Ken Burns’s documentaries blend striking visuals of still photos or archival film with colorful and often insightful analysis and narration. But his skill as a filmmaker is not the sole cause of his unprecedented five-decade run of 35 documentaries and documentary series on PBS, dating back to 1981’s Brooklyn Bridge. He has remained the most important nonfiction filmmaker in America because of the way he and his colleagues use the historical subjects they explore to make points about contemporary political and social issues—points that usually reinforce the preexisting biases of Burns’s liberal viewing audience.
The brilliance of Burns’s sublime Civil War, from 1990, is rooted in the way he weaves dramatic accounts of the battles and the conflict’s colorful personalities into a compelling narrative about racism, slavery, and the struggle for civil rights that would follow its conclusion. At the time, the Burns perspective on the Civil War was a refreshing and vital break from more traditional histories that had mostly hewed to a war-between-brothers approach—a way of portraying the war that largely avoided the enduring effect of slavery on American society. The same can be said of his Baseball (1994), an 18-and-a-half-hour marathon that primarily emphasized race, highlighting the Negro Leagues and Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color barrier in 1947. Baseball is a great series, but it does at times have the quality, as George Weigel put it in COMMENTARY upon the show’s release, of “a 7th-grade social-studies book from a progressive publisher, with lavish illustrations and a very politically correct text.”
That is also an apt description of Burns’s latest effort, The U.S. and the Holocaust, directed with Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein, which aired on PBS in September. While Burns does a more than adequate job of providing viewers with a basic understanding of the facts of the Holocaust and America’s inability or failure to help forestall or lessen its toll, his true goal here is something else. He wants to frame this chapter of history in light of present-day racial politics. The U.S. and the Holocaust is designed to evoke analogies between the anti-Semitism and threats to democracy prevalent in the 1920s and 1930s with what is going on in America in the present day. Once again, Burns shows he is entirely in tune with the sensibilities of those eager to trace a link between the political villains of the past and the people his audience despises right now.
Scholars, activists, historians, and political scientists have argued for decades about whether or how much to blame President Franklin D. Roosevelt for inaction during the Holocaust—particularly when it came to the American refusal to bomb the train tracks leading to Auschwitz or hitting the killing factory there (once those options became militarily achievable). But the narrative in The U.S. and the Holocaust is largely dedicated to the subject of immigration, with events in Europe taking over the story only gradually in the course of its three two-hour-plus episodes. The series begins with the Emma Lazarus poem on the Statue of Liberty and goes on to discuss mass immigration in the 19th century and the restrictions and country quotas that were imposed during the 1920s. Burns’s thesis is that these immigration laws, as well as anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic sentiments, account for the U.S. failure to let in more than a small percentage of the Jews who sought to escape the death sentence they faced in Nazi-controlled Europe.
Just as important, The U.S. and the Holocaust concludes by noting the passage of more liberal immigration laws in the 1960s and then showing a montage, including protests about the collapse of security at America’s southern border; former President Donald Trump’s demand that a border wall be built; the 2017 neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Virginia; the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting; and finally, the January 6, 2021, Capitol riot. We hear warnings from talking heads that America’s thin veneer of civilization could, like Germany’s, collapse more quickly than we think—a not-so-subtle nod in the direction of the contemporary Democratic Party’s pose as the defenders of democracy against their Republican opponents.
That the need for a place to escape from Europe became necessary only a decade after America had undergone a radical shift in its approach to immigration was a terrible irony. Anti-immigrant sentiment had led to the passage of the 1924 Johnson-Reed Immigration Act, which imposed restrictions and strict quotas on migrants from Eastern and Southern Europe. Until the 1920s, the United States had what might now be termed an open-borders policy, with the only real restrictions levied against those who arrived suffering serious illness. Though rules about preventing the entry of those who were not able to support themselves, and therefore likely to be a “public charge,” dated back to the 1880s, they were not major factors in deterring newcomers during the era of mass immigration in the late-19th and early-20th centuries.
As a result of the Johnson-Reed legislation, efforts to provide a haven in America for those fleeing Adolf Hitler’s Europe were largely futile. The legislation was also administered by the State Department in such a way as to ensure that even fewer than the small number who might have been legally admitted to the United States were allowed to come. That those limitations were imposed in the context of a political environment in which nativist sentiments, eugenics, racism, and anti-Semitism were broadly popular is also undeniable. Indeed, as far as the Nazis were concerned, this proved that America didn’t want Europe’s Jews any more than Germany did.
