November 16, 2002
Ambassador William J. vanden Heuvel
Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt Foundation
711 5th Avenue/ Suite 900
New York City, NY 10022
Dear Mr. Ambassador,
I wanted to thank you again for your gracious remarks about my letter to the editor and my comments on the Michael Beschloss book. But on another note, I have included an article from the American Heritage, October 2000 about Eleanor Roosevelt and Hunter College.
I may have mentioned this before, but Terri Rosen Deutsch, who is cousin of my wife Linda, is involved in the Hunter College program to rehabilitate the old Roosevelt residence. I have sent a copy of this to her attention, and hopefully I will be able to see the old homes with her in the near future.
Meanwhile I keep collecting money for the FDR/Birthday Ball project and according to my last talk with JoAnn Benson, things are moving along quite well. Our next meeting is on Tuesday, November 26th and I will report to you what new news comes out of that meeting.
Richard J. Garfunkel
March 2003 Newsletter
COMMENTS ON MICHAEL BESCHLOSS' THE CONQUERERS
by William J. vanden Heuvel
In his book, The Conquerors, and in numerous media/marketing appearances, Michael Beschloss has arrogantly “flunked” President Franklin D. Roosevelt for his handling of Hitler's attempted extermination of Europe's Jews. FDR, according to Beschloss, bears particular responsibility for remaining silent during the first two years of the Holocaust, for being unsympathetic to the Jewish cause, and for not ordering the bombing of Auschwitz.
In making these assertions, Mr. Beschloss has joined a discredited group who would have our children believe that America was “indifferent” to the suffering of the Jews in World War II, that America was the passive accomplice in what Winston Churchill called “the greatest and most terrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world.” For all of us, the shadow of doubt that enough was not done for the Jews during the war will always remain, although it is objectively clear that little more could have been done. But neither America nor American Jewry were passive observers of these events. Despite issues that bitterly divided them, primarily relating to Palestine, the Jewish community in America spoke the same words in pleading to do whatever was possible to reach out to Europe's Jews. Numerous plans were produced to rescue the Jews of Europe. Jewish leaders lobbied the Congress. Mass rallies were held across the country with overflow crowds throughout those years, praying, pleading for action to stop the genocide.
As the famed military historian John Keegan has written: “The removal and transportation of Europe's Jews was a fact known to every inhabitant of the continent between 1942 and 1945.” (1) Yet Mr. Beschloss would have us believe that Roosevelt made no attempt to draw the world's attention to these crimes in 1942 and 1943. He also makes repeated allegations that because he resented Jewish and other ethnic group pressures, President Roosevelt did not identify the Jews specifically in the repeated Allied warnings that the Nazis collectively and individually would be held accountable for their barbaric crimes. There was a time earlier in the war when it was thought best not to identify the Jews specifically in the reporting of the Nazi crimes. Beschloss would have us believe that this was done for the petty, ugly reason of resenting ethnic pressures. I thought of this on a recent visit to London's Holocaust Museum. There is a specific exhibit referring to a speech by Winston Churchill on August 24, 1941, where he reports that “a crime without a name” was being committed against “Russian patriots who defended their native soil.” These words were written after the Prime Minister had been briefed regarding information provided by the Enigma code breakthrough on the slaughter of Jews by the Einsatzgruppen after the Nazi invasion of Russia on June 22, 1941. We now know that this is when the Holocaust began. The British exhibit then states: “Western leaders feared that drawing attention to the Jews would be seen as special pleading and would fuel Nazi propaganda.” (America was not yet in the war). Winston Churchill may have been wrong in this conclusion, but it was the considered judgment of a great leader with vast sympathy for the Jewish cause, not Churchill's resentment against pressure from ethnic groups that influenced his words on this occasion.
It is hard to believe that anyone would make the allegation that FDR chose to ignore the plight of the Jews in World War II. Time and again, beginning with his pledge to Rabbi Wise and other Jewish leaders in November 1942, President Roosevelt made clear through governmental statements and messages to the mass rallies organized in those years that the Nazis would be held collectively and individually accountable for their crimes against the Jews. In his book, Beschloss denies this, asserting that in spite of a growing body of evidence in the summer and fall of 1942 pointing towards the mass execution of the Jews, FDR chose to hide the extent of what he knew and remain “silent” on the issue in 1942 and 1943. In making this allegation, Mr. Beschloss quotes from the December 17, 1942 Allied Declaration on war crimes as evidence to support his argument that FDR preferred not to mention the Jews when speaking of Nazi atrocities, noting only the “mass executions” of “many hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children.” But Beschloss is wrong. As James Cheeks has noted in an HNN review, the December 17th Declaration was written precisely to highlight the Nazis crimes against the Jews, as its title “German Policy of Extermination of the Jewish Race” make clear. Beschloss chooses to ignore this. He not only fails to mention the title of the document, but also its stark references to the horrors of the Nazi's brutal treatment of the Jews and the “solemn resolution” of the Allies “to ensure that those responsible for these crimes shall not escape retribution.”
