The conventional assumption about the 1944 presidential election is that since American Jewry was firmly in President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s pocket, the Jewish vote was never a factor in the race.
But a newly discovered document reveals that, in fact, concerns about the Jewish vote were very much on the minds of some officials in Roosevelt’s State Department in 1944 and may have affected its actions toward European Jewry.
The document is a report by an official of the Orthodox organization Agudath Israel to his colleagues on June 20, 1944, describing his meeting the previous day with R. Borden Reams, the specialist on Jewish matters for the State Department’s Division of European Affairs.
Behind the scenes, Reams had repeatedly shown himself to be unsympathetic to the Jews. He lobbied against Allied confirmation of the mass murder of Europe’s Jews, fearing it would lead to “increased pressure to do something more specific in order to aid these people.” He opposed negotiating with the Nazis to release Jews because of what he called “the danger that the German government might agree to turn over to the United States and Great Britain a large number of Jewish refugees.” And as secretary to the U.S. delegation to the 1943 refugee conference in Bermuda, Reams helped ensure that no concrete rescue plans would emerge from the gathering.
So perhaps it is no surprise that in his meeting with Agudath Israel official Meier Schenkolewski in June 1944, Reams began ranting about what he called the “disastrous” visit to Washington by other Orthodox activists two months earlier. In April, Rabbis Avraham Kalmanowitz, Baruch Korff, and Aharon Kotler had met with Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. to complain about the State Department’s obstruction of rescue efforts. Rabbi Kotler collapsed to the floor in a pretend-faint, which moved Morgenthau to call Secretary of State Cordell Hull and press him on the refugee issue.
Reams resented Morgenthau’s intervention and evidently blamed Rabbi Korff, who was well known in Washington as a lobbyist for the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe (the Bergson Group). According to Schenkolewski’s report, “Korff, [Reams] says, is the most disliked personality in the State Department.”
“One of the leading officials [in the State Department] has declared,” Schenkolewski continued, quoting Reams, “that though he will not be an anti-Semite, he will not lift a finger any more for a Jew in matters of rescue since his experience with Mr. Korff.”
However, according to Schenkelowski, Reams added that “as long as the elections have not passed, it is impossible to break [Korff's] influence.”
It was highly unusual for a State Department official to acknowledge that the upcoming presidential election in November affected U.S. policy on the rescue issue. The implication was that the administration feared losing Jewish votes in key states such as New York, which had the largest number of electoral votes (47).
Documents from the period yield only a few other references to the possibility of Jews voting against FDR over the refugee issue.
In January 1944, Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long, writing in his diary, praised Roosevelt’s belated creation of the War Refugee Board as “a good move—for local political reasons—for there are 4 million Jews in New York and its environs…This will encourage them to think the persecuted may be saved and possibly satisfy them—politically.” (Actually there were about 2 million.)
And after the Republican National Convention, in June 1944, adopted a first-ever plank endorsing rescue and Jewish statehood, American Jewish Congress leader Rabbi Stephen S. Wise warned a Roosevelt aide that if the Democrats failed to adopt a similar plank, “it will lose the President 400,000 or 500,000 votes.” Evidently he was referring to a possible backlash against FDR among Jewish voters in New York.
But Schenkolewski’s report about Reams is the first document to quote a Roosevelt administration official saying that the policies he himself was helping to shape were influenced by the upcoming presidential election. Even though no Jewish leaders or organizations had urged Jewish voters to oppose Roosevelt, the concern that some Jews might do so was in the air in Washington.
The episode is also rife with bitter irony: while a State Department official was supposedly threatening that “he will not lift a finger any more for a Jew in matters of rescue since his experience with Mr. Korff,” in actuality the State Department had never lifted a finger for rescue, Korff or no Korff. In fact, not only did they do nothing,but, even worse, senior State Department officials including Reams repeatedly suppressed news about the Holocaust and obstructed opportunities to rescue refugees.
The ultimate problem, however, was not that there were some bad apples in the State Department, but that the Department’s actions reflected the views of the president. In an interview in 1978, veteran U.S. Congressman Emanuel Celler, a fervent New Deal Democrat, told filmmaker Laurence Jarvik: “I always considered [FDR] a wonderful president and ever will. [But] he didn’t raise a finger to help the Jews.”
Dr. Rafael Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and coauthor, with Prof. Sonja Schoepf Wentling, of “Herbert Hoover and the Jews: The Origins of the Jewish Vote and Bipartisan Support for Israel.”