Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882–1945) was the 32nd president of the United States (1933–1945).
Roosevelt was born in Hyde Park, New York, into a prominent family. Inspired by the career of his fifth cousin, US President Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt entered politics after attending Harvard University and Columbia Law School. He was elected to the New York State Senate in 1910 as a Democrat. President Wilson appointed him assistant secretary of the Navy in 1913. In 1920, Democratic presidential candidate James M. Cox selected Roosevelt as his vice-presidential running mate, but they lost the election.
In 1921, Roosevelt was stricken with a disease, likely poliomyelitis, and lost the use of his legs. Despite this disability, Roosevelt re-entered politics and was elected governor of New York State in 1928.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected President of the United States in November 1932. He was inaugurated on March 4, 1933. He was re-elected three more times—in 1936, 1940, and 1944—and died in office on April 12, 1945.
Roosevelt and the Refugee Crisis
Roosevelt’s main focus in his first term was the Great Depression and its consequences for the United States and the world. In 1933 about 25 percent of the US work force was unemployed; more than 11 million people were without jobs. Putting Americans back to work and reviving the economy became key priorities for the Roosevelt administration.
Nevertheless, the new president was extremely well-informed about the Hitler regime and its anti-Jewish policies. He perceived Nazi Germany as a threat to vital US interests. As Nazi persecution of German Jews intensified throughout the 1930s, leading to a refugee crisis, Roosevelt took only limited action in response to the humanitarian emergency.
The ill-effects of the Great Depression and US immigration policies severely reduced opportunities for refugees at a time when Nazi Germany was aggressively trying to force all Jews in the Reich to leave. Long before Roosevelt took the presidential oath, the United States had ceased to be a country of open immigration. Congressional legislation had strictly limited the number of aliens who could be admitted to the country as immigrants. The 1924 US Immigration and Nationality Act had established immigration quotas for each nation outside the Western Hemisphere. The total number of immigrants legally permitted to enter the United States each year was set at 153,774. More than 50 percent of the slots were allotted to potential immigrants from Great Britain and Ireland.
In September 1930, high unemployment in the United States led President Herbert Hoover to invoke a 1917 law with a “likely to become a public charge” clause, restricting immigration to people who could financially support themselves, even if they could not find a job in the United States due to the Great Depression.
Economic hardship continued in the US during the 1930s. The Roosevelt administration modified the “likely to become a public charge” restriction, but kept it in place, so German Jews attempting to immigrate to the United States in the early 1930s were often rejected for economic reasons. The United States had no refugee policy, only a slow and careful immigration process, requiring the immigrant to provide extensive documentation about their identity, background, financial resources, and medical history.
As a result of these legal and administrative obstacles to immigration, as well as the restrictions Nazi Germany placed on Jews attempting to immigrate, less than 20 percent of the German quota was filled in Roosevelt’s first term. While personally sympathetic to the plight of German Jews, Roosevelt, acutely aware of opposition in Congress and antipathy among the general public to large-scale immigration, did not intervene on behalf of these refugees.
The White House became more involved in the refugee crisis after the German annexation of Austria in March 1938, when tens of thousands of desperate potential immigrants added their names to the waiting lists for the United States. Roosevelt combined the German and Austrian quotas and called an international conference to discuss the problem.
On July 6, 1938, the conference opened in Évian-les-Bains, France. Roosevelt had hoped that the participating countries would pledge to take in some refugees, although he also wanted to create an intergovernmental organization that would negotiate with Nazi Germany to allow a peaceful immigration process. Roosevelt also explored the idea of mass resettlement of Jews, possibly to Africa, South America, or elsewhere.
Roosevelt's increased involvement in the refugee issue helped to fill the combined German and Austrian quota for the first time: 27,370 Germans and Austrians, mostly Jewish refugees, entered the United States in 1939, and 27,355 more in 1940.
