Holocaust scholars are charging that several prominent historians have suppressed documents revealing unfriendly remarks about Jews that made by presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman.
Dr. Rafael Medoff, director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, documented the historians’ controversial actions in an essay, “Antisemitism in the White House,” that will appear in the 2014 volume of Antisemitism in America, published by Academic Studies Press and edited by Prof. Eunice Pollack of the University of North Texas.
One of the instances involves the late Prof. Arthur Schlesinger, the award-winning historian of the New Deal. Medoff shows that in 1959, Schlesinger obtained a document showing that President Roosevelt privately boasted to a colleague, “We know we have no Jewish blood in our veins.” Schlesinger wrote frequently about FDR in the years to follow, but never acknowledged what he knew concerning Roosevelt’s feelings about Jews. In one 1996 article, Prof. Schlesinger even denied that FDR had any antisemitic prejudices.
Dr. Medoff’s essay also reveals that the late historian John Morton Blum withheld a document in which President Harry Truman used the slur “Jew boys,” and that the editor of Truman’s published papers, William Hillman, altered a statement by Truman to omit an antisemitic reference.
The most controversial aspect of the Medoff essay, however, concerns Professors Richard Breitman and Allan Lichtman, authors of the 2013 book ‘FDR and the Jews,’ which defends Roosevelt’s response to the Holocaust.
One of Dr. Medoff’s revelations focuses on a 1938 memo in which President Roosevelt addressed a number of subjects. Breitman and Lichtman quote FDR’s remarks in that document about Zionism, but fail to acknowledge that in the same document, Roosevelt alleged that Jews were dominating the Polish economy and claimed the Jews’ behavior was the cause of antisemitism in Poland.
Medoff said it was “deeply troubling” that “historians would violate accepted academic standards by withholding evidence concerning presidents who made ugly remarks about Jews.”
A second example involves anti-Jewish comments that FDR made to Soviet officials. In 1942, Roosevelt remarked to the visiting Soviet foreign minister that the Communist Party USA was dominated by “distinctly unsympathetic Jews” who were making the party look bad. In 1945, Roosevelt joked to Soviet leader Josef Stalin about giving all of America’s Jews to the king of Saudi Arabia as a gift. Breitman and Lichtman, in FDR and the Jews, claimed that in both instances, FDR was just “using antisemitism as an ice-breaker.”
But Medoff’s essay shows that according to the transcripts of the meetings, Roosevelt made the remarks at the end of the discussions, not the beginning. The 1942 statement was made in the final hour of eight hours of conversations, and the 1945 remark to Stalin came on the next-to-last day of a week of FDR-Stalin meetings. “Hence,” Dr. Medoff wrote, “none of those remarks [by FDR] could have been ‘ice-breakers’, since the remarks were uttered so many hours after the ice was broken.” Medoff said that this fact must have been known to Breitman and Lichtman, since, according to their footnotes, they possess copies of the transcripts.
Adding a layer of mystery to the controversy, Prof. Breitman has declined to answer journalists’ questions about these issues or other criticism of the book, and has given no reason for his silence.
Prof. Lichtman, however, has been boisterous in his public denunciations of his critics. Lichtman is a colorful character who ran for a U.S. Senate seat from Maryland in 2006 on a platform opposing the presence of American troops in Iraq. In one campaign ad, he jumped in a lake to illustrate a point. He received 1% of the vote. ‘FDR and the Jews’ is the first time he has published on subject matter related to the Holocaust.
Prof. Lichtman told the Jerusalem Post last week that the criticism of his and Breitman’s handling of FDR’s antisemitism is “an attempt by the right-wing, pro-Israel factions to manufacture a historical precedent to create an excuse for Israel to ignore what the U.S. has to say on foreign policy matters.” He did not explain to the Post why he and Prof. Breitman omitted the antisemitic Roosevelt remarks cited by Dr. Medoff.
In his interview with the Jerusalem Post last week, Prof. Lichtman said that Dr. Medoff had been unduly critical of ‘FDR and the Jews.’ “Nobody in the professional world goes out of their way to attack another scholar like that,” Lichtman said.
Medoff is not the only reviewer to take issue with ‘FDR and the Jews.’ Prof. Ira Katznelson, in the biweekly magazine The New Republic, wrote that “One of the main thrusts of ‘FDR and the Jews’ is the attempt to explain and frequently to excuse, presidential in action [regarding the Holocaust].” He found that some of the book’s claims in defense of Roosevelt are “based purely on conjecture” and that Breitman and Lichtman “often exaggerate” FDR’s efforts to aid Jews.
Adrien Dallair, writing in the Jewish Political Studies Review, concluded that the book is filled with “glaring inconsistencies” and “exaggerated claims” about Roosevelt. as well as “a number of untenable arguments.” On balance, ‘FDR and the Jews’ is “an apologia,” according to Dallair.