With the Nazi coup against Admiral Horthy in March, 1944, a limited opportunity came to save the Jews of Hungary. President Roosevelt was deeply and personally involved in the effort to save them. This is the President's statement to the people of the United States and of Europe on March 24, 1944:
In one of the blackest crimes of all history — begun by the Nazis in the days of peace and multiplied by them a hundred times in time of war — the wholesale systematic murder of the Jews of Europe goes on unabated every hour. As a result of the events of the last few days hundreds of thousands of Jews who, while living under persecution, have at least found a haven from death in Hungary and the Balkans, are now threatened with annihilation as Hitler's forces descend more heavily upon these lands. That these innocent people, who have already survived a decade of Hitler's fury, should perish on the very eve of triumph over the barbarism which their persecution symbolized, would be a major tragedy. It is therefore fitting that we should again proclaim our determination that none who participate in these acts of savagery shall go unpunished. The United Nations have made it clear that they will pursue the guilty and deliver them up in order that justice be done. That warning applies not only to the leaders but also to their functionaries and subordinates in Germany and in the satellite countries. All who knowingly take part in the deportation of Jews to their death in Poland or Norwegians and French to their death in Germany are equally guilty with the executioner. All who share the guilt shall share the punishment.
The principal marketing thrust for Beschloss's book centers on the issue of whether or not the Allies should have bombed Auschwitz and on “new information” that the man who made the ultimate decision not to bomb Auschwitz “may not have been John McCloy but Franklin Roosevelt himself.” This is important because apparently for Mr. Beschloss and some others whether Auschwitz should have been bombed is the defining question of World War II, a point of view frankly that is difficult to comprehend regarding a universal conflict in which 67 million people were killed, where nations were decimated, where democracy's survival was in the balance, where 16 million Americans were joined together in a military force that has never been equaled, and where our nation led the world into the nuclear age. Beschloss identifies this “new information” as a taped private conversation in 1986 between John McCloy and Henry Morgenthau III who was researching a family memoir. In his PBS interview, he says: “I came upon an interview, unpublished, that John McCloy did just before he died… where he actually conceded that he had taken this to Roosevelt and said 'do you want to bomb Auschwitz or not?' And he said that what Roosevelt said was, 'absolutely not…?'”
I have read the transcript of the McCloy-Morgenthau interview. Nowhere does the above-cited conversation take place. In fact, the interview transcript could well be read to an opposite conclusion, that the President had nothing to do with the bombing decision, that it was never presented to him for decision. The interview between John McCloy and Henry Morgenthau III took place on October 8, 1986. On Page 11 of the transcript of that interview, Mr. McCloy was asked to characterize Secretary Morgenthau's style as an official.
Henry Morgenthau III: How would you characterize his style as an official?
John McCloy: I had no difficulty with him at all. The general view was that he was an……….., (2) but he was always in favor of the Jewish even irate at the treatment of the Jews and he was going to do everything in his power, he was vindictive in regard to that. Subtle, persistent and anywhere there was an antagonism to the …….. or the advance of Hitler.
Henry Morgenthau III: But he didn't get involved in the bombing of Auschwitz that was all post facto.
John McCloy: They came to me and wanted me to order the bombing of Auschwitz. He wasn't involved in that nor was the President. (italics added) …
Auschwitz was raised peripherally as the conversation with Mr. McCloy was about to end. McCloy was 88 years old — never in all of the extensive interviews he gave in his life, nor in his papers, is there any indication of his ever discussing the bombing questions with the President. Henry Morgenthau III never cited the interview in the family memoir nor in his frequent public appearances where he participated in discussions related to the Holocaust. In reality, the transcript presents a painfully disjointed, obviously strained, totally ambiguous recollection that is hardly the source of important historical judgments. Perhaps Mr. McCloy discussed the bombing question to the President at some uncertain date to ascertain his opinions. There is no record of such a meeting in the voluminous records of the Roosevelt era in the Presidential Library at Hyde Park. But if an informal conversation took place, it is important to note that the opinion attributed to FDR reflects the viewpoint expressed by David Ben-Gurion (then Chairman of the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem, later first Prime Minister of Israel) in June 1944 when he responded to a proposal that the Allies be asked to bomb the extermination camps. At that meeting, presided over by Ben-Gurion, the Jewish Agency voted eleven to one against the bombing proposal.(3)
The Holocaust is an enormously complicated tragedy. Today we have the photographs, the films, the diabolically precise records of the genocide but when I read David Ben Gurion in June 1944 saying: “We do not know the truth concerning the entire situation in Poland, and it seems that we will be unable to propose anything concerning this.” — I appreciate how helpless everyone must have felt as the news slowly leaked through the Nazi wall of secrecy as to the enormity of the crime. It is certainly appropriate — and even necessary — for contemporary generations to look at the horrendous dimensions of the Nazi slaughter and ask: Could we have prevented it? What more could have been done?
