Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Holocaust, and Modernity’s Rescue Rhetorics

Marouf Hasian Jr. Communication Quarterly. Volume 51, Issue 2. Spring 2003.

We can delay and effectively stop for a temporary period of indefinite length the number of immigrants into the United States … by simply advising our consuls … to postpone and postpone and postpone the granting of the visas.

~ Memo written by Assistant Secretary of State Breckenridge Long, quoted in Ostrow (1994).

During the last decade of the twentieth century, interest in the nature and scope of Holocaust remembrances became a major American (Novick, 1999) and international pre-occupation. Tens of millions of tourists, foreign dignitaries, and interdisciplinary scholars have visited such places as the U.S. Holocaust Museum (Smith, 1993) and the British Imperial War Museum’s Holocaust exhibit (Cesarani, 1998). At the same time, countless viewers are encouraged to “never forget” and to vicariously engage in acts of remembrance by watching popular films such as Spielberg’s (1993) Schindler’s List. As many researchers have pointed out, this revival of interest in trying to comprehend both the universal and unique features of the Holocaust has intrigued both scholars and lay persons-and created a number of socially constructed “rescue” rhetorics that are worthy of analysis.

Unfortunately, this renascent interest in understanding the many facets of Hitler’s Final Solution has been a mixed blessing, because we have witnessed the arrival of several other trends; the blurring of the lines between academic standards of historicism and popular notions of historical memory, the appearance of divisive debates about the relative importance of witness testimony and archival documentation, and the collapse of the modernist distinctions between fact and fiction. These various trends have also contributed to situations where “there is a strong tendency in historical writing on bystanders to the Holocaust to condemn, rather than to explain” (Marrus, 1987, p. 157).

Moreover, the ideological and social needs of the present have sometimes invited both scholars and lay persons to re-evaluate or revise their assessments of the accomplishments of the victors who helped to end the war of the “Greatest Generation” (Brokaw, 1998). As one the reviewers for this essay pointed out, many of those who lived through the World War II years remember a “heroic view of America,” where the U.S. nation rose to the challenge of ending a conflict that took tens of millions of lives. Within this particular historical horizon, hard choices had to be made, and Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) was just the type of leader who needed to make those decisions. Schlesinger (1994), for example, has noted that many Americans have simply forgotten that it was “FDR, more than any other person,” who “deserves the credit for mobilizing the forces that destroyed Nazi barbarism” (p. 14). World leaders who were once applauded for having defeated Hitler’s minions are now vilified for their lack of humanitarianism during wartime, their belated recognition of the magnitude of the Final Solution, and their failure to take seriously various proposals for negotiations with the enemy. “The United States, a nation of immigrants,” argued Berenbaum (1993), “was reluctant to become a haven for Jewish refugees,” because “[R]eflexive nationalism went hand in hand with widespread antisemitism [sic]” (p. 56). There are now collections of essays that review the question of whether the Allies should have bombed the death camps (Neufeld & Berenbaum, 2000). Few writers, notes Rubinstein (1997), have hesitated to criticize “the actions of the Allies” or to suggest “that much more could have been done which was not done” (p. 2).

In this particular essay, I am interested in exploring the rhetorical dimensions of just one small part of these historical and contemporary debates, the question of whether the FDR administration really did ignore or trivialize the problems that were associated with the Holocaust. Turner (1998) once suggested that the study of “rhetorical history” involved an understanding of both messages and contexts (pp. 2-3), and in this essay I would like to place some rival interpretations of the FDR war years in front of readers so that they can see how certain “rescue” messages gained or lost their salience. By providing a rhetorical analysis of some of the scholarly critiques and public commentaries that surrounded the activities of FDR’s third administration, I hope to shed some light on the question of how this president’s supporters and detractors viewed the refugee “problem” during Hitler’s Final Solution. Was Roosevelt aware of the range of policy options that are now being touted by today’s revisionists, and did this knowledge impact the policy decisions that his administration made between 1940 and 1944? An analysis of key internal and interdepartmental memorandums, journal articles, newspaper commentaries on the Holocaust, and recently declassified OSS cablegrams will show us that FDR and his supporters faced a number of military and political obstacles as they weighed the merits of several rescue options.

This rhetorical study has been divided into five major sections. In the first portion of the essay, I provide a brief contextual overview of some of the scholastic debates that have taken place in the last several decades over the role that the FDR administration played in the rescue of European Jewry during World War II. The second segment of the essay takes us back to the beginning of the war, when the Allies had to make decisions about the relationship between “national security” and the European “Refugee Problem.” The third part of the essay illustrates how FDR and the rest of the Allies dealt with the political pressures that came with the 1942 disclosures of Nazi plan’s for the systematic annihilation of Europe’s Jews. The fourth section extends this analysis by looking at the FDR administration’s handling of the Bermuda Conference in 1943 and the establishment of the War Refugee Board in 1944. Finally, the concluding segment provides an assessment of both our remembrances of FDR’s wartime policies regarding the judeocide and the choices that were made by Allied decision-makers. It will be my contention that some of argumentative positions that were taken in these wartime “rescue” debates formed the discursive templates that would be redeployed in more modern revisionist debates about the Holocaust.