In interviews with the Jerusalem Post, senior scholars in the field of America’s response to the Holocaust this week criticized Breitman and Lichtman. Prof. Bat-Ami Zucker of Bar Ilan University said, “The public perception of FDR in those years was wonderful. He was considered a hero in those days. But a historian’s perception will often be colored by their personal politics. Breitman is certainly biased.”
Prof. Monty Penkower, formerly of Touro College, said, “I think that in trying to refurbish the Roosevelt image, they’re not giving the whole image.” Prof. Laurel Leff of Northeastern University, author of a study of the New York Times’ coverage of the Holocaust, said that Roosevelt’s personal feelings about Jews “should be part of the record and part of a way of understanding the Roosevelt administration’s response to the Holocaust.” Prof. Stephen Norwood of the University of Oklahoma, author of a book about American universities’ relationships with Nazi Germany, told the Post: “It’s a disgrace that Breitman and Lichtman have advanced this type of argument. It’s sloppy research. But there will always be people who want to deny the existence of anti-Semitism.”
On the other hand, Breitman and Lichtman’s book has been praised in some quarters and has been favorably reviewed in a number of newspapers. It won a “Tikkun Olam” award from the Holocaust Survivors of Haiti, and also won a National Jewish Book Award. The list of judges for this year’s National Jewish Book Awards did not include any scholars who have authored books or articles related to FDR’s or America’s response to the Holocaust, thus inviting questions as to the qualifications of those who chose the Breitman-Lichtman book.
Like Lichtman, other defenders of ‘FDR and the Jews’ interviewed by the Jerusalem Post concentrated on attacking the motives of Dr. Medoff and other scholars who have criticized FDR. Prof. Michael Berenbaum of American Jewish University seemed to challenge Dr. Medoff’s professional credentials, telling the Post that Medoff is merely following “his mentor David Wyman” (author of The Abandonment of the Jews) and that Medoff’s writings “have nothing to do with historical scholarship.” Ironically, however, Medoff is the author of several entries about America and the Holocaust in the Encyclopedia Judaica, of which Berenbaum is the editor.
Prof. Breitman has also published Dr. Medoff’s essays, in the scholarly journal ‘Holocaust and Genocide Studies’, which is edited by Breitman and sponsored by the U.S. Holocaust Museum. Medoff’s writings also appear on the Museum’s website. Dr. Medoff’s supporters note that he has taught at various universities and has authored 15 books about international responses to the Holocaust and related issues. His most recent book is titled ‘FDR and the Holocaust: A Breach of Faith.’
Prof. Berenbaum also said that criticism of Roosevelt’s record on the Holocaust is the work of “the conservative wing of American politicians” who are trying to “take down liberalism.” Prof. Lichtman told the Post that Berenbaum’s analysis “is, in my view, correct.”
Dr. Medoff responded by pointing out that some of the most vociferous criticism of FDR’s Holocaust failures has come from liberal Democrats, including the late U.S. senator George McGovern, former president Bill Clinton, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Medoff also noted that he, like Lichtman, is a registered Democrat.
Amidst all the controversy, there is one bright spot, according to Medoff’s essay. It concerns the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute, based at Hunter College, which hosts a web site dedicated to FDR’s mother, Mrs. Sara Roosevelt. (The Institute is based in what was once Mrs. Roosevelt’s home.) Until last year, the web site included an essay depicting the president’s mother as a close friend of the Jewish community and an activist for European Jewish refugees.
Dr. Medoff contacted the author of the essay, Roosevelt House director Dr. Deborah Gardner, to point out that there is no evidence of Sara Roosevelt acting on behalf of Europe’s Jews, and in fact there are at least two documents in which Mrs. Roosevelt is quoted as making antisemitic remarks. After reviewing the information, Dr. Gardner removed the essay from Roosevelt House’s website and has pledged to correct the inaccuracies. Dr. Medoff praised Dr. Gardner for acknowledging the essay’s mistakes.
Interestingly, Prof. Breitman wrote in one of his earlier books, in 1987, that Sara Roosevelt “was antisemitic.” In ‘FDR and the Jews’, however, he and Prof. Lichtman argue that Mrs. Roosevelt was strongly pro-Jewish and influenced her son Franklin to be sympathetic to the Jews. Breitman and Lichtman have so far declined Dr. Medoff’s requests that they explain what evidence they found to reverse Breitman’s earlier assessment.
Dr. Medoff’s essay concludes: “Unfortunately, some historians have chosen to withhold documents, or portions of documents, that reflect unfavorably on FDR’s views [about Jews]…Such actions in effect amount to censorship of portions of the historical record, contravene accepted standards of scholarly research, and have impeded the public’s understanding of the Roosevelt administration’s response to the Holocaust.”