognition to the State of Israel minutes after the state was created, yet he refused to send Israel weapons to defend itself against the invading Arab armies.
Nixon is remembered for authorizing the crucial airlift of arms to Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Yet his administration was also responsible for pressuring Israel to refrain from launching a pre-emptive strike when it was clear that an Arab invasion was imminent, thus causing Israel’s setbacks during the first week of the war — and necessitating the subsequent airlift.
A president’s policies are dictated, first and foremost, by practical considerations of perceived national interest and political risk. A president might personally dislike Jews and yet implement policies favorable to Jewish concerns if it suits his interests to do so; the reverse is also true. Thus in the end, it may not matter what Roosevelt, Truman, Churchill or Nixon privately felt about Jews. Their policies spoke for themselves.
Rafael Medoff is director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.