The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler's Germany, 1941-1945,
by Michael R. Beschloss
Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler's Germany, 1941-1945.
By Michael Beschloss.
Illustrated. 377 pp. New York: Simon & Schuster. $26.95.
December 1, 2002
'The Conquerors': Deciding Germany's Fate
By THOMAS POWERS
When the battered German armies trapped in Stalingrad finally surrendered in January 1943, it became clear that the Allies -- Russia, Britain and America -- were certain to win World War II. But then what? How would the victors root out fascism, end the cycle of German wars and secure the peace? To these questions President Franklin D. Roosevelt had no ready answers, and it was not in his character to gnaw at problems in a methodical way; rather he would wait until inspiration came to him from wherever it is that ideas hatch. In the meantime his policy was evasion. So, rather than confront America's allies over ''war aims'' immediately, Roosevelt instead persuaded his friend Winston Churchill to join him in a pledge to fight on until Germany's ''unconditional surrender.''
These words were the principal fruit of the 10-day meeting of Churchill and Roosevelt at Casablanca in January 1943, and they predictably failed to satisfy Stalin, who wanted the democracies to open a second front on the mainland of occupied Europe. Stalin's objection was echoed everywhere: wouldn't the demand only make the Germans fight harder? But once uttered, ''unconditional surrender'' was carved in granite, and behind its bulk Roosevelt took shelter for the next two years: time enough to decide what to do with Germany when the war had been won.
Roosevelt was never more himself than at Casablanca. His inspiration caught Churchill by surprise, but he went along, and the two men never wavered thereafter: no deals would be made with Nazi Germany. It is Roosevelt -- brilliant, charming, unpredictable and dying -- who dominates Michael Beschloss's vigorously written history of postwar planning. Beschloss says he began ''The Conquerors'' a decade ago, set it aside and returned to it when new archives opened up. The delay gives the book additional impact: it arrives at a moment when Americans are again confronting a tangled question of war and peace -- how to remove a dangerous enemy from Iraq and build in its place what never existed there before, a stable democracy posing no threat to its neighbors. The problem strikes many observers as insoluble, but it is no more daunting than the one facing Roosevelt 60 years ago: only half the challenge was Germany's history of militarism; just as difficult were his quarreling advisers.
Ordinary Americans thought of Roosevelt as a rock, serene and confident, but he was a cipher to the men who worked with him. None ever knew his deepest plans, or what he told anybody else or when the presidential back would turn and they would be asked to step down. Beschloss is the author of half a dozen works of history with a special focus on how American presidents run the government and make decisions, and along the way he has learned to write with ease, confidence and a lively sense of character and scene. ''The Conquerors'' is built almost entirely around the conversations of high American officials trying to decide what to do with Germany. Two broad general ideas were on the table -- a plan by Roosevelt's old friend and secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, to break Germany up into several small, pastoral states of yeoman farmers; and a more conventional proposal to get Germany quickly back onto its feet as a bulwark against the territorial appetite of a victorious Soviet Union.
The son of a rich businessman, Morgenthau fled the world of commerce for life as a gentleman farmer in upstate New York, where one of his neighbors was the future president. They became friends, Morgenthau worked hard in Roosevelt's political campaigns, and in 1933 Roosevelt surprised the world by naming him to run the Treasury Department. Morgenthau was the only Jew in Roosevelt's cabinet, or among the president's friends, and his tenure was unremarkable until the man who had celebrated his marriage, Rabbi Stephen Wise, brought him vivid reports, freshly arrived from Switzerland in the summer of 1942, of the Nazi campaign that would come to be known as the Holocaust.
The killing of Jews was no secret to governments or international organizations, but despite widespread knowledge of the basic facts few officials or religious leaders or even private citizens grasped that a radical new form of evil had entered the world. Morgenthau had little success in pressing the government to do something about it. Even a proposal to bomb the rail lines carrying trainloads of Jews to Auschwitz was rejected as a distraction from the war effort. Failing to halt or even slow the horror, he determined to ensure it would never happen again, and that, in his view, meant ending Germany's power to make war once and for all. To aides he described a Germany stripped of its industry as something like the used-up areas of Nevada deserts where only ghost towns, rusting machinery and abandoned mines remain.
