Did President Franklin D. Roosevelt do the best he could to help Jews during the Holocaust? That’s the surprising made claim made in a controversial new exhibit at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Mainstream historians are calling the exhibit misleading and biased.

Below is the final installment of our 3-part series, adapted from the essay “Walls of Paper,” by Dr. Rafael Medoff, which was published in the spring 2018 issue of PRISM: An Interdisciplinary Journal for Holocaust Educators, published by the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education, at Yeshiva University. It is reprinted here by permission of the journal and the author. (For a full list of the footnotes from the essay, write to: [email protected] For parts 1 and 2 click here.)

Dr. Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, and author or editor of 19 books about Jewish history and the Holocaust. His latest book is Too Little, and Almost Too Late: The War Refugee Board and America’s Response to the Holocaust.


Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long, a personal friend of President Roosevelt, was in charge of 23 of the State Department’s 42 divisions, including the visa section. In a June 26, 1940 memo, Long advised his colleagues: 

“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 put every obstacle in the way and to require additional evidence and to resort to various administrative devices, which would postpone and postpone and postpone the granting of the visas.” 

The German invasion of Poland the previous September, followed by the rapid conquest of Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Holland, and France in the spring of 1940, provoked a wave of fear—among the general public and within the administration—of Nazi spies reaching the United States. Newspapers frequently published wild stories about Hitler planning to send “slave spies” to the United States. Attorney General Robert Jackson complained to the cabinet that “hysteria is sweeping the country against aliens and fifth columnists.”  

The president’s rhetoric fanned the flames. FDR warned about “the treacherous use of the ‘fifth column’ by persons supposed to be peaceful visitors [but] actually a part of an enemy unit of occupation.” In fact, there was only one instance in which a Nazi disguised as a Jewish refugee reached the Western hemisphere; he was captured in Cuba and executed. 

Three days after Long’s June 1940 memo, the State Department ordered consuls abroad to reject applications from anyone about whom they had “any doubt whatsoever.” The new instruction specifically noted that this policy would result in “a drastic reduction in the number of quota and nonquota immigration visas issued.” It worked as intended: In the following year, immigration from Germany and Austria was kept to just 48% of the quota.


In the spring of 1941, with Roosevelt’s approval, Long devised what has come to be known as the Close Relatives Edict. On June 5, 1941, he instructed all US consuls abroad to reject visa applicants who had a “parent, brother, sister, spouse, or child” in any territory occupied by Germany, Italy, or the Soviet Union. The rationale was that the relatives might be taken hostage in order to force the immigrant to become a Nazi or Soviet spy. 

Refugee advocates were horrified. The political weekly The Nation (July 19, 1941) denounced the new regulation as “brutal and unjust.” The October 1941 issue of Workmen’s Circle Call, a Jewish immigrant laborers’ publication, described it as “cruel and unimaginative.” B’nai B’rith’s National Jewish Monthly (December 1941) asserted that the new policy could be called “Keep Your Tired, Your Poor”—a reversal of the famous poem inscribed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. 

Protests were to no avail: The administration refused to budge. Actualization of the quota from Germany fell to less than 18% in 1942; only 14% of the quota for immigrants from German-occupied Poland was filled that year. In 1943, less than 5% of the German quota was used, as was only 16% of that for German-occupied France. A total of almost 190,000 quota places from Axis-controlled European countries were left unused during the Hitler years. 


What motivated senior State Department officials to take such positions regarding Jewish immigration? Anti-Semitism certainly played a role. Wilbur Carr, an assistant secretary of state in the Roosevelt administration, wrote in a 1934 diary entry that he preferred a particular summer resort because it was so “different from the Jewish atmosphere of the Claridge.” Assistant Secretary of State Adolf Berle confided to his diary in 1940, “The Jewish group, wherever you find it, is not only pro-English, but will sacrifice American interests to English interests…It is horrible to see one phase of the Nazi propaganda justifying itself a little.” Undersecretary of State William Phillips, in his diary (on May 18, 1923), once described a Soviet official as “a perfect little rat of a Jew.” It is no exaggeration to say that anti-Semitism was rife in Roosevelt’s State Department. 

Such sentiments also were common among the consular officials in Europe who directly decided the fate of visa applicants. Prof. Bat-Ami Zucker, in her book In Search of Refuge, the definitive study of US consular officials in Nazi Germany, found that the consuls “often commented on the danger of permitting a flood of Jewish immigration into the US,” warned of “its potentially dangerous impact on American society,” and suspected “a Jewish conspiracy in the United States to pressure the administration into facilitating immigration.” 

In a similar spirit, William Peck, at the US consulate in Marseilles, wrote to a colleague that he “deplore[d] as much as anyone the influx into the United States of certain refugee elements.” He was open to immigration by “aged people,” because they “will not reproduce and can do our country no harm.” On the other hand, “the young ones may be suffering, but the history of their race shows that suffering does not kill many of them.”  

