Seventy years ago, in July 1945, at the time of the Potsdam Conference attended by the three victorious World War II powers, the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union, two great men who made an unforgotten contribution to the Allied victory were forced to abandon their posts and leave their tasks to others. The first was Winston Churchill, whose party lost in the British elections. Churchill, voted out of office, continued his career as a member of Parliament and continued to enjoy the well-deserved aura of one of the greatest men in British history. The second was almost forgotten and there is a lesson to be learned from his fate. The man who was convenient and useful for one president during the most difficult hour in American history was quickly replaced and later conveniently forgotten.
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The history of the rise and fall of Henry Morgenthau Jr. is a sad reminder of the misfortunes of many other great Jews who devoted their lives to serve the countries they lived in, but were quickly forgotten after their services were no longer needed, or appreciated. Morgenthau ought to be remembered as one of the chief architects of the World War II Allied victory. Israel remembers him as a good Jew who helped us during the first, most difficult first years of our independence.
Born in 1891 into a prominent New York family, son of Henry Morgenthau Sr., a real estate mogul and diplomat, Henry Jr. graduated in architecture and agriculture from Cornell University and became president F.D. Roosevelt’s Treasury secretary in 1934.
A famous American journalist, Drew Pearson, wrote, after Henry Morgenthau Jr. was shabbily kicked out of office, that “historians should remember this extraordinary man who financed the biggest government spending program in human history.” For 11 crucial years, 1934-1945, Morgenthau found ways and means to rebuild, almost from scratch, the US armed forces, while at the same time supplying arms to France until 1940, and to Britain in her darkest World War II hours and until the final Allied victory.
In 1939, the US had only 247 tanks and self-propelled guns, and 2,700 aircraft. In 1943 it had 30,000 tanks and 20,000 planes, while hundreds were sold to France and Britain. All this was accomplished due to Morgenthau’s uncanny ability to find the necessary funds and to make the government act. He was a supreme negotiator, frequently engaged in a number of most difficult negotiations, while frequently facing formidable enemies. It was up to him to decide how to balance the needs of the munitions- hungry US armed forces and the urgent requests of America’s allies. But above all he had to find $310 billion (over $4.8 trillion in today’s dollars) to finance the supreme war effort. This was largely accomplished without painful taxation, without the help of Wall Street, simply by appealing to the patriotism of average citizens, mainly through the sale of bonds. He relied on the president to defend him from his many critics and enemies, and for many years they worked closely together.
This was an odd pairing. Roosevelt was an aristocrat, smooth, dapper and charming. Morgenthau, son of German-Jewish immigrants, was tall, ungainly and sometimes expressed himself with difficulty. The author Peter Moreira, who wrote his biography, The Jew Who Defeated Hitler, published by Prometheus Books, writes that they shared a common outlook, a liberal idealism, and a love of rural life among the gentry.
Their wives were close friends. When Roosevelt visited Fishkill, Morgenthau’s farm, Henry carried him in his chair. But Roosevelt was also a most demanding and frequently abusive boss.
In 1942, he told the Alien Property Custodian Leo Crowley, out of the blue: “Leo, you know, this is a Protestant country, and the Catholics and the Jews are here on sufferance. It is up to both of you to go along with anything that I want.” Crowley, a Catholic, was shocked, and Morgenthau was appalled that his best friend could say such a thing.
“Leo, what are we fighting for? What am I killing myself for at this desk, if we are here just by sufferance?” “That’s what I want to know,” replied Crowley.
This incident and the visit of a number of rabbis from whom he first learned about the Holocaust awakened Morgenthau’s interest in Zionism and his desire to help the Jews of Europe. However his first attempts to release funds for the World Jewish Congress plan to help Jews in Europe were frustrated by the US State Department and British objections, on the ground that these funds might help the enemy.
Roosevelt liked Jews like Bernard Baruch, Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter, speechwriter Sam Rosenman and Congressman Sol Blum; he found them useful. But he kept his advisers separate, and Morgenthau lost much sleep seeking his approval for all his projects.
Quite often he sought the advice and help of his wife, Elinor, a personal friend of Eleanor, Roosevelt’s wife. Or he appealed to Eleanor directly, and usually with a success.
Once Morgenthau became interested in Zionism he tried to influence Roosevelt to pressure Britain to let Jews to enter Palestine.