Memories of the Holocaust and Modern Rescue Rhetorics

For several years after World War II, the vast majority of Americans and their Allies looked back on President Franklin D. Roosevelt as one of the key architect’s of Hitler’s defeat, the pragmatic and charming leader who held together the “United Nations” at a time when nations were just recovering from their isolationist sentiments. Displaced persons who had survived the ghettos or camps would eventually receive some aid from the victors who wanted to help with the rebuilding of a war-torn world (Friedman, 1973; Newton, 1996; Zucker & Zucker, 1987, pp. 1-26; Zuroff, 2000, pp. 219-243). In the traditional stories that were told about America’s relationship to the Holocaust, this was the “good war” that pitted the “forces of human decency” against the “most criminal regime the world had ever known” (Novick, 1999, p. 85).

With the passage of time, it was inevitable that there would be those who would look back on World War II and wonder why particular humanitarian policies had been accepted or rejected by American decision-makers. Some members of younger generations began second guessing the chronicles that were left by those who valorized the efforts of FDR and his administration. This simultaneous erosion of some recollections and the rise of others is a key dimension of some fluid and persuasive rhetorical histories. As Gronbeck (1998) once observed, the ephemeral nature of human activities creates a situation where “we have no access to the past as such, only to documentary, iconic, and recollected traces of those happenings” (p. 48). The transmission of our selective World War II histories and memories are therefore dependent on the “multiple rhetorics of the past” and the practices of various groups of advocates (p. 49).

Throughout Roosevelt’s third administration, his supporters were constantly having to engage in discursive battles with those who believed in the desirability of certain rhetorics of rescue, and critics questioned the American president’s choice of priorities. For example, the liberation of places such as Dachau and Buchenwald made some observers wonder why the U.S. State Department’s European Affairs or Refugee Affairs divisions hadn’t put this same effort into earlier attempts at preventing the Jewish “catastrophe” (Goodell, Mahoney, & Milton, 1995). Ironically, one of the first major criticisms of the FDR administration’s handling of the European refugee situation came from one of his own appointees, Henry Morgenthau, Jr. In the fall of 1947, Morgenthau would write an essay in Collier’s magazine that attacked the U.S. State Department’s handling of American immigration and refugee policies (pp. 22-23, 62-65). As I note below, there had been other public commentaries on this department’s diplomatic dealings, but many of these previous discussions often highlighted the bureaucratic problems that were associated with American policy making-respect for British Palestinian policies, international reluctance to shoulder the burden of the “refugee” problem, global anti-Semitism, or Depression worries. Now, however, American readers were learning about the role that personal prejudices and interdepartment bickering played in wartime decision-making.

In Morgenthau’s rendition of America’s refugee policies, FDR was not personally to blame for this non-feasance, but he was surrounded by State Department officials who were prejudiced or incompetent. He claimed that in the fall of 1942, that department had learned about the Nazi plans for extermination, and that these administrators did “practically nothing” for eighteen months (Morgenthau, 1947, p. 22). Moreover, he averred that U. S. officials “dodged their grim responsibility, procrastinated when concrete rescue schemes were placed before them, and even suppressed information about atrocities in order to prevent an outraged public opinion from forcing their hand” (Morgenthau, 1947, p. 22). As far as Morgenthau was concerned, Roosevelt had finally changed his mind about the nation’s refugee policies, but only after the Treasury’s Department’s disclosure of the State Department’s failures.

Twenty years later, Morse (1968) would extend Morgenthau’s arguments and claim in his While Six Million Died that many American communities had turned their backs on those who battled against the Nazi’s Final Solution:

The War Refugee Board represented a small gesture of atonement by a nation whose sympathy and inaction were exploited by Adolph Hitler. As he moved systematically toward the total destruction of the Jews, the government and the people of the United States remained bystanders. Oblivious to the evidence which poured from official and unofficial sources, Americans went about their business unmoved and unconcerned. Those who tried to awaken the nation were dismissed as alarmists, cranks or Zionists. Many Jews were as disinterested as their Christian countrymen [sic]. The bystanders to cruelty became bystanders to genocide, (p. 383)

Morse was willing to admit that the Allies may not have known about the exact location of the death camps, but it was his contention that by the early fall of 1942 there were still millions of European Jews who could have been saved.

In the mid-1980s, publication of Wyman’s Abandonment of the Jews helped revive the academic and popular discussions of Roosevelt’s wartimes decisions. This author, who self-identified himself as a “Christian, a Protestant of Yankee and Swedish descent” (Wyman,1984, p. xii) created a firestorm of controversy when he argued that the American State Department and the British Foreign office had “no intention of rescuing large numbers of European Jews,” and that “authentic information” about systematic annihilation was made public in November of 1942. From within this perspective, FDR’s “indifference” contributed to “the worst failure of his presidency” (Wyman, 1984, pp. ix-xii). By 1993, Wyman’s commentaries on the “abandonment of the Jews” was considered by some to be “a verdict fully supported by the extensive archival evidence he cited” (Berenbaum, 1993, p. 156).

Many scholars understood that many of Wyman’s arguments were not new, but what impressed them was the depth and breadth of his research. His work seemed to legitimate the search for a host of rescue rhetorics, and during the 1980s critics began writing about about the failures of a variety of other social agents-the Pope, the International Red Cross, the Palestinians living in the Yishuv, and the Jewish moderates in the diaspora. In 1989, Perl would assert that “most of the ‘civilized’ world closed its shores to the desperate victims when there was still a chance to rescue them is now well established by the documents of those very countries … There were deliberate, concerted steps to thwart rescue actions, such steps decided upon not only by individuals in power, but by governments. De facto measures thus amounted to cooperation, collaboration, and collusion with the German genocide plan” (p. 16). He was sure that between 1933 and 1944 more than a million potential immigrants were blocked from coming to the United States (Perl, 1989, pp. 70-71).

