Did Fdr Betray The Jews?

THERE HAS BEEN A STRANGE TURN IN THE ATTITUDE OF American Jews toward Franklin D. Roosevelt. For a long time he was a hero. No president had appointed so many Jews to public office. No president had surrounded himself with so many Jewish advisers. No president had condemned anti-Semitism with such eloquence and persistence. Jews were mostly liberals in those faraway days, and a vast majority voted four times for FDR.

In recent years this has changed. Historians have unearthed evidence of prewar official resistance to the admission of Jewish refugees. Questions are raised about the failure to bomb Nazi death camps. Some Jews today see FDR not as a hero but as the president who might have saved millions of Jews from Hitler and instead abandoned them to a terrible fate. PBS has now put on a television program indicting the Roosevelt administration for "deceit and indifference."

The attack on FDR shows a striking disregard of historical context. Alone among world leaders, Roosevelt stood in opposition to Hitler from the beginning. In a succession of speeches he explained to an isolationist nation that Nazism was a mortal threat to the United States. He denounced anti-Semitism, proposed the Evian conference in 1938 to help refugees and, after the terror of Kristallnacht, was the only head of state to recall his ambassador from Berlin.

And he did this in a time when anti-Semitism in the United States was far more prevalent and virulent than it is today. Gunnar Myrdal, the Swedish expert on race relations, wrote in his great book "An American Dilemma" that American anti-Semitism in these years "probably was somewhat stronger than in Germany before the Nazi era." FDR's New Deal was called the "Jew Deal." His advisers-Felix Frankfurter, Henry Morgenthau, Sam Rosenman, Ben Cohen-were under constant attack because of their race. The onetime national hero Charles Lindbergh denounced the Jews as one of the groups trying to bring America into war.

Moreover, America was still mired in the Great Depression. With millions out of work, Congress and the trade unions were not disposed to look favorably on the entry of new competitors in the job market. The anti-Semitism of the day infected lower echelons in the State Department and impeded the issuance of visas. FDR had to deal with the world as it was.

He did what he could. The PBS film claims that he was indifferent to the Wagner-Rogers bill of 1939 seeking the admission of German children in excess of the immigration quota. The authoritatie "Eleanor and Franklin" by Joseph Lash, himself a Jew, provides a very different account. Roosevelt gave the bill a green light and offered advice on congressional strategy. But the bill was headed for certain defeat. The "File No Action" scrawl- not by FDR, incidentally-on an informal congressional inquiry about the bill referred to the inquiry, not to the bill. The idea that FDR was indifferent to the fate of the children, Joseph Lash writes, is "an unjust accusation." (Joe Lash is dead, but his widow, Trude, says that "FDR did not have an anti-Semitic bone in his body.") America admitted more refugees than any other country.

When war broke out in Europe and some isolationists followed Lindbergh in blaming the Jews, FDR well understood that it would be fatal to let the war be defined as a war to save the Jews. He knew that he must emphasize the large and vital interest all Americans had in stopping Hitler, and that is what he did. And he knew that winning the war was the only way to save the people in the concentration camps.

In January 1942, Nazi anti-Semitism entered a new phase--the program of extermination, the "final solution." Later that year reports of the new horror began to trickle out of Germany. A generation that remembered the phony atrocity stories of the first world war regarded such reports with initial skepticism. Bill Movers once asked William Shirer, who knew the Nazis better than most Americans, what he had thought when told that a whole people were being systematically obliterated. Shirer replied, "I couldn't believe it ... I did not get the story, really, until the war-crimes trials at Nuremberg." The Holocaust was recognized as the Holocaust only after victory opened up the death camps.

The PBS film implies that if only the United States government had pursued a different course, millions of European Jews could have been saved. In fact, opportunities for rescue were extremely limited until the tide of war began to turn toward the Allies, and Allied victory could not be assured until a cross-channel invasion succeeded. When the valiant Henry Morgenthau told Roosevelt about State Department foot-dragging on rescue possibilities, FDR, five months before D-Day, promptly established the War Refugee Board. Had the board been established while the Germans still had a chance to win the war, it could have done little in the way of rescue.

Should the Allies have bombed the death camps or the railroads leading to them? Bombing rail tracks, we discovered by 1943, had little effect; tracks were repaired in 24 hours. Precision bombing was far from reliable with the primitive bombsights of half a century ago; even our smart bombs today turned out not to be so smart as Pentagon publicists made out during the gulf war. The best use of Allied bombing-and the best way to save the people in the death camps -was to bring the war to its quickest end,

Lucy S. Dawidowicz, scholar of the Holocaust and author of "The War Against the Jews," concluded that "military power ... was the only way the United States could have saved the European Jews, not by negotiating with Hitler or by bribing his satellites." FDR, more than any other person, deserves the credit for mobilizing the forces that destroyed Nazi barbarism.

And if Americans wonder how their parents and grandparents could have stood aside half a century ago when the Nazis were said to be slaughtering the Jews of Europe, let them ask themselves why they stand aside today when their TV sets leave no doubt that the Serbs are slaughtering the Muslims of Bosnia. Righteousness is easy in retrospect.