WASHINGTON – A new exhibit at the U.S. Holocaust Museum blames America’s inaction leading up to the Nazi Holocaust on public opinion, a previous president and some little-known State Department figures, whitewashing Franklin D. Roosevelt’s role, says a leading expert on the subject.
Rafael Medoff, founding director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and author of 19 books about Jewish history and the Holocaust, blistered the exhibit in an opinion piece in Sunday’s edition of the Jerusalem Post.
“Most Americans recall FDR as a strong, decisive leader, but in this exhibit, he has been transformed into the Incredible Disappearing President,” writes the scholar and author of “Too Little, and Almost Too Late: The War Refugee Board and America’s Response to the Holocaust.”
The exhibit, says Medoff, begins by describing how some American Jews responded to the rise of Nazism by boycotting German goods and opposing U.S. participation in the Berlin Olympic Games. But there is no mention of Roosevelt’s opposition to the boycott, his support for taking part in the Games, or his insistence on friendly diplomatic and economic relations with Nazi Germany in the 1930s.
“The exhibit defends FDR’s refusal, from 1933 to 1938, to publicly criticize Hitler’s persecution of the Jews,” he writes, citing an explanation that “the accepted rules of international diplomacy obliged them to respect Germany’s right to govern its own citizens and not intervene on behalf of those being targeted.”
Medoff questions that assessment: “Obliged to respect Hitler’s brutality? Presidents Van Buren, Buchanan, and Grant protested the mistreatment of Jews in Syria, Switzerland, and Rumania, respectively. Theodore Roosevelt protested the persecution of Jews in Rumania. The U.S. government, under President William Taft, canceled a Russo-American treaty to protest Russia’s oppression of Jews. Woodrow Wilson inserted clauses protecting minorities in the Paris Peace Conference agreements. There was ample precedent for Franklin D. Roosevelt to speak out; he chose not to.”
“The exhibit overflows with material concerning antisemitism, nativism and isolationism in America in the 1930s,” Medoff writes. “The argument is that FDR could do little or nothing to aid the refugees in the face of such strong public sentiment. Yet Roosevelt was not afraid to take on controversial issues that were important to him, even if they lacked wide public backing, such as his scheme to pack the Supreme Court. He also carefully monitored public opinion and worked to reshape it on issues he cared about.”
Medoff says Roosevelt could have aided the Jews without provoking a public controversy, by quietly allowing the existing German emigration quota to be filled.
“Yet FDR permitted that quota to be fully utilized in only one of his 12 years in office, and in most of those years it was less than 25 percent filled. More than 190,000 quota places from Germany and Axis-occupied countries were left unused from 1933 to 1945.”
Countering the notion that U.S. public opinion was opposed to taking in Jewish refugees, Medoff cites an April 1944 Gallup poll, commissioned by the White House, that found 70 percent of the public in favor of such actions. While polls represent a central part of the exhibit, this one is not mentioned.
“Acknowledging the wartime shift of public opinion would upset the exhibit’s major theme,” he writes. “Mention of the widespread public support for temporary havens would reflect poorly on President Roosevelt, who granted haven to just 982 refugees in 1944. Viewers would realize that the president’s hands were not completely tied, after all.”
Chief curator Daniel Greene made clear what he considered to be the important takeaway from the exhibit in a Washington Post interview, saying he “hopes visitors will emerge with an understanding that even the U.S. president faces constraints.”
“Visitors who are familiar with the events in question, however, are more likely to emerge disappointed that the U.S. Holocaust Museum has distorted the historical record in order to make excuses for inexcusable policy decisions,” write Medoff. “One shudders at the thought of museums one day conjuring up excuses for more recent presidents who likewise turned a blind eye to genocide or other atrocities around the world.”