America is forgetting the Holocaust. Only that concern can account for the extraordinary investment that our nation’s premier documentarian, Ken Burns, and its premier cultural arbiter, PBS, made in the production and promotion of the three-part series The U.S. and the Holocaust. Clocking in at a daunting 395 minutes—quite a number in an era when the average attention span runs much shorter—the series is one of the most extensive treatments of this tragedy ever done in America. PBS’s formidable school-distribution engine will ensure that the extensive educational material that it prepared along with the film (clips for students, a full hour with the filmmakers for teachers) will make it into classrooms nationwide. Churches and many Jewish groups have lauded it and are hosting special showings. Burns himself has been leading the effort since the series premiered in September. “I will not work on a more important film in my lifetime,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle. Driven, as Burns explained, by their concern “as citizens” over recent events—“the killing of people at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, rising xenophobia, and nationalist sentiment”—he and his team even managed to advance the film’s premiere to September 2022 from an original debut date in 2023, evidence of both Burns’s conviction and his clout with PBS.
The apprehension about public memory of the Holocaust itself is well-founded. As the images of the few remaining D-day veterans at recent Normandy Beach commemorations remind us, those who can tell us firsthand what happened in Europe in the 1930s or 1940s will soon be gone. In a more proximate battleground—the one passing for the common culture these days—what transpired in Europe back then gets abused, sidelined, and, inexorably, lost.
What, precisely, should Americans remember about the massacre of 6 million Jews and their own nation’s role in that fate? Since The U.S. and the Holocaust stands a chance of becoming the history of the Holocaust, the question warrants serious consideration.
On the European side of the story, The U.S. and the Holocaust proves nothing short of magisterial, depicting the rise of Hitler, the subjugation of millions of Europe’s Jews, and their annihilation by firing squads and in death camps. The Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 opened a new world of archives and facts about, for example, the operations of those death squads, the Einsatzgruppen, in the Baltic states. This trove enables Burns and team to depict the extent of the Holocaust in a way that would not have been possible even in the 1980s. Through individual cases meticulously researched, including, but moving well beyond, the familiar Anne Frank story, the Burns team captures the desperation of Jews trying to evade the Nazi trap. Burns’s telling of the plight of the MS St. Louis, which circled the waters off Florida in a desperate bid for permission to land after Cuban authorities reneged on a commitment to accept her 900-odd German refugees, will stay with viewers.
Still, the film is titled The U.S. and the Holocaust; the filmmakers put the “U.S.” first. And on this crucial U.S. component of the period, Burns lets his viewers down. For the series hammers away at an improbable narrative: the America of the 1800s was a kind of Statue of Liberty Eden, when immigrants flowed freely into our country. Then our bigotry overcame us, and we knew sin. Taking up eugenics or restricting immigration in the 1910s or 1920s—when Adolf Hitler was just a youth wandering Vienna, an insignificant corporal, or a jailbird with a Remington typewriter—was not merely wrong of us but also contributed to the rise of Nazism and to the Holocaust itself. And then, in the late 1930s and 1940s, we compounded our sins by failing to rescue Europe’s Jews. We were militaristic, not humanitarian, and so somehow the lesser.
To mount such a morality play, the filmmakers must rearrange both time and knowledge, pretending that politicians and governments in the first third of the twentieth century had access to facts and numbers that simply were not available in organized form until well after VE-day, or even decades later, as in the case, for example, of the massacre of Polish officers in the Katyn Forest. The result is six-plus hours of such righteous and distorted history that high schoolers who view the film can be forgiven for taking away the impression that the 1924 Johnson-Reed Immigration Act caused the Holocaust. The film also discounts as risibly insufficient the 240,000 refugees from the Nazis whom the U.S. did admit. Burns and his colleagues downplay the military sacrifice that went into the effort of halting Hitler, a sacrifice made not only by the vets at Normandy or the more than 400,000 Americans who lost their lives in World War II. Throughout, the film darkens the story with a sepia overlay of regret. Closer scrutiny reveals The U.S. and the Holocaust as disconcertingly partisan. Through omission and emphasis, the filmmakers assign responsibility for bigotry or bad policy to Republicans and exonerate Democrats.
