Lyndon Johnson -- A Friend in Deed
A few weeks ago, the Associated Press reported that newly released tapes from US president Lyndon Johnson's White House office showed LBJ's "personal and often emotional connection to Israel." The news agency pointed out that during the Johnson presidency (1963-1969), "the United States became Israel's chief diplomatic ally and primary arms supplier."
But the news report does little to reveal the full historical extent of Johnson's actions on behalf of the Jewish people and the State of Israel. Most students of the Arab-Israeli conflict can identify Johnson as the president during the 1967 war. But few know about LBJ's actions to rescue hundreds of endangered Jews during the Holocaust - actions that could have thrown him out of Congress and into jail. Indeed, the title of "Righteous Gentile" is certainly appropriate in the case of the Texan, whose centennial year is being commemorated this year.
Appropriately enough, the annual Jerusalem Conference announced this week that it will honor Johnson in February 2009.
Historians have revealed that Johnson, while serving as a young congressman in 1938 and 1939, arranged for visas to be supplied to Jews in Warsaw, and oversaw the apparently illegal immigration of hundreds of Jews through the port of Galveston, Texas.
A key resource for uncovering LBJ's pro-Jewish activity is the unpublished 1989 doctoral thesis by University of Texas student Louis Gomolak, "Prologue: LBJ's Foreign Affairs Background, 1908-1948." Johnson's activities were confirmed by other historians in interviews with his wife, family members and political associates.
Research into Johnson's personal history indicates that he inherited his concern for the Jewish people from his family. His aunt Jessie Johnson Hatcher, a major influence on LBJ, was a member of the Zionist Organization of America. According to Gomolak, Aunt Jessie had nurtured LBJ's commitment to befriending Jews for 50 years. As a young boy, Lyndon watched his politically active grandfather "Big Sam" and father "Little Sam" seek clemency for Leo Frank, the Jewish victim of a blood libel in Atlanta. Frank was lynched by a mob in 1915, and the Ku Klux Klan in Texas threatened to kill the Johnsons. The Johnsons later told friends that Lyndon's family hid in their cellar while his father and uncles stood guard with shotguns on their porch in case of KKK attacks. Johnson's speechwriter later stated, "Johnson often cited Leo Frank's lynching as the source of his opposition to both anti-Semitism and isolationism."
Already in 1934 - four years before Chamberlain's Munich sellout to Hitler - Johnson was keenly alert to the dangers of Nazism and presented a book of essays, Nazism: An Assault on Civilization, to the 21-year-old woman he was courting, Claudia Taylor - later known as "Lady Bird" Johnson. It was an incredible engagement present.
FIVE DAYS after taking office in 1937, LBJ broke with the "Dixiecrats" and supported an immigration bill that would naturalize illegal aliens, mostly Jews from Lithuania and Poland. In 1938, Johnson was told of a young Austrian Jewish musician who was about to be deported from the United States. With an element of subterfuge, LBJ sent him to the US Consulate in Havana to obtain a residency permit. Erich Leinsdorf, the world famous musician and conductor, credited LBJ for saving his life.
That same year, LBJ warned a Jewish friend, Jim Novy, that European Jews faced annihilation. "Get as many Jewish people as possible out [of Germany and Poland]," were Johnson's instructions. Somehow, Johnson provided him with a pile of signed immigration papers that were used to get 42 Jews out of Warsaw.
But that wasn't enough. According to historian James M. Smallwood, Congressman Johnson used legal and sometimes illegal methods to smuggle "hundreds of Jews into Texas, using Galveston as the entry port. Enough money could buy false passports and fake visas in Cuba, Mexico and other Latin American countries.... Johnson smuggled boatloads and planeloads of Jews into Texas. He hid them in the Texas National Youth Administration... Johnson saved at least four or five hundred Jews, possibly more."
During World War II Johnson joined Novy at a small Austin gathering to sell $65,000 in war bonds. According to Gomolak, Novy and Johnson then raised a very "substantial sum for arms for Jewish underground fighters in Palestine." One source cited by the historian reports that "Novy and Johnson had been secretly shipping heavy crates labeled 'Texas Grapefruit' - but containing arms - to Jewish underground 'freedom fighters' in Palestine."