The image of the United States in Lazarus’s poem, as a golden door open to welcome Europe’s “homeless, tempest-tost” refugees, is part of the country’s identity. That especially rings true for an American Jewish community that, then and now, was largely descended from those who entered the country from Central and Eastern Europe during the period of open borders. But even if Johnson-Reed is one of the root causes of America’s moral failing in the Holocaust, to put it down, as Burns does, to being solely the function of nativism and anti-Semitism doesn’t provide a full explanation.
The debate about immigration was also influenced by economics. By the 1920s, the United States was no longer a largely empty continent in desperate need of cheap, immigrant labor and settlers, as it had been in the 19th century. Moreover, after the Great Depression hit in 1929 and unemployment reached historic levels, a return to open borders or even a significant liberalization of the law would have been impossible even if nativist sentiment and racism were not factors.
The implicit analogy between today’s immigration debate and the tragic denial of aid to the Jews in the 1930s and ’40s is offensive. In Roosevelt’s time, there was no threat that there would be a surge of millions of illegal immigrants crossing into the United States, as has been the case in the past two years, with the Biden administration essentially halting much of the nation’s enforcement mechanisms at the southern border. Advocates for liberal immigration policies or amnesty for a population of migrants that may well now number over 20 million sometimes speak as if every Central or Southern American seeking to come to the United States is fleeing for his life like the Jews of Europe were. That is just not true. Today’s immigrants and asylum seekers are overwhelmingly economic migrants rather than people escaping political or religious persecution. One can be entirely sympathetic to their plight and believe they would be a net bonus to the United States if they were allowed in and still see a world of difference between people looking to improve their lot in life and people who were on the verge of, or in the middle of, a genocide. We properly castigate those who closed America’s gates during the 1930s and later, while the Nazi killing machine was in full operation, because every Jew who was denied entry was facing a death sentence in Europe. That is not the case with migrants from Central and South America today.
The increasingly desperate efforts of Jews to get out of Europe is a story that The U.S. and the Holocaust tells very well. As with all Burns films, there is a mix of personal anecdote and broad historical context. He and his collaborators, provide us with touching stories of survivors, including a few of the lucky ones who managed to make it to America—and the loved ones left behind and lost to the barbarism of the Germans and their allies. Familiar victims, such as Anne Frank and her family, are given attention, but the stories of those who are not, in Dara Horn’s clever formulation, “everyone’s second favorite Jew” and therefore mostly lost to history are also included.
What Burns omits is more telling. His 2014 production, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, included at least some criticism of FDR’s inaction when it came to the Holocaust. But this film—a film about the Holocaust—consistently defends him. The story told here is one in which the president, a man who had largely unchallenged political power as he bestrode the American scene, wanted to do more but was prevented from doing so. In this telling, it is a nativist Congress, Jew-haters at the State Department, the general acceptance of anti-Semitism, as well as the exigencies of fighting the war and the impossibility of effective action or rescue that stopped this well-meaning president from saving more Jews.
A proper understanding of FDR and the Holocaust is elusive for many pundits and historians who cannot get beyond the impulse to depict him as either an unblemished hero or the darkest of villains. Roosevelt clearly understood that Hitler was a threat and, as far as he was able, consistently maneuvered the United States closer to a position where it might aid Germany’s foes and eventually get into and lead the fight to defeat it. His masterful war leadership, including his decision to make the defeat of Germany a higher priority than that of Japan at a time when most Americans would have made a different choice, must be an important element of any conversation. Yet while FDR may have, at least in principle, sympathized with the plight of the Jews who were the primary object of Nazi persecution, actions that might have led to more of them being saved were neither a priority nor a subject of even minimal concern for him.
Part of this, as Burns’s film is at pains to explain, is understandable. The idea that American foreign policy in the 1930s should have been driven by an effort to help Jews was considered a non-starter even by many who were not anti-Semitic. American business interests and a broad political consensus that opposed any idea of involvement in another European war ensured that the United States would not do much about Nazi Germany in its first years in power, even as FDR and others condemned the persecution of the Jews.
Pearl Harbor didn’t alter that calculation. Opposition to more liberal immigration laws and, once the war began, suspicion of refugees as possible spies and fifth columnists were formidable obstacles to increasing the number of Jews allowed into the country. Fear that the conflict might be portrayed as a “Jewish war” deterred FDR from calling more attention to the plight of the Jews once the mass killings began. And though it is hard for subsequent generations of more self-assertive Jews to understand, the same worries also influenced a Jewish community that remained overwhelmingly supportive of the president and deterred by worries about anti-Semitism. Thus many resisted taking positions that might have allowed them to be portrayed as concerned with something other than American military victory.