Despite these attacks, there were many scholars who willingly defended some of the Roosevelt Administration’s wartime strategies. “The Jews in Europe,” noted Fox (1980), “were nationals of the individual European nations,” and “relief or ‘rescue’ could only come in the form of an Allied victory” (p. 139). Heuvel (1997), one of the leading experts on FDR’s policies, noted that before the beginning of World War II, no one could have anticipated that the Nazi rise to power would inevitably lead to the Final Solution (p. 55). Moreover, before the U.S. entry into the war, the Americans were taking in more than twice as many Jewish refugees as the other nations combined (Heuvel, 1997, p. 56). Rubinstein (1997) advanced the provocative claim that Europe’s Jews who lived under Nazi occupation should really be considered “prisoners” and not refugees. He even considered the possibility that the closing of the immigration doors of the democratic nations actually deterred the Axis powers from perpetrating more injustices within occupied territories (Rubinstein, quoted in Herzstein, 1998, p. 327). This was just one permutation of the older argument that the admission of more Jewish refugees would encourage the public outbreak of anti-Semitism (Kushner, 1990, p. 383).

Given these conflicting views of FDR and the Holocaust, it is important that we go back in time and analyze some of the extant historical records so we can get some textured feeling for how the FDR administration and the American public viewed Allied rescue efforts and the Nazi Final Solution.

Early Allied Wartime Strategies and the FDR Administration’s Concerns about “National Security”

The two previous Roosevelt administrations had already been grappling with issues like the liberalization of immigration restrictions and aid to refugees, but as America prepared for war it should be admitted that these were considered to be low priorities in comparison with the necessities of military preparedness (Wyman, 1968/1985). Before the spring of 1940, America was still a neutral country, and a large part of the U.S. strategic planning for coalition warfare was based on the hopes that Britain, France, and the other potential allies could control the spread of German aggression. The Nazi blitzkrieg across the European plains, and the Soviet Union’s unwillingness to join the conflict, meant that Americans had to consider the possibility that the Nazis were trying to seize the “overseas possessions of the European colonial powers,” and in the process “destroying the very basis of American political and economic relations with the rest of the world” (Matloff & Snell, 1953/1999, p. 11). The American president was now worrying about how this latest European conflict was creating a situation where “ten million or twenty million men, women and children belonging to many races and many religions” would become parts of the growing refugee “problem” (Roosevelt, quoted in Hadsel, 1943, p. 110).

With the benefit of hindsight, we now know that there were very few saboteurs during the war (Rachlis, 1961), and that the vast majority of refugees or immigrants could be trusted, but during the first years of the war the views of many members of the Roosevelt administration were shared by Americans who worried about supply shortages, Japanese invasions of the West Coast, and the infiltration of spies. Secretary Hull, for example, was willing to think about the re-examination of immigration laws “so far as they affect legitimate refugees,” but he also wanted to reiterate the principle “that no distinction shall be made between refugees on grounds of race, nationality, or religion” (quoted in “The Refugee Problem,” 1941, p. 8).

By the fall of 1941, American readers were beginning to get an inkling of the significance of the Nazi deportations, and they slowly realized that not all of the camps or ghettos that dotted the European continent were filled with happy laborers. The front page of The New York Times carried this lead story in September of that year:

The appalling conditions under which some 3,000 Polish Jews must struggle to live in 300 ghettos throughout Nazi-dominated Poland are revealed by authoritative statistics received in the United States and made public here yesterday by Dr. Henry Szoskies. Starvation stalks throughout the ghettos and the death rate has been three and to some places to [sic] fifteen times the normal mortality rate. (Leff, 2000, p. 60)

It would take many more months before the Allies would learn about the existence and location of some of the death camps, but they now understood the urgency of the situation.

The 1942 Publicity about the Beginning of the “Final Solution,” and the Allied Discussions of Rescue and Refugee Policies

By the summer and spring of 1942, there were many observers who began to realize that these stories of Nazi activities had little to do with the fabricated atrocity tales of World War I. FDR (1942b) made it clear that he wanted his advisers to keep an eye on conditions in Poland and the rest of Europe, and that he himself was well aware of the chaos that was taking place behind enemy lines. For example, when Wise and other members of the American Jewish Congress put together a massive rally in July 1942, the President sent along this message:

Dear Dr. Wise. Americans who love justice and hate oppression will hail the solemn commemoration in Madison Square Garden as an expression of the determination of the Jewish people to make every sacrifice for victory over the Axis powers. Citizens, regardless of their religious allegiance, will share in the sorrow of our Jewish fellow citizens … The Nazis will not succeed in exterminating their victims any more than they will succeed in enslaving mankind. The American people not only sympathize with all victims of Nazi crimes but will hold the perpetrators of these crimes to strict accountability in a day of reckoning … (Roosevelt, quoted in Wise, 1949, p. 227)

Some 20,000 persons attended this rally, and they heard how FDR was confident that a “United Nations victory” would bring to all lands “the four freedoms which Christian and Jewish teachings have largely inspired” (“Nazi Punishment, 1942, p. 1). The American Jewish Committee publicized another message which noted that the “Jews of America, shoulder to shoulder with their fellow-Americans, have joined in a common dedication to the task of ending this reign of tyranny” (“Nazi Punishment, 1942, p. 4). These strategic arguments were tailored to fit within the universalist, liberal and nationalist ideologies of the Allied decision-makers (Kushner, 1990).