A convenient way to grasp the extent of the distortion in The U.S. and the Holocaust is to trace the film’s treatment of American presidents. It commences by framing President Theodore Roosevelt (an “R,” after all) as eugenicist by focusing on Roosevelt’s shocking 1914 line: “I wish very much that the wrong people could be prevented entirely from breeding.” The U.S. and the Holocaust omits the rest of the quotation, including T. R.’s unattractive but non-murderous policy solution, that “the emphasis should be laid on getting desirable people to breed.” The filmmakers do supply more general context of the first quarter of the twentieth century: that in this period, the eugenics movement raged, even in progressive circles; that this inhumane movement led state governments to sterilize thousands; and that these ideas did indeed travel across the ocean and perhaps encouraged the mad philosopher, Hitler. Anti-Semitism was common in the U.S., as well. These were the years when Henry Ford published more than 90 opinion articles under the title “International Jew.”
The disruption of World War I and the arrival of a great number of new immigrants (a third of the population was foreign-born or born to immigrants) challenged the country. In that time of upheaval, as Burns shows, just about every leading American politician, except a few heroic Catholics, hawked eugenics.
Given this preoccupation with racism, it’s more than odd that the film neglects to showcase the re-segregator of official Washington: Democrat Woodrow Wilson. There is no mention of, for example, the White House’s airing of a film that did much to popularize the Ku Klux Klan, The Birth of a Nation, or Wilson’s 1915 comment that those “born under other flags have . . . poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life.” There’s scant coverage of the Wilson administration’s suppression of anarchists and extremists, many of whom were southern Europeans and Jewish immigrants. And the judiciary supported Wilson in this campaign. For complaining that the administration made “cannon fodder” of the young men it conscripted, among other offenses, Eugene Debs received a ten-year jail sentence. Though the film covers the tragedy of the MS St. Louis, there’s no mention of another craft, the USAT Buford, onto which the Wilson administration in 1919 forcibly loaded 249 radicals and “undesirable” aliens, shipping them off to their fate in Lenin’s Russia.
Wilson’s successor, Republican president Warren Harding, traded suppression for moderation. Harding even commuted Debs’s sentence in 1921. Harding and his vice president, Calvin Coolidge, did not build their policy around immigration, though they explicitly supported restrictions. Rather, the pair wagered that, if they pulled back heavy wartime regulation and taxes, the economy would prosper, and the disunity and violence would melt away. This gradualist approach likely struck Burns and his team as too Reaganite. In any case, the film passes over Harding.
Harding must be mumbling thanks in his Marion grave, given how this new history treats his successors. The fatal error of the 1920s in Burns’s telling was the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, which applied new quotas based on nationality rather than race directly. Few limits were applied to immigrants from Latin America, and generous quotas were allowed for those from Germany, home at the time to hundreds of thousands of Jews who were German citizens. But Johnson-Reed clearly aimed to favor northern Europeans, and it drastically reduced the number of visas for citizens of eastern and southern European nations, whose Jews, albeit a generation later, would also perish in the Holocaust. Certainly, there were many racists or racialists in the U.S. who supported Johnson-Reed because it accorded with their theories. But the majority of supporters simply wanted their country to change more slowly. The filmmakers single out for special criticism the 1924 act’s infamous Japanese exclusion, the insult of which, they suggest, stoked Japan’s anti-U.S. militancy, supposedly leading to the attack at Pearl Harbor 17 years later. Johnson-Reed “made an eventual collision between Japan and America inevitable,” one Japanese opinion maker is quoted as saying.
The film assigns responsibility for the restriction drive and the 1920s culture of racism to Johnson-Reed’s signatory, Calvin Coolidge. “America must be kept American,” said Coolidge, who had become president on Harding’s sudden death. This line apparently suffices to damn Coolidge in the filmmakers’ eyes, though many of us, even if we express and understand the concept differently, share the sentiment. To buttress its anti-Coolidge case, the film juxtaposes footage of the president with footage of the Ku Klux Klan on the march, of the genuine racist Henry Ford, and of the Landsberg cell where Hitler worked on Mein Kampf. The association between the mild Coolidge and professional race-mongers is crafted so tightly that some in the press, reacting to the Burns film, twinned Coolidge with Ford. An MSNBC reporter claimed that “Henry Ford and President Calvin Coolidge were just a few of the well-known figures who espoused blatant antisemitism.”
