America’s Holocaust failure through the lens of 21st-century politics

Ken Burns’s new documentary focuses on immigration law and anti-Semitism in ways that both illuminate and distort the lessons of history while largely giving a pass to FDR.

Franklin D. Roosevelt in Warm Springs, Ga., 1930. Credit: National Archives and Records Administration via Wikimedia Commons.
Franklin D. Roosevelt in Warm Springs, Ga., 1930. Credit: National Archives and Records Administration via Wikimedia Commons.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Every generation views history through the prism of its own experiences and interests. So, it was probably inevitable that when Ken Burns, America’s great documentary filmmaker, took up the story of the Holocaust, it would be told primarily in terms of ideas that resonate with the PBS audience for which it was produced. There is a great deal of truth and, as always with Burns’s films, brilliant visuals, moving witness testimony and powerful storytelling, in his “The U.S. and the Holocaust,” which premieres on Public Broadcasting stations on Sept. 18 and airs for three nights. But while made at the request of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and with the assistance of the University of Southern California’s Shoah Foundation, it is also a film very much of this political moment.

The narrative is framed primarily as one about immigration rights with events in Europe only gradually taking over the story over the course of the three two-hour-plus episodes. It begins with the Emma Lazarus poem on the Statue of Liberty and goes on to discussions of mass immigration in the 19th century, the restrictions and country quotas imposed during the 1920s. It relates the impact that immigration laws, as well as anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic sentiments on the U.S. failure to let in more than a small percentage of the Jews who sought escape from the death sentence that faced them in Nazi-controlled Europe.

It concludes with the passage of more liberal immigration laws in the 1960s and then a montage, including protests about the collapse of security at America’s southern border; former President Donald Trump’s demand that a border wall be built; the 2017 neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Va.; the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting; and then the Capitol riot on Jan. 6 , 2021. It ends with warnings by talking heads that America’s thin veneer of civilization could, like Germany’s, collapse more quickly than we think.

The inescapable conclusion is that Burns and his team are, as is the case with even the best of his films (and some of his efforts like “The Civil War,” “Baseball,” “New York” and “Jazz” are among the greatest documentaries ever produced), interested in both telling a compelling story and in reinforcing the pre-existing biases of public television networks’ liberal viewing audience and the issues that matter most to them.

Anti-Semitism isn’t merely hateful sentiments; it’s a political organizing principle that has attached itself to a number of different ideologies.

To note this is not to deny the part that immigration laws and the American consensus against taking in refugees fleeing Europe in the 1930s and during World War II played in preventing their escape. Burns’s movie is entirely right to characterize the growth of American nativist sentiments and racism, as well as anti-Semitism, as major factors in the outcome. Up until the 1920s, America had more or less an open borders policy with the only restrictions being against those with disease while rules about preventing the entry of those who were not able to support themselves and therefore not be a “public charge,” largely ignored.

Anti-immigrant sentiment had helped pass the 1924 Johnson-Reed Immigration Act that imposed restrictions and strict quotas on migrants from Eastern and Southern Europe. But it’s also true that by then the country was no longer a vast and largely empty continent in desperate need of cheap, immigrant labor and settlers as it had been in the 19th century. After the Great Depression hit in 1929 and unemployment reached historic levels—a situation that despite the popularity of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal would not change until the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor—open borders would have made no sense even if nativism played no role in the debate.

But anyone looking to see analogies between that situation and today’s debate about the flood of illegal immigrants flowing over the southern border in the last two years needs to understand that the two situations are completely different.

Though advocates for a new open-borders policy sometimes speak as if every Central American seeking to come to the United States is fleeing for their lives like the Jews of Europe were, that is not true. Today’s immigrants and asylum seekers are overwhelmingly economic migrants rather than fleeing political or religious persecution. We rightly castigate those who closed America’s gates during the 1930s and even while the Nazi killing machine was in full operation because those Jews who couldn’t get in were facing a death sentence. Jews seeking entry then were not in search of economic opportunity or even political freedom when they begged for visas for the United States. They were begging for their lives.

That is a story that “The U.S. and the Holocaust” tells very well with the touching stories of survivors and the loved ones left behind and lost to the barbarism of the Germans and their collaborators intertwined with that of the political battles over both immigration and the need to face the Nazi threat in the United States.

U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt reviews his troops in Casablanca from a jeep, on Jan. 14, 1943. The tall walking figure at his side is Lt. Gen. Mark W. Clark. Credit: National Museum of the U.S. Navy via Wikimedia Commons.

The failure to rescue

What is most curious about this documentary is that, unlike Burns’s “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History” which came out in 2014 and included some criticism of FDR’s inaction when it came to the Holocaust, this film consistently defends him. The story told here is one in which the president, a man who had unchallenged political power as he bestrode the American scene winning four landslide elections, wanted to do more but was prevented from doing so. In this telling, it is Congress, the U.S. State Department, the spirit of anti-Semitism that prevailed in the country, as well as the exigencies of fighting the war and the impossibility of effective action or rescue that stopped a well-meaning president from saving more Jews. Fear of the conflict being portrayed as a “Jewish war” deterred FDR from calling more attention to the plight of the Jews and the same worries also influenced responses from Jews in the United States.

Those factors were formidable obstacles to increasing the number of Jews allowed into the country and then later to their rescue. The strength of anti-Semitic aviation hero Charles Lindbergh’s isolationist “America First” movement was a problem for Roosevelt. But at no time was it truly a political threat to him since in 1940 the Republican Party presidential nominee Wendell Wilkie shared FDR’s internationalist outlook and the president still breezed to an unprecedented third term that year.