Many Anglo-American Jews accepted the legitimacy of Roosevelt’s position, but there were other commentators who believed that he needed to be more vocal in his condemnation of the Nazis. When would he become the leader of an international campaign that would transport millions of refugees to their new homes? Why didn’t he openly negotiate with the enemy, rescue more victims, free up money for boats, or force the Department of State to change its attitudes towards restrictive immigration? Didn’t the President realize that “half of the remaining Polish Jews” might be “exterminated” by the end of the year? (MacDonald, 1942, p. 10)

On August 2, 1942, FDR gave a press conference where he warned the enemy nations that they would be held responsible for any “barbaric crimes,” and he scolded those who talked “too much” about his governmental policies (Roosevelt, 1942a, pp. 52-55). This type of remark clearly indicates that FDR understood that there were differences of opinion regarding the handling of the war, and that his subordinates needed to respect the choices that he had made. The President wanted to join the rest of the Allies in broadcasting warnings to Germany, but he did not want to be pressured into making more interventionist policy statements.

FDR stood by his policy decisions and he focused on winning the war. Not even the publicity surrounding the “Riegner telegram”-which contained information on Hitler’s plans for the annihilation of many of Europe’s Jews-could alter these plans (Lewin, 1948, p. 288; Matzozky, 1980, p. 17; Novick, 1999, pp. 22-23). After the public circulation of this message in many Jewish and Polish communities, the President was bombarded with new calls for more decisive intervention in occupied Europe. FDR responded to these pressures by underscoring the importance of existing Allied initiatives, and he publicly reaffirmed his belief in the importance of ending the war as quickly as possible. During the early days of December, 1942, the President met with Stephen Wise and other Jewish leaders, and he explained to them that he hoped that the German people would rise up, fight Hitler, and overcome their “national psychotic case” (Held on Roosevelt, quoted in Matzozky, 1980, p. 18)

We now know that Roosevelt was obviously wrong about the possibility of any popular uprising “against the whole Hitler system,” but was this a sign of Allied “indifference?” One member of the press would later claim that Roosevelt was “profoundly shocked to learn that two million Jews had, in one way or another, perished as a result of Nazi rule and crime” (“President Renews,” 1942, p. 20; Matzozky, 1980, p. 18). In a memo that was prepared by Harry Hopkins in September of that year, the President learned of the “atrocities committed by the Germans and Japanese in Lidice, Poland, Nanking, Hong Kong, and other places” (Roosevelt, 1960, p. 56).

The Nazis seemed to be in full control of the situation, and now the Allies needed to decide just how they were going to respond to the “Final Solution.” By the middle of December, diplomats on both sides of the Atlantic were considering the possibility that a joint statement needed to be made about possible post-war retribution. One telegram that was addressed to the U.S. Secretary of State indicated that the “United Nations” needed to make it clear that they were worried about “these atrocities,” and that the “perpetrators” needed to know about the “certain retribution” that “awaits them” (Roosevelt, 1960, p. 67). Now there were many “nationals” who shared public concerns that “the worst atrocities” were being perpetrated “against the Jews” in “Poland” (Roosevelt, 1960, p. 67). Some members of FDR’s administration seemed to be aware that many “stateless” Jews had to deal with allies who didn’t always share their views on religious freedom, resistance fighting, or the benefits of Zionism. In this type of rhetorical situation, various “humanitarian” initiatives had to be framed within nationalistic discourses that talked about furthering the liberation of all of Europe.

On December 17, 1942, the Allies issued another warning about the legal implications that would attend any discovery of Axis wartime atrocities. Now there was even evidence that some “5,000,000 more Jews” continued to live under “the threat” of “doom.” In a memorable turn of phrase, FDR told one group that “the mills of the gods grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly small” (“President Renews,” 1942, p. 20). Rabbi Wise told reporters that the President had told him that the American government was going to take every possible step to “end these serious crimes against the Jews and the against all other civilian populations in of the Hitler-ruled countries and to save those who may yet be saved” (“President Renews,” 1942, p. 20). In one Parliamentary debate, a speaker noted that “the massacres and the atrocities are by no means confined to the Jews,” and that the “mere fact of being a Pole is quite sufficient for the Nazis to determine to exterminate a person” (Elgin, 1943, col. 556). An editorialist for The Jewish Chronicle explained how these “declarations” would do “much to clear the Christian conscience of Britain and America of the reproach of apathy in the face of horror which is as much a clear-cut challenge to Christianity as it is a menace to millions of Jewish lives” (“Answers,” 1942, p. 8).

The universalization of these trials and tribulations was considered to be a key element in the liberal movement toward ending these atrocities (Kushner, 1990), and the term “extermination” was used to describe the danger that awaited all European citizens. Note, for example, the careful wording of Edward R. Murrow’s famous CBS broadcast: “What is happening is this: millions of human beings, most of them Jews, are being gathered up with ruthless efficiency and murdered … The phrase ‘concentration camp’ is obsolete, as out of date as ‘economic sanctions’ or ‘non-recognition.’ It is now possible to speak only of ‘extermination camps’“ (quoted in Fine, 1988, p. 158).

