Two reviews in today's NY Times book review discuss recent studies of FDR's battle against the isolationists and other "anti-interventionists" in 1939 and 1940 before Pearl Harbor brought us into World War II. FDR, the reviewer noted, learned from the disastrous court-packing fight of 1937 and the failure to defeat the Southern Democrat-Republican reactionaries in the 1938 midterm. He drew from those setbacks the principle of not getting ahead of the American public; instead, he did what he could to move that public toward more progressive positions and in the interim, designed and passed Lend-Lease to keep the British in the fight until we could join them.
So when I read all the recent denouncing of FDR for not advancing the battle to save or rescue the Jews of Europe that a variety of so-called historians are propagating, I recognize that we risk making major errors when we charge historical figures with espousing and acting on all of our current values. Of course, it would have been better if we had bombed the rail lines to Auschwitz and if FDR had cracked down on the anti-Semites in the State Department who kept Jewish refugees out of the U.S. But FDR understood--as it is mighty hard for us to appreciate today--that there were strong forces in the U.S. then who both favored isolationism and were defiantly anti-Semitic.
1940 was not the same as 2013. Lindbergh--portrayed as a potential candidate who might well have defeated FDR in the 1940 election in Philip Roth's masterful novel, The Plot Against America--came out and accused FDR of "warmongering" because of Jewish influence. Roosevelt understood that if the effort to prepare the nation for war was perceived as based on any interest in helping the Jews, the whole campaign would be doomed from the start.
We don't encounter this kind of situation today. Of course, some might say that world antagonism to the right-wing Israeli government's policies is Anti-Semitism, but this is nothing close to the real Anti-Semitism and appeasement of the Nazis that was a powerful force in the pre-World War II U.S. Today's right-wing Jewish supporters of Bibi have made it hard for Jews to oppose Israeli government policy but many of us who love Israel despair for its future if these misguided policies continue. But back in 1940, there were real, rootin-tootin Anti-Semites whom FDR had to take on.
We know from Ira Katznelson's wonderful recent history, Fear Itself, about the deal FDR had to make with the Southern Democrats to get the New Deal enacted into law: he abandoned any effort to desegregate the South or give blacks civil rights. Bad deal? Absolutely. Did he have a real choice? Probably not. So when you read this tripe about how FDR let the Jews down, take a look at the histories reviewed today--one is entitled Rendezvous With Destiny, a title previously used for the wonderful history of the New Deal by Eric Goldman--and try to imagine an America in the pre-WW II period when even shrewd and progressive politicians like Franklin D. Roosevelt saw how they needed to bring the U.S. public along for the crucial fight--the war against the Nazis and Japan, and that that was no easy challenge.