Morgenthau's plan was vigorously opposed by the patrician secretary of war, Henry L. Stimson, and his wartime aide John J. McCloy, who both thought a principal cause of the war was the vindictive Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I. Roosevelt's weary and petulant secretary of state, Cordell Hull, and his successor in the last year of the war, Edward Stettinius, seemed to waver, equally ready to rebuild Germany or to cripple it, so long as the president would admit them to the inner circle. The wild card in this mix was Roosevelt himself, but what he wanted seemed to change by the day.
He wasn't about to let Germany off the hook. All would be safe, he declared, if Germany were stripped of aircraft and forbidden to wear uniforms or to march. But then he would think better of these vindictive measures. To Morgenthau he cited an intelligence report that warned that Europe might starve if it could no longer buy German-made farm machinery. Morgenthau's response: ''In the words of your son Johnny, 'So what?' ''
Beschloss records the progress of this long argument with little comment of his own, relying on the participants' own words drawn from a voluminous record including more than 50 collections of papers, some privately held. Any scholar who has ever watched the approach of a library cart loaded with gray archival boxes will understand how much pure labor has gone into ''The Conquerors.'' But it was time well spent; this is history as it was spoken at the time, and there is not a dull page.
Morgenthau's closest approach to triumph came at Quebec in the fall of 1944, when Roosevelt pressed Churchill to consider the draconian ''Morgenthau plan.'' Churchill was at first shocked and angry, but there was little he would not do for his friend, and he began to edge around. All came undone back in Washington, where the War and State Departments leaked the plan to the press, a major commotion unfolded and Roosevelt quickly backtracked. When Stimson showed him the tough statement he had initialed at Quebec he seemed ''perfectly staggered,'' Stimson later recalled, saying, ''I have not the faintest recollection of this at all.''
The argument over Germany's fate took a lot of time, and in the end Roosevelt's biggest contribution was the policy invented at Casablanca -- ''unconditional surrender.'' The president was not around to see the outcome; he died, worn out, a month before the end of the war in Europe, and it was the former senator from Missouri, Harry Truman, who decided what came next. Germany was split in two, but not in the way or for the reasons desired by Morgenthau. The Soviet Union took firm grip of its zone of occupation, and the Western democracies did the same. Stimson and McCloy proved right; a German bulwark was vital to block Moscow from further advance to the west.
But the bulwark proved to be a new Germany, rebuilt as a democracy with the help of American money and determination. As Beschloss tells this story, which he calls an American success, Roosevelt comes into focus as a man of great gifts -- not for hammering out policy, but for knowing what was really bedrock and for artful delay while others came around. In this case the big thing he knew was the importance of reconstructing Germany from the ground up rather than striking some sort of deal to end the war a few months sooner. Beschloss suggests no lesson that President Bush might apply to Iraq, but one is there for anyone who chooses to see it -- fighting may be the painful part of war, but sticking around to build the peace also takes courage and resolution, and is just as important.
Thomas Powers is the author of ''Heisenberg's War: The Secret History of the German Bomb'' and, most recently, ''Intelligence Wars: American Secret History From Hitler to Al Qaeda.''
NOVEMBER 11, 2002
By Richard S. Dunham
Laying the Foundations of a New Germany
CONQUERORS - Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler's Germany,
By Michael Beschloss
At the end of World War II, as the Allied powers assumed control of Germany from a shattered Third Reich, General Dwight D. Eisenhower declared: "The success of this occupation can only be judged fifty years from now. If the Germans at that time have a stable, prosperous democracy, then we shall have succeeded." By this definition, the conquerors achieved their goal. But according to Michael Beschloss' new account of behind-the-scenes intrigue and chaotic decision-making, the triumph of the American Presidents--aided and abetted by Britain's Winston Churchill, complicated by the scheming and paranoia of the Soviet Union's Joseph Stalin--was as much an accident as it was the grand design of policymakers.
The colorful, larger-than-life figures in The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler's Germany, 1941-1945, are familiar to us all, since a surfeit of material is already available on the World War II era. The challenge for a historian is to carve a distinctive niche in the literature on the period. And while Beschloss--a high-visibility TV presence who wrote two fascinating volumes on Lyndon Johnson's White House tapes--labors mightily, he doesn't altogether succeed.