Critics today are quick to point out that the defenders of the December 17 message refrained from the advocacy of any new massive rescue missions, but during the 1940s this could be interpreted as simply more evidence that the Allies needed to be realistic and measured in their responses (Fox, 1980, Kushner, 1990). Murrow’s announcement could also be viewed as just another reason for total warfare and a hasty end to the conflict. For example, a contributor to The New York Times sadly observed that “[T]he most tragic aspect of the situation is the world’s helplessness to stop the horror while the war is going on. The most it can do is denounce the perpetrators and promise them individual and separate retribution” (quoted in Lookstein, 1988, p. 115).

Radical interventionists who heard these Allied warnings were not convinced that this was the most effective rescue effort. An essayist for The Jewish Chronicle posed these questions for readers:

Are we, while the process of slaughtering a few more million Jews goes on, to rest content with a solemn indictment of the murder-gangs and a promise of punishment? Or are there positive relief measures that can and should be taken? … When questioned as to whether any who could escape from the occupied countries would be welcomed and assisted by the United Nations, the Foreign Secretary repeated that “certainly we should like to do all we possibly can” but added that “there were certain security formalities to be considered” and spoke again of “the immense geographical and other difficulties.” What an opportunity be missed! … instead of … hedging, the occasion was surely there for a splendid offer of sanctuary … The various details are accepted by everyone, the necessity for security measures and the geographic difficulties. But to place them on the same level of importance as the extermination of a whole people is to suggest a limited ability to appreciate the magnitude of the disaster. (“What Now?,” 1942, p. 8)

Note the similarities that exist between this wartime commentary and the critiques that would appear in the rhetorical histories of writers such as Wyman and Morgenthau. This type of attack doesn’t always provide specific details of how one gets to this “sanctuary,” and it assumes that the Allies didn’t already know about the magnitude of the disaster. By the time that this fragment was being written, the vast majority of refugees who were getting help were already in neutral or Allied countries. Moreover, if the Allies could only save some of the victims of the Holocaust, then decisions had to be made about the relative dangers that threatened these various “nationals.” These types of issues led Bernstein (1943) to conclude that perhaps the “principle hope of saving the Jews in Hitler’s clutches lies in swift, decisive victory “(p. 48).

The FDR Administration’s Discussion of Rescue Efforts in 1943 and 1944

Throughout 1943, there were a growing number of American journalists who began demanding that the Allies do more to end the carnage in Europe. In one typical essay, Kirchwey (1943) of The Nation magazine told readers about how “Hitler has promised total liquidation, and he is carrying out that promise as fast as his Mobile Extermination Squads can work” (pp. 366-367). Zukerman (1943), who wrote on the Warsaw Ghetto revolt for Harper’s Magazine, was hopeful that this military action would bring “consideration” and “respect” to the Jewish victims who had previously been treated with “pity and sympathy” (p. 355).

When some members of the Jewish Agency tried to convince Roosevelt and the other Allies that they needed to be engaged in more direct negotiations with the enemy, representatives of FDR’s administration responded by arguing that such schemes might interfere with existing war efforts. Assistant Secretary of State A. A. Berle was convinced that “nothing can be done to save these helpless unfortunates” except “through the invasion of Europe, the defeat of the German armies, and the breaking of the German power. There is no other way” (quoted in Gilbert, 1981, p. 135). In the early spring of 1943, the U. S. Senate passed a resolution that condemned the “atrocities inflicted upon the civil population in the Nazi-occupied countries, and especially the mass murder of Jewish men, women, and children” (Lipstadt, 1986, p. 203).

By this time, the Allies were being bombarded with nationalistic calls for aid, so if choices were going to made about just where to begin, then perhaps there needed to be some “international” [U. N.] solution to what was then called the “refugee problem.” In April of 1943, FDR sent American delegates to the Bermuda conference, and some officials heard about schemes that focused on how German nationals might be exchanged for some of the Jewish refugees. This plan was ultimately deemed unworkable, because there were between 20 and 30 million people who were considered a “liability to Hitler” (Breitman, 1985, p. 149). The refugees became pawns in the strategic evaluations that were being made about Allied and Nazi resources.

For those observers who advocated more massive intervention, the Bermuda conference was considered to be an international failure. The national delegates who attended these meetings spent most of their time arguing about their past accomplishments and their benevolent treatment of foreign refugees. An anonymous contributor to the Contemporary Jewish Record told readers that the delegates from Great Britain and the United States had decided that “no negotiations with Hitler could be undertaken, and [that] any plan to divert Allied shipping from the war effort would present insuperable obstacles” (“Chronicles,” 1943, p. 193). One reader of The New Statesman and Nation sent in this poem about the supposed failures of the Bermuda conference:

Where the remote Bermudas ride
The refugees’ lost cause is tried
The conference records its grief
That it can offer no relief …
Where once (of which they boast)
Faith’s martyrs in an earlier age
Escaped from persecution’s rage,
Two nations, as they bar the gate
To victims of the Nazi’s hate. (Sagittarius, 1943, p. 271)

Sometimes Anglo-American politicians were fairly open about the transparent political motivations that influenced the course of the Bermuda conference. For example, a member of the British delegation has left us this preparatory memo:

It should be noted that Great Britain, in spite of the prevailing stringency of food and housing under war conditions, is accommodating, besides Allied Forces or Merchant Seamen, nearly 100,000 refugees, while the Colonies are straining their resources … Owing to the acute security problem in Palestine, the authorities are not prepared, except possibly in individual cases, to accept male adults from enemy or enemy-occupied territories; but His Majesty’s Government will continue to do everything possible to facilitate the admission of children within the limits imposed by the 1939 White Paper. (British Embassy, 1963, p. 135)

Not to be outdone, the Americans sent out an AP dispatch that explained how the U.S. had been sheltering more than 500,000 refugees, and how this had been accomplished in spite of the “pinch of wartime shortages” (Lipstadt, 1986, p. 205). When all was said and done, the delegates at the Bermuda conference admitted that any workable proposal had to be “capable of accomplishment under war conditions” (“Hopeful,” 1943, p. 9). One American Senator, Scott Lucas, explained that he understood the problems of the “persecuted peoples in Europe,” but that every “day that you postpone bringing this war to a conclusion you take upon your hands the blood of American boys” (quoted in Breitman, 1985, p. 151).

Within such scenarios, any massive rescue efforts seemed to be morally reprehensible, because they might prolong the war and create national divisions. The British, for example, averred that selective Allied negotiations with the Nazis might mean “change over from a policy of extermination to one of extrusion, and aim as they did before the war at embarrassing other countries by flooding them with alien immigrants” (quoted in Lipstadt, 1986, p. 207). The “war effort,” noted Breitman (1985), “was not only the highest priority; it was also an all-inclusive and elastic standard … Too many people in too many places would object to, or take offence at, Allied solicitude for the Jews” (p. 152).

Palestinian Zionists and other critics of the Roosevelt administration blasted the Allies for have abandoned Europe’s Jewry. They tried to mobilize Anglo-American public sentiment and they wrote controversial articles about the possibilities of Allied rescue missions. In May of 1943, The New York Times published an advertisement that claimed that the Bermuda conference was “a mockery, and a cruel jest” (“To 5,000,000,” 1943, p. 17). The “Committee for the Jewish Army” was the group that paid for this advertisement, and they were led by a Palestinian who went by the name of Peter Bergson. The authors of this ad claimed that in spite of the Nazi efforts, there were still millions of Jews who could be rescued.

Both supporters and detractors of Bergson’s activities seem to agree that he was a master of publicity, and he did mount a campaign that involved movie stars and state politicians (Penkower, 1981). Yet many Jews and Gentiles worried that his Zionist aspirations threatened the unity of the Allies and their war fighting capability. For example, one newspaper writer reported that the American Council for Judaism was criticizing “attempts by other groups to establish a national Jewish State and a Jewish army of stateless and Palestinian Jews” (“New Jewish,” 1943, p. 4). These leaders wanted more refugee aid, but this had to be done within the Allied framework “for refugees of all faiths, political beliefs and national origins” (“New Jewish,” 1943, p. 4).

By the fall of 1943, some news writers, politicians, and military strategists were at least willing to contemplate the possibility that the “Jewish people” who lived under Nazi occupation deserved “special” attention, but this was a minority position in both England and the United States (Kushner, 1990). Emanuel Celler (1953), a former Congressional leader, recalled that during this period “there were informed and articulate groups who worked quietly against this public indifference” (p. 89). Mullaney (1944), for example, would write a letter to the editor of The New York Times, warning his contemporaries that by now there were many “signs” of “Hitler-spawned savagery, slaughterings [sic] and unbridled diabolism” (p. 37).

Some of the leading members of the Roosevelt Administration were hearing first-hand accounts of what was happening in Warsaw and other places. In late July, Karski, a Polish courier, had a lengthy meeting with FDR where he told the President about what he knew about the extermination of the Jews in Europe. In a book that was published the following year, Karski (1944) recalled that during his meeting Roosevelt “asked me to verify the stories told about the German practices against the Jews…. He impressed me as a man of genuinely broad scope” (pp. 387-388). Yet in spite of meetings like this, many Americans had a difficult time believing that any members of civilized nations were capable of perpetrating such horrors (Laqueur, 1980, p. 3; Leff, 2000, p. 54). This did not mean that the President or many of his supporters were indifferent. They simply had different assessments of the relative desirability of particular rescue strategies or negotiating tactics.

By this time it was clear that the Allies were probably going to win the war, and the President began making statements about the future of Europe’s Jewry. In the spring of 1944 Roosevelt informed one audience “that in the face of the manifest Nazi genocide, a Jewish National Home was more urgent than ever and he would, in proper time, implement this goal” (Roosevelt, quoted in Adler, 1972, p. 265). Yet even at this late date, when Roosevelt talked about Hitler’s victims, he carefully included the problems of many nations and ethnic communities. Morgenthau, in his “Personal Report to the President” (1/16/44) made sure that he didn’t violate any of the basic tenets of Anglo-American liberalism:

One of the greatest crimes in history, the slaughter of the Jewish people in Europe, is continuing unabated. This Government has for a long time maintained that its policy is to work out programs to save those Jews and other persecuted minorities of Europe who could be saved. You are probably not as familiar as I with the utter failure of certain officials in our State Department, who are charged with actually carrying out this policy, to take any effective action to prevent the extermination of the Jews in German controlled Europe … Whether one views this failure as being deliberate on the part of those officials handling the matter, or merely due to their incompetence, is not too important from my point of view … there is [sic] a growing number of responsible people and organizations today who have ceased to view our failure as the product of simple incompetence on the part of those officials in the State Department charged with handling this problem. They see plain Anti-Semitism motivating the actions of these State Department officials, and rightly or wrongly, it will require little more in the way of proof for this suspicion to explode into a nasty scandal. (Morgenthau, quoted in Mashberg, 1977, pp. 174-175)