Because these questions must be asked, historians must carefully seek the truth; they must present the context of the events. Today it is taken for granted that Hitler would be defeated but historians know that victory in World War II was far from assured. The Nazi war machine was the most powerful in world history. It took the combined might of the United States, the British Empire, the Soviet Union and countless other brave allies to destroy it. The bombing of Auschwitz was never mentioned before the summer of 1944. At that point, American forces were fully engaged with Japanese aggression across the total expanse of the Pacific Ocean. In Europe, the invasion of Normandy began on June 6th. Despite the fact that two-thirds of the Nazi armies were on the Russian front, D-Day and an Allied success were by no means assured. The German armies were holding our forces at bay in Italy, causing heavy casualties, making us fight for every road and hill. We were planning the invasion of southern France for August 15th. America and our allies were stretched dangerously across western and southern Europe. The Allied bombing strategy was totally directed toward destroying Nazi fuel supplies, their synthetic oil industries, the oil fields of Romania, and their communication and transport lines wherever possible.
By making the bombing of Auschwitz such a central issue, Mr. Beschloss and others like him trivialize the meaning and the horror of the Holocaust. The unremitting, remorseless massacre of the Jews — carefully concealed by the top secret security of the Nazi murderers — continued because no one, no nation, no alliance of nations could do anything meaningful to close down the Death Camps — except, as President Roosevelt said over and over again, by winning the war and destroying the Nazis with unconditional determination as soon as possible.
Mr. Beschloss insists that “the sound of bombs exploding at Auschwitz would have constituted a moral statement for all time…” Were the countless Jewish leaders immoral who considered the possibility of bombing Auschwitz and rejected it? Were David Ben-Gurion and his ten colleagues of the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem immoral because they voted against asking the Allies to bomb the Death Camps? Mainstream Jewish opinion was against the whole idea of bombing Auschwitz. The very thought of the Allied forces deliberately killing Jews — to open the gates of Auschwitz so the survivors could run where? — was abhorrent then as it should be now. Although only President Roosevelt or General Eisenhower could have ordered the bombing of Auschwitz, there is no record of any kind that indicates that either one was ever asked to issue such an order — even though Jewish leaders of all persuasions had clear access to them both. United States Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, a key intelligence officer for the Air Force in Europe in World War II in an oral history interview in 1985 was incredulous that anyone would even suggest that Allied forces bomb Auschwitz. “I am perfectly confident,” he said, “that General Spaatz [the USAF Commander in Europe] would have resisted any proposal that we kill the Jewish inmates in order to put Auschwitz out of operation. It is not easy to think that a rational person would have made such a recommendation.”
When I first spoke on the subject of America and the Holocaust in Chicago in 1996, an 80-year-old man, an Auschwitz survivor, came up to me, eyes filled with tears, to thank me for having told “the truth.” He had been a slave laborer at the Farben factory in Buna, near Auschwitz. He said that when the sirens announced the bombing raids, the Nazis forced the Jews to the rooftop while the Nazis took refuge in the cellars. “Bomb Auschwitz,” he said, “I never would have survived — if the bombs did not kill us, the Nazis would have shot us down like dogs if we tried to escape.” Is that an immoral position? The bombing raids on the IG Farben plants/Monowitz where this Auschwitz survivor was forced into slave labor succeeded in hitting 2.2% of damageable buildings.(4) These targets were far more vulnerable than the Auschwitz gas chambers and crematoria. And what if Allied bombing had destroyed the killing machinery at Auschwitz? What would the Nazis have done? They would have used machine guns and firing squads and grave-trenches as they did before. Or, as Rondall Rice has written, the SS might have begun the death marches back to the Reich a few months earlier — “destroying Hitler's grip on Europe was a guaranteed means for saving the remaining Jews.”
President Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, General Eisenhower, General Marshall, the intelligence services of the Allied nations, every Jewish leader, the Jewish communities in America, in Britain, in Palestine, and yes, anyone who had a radio or newspaper in 1942 knew that Jews in colossal numbers were being murdered. They may have received the news with disbelief. There was no precedent for it in human history. The general information of the genocide was broadly available to anyone who would read or listen. But Auschwitz, like every extermination camp, was treated as a top-secret project by the Nazis. We publicized what we knew but the Nazis tried to keep as much information as possible away from everybody. As Martin Gilbert points out, the details and even the name of Auschwitz were not confirmed until the escape of two prisoners in April, 1944 — two years after its murderous processes had begun.