Those who bend over backward to excuse FDR’s inaction should acknowledge that when he truly cared about an issue, he never let public opinion or congressional opposition stand in the way. That was true with respect to domestic policies like his dubious plan to pack the Supreme Court with liberal justices, as well as to his entirely necessary efforts to arm Britain before the United States entered the war. Efforts to help Jews escape or to hinder the Nazi killing machine were never administration priorities.

Moreover, the film’s spotlight on some of the true American heroes of this tragedy—such as Varian Fry and Hiram Bingham, who worked tirelessly and against the orders of the State Department to help save Jews trapped in Vichy France escape—only draws more attention to the question of what the United States could have done had it become official government policy to do what could be done to help those millions marked for death by the Nazi.

The War Refugee Board—the government’s one real effort to help save Jews—gets its proper due in the documentary. It was, as it is portrayed in the documentary, a bright spot in an otherwise unflattering portrait of American actions during this era. But it actually demonstrates American moral bankruptcy on the issue too. The board was created due to pressure from dissident Jews like by Zionist activist Hillel Kook (known then as Peter Bergson) and Hollywood screenwriter, playwright and journalist Ben Hecht, who were treated as troublemakers by the organized Jewish community and influential Jews like Rabbi Stephen Wise, a formerly great leader who failed to use his influence with FDR to take the issue of rescue seriously. That’s an episode in this story that deserved more attention than it got in the film.

The board was underfunded and given little support by Washington. But as the documentary demonstrates, it still managed to save, at the very least, tens of thousands of Jews in Hungary in 1944. While it is true that most of the victims of the Holocaust could not have been saved by Allied action, had the Board been in place earlier in the war and given more money and assistance, it might have saved significantly more people.

Bombing Auschwitz

The film also gives relatively little time to the question of whether or not the United States should have bombed the rail lines to Auschwitz or the death factory itself, as many in the Jewish community urged. Here again, the response of the filmmaker is a figurative shrug of the shoulders in which FDR and his administration are portrayed as dealing with an impossible dilemma. But when you consider how much effort the United States did put into far less important issues, such as saving masterpieces of art stolen by the Nazis, the equation looks very different. The same can be said of the enormous resources poured into helping resistance forces, who, with the notable exceptions of Yugoslavia (where the Communist Partisan resistance army tied down many Germans) and French actions that assisted the Normandy landings, did little or nothing to aid Allied victory.

Filmmaker Ken Burns speaks at the gala ceremony for the inaugural Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film, Oct. 17, 2019. Photo by Shawn Miller/Library of Congress.

The film asks whether Americans will respond to future catastrophes with more concern. But while such pious sentiments seem appropriate, they are also entirely beside the point. We already know how Americans act when confronted with other genocides. In the case of Rwanda, they did nothing. The same is true with respect to the horrors being visited on the Uyghur people in Western China by the Chinese Communist Party regime in Beijing right now.

Genocide is, of course, globally very different. Those being perpetrated outside of the context of a world war in which the murderers are also bent on conquest are bound to be treated less seriously, and that is why no one in the West lifts a finger when mass murders happen in places like Africa or central Asia, where no strategic interests are in play and few journalists are present.

As historian Deborah Lipstadt, the current State Department Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, correctly notes in the film, Nazi Germany largely achieved many of its goals with respect to the Jews. As the late historian Lucy Dawidowicz wrote in her classic work, The War Against the Jews, the German war waged on the Jews was entirely separate from the one they were fighting against the Allies. They won the former while losing the latter. The Allies never really cared about the war on the Jews—or at least not enough to do anything about it before their victory ended the slaughter.

Moreover, the attempt to frame the Holocaust as a function of general intolerance is always a mistake. Anti-Semitism isn’t merely hateful sentiments; it’s a political organizing principle that has attached itself to a number of different ideologies. Then it was Nazism, today it is the Islamism embraced by an Iran that seeks a nuclear weapon with which another Holocaust can be perpetrated. The answer to such threats isn’t open borders for America, amnesty for illegal immigrants or even more people reading The Diary of Anne Frank. The only way to deter a future genocide of the Jews is Jewish empowerment and their ability to defend themselves, something they would only gain after the war with the creation of the state of Israel.

Like all of Burns’ films, “The U.S. and the Holocaust” makes for riveting television and provides plenty of fodder for serious thought. For those who know little about the history of American anti-Semitism and the basics of the Holocaust, it provides an introduction to these subjects.

Yet contrary to the film’s conclusion, the Holocaust tells us nothing about what to do about America’s contemporary immigration debates. The fact that a CNN interview with Burns led to a discussion in which efforts by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to ship illegal immigrants to Martha’s Vineyard, whose liberal residents advocate for open borders, were compared to the actions of the Nazis shows just how misleading the filmmaker’s efforts to frame the issue along these lines are. Nor should it help fuel efforts to falsely label those political opponents whom the liberal establishment is trying to smear as fascists and Nazis threatening democracy.

The Holocaust was a chapter of history marked by American failure. But as much as the documentary is told through the prism of what it meant to America, the responsibility for the murder of 6 million Jews belongs to the Nazis and their collaborators. It was a crime that the United States may not have had the power to deter, but it could have done more to stop once it began had its political leadership been willing to do so. That is bad enough. But those who want to apply that lesson to complicated 21st-century political debates while ignoring actual genocides going on in real-time now or seeking to render Israel defenseless in the face of those who are actively plotting another Holocaust, shouldn’t pretend they’ve learned anything from the past.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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