Much attention in the series is paid to the anti-Semitic aviation hero Charles Lindbergh and his isolationist movement “America First”—a term that would be resurrected by Trump 75 years later to describe his inconsistent blend of suspicion of alliances, resistance to foreign adventures, a healthy appetite for confronting terrorists, and unprecedented support for the State of Israel. But the attempt by Burns and sympathetic historians to blame Lindbergh for FDR’s reluctance to do much about the Jews is misleading.
America First was a problem for Roosevelt. But at no time was it as much of a political threat to him as his defenders claim. That is demonstrated by the fact that in 1940, when the Republicans mounted a spirited if ultimately unsuccessful challenge to his unprecedented quest for a third term, Lindbergh wasn’t able to influence their choice of an opponent to Roosevelt. GOP presidential nominee Wendell Willkie shared FDR’s internationalist outlook. Nor was a still-noisy America First movement able to stop the passage of the crucial Lend Lease bill in March 1941, which gave Roosevelt nearly unlimited authority to send war-fighting material to first Britain and then the Soviet Union.
Those who bend over backward to excuse FDR’s unwillingness to do much for the Jews ignore one crucial fact. When Roosevelt truly cared about an issue, he never let public opinion or even congressional opposition stand in the way. That was true with respect to domestic policies such as his dubious plan to pack the Supreme Court with liberal justices in 1938. It was also true of his approach to foreign affairs, including his necessary efforts to arm Britain before the United States entered the war. Efforts to help Jews escape or to hinder the Nazi killing machine were never administration priorities.
Ironically, the film’s spotlight on some of the true American heroes of this tragedy—such as the diplomats Varian Fry and Hiram Bingham IV, both of whom worked tirelessly and against the orders of the State Department to help Jews escape Vichy France—only draws more attention to the question of what the United States could have done had it become official government policy to aid those millions marked for death by the Nazis.
The War Refugee Board—the government’s one real effort to help save Jews—proves the same point. It was, as the documentary suggests, a bright spot in an otherwise unimpressive series of American actions during this era. But it also demonstrates American moral bankruptcy and FDR’s failure. The Board was created in 1944 as the result of a successful public campaign from dissident Jews such as Zionist activist Hillel Kook (known then as Peter Bergson) and Hollywood screenwriter, playwright, and journalist Ben Hecht. They were treated as troublemakers by the organized Jewish community and by influential Jews such as Rabbi Stephen Wise, a formerly great Zionist leader who stained his legacy by refusing to use his influence with the president to persuade him to take the issue of rescue seriously. But because it works against the narrative that FDR was helpless to do anything, this chapter of the story—which also revolves around the conflict within the Jewish community that has largely provided the template for American Jewish activism ever since—gets less attention in the film than it deserves.
Though it had the enthusiastic support of Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, the Board was underfunded and given little backing by other governmental authorities, such as the State Department and the military, whose cooperation would have been necessary for more extensive operations. But as the documentary demonstrates, it still managed to save (at the very least) tens of thousands of Jews in Hungary in 1944 thanks to its employment of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. As the series points out, most of the victims of the Holocaust were killed in the earlier stages of the war and could not have been saved by Allied action. But there is little doubt that if the War Refugee Board had been put in place much earlier and given more money and assistance, it might have, at a minimum, helped prevent such acts as the closing off of escape roots by both the Axis and Allies (the British were more concerned about keeping Jews out of Palestine than in saving any of them) and rescued significantly more people.
The documentary also gives relatively little time to the question of whether or not the United States should have bombed the rail lines to Auschwitz or the death factory itself, as many in the Jewish community urged. Here again, the response of the filmmaker is a figurative shrug of the shoulders. FDR and his administration are portrayed as dealing with an impossible dilemma, and therefore they shouldn’t be judged too harshly.
Leaving aside moral arguments about whether the bombings would have hurt many victims (a factor that was never considered in regard to the bombing of any other targets), it’s wrong to dismiss this issue and the entire idea of rescue as a mere matter of hindsight instead of a realistic option.
When you consider how much effort the United States and the Allies put into far less important issues, such as saving masterpieces of art stolen by the Nazis, the equation looks very different. The same can be said of the enormous resources poured into helping resistance forces. With the notable exceptions of Yugoslavia (where Tito’s resistance army tied down an Axis army) and those French who directly aided the Normandy landings, the resistance did little or nothing to aid Allied victory.
The bombing of Auschwitz didn’t happen for the same reason that the Roosevelt administration declined to work around the immigration laws to save Jews: The United States government and the man at its head weren’t particularly interested in the subject. That Burns won’t confront this fact directly is a major flaw.
