Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945) served as the 32nd president of the United States from 1933 to 1945, a period coinciding with the Nazi persecution of European Jewry. Roosevelt’s response to the plight of the Jews was influenced by political and diplomatic considerations, as well as his personal attitude toward immigrants in general and Jews in particular.
Roosevelt’s personal feelings concerning Jews were shaped in part by the environment of his formative years. Antisemitic prejudice was commonplace in the upper crust of 19th-century New York society in which the Roosevelt family was firmly situated. FDR’s mother, Sara; his half-brother, Rosy; and his uncle, Fred Delano, voiced anti-Jewish sentiments on multiple occasions. In one instance (in 1928), Sara objected to FDR adviser Belle Moskowitz joining the family for lunch because she did not want “that fat Jewess” in her home. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt harbored some anti-Jewish prejudice during her early years, but gradually shed her bigotry as a result of social relationships with Jews and sympathy for the persecuted Jews in Europe.
In his public statements, President Roosevelt embraced generally-accepted principles of tolerance and equality for all faiths. In a 1935 reply to a question about whether he had Jewish ancestors, FDR said: “In the dim distant past they may have been Jews or Catholics or Protestants—what I am more interested in is whether they were good citizens and believers in God—I hope they were both.” In private, however, on numerous occasions, he expressed unflattering opinions about Jews.
FOREIGNERS AND ASSIMILATION
In his writings and statements about immigration in the 1920s and 1930s, Roosevelt advocated severely restricting the admission of foreigners and urged steps to prevent them from concentrating in particular areas of the country or exercising what he regarded as undue influence on American culture and society.
In a newspaper interview in 1920, when he was the Democratic candidate for vice president, FDR complained that many immigrants had failed to “conform to the manners and the customs and the requirements of their new home…the remedy for this should be the distribution of aliens in various parts of the country.” He said “the greater part of the foreign population of the City of New York” should have been “distributed to different localities upstate.”
While living in Warm Springs, Georgia, in the 1920s, Roosevelt authored a number of articles about Asian immigration to the United States. In one 1923 essay for Asia magazine, he expressed sympathy for the view “that the mingling of white with oriental blood on an extensive scale is harmful to our future citizenship” and that “non-assimilable immigrants” were undesirable. In a 1925 article for the Macon Daily Telegraph, he wrote, Anyone who has traveled in the Far East knows that the mingling of Asiatic blood with European or American blood produces, in nine cases out of ten, the most unfortunate results.” In another column for the Macon newspaper, FDR said he favored the admission of some Europeans, so long as they had “blood of the right sort.” He argued that immigration should be restricted until the U.S. had time to “digest” those who had already been admitted, and proposed limiting future immigration to those who could be most quickly and easily assimilated, including through dispersal around the country.
TOO MANY JEWS
In a number of private comments beginning in the 1920s, Roosevelt indicated his belief that Jews possessed certain innate characteristics that could become problematic if they were permitted to become too prominent in any particular economy, culture, or geographic locale.
He privately boasted that he was one of those who, as a member of the Harvard University Board of Overseers, initiated steps to limit the admission of Jews “until it was down to 15%….You can’t get a disproportionate amount of any one religion.” In a 1938 conversation with Jewish leader Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, asserted that the Polish economy was dominated by “the Jewish grain dealer and the Jewish shoe dealer and the Jewish shopkeeper,” and that was what caused “the Christian shopkeepers” to demand that “the Jew should go.” He told U.S. Senator Burton Wheeler in 1939 of his pride that “We know there is no Jewish blood in our veins.” In 1941, FDR remarked at a cabinet meeting that there were “too many Jews among federal employees in Oregon.”
At the Casablanca Conference in January 1943, Roosevelt recommended that strict limits be implemented so that Jews in postwar North Africa would not “overcrowd the professions.” FDR said this action “would further eliminate the specific and understandable complaints which the Germans bore towards the Jews in Germany, namely, that while they represented a small part of the population, over fifty percent of the lawyers, doctors, school teachers, college professors, etc, in Germany, were Jews.”