ON JUNE 4, 1945, Johnson visited Dachau. According to Smallwood, Lady Bird later recalled that when her husband returned home, "he was still shaken, stunned, terrorized and bursting with an overpowering revulsion and incredulous horror at what he had seen."
A decade later while serving in the Senate, Johnson blocked the Eisenhower administration's attempts to apply sanctions against Israel following the 1956 Sinai Campaign. "The indefatigable Johnson had never ceased pressure on the administration," wrote I.L. "Si" Kenen, the head of AIPAC at the time.
As Senate majority leader, Johnson consistently blocked the anti-Israel initiatives of his fellow Democrat, William Fulbright, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Among Johnson's closest advisers during this period were several strong pro-Israel advocates, including Benjamin Cohen (who 30 years earlier was the liaison between Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis and Chaim Weizmann) and Abe Fortas, the legendary Washington "insider."
Johnson's concern for the Jewish people continued through his presidency. Soon after taking office in the aftermath of John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963, Johnson told an Israeli diplomat, "You have lost a very great friend, but you have found a better one."
Just one month after succeeding Kennedy, LBJ attended the December 1963 dedication of the Agudas Achim Synagogue in Austin. Novy opened the ceremony by saying to Johnson, "We can't thank him enough for all those Jews he got out of Germany during the days of Hitler."
Lady Bird would later describe the day, according to Gomolak: "Person after person plucked at my sleeve and said, 'I wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for him. He helped me get out.'" Lady Bird elaborated, "Jews had been woven into the warp and woof of all [Lyndon's] years."
THE PRELUDE to the 1967 war was a terrifying period for Israel, with the US State Department led by the historically unfriendly Dean Rusk urging an evenhanded policy despite Arab threats and acts of aggression. Johnson held no such illusions. After the war he placed the blame firmly on Egypt: "If a single act of folly was more responsible for this explosion than any other, it was the arbitrary and dangerous announced decision [by Egypt] that the Strait of Tiran would be closed [to Israeli ships and Israeli-bound cargo]."
Kennedy was the first president to approve the sale of defensive US weapons to Israel, specifically Hawk anti-aircraft missiles. But Johnson approved tanks and fighter jets, all vital after the 1967 war when France imposed a freeze on sales to Israel. Yehuda Avner recently described on these pages prime minister Levi Eshkol's successful appeal for these weapons on a visit to the LBJ ranch. (Pictured: LBJ receiving Yitzhak Rabin in the Oval Office.)
Israel won the 1967 war, and Johnson worked to make sure it also won the peace. "I sure as hell want to be careful and not run out on little Israel," Johnson said in a March 1968 conversation with his ambassador to the United Nations, Arthur Goldberg, according to White House tapes recently released.
Soon after the 1967 war, Soviet premier Aleksei Kosygin asked Johnson at the Glassboro Summit why the US supported Israel when there were 80 million Arabs and only three million Israelis. "Because it is right," responded the straight-shooting Texan.
The crafting of UN Resolution 242 in November 1967 was done under Johnson's scrutiny. The call for "secure and recognized boundaries" was critical. The American and British drafters of the resolution opposed Israel returning all the territories captured in the war. In September 1968, Johnson explained, "We are not the ones to say where other nations should draw lines between them that will assure each the greatest security. It is clear, however, that a return to the situation of 4 June 1967 will not bring peace. There must be secure and there must be recognized borders. Some such lines must be agreed to by the neighbors involved."
Goldberg later noted, "Resolution 242 in no way refers to Jerusalem, and this omission was deliberate." This historic diplomacy was conducted under Johnson's stewardship, as Goldberg related in oral history to the Johnson Library. "I must say for Johnson," Goldberg stated. "He gave me great personal support."
