In Trying to Highlight American Failures, Ken Burns Offers Apologetics for the President Most Responsible for Them

September 21, 2022 | Dara Horn
About the author: Dara Horn is the author of five novels, most recently Eternal Life.

In his new series The U.S. and the Holocaust, the documentarian Ken Burns explores exactly how little America did to help Jews flee Hitler’s Europe before and during World War II. Dara Horn writes in her review:

The question of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s role in all of this has been fertile ground for historians for decades. Burns has a soft spot for Franklin and Eleanor, the subjects of one of his prior films, and here he treats them with kid gloves, blaming most of the missteps on State Department antagonists. The series makes a point of . . . showing Nazi rallies in New York, clips of the popular anti-Semitic broadcaster Father Charles Coughlin, and colorized footage of a Nazi-themed summer camp in New Jersey. But the film goes out of its way to outline the pros and cons of Roosevelt’s decisions, leaving his reputation intact.

To be clear, Roosevelt is an American icon and deserves to remain one. The problem with this approach is less about Roosevelt (there are plenty of convincing arguments in his favor, not least that he won the war) than about how it contradicts the rest of the film’s premise. The goal of the series is seemingly to reset America’s moral compass, using hindsight to expose the costs of being a bystander. But every bystander, including Roosevelt, can explain his choices. The film’s refusal to judge the commander in chief plays into a larger political pattern: offering generosity only toward those we admire.

The Nazis lost their war against the Allies, but they won their war against the Jews. Judaism survived Nazism, just as it outlived its many other oppressors. But Jewish life in Europe never recovered and almost certainly never will. That is the meaning of genocide.

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