The U.S. and the Holocaust treads the same route as much of the material used in the growth industry that is Holocaust education in 21st-century America. It sees the subject as primarily an opportunity to promote universalist messages against prejudice rather than a lesson about Jewish powerlessness. Predictably, the film asks whether Americans will respond to future such catastrophes with more concern. But while such pious sentiments seem to be considered both necessary and appropriate in any discussion of the Shoah, they are also entirely beside the point.
We already know how Americans act when confronted with other genocides. They stood by and let one occur in Cambodia because they were too traumatized by the Vietnam War to act. In the case of the slaughter of approximately 800,000 members of the Tutsi ethnic group in Rwanda in 1994, they did nothing. Though Samantha Power had used that lamentable failure to write a celebrated book about our “responsibility to protect” those threatened with genocide, she did and said nothing when the president she later served, Barack Obama, ignored the crossing of a “red line” he had drawn against the use of chemical weapons and was inert during the mass slaughter in Syria. The same is true with respect to the horrors currently being visited on the Uyghur people in western China by the Communist regime in Beijing.
Each genocide is, of course, different. Those being perpetrated outside of the context of a world war in which the murderers are also bent on conquest are bound to be treated less seriously. And that is why no one in the West lifts a finger when mass murders happen in places such as Africa or central Asia, where their strategic interests are not in play and few journalists are present.
As the historian Deborah Lipstadt, the current State Department Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combatting Anti-Semitism, correctly notes in Burns’s film, Nazi Germany largely achieved many of its goals with respect to the Jews. In this, she is echoing the conclusions of the late Lucy Dawidowicz, who wrote in her classic work The War Against the Jews that the German war waged on the Jews was entirely separate from the one they were fighting against the Allies. They won the former while losing the latter. The Allies never really concerned themselves much about the war on the Jews, or at least not enough to do anything about it before their victory ended the slaughter.
Like all Burns documentaries, The U.S. and the Holocaust is a beautifully crafted piece of filmmaking that, its glaring failures of theme notwithstanding, makes for riveting television. It also provides an introduction to the basics of the Holocaust and the history of American anti-Semitism to those who know little about these subjects.
Yet contrary to the film’s conclusion, the Holocaust tells us little or nothing about what to do about America’s contemporary immigration debates or the current American problem with Jew-hatred. Any attempt to frame the Holocaust as a representative moment in the history of human intolerance is a moral calamity. Burns demonstrated this in a CNN interview to promote the film. He spoke of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s decision to ship illegal immigrants to Martha’s Vineyard—whose affluent liberal residents advocate open borders but prefer to have border communities deal with the humanitarian crisis this has engendered—as if it deserved to be mentioned in the same conversation as the subject of his documentary.
That Burns, a longtime supporter of the Democrats and liberal causes, would be guilty of playing along with such an inappropriate Holocaust analogy demonstrates that the filmmaker’s efforts to frame the question of American guilt in this context should be viewed with suspicion. The same is true of his attempt to claim that current political opponents of open borders—such as Trump, DeSantis, and their supporters—are figures who conjure up the threats that America and the Jews faced in the past.
Anti-Semitism isn’t merely a collection of hateful sentiments; it’s a political organizing principle that has attached itself to a variety of different ideologies, from Nazism to Communism to Islamism. The answer to such threats isn’t open borders for America, amnesty for illegal immigrants, or even ensuring that more people read The Diary of Anne Frank. The only way to deter another genocide of the Jews is Jewish empowerment and our ability to defend ourselves, something we would gain only after the war with the creation of the State of Israel.
Some who attempt to use the Holocaust as an exhibit in contemporary immigration-law debates are actually indifferent to the security of Israel and, indeed, support appeasement of an Iran that seeks nuclear weapons to possibly perpetrate another Holocaust. This makes it hard to take them seriously when they lecture Americans about the murder of 6 million Jews in the past century.
The Holocaust was a chapter of history marked by American failure. But whatever one may think about Franklin Roosevelt and his indifference to Hitler’s victims, the responsibility for the murder of 6 million Jews still belongs to the Nazis and their collaborators. It was a crime the United States may not have had the power to deter, but one this nation could have done more to stop had its political leadership been willing to do so. This is a disturbing fact for many who lionize Roosevelt. But Burns and others who clearly wish to apply the lessons from this failure to complicated 21st-century political debates, while ignoring real-time genocides or potent threats to the security of millions of living Jews, shouldn’t pretend they have learned anything from the past or have anything to teach us about it.
*The film’s co-creators were not mentioned in the printed edition.
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