By Bill Simons
“The U.S. and the Holocaust,” a six-hour series by Ken Burns, America’s pre-eminent documentary filmmaker, made its PBS debut with two-hour installments on the evenings of September 18, 20 and 21. Although it looked back to antecedents and forward to legacy, the documentary truly begins in 1933, the year that Adolf Hitler and Franklin Roosevelt come to power in Germany and the United States respectively, and ends in 1945 with the defeat of the Nazi Third Reich, as well as the deaths of Hitler and Roosevelt. The focus is on the Holocaust, the genocidal murder of two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population; even more specifically, the Burns’ lens examines the American response to the persecution of the Jews and the eventual Shoah. Questions are raised about the adequacy of the American response, from a moral and political perspective; the circumstances and personalities that shaped the American stance; the extent to which the plight of European Jews was known and understood in America; the leadership of President Roosevelt; and the priorities of American Jews. Burns provides few new revelations, but he repackages material from government records, speeches, diaries, letters, newspapers, radio broadcasts, photographs, newsreels, scholarship and interviews masterfully, rendering “The U.S. and the Holocaust” relevant, compelling and accessible to a new generation.
In preparation for viewing the Burns documentary, I revisited the Roosevelt home in Hyde Park, NY, the day before the series debut in the company of three other educators, my former student and friend Matt Maholchic; his wife, Jamie; and their friend Trish. Polls by historians consistently rank FDR as one of America’s three greatest presidents. His policies ameliorated the Great Depression and enabled victory during World War II. American Jews gave Roosevelt support and affection unmatched by any other president. Why, then, did FDR not do more to prevent the genocidal killing of six million European Jews?
Burns makes an effective case that adversaries, priorities and Constitutional restraints limited FDR’s response to the persecution and subsequent murder of European Jews. In 1924, nine years before Roosevelt assumed the presidency, Congress, pervaded by nativism and tribalism, passed the Johnson-Reed Act, establishing, for the first time, limits on the number of immigrants admitted into the U.S. per year and nationality quotas, restrictive on countries that harbored most of European Jewry. During the 1930s, domestic challenges, specifically combatting the Great Depression, preoccupied FDR. Moreover, after the mayhem of Kristallnacht in 1938, even the modest proposal to admit an additional 20,000 German-Jewish refugee children under the Wagner-Rogers Bill died in Congress. In 1939, 900 Jews aboard the German passenger ship St. Louis could glimpse Miami, but, denied entry to the U.S., were forced to return to Germany. For a time, it appeared that the charismatic aviator Charles Lindbergh, an isolationist and antisemite, might gain the presidency in 1940. An internationalist president facing strong isolationist sentiment, FDR was constrained by public and congressional opinion.
After the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt’s priority was winning World War II. He felt that he could most effectively combat the destruction of European Jewry by defeating Nazi Germany. Many Jewish voices pressed Roosevelt to do more to rescue European Jews. However, American Jews were not unified in their approach: some feared visibility would heighten antisemitism and others focused on a postwar Jewish homeland. Burns presents strong evidence that U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long cynically manipulated the visa system, erecting barriers to deny European Jews escape to the U.S.
Burns demonstrates that the American public and policymakers received information in the 1930s about persecution of the Jews and then, during the war, of genocide. Newspapers, however, limited coverage or sequestered such articles in the back pages. Moreover, the false World War I propaganda of German horrors deterred Americans from believing accounts of Hitler’s atrocities. At war’s end, Burns depicts Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower, anticipating future Holocaust deniers, ordering thousands of American soldiers, as well as prodding journalists, to view the horrors at the Nazi death camps.
In two powerful volumes, “Paper Walls” and “The Abandonment of the Jews,” my late professor David Wyman bore witness that more could and should have been done. During the prewar years before genocide, Hitler sought to drive the Jews from Germany, but relatively few were able to navigate the immigration restrictions of the Western democracies. According to Wyman, Allies should have bombed concentration camps and repeatedly warned the perpetrators of genocide that postwar justice would hold them accountable.
Burns acknowledges that the U.S. took in more refugees than any other nation and recognizes the work of the War Refugee Board. The courageous endeavors of individual government officials, politicians, journalists, ordinary people and 16 million American soldiers are commended by the documentary. America, along with allies and partisans, finally awoke to heroically defeat the subjugators, at great cost to U.S. lives and resources, but wasted years in denial.
Through powerful case studies, Burns humanizes the six million Holocaust deaths, including a fresh telling of the Anne Frank story. Aged survivors and their children speak. With the passing of the last of the survivors, the documentary will provide a bulwark against the Holocaust fading into historical oblivion.
By intent, “The U.S. and the Holocaust” is not easy viewing. Graphic images and pointed language explicitly document mistakes, indifference, suffering and devastation. Moreover, Burns does not allow viewers to hide behind smug assurance that they would have – or are – responding differently than did an earlier generation. The current Congress, like its predecessor of the 1930s, fails to adopt humane immigration reform. And Ukraine’s struggle for survival, and the fate of its refugees, raises anew troubling questions about the geopolitical and humanitarian obligations of the American democracy. Denouncing “the illusion of isolationism” in his February 23, 1942, “Fireside Chat,” President Roosevelt spoke to his time and to ours: “The present great struggle has taught us increasingly that freedom of person and security of property anywhere in the world depend upon the security of the rights and obligations of liberty and justice everywhere in the world.”
Bill Simons is a professor emeritus at SUNY Oneonta where he continues to teach courses in American history. He is also the co-director of The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, and served as a speaker for the New York Council on the Humanities.