The President must have realized that Morgenthau’s commentaries on perceived anti-Semitism resonated with a growing number of Americans, and he decided that it would be the Department of the Treasury that would oversee any future European relief efforts. Other agencies were now talking about “confirmed reports of the existence in Auschwitz and Birkenau,” of “extermination camps” that had put death more than “1,715,000” persons between “April 15, 1942” and “April 14, 1944” (Brigham, 1944, p. 3). In October of 1944, William Donovan, the Director of the O. S. S., was sending along information “about the possible extermination” of thousands of “Hungarian Jews” (p. 507). Eventually, the American War Refugee Board would announce that it was “a fact beyond denial that the Germans have deliberately and systematically murdered millions of innocent civilians-Jews and Christians alike-all over Europe” (Crider, 1944, p. 1).

Although one can sense the ambivalence that surrounded any commentary on the uniqueness of the Judeocide, there was finally a palpable sense of urgency in the air. Now there were more conversations about “free ports,” the feasibility of negotiating with a much weaker German enemy, and the liberation of the camps. Oswego, New York became a haven for about some 1000 former refugees (Lowenstein, 1982). President Roosevelt, in a letter to Charles Riegelman of the National Refugee Service, wrote about the “substantial contributions” that were made by the refugees who were involved in the war effort, and he hinted at the possibility that the nation needed to reform some of America’s selective immigration policies (“Refugees,” 1945, p. 10).

Does all of this mean that we need to erase our traditional remembrances of either FDR and the “Greatest Generation?” Is there any way that we can accept our modern understandings of the particularities of the Judeocide, while at the same time appreciating the universalist sentiments of the Allies who fought World War II? As Novick (1999) once explained, the “decision to give priority to postwar state-building over immediate rescue can easily be made to look appalling,” but one needs to take into account the contemporary appraisal of “what was and what was not possible” (p. 44).


This rhetorical analysis of various interrelated discursive fragments that circulated during FDR’s third administration shows that the President and his advisors were fully aware that vast numbers of Europe’s Jews were suffering in Nazi occupied territories between 1942-1944. These administrators may not have known about the specifics of the death camp exterminations, but they did know that millions of Nazi victims were dying. Not all of the diplomats or military leaders who participated in Allied planning were indifferent to the plight of the victims of the war-they simply had their own definitions of “rescue” and “catastrophe,” and they thought that the winning of the war was the best way to end the suffering in the camps. Wise (1949) once observed that in spite of the “hostility” of “certain gentlemen in the State Department,” and the “continued timidity of certain Jews,” the “President grasped what was occurring with more feeling and understanding than these so-called ‘friends’ of the administration” (p. 224).

As Gronbeck (1998) once observed, there are times when the “past” becomes a “battleground” that can be “raided, rebuilt, and perverted for any number of human purposes,” (p. 49), and the generational remembrances and histories that we have of the World War II years are no exception. For many years the valorized tales that were told about the American heroes who fought the war were considered to be sacrosanct and enduring, but contemporary needs and changes have altered this discursive landscape. Our modernist and revisionist histories are now filled with a growing number of victims and heroes, as certain traditions become “sites of struggle” in the contemporary wars that are waged over “social-political supremacy” (Gronbeck, 1998, p. 50). Both during and after the war FDR would be accused of various sins of omission-not providing stern enough warnings to the Axis powers, failing to negotiate with the Nazis, and delaying the creation of War Refugee Boards-but all of these critiques are based on a number of military counterfactuals and political assumptions. FDR’s detractors often assume that his radical critics spoke with one voice, that they were all talking about similar rescue plans, or that they agreed on the same military tactics. In reality, the advent of World War II brought thousands of possible plans for “rescue,” and controversial choices had to be made about the allocation of scarce resources. At the same time, there is little question that many diplomats and military leaders considered “special” calls of humanitarian aid to be peripheral issues-these were considered to be post-war matters that would be tackled by the “United Nations.” The FDR administration’s prioritizing of “natural security” may have been maddening for observers who believed that this term was being used promiscuously to cover up the State Department’s anti-Semitism, but for many contemporaries this was considered to be a legitimate reason for discarding radical and dangerous rescue missions.

At least since the fall of 1942, there simply was no shortage of information, and Roosevelt read or heard about countless wartime atrocities. He met personally with several couriers like Karski, who could provide eyewitness testimony on conditions in ghettos and in the camps. The question here is whether communication scholars are going to evaluate his particular choices on the basis of our modern-day knowledge of the Holocaust, or on the basis of what was considered to be feasible or desirable at that time. If we recontextualize the situation, we can see that during 1940-1941 the survival of the Allies was considered to be of paramount importance. Before the war started, these potential rescuers were willing to engage in some limited forms of negotiation, but once the war began, some of these efforts were redefined as acts that interfered with Allied war fighting capabilities. During 1942 and 1943, the Nazis were in full control of the major death camps, and some negotiations or rescue efforts were considered to be unrealistic and unwarranted (Bauer, 1994; Rubinstein, 1997).

