One of the staples of American Jewish history is the periodic surfacing of books or articles dedicated to reviving the tarnished reputation of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The one-way love affair that characterized the relationship between FDR and Jews has never quite recovered from the publication of Arthur D. Morse’s seminal 1967 book, While Six Million Died: A Chronicle of American Apathy, and it was pretty much destroyed by David S. Wyman’s more scholarly and equally important 1984 work ,The Abandonment of the Jews: American and the Holocaust 1941-1945. Both books and the subsequent scholarship they inspired constructed an ironclad case pointing to FDR’s indifference and the impact of his failure to act on the fate of European Jewry.
Yet that hasn’t stopped FDR’s defenders from sallying forth every now and then to restore a bit of the luster to his legacy with varying success. But as wrongheaded as some entries in this genre may be, you’d have to go far to find one as foolish and patently disingenuous as the piece that appeared in the most recent issue of the Forward by former Manhattan district attorney Robert Morgenthau and New York University Law Professor Frank Tuerkheimer. They claim Roosevelt’s “Germany first” war policy saved the Jews of the Middle East. But the notion the fate of the Jews had even the tiniest impact on his decision is not only unproven; it is absurd.
It is true that had the United States decided to concentrate its forces for a counter-attack on Japan in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor that may well have prolonged the war in Europe. It is also conceivable though not likely such a decision would have led to a complete British collapse in North Africa. If that had happened, it might have led, as Morgenthau and Tuerkheimer assert, to the fulfillment of the dreams of Haj Amin Husseini, Germany’s Palestinian Arab ally, who wished to bring the Holocaust to Palestine. Had Germany held North Africa longer, it might also have led to the complete destruction of the Jewish communities of Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
But before we begin the hosannas to FDR’s choice that saved the Jews, it should be understood that the documentary evidence shows Jewish considerations played no role whatsoever in this decision. “Germany first” was based on military and political criteria that centered on the survival of Britain and the realization that Hitler’s Germany was a far greater threat to the United States than Imperial Japan. This did go against the grain of American public opinion in December 1941, which thirsted for revenge against the Japanese. But FDR had settled on this policy even before America entered the war. Neither at that time nor in the early months of the American war effort was there any interest in Washington in the life or death of Jews in the Middle East or those already in the clutches of the Nazis for that matter.
As for Husseini’s Holocaust fantasy, though the documents about his plot that have recently been uncovered give proof positive of Palestinian Arab complicity with the Nazis, the chances of their fulfillment were minimal. Though Rommel’s victories scared the Allies, the inability of the Germans to maintain a secure supply line to his forces via an Allied-dominated Mediterranean Sea doomed his chances of ever entering Cairo, let alone Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Germany’s priority during this period was the invasion of the Soviet Union, where their conquests led directly to the slaughter of two million Jews.
When faced with specific requests to act to save Jews, the United States consistently failed to act until early 1944 when Morgenthau’s father secured FDR’s reluctant approval for funding of a War Refugee Board that dissident Jewish activists had clamored for. Despite little support from the administration and scarce funding, that Board did wind up helping to save hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews during the last year of the war. But rather than serve as evidence of Roosevelt’s good will, the efforts of the War Refugee Board only illustrate that had the U.S. acted decisively earlier in the conflict, far more Jews would have been spared.
American involvement in the war in North Africa was decisive in the rout of the Axis on that continent, and thus saved many Jewish and non-Jewish lives. One can similarly argue had the United States not fought in Europe at all, many Jews who survived the Holocaust would have perished. But though Americans can be said to have helped save civilization during World War II, the impact of this victory on the Jews was purely incidental.
Given the political and strategic choices facing the United States in December 1941, any decision other than “Germany First” was unlikely. Franklin Roosevelt deserves great credit for his leadership in defeating the Axis. But his goal was to help save Britain (though not its empire) in order to achieve that victory. Helping the Jews or limiting the impact of the Holocaust played no role whatsoever in his thinking. To imply anything else or to assert that this decision makes him some sort of hero to the Jews is an absurd distortion of the historical record.