Ken Burns is the most successful popular historian of our time. His documentary films, including The Civil War (1990), Baseball (1994), and Jazz (2001), have not only provided information about key figures and events. Through Burns’s signature blend of sonorous narration, animated still photography, and plaintive musical accompaniment, they have helped define the very look and sound of the past for many Americans.
As with most popular historians, though, Burns’s success tells us as much about the author and his contemporary audience as it does about far off times. Burns has never concealed his own politics, expressed in video tributes he produced for Senator Ted Kennedy. And the optimistic, understated, yet patriotic version of the American story that Burns tells seems perfectly tailored to the sort of aging, genteel liberals who watch a lot of PBS, which broadcasts most of his work.
That mood has become harder to sustain, however. Like much of his audience, Burns’s mood has grown darker over the last decade. Broadcast as the Cold War was reaching its triumphant conclusion, The Civil War looked back on the turmoil of the past more in sorrow than in anger—an attitude that has attracted criticism in our more censorious time. Now Burns is less forgiving.
Although it demonstrates the same technical excellence as Burns’s previous work, The U.S. and the Holocaust reflects this new anxiety. Ostensibly an investigation of American action and inaction with regard to the Third Reich, it also draws an analogy between the United States and Germany. We like to think we’re exceptional, the more critical Burns proposes. But what if we’re more like our opponents in "the good war" of the 20th century than we prefer to believe?
The suggestion is not altogether unfounded. In the first episode, Burns points out the inconvenient fact that the Nazis claimed aspects of American practice as precedents for their own conduct. Hitler himself compared the German conquest of Eastern Europe to the United States’ violent Western expansion. Nazi apologists also claimed American segregation and eugenics laws as inspiration for their own policies. Many such claims were cynical efforts to deflect criticism—a tactic we now call "whataboutism." But some scholars argue that party officials were seriously interested in Jim Crow models for excluding, isolating, and humiliating a detested minority.
Yet the comparison is still a false equivalence. Even after World War II, many white Americans openly held religious and racial views that now seem abhorrent. But the expression of those views, in Burns’s presentation, was not a campaign of extermination but the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act, which severely restricted immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe while effectively banning entry from Asia. Because the quotas were determined by national origin, they imposed no legal disadvantage on Jews per se. But records of the formal and informal debates about the issue make it clear that halting the wave of more than two million Jews who had entered the United States since the Civil War was among its principal motives.
Knowing what we do now, this exclusion looks like a death sentence—and its advocates like accomplices if not outright murderers. But not even opponents of the measure suggested anything like that outcome, which was literally unimaginable at the time. And while Burns acknowledges the wide popularity of immigration restriction, he barely considers the factors that generated a political alliance including both the American Federation of Labor and the Ku Klux Klan, leading to 2/3 votes in both houses of Congress. Nor does he investigate the international situation at a moment when liberal states were being set up throughout postwar Europe—and a Jewish community was burgeoning in Mandatory Palestine. In 1924, it was uncharitable but not disingenuous to think Jews had a range of appealing options outside America.
The equation looks different a decade later when the Nazis had taken power in Germany and worldwide liberalism was in headlong retreat. At this point, the humanitarian justification for admitting Jews was more compelling, while a Democratic coalition that included many pre-1924 immigrants and their descendants had swept Franklin Delano Roosevelt into the White House. Yet public opinion remained staunchly opposed to lifting the Johnson-Reed quotas, even for children. Surely this is evidence of enduring bigotry?
Polling data Burns cites in the film don’t support that conclusion. As Europe careened toward destruction, huge majorities of the public expressed disapproval for the Hitler regime. There were genuine anti-Semites and Nazi sympathizers at all levels of American society—including the State Department, where some officials went beyond the requirements of the law to place obstacles in the way of Jewish immigration—but the main sources of opposition to a more generous policy seem to have been a combination of economic anxiety related to the lingering depression, disbelief that reports of mounting violence could possibly be true, and desire to stay out of European problems. Once again, these motives are hardly admirable. But they do not support an analogy between the United States and Germany.
Burns also stacks the emotional deck by focusing on the relatively small number of affluent, assimilated Central European Jews who were caught in the Nazi vise. Even without the benefit of hindsight, it is difficult to understand how such cultivated, unthreatening people could have been regarded as economic, cultural, or security risks. But the vast majority of Hitler’s victims were Eastern European Jews whose appearances, manners, and lives struck most Americans—including many American Jews—as alien and undesirable. Retelling the story of the Frank family, as Burns does here, does not confront viewers with this still uncomfortable dilemma.
Despite its indictment of American public opinion and foreign policy, the film points toward the counterintuitive assessment that the United States was not a principal actor in the story of the Holocaust. America could have done more, but there was never any realistic chance of admitting all or even most of Europe’s nearly 10 million Jews. And Burns admits the Roosevelt administration had good reason to fear backlash even for its hesitant efforts to aid refugees. Perhaps the release of more information about the campaign of slaughter unfolding in Polish and later Soviet territories occupied by Germany might have shifted the political balance. By the time verified reports were available, though, the United States itself was close to entering the war. And formal belligerence against the Axis did not mean America had the immediate capacity to end or even slow the killing. In fact, the camps remained outside the range of American strikes until Allied forces entered Northern Italy in 1944.
Such considerations do not excuse refusal to help those who could have been saved. Nor do they diminish the courage of Americans inside and outside the government, both Jews and gentiles, who used all the means at their disposal to discover, publicize, and, when possible, help victims escape Nazi atrocities. But they do raise the question of whether the United States was either a principle cause or the major solution to the Holocaust. For all his shortcomings, FDR was probably right to think the best thing America could do for the Jews was to help win the war. But that was far from good enough.
Burns’s earlier work was popular partly because it treated the United States as, in Lincoln’s words, "the last, best hope of earth." The U.S. and the Holocaust may be popular because it punctures that myth, depicting America as complicit in the worst horrors of the 20th, or any other, century. Despite their apparent opposition, both assessments presume that American politics is the primary influence on the course of human events. The harder lesson is that sometimes we’re more bystanders than protagonists.
Samuel Goldman, an associate professor of political science at George Washington University, is the author of After Nationalism and God's Country: Christian Zionism in America.