SEPTEMBER 2009 — To his critics, Franklin Roosevelt’s response to the Holocaust was epitomized by his June 1939 decision to refuse political asylum to more than 900 passengers aboard the German ocean liner St. Louis. The passengers, nearly all of them Jewish refugees, had the lights of Miami in sight when the United States government refused them permission to disembark. Roosevelt did not respond to pleas for help. The ship returned to Europe, and the Holocaust claimed more than a third of those who returned to the Continent.

Because of this, Roosevelt has been depicted as indifferent to the fate of the Jews. According to a new book, Refugees and Rescue, though, it is a reputation he does not deserve. As revealed in the previously unpublished diary of James McDonald, the man who oversaw Roosevelt’s wartime advisory committee on refugees, FDR did try to help Jewish refugees before the war.

A year before the St. Louis affair, FDR prodded the State Department to allow tens of thousands of Jews to immigrate from Germany and Austria, and developed plans to turn the Western democracies into a huge safety net. “Roosevelt was a man of grand vision who wanted to resettle a much larger number of refugees,” writes Richard Breitman, an American University historian who helped edit the volume. “[But] his willingness to take action varied sharply according to political and military circumstances.”

As early as the spring of 1938, according to McDonald’s papers, Roosevelt began talking about a plan to rescue millions of Jews from Nazi Germany and divide them between a group of 10 democratic countries. Later that year, Roosevelt promised McDonald that he would ask Congress to appropriate $150 million to help resettle refugees around the world. In May 1939, only a month before the St. Louis incident, McDonald was present when FDR warned his advisors that the situation of the Jews in Germany was growing critical. “It was not so much a question of money,” McDonald recorded the president saying, “as it was of actual lives.”

McDonald, the high commissioner for refugees for the League of Nations in the 1930s, had no tolerance for foot-dragging bureaucrats or timid world leaders. He had resigned from his post in 1935 over the organization’s unwillingness to help Jews in Nazi Germany. And he had no reason to make excuses for Roosevelt. Which, historians say, is what makes his decision to join the president’s advisory committee on refugees in 1938—and his impressions of a president he believed was quite concerned about the fate of European Jews—so important.

So why didn’t Roosevelt act? McDonald blamed the intractable politics of the time. In early 1939, with the St. Louis about to set sail, FDR refused to endorse a bill that would have brought 20,000 German Jewish children into the United States outside the immigration quota. From McDonald’s perspective, FDR saw the bill as a mere gesture—not a solution. In the face of strong public opposition and an intransigent State Department, both Roosevelt and McDonald also recognized that the bill was doomed to fail. “The problem was that most of the initiatives to resettle refugees…proved impossible, met substantial resistance abroad, or developed very slowly,” Breitman and his coeditors write. “The outbreak of war destroyed most of what opportunities remained.”

By 1940, Roosevelt abandoned his major resettlement efforts when he was forced to change his focus from humanitarian action to national security. That transition disappointed McDonald so much that he voted for Wendell Willkie in that year’s presidential election.

Nonetheless, after FDR won, McDonald stayed on as the president’s adviser, doing what he could to help Europe’s Jews. “We definitely have a sense that McDonald felt he and Roosevelt were, if not on the same page, at least in the same chapter,” Breitman told World War II. “He eventually realized that no one had the power to stop the Holocaust.” Sadly, that included the president.