Robert David Johnson, a professor of history at Brooklyn College, recently wrote in The New York Sun, "Johnson's policies stemmed more from personal concerns - his friendship with leading Zionists, his belief that America had a moral obligation to bolster Israeli security and his conception of Israel as a frontier land much like his home state of Texas. His personal concerns led him to intervene when he felt that the State or Defense departments had insufficiently appreciated Israel's diplomatic or military needs."
President Johnson firmly pointed American policy in a pro-Israel direction. In a historical context, the American emergency airlift to Israel in 1973, the constant diplomatic support, the economic and military assistance and the strategic bonds between the two countries can all be credited to the seeds planted by LBJ.
LBJ, a 'Righteous Gentile?'
Yad Vashem has strict criteria for the entry of candidates into its pantheon of "Righteous Gentiles," and Johnson apparently doesn't meet that standard.
"The Righteous, as defined by the [Knesset's] Yad Vashem Law, are non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust," Irena Steinfeldt, director of Yad Vashem's Righteous Among the Nations Department. "In some cases," Steinfeldt continued, "it is claimed that Johnson helped Jewish refugees from Europe get into the US after they had already left Europe. This of course would have been significant for those refugees, but is not something that falls within the framework of our program."
Indeed, there is no evidence that Johnson risked his life to save Jews, and most of his efforts appeared to have been directed at getting Jews into the US once they had managed to leave Europe.
Historian Louis Gomolak suggested that Johnson broke the law to gets Jews into the US. In Prologue: LBJ's Foreign Affairs Background, 1908-1948, he states, "...[D]espite an all-out effort to stop Jewish immigration by Roosevelt's new anti-Semitic assistant secretary of state, Breckinridge Long, Congressman Lyndon B. Johnson secretly began smuggling European Jews into Texas, say dozens of members of the Austin Jewish Community. False passports and one-way visas were obtainable - for a price - first in Cuba, and when that source dried up then in Mexico."
Historian Robert Dallek (Lone Star Rising, Lyndon Johnson and His Times 1908-1960) repeated the claim that LBJ broke the law. "Early in 1940", Dallek wrote, "...Lyndon and the others helped Jews get false passports and one-way visas in Latin America and then brought them to National Youth Administration training camps in Texas. Because it was illegal to house and train noncitizens at the camps, Operation Texas, as the rescue effort was called, was kept a strict secret for over 20 years."
Incidentally, the Texas NYA vocational camps, part of Roosevelt's New Deal program, were run by LBJ between 1935-1937, before he ran for Congress.
Historian James Smallwood admitted to me, "It is correct that Johnson did not risk his life, but he committed illegal acts to save the Jews. It can be proved that LBJ saved some 42 from the Nazis. Indirect evidence says he probably saved about 400. From my research, I agree with the larger number. However, there are problems, since much of what went on was illegal and Johnson knew better than to leave a paper trail."
Most politicians cover up their illegal deeds lest they get caught and receive public condemnation. Ironically, LBJ's discretion may actually prevent the public commendation and history's approbation that he deserves.
- Help locate descendants of Jim Novy, Jack Baumel of the Texas Railroad Commission, and Jesse Kellam who helped LBJ save Jews 70 years ago.
- Adrian Levy served as mayor of Galveston from 1935 to 1939. He was a close friend of LBJ's, and probably played a role in smuggling Jews into Galveston. A Galveston library has some 10 inches of Levy's papers. We need to find a Levy descendant who may have more information and someone to look at those papers. (Pictured: Roosevelt, Johnson and Levy in 1937)
- Still looking for Dr. Louis S. Gomolak and his PhD dissertation, "Prologue: LBJ's Foreign Affairs Background, 1908-1948," Dept. of History, Univ. of Texas, 1989.
How ironic. In some countries, citizens investigate their national leaders’ criminal actions in order to throw them out of office. In the case of Lyndon Johnson and his efforts to rescue European Jews from the Holocaust, we are searching for evidence of wrong-doings in order to honor the president during the year of his 100th birthday celebrations.
The Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial rightfully guards its list of Righteous Among the Nations with strict criteria for membership. Gentiles who risked their lives to save Jews are enshrined in the holy pantheon, and their actions must have collaborating evidence and testimony. One small loophole exists for those who did not risk their lives but broke the law and risked their livelihood to save Jews.
These are some of Yad Vashem’s criteria, as provided by a senior official:
- For our purposes it is not enough to have statements in general terms by people saying that a certain person helped Jews and rescued them. It is only with an exact description (and substantiation by primary sources) that the commission can rule if a certain deed accords with the Righteous program criteria.
- It is claimed that Johnson helped Jewish refugees from Europe to get into the U.S. after they had already left Europe. This of course would have been most significant for those refugees, but is not something that falls within the framework of our program. Therefore we need more information and documentation.
- In some cases, the Commission also bestows the title on people who did not risk their lives, but took grave risks in order to assist Jews in danger of deportation and death. In latter cases it has to be shown that the nominated persons acted against the law or contrary to their professional instructions, thus risking severe punishment.
Historian Robert Dallek suggests in his 1991 book Lone Star Rising, that Johnson did break the law to save Jews and that some of his efforts were carried out in Europe, not just after the Jews departed the cursed continent. Here are excerpts (pages 169-170):One of Lyndon's constituents in Austin was Jim Novy, a successful Russian-Jewish businessman who had come to the United States in 1913 at the age of seventeen. A leader of Austin's four hundred Jews, Jim and his brother Louis were also active in Texas politics. …In the spring of 1938, when Lyndon heard that Jim was planning a trip to Poland and Germany, he urged Novy to "get as many Jewish people as possible out of both countries." Attending to the necessary affidavits in Washington and calling the U.S. consul in Warsaw, Lyndon's efforts allowed Novy to arrange for forty-two Polish and German Jews, including four relatives, to come to the United States later that year.
Early in 1940, four months after the outbreak of World War II, Johnson began helping hundreds of Jewish refugees from Hitler's persecution reach Texas through Cuba, Mexico, and countries in South America. Working with Jim Novy, Jack K. Baumel, a chief engineer at the Texas Railroad Commission and an Austin Jewish leader, and Jesse Kellam, Texas director of the NYA, Lyndon and the others helped Jews get false passports and one-way visas in Latin America and then brought them to NYA training camps in Texas. Because it was illegal to house and train noncitizens at the camps, even though Novy reimbursed camp directors for all costs, Operation Texas, as the rescue effort was called, was kept a strict secret for over twenty years.
According to Claudia Anderson, Supervisory Archivist at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library:
"Stories circulate in the Austin Jewish community that LBJ helped a number of Jewish refugees enter the United States just before and during World War II.
"The LBJ Library has very little documentation concerning this. In 1989, a student at the University of Texas, Louis Gomolak, wrote a dissertation in which he said Johnson assisted many refugees. His main sources were interviews he conducted with members of the Austin Jewish community.
[Does anyone have more information on and email address for Dr. Gomolak?]
"The key document cited by Louis Gomolak is a short speech given by Jim Novy on December 30, 1963, when he introduced President Johnson who was speaking at the dedication of the Agudas Achim Synagogue in Austin.
"The LBJ Library have a copy of the notes that Novy used that day, The notes are from the Personal Papers of Jim Novy, and the folder is 'Papers of Jim Novy [3 of 3].' Jim Novy was a friend of Lyndon Johnson's and a member of the Agudas Achim congregation. "
Click on the pictures to zoom in on the notes:
Yad Vashem’s initial reaction was not very promising:
“The title of Righteous among the Nations is awarded by a special Commission … that operates according to a well-defined set of rules and criteria. The Righteous, as defined by the Yad Vashem Law enacted by the Israeli Knesset in 1953, are non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. In some cases, the Commission also bestows the title on people who did not risk their lives, but took grave risks in order to assist Jews in danger of deportation and death. In latter cases it has to be shown that the nominated persons acted against the law [emphasis added] or contrary to their professional instructions, thus risking severe punishment. From what I could glean from the article, Johnson helped Jews who had managed to leave Europe in their attempts to get to the U.S. and settle there. Based on the article this proved to be an admirable attitude and may have greatly helped the Jews at their time of need, but it seems at first glance that this case is not in line with the program’s criteria. At any rate, in order for a file to be submitted to the Commission we need to have survivor testimony or archival documentation that attests to the nature of the rescue activity.”