By this time, however, with hundreds of thousands of Jews desperately clamoring for a US visa, the quota was not nearly adequate to meet the demand. Nor was Roosevelt willing to ask Congress to pass any expansion of the quotas, even when presented with exceptional circumstances. Even as Americans read about the persecution of German Jews in their local newspapers, few supported an increase in immigration, particularly while the country was still suffering the effects of the Depression.
In June 1939, the President did not intervene to permit the entry of the St. Louis passengers into the United States; this would have required an executive order or an act of Congress. Roosevelt similarly made no statement in support of the Wagner-Rogers Bill, introduced in February 1939, which would have admitted 20,000 German children into the United States outside the quota. The President chose not to take these steps, which were unpopular in Congress and to a majority of the public. Some Congressmen, in fact, introduced legislation that would reduce, rather than increase, the quota.
After Nazi Germany invaded Poland, beginning World War II, Roosevelt, like many government officials and ordinary Americans, feared that the Nazis were sending spies and saboteurs to the United States who would serve as a “fifth column” in the event of a German or Japanese invasion, helping to defeat America from the inside. Rumors also flew that Jewish refugees were a particular threat, since the Nazis could hold their loved ones, still in enemy territory, hostage unless the refugee worked on behalf of Nazi Germany.
At a press conference on June 5, 1940, Roosevelt stated: “Now, of course, the refugee has got to be checked because, unfortunately, among the refugees there are some spies, as has been found in other countries. And not all of them are voluntary spies—it is rather a horrible story but in some of the other countries that refugees out of Germany have gone to, especially Jewish refugees, they found a number of definitely proven spies.”
Roosevelt established the “President’s Advisory Committee on Political Refugees” which facilitated the admission of a few thousand prominent scholars, activists, and religious leaders in Europe, and Eleanor Roosevelt became heavily involved in advocacy on behalf of refugees. The State Department scrutinized all refugees as potential security concerns. The ongoing war, break in diplomatic ties between the United States and Nazi Germany, and lack of passenger ships crossing the dangerous Atlantic Ocean soon made it incredibly difficult for any refugees to come to the United States.
Roosevelt and the Holocaust
It is difficult to assess Roosevelt's motivations during the Holocaust, since he did not keep a diary or detailed account of his thoughts. After Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the United States formally entered World War II. Though Nazi propaganda portrayed Allied involvement in the war as being on behalf of “the Jews,” Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill believed that defeating Nazi Germany should be the only Allied priority; this was the best way to end Nazi terrorism against civilians, including Jews and the other victims of the Axis powers. The wartime rescue of civilians behind enemy lines was largely impossible for the Allies until late in the war.
After the State Department confirmed in November 1942 that the Germans were attempting to annihilate the European Jews, public pressure in the United States and Great Britain led these countries to hold a conference in Bermuda in April 1943. However, the Bermuda Conference did not lead to dramatic rescue action, which increased the anger and frustration of American Jews and other interested members of the public.
In January 1944, Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. and his staff pressured Roosevelt to take some form of action, presenting him with evidence that the State Department had been delaying even modest rescue and relief efforts. Roosevelt issued an executive order establishing a War Refugee Board (WRB), an independent agency tasked with carrying out a new American policy to rescue and provide relief for the Jews and other minorities being persecuted by Nazi Germany and Axis collaborators.
The War Refugee Board took significant yet limited measures to rescue Jews trapped in Nazi-occupied Europe. They used psychological warfare tactics, sending radio broadcasts into Europe and dropping leaflets on occupied territory warning would-be perpetrators of post-war punishment. The WRB negotiated with neutral countries to allow refugees to cross their borders, assisted Jews escaping from Romania and Bulgaria to enter Palestine, and selected Raoul Wallenberg for a mission into Budapest.
The War Refugee Board also successfully convinced Roosevelt to open a refugee camp in upstate New York, Fort Ontario, which housed nearly 1,000 people, mainly Jews, from Allied-occupied Italy. In November 1944, the WRB released a report written by escapees from the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, alerting Americans to the details of Nazi mass murder using gas chambers. The WRB calculated that they saved tens of thousands of lives in the final 17 months of the war.