The author has unearthed a trove of previously unpublished documents, but his slim volume suffers from a misguided focus on Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau's ill-fated blueprint for the radical economic restructuring of Germany. Morgenthau aggressively pursued a controversial proposal to turn post-Hitler Germany into an agrarian nation, something ultimately dismissed by Harry Truman as "that crazy plan." With 60 years of historical distance, Morgenthau's idea looks laughably naive.
The book's concentration on Morgenthau (the only Jew in Franklin D. Roosevelt's viciously anti-Semitic Cabinet) leads Beschloss to make several tactical mistakes. There's an inordinate amount of attention given to often-boring Administration debates over the economy of Germany, from the Ruhr Valley factories to the Kiel Canal. Meanwhile, Beschloss does not devote enough time to discussing how the U.S. planned to build democratic institutions, de-Nazify a nation full of Hitler's brainwashed subjects and true believers, and reeducate the nation so that Germany would never again pose a threat to the world. And as Beschloss showers attention on Morgenthau, whose own secretly recorded conversations and private papers he reviewed, the author neglects to tell us what was going on in the minds of FDR and Truman.
The Allies faced the dual challenges of crushing the Axis militarily and of considering how best to govern the postwar world. Yet Beschloss talks little of Allied military strategy in Europe--other than the immoral decision not to bomb the Nazi death camps. (Even after Eisenhower and others described the horrors of the Holocaust, FDR's anti-Semitic Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, continued to refer in his diaries to "so-called atrocities.")
Still, despite its shortcomings, The Conquerors should not be dismissed. It effectively captures Roosevelt's well-documented ability to play off one top aide against another. The eminent historian James MacGregor Burns (Beschloss' former teacher at Williams College) famously subtitled his biography of Roosevelt "The Lion and the Fox." Beschloss is describing the lion in winter. As the war with Germany is reaching its climax, the American President is falling apart before our eyes. He is weakened by severe weight loss and unable to concentrate. Meanwhile, he is guarded by his fiercely protective daughter, Anna. When he repudiates a controversial memo from the State Dept. that he had earlier initialed, Roosevelt says he can't remember ever seeing it. No one can be sure whether the once-great leader was playing the sly fox or the dying lion.
The author also shows how, despite Churchill's warnings, both Roosevelt and Truman were taken in by Stalin. FDR, as he looked forward to the postwar world, said that "perhaps during Stalin's training for the priesthood, `something entered into his nature of the way a Christian gentleman should behave."' And Truman, at Potsdam, described Stalin as "honest, but smart as hell." He was half-right.
Indeed, Truman and Roosevelt seemed to misunderstand Stalin's postwar aims. While U.S. policymakers were engaged in internal debates over the demilitarization and deindustrialization of Germany, Stalin was pushing for dividing Europe into Soviet and British spheres of influence. (Churchill may have emboldened Stalin by telling him that the U.S. didn't plan to be in Europe for long after Hitler's defeat.) At Yalta and Potsdam, the U.S. Presidents unwittingly gave Stalin at least tacit approval for his westward expansion.
Considering the many miscalculations by U.S., Soviet, and British leaders, it's amazing that things turned out so well in Germany. Then again, in trying to avoid the punitive excesses that followed World War I, Roosevelt and Truman allowed Stalin's Iron Curtain to descend. The conquerors may well have avoided a third world war with Germany. But the cost was the Cold War.
Beschloss says he decided to write this book in 1991, just two weeks before the demise of the Soviet Union. Indeed, Eisenhower's reflection about the fate of post-Hitler Germany can now be applied to postcommunist Russia. It will be up to future historians to judge whether Russia passes Eisenhower's test.
Dunham covers the White House.
Drawing the map of postwar Europe
The US agenda, before and beyond Yalta
By Rich Barlow, 12/15/2002
The Conquerors: Roosevelt,
Truman and the Destruction of Hitler's Germany, 1941-1945
By Michael Beschloss
Few moments in history proffered as much opportunity, and danger, as the spring of 1945. The United States mourned Franklin Roosevelt, dead after 12 years in office. War-weary Americans, poised to win a war of unprecedented carnage, gasped at pictures of German concentration camps coughing up their living skeletons. Less visibly, Russia and its Western allies were approaching a messy divorce without having solved a bedeviling dispute: how to ensure that a beaten Germany, the launching pad of two world wars, would never start a third.
