Nixon, Truman and FDR: Presidents’ private thoughts about Jews

By Rafael Medoff/JNS.org

Click photo to download. Caption: From left to right, former U.S. presidents Richard M. Nixon, Harry Truman, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Credit: Hartmann, Greta Kempton and Frank O. Salisbury via Wikimedia Commons.

The latest tapes of President Richard M. Nixon’s private conversations reveal a number of anti-Semitic remarks made by the president. This is not particularly surprising, since previously released tapes also contained hostile comments about Jews by Nixon. But one remark in the latest tapes stands out. Discussing potential judicial nominees with an aide, Nixon said, “No Jews. Is that clear? We’ve got enough Jews. Now if you find some Jew that I think is great, put him on there.” 

How could the president make disparaging remarks about Jews and instruct that they be excluded as nominees, and then, in the same breath, declare that he would accept a Jew “that I think is great” (presumably one whose political and social views mirrored Nixon’s)? How could he harbor such apparent dislike of Jews in general, yet feel perfectly comfortable embracing a certain kind of Jew?

There were, in fact, a number of Jews in Nixon’s inner circle, from Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to legal counsel Leonard Garment.

One finds a similar phenomenon with regard to several earlier presidents. A previously unknown diary by Harry Truman, discovered in 2003, revealed that he harbored harsh feelings about Jews. Incensed when former Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. called him about the plight of the refugee ship Exodus in 1947, Truman wrote in his diary, “He [had] no business, whatever to call me. The Jews have no sense of proportion nor do they have any judgment on world affairs... The Jews, I find, are very, very selfish. They care not how many Estonians, Latvians, Finns, Poles, Yugoslavs or Greeks get murdered or mistreated as D[isplaced] P[erson]s as long as the Jews get special treatment. Yet when they have power, physical, financial or political neither Hitler nor Stalin has anything on them for cruelty or mistreatment to the under dog.” 

Yet Truman, like Nixon, also had a number of Jewish friends and aides, such as his lifelong friend and business partner, Eddie Jacobson, and senior White House advisers David Niles and Max Lowenthal.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s privately expressed views on Jews were not all that different from Nixon’s. While Nixon worried about having too many Jews among judicial nominees, Roosevelt once told his cabinet—according to the account of Treasury Secretary Morgenthau—that there were “too many Jews among federal employees in Oregon.”

In a similar vein, President Roosevelt told French military leaders at the Casablanca Conference in 1943 that “the number of Jews engaged in the practice of the professions” in liberated North Africa “should be definitely limited,” lest there be a recurrence of “the understandable complaints which the Germans bore towards the Jews in Germany...”

Prof. Leonard Dinnerstein, who has studied Roosevelt’s appointees, writes, “Of his 192 judicial appointments, seven went to Jews,” which was nearly identical to the number chosen by his three Republican predecessors in the White House. Moreover, “The number of Jews employed in policymaking positions in the Departments of State, War, Navy, and Commerce, the Federal Reserve Board, the Federal Trade Commission, the U.S. Tariff Commission, and the Board of Tax Appeals [under Roosevelt] could probably be counted on one’s fingers and toes.”

And FDR rejected a proposal to name his economic adviser Benjamin Cohen assistant secretary of the treasury because he feared it would constitute too much Jewish representation in that department.

Yet Roosevelt, like Truman and Nixon after him, embraced individual Jews when their talents and expertise proved useful—so long as they did not press him on Jewish issues. As a result, the Jews in Roosevelt’s White House seldom mentioned Jewish concerns. To a friend who urged Cohen to ask FDR about European Jewry, Cohen replied (in 1940), “I don’t feel that I should push myself into Jewish matters where the skipper does not ask my advice.”

There were exceptions, of course. Morgenthau belatedly, and under pressure from his (non-Jewish) staff, went to the president about the plight of Europe’s Jews. Niles and Lowenthal actively pressured Truman to support the creation of Israel.

But more typical was Kissinger, who—according to a tape released several years ago—advised Nixon in 1973 that even “if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern.” That was exactly the kind of counsel Nixon preferred to receive from his Jewish advisers.

Dr. Rafael Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, in Washington, D.C.  His latest book is “FDR and the Holocaust: A Breach of Faith.”

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Posted on August 26, 2013 and filed under U.S., Features.