As we assess the rhetorical histories that appear on our hermeneutic horizons, we need to keep in mind the many material and symbolic constraints of the times-what looks feasible today may not have looked that way in the 1940s. The perceptual range of options that we collectively talk about in our postmodern rhetorics of rescue, were not the same reconstructions of events that circulated during the FDR years. When Bergson and his Irgun supporters called for massive rescue efforts and support for the transportation of the remnants of “the Jewish people” to Palestine, they were dealing with an American public that didn’t always see the purported benefits of Zionism or the workability of radical schemes. Alliances with the British Empire also meant that imperial aspirations were a part of the political calculus of the period. Moreover, FDR was dealing with a number of interdepartmental squabbles, fragile alliances, and competing nationalistic agendas.

Obviously, I am not arguing for the primacy of any valorized histories that leave out some of the potential political or social implications of some of the controversial decisions that were made by either FDR or members of his Department of State. Given the “constructivist” nature of these remembrances (Turner, 1998, p. 53), scholars who are interested in exploring the polysemic nature of rhetorical histories also need to take into account the full range of discourses that circulated in any period. We need to admit that there were a minority of Americans who agreed with Bergson or Morgenthau, or who thought that the nation was still being too isolationist. There is no denying that there were some members of the administration who waited a long time before they would accept the “special” nature of the Final Solution. The consensus of opinion seemed to be that the horrors of the war needed to end, but the various advocates disagreed on how best to accomplish that objective.

One could reasonably argue that FDR could have let in a few more refugees, and that this could have been done without any interference with Allied efforts, but we need to remember the role that national allegiances played in these contemporary and modern rescue rhetorics. The major decision-makers of the period might have talked about Polish Jews or Hungarian resistance fighters, but they rarely talked about the uniqueness of the collective loss of six million Jews of the “Holocaust.” This would have appeared as “special” pleading in the minds of many British and American citizens, who tried to be inclusive when they talked about the religious affiliations of Hitler’s victims. At the same time, some forms of negotiations were considered to be impediments that stood in the way of Allied rescue efforts. This is, of course, was not Wyman’s position:

Between June 1941 and May 1945, five to six million Jews perished at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators. Germany’s control over most of Europe meant that even a determined Allied rescue campaign probably could not have saved as many as a third of those who died. But a substantial commitment to rescue almost certainly could have saved several hundred thousand of them, and done so without compromising the war effort. The record clearly shows, though, that such a campaign would have taken place only if the United States had seized the initiative for it. But America did not act at all until late in the war, and even then, though it had some success, the effort was a very limited one. (Wyman, 1984, p. ix)

Note how this paragraph is filled with a number of inferential leaps and ideologically loaded positions. It assumes that decision-makers were hearing about the existence of a single “determined Allied rescue campaign” and that these military strategists knew that this was a plausible plan. Moreover, it takes into account the modern superpower role of America and projects backwards, claiming that it was the United States that needed to be the major social agent for rescue efforts in the World War II years. This obfuscates the perceived international dimensions of the refugee “problem,” and makes many unsupported claims about the willingness of the Nazis to participate in meaningful prisoner negotiations. Wyman also de-emphasizes the fact that FDR’s administration was having to hear about a plethora of competing rescue missions. What type of quantitative or qualitative research could have been used to support the assertion that some one “third” of those who died could have been saved by the adoption of “the” rescue mission? Several other scholars have noted that these rescue rhetorics underestimate both the military and the diplomatic hurdles that had to be overcome (Fox, 1980; Heuvel, 1997; Rubinstein, 1997). The feasibility of these various World War II efforts is evaluated from the point of view of post-Holocaust generations, who may not have shared the same apprehensions, value systems, or capabilities of the “Greatest Generation” (Brokaw, 1998).

When FDR decided to issue an executive order in January of 1944 for the establishment the War Refugee Board, he was not admitting the failure of his earlier rescue efforts, nor was he adopting a Bergsonian approach to the refugee situation. He may have viewed this as simply beginning of his postwar planning. As Feingold (1983) once observed, “Roosevelt never really distinguished between what was happening in the death camps” and the “dozens of other problems of the war which pressed in on him … To say that rescue had a low priority is to misstate the case. It had no independent priority at all. Until 1944 it was simply not considered” (p. 457).

Even this more balanced commentary may go too far. Feingold assumes that “rescue” had some univocal meaning, or that the FDR administration was not even thinking about the victims of the Holocaust before 1944. This type of historical commentary disassociates the goal of the winning of the war from the rescue of the camps, and it views them as incommensurate policy options. It implicitly faults FDR’s supporters for believing that the winning of the war was the best type of rescue activity. From the point of view of those who look at a number of rhetorical histories, we need to remember that many audiences at the time believed that the liberation of the camps may have been the most effective way of ending the Final Solution. The “winning of the war as quickly as possible,” argues Heuvel (1997), may have saved more than all of those who might have been rescued through other proposals between 1941-1945 (p. 62).

In the coming years we will hear and read about a growing number of rescue rhetorics, and communication scholars need to be a part of the interdisciplinary communities that are critiquing these arguments. Regardless of where we stand on the political spectrum, we need to consider the heuristic value of future investigations that look into the rhetorical histories that are associated many other forms of rescue and retrieval-the alteration of slave labor laws, the call for African American reparations, the return of money from Swiss banks, and the compensation for work in the Japanese industry (Bazyler, 2002). As various advocates battle in the courtrooms and the other public forums of the twenty-first century, they will be providing us with novel rhetorics that will need to be unpacked and decoded.