President Franklin Delano Roosevelt has been the subject of debate in many respects, especially his response to the Holocaust. Two distinct camps emerge in this debate, with one side of the opinion that the American President abandoned the Jewish people, while others commend him as the one responsible for preventing the Holocaust from spreading even farther. In FDR and the Jews, Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman attempt to add a definitive assessment of the controversial stance taken by FDR. The authors claim their work was the result a greater research effort than had ever gone into one work on this subject before, with a wealth of primary sources and manuscripts employed in their work. This review will assess the argument presented by Breitman and Lichtman, first explaining that argument and then critiquing it in depth.
FDR and the Jews does not offer a simple character assessment of the President during this difficult era. Instead, they offer a unique perspective which divides the man into four stages of development. In the first stage, the authors discuss the “political realism” the Roosevelt prioritized higher than the growing concerns over Germany. The second version of the President is a man that defied public opinion and risked political backlash by attempting to initiate a humanitarian response to the increasingly desperate position of European Jews. The third stage of FDR again involves placing the Jewish plight on a lower priority, but this time due to the demands of the outbreak of World War II. The last development in the President’s position and controversial stance involves him once again turning his full attention to the Jewish people, establishing the War Refugee Board and the efforts to create a Jewish homeland.

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The President is discussed in the context of the issues and divisions that existed in the United States during his years in office. Anti-Semitism was rampant in the United States at the time, and the general sentiment during the period was unapologetically nativist. The Great Depression had the country desperately focused on fixing the problems already available on American soil. The European Jews were too removed from the immediate concerns of the nation to matter.

The argument presented by the two historians does offer an interesting perspective and a temptingly sympathetic view of President Roosevelt. However, it is the sympathy that initially alerts one to the possible bias within this discussion, a bias which eventually becomes difficult to ignore. Despite the obvious care the authors invested in being fair in their account through the acknowledgement of facts that are not flattering to FDR, these facts are never left without immediate counter balance. None of the flaws demonstrated by the President are left without an explanation of the mitigating factor behind it. A refusal to make a public statement concerning the German Jews with President Hoover on the last days of the older man’s presidency is explained as a need for a fresh start. The many instances of silence by the President on the plight of the Jews were motivated by the fear of risking delicate negotiations.

What initially appears to be an even-handed account of a flawed man facing choices with no right answers becomes a desperate attempt to retain the appearance of neutrality in their discussion of FDR. The account offered by the two authors is nearly blind to the fact that President Roosevelt was a man who took some admirable actions, but that is not all he was. He was also guilty of failing to act when his role as the United States President and as a human watching the suffering of others demanded he make some effort for the Jews. By the effort of the authors to remove any character defects from the controversial American President, the remove any potential within their text of truly offering a unique understanding of a man who appeared alternately to be deeply compassionate and deeply flawed.

  • Breitman, Richard and Allen J. Lichtman. FDR and the Jews. Harvard University Press, 2013.