At a private White House luncheon on May 22, 1943, President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill reviewed the war effort and exchanged thoughts on aspects of the postwar era. FDR spoke approvingly of proposals drawn up by the renowned geographer and Johns Hopkins University president, Isaiah Bowman. The president had commissioned Bowman to undertake a comprehensive study of “the problem of working out the best way to settle the Jewish question.” Roosevelt told Churchill that Bowman’s plan “essentially is to spread the Jews thin all over the world. The president said he had tried this out in [Meriwether] County, Georgia and at Hyde Park on the basis of adding four or five Jewish families at each place. He claimed that the local population would have no objection if there were no more than that.”
RACE AND REFUGEES
Beginning in 1938, Bowman had carried out a series of studies, at the request of President Roosevelt, concerning the feasibility of settling large number of European Jews in various parts of the world. He opposed settling “a large foreign immigrant group” in South America, the Caribbean, or Africa, arguing that “the danger lies in Jewish control of [the economy] if too many are allowed into the country and particularly the cities.” He criticized proposals for bringing refugees to the United States on the grounds that “we are likely to be charged with the importation of a European quarrel into America.” The best idea, Bowman counseled the president, would be to “keep the European elements within the framework of the Old World.” He argued that Jewish refugees should be admitted only “in limited numbers here, there, and elsewhere.”
In 1942, FDR named Bowman to chair a new Office of Post-War Planning, to carry out what it called the “M [for Migration] Project.” Bowman’s assignment was to examine postwar population resettlement possibilities, with an emphasis on “problems arising out of racial admixtures and…the scientific principles involved in the process of miscegenation.” Among the questions the president specifically posed to Bowman was whether the racial qualities of “the South Italian stock” were “as good as the North Italian stock,” and how they compared to the biological characteristics of other national groups.
Bowman’s staff produced hundreds of reports and memoranda, which it distributed to various branches of the Roosevelt administration. They advised against mixing races and warned that the admission of significant numbers of foreigners would endanger America’s racial well-being. “Our civilization will decline unless we improve our human breed,” Bowman believed. “To support the genetically unfit and also allow them to breed is to degrade our society.”
Upon assuming office in 1933, President Roosevelt had inherited an immigration system which dovetailed with his own inclinations on the issue. Laws enacted in 1921 and 1924 established annual quotas based on national origin, linked to a 19th century census that ensured larger quotas for northern European immigrants, and smaller ones for southern and eastern Europeans. In 1930, in response to the onset of the Great Depression era, the Herbert Hoover administration tightened the requirements for approval of an immigration visa so that applicants considered “likely to become a public charge” were excluded. The final decision on visa applications rested in the hands of individual consular officials abroad, acting in accordance with the instructions of the State Department. While State had some leeway in the day to day implementation of immigration policy, it did not make its own policy but rather reflected the wishes of the White House. State Department officials regularly briefed the president on their immigration procedures.
When refugee advocate James G. McDonald met with President Roosevelt in 1940 to plead for an easing of visa restrictions, FDR sharply reprimanded him, telling McDonald not to “pull any sob stuff” about refugees. Breckinridge Long, a Roosevelt friend and donor who was put in charge of immigration affairs in 1940, noted in his diary after describing the visa procedures to FDR, “I found that he was 100% in accord with my ideas.”
Consular officials in Europe routinely denied visa applications on flimsy pretexts, and piled on extra requirements in order to disqualify would-be immigrants. As a result, the annual German quota was filled in only one of FDR’s twelve years in office. In most of those years, it was less than 25% filled. President Roosevelt was kept fully informed regarding the State Department’s tactics. In a 1935 letter to New York Governor Herbert Lehman, for example, the president noted that the German quota had been “considerably under-issued” in recent years, and he even specifically noted the numbers of immigrants admitted.
