Feature Stories

Clare Boothe Luce and the Holocaust: A CT Congresswoman’s Fight for Justice

Jewish Ledger | April 13, 2012

By Rafael Medoff ~

“Jewish blood stains the blue Mediterranean red.”

That powerful denunciation of England’s policy of blocking, and sometimes sinking, ships carrying Jewish refugees to Palestine, was delivered in 1944 by a maverick Republican congresswoman from Connecticut. Her little-known fight for the Jewish people is finally coming to light.
Talented and ambitious, Clare Boothe was a child actress, then a suffragist, before shifting to journalism in the early 1930s.  She went from editorial assistant at Vogue to managing editor of Vanity Fair in just three years, then left the magazine and carved out a successful career as a playwright, a profession relatively few women had penetrated. In 1935, she married the immensely wealthy and influential publisher of Time, Life, and Fortune, Harry Luce. They made their home in Ridgefield.
Clare visited the front lines of war-torn Europe and Asia in 1940-41 as a correspondent for Life. She was a Republican, but unlike the isolationists who dominated the party prior to World War II, she criticized FDR for failing to build up the U.S. armed forces sufficiently in the 1930s to deter Nazi aggression.
Luce’s foreign policy knowledge and experiences abroad helped her win election to the U.S. House of Representatives, in 1942, from Fairfield County’s 4th Congressional District. She was one of just eight women to serve in the House that term. Her election was another important step forward in bringing women into American political life, although even some of Luce’s supporters often remarked on her looks and charm rather than her skills or character.
“She is representing our Fourth District down there and giving the boys something to ogle to boot,” a friendly Connecticut newspaper columnist offered. Her opponents could be cruder. According to the diaries of then-Vice President Henry Wallace, President Franklin Roosevelt once half-jokingly referred to Luce as “that loose woman.”


luce with Albert Einstein (left) and Thomas Mann (right) at the Princeton opening of “Margin for Error”, Oct. 14, 1939

Luce had little interest in Jewish affairs or Palestine until she went to Washington. She later attributed the kindling of her concern about the Jews to Pierre van Paassen’s 1943 book The Forgotten Ally, a copy of which was given to her by a Jewish friend. An acclaimed journalist and fervent Christian Zionist, the Dutch-born van Paassen was involved with the Jewish activists known as the Bergson Group and with the U.S. wing of the Revisionist Zionist movement. The executive director of the U.S. Revisionists was Benzion Netanyahu, the father of Israel’s current prime minister.
Inspired by Van Paassen articulation of the Jewish right to Palestine and his plea to rescue the Jews from oppression, Luce “resolved to do what I can to right that wrong.” She began by providing a long quote that was included in a Revisionist ad in the New York Times urging rescue and Jewish statehood. Then she served as a co-sponsor of the Bergson Group’s Emergency Conference to Save the Jewish People of Europe.
A statement Luce provided for publication in the Revisionist journal Zionews gave expression to her heartfelt sympathy for the Jews: “As a well fed person can never truly understand the sensation of starvation,” Luce wrote, “so it is impossible for most of us well-established citizens to grasp the plight of a people who have neither a roof over their heads nor even a homeland they can call their own…Alone they do not have the strength to regain what is rightfully theirs. They must have the active help of those who, even though they have never experienced homelessness, can at least understand, from the lesson of their forefathers, the commendable desire for independence and freedom under a national flag.”
In April 1944, Mrs. Luce agreed to headline a Revisionist event in New York City. In her keynote address, she charged that the British policy of choking off Palestine-bound Jewish immigration transports from Europe was to blame for the fact that “Jewish blood stains the blue Mediterranean red.”
Netanyahu predicted Luce’s speech would “go down in history as one of the great expressions of the American conscience.” The Revisionists distributed tape recordings of her speech to radio stations around the country, and mailed the text to thousands of newspaper editors and Jewish community leaders. Netanyahu also reprinted excerpts from her speech in large ads in the New York Times and New York Post.
The following month, Luce introduced a congressional resolution calling for creation of temporary havens in the U.S. for refugees. “For 11 years now Americans have been deploring” the persecution of the Jews, but “while we deplored and lamented, millions of refugees were savagely murdered,” she said. “Others escaped death only to wander as refugees across the face of a world which was sympathetic but coldly inhospitable. They have life but no place to live.”

“Because I am a woman, I must make unusual efforts to succeed. If I fail, no one will say, ‘She doesn’t have what it takes’; They will say, ‘Women don’t have what it takes’.”

It was not Luce’s budding interest in Jewish affairs that brought her to the attention of the national Republican leadership. Rather it was her charismatic personality, her record of accomplishment in multiple fields, and her graceful manner that made Luce an almost irresistible candidate for the “new face” of the GOP.
Republican leaders admired Luce’s communication skills, especially her knack for turning a clever political phrase. Her description of postwar liberal visions of a universal world order as “globaloney” instantly became part of the political lexicon. And it helped make her the party’s choice for keynote speaker at the June 1944 Republican convention. She was the first woman to be given that honor by either party.
Luce’s remarks would immediately precede those of the only living ex-president, Herbert Hoover. He had long been fond of Luce; after she won re-election, Hoover sent her a tongue-in-cheek note that read, “That was a grand victory; I wish we had more men like you.” He reviewed her convention address in advance and found it “beautiful and powerfully affecting.” Hoover hailed her as “the Symbol of the New Generation.”

