Seventy years ago last week, President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill sat down for lunch at the White House. As they ate, they reviewed the war effort and exchanged thoughts on their plans for the postwar era. At one point the conversation touched upon the nettlesome question of the Jews.
The mass murder of Europe’s Jews was underway–the Allies had already publicly confirmed that–and refugee advocates were pressing for the Allies to do something about it. Meanwhile, the British had shut off Jewish immigration to Palestine, and Zionist groups were becoming increasingly vocal in their protests. What should be done with the homeless Jewish survivors after the war? What would be the future status of Palestine? FDR, it turned out, had a specific plan for what he called “the best way to settle the Jewish question.”
Vice President Henry Wallace, who recorded the conversation in his diary, said Roosevelt spoke approvingly of a plan (recommended by geographer and Johns Hopkins University president Isaiah Bowman) “to spread the Jews thin all over the world.” The Wallace diary entry adds: “The president said he had tried this out in [Meriwether] County, Georgia [where Roosevelt lived in the 1920s] and at Hyde Park on the basis of adding four or five Jewish families at each place. He claimed that the local population would have no objection if there were no more than that.”
President Roosevelt’s “best way” remark was condescending and distasteful at best. And if anyone else had used such language, it probably would be widely regarded as crossing the line into antisemitism. But more than that, FDR’s support for “spreading the Jews thin” may hold the key to understanding, a subject that has been at the center of controversy for decades: the American government’s tepid response to the Holocaust.
Here’s the paradox. The U.S. immigration system severely limited the number of German Jews admitted during the Nazi years to about 26,000 annually–but even that quota was less than 25% filled during most of the Hitler era, because the Roosevelt administration piled on so many extra requirements for would-be immigrants. For example, as of 1941, merely having a close relative in Europe was enough disqualify an applicant–because of the Roosevelt administration’s absurd belief that the immigrant would become a spy for Hitler so that his relative in Europe would not be harmed by the Nazis.Details