In June 1941, the administration adopted a stringent new policy of rejecting all visa applicants who had close relatives in German-occupied territory. The new edict affected significant numbers of European Jews. A total of about 190,000 quota places from Germany and Axis-occupied countries sat unused during the Hitler years.
Political factors undoubtedly played a role in the president’s position on immigration. There was strong public opposition to increased immigration, which was rooted rooted in widespread antisemitism and anxieties fueled by the economic hardships of the Depression era. Roosevelt, with an eye to his re-election chances, was not likely to defy public or congressional sentiment by seeking liberalization of the immigration system. Yet he could have quietly authorized State to permit immigration up to the maximum permitted by the existing laws. Doing so would not have required any public controversy or fight with Congress. FDR’s decision to suppress immigration far below the legal limits is inexplicable except by reference to his overall vision of an America that included only a small number of Jewish immigrants, who would be widely dispersed and encouraged to assimilate.
RELATIONS WITH NAZI GERMANY
Throughout the 1930s, President Roosevelt pursued a policy of maintaining friendly relations with Nazi Germany. When he appointed William E. Dodd ambassador to Germany in 1933, the president instructed him to refrain from officially criticizing German mistreatment of Jews, except in the few cases involving German Jews who happened to be American citizens. Roosevelt did not mention the persecution of the Jews in any of the 82 press conference that he held in 1933. In the 430 press conferences he held from 1933 through November 1938, FDR made reference to the mistreatment of German Jewry only once, and even then only in response to a reporter’s question.
The president opposed the 1930s boycott of German goods and supported U.S. participation in the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin. He declined to impose financial sanctions or sever diplomatic relations with the Hitler regime at any point during the prewar period. When the Nazis complained to Washington, in 1940, that journalist Varian Fry was breaking German law by smuggling Jewish refugees out of Vichy France, the Roosevelt administration canceled his passport on the grounds that he was endangering American-German relations.
American diplomats in Germany kept the White House fully informed of the plight of Jews in Germany. The president, however, seems to have been quick to accept reports from unofficial sources that minimized the Jews’ suffering. In 1936, he told Rabbi Stephen S. Wise that two American tourists who attended the recent Berlin Olympics told him “that the synagogues are crowded and apparently there is nothing very wrong in the situation [of Germany’s Jews] at present.” Wise was alarmed that FDR had accepted that claim as fact.
SUPPORT FROM AMERICAN JEWRY
Roosevelt enjoyed overwhelming support in the American Jewish community, receiving more than 80% of Jewish votes in the 1932 election, and more than 90% in 1936, 1940, and 1944. Jews were deeply impressed by his occasional criticism of the Hitler regime in the 1930s and, later, his aid to Britain in its war with Germany. The social welfare legislation of the New Deal and the Democratic Party’s embrace of ethnic minorities also appealed strongly to Jews.
Another important reason for Jewish support for FDR was the perceived prominence of Jews in his administration. There were a number of Jews in positions close to the president, including chief speechwriter Samuel Rosenman, Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr., Supreme Court Justices Louis Brandeis and Felix Frankfurter, New Deal architect Ben Cohen, Bureau of Labor Statistics commissioner Isador Lubin, and David Niles, the president’s adviser on ethnic issues. Yet these men were generally reluctant to raise Jewish concerns in the Oval Office. “I don’t feel that I should push myself into Jewish matters where the skipper does not ask my advice,” Cohen wrote to a friend in 1940. Jews who frankly expressed concerns on Jewish affairs were not likely to find a place in FDR’s inner circle.
