While everything else has been going on, including the terrible Boston Marathon bombings, I have been slowly reading the book I mentioned a few days ago, FDR and the Jews. It is a very difficult book to read, and not only because it is densely packed with detail. Over each page, like a shroud, hangs the terrible knowledge of the horror to come. The authors, Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman, are meticulous in eschewing cheap and easy foreshadowings of the Holocaust. At this point I am a quarter of the way through the book, and the story has only reached 1934.
The larger context of the book, of course, is the debate that has raged for more than sixty years about whether Roosevelt, and by extension America, should or could have saved the six million and more who were murdered by the Germans. Roosevelt emerges as a supremely political man focused entirely on trying to pull America out of the depression, himself not anti-Semitic, but coming from an upper-class Protestant background that was reflexively anti-Semitic, and surrounded both by Jewish advisers and [especially in the State Department] by blatantly anti-Semitic officials whom he could not afford politically to antagonize.
In the early years of Roosevelt's presidency, much of the attention concerning the German Jews was concentrated on immigration policy. Roosevelt's Jewish supporters, who had voted heavily for him in '32, were strongly [but not unanimously!] in favor of allowing more Jewish refugees to enter the country, but organized labor, perhaps Roosevelt's most important constituency, was flatly opposed, on the grounds that immigrants of any nationality or religious persuasion would intensify the competition for scarce jobs.
There was a good deal of public agitation in support of liberalized immigration as well as some sort of official government protest against the attacks on German Jews, but despite the presence of prominent catholic laymen in the ranks of those agitating, the Church itself stood back. Nor was there any support for the demands from African-Americans, who had forsaken their longstanding identification with the Republican Party to vote for Roosevelt.
The biggest obstacle to concerted action against Hitler, at that time, was simply the impossibility of imagining that anything as profoundly evil as the Holocaust was to happen. In '33 and '34, serious people really thought that the usual sorts of diplomatic pressure could have an effect on Hitler's intentions -- a belief that we now understand to have been utterly wrong. Were there people then who saw clearly what was happening? I honestly do not know, and quite possibly I will find out as I read on.
It is very hard to read the flat, unemotional account and not scream at the page, "Could you not have taken some steps to intervene!" Military intervention was, I think, utterly impossible at that time. America had dramatically disarmed after World War I, and in the thirties, its small standing army was reduced to training with broom handles for lack of rifles. It took a full-scale war in Europe and enormous political risks on Roosevelt's part to get America to rearm in the late 30's and the first year of the 40's.
At this point in my reading, the most I can conclude is that America could have admitted more Jewish refugees -- ten thousand, twenty thousand, perhaps over several years as many as fifty thousand. A pitiful number when put up against the six million who were murdered in the death camps, but it would have been something.
I shall continue reading slowly, and report again when I have made my way through a good deal more of the book. I cannot honestly recommend that you read it. It is no fun.