If you think the media is slobbering over Barack Obama, its attitude toward Franklin Roosevelt was raw idolatry. It’s not just that they portray FDR as the greatest president, a man who did not wrong, but they say that he saved the world, saved capitalism and paved the way for constant government interference in the economy.
Funnily enough, everyone believes it. Even conservatives bow down at the altar of FDR.
Thus, it is worthwhile to take a look back at FDR’s handling of foreign policy. After all, Nazi Germany occurred on his watch. Adolph Hitler ascended to the Chancellorship at roughly the same time the FDR became president. Since the nation was in a Great Depression and since FDR believed that he and only he could save the country and the economy, he chose to ignore everything that was going on beyond the nation’s borders.
In particular, he ignored “the gathering storm” in Germany. One might suggest that he did not know what to do, and that if the nation saw what was happening people would pressure him to do something, perhaps through diplomacy, perhaps in other ways. Surely, FDR contributed mightily to the fall of the Third Reich, but he did nothing to forestall its rise.
By now, it must seem somewhat dated. After all, the story dates to the 1930s. We all know everything there is to know about the rise of the Third Reich, the ascent of Herr Hitler and the systematic persecution of German Jews. And we know that the American press, led by the truth-loving New York Times, led the cover-up of the horrors that Hitler was unleashing.
Rafael Medoff tells the story in The Daily Beast and it is a story well worth retelling. He tells how the American media bowed to demands by the Roosevelt administration and skewed the news to make Hitler look benign and to downplay the horrors his government was visiting on Jews.
Of course, the media did not speak with one voice. Some sources did report the bad news from Germany, but for the most part, the press complied with demands from FDR to suppress the news of what was going on in Germany.
FDR had more important things on his mind.
How did the Christian Science Monitor, a highly respected paper, report on Hitler’s becoming Chancellor? Medoff explains:
“The train arrived punctually,” a Christian Science Monitor report from Germany informed its readers, not long after Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. “Traffic was well regulated” in the new Germany, and policemen in “smart blue uniforms” kept order, the correspondent noted. “I have so far found quietness, order, and civility”; there was “not the slightest sign of anything unusual afoot.”
As for all those “harrowing stories” of Jews being mistreated—they seemed to apply “only to a small proportion”; most were “not in any way molested.” Overall, the Monitor’s dispatch declared, the Hitler regime was providing “a dark land a clear light of hope.”
Medoff explains that, after all, newspaper editors did not know much of anything about the Nazi movement. This is probably true, but it does count as something of a surprise, considering that Mein Kampf had been published in 1925 and 1926.
For journalists, as for other citizens, ignorance is not an excuse. The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin and the New York Times should have known better:
An editorial in the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin on Jan. 30, 1933, asserted that “there have been indications of moderation” on Hitler’s part. The editors of The Cleveland Press, on Jan. 31, claimed the “appointment of Hitler as German chancellor may not be such a threat to world peace as it appears at first blush.” Frederick Birchall, Berlin bureau chief for The New York Times, found “a new moderation” in the political atmosphere following Hitler’s rise to power.
In the interest of fairness, these events occurred five weeks before FDR was inaugurated. And yet, one suspects that his operatives had already begun to exert pressure on the press.
Some American papers, like the Chicago Tribune and the New York Evening Post, did report the pogroms against Jews that began when Hitler took power. Medoff reports:
Soon after Hitler assumed power, all Jews were dismissed from government jobs and ousted from a wide range of other professions, from dentistry to the movie industry. Sporadic anti-Jewish violence erupted throughout the country—and was amply reported in the American press. The Chicago Tribune described assaults in which Jews were “hit over the heads with blackjacks, dragged out of their homes in night clothes and… taken off to jail and put to work in a concentration camp.” The New York Evening Post reported that “an indeterminate number of Jews… have been killed. Hundreds of Jews have been beaten or tortured. Thousands of Jews have fled. Thousands of Jews have been, or will be deprived of their livelihood. All of Germany’s 600,000 Jews are in terror.”
More influential papers, like the New York Times and the New York Herald Tribune, dismissed the violence as inconsequential. These occurred after FDR had been inaugurated:
Birchall of the Times, in a March 12 radio broadcast from Berlin, reported that “German violence had been spent” and predicted that “prosperity and happiness” would soon prevail. A page-one dispatch from the New York Herald Tribune’s Berlin correspondent on March 25 asserted that while the situation of German Jewry was “an unhappy one,” many atrocity stories were ”exaggerated and often unfounded.”
Some of the newspapers declared that Jews were not being attacked for being Jewish but for other traits. They had, basically, brought it on themselves:
The New York Herald Tribune’s Berlin correspondent, John Elliott, claimed the Nazis were targeting Jews not because of their “race,” but because they were political opponents of the Hitler regime. According to Elliott, even Albert Einstein was “detested by the Nazis more for his pacifism than for his Jewish blood.”
The editors of The Columbus Dispatch believed the Nazis were reacting to the “large Jewish element in the financial, commercial, professional, and official life of present-day Germany.” A Christian Science Monitor editorial declared that it was the Jews’ own “commercial clannishness” which “gets them into trouble.”
