The historian David S. Wyman, who died last Wednesday at the age of eighty-nine, claimed that he never knew what brought him—a Gentile from New Hampshire—to focus his doctoral research on Franklin Roosevelt’s policies regarding Jewish refugees from Germany. But the resulting work, Paper Walls: America and the Refugee Crisis, 1938-1941 (1968), would open up a raft of unanswered questions. His 1978 Commentary essay “Why Auschwitz Was Never Bombed” and then his 1984 The Abandonment of the Jews shaped all future discussion about this chapter in American history. Pierre Sauvage writes:
Much has been made of the fact that Wyman was the grandson of two clergymen, but he insisted that he was not raised in an “unusually” religious home. In seventh grade he got kicked out of Sunday school for throwing spitballs; according to his parents’ ground-rules, that meant that he had to attend church on Sundays. But as with all righteously inclined people I have come to know something about, Wyman had important role models as he grew up. His mother . . . had helped break the color bar at their Methodist church. His father would relentlessly say, “Put yourself in the other guy’s shoes.” . . .
His father had found a job as a milkman, whose route brought him through a Jewish community; Wyman remembered that his father had only positive things to say about the people along the milk route. . . .
Wyman placed much of the blame for American inaction [in the 1930s and 40s] on the Roosevelt administration. . . . On one occasion, . . . Wyman turned to a file cabinet, and quickly located what he considered a blisteringly relevant letter, written by a woman in Oakalla, Texas, in January 1944 to her senator: “I have never liked the Jews. I have never pretended to like them. . . . But at no time has my thinking been so low that I have wished them any harm. I have never wished them exterminated. . . . If we can do anything to help the European Jews escape the wrath of Hitler then we should do it because they have a right to live. It is not God’s will that they be slaughtered.”
Surely, Wyman went on to say, with some emotion, this is proof of the reservoir of relative goodwill that Roosevelt could have drawn upon had he been inspired to do so: if a person from that background could understand what was at stake, surely a significant part of the American public could have been won over to understanding it. Pressed further, Wyman responded with the earnestness that made his voice so distinctive and so compelling. “I still believe that the American people wouldn’t have failed on this if they had been given information and leadership. Maybe I have to believe it for my own inner peace.”
Sign Up For Our E-Mail List Get the latest from Mosaic right in your inbox
Sign up now for unlimited access