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FDR's Holocaust lapse

Roosevelt could have rescued more Jews from Europe without undermining his effort to defeat Hitler.

April 13, 2013
  • Did President Franklin D. Roosevelt ignore the persecution and killing of Jews during World War II?
Did President Franklin D. Roosevelt ignore the persecution and killing… (Associated Press )

Responding to Rafael Medoff's Op-Ed article Sunday detailing FDR's reaction to Jews facing persecution in Nazi Germany, reader Robert Ouriel wrote in a letter published Friday that "as an American and a Jew, I found [Medoff's] criticism of Franklin D. Roosevelt for his private comments about Jews most unfair."

He continued: "In singling out FDR, Medoff also ignores the squeamishness of America's modern presidents in dealing with genocide. Jimmy Carter, a human rights crusader, did nothing to prevent Pol Pot from exterminating as much as 20% of Cambodia's population. Bill Clinton took several years to respond militarily to the ethnic cleansing of Muslims in Bosnia and also never confronted the mass killings in Rwanda. George W. Bush and Barack Obama employed little more than empty words to condemn the atrocities in Darfur."

Rafael Medoff responds:

There were many ways the Roosevelt administration could have interrupted the Holocaust while also defeating Hitler. For example, thousands of U.S. troop supply ships, which were returning empty from Europe, often had to be filled with ballast — chunks of concrete — so they would not capsize. Jewish refugees could have served the same purpose, especially since America's immigration quotas from Axis countries in those years were 90% underfilled.

Alternatively, refugees could have been admitted to the U.S. on a temporary basis, just until the war ended. An April 1944 Gallup poll found that 70% of Americans favored this idea. Or a U.S. territory such as the Virgin Islands could have been used to shelter refugees, since the regular immigration quotas did not apply there. In fact, the governor and legislative assembly of the Virgin Islands in 1938 announced they would welcome Jewish refugees. It was Roosevelt who rejected the proposal. FDR could have leaned on the British to open Palestine to Jews fleeing Hitler.

Some other countries would have aided the Jews if the Roosevelt administration had taken the lead. Switzerland, for example, was willing in 1943 to accept thousands of French Jewish orphans, but it took the State Department more than a year to agree to the Swiss government's request for an assurance that the U.S. would take the children after the war ended. As a result, the opportunity to save most of the children was missed.

U.S. bombers flew directly over Auschwitz in the summer and fall of 1944, attacking German synthetic oil factories that in some cases were a few miles from the gas chambers and crematories. (Future presidential nominee George S. McGovern was one of the pilots, incidentally.) For those planes to have dropped a few bombs on the mass-murder machinery, or the railway lines leading to it, would not have diverted from the war effort.

Proposals such as these are not just hindsight — they were all made by rescue advocates at the time, and all of them were rejected by the Roosevelt administration.

Certainly it is appalling that other presidents likewise have responded so weakly to genocide. That does not make FDR's abandonment of European Jews any less troubling; it merely highlights the sad fact that some of his successors did not learn from his mistakes.


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