Michael Beschloss's compelling history "The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler's Germany, 1941-1945" documents how meeting that challenge began long before Hitler was conquered and dead.
The Allies' record did not inspire confidence. Vengeance at Versailles, where the treaty ending World War I imposed vindictive reparations, had pauperized the Germans and propelled Hitler to power. In 1945, history gave a second chance to make the world anew, but the Big Three Allied leaders were split. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill disagreed on crucial aims; Joseph Stalin was a paranoid despot out to avenge Russia's staggering war losses.
The passage of time has given away the ending: The Allies punished Nazi ringleaders at Nuremberg but prevented mass suffering among the German people, created a democracy in West Germany, and built the foundation for today's unified, peaceful Germany. Yet Beschloss is a good storyteller, and his prose re-creates those tense years. "The Conquerors" reminds us that it was far-sighted wartime thinking, not just postwar efforts like the Marshall Plan, that brought Germany back into the fold of civilized nations.
"Had Roosevelt and Truman not been so insistent not merely on conquering Germany but ensuring that it never again threatened the world," Beschloss writes, "that nation might be more dangerous today."
You'd think it would be a no-brainer to demand unconditional surrender from the architects of the Holocaust. Yet Beschloss notes that men we now revere disagreed on that strategy, and each side had a legitimate case. FDR, the most prominent proponent of total surrender, looked to history. Had the victors in World War I engaged in what we would call nation building, Roosevelt reasoned, rather than leave a prostrate people to fend for themselves, Nazism could have been aborted.
Privately, Churchill agonized about Roosevelt's policy, making the same argument as opponents of President Bush's Iraq policy: Insisting on unconditional surrender (read: regime change) with no hope of leniency would make the Germans fight to the death, producing a prolonged war and cascading casualties. Roosevelt prevailed.
"The Conquerors" is not a gushing valentine to America's wartime leaders. Beschloss indicts Roosevelt for sitting on his thumbs when informed of Hitler's death camps. He cites outright anti-Semitism at the State Department for the shameful US refusal to admit significant numbers of refugees fleeing the slaughter. It's at this point in the narrative that an unlikely hero emerges - Henry Morgenthau Jr., FDR's Treasury secretary.
Although Jewish, Morgenthau came from a family that had downplayed its heritage in order to assimilate. The man who had never been to a seder became the administration's leading advocate for saving Europe's Jews, sparking what few, feeble efforts Washington did take.
If Morgenthau's moral vision of the Holocaust was clearer than FDR's, the reverse was true when it came to discussing postwar Germany. His rage untethered by Hitler's barbarism, the Treasury secretary pushed a brutal "Morgenthau Plan" calling for, among other things, the rounding up of "arch-criminals" who would be "put to death forthwith by firing squads." Fortunately, Roosevelt and Truman both had learned the lessons of Versailles and tossed the plan.
"More than a half-century later, the Germany of our own time is not an ideal state," Beschloss writes. "Nor can anyone be certain that it will have a perfect future. But in its democratic system ... it resembles the Germany that Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman once imagined far more than either man could probably have ever dreamt."
Rich Barlow is a freelance writer in Cambridge.
This story ran on page C7 of the Boston Globe on 12/15/2002.
THE BALTIMORE SUN
Beschloss explores evil Germany's end
By Hans Knight
The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler's Germany, 1941-1945, by Michael R. Beschloss. Simon & Schuster. 400 pages.
Originally published October 27, 2002
Is there room on the crowded shelf for yet another book about World War II? There should be for one as scholarly and absorbing as Michael Beschloss' latest offering. The tale the respected historian tells does not resound with the clangor of battle; its flow is not laced with blood of victors and vanquished. This struggle was waged in the well-appointed corridors of immense political power. The goal was to transform the mighty and malicious Third Reich, once on the brink of world domination, into a peaceful partner of the West and a shield against an increasingly imperialistic Soviet Union. Modern history knows no challenge so daunting.
