Not all revisionist history is good, not all of it bad. Sometimes, it just is.
Too often, however, the approach of the revisionist historian is to cut the subject down to size. Not to reveal, not to explain, but to diminish. And too often the historian is an unreconstructed Marxist.
Okay, Lefties, how do you like revisionist history now?
In our house, FDR was not merely the president. He was a god.
He is a god no more. His New Deal is no longer solely credited with ending the Great Depression — World War II did that — and the war in Europe was not won, as we all once thought, primarily by the United States but more so by the Soviet Union. Yet these, to my mind, are trifles compared to the criticism that Roosevelt was passive in the face of the Holocaust. It’s not that he did nothing, it’s that he did nothing much.
This accusation of immense moral failure — or indifference — is now being addressed by a new book, “FDR and the Jews,” by Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman. It sets out to find a middle ground and instead makes things worse. It is a portrait of a president who, in the authors’ own words, “did not forthrightly inform the American people of Hitler’s grisly ‘Final Solution’ or respond decisively to his crimes.” This is a Roosevelt who almost always had a more pressing political concern — American isolationism, American anti-Semitism, a fear and hatred of immigrants — and who stayed mum while a bill to allow 20,000 Jewish children into the United States died in Congress.
Roosevelt inattentively also permitted a cabal of heartless anti-Semites in the State Department to control the country’s visa policies. Desperate Jews, fleeing from the Nazis, were denied asylum in the United States. One of them was Otto Frank. His daughter Anne perished at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
Both FDR and his wife, Eleanor, were genteel anti-Semites — although the president had Jewish aides and one close Jewish friend, his neighbor Henry Morgenthau Jr. Eleanor, a woman not afraid to confront her own prejudices, later became a champion of Jewish causes, but the record for the president on this score is hardly as redeeming. As late as 1943, at the Casablanca Conference, he sympathized with a French general’s observation that the Jews were overrepresented in the professions. FDR referenced the “understandable complaints which the Germans bore towards the Jews.”
Genteel anti-Semites: what a perfect description. Not just of the Roosevelts, but of a whole American class at the time.
The writer here, Richard Cohen, is no rabid Libertarian, drooling to bring down Roosevelt’s reputation. He is as solid an establishment liberal as there is—though not completely mindless (as contradictory as those assertions are).
What’s extremely worrying however, is not necessarily the truth of the matter (if any such thing can be determined), but the willing suspension of any inquiry or curiosity. The uselessness of the New Deal had long been suspected or known before Amity Shlaes finally drove a stake through its bleeding heart. The contribution of the Soviet Union to the defeat of Nazi Germany had only been hinted at.
And Roosevelt was given a pass on the Holocaust because he was trying to defeat the Nazis.
Roosevelt was a man of his times. His anti-Semitism was so common it would have been almost noteworthy if it were absent. But Thomas Jefferson, too, was a man of his times — a slaveholder like his Virginia contemporaries — yet his greed or his hypocrisy can hardly be overlooked or, maybe, forgiven.
It is the same with Roosevelt. His exuberant humanity, his political brilliance, his triumph in possibly saving the American free enterprise system — all this and so much more cannot negate the fact that he did not confront the biggest crime in all history with everything at his disposal.
Back in 1945, my mother thought a god had died. We know now he was just a man, not so great as he once appeared. Increasingly and deservedly, his reputation is being consumed by the very Holocaust he ignored.