A 1944 survey found that 24.2% of Americans considered Jews “most dangerous” compared to 8% for Germans and 16% for Japanese. American soldier fighting Germany and Japan, but American Jews were considered “most dangerous.”
Background to the Decision
Beginning in 1939 British intelligence had already been relaying reports to the United States about Einzatsgruppen massacres of Jewish communities in Poland. Whether he chose to be updated afterward, President Roosevelt would have known Jews were systematically targeted from the beginning. In the two years before Auschwitz one and a half million Jews had already been murdered. It is Roosevelt’s failure to even acknowledge the early stages of the Holocaust that represents the controversy surrounding his role in the extermination process. It is this that represents his legacy.
Historian Michael Beschloss has been attacked by William vanden Hueval, co-chair of the Roosevelt Institute, for pointing out presidential apathy in his book, The Conquerors. That debate will be discussed in some detail below. But while we may never know the degree to which “antisemitism” played a part in his decision-making, the fact remains that the Holocaust was allowed to continue unobstructed, that the president failed to set an example to other countries by even a gesture towards refuge for Jews facing certain murder; that he never seriously considered bombing Auschwitz, a gesture with little or no cost to America’s war aims or its airmen. The president did not even own his decision but left it to underlings to provide excuses for his failure to bomb Auschwitz.
One source of confusion regarding his position regarding refuge is his having opened his administration to American Jews far beyond his predecessors. And this in spite of the fact that antisemitism was as intense in America as it was in Germany. In the eyes of American Jews Roosevelt was their “protector.”
Certainly this does not describe a “traditional” antisemite. And yet a traditional antisemite is precisely the person he put in charge of refugee issues. Cordell Hull, his secretary of state maintained a coldly antisemitic immigration policy, which the president supported.
Picture of the Birkenau (Auschwitz II) extermination camp taken by an American surveillance plane on August 25, 1944. Crematoria II and III and the holes used to throw cyanide into the gas chambers are visible. (Wikipedia)
In early 1941, drawn by the promise of free slave labor, the German petro-chemical giant I.G. Farben, sister company to American chemical giant DuPont, built an industrial complex at a site three miles from what would become the Auschwitz extermination center. While IBM keypunch machines sorted through the identity cards of the approximate 10,000 daily arrivals, those they declared suitable were assigned to work details at I.G. Farben where, as slave labor, instead of death by gas they would be worked to death.
Soon after IG Farben began production of synthetic petroleum products Allied bombers began targeting the factories of Monowitz (Auschwitz III). There is some debate over when US intelligence analysis actually identified Auschwitz II three miles away as a death factory. But this is a question apart from when and how the decision to not interfere with the extermination process was arrived at.
“In late 1943 and early 1944, the Allies began bombing oil-production facilities, including the small-to-middling-size petrochemical plant at Auschwitz III. Auschwitz III, or Monowitz, was a satellite camp about four kilometers from the gas chambers at Auschwitz II, or Birkenau.”
Evidence represent’s American policy regarding the unfolding Holocaust as decided early in the 1930’s. If the president would not even provide temporary haven to 20,000 Jewish children left homeless by Krystallnacht; if FDR would respond to the pleas of 900 Jewish refugees aboard the SS St. Louis by sending a Coast Guard cutter to secure the Florida shoreline against an attempt by a single Jew to swim ashore; if the State Department refused to honor even the paltry number of visas set aside for Jews fleeing the Holocaust: was there ever any likelihood that President Roosevelt would seriously consider bombing Auschwitz or the rail lines feeding Jews to the gas chambers?
Layers of reasons were and are advanced by the administration and present-day Roosevelt defenders. But in the end this discussion is not about the logistics or feasibility of bombing the death centers which even US airmen involved in bombing IG Farben factories have written could easily have done as bombers passed over the gas chambers en route to their industrial targets three miles away. According to Senator George McGovern, a bomber pilot in 1944,
“There is no question we should have attempted ... to go after Auschwitz. There was a pretty good chance we could have blasted those rail lines off the face of the Earth, which would have interrupted the flow of people to those death chambers, and we had a pretty good chance of knocking out those gas ovens.”