In Coolidge’s case, some facts and background are missing. Congress backed Johnson-Reed so overwhelmingly (the vote in the Senate was 69–9) that any presidential veto would have been overridden. As for Japanese exclusion, Coolidge shared the concern about its impact on Japan’s future, even announcing publicly: “If the exclusion provision stood alone I should disapprove it.”
What’s more, Coolidge was no policy bigot or anti-Semite. The church that the Coolidges chose to join in Washington, First Congregational, was rare in that it boasted a long and brave tradition of standing up for racial integration. Nowadays in PBS circles, the Franklin D. Roosevelt White House’s organization of a concert at the Lincoln Memorial for black contralto Marian Anderson is treated as a historic first. Yet, years before this, Coolidge’s church hosted Anderson, who performed “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho” before, as one paper reported, “a large audience of both white and colored people.” During the summer of 1924, while the Democratic Party wrestled with the demons of its much closer ties to the Ku Klux Klan (not much mention of this connection, either), a New Yorker wrote to Coolidge, seeking to block an African-American from running for Congress in, as the letter writer put it, “a white man’s country.” Coolidge dashed off a public reply: “I was amazed to receive such a letter,” he wrote. During the recent war, 500,000 African-Americans had been called up, “not one of whom sought to evade it. . . . Our Constitution guarantees equal rights to all our citizens.” The film’s suggestion that Coolidge was anti-Semitic is likewise absurd, for he defended Jews in public repeatedly, arguing that “every inheritance of the Jewish people . . . draws them powerfully to the side of charity, liberty, and progress.”
By 1925, a reality inconvenient to the narrative thrust of The U.S. and the Holocaust intruded. Americans of all backgrounds, including blacks, saw their lives improve, with electric appliances and automobiles changing even working-class life. The Harding-Coolidge wager that growth would reduce extremism was succeeding. Mid-decade, the Ku Klux Klan commenced a precipitous decline. Lynchings likewise dropped. Coolidge traveled to Omaha to challenge thousands of members of the mighty American Legion to reconsider any prejudices they might harbor: “We must all realize,” Coolidge told the crowd, “that there are true Americans who did not happen to be born in our section of the country, who do not attend our place of religious worship, who are not of our racial stock, or who are not proficient in our language.” In America, concluded Coolidge, “we are all now in the same boat.”
But it is Herbert Hoover whom the film wrongs most. Hoover had first won national popularity for the kind of grand humanitarian heroism that the filmmakers admire, getting past enemy lines in World War I to feed the starving citizens of German-occupied Belgium. Years later, Hoover had the bad luck to become president during the first year of the Great Depression. The scarcity of jobs—one in four Americans was unemployed by 1932—made many want to shut out foreign competitors. In the West, state and local governments began pressuring Mexicans, whether citizens or not, to return to Mexico. Many left voluntarily; others were forced out. At times, federal immigration officials were involved. In the Los Angeles raids, for example, federal authorities arrested 389 aliens, 269 of them Mexican. Other times, the drive to remove or send away legal immigrants was led by towns, counties, and states, and scant records of these events exist. Estimates of the number of Mexicans who left or were driven out range widely, from 200,000 to more than 1 million. Repatriation and deportation are not equivalent, as scholars Brian Gratton and Emily Merchant noted in 2013 in International Migration Review, and the evidence suggests that many Mexican-Americans left of their own accord. The departures went on for years, including at least some that occurred well into the mid- or later 1930s, when Franklin Roosevelt, not Hoover, was in the Oval Office.
