A Reflection after Reading FDR and the Jews

FDRIt has been a long time since I have posted to my blog. Let me begin with… I teach International Baccalaureate History of the Americas and International Baccalaureate Economics. All 120+ of my students are IB-level students, which simply means my work is cut out for me. Added to this, I am still in the first years of each course, so I am consistently preparing new material for my classes. I rarely have time to add cogent thought to my blog anymore. Well, until today.

Recently I took a trip to Rome, Italy (more on that to come, I’m sure), and I took along a book I have had on my shelf at school for some time, FDR and the Jews. In about a week, I will have a very short amount of time to teach my students about the Holocaust. I am very comfortable with the topic, having read personal testimonies, witnessed dozens of Holocaust speakers, and read secondary source history of the events. However, one question my students ask often, and I often oversimplify in answering, is why did the United States do nothing about the Holocaust.

 

Through their book, Richard Breitman and Allan Lichtman present four different major periods in Roosevelt’s presidency and his impetus to help Jews during each period. The first phase focuses on his first term as President. This phase is dominated by the domestic affairs of ailing a troubled nation during the Great Depression. During this phase the plight of American and international Jews takes a back seat to domestic reforms. The second phase focuses on Roosevelt’s second term up until the start of World War Two. During this phase, Roosevelt is more activist toward helping Jews, but his actions toward international Jews is simplified to trying to alter the constrictive US immigration quota. The third phase, in the early stages of World War Two, is fraught with more difficultly. While Roosevelt desires more international action against Axis aggression and in support of international Jews, his hands are again tied by domestic constraints and politically minded decisions. While Roosevelt wants to speak out against the belligerent Nazi regime, he finds such speech difficult lest he be accused of taking sides in a war while leading a neutral nation. The last phase, Roosevelt has undeniable proof of the horrors of the Holocaust, and the United States is active in World War Two, but military objectives and stark reality of saving the remaining European Jews limit his actions.

Breitman and Lichtman present a very interesting account of a personal Roosevelt and his actions during his presidency. They portray an individual who wanted to act, but whose career ambitions, political handcuffs, military objectives, or other roadblocks made action difficult.

Upon completion of this book, I was left with an awful sense that Roosevelt wanted to help Jews internationally, but he could not. A president with grand popular appeal, who stretched the power of the executive more than any other president, who led a country with vast material resources, this President had little power to help the Jews. Thus, I have arrived at this personal conclusion. Individuals should not wait for the actions of governments to protect the lives of those in danger. Even when it seems impossible for a government lay aside and not act, unfortunately it is possible. Yes, while many examples exist of governments helping protect or assist the less fortunate, the Holocaust and recent genocides present the awful conclusion that governments are very slow when responding to such crises. Individual actions save lives. The resistance fighters, those who hid Jews from persecution, those who acted to protect Jews while risking their own fate… these are the models of action and courage in the face of danger. These individuals should inspire modern action against tyranny, abuse, genocide, and injustice.

I do not fault Roosevelt or the United States government for being slow to react to an international crisis. I do not fault current administrations for inaction against international crises. The actions of governments will most always be slower than necessary in times of need. Knowing this, I realize now that when tyranny, abuse, or injustice present itself, I cannot must not wait for others to stand against it. Individual actions are fast, and individual actions save lives.

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