We should remember, as Professor Novick has reminded us in a book that deserves a significant audience, that it was only years after the war that the word “holocaust” came into general use to describe the Nazi genocide.(6) It is also important to note that no one — no one, foresaw the events that became the Holocaust. In discussing those events, it is helpful to read the words of Louis de Jong, an eminent Dutch historian and Holocaust survivor who in a lecture at Harvard University in 1989 said:
[There is] an aspect of the Holocaust which is of cardinal importance and which can never be sufficiently underlined: that the Holocaust, when it took place, was beyond the belief and the comprehension of almost all people living at the time, Jews included. Everyone knew that human history had been scarred by endless cruelties. But that thousands, nay millions, of human beings — men, women and children, the old and the young, the healthy and the infirm — would be killed, finished off, mechanically, industrially so to speak, would be exterminated like vermin — that was a notion so alien to the human mind, an event so gruesome, so new, that the instinctive, indeed the natural, reaction of most people was: it can't be true…(7)
Mr. Beschloss would have his audiences believe that President Roosevelt was besieged by Jewish leaders, led by Secretary Morgenthau, urging him to order the bombing of Auschwitz. Of course, that is not true. No mainstream Jewish leader or organization made such a request. In fact, there was considerable Jewish opposition to the suggestion of bombing Auschwitz both in the United States and Palestine. The first suggestion to John McCloy (the Assistant Secretary of War) regarding the bombing of Auschwitz, came on August 9, 1944, in a letter from Leon Kubowitzki, head of the Rescue Committee of the World Jewish Congress, in which he forwarded, without endorsement, a request to consider such bombing from Mr. Ernest Frischer of the Czechoslovak State Council (in exile in London). What is rarely cited, but what one is charged with knowing if one chooses to make historical judgments of those horribly painful years, is that in a letter dated July 1, 1944, from the same Leon Kubowitzki to the Executive Director of the War Refugees Board (John Pehle), Mr. Kubowitzki argued against bombing Auschwitz because “the first victims would be the Jews” and the Allied air assault would serve as “a welcome pretext for the Germans to assert that their Jewish victims have been massacred not by their killers, but by Allied bombing.” The same argument is made in a Report of the Meeting … of the War Refugee Board of August 16, 1944, which cites the opinion of the Jewish community against bombing.(8)
Someday I hope to hear Mr. Beschloss and others broadcast that it is the killers who bear the responsibility for their deeds. We must remember, and our children must learn, that it was Hitler and his henchmen who imagined the Holocaust and the Nazis who carried it out. America was not an accomplice. America was not “passive.” America destroyed Hitler and Nazism, the greatest threat ever to modern civilization — and it was President Roosevelt who made America the arsenal of democracy, who was our Commander-in-Chief leading the greatest military force in history, who crafted the victorious alliance that won the war, and who inspired and guided the blueprint for the world in which we live.
Professor William L. O'Neill, in his review of The Conquerors in The New Leader (November/December 2002), writes:
Another puzzling feature is that Beschloss appears to detest Roosevelt. He represents him as a doddering old conniver much of the time, then concludes by writing that today's 'democratic, decentralized Germany is largely the country that Roosevelt imagined and worked for.' This statement goes against practically everything else Beschloss has to say about FDR. It is also true, making Beschloss' denigration of Roosevelt even harder to understand… Foremost scholars, while not excusing FDR's failings, put them in context. What one almost never sees is a book like this one, where FDR's personal shortcomings dominate the narrative and are followed by extravagant praise. Beschloss claims to have begun The Conquerors in 1992. The undigested state of his frequently excellent material suggests that he probably should have started sooner.
Mr. Beschloss, is, of course, entitled to “detest” Franklin Delano Roosevelt — many names come to mind of those who detested FDR during his lifetime.
For me, Winston Churchill's judgment of President Roosevelt is preferable. Winston Churchill once said that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the greatest man he had ever known. President Roosevelt's life, he said, “must be regarded as one of the commanding events of human destiny.”
1. The Second World War, John Keegan, New York, 1989, p. 282.
2. These blank spaces are exactly as they appear in the transcript of the interview.
3. Meeting of the Executive of the Jewish Agency, Jerusalem, June 11, 1944.
4. Bombers Over Auschwitz, by Irving Uttal, Lieutenant Colonel USAF (Ret.), 2002 (available from Colonel Uttal upon request).
5. The Bombing of Auschwitz, Edited by Michael Neufeld and Michael Berenbaum, St. Martin's Press, 2000, p. 179.
6. The Holocaust in American Life, by Peter Novick, Houghton Mifflin, 1999, p. 127 et seq.
7. The Netherlands and Nazi Germany, by Louis de Jong, Harvard University Press, 1990.
8. The Bombing of Auschwitz, op. cit., p. 274.