The key problem Franklin Roosevelt and, after his death, Harry Truman had to confront was to wipe out the military power of Germany while at the same time saving it from economic catastrophe, which might propel it to communism or, perhaps, another Hitler. That they prevailed on both counts is, in the author's understated view, "an important American success."
It was all of that - and much more. It sowed the seeds of the eventual triumph of Western freedom over Eastern despotism. It is a cliche, of course, but that is what it boiled down to. Germany is free, Europe is free, and even the former Soviet Union is freer than it was.
In depicting how it was accomplished under the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, Beschloss revisits a vast terrain. He takes the reader from Washington and London to Casablanca, Tehran, Quebec, Yalta and Potsdam, the major diplomatic rest stops along the long, treacherous road.
Against the backdrop of momentous decisions hammered out by the United States, Britain and Russia, it is surprising that the Cabinet that Roosevelt built was often marked by inner disputes thrashed out with all the decorum of mud-wrestling.
The State Department quarreled with the War Department over the future plans for a defeated Reich, and both factions blasted Henry Morgenthau, the treasury secretary, who, shattered by the revelation of Hitler's massacre of the Jews, implored Roosevelt to turn post-war Germany into a nation of farmers. Although Morgenthau was Roosevelt's closest friend in the Cabinet, the president dismissed the plan as unworkable and overly vengeful. Less defensible, as Beschloss points out, was Roosevelt's persistent indifference to the fate of the Jews, shown most strikingly in his refusal to bomb the rail approaches to the death camps.
Antisemitism was disturbingly pervasive in Roosevelt's court. Some of the diary entries would have delighted Goebbels. Nor was Truman immune to the virus, as when he assured war secretary Henry Stimson that "neither Morgenthau nor [presidential adviser] Bernard Baruch, nor any of the Jew boys will be going to Potsdam."
Yet, in the large picture, both Roosevelt and Truman did the right thing at a time when the world teetered perilously between hope and despair.
The book gives generous credit to the presidential pair. Next to nothing is heard from the nameless fighting men and women of America, Britain and, yes, Russia who were the true heroes of the terrible drama. But then, Michael Beschloss doesn't pretend to be Ernie Pyle.
Hans Knight, a former reporter for the Philadelphia Bulletin and editorial writer for the Harrisburg Patriot News, was a translator at the Nuremberg trials for the U.S. War Department. His free-lance writing is widely published in The New York Times, The Sun and other publications.
Against Bombing Auschwitz During WWII, Conversation with Top Aide Reveals
John McCloy Said He Discussed the Bombing Plan with FDR, but Roosevelt Became Irate, and Said He Wouldn't 'Have Anything to Do With the Idea
We'll be Accused of Participating in This Horrible Business!,' FDR Warned McCloy
NEW YORK, Oct. 6 /PRNewswire/ -- In an exclusive excerpt of his upcoming book, historian Michael Beschloss provides a new firsthand account suggesting Franklin Roosevelt personally made the decision in 1944 not to bomb Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp. In "The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler's Germany 1941-1945," Beschloss quotes from a never-before-published 1986 taped conversation with Roosevelt's Assistant Secretary of War, John McCloy, who spoke of having talked to the president about the possibility of bombing the camp and how Roosevelt became "irate."
According to McCloy, the president said that bombing Auschwitz would be "provocative" to the Nazis and he wouldn't "have anything to do" with the idea. McCloy said that FDR warned him that Americans would be accused of "bombing these innocent people" at Auschwitz, adding, "We'll be accused of participating in this horrible business!," writes Beschloss in the excerpt in the October 14 issue of Newsweek (on newsstands Monday, October 7). Roosevelt added that if the camps were bombed, the Nazis would find other ways to kill Jews.
For generations historians have had no serious firsthand evidence that FDR was directly involved in the decision not to attack Auschwitz. "The Conquerors" provides surprising new information about what the president actually knew and said. As Beschloss writes, much of the modern indignation by Roosevelt critics at the American failure to bomb Auschwitz has been centered on McCloy, who when interviewed on the subject, had previously said that he did not talk to the president about the subject. The following is part of the Newsweek excerpt from the book:
In 1986, three years before his death, McCloy had a taped private conversation-unpublished before now-with [Roosevelt's Treasury Secretary Henry] Morgenthau's son Henry III, who was researching a family memoir.
