Each time I publicly speak about President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, the leader of the American Jewish community during the 1930s and 1940s, there is a heated, sometimes angry debate among audience members that can be summed up in just four words: “Roosevelt and the Jews.”
FDR’s critics say the leader of the world’s most powerful country failed to use his extraordinary political capital to take lifesaving executive actions that would have countered, perhaps even prevented, the Nazis’ mass murder of more than 6 million Jews.
Roosevelt’s detractors claim that behind his jaunty demeanor, broad smile and omnipresent cigarette holder was a “closet anti-Semite” who failed to open wide the gates of entry for Jewish refugees who desperately sought to escape the Nazi killing machine in Europe.
And there is always this counterargument: FDR, after his election in 1932, faced the devastating Great Depression, strong anti-immigrant feeling and a virulent anti-Semitism fueled by Catholic priest Charles Coughlin’s obscene weekly radio broadcasts and the anti-Jewish speeches of aviator hero Charles Lindbergh.
This side further argues that beginning in 1941, Roosevelt, as commander in chief, successfully led a vast global military campaign that defeated not only Nazism, but fascism and Japanese militarism as well.
FDR supporters claim that during the late 1930s he carefully and skillfully prepared America for the war against totalitarianism through a series of adroit actions that included a peacetime military draft and a “lend-lease” program that militarily strengthened a beleaguered Great Britain.