A leading Protestant periodical, The Christian Century, proclaimed in an April 26 editorial: “May we ask if Hitler’s attitude may be somewhat governed by the fact that too many Jews, at least in Germany, are radical, too many are communists? May that have any bearing on the situation? There must be some reason other than race or creed—just what is that reason?”
The pogroms were intensifying, but the press portrayed Hitler as a charming personality. The New York Times offered human interest puff pieces:
Some prominent journalists seemed charmed by Hitler. Birchall of the Times, in his aforementioned radio broadcast, offered a somewhat sympathetic portrait of the Nazi leader as “a vegetarian [who] neither drinks nor smokes” and “has taken upon himself the hardest job that ever a man could undertake.”
His colleague Anne O’Hare McCormick, landing an exclusive interview with Hitler, provided the Nazi leader with a major public-relations boost in July 1933. Her page-one interview, headlined “Hitler Seeks Jobs for All Germans,” gave the Führer paragraph after paragraph to justify his domestic policies as the only way to deal with Germany’s unemployment, improve its roads, and promote national unity.
McCormick’s softball questions included “What character in history do you admire most, Caesar, Napoleon, or Frederick the Great?”
McCormick’s Hitler was a kinder, gentler Führer. Hitler is “a rather shy and simple man, younger than one expects, more robust, taller…. His eyes are almost the color of the blue larkspur in a vase behind him, curiously childlike and candid…. His voice is as quiet as his black tie and his double-breasted black suit…. Herr Hitler has the sensitive hand of the artist.”
Of course, Hitler was an artist. He was a failed artist. He wanted to solve the problem of the Depression by instituting socialist reforms of the economy. Since he was also a vegetarian and neither smoked nor drank, what could possibly go wrong?
Skip forward five years to 1938. You would think that after the press had had five years to observe what was going on in Germany it would have come to its senses. Not so, reports Medoff:
Remarkably, even five years later—after five years of anti-Jewish violence, German militarization, and the annexation of Austria—some in the Western press still tried to present Hitler’s human side. In November 1938, the same month that the Kristallnacht pogrom devastated German Jewry, the British magazine Homes & Gardens ran a fawning three-page photo spread on Hitler’s “bright, airy chalet” in the Bavarian Alps. “The Führer has a passion about cut flowers in his home, as well as for music,” it reported. Sometimes “the Squire himself [Hitler] will stroll through the woods into hamlets” nearby, where he “gives a ‘Fun Fair’ to the local children.”
Not long before that puff piece, The New York Times published a dispatch from one of its Berlin correspondents in which he could barely conceal his admiration of Hitler’s “mountain retreat.” The home “is simple in its appointments and commands a magnificent highland panorama…. Herr Hitler in principle detests the big cities, where ‘the houses are thick and the sewers annoy the air.’ He craves moderate altitudes and highland breezes.”
Why was the press downplaying the atrocities in Germany? The reason was that the Roosevelt administration had told them to do so. FDR did not want to hear, speak or see anything about Hitler’s depravity in the press. The unprincipled media complied willingly, thus becoming a propaganda arm of the Roosevelt administration:
Many editors and reporters took their cues from the White House, either because of their political sympathy for the administration, their deference to the president, or a sense that he knew better than they when it came to complex foreign-policy questions. If FDR regarded a particular issue as important, the news media usually took it seriously. If he ignored or downplayed a certain topic, they were less likely to pursue it.
The result, according to Laurel Leff, the leading expert on American coverage of the Holocaust, was a “feedback loop”: The Roosevelt administration, which carefully monitored 425 newspapers daily, downplayed the plight of the Jews, and then “used the lack of prominent news stories to confirm its judgment that the public was not interested and to justify its lack of response.”
In fact, Roosevelt did not just want the public to ignore the truth about Hitler. It blocked Congress from issuing resolutions criticizing Nazi Germany. And it worked to shut down public criticism of Hitler:
The administration intervened to block congressional resolutions in 1933-34 criticizing Nazi Germany. It also tried to dissuade Jewish groups from staging a mock trial of Hitler. Secretary of State Cordell Hull shared with U.S. diplomats in Germany his “fear that the continued dissemination of exaggerated reports may prejudice the friendly feelings between the peoples of the two countries and be of doubtful service to anyone.”
Hull apologized to the Nazi regime when a New York City judge acquitted protesters who tore a swastika flag off a German ship in New York Harbor in 1935. He apologized again in 1937 when Mayor Fiorello La Guardia called Hitler a “fanatic who is threatening the peace of the world.” Roosevelt even compelled Interior Secretary Harold Ickes to remove critical references to Hitler, Mussolini, and Nazism from a 1938 speech.
When U.S. Jewish groups organized a boycott of German products, Hull asserted it would be damaging to American interests. The administration even quietly permitted goods to be labeled as having been made in a particular city or province rather than requiring that they be stamped “Made in Germany.” It took the threat of a lawsuit by Jewish leaders to put an end to that. The labeling episode was a tailor-made opportunity for investigative journalism—if the mainstream news media had any interest in exposing the administration’s duplicity. Which it didn’t.
Surely, this counts as a grotesque stain on the reputation of the American press. It was not interested in the truth. It did not report the truth. It did not investigate. It did not hold the president to account. It bowed down in servile idolatry.
After all, it could have been worse: there might have been a Republican in the White House.