This certainly qualifies as interesting, and curiously familiar:
A new book disputes widely held assumptions that President Franklin D. Roosevelt was insensitive to the plight of European Jews under the Nazis, and instead concludes that he tried to arrange resettlement for thousands of refugees in the late 1930s, only to be thwarted by his own State Department.
The book, “Refugees and Rescue,” claims FDR developed plans in 1938 for the United States to fill its immigration quota with 27,000 Jews from Germany and Austria and to send others to British-held Palestine and friendly nations in Africa and Latin America.
“Most of the initiatives to resettle refugees in underdeveloped areas proved impossible, met substantial resistance abroad, or developed very slowly partly because of resistance by the Department of State,” the Center for Jewish History said in a statement about the book.
The book is based primarily on diaries of James G. McDonald, the League of Nations’ top official concerned with refugees from Nazi Germany in the mid-1930s.
“In tracking him, we stumbled on other new evidence about FDR’s role,” Richard Breitman, one of the book’s three editors, told a news conference on Friday.
In 1935, McDonald quit the League of Nations post to protest lack of support on the issue and later headed a committee advising Roosevelt, while also pressing for changes in US immigration laws. In 1948, he became the first US ambassador to the new state of Israel.
The State Department raised bureaucratic obstacles to immigration, through denial of visas and in alloting quotas for refugees, and along with Congress, resisted funding conferences or other initiatives on refugee resettlement. The State Department also stifled public release of reports about genocide. In 1942 it received but declined to release a report detailing Nazi plans to wipe out Europe’s Jews, according to the Holocaust museum.
I’m surprised McDonald’s story isn’t better known, but these diaries remained in his family’s hands until only recently. Scholars of the Holocaust disagree on the importance of his perspective, one putting it:
Roosevelt may have talked about mass resettlement of Jewish refugees but actions speak louder than words.”
Fair enough. But a situation where a president’s State Department undermines his own policies does sound eerily similar to much of the Bush Administration. It is very much believable to me.
In thinking about how history works—individual will and action pulling against the strong tide of inevitability—I stopped and pondered this passage:
The book says McDonald met Hitler in early 1933 and was immediately convinced that the then-new German chancellor was determined to destroy the Jews. At their March 31, 1933 meeting, a McDonald’s diary entry says, Hitler told him: “Even if Germany must draw its belt very much tighter, that will be a small price to pay for ridding itself of the menace of the Jews. The world will yet thank us for teaching it how to deal with the Jews.”
So many people after the war claimed “we didn’t know” about the Holocaust. Even our own complicit State Department didn’t get around to stifling its report on genocide until 1942, long after the genociding had begun. But McDonald got the grim picture right away, as did anyone who actually met, read, or listened to Hitler. Mein Kampf was published in 1925.
I’m too ignorant of history to know who was Secretary of State at the time, but there’s this cool site called Wikipedia that knows, like, everything (have you heard of it?).
Turns out, the Hillary Clinton of his time was some dude named Cordell Hull, who served in the post for virtually every day of the Roosevelt administration. One might presume from that detail that he wielded a fair amount of power.
Here’s what Wikipedia reports about Hull’s culpability for this period of history:
In 1939, Hull advised President Roosevelt to reject the SS St. Louis carrying 936 Jews seeking asylum. Hull’s decision sent these people back to Europe on the heels of the Nazi Holocaust. There is some controversy over Hull’s role in the affair. These Jews fled Europe to escape from the Nazis and after being denied entry into Cuba and the U.S. were granted refuge in England and in continental European nations. Many of the latter group became victims of the Holocaust after the Nazis invaded Western Europe in the following years.
To wit, there were two conversations on the subject between (Secretary of the Treasury) Morgenthau and Secretary of State Cordell Hull. In the first, 3:17 PM on 5 June 1939, Hull made it clear to Morgenthau that the passengers could not legally be issued U.S. tourist visas as they had no return addresses. Furthermore, Hull made it clear to Morgenthau that the issue at hand was between the Cuban government and the passengers. The U.S., in effect, had no role. …
In September 1940, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt maneuvered with another State Department official to bypass Hull’s refusal to allow Jewish refugees aboard a Portuguese ship, the Quanza, to receive visas to enter the U.S. Through Mrs. Roosevelt’s efforts, the Jewish refugees disembarked on September 11, 1940, in Virginia.
From this one could reasonably presume that State’s indifference to the plight of the Jews was well known in the White House, and that if one wanted to help them—even the First Lady—one had to do an end run around Hull.
Here’s another interesting note:
When the Free French Forces of Charles de Gaulle liberated the islands of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon south of Newfoundland in December 1941, Hull lodged a very strong protest and even went as far as referring to the Gaullist naval forces as “the so called Free French.” His request to have the Vichy governor reinstated was met with strong criticism in the American press. The islands remained under the Free French movement until the end of World War II.
At the very least, it would seem that a modern, well-researched biography of Cordell Hull is in order (I didn’t see one in my brief skim of Amazon).
And regular readers will detect my cynical delight in this almost-too-perfect addendum:
The Norwegian Nobel Committee honored Hull with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1945 in recognition of his efforts for peace and understanding in the Western Hemisphere, his trade agreements, and his work to establish the United Nations.
Yasser Arafat and Jimmy Carter, meet your granddaddy. And doesn’t the UN still bear his features?