The Holocaust Historiography Project

Book review

Roosevelt And Hitler: Prelude To War

  • by Robert E. Herzstein. New York: Paragon House, 1989, hardbound, 500 pages, photographs, index, $24.95. ISBN: 1 -55778-021-8

Reviewed by Robert Clive

Among those who are essentially sympathetic with his presidency, opinion about Franklin D. Roosevelt’s role in the period leading up to Pearl Harbor is divided. During the late 1930's, FDR promised “time and again” that he would not intervene in any “foreign” war; since then, his many defenders have portrayed him as a leader who only reluctantly was compelled by forces beyond his control to take action against a world-wide fascist menace. Others, while admitting that FDR played a key role in the anti-Axis coalition even before official U.S. involvement in the war, have accused him of not doing enough to address the particular concerns of world Jewry, and cite American refusal to admit hundreds of thousands of Jewish “refugees” prior to 1941 as evidence of his lack of sensitivity. This view is summarized by Arthur D. Morse in his book, While Six Million Died.

Robert Herzstein, a professor of history at the University of South Carolina and consultant to the World Jewish Congress and the U.S. Justice Department, has spent many years uncovering previously “hidden” Nazi activity. He played a mofor part in the attempt to “expose” Kurt Waldheim. In his latest book, Roosevelt & Hitler: Prelude to War, he seeks to set the record straight by detailing how FDR worked relentlessly to involve the U.S. in a war against Hitler that the American people as a whole had no genuine interest in. Readers of this journal may find Herzstein’s study to be remarkable in many respects, as, perhaps unintentionally, he confirms what many anti-Interventionists charged at the time, namely, that FDR was indeed dragging the United States into war and that Jews were heavily influencing FDR’s policies. Herzstein boldly states in his Preface that “FDR’s German policies cannot be understood apart from their Jewish context.” In his view, FDR, not Winston Churchill, “was the most purposeful and consequential anti-Nazi leader of his time …”

The author summarizes both Hitler’s view of the United States and FDR’s long-held Germanophobia. In his chapter dealing with “The Triumph of Neutrality,” he highlights the work of Harry Elmer Barnes in helping to shape public reaction against pro-war forces in the 1930's. Two consequences of Barnes' historical revisionism with respect to American entry into the First World War were the Johnson Act, which forbade extending U.S. loans to nations defaulting on previous commitments, and the 1934 Nye Committee hearings into the origins of American intervention in 1917.

Herzstein devotes less than ten pages to discussing just why FDR and his cronies were so upset with Hitler long before the outbreak of the war in Europe. But his brief chapter, “Toward Selective Confrontation With Germany,” points out how worried were FDR, Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Secretary of State Hull, and others, not with German treatment of the Jews, but rather with Nazi economic policies, both internal and in the realm of foreign trade. As other historians have averred, it was actually Hitler’s economic revolution that threatened the world order then controlled by London and New York that led to the creation of an anti-German coalition, not his selective persecution of unpopular minorities.

FDR’s efforts to scare the American public into supporting a belligerent foreign policy are the subject of much of the rest of his book. Herzstein, who has had access to recently-released FBI files, details how the Justice Department was used to fan the flames of a phoney “Nazi threat” and how reputable anti-interventionists were smeared as anti-Semites and pro-Hitler sympathizers. The author reveals the existence of Interior Secretary Harold Ickes’s private version of the ADL, which was used to collect information about opponents of FDR’s policies. As Herzstein points out:

Ickes promptly turned this material over to the attorney general, and during the next year bad things happened to the subjects of the investigations … the president permitted selective leaks to the media, and encouraged appropriate [sic] action by J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI.

Elsewhere, the author writes approvingly:

Roosevelt and J. Edgar Hoover, through persistent comments, innuendos, and leaks to journalists, were working hard to equate militant anti-Semitism and neutrality with disloyal fascist sentiments…Martin Dies, a publicity-hungry congressman [and chairman of the House Committee on Un-American Activities], and J. Edgar Hoover, a power-crazy bureaucrat, were useful to Roosevelt in his campaign to destroy the far right. In assisting him in his endeavor, they served their country well.

Considerable attention is drawn to FDR’s efforts to provoke war and to subvert efforts to bring about a negotiated settlement to the pressing concerns of Europe. FDR prevented British Prime Minister Chamberlain from addressing the American public over radio and instructed his diplomats to undermine Chamberlain’s policies abroad. Chapter 20, dealing with “FDR’s Budding War Plans,” outlines how Ambassador William Bullitt made promises to the Polish and French governments that FDR could not deliver on. FDR and Company were “troubled” by the thought that war might not break out This led FDR, in Herzstein’s words, “to move more quickly, as well as more deviously.” War was preferable to “further appeasement.” It is noteworthy that this study confirms the validity of the German charges made after the capture of Warsaw in September 1939, to the effect that Roosevelt manipulated the Polies into averting a settlement of the outstanding questions short of war.

Hitler, as the author concedes, did what he could to avoid war with the United States in the period 1939-41, despite FDR’s series of provocations. This was to no avail. As Herzstein boasts in his Conclusion:

Thanks in large measure to Roosevelt’s policies, the United States became involved in a faraway quarrel, among nations viewed with suspicion by a large majority of the citizenry. Roosevelt’s mix of economic, ideological, ethical, and political motives led him to pursue a policy representing a violent break with recent American attitudes … In the interest of historical truth, let FDR also be judged on the basis of his successful antifascism at home, and anti-Nazism abroad.

Roosevelt and Hitler is a curious and revealing account of political deception and the subverting of the Constitution by our nation’s highest office holder. It could well have been subtitled, this “His Critic’s Suspicions Confirmed.”

Source: Reprinted from The Journal of Historical Review, vol. 10, no. 3, pp. 357-359.