Could we have done more?
Ken Burns is the most successful popular historian of our time. His documentary films, including Civil war (1990), Baseball (1994), and Jazz (2001), did not only provide information on key figures and events. Through Burns’ signature blend of sonic storytelling, moving photographs, and plaintive musical accompaniment, they helped define the look and sound of the past for many Americans.
As with most popular historians, however, Burns’ success tells us as much about the author and his contemporary audience as it does about times long past. Burns has never hidden his own politics, expressed in the video tributes he produced for Senator Ted Kennedy. And the upbeat, sober, but patriotic version of American history that Burns tells seems perfectly suited to the kind of genteel, aging liberals who watch a lot of PBS, which airs most of his work.
This mood, however, has become more difficult to maintain. Like much of his audience, Burns’ mood has darkened over the past decade. Released as the Cold War drew to its triumphant conclusion, Civil war looked back on the troubles of the past more with sadness than anger – an attitude that has drawn criticism in our more censored age. Now Burns is less forgiving.
Although it demonstrates the same technical excellence as Burns’ earlier work, The United States and the Holocaust reflects this new concern. Seemingly an investigation of American action and inaction toward the Third Reich, it also draws an analogy between the United States and Germany. We like to think we’re exceptional, the most critical proposes Burns. What if we are more like our adversaries of the 20th century “good war” than we prefer to believe?
The suggestion is not totally unfounded. In the first episode, Burns points to the inconvenient fact that the Nazis claimed aspects of American practice as precedents for their own conduct. Hitler himself compared the German conquest of Eastern Europe to the violent Western expansion of the United States. Nazi apologists also claimed US segregation and eugenics laws as inspiration for their own policies. Many of these claims were cynical efforts to deflect criticism – a tactic we now call “whataboutism”. But some scholars argue that party officials were seriously interested in Jim Crow models for excluding, isolating and humiliating a hated minority.
Yet the comparison is still a false equivalence. Even after World War II, many white Americans openly held religious and racial views that now seem abhorrent. But the expression of these views, in Burns’ presentation, was not a campaign of extermination but the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, which severely restricted immigration from Eastern Europe and from the South while effectively prohibiting entry from Asia. Because the quotas were determined by national origin, they imposed no legal disadvantage on Jews per se. But records of formal and informal debates on the issue make it clear that stemming the tide of more than two million Jews who had entered the United States since the Civil War was one of its main motives.
Knowing what we are doing now, this exclusion looks like a death sentence – and its supporters like accomplices if not outright murderers. But even opponents of the measure suggested no such thing, which was literally unimaginable at the time. And while Burns acknowledges the widespread popularity of restricting immigration, he barely considers the factors that generated a political alliance that included both the American Federation of Labor and the Ku Klux Klan, leading to 2/3 of the vote. in both houses of Congress. Nor does it investigate the international situation at a time when liberal states were taking hold across post-war Europe – and a Jewish community was springing up in Mandatory Palestine. In 1924, it was uncharitable but not dishonest to think that Jews had a range of attractive options outside of America.
The equation looks different a decade later, when the Nazis had taken power in Germany and global liberalism was in retreat. By this point, the humanitarian rationale for admitting Jews was more compelling, as a Democratic coalition that included many pre-1924 immigrants and their descendants had swept Franklin Delano Roosevelt into the White House. Yet public opinion remains fiercely opposed to the lifting of Johnson-Reed quotas, even for children. Surely this is proof of persistent bigotry?
The polling data that Burns cites in the film does not support this conclusion. As Europe headed towards destruction, huge majorities of the public expressed their disapproval of Hitler’s regime. There were genuine anti-Semites and Nazi sympathizers at all levels of American society – including the State Department, where some officials went beyond the requirements of the law to put up barriers to Jewish immigration – but The main sources of opposition to a generous policy appear to have been a combination of economic anxiety linked to the lingering depression, disbelief about the veracity of reports of rising violence, and a desire to stay in apart from European problems. Again, these motives are hardly admirable. But they do not support an analogy between the United States and Germany.
Burns also stacks the emotional deck by focusing on the relatively small number of wealthy and assimilated Central European Jews who were caught in the Nazi stranglehold. Even without hindsight, it is difficult to understand how such cultured and non-threatening people could have been considered economic, cultural or security risks. But the vast majority of Hitler’s victims were Eastern European Jews whose looks, manners, and lives struck most Americans—including many American Jews—as foreign and undesirable. Telling the story of the Frank family, as Burns does here, does not confront viewers with this still uncomfortable dilemma.
Despite its indictment of American public opinion and foreign policy, the film points to the counterintuitive assessment that the United States was not a primary player in the Holocaust story. America could have done more, but there was never a realistic chance of admitting all or even most of Europe’s estimated 10 million Jews. And Burns admits the Roosevelt administration had good reason to fear a backlash, even for its half-hearted efforts to help refugees. Perhaps the release of more information about the ongoing campaign of massacres in German-occupied Polish and then Soviet territories could have shifted the political balance. By the time verified reports were available, however, the United States itself was about to go to war. And formal belligerence against the Axis did not mean that America had the immediate ability to end or even slow the slaughter. In fact, the camps remained out of reach of American strikes until Allied forces entered northern Italy in 1944.
Such considerations do not excuse the refusal to help those who could have been saved. Nor do they diminish the courage of Americans inside and outside government, Jewish and non-Jewish, who have used every means at their disposal to discover, publicize and, if possible, help the victims. escape Nazi atrocities. But they raise the question of whether the United States was either a primary cause or the major solution to the Holocaust. For all his shortcomings, FDR was probably right in thinking that the best thing America could do for the Jews was to help win the war. But it was far from enough.
Burns’ earlier works were popular in part because they treated the United States as, in Lincoln’s words, “earth’s last, best hope”. The United States and the Holocaust may be popular because it pierces this myth, portraying America as complicit in the worst horrors of the 20th century, or any other century. Despite their apparent opposition, both assessments assume that American policy is the primary influence on the course of human events. The most difficult lesson is that sometimes we are more spectators than protagonists.
Samuel Goldman, associate professor of political science at George Washington University, is the author of after nationalism and God’s Country: Christian Zionism in America.