President Franklin D. Roosevelt was, and still is, one of most admired and esteemed presidents in American history. I grew up hearing a lot of good things about FDR. I also heard some bad things from those who felt the “New Deal” created the modern welfare system with all its contested problems. One thing is certain, FDR’s name was esteemed by most scholars and ordinary Americans who lived through the Depression and the Second World War. Rarely could you get a serious taker for a critical debate on FDR’s accomplishments, at least not among those who loved and adored him as a president.
When FDR died on April 12, 1945, Americans grieved deeply as a nation. His picture hung in millions of homes. He was lionized by multitudes and is still considered by a large number of people to be one of our five best presidents. Amazingly, he is the only president to have served three full terms in office. He had just been elected to a fourth term less than six months before he died. (Constitutionally no single person can be elected to more than two full terms now. A vice-president who assumes the office for any reason might be elected for two terms, thus serving more than eight years total but the Constitution was amended after FDR to stop anyone from being elected to more than two full terms.)
What about FDR? Well, the “New Deal” is no longer credited with ending the Depression. Several scholars have debunked this myth pretty severely. It might have had a minor impact on the economic state of the US but most now agree that World War II ended the Depression. And the major credit for winning the war in Europe is certainly not given to FDR by most modern historians. Most now believe much more credit should go to the Soviet Union than to the efforts of the American allies. (It is true both groups were needed but the balance of time and perspective has clarified a great deal here.) Another aspect of FDR’s increasingly tarnished legacy, one that bothers very few moderns, was recently exposed in a feature film (Hyde Park on the Hudson) which revealed what we already knew about FDR’s sexual relationships with several different women. But these debates are, to my mind at least, a mere walk in the park when you consider another part of the FDR legacy that has been addressed very powerfully in a new book titled FDR and the Jews, by Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman. (I’ve not read the book yet, just some reviews, but I think I get the broad argument clearly enough.)
Washington Post syndicated columnist Richard Cohen, not a conservative critic of FDR in the least, recently commented on this new book saying:
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
But Brietman and Lichtman go further in their analysis of FDR’s moral cowardice and complicity in the Nazi Holocaust. They say that he permitted a cabal of anti-Semites in the State Department to control the visa policies of the United States so that desperate Jews who fled the Nazis were denied asylum in the United States. I always felt that this was true, based on some deep suspicions that I had formed from other reading of history, but this book now confirms my worst instincts about FDR. But it gets even worse. FDR had a very “mixed” record on anti-Semitism personally. As late as the Casablanca Conference in 1943 he sympathized with a French general’s observation that the Jews were overrepresented in the professions. FDR called this an “understandable complaint which the Germans bore towards the jews.” Given the wrath of so much of the secular press against the pope of the Nazi era I wonder if the same secular press will now reconsider FDR’s anti-semitism. (I am not convinced that the pope was an anti-Semite at all. I rather believe the evidence is very strong that he sought to save Jews!)
Breitman and Lichtman say that FDR did support programs that saved over 100,000 Jews. But he did not even publicly mention the extermination of the Jews until 1944 when the worst had already been done and more than seven million had died. Quoting columnist Richard Cohen again, “He showed almost no leadership on this issue, refusing to confront nativist anti-Semitism and fear of foreigners.” Cohen concludes that Roosevelt was “a man of his times . . . his anti-Semitism was so common it would have been almost noteworthy if it were absent.” But Cohen concludes by saying we can, and should, praise FDR for his exuberant humanity, his political brilliance, his triumph in saving the American free enterprise system but we must clearly say that “he did not confront the biggest crime in all history with everything at his disposal.”
Historians are right to praise FDR for his considerable accomplishments. These are real. But they are also right to now question his moral reputation in the light of the complete story of his failure to intervene in the greatest ethical issue of his time. I am reminded by this story that no leader is above fault and all leaders will be judged by history over time. More importantly, all leaders, and this includes you and me, will be judged by God on the Last Day. Christians ought to keep this in mind and thus continually ask themselves, “Am I truly standing up for the weak and suffering with the courage and dignity that God gave to me in the redemption that was given in Christ?” Can we expect less of our elected leaders? What about Christian leaders? The church has far too often been complicit in humanity’s sins. We should continually repent and acknowledge our corporate and personal failure when we are shown that we have failed to speak out as we should. I did not speak out enough in the Civil Rights era. I increasingly saw the issue for what it was and slowly embraced it. I also did not speak out on the Vietnam War, something I now regret. I am sure this influences why I now speak out about slavery around the world, about unjust wars in the name of God and America and our constant failure to redress the wrongs that we too routinely commit against the weak, including (but not limited to) our failure to protect the rights of all people and the life of the unborn.
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I wonder what sort of role media played in shaping the times both then and today. It seems that with the rise of radio, and government spokesmen taking advantage of the medium where a few spoke and many listened that almost everywhere across the globe governments increased in power and people looked to government for the solutions to their problems. In comparison today internet users provide millions of voices, with numerous general viewpoints expressed and sought out by “believers” in the varied systems. Government is viewed by many, if not most as a suspicious enterprise. But in the days of radio, those politicians that harnassed the power of radio moved nations in a way few leaders can today. Roosevelt won many Americans with his fireside chats, and it is doubtful if any voice could so resonate with the internet medium.
FDR was always either loved or hated. I would like to make some further observations. It is interesting that the conservatives fought tooth and nail against the reforms of the New Deal and it probably really was the war that lifted us out of depression…but interestingly enough it was this “state guided” effort to mobilize resources, organize production, limit profits, high-taxation… etc….for war that did it and produced the subsequent prosperity…not the free market. So, the argument could be made that the problem with the New Deal was that it was hobbled by the right from accomplishing what the war in fact did. By the way, debt as a percentage of the GDP was greater during WW II than it is now, but the high taxation brought it under control. Also, considering his relationship to the Jews, I think he had a fair number of them in high positions in his administration, no? Also, unlike the dictators of the time, he had to govern by keeping a large number of interests of different groups in balance and satisfied, and he had to do this by staying on their good side or at least “seeming” to agree with them. He had a bad habit of appearing to agree with people, when he really just meant he understood what they were saying. Anyway, he probably saw the problem of keeping the coalition of people within the US and abroad together as more important, and more significant in helping Jews and the rest of the world fight the fascists than taking a dramatic but self-defeating stand. Lastly, probably his understanding of what was going on at the time, and his ability to actually “do something” were probably much more limited than we can understand today. FDR is one of my favorites….flawed, but a great leader nonetheless for his ability to bring all kinds of people together. We could really use someone like him today.
Rarely do people make the judgments that later history would make on their actions. One easily overlooked fact is that the German atrocity stories, very popular in the First World War, had largely been proven false. No Belgium nuns were raped. There was a deep distrust of all such stories. In much the same way, the massive executions of Stalin and Mao were not publicized, although they were well-known at both the State Department and the Department of defense.
I even think FDR was highly criticized at home for being overly favorable to Jewish interests, I know for sure the Nazis believed he was completely Jewish controlled and believed that he himself was Jewish. Don’t quote me but those are the impressions flooding back to me from my reading on the subject….
Just as with JFK, the stories of brave and bold leadership woven by politically opportunistic are being reduced by a more perverse reality. Thanks for the good reminder.
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