However, anti-Semitism within the State Department alone does not suffice to explain US immigration policy, because it was President Roosevelt, not Breckinridge Long, who was the final authority. Ignorance was not the issue: President Roosevelt’s correspondence makes clear that he was aware the quotas were underfilled. Many references in the correspondence and diaries of Breckinridge Long allude to his regular briefings of the president on immigration policy, to which FDR responded positively. 

Some historians have explained Roosevelt’s strict policy as anticipating the likely electoral consequences (that is, the strong public opposition to immigration) and congressional opposition to liberalizing the immigration quotas, but those factors do not reflect that what is under discussion here is immigration within the existing quotas, not any effort to change the immigration system. An unpublicized instruction from the White House to the State Department to permit the existing German quota to be filled would have saved numerous lives while likely causing only the tiniest of political ripples. 


A more plausible explanation is Roosevelt’s attitude toward minority groups that he regarded as unassimilable. FDR in general exhibited little sympathy for immigration, expressed concern about what he saw as immigrants’ resistance to assimilation, and harbored racist sentiments about the dangers of “mingling Asiatic blood with American blood.” His conviction that the Japanese were biologically different, undesirable, and untrustworthy made Roosevelt was receptive to the proposal by some of his military advisers, after Pearl Harbor, to incarcerate Japanese Americans lest their “undiluted racial strains” inspire them to secretly assist the Japanese war effort. By order of the president, more than 110,000 Japanese Americans were rounded up throughout California and shipped to internment camps in Arizona, Wyoming, Arkansas, and elsewhere in 1942, even though there was not a single documented case of a Japanese American spying for Japan in World War II 

Roosevelt’s private remarks about Jews in many ways echoed what he wrote and said about Asians. Jews, he believed, tended to overcrowd specific geographical locations, dominate certain professions, and exercise undue influence. At a White House luncheon in May 1943, FDR told British Prime Minister Winston Churchill that “the best way to settle the Jewish question” would be “to spread the Jews thin all over the world.” According to Vice President Henry Wallace’s account of the conversation, Roosevelt said he had “tried this out in Marietta [Meriwether] County, Georgia, and at Hyde Park…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.” 

Roosevelt resented what he perceived as excessive Jewish representation in a variety of institutions. As a member of Harvard’s Board of Overseers in 1923, he helped institute a quota to limit the number of Jews admitted to 15% of each class, and still boasted about doing so two decades later. In 1941, FDR remarked at a cabinet meeting that there were too many Jews among federal employees in Oregon. 

The president was concerned about Jewish influence abroad, too. In 1938, FDR privately suggested to Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, the era’s most prominent American Jewish leader, that Jews in Poland were dominating the economy and were to blame for provoking antisemitism there. 

In the same spirit, President Roosevelt remarked at the 1943 Casablanca Conference that in governing the 330,000 Jews in North Africa, “the number of Jews [allowed to enter various professions] should be definitely limited to the percentage that the Jewish population in North Africa bears to the whole of the North African population,” which “would not permit them to overcrowd the professions.” He said this “would further eliminate the specific and understandable complaints which the Germans bore towards the Jews in Germany, namely, that while they represented a small part of the population, over fifty percent of the lawyers, doctors, school teachers, college professors, etc., in Germany were Jews.”

Certain individual, assimilated Jews could be useful to FDR as political allies or advisers, but the presence of a substantial number of Jews, especially the less assimilated kind, was, in his view, undesirable. Roosevelt’s private views help explain the otherwise inexplicable policy of suppressing refugee immigration far below the legal limits. His vision of America was of a nation that would be overwhelmingly white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant, with no room for any substantial number of others. 


Realistically, what options existed for President Roosevelt to assist Jewish refugees without endangering his political position or risking a difficult, and probably unsuccessful, clash with Congress? 

First, filling the existing quotas. The policy of almost never allowing the quotas to be filled “cost Jewish lives directly,” and “the restrictionist policy also played a crucial role in Nazi Germany’s decision to solve its ‘Jewish problem’ by more radical means,” Prof. Henry Feingold has argued; “The visa system became literally an adjunct to Berlin’s murderous plan for the Jews.”

Next, permitting more non-quota immigration. The existing law permitted professors, college students, and members of the clergy and their families to enter the United States outside the quotas. Yet from 1933 to 1941, the US admitted only 698 students identified as “Hebrews,” 944 professors (not all of them Jews), and 2,184 “ministers” (not all of them rabbis). With a more humane attitude, the administration could have taken advantage of this legal loophole and granted haven to many more endangered Jews. 

Finally, offering temporary admission to US territories. The determination as to whether an applicant for a tourist visa had a valid return address was strictly arbitrary; a more generous approach would have looked past that technicality and granted Jewish refugees temporary haven in an American territory, such as the Virgin Islands, whose governor offered to take them in, a move that would likely not have provoked any substantial domestic opposition. 

Tragically, the Roosevelt administration opted to turn its back on traditional American attitudes toward the downtrodden and chose instead, as Albert Einstein wrote to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, “to make immigration impossible by erecting a wall of bureaucratic measures.”