There have been a number of public controversies concerning the ways in which some historians and museums have portrayed the life and work of refugee advocate James G. McDonald.
McDonald kept extensive personal diaries in the early and mid-1930s, portions of which have long been housed, along with his correspondence and other documents, at Columbia University. In 2003, previously unknown portions of the diaries were discovered by a family friend, and were donated by the McDonald family to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). The Museum’s leaders hailed the diaries as a “landmark acquisition.” They held programs about McDonald, published brochures, and printed a James G. McDonald Calendar, with each month featuring a different photo accompanied by a quotation from McDonald.
FDR’S “WARNING MESSAGE”
In early 2004, the Holocaust Museum announced plans to publish the complete diaries, and provided advance excerpts to the New York Times.
In a prominent news article on April 22, 2004, the Times quoted senior USHMM historians Richard Breitman and Severin Hochberg as claiming that the diaries showed President Franklin D. Roosevelt was “very concerned” about the persecution of German Jews “early on.” In particular, they cited a diary entry dated May 1, 1933.
According to the Times, that entry described how McDonald, having just returned from Nazi Germany, told the president about the plight of the Jews. FDR “seemed deeply concerned and said he wanted to find a way to send a warning message to the German people over the head of Hitler,” the article asserted.
Prof. Hochberg was then quoted as saying that “this picture is very different from the claim that [President Roosevelt] was indifferent to the fate of the Jews.” Likewise, Prof. Breitman later wrote, “In this diary Roosevelt is not the indifferent figure depicted in some of the scholarly literature about America and the Holocaust.”
An excerpt from that May 1 entry about FDR’s “warning message to Hitler” was also used as one of the featured monthly quotations in the museum’s McDonald calendar.
The full text of the May 1, 1933 entry was not accessible by the public at that time, because the diaries were closed to all but USHMM staff members from 2004 to 2017.
In 2007, the first volume of the diaries, Advocate for the Doomed, was published. It covered the years 1933-1935. The May 1, 1933 entry turned out to be different than it had been previously represented. McDonald wrote there that what “deeply interested” President Roosevelt was Reichsbank president Hjalmar Schacht, not the plight of the Jews. FDR wanted to know from McDonald “what sort of a person [Schacht] was.” The entry, which occupied almost three full pages in the published volume, did not mention German Jews.
In addition, the “warning message” to which Roosevelt referred was not related to German’s Jews. It concerned the military situation in Europe and two upcoming conferences on disarmament and the world economic order. On May 16, 1933, FDR sent identical telegrams to the 54 countries represented at the disarmament and economic conferences, outlining America’s hopes for peace and progress.
Prof. Breitman later reversed his position on the matter. In his 2013 book, FDR and the Jews, Breitman wrote that the May 1 diary entry showed that McDonald “inferred correctly that, despite Roosevelt’s concern, the Administration would not publicly reprimand Germany and jeopardize international economic negotiations and disarmament efforts.” He did not explain why his view of the episode had changed.
In 2009, the USHMM and Indiana University Press published the second volume of the McDonald diaries, Refugees and Rescue, covering the years 1935-1945. The Museum’s press release announcing its publication was headlined “New Evidence Challenges Widely Held Opinions About FDR’s Views on the Rescue of European Jews Prior to the Holocaust.” In their introduction, conclusion, and footnotes, Breitman and Hochberg argued that information in the diaries demonstrated that President Roosevelt did his best to aid German Jewish refugees.
In response, the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies published a report titled Not New, Not Evidence: An Analysis of the Claim that Refugees and Rescue Contains New Evidence of FDR’s Concern for Europe’s Jews. It argued that Breitman and Hochberg had exaggerated the significance of a private statement by FDR about helping refugees, and that they erroneously claimed to have discovered information about Roosevelt’s interest in 1930s resettlement schemes that was actually first published by Prof. Henry Feingold.
Feingold, who wrote extensively on the resettlement schemes in his book The Politics of Rescue in 1970, issued a statement that “when it came to projects that actually had some practical potential, [Roosevelt] was unwilling to cross swords with restrictionists…The Jewish issue was peripheral to him. FDR was unwilling to confront powerful restrictionists and isolationists, and take the political risks involved.”
The Wyman Institute subsequently issued a second report, titled James G. McDonald, FDR, and the Holocaust, 1943-1944. Based on documents located in the McDonald Papers at Columbia, the report found that in eight articles and addresses in 1943-1944, McDonald strongly criticized the Roosevelt administration’s positions with regard to the plight of European Jewry.
FILM AND EXHIBIT
In 2010, McDonald’s daughter, the historian Dr. Barbara McDonald Stewart, authorized Shuli Eshel, an Israeli-American filmmaker, to produce a film based on her father’s diaries. Members of the McDonald family provided nearly all the funding for the film and approved the script. In early 2014, Eshel completed the 54-minute documentary, A Voice Among the Silent: The Legacy of James G. McDonald. It included interviews with four USHMM historians, who appeared on screen 21 times, and three Wyman Institute scholars, who appeared a total of 10 times.
Dr. Stewart provided USHMM officials with an advance copy of the film and asked that the Museum host its premiere. The officials objected to the fact that Eshel had included brief interviews with historians who were critical of President Roosevelt. As a result, the Museum declined to host screenings of the film. It premiered on Capitol Hill on Holocaust Memorial Day in April 2014, under the auspices of the Wyman Institute, with the McDonald family and members of Congress in attendance.
In a letter to Dr. Stewart on March 24, 2014, USHMM director Sara Bloomfield wrote that even though the Museum would not host the film, it “will feature [McDonald] in our upcoming exhibition on Americans and the Holocaust.”
The 5,000-square foot exhibit, titled Americans and the Holocaust, opened in April 2018. It did not include any mention of McDonald. Eshel, together with a number of scholars who have written about McDonald, sent a letter of protest. Bloomfield and the exhibit’s chief curator, Daniel Greene, replied that there was not enough room in the exhibit to mention McDonald. In January 2019, twenty-nine Holocaust historians signed a petition to the USHMM, organized by the Wyman Institute, protesting the museum’s decision to omit McDonald from the exhibit.