Rather than offer all this detail, the film weaponizes history to clobber Hoover: “Under the slogan ‘American jobs for real Americans,’ Hoover’s Labor Department approved raids by sheriffs, marshals, and vigilantes that rounded up some 1.8 million people of Mexican descent and deported them.” That “1.8 million,” outside the bounds of serious scholarship to date, is particularly ominous in a film about the 6 million—leaving an opening for authors of urban legend to present Hoover as operating in the big-number league of the Nazis. Adding insult to injury, the film chides Hoover for what it treats as an exceptional cruelty: enforcing a regulation already on the books requiring immigrants to demonstrate that they could care for themselves. Yet such measures were an American tradition dating back to a period that the documentary presents as Edenic: the 1882 Immigration Act empowered authorities to deny entry to “any person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge.” This is not much different from what our own bureaucracies do when they check with employer sponsors in evaluating green-card applications.
It is in the second episode that the filmmakers turn to Franklin Roosevelt, the only president forced to contend with the Third Reich while in office. Roosevelt himself was capable of bigotry. During his first election campaign, Roosevelt allowed himself a kind of casual but nasty xenophobia, as in a San Francisco speech in which he assailed the Chicago electricity magnate Samuel Insull, who was taking his employees down with him as his firm failed. Roosevelt spoke against “the Ishmael or Insull, whose hand is against every man’s,” a line so creepy one can only ask, “What does that mean?” In his March 1933 inaugural address, just weeks before Hitler opened his first concentration camp, Roosevelt channeled Henry Ford on international capital, claiming that “the rulers of the exchange of mankind’s goods have failed” and that “practices of the unscrupulous money changers”—code for Jewish Wall Street—“stand indicted.” Burns covers none of this.
While Roosevelt settled in at the White House that first year, Hitler bullied President Paul von Hindenburg into allowing him to convert the German republic into a dictatorship, “disappeared” some 100,000 Germans, and killed off civil liberties. By 1935, Hitler was putting Nuremberg Race Laws into effect, formally dividing Germany into a class society of Aryan heroes and untouchables—Jews. By Roosevelt’s second term, the Nazis were already expropriating Jewish families, renaming Jews (those without obviously Jewish names had to add the first names Israel or Sara to their identity cards), and forcing Jews who tried to emigrate to surrender all but ten reichsmarks of their property.
When, in 1938, Hitler launched Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, a nationwide and public riot-and-loot campaign against Jews and their homes and shops, Roosevelt did tell Americans that those fleeing Hitler’s terror deserved “safe havens,” and did extend visas of German Jews currently in the United States. But throughout this decade under Roosevelt, U.S. immigration policy remained tight. What’s more, in 1941, consulates were ordered not to process new visas, lest the U.S. admit spies. Toward the end of the war, Roosevelt moved more than 100,000 West Coast residents of Japanese descent, the majority of whom held U.S. citizenship, into our own camps—a violation of citizens’ rights that could itself ignite outrage.
But here, Burns and team afford Roosevelt what they deny preceding presidents: context. The filmmakers point out that the high unemployment of the 1930s, above 10 percent throughout the decade, made loosening immigration restraints even more unpopular than it was in the 1920s. They note that, by the late 1930s, Roosevelt was arriving at the same conclusion that many presidents reach: that military action was the better way to stop a tyrant. Doing so, Roosevelt knew, would be tough to win support for, even with a foe as heinous as that of the Third Reich, given joblessness and congressional recalcitrance. Therefore, before Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt bent his energies to weakening the Neutrality Acts and to the passage of Lend Lease.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, more Americans backed a military response, but now Roosevelt had a two-front war to prosecute—since, four days later, on December 11, 1941, Germany declared war on the United States. Isolated reports of the scale of the genocide did make it to Washington, and the press carried news of them, and, eventually, of the main death camp, Auschwitz. One eyewitness to the Warsaw ghetto and a concentration camp, the underground courier Jan Karski, performed the impossible: after making it to London somehow, he hurdled State Department barriers, crossed the Atlantic, and won an audience with the president. Roosevelt informed Karski that the Allies would win the war, honor Poland for its struggle, and bring the Nazis to justice. After sharing such generalities, the president dismissed his guest.
