All Presidents, no matter how great, wise or popular, will have some black marks on the escutcheon. Sometimes the exigencies of politics lead to decisions that later generations will decry.
Such a decision, and such a political exigency is the case of Passionate Crusaders: How Members of the U.S. War Refugee Board Saved Jews and Altered American Foreign Policy during World War II.
How Much Did FDR Know?
There are fair questions for later generations to ask: How much did President Franklin D. Roosevelt know about the ongoing “holocaust” and when did he know it? And why did he wait so long to take measures, no matter how small?
On the subject of “how much did he know” it is a reasonable assumption that he knew some of the details, but not all. Stories of atrocities began emerging in the late 1930s, but they came through private (and undocumented) channels: family members and a handful of Jewish organizations. “Wholesale deportations” were the issue then, not mass and systematic murder. It was inconceivable to most Americans that such atrocities could take place; there must be some exaggeration. It was also nearly impossible to ascertain and verify the extent of these “rumors.”
It is not that there was only a handful of truly “passionate crusaders” that troubles the modern conscience: it was such a complete lack of American awareness-outrage-support while Hitler’s henchmen were methodically decimating millions of European Jews (and others). It was not until mid-1944 that active efforts for Jewish relief were underway.
The Art of the Possible
Roosevelt, one of the shrewdest politicians to ever occupy the White House, once remarked that “politics is the art of the possible.” In a way, this was FDR’s situation. World War II was a war about nationalistic aggression, not a war about Jews. Winning the war would be the optimum way to help the Jews.
Anti-Semitism has been, and probably always will be a fact of life all over the world. In the 1940s, the U.S. State Department was overwhelmingly anti-Semitic, actively blocking or subverting all efforts at rescue, intervention, and accepting some of the “huddled masses.” They had plenty of company. No other country wanted them either.
Perhaps more pervasive was “non-Semitism.” Most American citizens might never consider themselves anti-Semitic, but they were content to be oblivious and unconcerned. They would not harm, but neither would they help.
The War Refuge Board
By early 1944, it was apparent at high levels that action was needed to help the incomprehensible numbers of Jews who were the victims of Hitler’s “final solution.” (It was still inconceivable as to the horrific genocide being committed.) Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau was not only Jewish, but he was a neighbor and personal friend of FDR. Nevertheless he believed he needed to act as an American, rather than an American Jew, if he was to be taken seriously.
Angered at evidence of overt anti-Semitism and outright deceit in the State Department in suppressing growing evidence of such crime against humanity, Morganthau and a handful of other concerned citizens prepared their documents, and brought their case to FDR. The meeting lasted only twenty minutes, but the scathing indictment of the State Department could be detrimental to the reputation of the country itself. Author Voight voices her suspicions that FDR was more interested in his popularity than in the plight of the Jews in Europe, and notes that American Jews (90%) were so firmly identified with the New Deal camp, that there would be minimal “loss of votes.” But in 1944, with the threat of the State Department’s deliberate obstruction becoming a national scandal, FDR was ready to take action.
The War Refugee Board
Congress approved a special committee, removing refugee issues from the State Department’s direct oversight. The War Refugee Board was created, to include “plans, programs and measures for the rescue, transportation, maintenance and relief of the victims of oppression, and to include the establishment of havens of temporary refuge for such victims.”
The Board included the Secretaries of the Treasury, State and War and a million-dollar budget, but it was generally toothless and clawless. A case of too little-too late, it still made some substantive contributions to Jewish rescue and to the welfare of some Jews who remained ghettoed in Eastern Europe. It still managed to connect with the International Red Cross and various European underground movements, to funnel money, supplies, and hope where it could. It still isolated “bribeable” Nazis, who might turn a blind eye in return for hard cash. And it still brought a few hundred Jews to safety in the United States.
The Most Important Contribution
By late 1944, the tide had turned, the Allies knew the war would be won and many Nazis knew they would lose. They also knew their heinous crimes against humanity would be discovered – and uncovered – with the harsh light of victory.
The WRB had undertaken a powerful “public relations” effort to make its strongest weapon the inevitability of “justice being done.” It was not an idle threat. It was a promise kept at Nuremberg.
Author Heather Voight has written a disturbing book, but it is one that should be read by all students of US government, of Judaism – and of the Holocaust. It is basically how a small group of dedicated activists (most of whom were not Jewish) managed to provide whatever assistance they could in faraway lands, over insurmountable difficulties, and with little recognition, limited resources and limited results.
It is not an easy read; Ms. Voight does not seek to entertain. It is not a book for everyone. If there is a flaw, it is that while the book is titled “Passionate Crusaders,” it is not written with passion. It is a careful documentation of the efforts of those involved, but they come across as well-meaning but bloodless. The only truly compelling chapters concern the handful of Jews who were brought to the US, and the one about Raoul Wallenberg. It is always the personal aspects that draw the reader.
But Heather Voight has written an important book for those who seek to know more on the subject and the thoughtful and caring reader will be rewarded.