Aside from that handful of advisers, Roosevelt’s record on Jewish appointments was not especially impressive. Only a very small number of Jews found positions of significance in agencies such as the State Department, the War Department, the Commerce Department, the Federal Reserve Board, and the Federal Trade Commission. There was only one Jew in Roosevelt’s cabinet, and only one who reached the level of Under or Assistant Secretary. Only seven of 192 judicial appointees in FDR’s twelve years in office were Jewish, which was nearly identical to the eight of 207 in the twelve years of his three Republican predecessors in the White House. Moreover, Roosevelt refused to give Ben Cohen a seat on the Securities and Exchange Commission for fear of stirring antisemites. He also rejected a proposal to name Cohen assistant secretary of the treasury because of his concern that it would constitute too much Jewish representation in those offices.
One of the president’s most loyal and enthusiastic supporters was Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, the foremost Jewish leader of the era. An ardent New Dealer and Democrat, Wise publicly defended FDR’s refugee policy even as he privately agonized over Roosevelt’s refusal to take steps to aid European Jewry. In several instances, Wise, emerging from a meeting with Roosevelt, made claims about the president’s positions on Jewish concerns that went considerably beyond what Roosevelt actually said. Wise’s staunch defense of FDR earned him occasional invitations to the White House, but his actual influence on the president’s positions on refugees and ZIonism was minimal.
The German annexation of Austria in March 1938, and the wave of violent antisemitism that accompanied it, prompted some journalists and members of Congress to express disappointment with U.S. refugee policy. The president agreed to undertake several gestures that were suggested by the State Department as a way to “get out in front and attempt to guide” the pressure. The German and Austria quotas were combined, and for the first and only time, the German-Austrian quota was permitted to be filled in the year to follow. In addition, the president announced that the United States would hold an international conference on the refugee problem, in Evian, France. The conference proved to be a failure, however, when the U.S. and nearly all the other attendees refused to admit more refugees. The exception was the Dominican Republic, which offered to accept 100,000 European Jews, but the Roosevelt administration later discouraged that project because it feared refugees settling there would be dangerously close to America’s shores.
Following the Kristallnacht pogrom in November of that year, the president undertook two additional gestures. He temporarily recalled the U.S. ambassador from Germany for consultations, and he agreed to extend the visas of 5,000 German Jews who were then in the U.S. as tourists.
However, those gestures were not followed by any significant policy changes. America’s diplomatic relations with Germany were not suspended, and proposals to settle Jews in U.S. territories such as the Virgin Islands or Alaska were blocked or neutered by the White House. The governor and legislative assembly of the Virgin Islands offered to open their doors to refugees, but President Roosevelt personally stopped the plan from moving forward on the grounds that Nazi spies might sneak in, disguised as refugees. No such spies were discovered among Jewish refugees who reached the United States. The Alaska plan was supported by the Interior Department and Labor Department as a way to have foreign laborers develop the territory, but FDR insisted that only ten percent of the workers should be Jews. The proposal never made it out of committee.
Two additional opportunities to aid German Jews, in the spring of 1939, were likewise stillborn. The German ship St. Louis, carrying 930 Jewish refugees, was turned away from both Cuba and the United States, and forced to return to Europe in June 1939. At the same time, members of Congress introduced legislation, known as the Wagner-Rogers bill, to admit 20,000 German Jewish children outside the quotas. The president refused to endorse Wagner-Rogers.
FDR’s cousin, Laura Delano Houghteling, who was the wife of the U.S. Commissioner of Immigration, opposed the bill on the grounds that “20,000 charming children would all too soon grown into 20,000 ugly adults.” Lacking presidential supported and attacked by patriotic and nativist group, Wagner-Rogers was watered down and effectively buried.
PALESTINE AS A REFUGE
American Zionists vigorously promoted the idea of opening British-ruled Palestine to European Jewish refugees. As London began shifting away from Zionism in the late 1930s and proposing restrictions on Jewish immigration and land purchases in order to satisfy Arab opinion, U.S. Jewish leaders sought support from the Roosevelt administration for Zionist aims. Jewish pleas to the White House to lean on the British almost never generated a response beyond a few words of sympathy for the goal of a Jewish homeland.