The most persistent and credible-sounding reason advanced for the decision against bombing the extermination camps and their railroad feeder tracks was the risk to airmen and aircraft. But all accounts (except perhaps by apologists) agree that by March, 1944 the Allies already had air superiority over Europe. Air Force Magazine by November, 1944, when the debate over Auschwitz was in full swing,
“as US Army Air Forces Gen. Henry H. "Hap" Arnold recalled—American airmen were "roving at will over all Germany, and the Luftwaffe’s air and ground defenses [were] helpless to do anything about it." Oil and transportation attacks had robbed the Nazi air service of fuel and parts, even as steady attrition cost it pilots and airplanes. No safe airspace existed anywhere, and any German airplane faced the risk of Allied fighters striking any time out of threatening skies.”
Another reason advanced for not bombing the camps and rail lines was that it would divert air power from strategic military targets and lengthen the war. And possibly, had the military resources been diverted from bombing such targets as oil refineries supplying the Wehrmacht with fuel, the war might well have been extended. But the assault on infrastructure frequently found Allied aircraft overflying the death camps and their feeder rail lines known feeding Jews to the Final Solution:
“On August 20, 1944, a fleet of U.S. bombers dropped more than one thousand bombs on the oil refineries in the factory areas of Auschwitz, less than five miles from the gas chambers. On September 13, American bombers struck the factory areas again; this time, stray bombs accidentally hit an SS barracks (killing fifteen Germans), a slave labor workshop (killing forty prisoners), and the railroad track leading to the gas chambers… U.S. bombers carried out similar raids on December 18, December 26, and January 19.”
And, as Hungarian Jewry were boarding freight cars for delivery to Auschwitz,
“American bombers flew over all five deportation railways from Hungary on more than ten different days between June and October 1944 on their way to bombing missions, and they raided the Monowitz plant five times between August 1944 and January 1945… On their way back to Italy, the bombers regrouped directly above one of the deportation railways from Hungary to Poland (at this point no longer used for deportation of Hungarian Jews). Some of them dropped leftover bombs on a freight yard below and in doing so cut the rail line.”
And finally, and the most bizarre excuse of all was the “fear” that bombing the gas chambers would, according to President Roosevelt, endanger the lives of the condemned (!):
“If we had bombed Auschwitz with the inevitable consequence of killing hundreds, perhaps thousands of Jewish prisoners, [the U.S. would have been blamed as] accomplices in the Nazi genocide. “
Numerous pleas/requests by Jewish groups were made to the War Department, particularly as news leaked out that Hungarian Jewry were about to be sent to Auschwitz. Among these were Treasury Secretary Morgenthau, Agudas Israel and the World Jewish Congress. When the argument that bombing “might provoke even more vindictive action by the Germans” (more vindictive than the gas chambers?) failed to convince, the War Department provided the following argument:
Proposed Air Action to Impede Deportation of Hungarian and Slovak Jews.
26 June 1944, reply to Mr. Morgenthau:
"The War Department is of the opinion that the suggested air operation is impracticable… "The War Department fully appreciates the humanitarian importance of the suggested operation. However… the most effective relief to victims of enemy persecution is the early defeat of the Axis, an undertaking to which we must devote every resource at our disposal."
Thos. T. Handy,
Assistant Chief of Staff
Which became the oft repeated mantra of a presidency determined to not impede the murder process.
War is an extension of politics, and politicians, dependent on popular opinion, are more likely to follow than lead their constituents. The interwar years of the early twentieth century and The Great Depression were a time of anxiety and nativism in both America and Germany. Previous mention was made of the 1939 Roper poll that,
“found that only 39% of respondents felt American Jews should be treated like all other people – 10% even believed Jews should be deported.”
