February 26, 2017

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A recent History Channel documentary about President Franklin D. Roosevelt distorts FDR's response to the Holocaust, according to a critique released by the Wyman Institute.

The film, FDR: A Presidency Revealed, "failed to clearly explain FDR's policy of refusing to rescue Jewish refugees from Hitler," the Wyman Institute concluded.  The documentary was produced by the History Channel and aired this week, shortly after the sixtieth anniversary of Roosevelt's death.


Wyman Institute director Dr. Rafael Medoff said the two-minute segment about the Holocaust that appeared in the four-hour documentary (on April 18) "confused and distorted three of the most important issues concerning America's response to the Holocaust."  Specifically:

*  The History Channel film stated:  "In the late 1930s, despite evidence of increasing Nazi antisemitism, the State Department  opposed liberalizing immigration quotas for German Jews.  Eleanor had fiercely objected; FDR had acquiesced."

In fact, Roosevelt did not merely "acquiesce" in the policy of keeping out Jewish refugees.  The State Department's policies reflected the president's wishes.  Roosevelt, too, opposed increased immigration. And it was FDR who put his old friend Breckinridge Long, an antisemite and extreme opponent of refugee immigration, in charge of immigration policy.

*  The History Channel film stated:  "Late in the war, anecdotal reports of Nazi death camps were heard in Washington."

In fact, the reports came early in the war, they were not just "anecdotal," and they were verified by the Roosevelt administration.  Less than a year after the United States entered the war, the administration confirmed that the Germans had embarked upon the systematic annihilation of Europe's Jews, and had already murdered some two million of them.  In December 1942, the Allied governments released a joint statement acknowledging that the Germans were "carrying into effect Hitler's oft-repeated intention to exterminate the Jewish people of Europe."

*  The History Channel film also mangled the issue of the U.S. refusal to bomb Auschwitz.  The film claimed that in 1944, the Roosevelt administration rejected proposals to bomb the rail lines to Auschwitz "because the targets were not considered vital to the prosecution of the war."

In fact, what "FDR: A Presidency Revealed" should have revealed is that during the course of World War II, the U.S. military did sometimes use its resources for purposes which were not vital to the war effort.  These ranged from air-dropping supplies to the Polish Home Army in Warsaw even though the U.S. knew most of the supplies would end up in the hands of the Germans, to General George Patton's rescue of the famous Lipizzaner horses in Czechoslovakia.

The film's brief segment about the Holocaust included a statement by historian Robert Dallek, that bombing the railroad lines to Auschwitz "would not have dealt a decisive blow to the Nazi extermination program," but at least it would have "sent a moral message." Yes, it would have sent a moral message.  But it might have done more--it might also have saved lives, by interrupting and slowing down the mass-murder process.  The point that the History Channel failed to explain is  that the Roosevelt administration never studied whether bombing the Auschwitz railways or the gas chambers would have saved lives.  The requests for bombing were automatically rejected because the fate of the Jewish refugees was a matter of very little concern to FDR.

The Holocaust section of the film ended with the narrator asserting:  "FDR remained narrowly focused on one goal: complete and unconditional German surrender.  Victory, he argued, would save the Jews, and every ounce of his diminishing strength would go towards that end."

The film should have explained that FDR's position --known as "rescue through victory"-- was disingenuous: there was, in fact, no contradiction between Allied victory and saving Jews.  The proof is that late in the war, under strong pressure from Congress, Jewish activists, and Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr., FDR did reluctantly take one step for rescue--he established the War Refugee Board.  Although it received little funding or other support from the White House, the Board played a crucial role in saving more than 200,000 refugees.  Its activities did not detract from the war effort.  Had the Board been established earlier, it could have saved many more lives without harming the war effort.