In reaction to the Yad Vashem note, I began consultations with several eminent historians and LBJ scholars. Prof. Robert Dallek, author of Lone Star Rising: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1908-1960, gave me some valuable leads. After all, already in 1991, Dallek told a Time Magazine reporter, “During 1938 and 1939, Johnson secretly helped Jewish refugees from Europe enter the U.S., through Galveston. I don't know of any other Congressman who did that. Out of 400,000 constituents, his district had only 400 Jewish voters. Something deep in this man's psyche, probably harking back to his Texas hill-country boyhood, made him identify with the underdog.”
Prof. James Smallwood, whose research was vital to the first blog posting, responded, “It is correct that Johnson did not risk his life but he committed illegal acts to save the Jews. It can be proved that LBJ saved some 42 from the Nazis….Indirect evidence says he probably saved about 400. From my research, I agree with the larger number. However, there are problems, since much of what went on was illegal, Johnson knew better than to leave a ‘paper-trail.’”
To move forward on the campaign to get Lyndon Johnson recognized as a “Righteous Gentile,” I am launching this website. The site invites scholars, survivors and survivors’ children to submit historical accounts of LBJ's actions. We particularly invite the participation of the Texas Jewish community, the Houston Holocaust Memorial, and the Johnson Library. We will present the data to Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, and with God’s help, provide the well-deserved recognition during the commemoration of Lyndon Baines Johnson’s 100th year, which begins August 27.
The news report does little to reveal the full extent of Johnson’s actions on behalf of the Jewish people and the State of Israel. Indeed, the title of “Righteous Gentile” is certainly appropriate in the case of the Texan. Most students of the Arab-Israeli conflict can identify Johnson as the president during the 1967 war. But few know about LBJ’s actions to rescue hundreds of endangered Jews 30 years earlier, actions that could have thrown him out of Congress and into jail.
The Texas congressman’s district had only 400 Jews, but clearly the Johnson family’s Christian teachings had given him a strong affinity for Jews and their return to the Holy Land.
Five days after taking office in 1937, LBJ broke with the “Dixiecrats” and supported an immigration bill that would naturalize illegal aliens, mostly Jews from Lithuania and Poland. In 1938, Johnson was told of a young Austrian Jewish musician who was about to be deported from the United States. With an element of subterfuge, LBJ sent him to the U.S. Consulate in Havana to obtain a residency permit. Erich Leinsdorf, the world famous musician and conductor, credited LBJ for saving his live.
Johnson Saved Hundreds of Jews
That same year, LBJ warned a Jewish friend that European Jews faced annihilation. Somehow, Johnson provided him with a pile of signed immigration papers that were used to get 42 Jews out of Warsaw. But that wasn’t enough. According to historian, James M. Smallwood, Congressman Johnson used legal and sometimes illegal methods to smuggle “hundreds of Jews into Texas, using Galveston as the entry port. Enough money could buy false passports and fake visas in Cuba, Mexico, and other Latin American countries. … Johnson smuggled boatloads and planeloads of Jews into Texas. He hid them in the Texas National Youth Administration…. Johnson saved at least four or five hundred Jews, possibly more..”
On June 4, 1945, Johnson visited the Dachau concentration camp. According to historian Smallwood, Lady Bird later recalled that “when her husband returned home, he was still shaken, stunned, terrorized, and ‘bursting with an overpowering revulsion and incredulous horror at what he had seen.’”
As President, Johnson met with Israel’s Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and undertook to replace the recalcitrant France as Israel’s principal arms supplier, providing Patton tanks and Skyhawk jets and Phantom jets.
Soviet Premier Aleksei Kosygin once asked Johnson why the United States supported Israel when there are 80 million Arabs and only three million Israelis. “Because it is right,” responded the straight-shooting Texan.