Put into perspective, 61% sixty-one percent of the pubic “felt American Jews should [NOT] be treated like all other people.” Immediately following Krystallnacht, “10% even believed Jews should be deported.”
Attitudes towards Jews held by Germans and Americas were not far apart. That 1944 survey referred to found that “24.2% of Americans considered Jews “most dangerous, compared to 8% for Germans and 16% for Japanese.” American soldiers fighting Germany and Japan, but Americans viewed Jews more dangerous than her enemies?
By late 1943, it was apparent that the Allies would ultimately defeat the enemy.
Roosevelt and the decision not to bomb
According to one reviewer, in The Conquerors, Michael Beschloss,
“casts new light upon Roosevelt''s concealment of what America knew about Hitler''s war against the Jews and his foot-dragging on saving refugees”
Beschloss referred to a 1986 interview Treasury Secretary Morgenthau’s son had with John McCloy, undersecretary for war. In the interview McCloy appeared to reverse himself as principle in the Auschwitz decision. Co-chair of the Roosevelt Institute vanden Hueval, strongly attacks Beschloss’s representation of the president’s position:
“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.”
“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 [Beschloss] 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” said vanden Huevel. “Nowhere does the above-cited conversation take place.”
In fact a transcript of the interview had already been public for several years:
“The 91-year-old McCloy told the junior Morgenthau that he of course had raised the issue with FDR. He said, "I remember talking one time with Mr. Roosevelt about it, and he was irate. He said, ''Why, the idea! They''ll only move it down the road a little way.'' One can take FDR’s meaning that the Nazis would have built other death camps and continue the killing.” McCloy recollected that FDR "made it very clear" to him that bombing Auschwitz "wouldn''t have done any good." Moreover, Roosevelt said that bombing Auschwitz would be "provocative" to the Nazis and he wouldn''t "have anything to do" with the idea. FDR warned Morgenthau that Americans would be accused of "bombing these innocent people" at Auschwitz, adding, "We''ll be accused of participating in this horrible business!"
In another attempt to vindicate the president the Roosevelt Institute represents David Ben-Gurion and the Jewish Agency as supporting the decision to not bomb Auschwitz, repeated in support of vanden Hueval’s charges of Bescholss:
“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?”
In this instance he is only half-misrepresenting. Rafael Medoff, director of the Wyman Institute, challenges vanden Hueval’s misrepresentation of the facts. According to Medoff the Jewish Agency Executive [JAE] met twice to discuss the possibility of bombing Auschwitz in June, 1944. At the first meeting,
“on June 11, 1944, JAE chairman David Ben-Gurion and his colleagues "voted eleven to one against the bombing proposal." What actually happened at the June 11 session is that Ben-Gurion opposed requesting an Allied attack on Auschwitz because "we do not know what the actual situation is in Poland.”
To this point vanden Huevel is correct that Ben-Gurion seemed to support administration policy. What he neglects to mention was that second meeting of the Executive that took place eight days later:
“Richard Lichtheim, in the Jewish Agency''s Geneva office, sent the Jewish Agency leadership in Jerusalem a detailed summary of the first eyewitness account of the mass-murder process (the account was produced by two Auschwitz escapees… What the Vrba-Wetzler report revealed, Lichtheim wrote… was that in addition to the "labour camp in Birkenau" there were also "large-scale killings" in Birkenau itself "with all the scientific apparatus needed for this purpose, i.e. . . . specially constructed buildings with gas-chambers and crematoriums. . . .The total number of Jews killed in or near Birkenau is estimated at over one and a half million.
“Upon receiving this information, the Jewish Agency leadership promptly launched a concerted lobbying effort to persuade the Allies to bomb Auschwitz.”
If nothing else, administration attitude towards the Holocaust was consistent from 1933 to 1945. If nothing else, over the years administration apologists have been unable to provide a credible alternate narrative.