By Rafael Medoff
Children of presidents attract a lot of public and media attention; grandchildren, not so much. But there is one presidential grandchild who deserves special attention for exposing antisemitism – the antisemitism of the President of the United States.
Curtis Roosevelt, who passed away on Sept. 26 at age 86, was the son of Anna Roosevelt, daughter of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In his later years, Curtis gave a revealing interview to Geoffrey C. Ward, who was writing a biography of FDR (A First-Class Temperament, published in 1989). Curtis told Ward that he “recalled hearing the President tell mildly antisemitic stories in the White House.” In FDR’s stories, “the protagonists were always Lower East Side Jews with heavy accents…”
Curtis was deeply fond of his grandfather; his comments certainly were not motivated by any kind of malice. Moreover, he was a teenager during the 1940s, so he was old enough to have a reliable memory of the experiences he recounted. The fact that Curtis lived in the White House for a number of years also is significant; he was describing something that he himself heard, not just repeating rumors.
Meanwhile, a new book about the final months of President Roosevelt’s life has provided additional evidence of FDR’s private feelings about Jews. The book is His Final Battle by former New York Times executive editor Joseph Lelyveld. It cites a startling unpublished anecdote about Roosevelt from Charles “Chip” Bohlen, who was a senior aide to FDR and served as his interpreter at the Yalta Conference and elsewhere.
Lelyveld reveals that in an unpublished draft of Bohlen’s memoir, he made this comment to FDR in 1945, concerning the President’s conversation with the king of Saudi Arabia: “If you put any more kikes in Palestine, he is going to kill them.” According to Bohlen, “Roosevelt laughed” at that statement.
Curtis Roosevelt’s revelation about FDR telling “antisemitic stories” and Bohlen’s anecdote about the President laughing about “kikes” are consistent with other private “jokes” that FDR made about Jews. For example, Roosevelt once joked that relatives might suspect his fifth child was Jewish, in view of the baby’s “slightly Hebraic nose.”
FDR made another Jewish “joke” at the Yalta Conference. Soviet leader Josef Stalin asked Roosevelt if he intended to make any concessions to the king, and – according to the transcript – “the President replied that there was only one concession he thought he might offer and that was to give him the six million Jews in the United States.” (It was decades before that “joke” became known, because the State Department censored it from the official transcript.)
The fact that President Roosevelt was at ease with the term “kikes” is evident from another source, as well: the minutes of a 1942 conversation at the White House between FDR, his adviser Harry Hopkins, and Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov. According to the minutes, Hopkins commented on the number of “distinctly unsympathetic Jews” in the Communist Party USA. Roosevelt replied that while he was “far from antisemitic,” he felt that “there was a good deal in this point of view.” The three of them then agreed that “there were [regular] Communists and [less desirable] Communists,” which they compared to what they called “the distinction between ‘Jews’ and ‘Kikes’.”
Franklin Roosevelt is not the first president to have told bigoted jokes in private. Woodrow Wilson joked about “darkeys” and “coons,” sometimes with a faux accent. Lyndon Johnson indulged in harsh ethnic jokes, and so did Richard Nixon.
But those remarks were not known to the general public. Private racist humor by government officials that becomes public usually has consequences. Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz was forced to resign in 1976 after it became known that he told a crude joke about African-Americans. In 1983, Interior Secretary James Watt was forced out of office after telling a harsh ethnic joke (about “a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple”).
What presidents say does matter. They set the tone for public discourse. Exposing and rejecting presidents’ bigotry, even years after the fact, is necessary for delegitimizing racism. So hats off to Curtis Roosevelt for exposing the truth about his grandfather’s private remarks about Jews, and reminding the public that “jokes” about minorities are no laughing matter.
Dr. Rafael Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.
CAP: President Roosevelt with his daughter Anna Eleanor Dall and her two children, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt and Curtis Roosevelt, as he arrived back to his home in Hyde Park, N.Y., for a vacation. Following the divorce of his parents, Curtis Roosevelt lived in the White House when his grandfather was president. (August 20, 1933, the Associated Press)