Hungarian Jews arrive in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
If only Alonzo Hamby had met George McGovern!
Hamby is the author of a new biography of president Franklin D. Roosevelt which defends FDR’ s failure to bomb Auschwitz, on the grounds that it was too far away for US planes to reach. McGovern, the US senator and 1972 Democratic presidential nominee, was one of the World War II pilots who actually bombed oil sites at Auschwitz – proving that it was, in fact, not out of reach at all.
Hamby is a prominent historian and the author of a biography of Harry S. Truman as well as several other well-received books.
Reviewers are already heaping praise on his new FDR biography, as well. Evidently they are unaware of the colossal error he makes in his account of Roosevelt’s response to the Holocaust.
“The death camps were located in areas largely beyond the reach of American military power,” Hamby writes in Man of Destiny: FDR and the Making of the American Century. And: “Auschwitz was in a Soviet area of operations and at the outer limit of American bomber range.”
And yet, American bombers did repeatedly bomb German oil factories that were situated in the slave labor sections of Auschwitz.
On August 7, 1944, US bombers attacked the Trzebinia oil refineries, just 21 km. from the gas chambers. On August 20, a squadron of 127 US bombers, accompanied by the all-African American unit known as the Tuskegee Airmen, struck oil factories less than 8 km. from the gas chambers.
A teenage slave laborer named Elie Wiesel witnessed the August 20 raid. A glance at Wiesel’s best-selling book Night would have enlightened Hamby. Wiesel wrote: “If a bomb had fallen on the blocks [the prisoners’ barracks], it alone would have claimed hundreds of victims on the spot.
But 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. The raid lasted over an hour. If it could only have lasted ten times ten hours!” There were additional Allied bombings of the Auschwitz oil factories throughout the autumn. Allied bombers also flew close to Auschwitz in 1944 to resupply the Polish Home Army forces that were fighting the Germans in Warsaw. On August 8, British planes began air-dropping supplies to the Poles. Their flight route took them within a few kilometers of Auschwitz. They would fly that route 22 times during the two weeks to follow. In September, president Roosevelt ordered US planes to take part in the Warsaw airlift.
When George McGovern first mentioned publicly, in 2004, that he had been one of the pilots who bombed the Auschwitz area in 1944, interviewers from the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies flew to South Dakota to videotape his recollections.
McGovern described to them how, at age 22, he piloted one of the B-24 “Liberator” bombers that targeted the oil factories at Auschwitz.
“There is no question we should have attempted... to go after Auschwitz,” McGovern said. “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.”
Even if there was a danger of accidentally harming some of the prisoners, “it was certainly worth the effort, despite all the risks,” McGovern said, because the prisoners were already “doomed to death” and an Allied bombing attack might have slowed down the mass murder process, thus saving many more lives.
In one raid, several stray bombs from McGovern’s squadron missed the oil factory they were targeting and accidentally killed five SS men.
McGovern noted that he remained an ardent admirer of president Roosevelt.
“Franklin Roosevelt was a great man and he was my political hero,” he said in the interview. “But I think he made two great mistakes in World War II.” One was the internment of Japanese-Americans; the other was the decision “not to go after Auschwitz... God forgive us for that tragic miscalculation.”
It’s a shame Hamby never met McGovern – he would have disabused Hamby of the absurd notion that Auschwitz was out of America’s reach.
But then again, McGovern’s statements about bombing Auschwitz have been widely available on the Internet for more than a decade now. Hamby could have located them with even the most cursory search of the literature on the subject. Thus one suspects that even if Hamby had known of McGovern’s experiences he would have looked for some other way to exonerate the Roosevelt administration for its refusal to bomb Auschwitz.
But FDR and his administration do not deserve to be exonerated. Dropping a few bombs on Auschwitz or the railway lines leading to it would not have undermined the war effort; it simply would have conflicted with Roosevelt’s view that the war against the Jews was a sideshow which was not America’s concern. The president who presented himself to the public as the champion of the “forgotten man,” as someone who embodied humane values and cared about the downtrodden, turned his back on the most compelling moral challenge of our times.
The author is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.