During the weeks leading up to the Republican National Convention in June 1944, Netanyahu and his colleagues undertook what they called “a systematic campaign of enlightenment” among the Republican leadership. his goal: inclusion of a pro-Zionist plank in the GOP party platform. Such a plank would be a first for either party.
The Revisionists spoke repeatedly with former president Hoover, 1936 GOP presidential nominee Alf Landon, key Republican senators and especially Luce, with whom Netanyahu had developed a close working relationship. Luce was a member of the Resolutions Committee at the convention and would have a hand in drafting the plank on Palestine. On the eve of her departure for the GOP convention in Chicago, Luce told Netanyahu, only half-joking, “I’m going now, to do your work at the convention.”
Another important source of pressure with regard to the Palestine plank was Rabbi Silver, an activist who had recently supplanted the more cautious Rabbi Stephen S. Wise as leader of the mainstream American Zionist movement. Thanks to his relationship with Ohio Senator Robert Taft, Silver was invited to deliver the invocation at the convention. He arrived in Chicago a week earlier, together with several aides, and vigorously lobbied Taft, expected nominee Governor Dewey, and members of the resolutions committee regarding the Palestine plank.
The combined efforts of Netanyahu’s group and Silver’s produced significant results. The final text of the plank declared:
In order to give refuge to millions of distressed Jewish men, women and children driven from their homes by tyranny, we call for the opening of Palestine for their unrestricted immigration and land ownership so that in accordance with the full intent and purpose of the Balfour Declaration and the resolution of Congress in 1922, Palestine may be reconstituted as a free and democratic Commonwealth. We condemn the failure of the President to insist that the Palestine Mandatory carry out the provisions of the Balfour Declaration and the Mandate while he pretends to support them.
“I hope you are satisfied with the Republican plank on Palestine,” Republican Jewish activist George Sokolsky cabled Netanyahu. “It was an amazing job that we got through.” Netanyahu was more than satisified. Although he had not specifically sought to have criticism of the president included in the text, he was pleased that the drafters did so. Rabbi Silver, fearing the anti-Roosevelt statement went too far, tried but failed to have that sentence deleted from the plank.
Rabbi Stephen Wise, on the other hand, dashed off a letter to the president in which he declared he was “deeply ashamed” of the “utterly unjust” wording of the Republican plank. “[Y]ou may be sure,” he wrote, “that American Jews will come to understand how unjust it is.” Wise also publicly condemned the Republican plank as an “unjust aspersion” upon Roosevelt. Netanyahu, in his journal Zionews, responded: “It seems that to Dr. Wise and his friends, partisan politics are more important than truth and the interests of their people and their country.”
The Republican move put strong pressure on the Democrats, for the first time, to compete for Jewish support. Rabbi Wise traveled to Chicago in July to press delegates at the Democratic convention to adopt a Palestine plank similar to that of the Republicans. Failure to adopt such a plank “will hurt the president,” Wise warned a Roosevelt administration official at the convention. “It will lose the President 400,000 or 500,000 votes.” Pressure by Wise, Congressman Emanuel Celler (D-NY), and others helped convince the Democrats to adopt a plank endorsing “unrestricted Jewish immigration and colonization” of Palestine and the establishment of “a free and democratic Jewish commonwealth.” Now both parties stood unequivocally in support of rescue and statehood.
More important, both parties for the first time accepted the notion that Jewish votes might be up for grabs, and that Jewish concerns needed to be addressed in order to attract Jewish voters. The idea of “the Jewish vote” was born. And every four years since then, both parties have sought to appeal to Jewish voters by including strong pro-Israel planks in their platforms.
Luce returned from Chicago to the accolades of her party for her riveting and glass ceiling-smashing keynote address. More than a few politicians have used their convention speeches as political launching pads. (Barack Obama is a notable example.) Luce, however, had no such aspirations.
After completing her first term in Congress, Luce decided she had had enough of Washington.  After several years of screenwriting in Hollywood, she entered the foreign service, serving as U.S. ambassador to Italy. In 1981, Luce was appointed by President Ronald Reagan to the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, and in 1983 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a crowning honor for her life of public service.
Luce, who passed away in 1987, is usually remembered for her accomplishments in the theatrical world and, especially, for advancing the role of women in politics. But her outspoken support of Holocaust rescue and Jewish statehood, and her key role in making the “Jewish vote” a part of American political culture, add a new dimension to the legacy of Clare Boothe Luce.

Dr. Rafael Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, and co-author, with Prof. Sonja Schoepf Wentling, of the forthcoming book ‘Herbert Hoover and the Jews: The Origins of the “Jewish Vote” and Bipartisan Support for Israel.’

Conversation with Dr. Donna Divine
In Memoriam 2014
Landmark green-energy exchange for water seen as a win-win for Israel, Arab partners

Leave Your Reply