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Op-Ed: FDR's Anti-Semitic Cocktails - with Molotov

FDR used anti-Semitism as "an icebreaker", say some historians - oh, really?
Published: Monday, March 17, 2014 4:30 AM



FDR blamed Polish Jews for anti-Semitism in Poland... helped bring about a quota on Jewish students admitted to Harvard.
The controversy over President Franklin D. Roosevelt's private remarks about Jews is not just about the discovery that a president made bigoted comments--which would be bad enough--but is made much worse by the fact that some prominent historians have tried to whitewash them. 

Two of the remarks were made by FDR to senior Soviet officials. One was on May 29,1942, during a visit to the White House by Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov. Professors Richard Breitman and Allan Lichtman, in their new book 'FDR and the Jews', report that President Roosevelt and his senior adviser Harry Hopkins "loosened up" Molotov "with liquor and with an exchange of anti-Semitic comments."They were just "using anti-Semitism as an icebreaker." (p.301) 

Leaving aside the unflattering stereotype of Russians as a bunch of drunken Cossacks, one is struck by how far Breitman and Lichtman are stretching to justify what FDR and Hopkins said during their cocktails with Molotov.

Here's what they said. According to the minutes of the conversations, Hopkins at one point remarked that the American public’s view of Soviet Communists had been damaged by the presence in the Communist Party USA of “largely disgruntled, frustrated, in effectual, and vociferous people--including a comparatively high proportion of distinctly unsympathetic Jews.” The translator at the meeting, Harvard University professor Samuel H. Cross, then wrote: “On this the President commented that he was far from anti-Semitic, as everyone knew, but there was a good deal in this point of view.”

Molotov, Roosevelt, and Hopkins then apparently agreed that “there were Communists and Communists,” which they compared to what they called “the distinction between ‘Jews’ and ‘Kikes’,” all of which was “something that created inevitable difficulties.”

The timing of the remarks is especially noteworthy, when one considers the "explanation" that the comments were just an "ice-breaker." An “ice-breaker” is, by definition, something utilized at the beginning of a conversation, in order to facilitate a more open discussion. The Molotov transcripts, however, reveal something very different.

They begin by describing a discussion about various topics that was held when Molotov first arrived at the White House that afternoon. Then there was another detailed conversation that took place before dinner. Yet another discussion was held during dinner. The final talk was after dinner, in the president’s study. It was only in that very last segment --and just before the conclusion of that segment-- that the exchange about Jews took place. 

In other words, far from serving as an “ice-breaker,” the anti-Semitic remarks were uttered many hours after the ice was broken. Yet Professors Breitman and Lichtman have seen the transcripts; they cite them in their footnotes. They know the remarks could not possibly have been ice-breakers.

As troubling as the Molotov cocktails incident was, it was not an isolated incident.

At one point during the Yalta conference, in February 1945, the conversation between President Roosevelt and Soviet premier Josef Stalin turned to what was known, in those days, as the "Jewish problem". FDR mentioned he would soon be seeing Saudi Arabian leader Ibn Saud, and Stalin asked if he intended to make any concessions to the king. According to the transcript, “The President replied that there was only one concession he thought he might offer and that was to give him the six million Jews in the United States.”

Professors Breitman and Lichtman, in 'FDR and the Jews', say that this "quip," as they call it, was likewise used by FDR as "an ice-breaker." (p.301)

(Assistant Secretary of State Walter Bedell Smith was so concerned it would be seen as more than a "quip" that he censored that sentence when the Yalta transcripts were first released in 1955. The full text eventually leaked out, however.)

Given the high stakes at Yalta, perhaps there are those who would say that telling an anti-Semitic joke or two was justified if it would soften up Stalin and advance the cause of world peace. That certainly is the implication of the "ice-breaker" explanation.

But once again, the "ice-breaker" claim is not supported by the historical record. The Yalta conference lasted a week. The transcripts show that Roosevelt made his "quip" about Jews on the next to last day, long after the ice was broken.

The record of President Roosevelt's unpleasant private remarks about Jews is, sadly, not limited to what he said over cocktails with Molotov and at Yalta to Stalin. That record includes statements in which FDR blamed Polish Jews for anti-Semitism in Poland; spoke of the "understandable complaints" of the Germans about the prominence of Jews in some professions; boasted to a colleague that "We know we have no Jewish blood in our veins"; helped bring about a quota on Jewish students admitted to Harvard; and recommended that Jews be "spread out thin" around the world so they would not dominate any particular economy or culture.

And in some of these instances, too, prominent historians have withheld information that reveals a side of FDR that is deeply troubling. Historians have a professional obligation to report the whole truth, not hold back the parts that reflect unfavorably on someone whose reputation they are trying to protect.

(Dr. Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, in Washington, D.C., and author of 15 books about Jewish history and the Holocaust. The latest is FDR and the Holocaust: A Breach of Faith.)