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.”