Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.: Accused of sugarcoating FDR's views on Jews

Historians in the News

ARTHUR SCHLESINGER JR.'s Journals may indeed reveal him to have been an egoist and name-dropper, as P. J. O'Rourke asserts in "Dear Diary, I Think I'm in Love" (December 31/January 7). But far worse was Schlesinger's willingness to sometimes omit from his history books facts that reflected poorly on his heroes. Consider how Schlesinger handled the question of Franklin D. Roosevelt's response to the Holocaust. In various articles and in his 2000 memoir Schlesinger claimed FDR "did more than anyone else to save" Jews from the Nazis. Roosevelt "did not have an anti-Semitic bone in his body," Schlesinger approvingly quoted Trude Lash as saying. But Schlesinger knew more than he was letting on.

In 1959, while working on his laudatory history of the New Deal, Schlesinger interviewed former U.S. senator Burton K. Wheeler and obtained a memorandum Wheeler prepared after speaking with FDR on August 4, 1939. Discussing the presidential aspirations of Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Roosevelt said to Wheeler that if Hull ran, Mrs. Hull's part-Jewish background "would be raised" by his opponents. "Mrs. Hull is about one quarter Jewish," FDR said. "You and I, Burt, are old English and Dutch stock. We know who our ancestors are. We know there is no Jewish blood in our veins, but a lot of these people do not know whether there is Jewish blood in their veins or not."

But Schlesinger kept the document under wraps. In his writings about Roosevelt, anti-semitism, Jewish refugees, and the Holocaust, he never mentioned that he knew of FDR's remark about the undesirability of "Jewish blood." But the issue of FDR's views on race did not go away. In 2001, Professor Greg Robinson revealed articles Roosevelt wrote in 1923 and 1925 claiming "the mingling of Asiatic blood with European or American blood produces, in nine cases out of ten, the most unfortunate results," and urging restrictions on the citizenship and property rights of "non-assimilable immigrants." Still there was no comment from Schlesinger on the role of race in FDR's thinking.

Two years ago, I wrote Schlesinger to ask his view of the "Jewish blood" remark. In his reply, he defended FDR's statement as "a neutral comment about people of mixed ancestry." Maybe so. Or maybe it was additional evidence that Roosevelt's views on race could have played a part in shaping his closed-doors refugee policy during the Holocaust. Unfortunately, Arthur Schlesinger did more to cloud the issue than to clarify it.

The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies Washington, D.C.

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Alonzo Hamby - 1/16/2008

Both FDR and Eleanor were raised in an upper-crust atmosphere in which social anti-Semitism was taken for granted. One can search through the letters of their early years and find the occasional anti-Semitic comment. But it seems clear to disinterested observers that they outgrew this prejudice rather quickly.

The Morgenthaus were among their closest friends from the time Henry Morgenthau, Jr., purchased a country home in Hyde Park. Both had many other Jewish friends and advisers.

Operating under the constraints of established immigration laws he could not ignore and the widespread anti-Semitic feeling in the US of the 1930s and 1940s, Roosevelt did what he could to facilitate the entry of at least 100,000 Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany before World War II. (Some estimates are as high as 200,000.)

AND he led the successful effort to exterminate Nazism.

Perhaps he might have done something more, but one might think the historical record sufficient to override charges of anti-Semitism. Unfortunately that is not and never can be the case for Mr. Medoff and the David Wyman Institute, which seems emotionally invested in the idea that Nazis lurk behind every bush and that Jews are in mortal danger in the United States of the early 21st century.

Tonja Christine Fleischer - 1/12/2008

Sir to imply that FDR was an anitsemetic is insulting to his memory for those that got through the GReat Depression, and the WWII. He might not have done as much as we wanted him to do for the Jews in Europe, but he had to deal with a society that was extremely antisemetic. Lindburgh, Ford, and Vanderbelt to name a few. Lindburgh even went so far as to go over to Germany on a tour. FDR was trying to help Britain as much as he could at a time when the country was determined to be neutral. If you look at his adminitration he had more then one Jewish person work for him. Also do you really think Eleanor Roosevelt would have let him be antisemetic?