One notable exception occurred on the eve of the 1936 presidential election, when the British were considering closing Palestine to refugees. Rabbi Stephen S. Wise asked FDR to intervene and he agreed to do so, as a way of solidifying his Jewish electoral support. Three years later, however, Roosevelt declined requests from Justice Louis Brandeis and other Zionist leaders that he speak out against the British “White Paper” policy that shut the Holy Land to all but a trickle of Jewish immigrants.
Here, too, the ubiquitous Isiaiah Bowman played a role. He figured prominently in wartime discussions in both the White House and State Department regarding Zionism. Bowman strongly opposed creation of a Jewish state in Palestine and claimed Zionism was no different “from Hitler’s Lebensraum.” FDR remarked to Bowman on more than one occasion “that U.S. policy on Palestine followed [Bowman’s] lead,” although it is more likely that Bowman simply helped reinforce Roosevelt’s preexisting skepticism regarding Jewish statehood. When First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt began taking a stronger pro-Zionist position in 1943, the president sent Bowman to try to talk her out of it.
At a cabinet meeting in March 1944, Roosevelt boasted that he had upbraided two American Zionist leaders, Stephen S. Wise and Abba Hillel Silver, who had sought a pro-Zionist statement from him. FDR told the cabinet members that issuing such a statement would provoke Arab violence against American soldiers in the Middle East. But Silver told Vice President Henry Wallace shortly afterwards that in their private meeting, Roosevelt spoke in favor of Zionism. That prompted Wallace to write in his diary: “The President certainly is a waterman. He looks in one direction and rows the other with the utmost skill…”
FDR shocked American Jews when he told Congress, in March 1945, that in his recent meeting with Saudi Arabian king Ibn Saud, “I learned more about the whole problem, the Moslem problem, the Jewish problem, by talking with Ibn Saud for five minutes than I could have learned in the exchange of two or three dozen letters.” The president quickly reassured Rabbi Wise that he still favored creating a Jewish state. But in a meeting shortly afterwards with two Jewish leaders who opposed Zionism, FDR agreed with them that creating such a state was “impossible of accomplishment.”
RESPONSE TO THE HOLOCAUST
President Roosevelt seldom publicly commented on the mass murder of Europe’s Jews in the 1940s. After the Allies confirmed, in late 1942, that the systematic annihilation of European Jewry was underway, the president met with a small group of American Jewish leaders and promised that Nazi war criminals would be punished after the war. At the initiative of the British, the Allied governments in December 1942 issued a public statement condemning the killings.
In the months to follow, American Jewish leaders repeatedly asked Roosevelt administration officials to consider taking steps to aid the Jews in Europe. They were told that the only way to save the Jews was through military victory over the Germans. To fend off a rising chorus of complaints from the Jewish community, refugee advocates, and some members of Congress, the State Department and British Foreign Office decided to hold an Anglo-American conference on the refugee problem, in Bermuda in late April 1943.
President Roosevelt attempted, unsuccessfully, to convince Supreme Court Justice Owen Roberts to chair the U.S. delegation to Bermuda. After that and one briefing on the conference preparations, FDR took no further interest in the Bermuda project. Shortly afterwards, however, he established a commission to rescue artwork and historic buildings in wartorn Europe, and persuaded Roberts to take on that assignment. The Bermuda conference, which lasted twelve days, concluded without any plans for significant action to aid refugees.
One of the few concrete (albeit small) proposals to come out of Bermuda was to settle several thousand Jewish refugees in a northern section of Allied-occupied Libya. Roosevelt poured cold war on the plan, telling Secretary of State Cordell Hull that it might provoke Arab unrest. When Prime Minister Churchill expressed interest in the Libya settlement idea, FDR had Isaiah Bowman quickly draw up a memorandum making the case that bringing Jews to Libya would incite “violently adverse” reactions in the Arab world.
