When he was the deputy secretary of state and I was the director of the United
States Holocaust Memorial Museum, I escorted Strobe Talbott through the museum.
We paused at a letter that John J. McCloy wrote on August 14, 1944, to the head
of the Rescue Department of the World Jewish Congress. In that letter, McCloy
responded to a request that “certain installations and railroad centers” at
Auschwitz be bombed. The installations included the gas chambers in which as
many as 10,000 Jews were being killed every day.
The railroad centers
were the tracks that were bringing Jews to the gas chambers.
rejected the request. He said that “such an operation could be executed only by
the diversion of considerable air support essential to the success of our forces
now engaged in decisive operations elsewhere and would not warrant the use of
our resources. There has been considerable opinion to the effect that such an
effort, even if practicable, might provoke even more vindictive actions by the
McCloy’s letter was mounted next to photos of Auschwitz taken
from American planes flying over the death camp to bomb military targets a few
miles away; some 2,800 flew over or near the camp.
The systematic murder
of the Jews at Auschwitz was already known by the US government. Asked what they
would have felt had American bombers bombed the gas chambers or railroad lines,
Auschwitz survivors said that they would have been overjoyed, even if the bombs
had missed their targets, or even if the Germans would have repaired the tracks.
At least, they said, they would have known that the Allies had tried to do
something to stop, or at least interrupt, the German killing machine; at least
they would have felt that they hadn’t been forgotten, or that the world
As one of them said of Allied bombs they heard exploding nearby:
“We were no longer afraid of death; at any rate not of that death. Every bomb
that exploded filled us with joy and gave us new confidence in life.”
doubt McCloy expected his letter would end up as a picture in an exhibit on the
destruction of Europe’s Jews.
As we paused at McCloy’s letter, I turned
to Talbott, who was, no doubt, signing routine diplomatic letters every day.
“Remember, Strobe,” I said, “any letter you write may end up on a museum wall.”
Talbott nodded. I imagined I heard a gulp, though that was probably wishful
And now I can’t get out of my mind the image of future museums
devoted to the deaths of many times more millions of people than the number
killed in World War II’s Holocaust – Jews, Arabs and Iranians – in the war that
could well follow the agreement just signed between world powers and an Iran
racing to build atomic weapons but pressed to negotiate by crippling economic
As a result of the interim agreement – struck by an exultant
Iran and the members of the UN Security Council and Germany – Iran will obtain
sanctions relief that will be impossible to reverse. And it will keep the
massive nuclear infrastructure it has built during the past five
The interim agreement is for six months, after which many more
such interim agreements are likely to be demanded by the Iranian government even
as it continues to enrich uranium. In the end, what the world’s diplomats gained
from this first agreement was, at most, a few weeks more that Iran would need
for a dash to place nuclear weapons atop its waiting missiles.
I am, in
general, an avid supporter of diplomacy and negotiations. But in this case,
tightening sanctions, rather than loosening them, would have been more likely to
prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.
Should Iran’s nuclear-tipped missiles be in
place, the Middle East would be, overnight, a different place. Saudi Arabia
would buy its own weapons and missiles from Pakistan. Other Arab countries
might, too. And Israel’s planes and missiles, both on land and at sea, and armed
with nuclear weapons, would be on hair-trigger alert.
If a war breaks
out, millions of Jews might again be killed.
But so, too, as “collateral
damage,” might millions of Palestinian Arabs who live in Israel, the West Bank
and Gaza – and millions of Arabs in Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states
should they get their own nuclear weapons.
And, in a counterattack, many
more millions of Iranians would be killed by Israelis determined that, unlike in
the first Holocaust, the one in Europe, Jews wouldn’t go to their deaths “like
sheep to the slaughter.”
To be sure, Iranian leaders have gloated that
the end of Israel would be worth the price of any counterattack: Iran would be
wounded, but Israel would be utterly destroyed.
This second Holocaust,
with many more victims than the first, would be over in few days. Museums would
be built around the world to document, memorialize and, their creators will
believe, teach the lessons of the tragedy.
And what would the exhibits
show? Photos of the devastation would be there for sure. But they would be
accompanied not by a single letter by a government bureaucrat but many
statements promising that Iran would never be allowed to get nuclear weapons,
and that this could be achieved through a step-by-step series of negotiations –
together with the names and photos of those who made those statements, including
President Obama, the US secretary of state and other world leaders.
would also be e-mails by officials and negotiators, as well as the transcript of
a conference call made to American Jewish groups by aides to President Obama
shortly after the Geneva deal was struck. They assured the anxious and doubting
Jews that lifting some economic sanctions would lead to a peaceful diplomatic
solution – even as they knew that, under the planned agreement, the Iranian
centrifuges would continue to spin, Iran’s plutonium facility wouldn’t be
dismantled, and Iran could break out and produce a nuclear arsenal very
All of these communications would be by people genuinely
convinced that theirs was the way to peace, and driven by an eagerness to reach
And there would be statements by Iranian leaders – not only the
old statements that Israel is a cancer that must be wiped off the face of the
Earth but also be the statement by the only Iranian leader who actually counts –
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei – who said, during the negotiations going on in
Geneva, that “Israel is the sinister, unclean, rabid dog of the
And if such museums are ever built, world leaders would solemnly
proclaim, during the opening ceremonies, “Never again!” Until they’re brought by
the museum directors to the statements, letters, e-mails and other
communications by the leaders and negotiators, as well as the photos of their
authors, and recognize, one hopes, that there will never be a never again unless
they never again accept offers by adversaries who negotiate and promise peace
but deploy their diplomacy as a means to ready themselves for war.
author is the Yitzhak Rabin Memorial Professor of International Affairs, Ethics
and Human Behavior at The George Washington University, a Senior Scholar at the
Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a former director of the
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.