The reputation of President Franklin Roosevelt has been dealt a serious blow following the release of a study by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. In numerous speeches, articles, and conferences over the years, former officials of the Roosevelt administration and supporters have claimed that David Ben-Gurion, who would become the founder of the modern state of Israel following its liberation in 1948, opposed bombing the Auschwitz death camp in occupied Poland out of fear that innocents would be killed. Roosevelt’s supporters have made the claim to deflect criticism of FDR for the rejection of requests to bomb the death camp.
A newly-completed two-year study by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, however, has concluded that Ben-Gurion opposed bombing the Auschwitz prisoner camp only for a period of several weeks when he believed it was a labor camp, reversing himself when its purpose as a death camp became clear to him. Thereafter, he supported bombing. Ben-Gurion's associates in Europe and the United States then repeatedly pressed Allied officials to bomb the camp.
"There is now broad agreement among Holocaust historians regarding the question of David Ben-Gurion's position on bombing Auschwitz," said Dr. Rafael Medoff, director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, which had been urging the museum to study the subject in depth. "Roosevelt's apologists can no longer use Ben-Gurion to whitewash the Roosevelt administration's refusal to bomb Auschwitz." The Wyman Institute has issued a study of its own, "America's Failure to Bomb Auschwitz: A New Consensus Among Historians," which will be made available this week on the Institute's web site, www. WymanInstitute.org
Among the many Jewish leaders who called on the Allies to bomb the Auschwitz extermination camp in 1944 were World Zionist Organization president (and later president of Israel) Chaim Weizmann, senior Jewish Agency official (and later Israeli prime minister) Moshe Sharett, veteran Jewish leader Nahum Goldmann, and Palestine Labor Zionist leader (and future Israeli prime minister) Golda Meir. By the summer of 1944, Adolf Hitler and the Nazis had murdered millions of Jews. Jewish leaders implored Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt to try to slow the killing by bombing the death complex at Auschwitz and the railroad lines that supplied it.
According to the Wyman Institute, Churchill and FDR had been quietly receiving evidence of Hitler's ghastly effort to remove the Jewish people from the face of the earth. Churchill appeared interested in a military strike against the camps. He told Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden that Hitler's war against the Jews was "probably the greatest and most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world," adding, "Get everything out of the Air Force you can, and invoke me, if necessary." In July 1944 Churchill was told that U.S. bomber pilots could do the job best, but that it would be "costly and hazardous."
But America was the senior partner in the alliance. Washington would have to make the call. Today FDR's most stalwart defenders insist that the best way to save Jews was to win the European war as quickly as possible. Some argue that bombing might have only briefly stopped the slaughter, before the Nazis rebuilt the camps or used other swift and brutal means of killing Jews--and that it would have killed Jewish inmates. The author and Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel once expressed the wish that America had bombed Auschwitz, noting that he and his fellow inmates "were no longer afraid of death--at any rate, not of that death."
In Washington, Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr., was heartsick over what he was discovering about the murder of the Jews of Europe. He was FDR’s closest friend in the administration and a non-observant Jew. Morgenthau did not want to jeopardize his friendship with FDR and thus refrained from asking the president’s intervention into what he considered specifically Jewish matters. FDR’s attitude towards Jews and Catholics reflected his elite upbringing of the time. Once the world war began, FDR privately said to Morgenthau and Leo Crowley, a Catholic appointed to government, "You know this is a Protestant country, and the Catholics and Jews are here under sufferance." He bluntly told them it was "up to you" to "go along with anything I want."
The thought of the extermination camps haunted Morgenthau. When Secretary of War Henry Stimson told Morgenthau that his plan was too harsh on the Germans, Morgenthau replied that it was "not nearly as bad" as sending people "to gas chambers."
Doing something about the gas chambers had to go through channels, so directed an aide to explore whether bombing Auschwitz and/or the rail lines might save lives. The matter was referred to Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy, who had so exasperated Morgenthau by refusing to let the U.S. military help save Jewish refugees that Morgenthau had privately denounced McCloy as an "oppressor of the Jews," a charge McCloy vehemently denied. McCoy viewed any bombing of Auschwitz as a violation of FDR’s demand that the U.S. military be used only for direct efforts to win the war. McCloy refused to bomb Auschwitz. For decades after the war, McCoy was excoriated for his refusal to bomb Auschwitz just as he always and vehemently insisted that he had never discussed the matter with FDR. McCloy was so respected after the war that he was known as the ‘chairman’ of The Establishment.
New information may now make FDR culpable of the omission, however. In 1986, three years before his death, McCloy had a taped private conversation with Morgenthau's son Henry III. 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!"
McCloy also told Morgenthau’s son Henry, "I didn't want to bomb Auschwitz... It seemed to be a bunch of fanatic Jews who seemed to think that if you didn't bomb, it was an indication of lack of venom against Hitler. Whereas, the president had the idea that that would be more provocative and ineffective. And he took a very strong stand." So, based on McCloy's account, FDR make his decision about Auschwitz after little or no consultation with his key advisers. This raises questions. Did McCloy cover up FDR’s decision to avoid bombing Auschwitz out of misplaced loyalty? Did McCloy in his ninth decade decide to share the blame for the Auschwitz Omission with the grinning patrician lion Roosevelt, having tired of being labelled the sole culprit? Was it any coincidence that it was the son of Treasury Secretary Morgenthau, who had indicted McCloy as an enemy of the Jews, who was to receive this confession?