WAYS AND MEANS
President Roosevelt did not express any doubt as to the accuracy of the information the State Department was receiving about the killings. In one instance, he heard it directly from an eyewitness. A Polish Catholic underground courier, Jan Karski, visited the White House in July 1943 and provided the president with some of the details of the mass murder process. Karski had been inside the Warsaw Ghetto, and, disguised as Ukrainian militiamen, had seen Izbica, a transit site for Jews being deported to death camps. Karski recalled later that Roosevelt listened attentively to his report, but asked no questions about the plight of the Jews and gave no indication of any intention to intervene.
One of FDR’s rare comments on the Jewish situation came in response to a reporter’s question following the October 1943 meeting, in Moscow, of the Soviet and British foreign ministers and the U.S. secretary of state. Asked if there had been any discussions about helping “Jewish victims of atrocities or persecution,” Roosevelt replied, “[T]hat I don’t know…that whole problem is–the heart’s all right–it’s a question of ways and means.”
Convinced that “ways and means” for rescue could be found if there was sufficient will in the White House, the Jewish activists known as the Bergson Group brought about, in November 1943, the introduction of a congressional resolution urging the president to create a new government agency to rescue Jews. Some of the group’s publicity for the resolution cited FDR’s creation of an agency to rescue artwork.
The hearings on the resolution in effect put the president’s policy of non-rescue on trial, although FDR himself is not known to have commented on the controversy. His old friend, Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long, handled the chore of serving as the administration’s main witness. Long’s fumbled testimony, in which he wildly exaggerated U.S. efforts to aid refugees, set off a public relations nightmare for the White House on the eve of an election year. The president himself was brought into the fray when Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr., presented him with a report, compiled by his aides, documenting the State Department’s suppression of Holocaust news and obstruction of rescue opportunities.
Faced with the prospect of a scandal over State’s actions, Roosevelt demoted Long and pre-empted Congress by unilaterally creating the rescue agency that the resolution urged. The War Refugee Board, as it was known, initiated a series of steps to aid Jewish refugees. One was a statement, issued in the president’s name, warning the Hungarian government of retribution if it continued collaborating in the deportation of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz. The War Refugee Board staff also urged FDR to grant temporary shelter to Jewish refugees. They called the proposal “Free Ports,” in reference to the practice of permitting certain goods to stay temporarily in ports without being taxed. To measure public sentiment, the White House commissioned a Gallup Poll, which found that 70% of Americans favored granting haven to refugees for the duration of the war. Roosevelt nevertheless agreed to admit just one group of 980 refugees, who were housed behind barbed wire in an abandoned army camp in the town of Oswego, in upstate New York. President Harry Truman later allowed them to remain in the U.S. permanently.
Another proposal made by the War Refugee Board, and by numerous Jewish leaders, was to bomb the railroad lines leading to the death camps as well as the gas chambers and crematoria. There is no evidence that President Roosevelt personally considered any of these requests, although two senior cabinet members, Secretary of State Cordell Hull and Secretary of War Henry Stimson, did discuss the bombing idea with at least one Jewish leader. Hull declined to take a position on the proposal, saying it was the War Department’s decision. Stimson, in turn, said it was the Soviet Union’s decision, since Soviet forces were the ones situated closest to Auschwitz.
Other bombing requests were handled by Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy, who rejected them on the grounds that a study found the idea “impractical” because it would require the diversion of aircraft from battle zones. In fact, no study was ever conducted and bombers did not have to be diverted because they were already flying over Auschwitz, bombing German oil factories in the camp’s industrial section. Nonetheless, McCloy’s position was consistent with President Roosevelt’s view that no military resources, no matter how minimal, should be used to assist refugees or interrupt the murder process.
Sources: Wyman, The Abandonment of the Jews, pp. 311-340; Medoff, FDR and the Holocaust, pp.1-32; Feingold, The Politics of Rescue, pp. 90-122; Penkower, The Jews Were Expendable, pp. 84-96, and Decision on Palestine Deferred, pp.146-147, 203-204.