The late Philip Roth is my favorite novelist, and his novel The Plot Against America, now a widely-praised HBO mini-series, is an excellent, disturbing book. The book posits an alternate history in which an isolationist, antisemitic Charles Lindbergh defeats FDR for the U.S. presidency in 1940, and proceeds to enact a series of increasingly draconian antisemitic measures. Among those measures are sending Jewish youths out to the country to live with Gentile families to become “real patriotic Americans,” away from the implied malevolent of their families, the Jewish community, Jewish culture, and Judaism.
The irony in the title of this post arises from the fact that while Lindbergh, while an isolationist not above antisemitic smears in his campaign to keep the U.S. out of World War II, never actually advocated anything remotely like the policies depicted in Roth’s book, FDR did.
As David Dalin relates in his review of Rafael Medoff’s new book The Jews Should Keep Quiet: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, and the Holocaust, when he was the Democratic vice-presidential candidate in 1920, FDR has this to say about New York’s immigrant population, surely referring primarily to Jews:
They have crowded into one district and they have brought congestion and racial prejudices to our large cities. The result is that they do not easily conform to the manners and the customs and the requirements of their new home. Now, the remedy for this should be the distribution of aliens in various parts of the country. If we had the greater part of the foreign population of the City of New York distributed to different localities upstate we should have a far better condition.
While it may be hard to imagine that FDR would have ever undertaken coercive policies to disperse American Jewry, one has to recall that he did not hesitate to order loyal Japanese-American citizens away from the West Coast. Less well-known, his economic policies were designed to destroy the South’s low-wage economy. While this was intended to have long-term positive economic effects on the regime, the short-term plan involved the intentional destruction of hundreds of thousands of jobs held by African Americans in agriculture and industry, which helped cause a mass migration by African Americans to the North in search of work. These predictable consequences seem to have bothered FDR (and his economic advisors) not at all.
Historians have largely chosen to ignore or downplay FDR’s racism and antisemitism, despite their being not just ample evidence of both, but ample evidence that his prejudices played a significant role in the public policies he pursued. Even as the reputations of traditional American heroes ranging from Thomas Jefferson to Woodrow Wilson have suffered due to their racism, FDR, depicted as the hero of the Great Depression and World War II, has thus far emerged relatively untarnished.
Meanwhile, the Jewish community’s historic loyalty to the Democratic Party to a large extent descends from the community’s strong affection for FDR. My parents, children when FDR died, still remember their whole families crying bitterly when his death was announced. Having learned more about FDR’s attitudes toward the Jews and his extreme reluctance to help Jewish refugees from the Holocaust, my dad now refers to him as “that SOB.”