Weeks before the debut of an American Experience film on the U.S. response to the Holocaust, defenders of President Franklin Roosevelt undertook a quiet campaign to influence and later discredit historical analysis presented in “America and the Holocaust: Deceit and Indifference.”
In the disturbing film, aired April 6, 1994, producer Marty Ostrow argued that the Roosevelt Administration knew that the Nazis were systematically slaughtering Jews and followed a policy of not rescuing them.
The critics’ complaint, in the words of William vanden Heuvel, president of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, was that the film was “one-sided and grossly unfair, indifferent to the truth and deceitful in concept.”
But when series producers sat down to evaluate the advance criticism with Ostrow and his team of historical advisors, they came to a different conclusion. “We came out of those meetings with confidence that the film was not only accurate, but it said what the authors of the film wanted it to say, and that they were on good ground,” said Judy Crichton, executive producer.
“Issues between the critics and the people who worked on the film,” she said, “were issues of interpretation.”
But the issues were important enough to summon the assistance of the well-financed Roosevelt institute and of star historian Arthur Schlesinger, who went to bat against the film’s scholarship. They largely succeeded in influencing critical reception of the PBS documentary.
The question that provoked heated reaction from prominent TV critics — and a debate among historians on PBS’s Charlie Rose — was whether FDR did enough to save Jews from Nazi genocide.
This issue, however, is not the central focus of “America and the Holocaust.” In 90 minutes, the film follows several story lines to document Nazi persecution of Jews, rising anti-semitism in the United States, and the evolution and impact of the State Department’s obstructionist immigration policies toward Eastern Europeans. Against this backdrop, the film tells the tragic story of Kurt Klein, whose parents were killed by the Nazis despite his persistent efforts to get a U.S. visa for them.
What critics disliked about “America and the Holocaust” was what it documented about Washington’s and FDR’s response to the Nazi extermination program.
In a summary of their complaints for the press, Schlesinger and vanden Heuvel said the film makes “unwarranted attacks on President Roosevelt” in its treatment of: his response to the Wagner-Rogers Act in 1939, a bill to allow child refugees into the country that died in Congress; his motivations in creating the War Refugee Board as an act of “political expediency”; and assertions that the Allies should not have hesitated to bomb the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz.
Roosevelt “did what he could do” to help the Jews, Schlesinger wrote in an April 18 Newsweek column.
“It’s very difficult to talk about America turning its back on Jews when millions of Americans were fighting the Nazis, who were the cause of the persecution,” he said during a discussion on Charlie Rose that aired two days before the American Experience broadcast. Roosevelt had little chance to intervene on behalf of the Jews because of the political climate at home and the war abroad, he contended.
To the film’s primary historical advisor, David Wyman, these arguments try to obfuscate the analysis documented in his 1984 book, Abandonment of the Jews, and the PBS film based largely upon it. “What totally blew their heads,” he said of FDR’s defenders, “was that someone was going to put it on national television.”
While FDR partisans contended that the Allies couldn’t have bombed Auschwitz, Allied forces did bomb it, Wyman said — by accident, an event reported in the film but overlooked in the ensuing debate.
And whatever Roosevelt may have thought about the Wagner-Rogers Act, “the fact is, he never took a position on it.”
While Roosevelt “may have in his heart cared about Jews,” he did not pursue efforts to help them, said filmmaker Marty Ostrow. “As time went along, and the peril got worse, he turned more from things he could do.”
“They’ve blown up this whole controversy — you’d think the whole damn film was about Roosevelt,” he added. The President’s role is a “relatively small part of the film. We don’t make him out to be antisemitic.”
Roosevelt’s record on Jewish refugees and their rescue is “very poor” — one of the worst failures of his presidency — Wyman said on Charlie Rose.
On this point, at least, there appears to be some measure of agreement among historians.
“This is not an issue on which Roosevelt’s reputation for greatness will rest,” said Alan Brinkley, professor at Columbia University and a historical advisor to American Experience. “Quite the contrary — the record is quite poor.”
Not ‘The Liberators’
When controversy over the film began erupting, producers from American Experience asked Brinkley, a specialist in 20th Century American history, to preview the film.
“After ‘The Liberators’ they were particularly sensitive,” he explained, referring to a film aired on American Experience in late 1992 and later withdrawn from PBS because of factual inaccuracies.
“This is not ‘The Liberators,'” Brinkley added. “It does not contain outright falsities the way ‘Liberators’ did.”
By contrast, “America and the Holocaust” presents a “rather unduly harsh interpretation of Roosevelt, which may or may not be justified,” Brinkley added.
What annoyed Roosevelt scholars about the film is Wyman’s commentary that “Roosevelt and the U.S. government followed a deliberate policy of not saving Jews,” he explained. “You can certainly say that about the State Department…but the record is more complicated and more mixed than the film suggests.”
“The film sort of ratchets everything up a few notches,” Brinkley added.
Pressing for more views
The leading defender of FDR in the case, the New York-based Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, is a private foundation connected to the Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, explained vanden Heuvel. Its mission is to “encourage interest in the Roosevelt era,” through scholarships, programs at the library and public outreach.
Another part of its mission, other sources acknowledged, is to protect the reputation and historic memory of the Roosevelts.
When institute staff members learned two months ago about the film, they began seeking ways to influence its reception, vanden Heuvel recalled. Through members of the press they obtained a press-preview copy of “America and the Holocaust,” and arranged a screening for Holocaust scholars.
“They thought what I described — that it was unfair, one-sided and not appropriate,” vanden Heuvel added.
“Arthur and I addressed a letter to producers, asking if things could be changed or at least let it be known there were other viewpoints,” vanden Heuvel continued. Upon learning that was not possible, the institute took another tack. “We wrote to all the TV critics we could think of.”
Crichton recalled the chain of events slightly differently. She said the producers didn’t hear from the institute or even know about its concerns until it learned the institute was trying to head off the film’s premiere screening March 24 at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. The series producers then convened their meeting with Ostrow and his advisors.
It was the institute’s press strategy, however, that paid off. “Only in times like ours could the American leader who, with all his might and spirit pressed the war against Nazism, and who moved heaven and earth, with Churchill, to see it defeated, be transformed as he is, in this film, to a conscienceless politician indifferent to the murder of millions,” wrote Dorothy Rabinowitz, TV critic for the Wall Street Journal.
For the “incendiary allegation” that the U.S. was an accomplice in the Holocaust to stick, Washington Post critic Tom Shales wrote, “the evidence would have to be much stronger than that offered here and would have to be presented in a more serious, scholarly way.”
Walter Goodman in the New York Times, also suggested that, by including opinions of experts backed by the institute, producers “would have enhanced the reputation for scholarship of The American Experience.”
Not new ground
All the brouhaha over “America and the Holocaust” came unexpectedly to Ostrow, who said he saw potential for controversy but never anticipated so much.
Wyman’s book was “stronger than our film, about the Roosevelt aspect of it,” he said, and the book had not come under such harsh criticism. “We had all these test cases before us. I was surprised and puzzled when things began boiling over.”
“I’d love to say we broke new ground here, but that’s just not true,” Ostrow added. “We synthesized things that have been available to scholars for the last three decades.”
Those who protested the film most vocally make it their business to defend Roosevelt, he added. ”They’re … employed to honor his name and to make sure it stays as honored as possible.”
“It is a campaign that’s been waged against the film,” he continued. “The film can stand up to criticism.”