Surprisingly, Roosevelt said that he had a plan: “First, I would call Palestine a religious country,” he said. “Then I would leave Jerusalem the way it is and have it run by the Orthodox Greek Church, the Protestants and the Jews by a joint committee... I actually would begin to move Arabs out of Palestine... Each time an Arab family would move out and was given land elsewhere, a Jewish family would move in.” But his views changed fast after Roosevelt met king Saud of Saudi Arabia and later said with a dose of bitterness that he had learned from the king more in five minutes than from all his Jewish advisers.
Morgenthau continued to pressure the president after he learned that the State Department had not only prevented the Jewish survivors from reaching US shores but had concealed World Jewish Congress secretary Gerhart Riegner’s message and all the news about the ongoing Holocaust. This led to the creation of the US War Refugee Board in 1944, which ultimately saved some 200,000 Jews.
Roosevelt’s death in 1945 was a catastrophe for Morgenthau, exhausted after more than 11 years in cabinet. He had lost his sponsor, his chief, his closest friend. His wife was very ill and both his sons were at the front in Europe and he was worrying what could happen to them if taken prisoner – for to Hitler the name “Morgenthau” represented the very head of the Jewish conspiracy planning to rule the world.
The US army refused to change their names on identification discs. They were offered safe jobs, but turned them down.
Eventually, Morgenthau started planning what should come after the war and in his book Germany is Our Problem, he advised how to prevent post-war Germany becoming a military threat again by removing their industry and making it an agricultural country. German propaganda exploited this book as a proof that an Allied victory would mean a total destruction.
General Eisenhower welcomed Morgenthau’s ideas, but the State Department and president Truman rejected them outright. Morgenthau’s final role was the success of the1944 Bretton Woods Conference, which produced the modern economic paradigm, the International Monetary Fund, created the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development and established the US dollar as the world’s reserve currency.
At first Morgenthau’s cooperation with Truman proceeded smoothly, even if there was certain coldness. Truman believed that Morgenthau’s excess-profit tax in 1934-1940 starved American economy of investment and small business. But Morgenthau’s plan for post-war Germany to become an agricultural state was vigorously opposed by the administration, which suspected that Morgenthau, a Jew, sought revenge, while the Soviet moves in East Europe required a strong Germany. Truman became easily convinced by his advisers that Morgenthau not only failed to perceive the need for a strong Germany, but continued to trust too much Britain, the Soviet Union and the corrupted Nationalist China.
In July 1945 Truman heard that Morgenthau wished to attend the Tripartite Churchill-Truman- Stalin Potsdam Conference and issued an order: “Neither Morgenthau, nor Baruch, nor any of the Jew boys will be going to Potsdam.”
So the chief authors of the US “Arsenal of Democracy” were prevented from participating in the conference which sealed Europe’s future. Morgenthau resigned after Truman told him frankly that he wanted a new secretary of the Treasury. He expected to become governor of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, however, Truman sent him a letter of thanks, and this was how Morgenthau learned that he would not be the governor of the institutions he helped to create.
He was finally offered the chairmanship of the New York-based Modern Industrial Bank – a ridiculously low position for man of his experience and ability. He was not completely forgotten – a small warship was named after him. However, the Jewish community remembered and in 1946 he became the chairman of the United Jewish Appeal. He raised $124 million for Israel in 1947 and $148m. in 1948, an enormous amount of money in those days.
Tel Shahar, a moshav created in 1948, was dedicated to his memory. In January 1950 he visited Israel with his daughter and witnessed the difficult situation of tens of thousands of new immigrants in tents facing a terrible winter.
Addressing the press, Morgenthau spared no words in accusing American Jewry of not doing enough for their brothers in Israel.
Morgenthau died in 1967, aged 75, and left behind him a million pages of Morgenthau diaries (correspondence), papers (family personal documents) and presidential diaries (Treasury documents), a biographical project worked out together with historians like Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and John Morton Blum. All these documents were donated to the FDR Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, New York.
It is an indisputable fact that in 1948 President Truman rendered tremendous service to the emergence and independence of Israel, often against the advice of US State Department officials, and for many years took great interest in the welfare of the young state. But there was, at the same time, a strict American embargo on the sale or delivery of arms to Israel, under attack by seven well-armed Arab states. This shows not only the power, but also the limits of American presidency, as each head of state molds history according to his own spirit, logic and understanding.