Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s legacy has been slid back under the microscope recently as his efforts to pull the country out of the Great Depression are scrutinized. Now a piece of his foreign policy is also being re-evaluated in a soon-to-be published book that upends a widely held view that he was indifferent to the fate of Europe’s Jews, and asserts that new evidence shows that the president pushed for an ambitious secret rescue plan before the war began.
The book, an edited collection of official documents, diaries, internal memos and more, contends that Roosevelt hatched a scheme in 1938 to rally the world’s democracies and relocate millions of European Jews to undeveloped areas in Latin America and Africa.
“It is a book that will change the consensus about the role of President Roosevelt,” said Deborah Lipstadt, a leading expert on the Holocaust, who has read some sections. It “compels historians — both those who have vilified F.D.R. and those who have sanctified him — to rethink their conclusions.”
The book, “Refugees and Rescue: The Diaries and Papers of James G. McDonald, 1935-1945,” will undoubtedly reignite the charged debate over whether Roosevelt could have done more to rescue millions of Jews, Gypsies, gay people, dissidents and others who died in Nazi death camps. To his detractors, the refusal in June 1939 to take in any of the more than 900 Jews aboard the ocean liner St. Louis who were seeking a haven after Germany’s deadly Kristallnacht is much more emblematic of the United States’ response. Many of those passengers ultimately died.
This is the second of a three-volume set of Mr. McDonald’s papers being published by Indiana University Press in association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Mr. McDonald was the high commissioner for refugees for the League of Nations, the chairman of a presidential advisory committee on refugees and later the first American ambassador to Israel. The book also includes material from the Center for Jewish History and the Holocaust Museum.
The editors — the historians Richard Breitman, Barbara McDonald Stewart and Severin Hochberg — maintain that Roosevelt did a lot, given Congress’s implacable resistance to raising the quota on immigrants. Rather than publicly support measures revising the quotas, which he was sure would fail, he instead proposed an alternate means of escape behind the scenes, even pledging at one point to ask Congress to appropriate $150 million for resettlement.
“He was a man of grand vision who wanted to resettle a much larger number of refugees from Germany” and elsewhere, the editors conclude, citing a directive from Washington in June 1938 indicating that officials should deal with “the problems of refugees from all countries.” They agree that such efforts were completely dropped in 1940 when Roosevelt turned his attention to the war.
One of the new pieces of evidence that the editors point to is a summary written by Arthur Sweetser, a director of the secretariat of the League of Nations, describing a meeting between himself and the president on April 4, 1938:
Mr. Sweetser wrote that Roosevelt asked him how he liked his refugee proposal. “ ‘That was my proposal,’ the president quickly interjected, tapping his chest with obvious pleasure. ‘I worked that out myself.’ ”
The summary continues, with Mr. Sweetser quoting Roosevelt: “ ‘Suddenly it struck me: why not get all the democracies to unite to share the burden? After all, they own most of the free land of the world, and there are only ... what would you say, 14, 16 million Jews in the whole world, of whom about half are already in the United States. If we could divide up the remainder in groups of 8 or 10, there wouldn’t be any Jewish problem in three or four generations.’ ”
In a confidential memo to Mr. McDonald dated May 17, 1938, Mr. Sweetser wrote, “The President’s proposal took a large place in the League’s refugee deliberations this past week.”
Paul Shapiro, director of the museum’s Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, said, “What is quite striking here is that at this moment in 1938 Roosevelt is very seized by this issue of rescuing the Jews.” Germany’s occupation of Austria showed how much life changed overnight for Jews there. The book includes “important new documentation about F.D.R. and his efforts to save the Jews,” he added. Roosevelt supported using German, French and British colonies in Africa and elsewhere as well as countries in South America as possible havens. And he privately nudged the British to let more Jews intoPalestine, said Mr. Breitman, a history professor at American University.
Mr. Hochberg, who teaches at George Washington University, said: “As a result of these efforts, Bolivia saved over 20,000 Jews between 1938 and 1944 — in proportion to its size, more than any other American nation. Without the Bolivian option, many of these Jews would have died during the Holocaust.”
By the spring of 1939, the most promising strategy seemed to be an agreement with Berlin that would permit a privately financed foundation to resettle refugees, the editors state. The proposal was contentious because some Jews didn’t trust Germany and feared that it amounted to tacit approval of confiscation of Jewish assets.
On May 4, 1939, Roosevelt met at the White House with Jewish leaders and told them that there was no time to set up a new foundation, but that an existing organization should immediately agree to the plan.
“It was not so much a question of the money as it was of actual lives, and the president was convinced that the warnings given by our embassy in Berlin were sound and not exaggerated,” according to the diary of Jay Pierrepont Moffat, a State Department official at the meeting.
Refugee leaders were still at odds when Hitler invaded Poland on Sept. 1.
David Wyman and Rafael Medoff of the Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies in Washington, who have written extensively about America’s response to the persecution of Jews, are unimpressed with the excerpts from “Refugees and Rescue” that they’ve read.
Most of the actions have been mentioned in some form before, they said in a statement. In their view, Roosevelt may have talked about some pie-in-the-sky plans, but when it came to taking substantive action, he did nothing. For instance, they said, he opposed the 1939 Wagner-Rogers bill that would have permitted the United States to take in 20,000 Jewish children from Germany in addition to the existing German-Austrian quota of 27,370.
“F.D.R. failed to ask for that $150 million, just as he failed to support Wagner-Rogers,” they said. “Both actions by F.D.R. indicate his lack of seriousness about helping Jewish refugees.” They added that his “administration discouraged and obstructed would-be immigrants.”
To Mr. Shapiro, whether this new material will drastically change the way people see Roosevelt depends on their existing disposition. “Probably none of us will ever know what was really in F.D.R.’s mind at a given time,” he said. For those who see the potential of an individual’s being moved by the Jewish tragedy, “they will find that here.” As for others, he added, they will say, “in the end, it didn’t stop the murder of six million Jews.”