Unwilling to assail Roosevelt for flunking its own virtue standard—drastic immigration policy shifts, dramatic humanitarian action, and even a counterfactual that it tries on for size (bombing Auschwitz)—The U.S. and the Holocaust devotes its final hours to assailing other targets: anti-Semites, Republican congressmen, Charles Lindbergh and his disturbing America First group, and the radio demagogue Father Charles Coughlin, who, like Roosevelt, railed against “money changers”—all are portrayed. The film repeatedly slams the State Department as callous or anti-Semitic. This is doubtless accurate but perhaps beside the point, since the department is carrying out its boss’s orders. The film locates a conveniently unattractive example of State Department prissiness in Breckinridge Long, an assistant secretary of state, who blocked the transmission of reports on the Holocaust from Europe and indeed locked out thousands of desperate families. In this staging, one heroine emerges among the villains: Eleanor Roosevelt, portrayed as the better angel of Roosevelt’s nature. In the middle of the war, she insistently advocated legislation to admit more refugees, including a British-style Kindertransport of refugee children, while the president did not, at least publicly.
The Franklin Roosevelt glimpsed here is clear and, to many of us, sympathetic—a man who cared deeply about Hitler’s victims but focused in traditional fashion on executing a more conventional plan to solve the problem by taking out Hitler. What’s harder to accept is the portrait of the president that the filmmakers want us to take away: that of a beleaguered hero, who perhaps could have rescued the Jews of Europe somehow, but didn’t because, as American historian and interviewee Deborah Lipstadt puts it, the rest of America failed him: “clearly nobody wanted these people.”
What to make of this pessimistic portrait of the American record? The initial premise of The U.S. and the Holocaust—that only bigots back immigration restrictions—is itself deeply flawed and doubtless is emphasized with an eye to discrediting modern-day conservatives advocating similar restrictions. In Burns’s film, all Republicans, especially Anglo-Saxon Protestants, are suspect, and its makers could not resist closing with a cheap second or two of Donald Trump shouting something or other, along with making a reference to January 6.
That leaders must always prioritize humanitarian causes over military action is an impossibly idealistic doctrine—one not vindicated, alas, by history. The filmmakers suggest lightly that, after the shock of the Nazi atrocities, America, and even somehow, the world, became a better place for a while, the evidence for which they see in Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. They single out a passage of immigration reform in the 1960s as an example of a major improvement. This is sanctimonious nonsense. The immigration policy that resulted was as inefficient and, at times, as tough on the human soul as national quotas. The Great Society reforms did little for, say, the Igbos in the Biafran conflict. When it came to the plight of the South Vietnamese or Cambodians, a group for whose fate, one could argue, the U.S. was more directly responsible, the U.S. rhetoric was kinder—Gerald Ford spoke of America “opening its doors,” but our government replicated policy of the 1930s, admitting 140,000 but stranding hundreds of thousands more in the clutches of the North Vietnamese and Pol Pot.
Shame is the film’s main theme. Burns finds today’s America eerily akin to the early days of the Third Reich. Appearing on Firing Line with Margaret Hoover to promote the film, he cited Lipstadt, who warns that “the time to stop a genocide is before it happens.” The filmmakers want to humiliate us into some sense of progressive responsibility. “We have to become something different if we’re going to make it,” historian Tim Snyder concludes. Yet more demanding is Eleanor Roosevelt’s exhortation, aired as a kind of marquee takeaway in the film’s final minutes: “I hope that in the future, we are going to remember that there can be no compromise at any point with the things that we know are wrong.”
There’s plenty to regret about American immigration policy. But advocacy of immigration restriction is not necessarily equivalent to bigotry. And not all of us can join in such shaming or share the film’s apocalyptic analysis.
Like the 1619 Project, a New York Times initiative that emphasizes America’s record of slavery, The U.S. and the Holocaust aims not only to attract viewers but also to recast American history. In effect, it tells American viewers that to prove that they are not “deplorables,” they must accept that the United States failed Europe’s Jews, acknowledge America’s collective guilt for the world’s racism—including racism and anti-Semitism today—and deny association with everything that does not accord with the agenda of today’s progressive movement. The result of this approach may be to achieve the opposite of what those so heavily invested in the film intend. Faced with the choice forced upon them by The U.S. and the Holocaust, many young Americans may indeed opt to forget.
Top Photo: Ken Burns, the nation’s premier documentarian (CHRIS PIZZELLO/INVISION/AP PHOTO)