Prelude to Catastrophe: FDR's Jews and the Menace of Nazism. By Robert Shogan. Chicago, IL: Ivan R. Dee, 2010. 312 pp.
In Prelude to Catastrophe: FDR's Jews and the Menace of Nazism, Robert Shogan critiques the failure of American Jewish leaders to prod the Roosevelt administration into stronger action on behalf of Jewish victims of the Third Reich. The book is organized as a series of brief biographies focused on the Jewish leaders who had the most access to Franklin D. Roosevelt: Louis D. Brandeis, progressive reformer and Supreme Court Justice; Felix Frankfurter, Harvard law professor, talent-spotter for the Roosevelt administration, and eventually a Supreme Court Justice; Samuel Rosenman, FDR speechwriter and political confidante; Benjamin Cohen, White House legislative assistant and architect of important New Deal legislation; Rabbi Stephen Wise, prominent spokesman for American Jews; and Henry Morgenthau, Roosevelt's neighbor, friend, and Secretary of the Treasury.
Shogan identifies four failures of "FDR's Jews" and of the larger American Jewish community. First, Jews too often backed away from organized protests and boycotts out of fear of intensifying anti-Semitism or losing influence with the Roosevelt administration. Shogan claims that other New Deal political constituencies, such as labor unions and African Americans, extracted the best results from the administration when they resorted to protests or the threat of demonstrations. Second, he holds that Jews should have worked harder to convince the American public that Hitler's regime harmed not only Jews, but "threatened all of Western Civilization" (p. 225). Third, he writes that advocates for Jewish refugees failed to mount an effective rebuttal to the claims that increasing immigration quotas would worsen unemployment. Finally, the biggest mistake of American Jewish leaders was to let the president take their electoral support for granted.
Shogan's Roosevelt governed by "temporizing and dissembling" (p. 163). His failure "to lead the public in the proper direction.., doomed hopes that he would deal effectively with the Jewish refugee crisis" (p. 165). Roosevelt allowed the State Department to keep immigration quotas unfilled, and ignored creative proposals such as Harold Ickes' suggestion to open up Alaska to refugees. In one of his last acts as president, FDR betrayed a promise to the Jewish community and pledged to King Saud that he would oppose efforts to create a Jewish...