Wendell Willkie—the President Who Might Have Been—and the Jews

July 16 2019

As the Republican presidential nominee in 1940, Wendell Willkie opposed the isolationist stance that dominated both parties at the time. Willkie lost the election to Franklin D. Roosevelt, who then made him a sort of informal ambassador at large. In this capacity he visited Palestine, met with Jewish and Arab leaders, and criticized the British government there. Reviewing a new biography of Willkie by David Levering Lewis, Elliot Jager considers this now-forgotten statesman’s attitude toward Jews and Zionism and wonders what a Willkie presidency would have meant for Jewish history:

Willkie backed the Committee for a Jewish Army, [which during World War II sought to raise a force] to fight Hitler. He sided with the American Zionist Emergency Council in its campaign against the 1939 White Paper, [which effectively reversed the Balfour Declaration]. He supported a 1943 congressional resolution that would have urged FDR to effectuate a plan to save European Jewry (it did not pass). In 1944, when U.S. newspapers disgracefully printed very little about the destruction of European Jewry, Willkie agreed to lend his name to the American Jewish Conference’s National Committee against Nazi Persecution and Extermination of the Jews.

Willkie was generally sympathetic to the idea of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. . . . He leaves me thinking he would have also been “good for the Jews.”

Meantime, the Jews hero-worshipped Franklin D. Roosevelt. [But] before the war FDR sidestepped conflict with the powerful isolationist camp. He abetted the British in keeping the gates of Palestine closed to Jews. No less egregiously, he refused to allow Jews desperate for asylum into the U.S. And during the war, FDR found imaginative ways of not getting in the way of Hitler’s industrialized destruction of European Jewry. From Evian in 1939 to Bermuda in 1943, the Roosevelt administration was resolute in not rescuing Hitler’s victims.

[I]n May 1939, Roosevelt denied asylum to 937 Jewish passengers aboard the St. Louis seeking to escape Germany. Willkie would later tell a campaign rally, “We have been sitting as spectators to a great tragedy.”

Get unlimited access to Mosaic: Subscribe now

Welcome to Mosaic

Register now to get two more stories FREE.

Register Now

Get unlimited access to Mosaic: Subscribe now

Welcome to Mosaic

Register now to get two more stories FREE.

Register Now

Read more at Jager File

More about: American Jewry, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Holocaust, Israeli history, U.S. Politics

As World Leaders Gather to Remember the Holocaust, They Should Ask How Anti-Semitism Differs from Ordinary Hatreds

Jan. 22 2020

Today, an international conference titled “Remembering the Holocaust, Fighting Anti-Semitism” opens in Jerusalem, attended by representatives from some 40 governments, including the presidents of France, Russia, and Italy and the vice-president of the United States. While ample attention will no doubt be paid to the anti-Semitism of the extreme right, Fiamma Nirenstein fears that less will be paid to that of the left, and still less to the Islamic variety. She also fears that those in attendance will give in to a related, and dangerous, temptation to subsume anti-Semitism into an amorphous “hatred”:

Sign up to read more.

You've read all your free articles for this month. Sign up now for unlimited access to the best in Jewish thought, culture and politics.

Register Now

Sign up to read more.

You've read all your free articles for this month. Sign up now for unlimited access to the best in Jewish thought, culture and politics.

Register Now

Read more at Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs

More about: Anti-Semitism, Holocaust, Intersectionality, Radical Islam