On Dec. 8, 1942, a year after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Rabbi Stephen Wise, founding president of the World Jewish Congress, marched into the Oval Office, accompanied by four colleagues. Their objective: to inform FDR about Hitler’s plan to exterminate Europe’s Jews and to urge immediate action to stop it. Expressing concern, the president replied, “The government of the United States is very well acquainted with most of the facts you are now bringing to our attention.” At the end of the 29-minute meeting, which had been scheduled to last just a quarter of an hour, FDR promised to “be of service to your people in this tragic moment.”
But this would be one of the few times FDR ever met face-to-face with Jewish leaders about the Holocaust. And in the last two and a half years of his life, the man widely considered one of our greatest presidents provided little help to the millions of Jews whom the Nazis were busy rounding up and sending off to concentration camps. Instead FDR focused exclusively on winning the war as quickly as possible. This disturbing hole in his resume serves as the through line of historian Jay Winik’s compelling narrative, “1944,’’ about the run-up to the end of World War II.
According to Winik, whose previous books include the bestseller “April 1865: The Month that Saved America,’’ FDR “may have missed his own ‘Emancipation Proclamation moment.’ ” Like Lincoln, the 32d president also could have a made brutal war about a cause bigger than victory — human freedom.
As Winik emphasizes, time after time, FDR chose inaction. At the end of 1942, he could easily have mobilized Americans against the Final Solution by devoting a fireside chat to the subject, just as he had done with other pressing wartime issues such as rationing. In early 1943, the White House declined when impresario Billy Rose asked FDR for a statement in support of “We Will Never Die,” his traveling extravaganza of Hollywood A-listers designed to raise awareness about the fate of Jews in Europe. “In this country,” railed The Nation that March in an editorial, “you and I and the president and the Congress and the State Department are accessories to the crime and share Hitler’s guilt.”
A notoriously private man, FDR never revealed why he decided not to fight this fight. It appears he harbored no personal animosity toward Jews — due to the president’s roster of Jewish advisers, which included his Treasury secretary, Henry Morgenthau, the New Deal was attacked by some critics as “the Jew Deal.”
Winik hypothesizes that he perhaps felt too burdened by other pressing concerns such as the need to boost public morale and to devote all available military resources to defeating the enemy.
While FDR was not indifferent to the suffering of the Jews, he failed to address the anti-Semitism that was clearly present in his administration. Take Breckinridge Long, an assistant secretary of state from Missouri whom the first lady referred to as “a fascist.” Worried about the influx of “Jewish professional agitators,” Long did everything in his power to limit the number of immigrants from Germany and Italy and ended up preventing some 200,000 refugees from reaching our shores.
Unfortunately, Long always knew that FDR was “wholeheartedly in support of [his] policy,” as this bureaucrat jotted down in his diary after a White House meeting. And then there is John McCloy, the assistant secretary of war. Morgenthau has been quoted elsewhere as describing him as “an oppressor of the Jews.” McCloy’s response to a long report in the summer of 1944 from John Pehle, the director of the War Refugee Board, which proposed military action against Auschwitz, was to sit on his hands. Though British Prime Minster Winston Churchill endorsed bombing the concentration camp, no aide even bothered to bring up this option with FDR, according to Winik.
“1944’’ does not break any new ground, as Winik leans heavily on the archival digging done by other scholars over the last generation. The carefully nuanced, “FDR and the Jews’’ (2013) by Richard Breitman and Allan Lichtman of American University remains the definitive work on the topic. But for the general reader, this dramatic account highlights what too often has been glossed over — that as nobly as the Greatest Generation fought under FDR’s command, America could well have done more to thwart Nazi aggression. With Syrian refugees now flooding Europe, revisiting this gut-wrenching turf could hardly be more timely.
1944: FDR and the Year that Changed History
By Jay Winik
Simon and Schuster, 639 pp., illustrated, $35Joshua Kendall’s latest book, “First Dads: Parenting and Politics from George Washington to Barack Obama,’’ will be published next May.