Frail but articulate and alert throughout the conversation, the 91-year-old McCloy told Morgenthau that of course he had personally raised with FDR the possibility of bombing Auschwitz. McCloy 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.'" (This referred to the prospect that the Nazis would have built other death mills to continue the killing.) McCloy recalled that the president "made it very clear" to him that bombing Auschwitz "wouldn't have done any good." ... .
In his 1986 conversation with Morgenthau's son, McCloy went on to say, "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."
If we presume that the old man's memory was sound and that he was telling the truth, McCloy had concealed FDR's personal refusal to bomb Auschwitz for forty-two years. (McCloy's private papers offer no account of his remembered conversation with FDR; nor do they document every exchange he had on sensitive wartime issues). Perhaps McCloy had been motivated by his old-fashioned notion of public service, which demanded protecting the secrecy of presidential conversations and deflecting criticism from the boss.
Why did McCloy change his story in 1986? Smarting from public criticism over Auschwitz, he may have grown tired of bearing the sole burden of what had become the most hotly debated decision of the Roosevelt presidency --especially among American Jews who had once hailed FDR as their hero. But there might also have been another reason. It could not be wholly coincidental that the outsider to whom McCloy insisted that Franklin Roosevelt, not he, was cardinally responsible for the failure to bomb Auschwitz was the son of the Jewish Treasury secretary who had once accused McCloy of being an "oppressor of the Jews."
John McCloy was a man so respected that he was once called the "chairman" of the American Establishment. His firsthand testimony is the first serious evidence we have that it was Franklin Roosevelt who made one of history's most crucial decisions -- and of the president's rationale in making it. Based on McCloy's account, FDR made his decision on Auschwitz after little or no consultation with his key advisers.
Nazis led to greater peace
Sunday, December 08, 2002 - How are we rating Presidents Roosevelt and Truman for their handling of conquered Nazi Germany? Nearly 60 years later, all things considered, we can say, "not bad." Germany is a democratic country today, its people are industrious and law-abiding, militarism and Naziism are hardly even minor factors.
In fact, historian Michael Beschloss says, though Germany today may not be an ideal state, "it resembles the Germany that Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman once imagined far more than either man could probably have ever dreamt." His book, "The Conquerors," deals with two issues: FDR's failure to take action against the killing of Europe's Jews by the Nazis, and then the debate on how a defeated - conquered - Germany should be occupied, governed and eventually restored to the community of nations.
Both presidents approached the second problem by sharing their viewpoint of service in World War I in which we won the war and lost the peace.
Roosevelt was assistant secretary of the Navy; Truman was a field artillery captain.
Beschloss directly links the Nazi gas ovens to what would happen to Germany after the war. He says that Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr., a neighbor, close friend of FDR and a Jew, was aroused by news of the killings, which FDR acknowledged and condemned in 1944. Morgenthau drafted a punitive plan that would remove all German industry and convert Germany to a "pastoral" state. He was able to get preliminary approval of that by FDR and British prime minister Winston Churchill at the Quebec Conference in September, 1944, but immediately State Department aides led the fight to overturn that decision.
Plan opponents said Germany could hardly feed itself before the war and it needed the industrial and coal-mining revenue to pay for the rest of its food. The advancing Soviet armies radically changed Morgenthau's assumptions. Josef Stalin wanted eastern Poland for the Soviet Union and offered East Prussia and a big slice of eastern Germany to Poland in compensation.
That knocked the Morgenthau Plan on its head because Germany lost its best agricultural region and the West was in no position to contest that militarily.
At Yalta, a tentative agreement was drawn up, establishing separate zones of occupation. When the allies marched through Germany three months later, they saw that, although the Morgenthau Plan was dead, German industry was devastated and the nation was not far removed from what Morgenthau had in mind in the first place.
Truman played no active role until after FDR died April 12, 1945. When he became president he asserted himself and, at the Potsdam Conference in July, dealt forthrightly with Stalin. Beschloss believes the fact there has been no major war since is evidence enough of the basic soundness of the agreement.
After the nominating conventions Truman and Roosevelt lunched at the White House in August of 1944. Truman had not been close to FDR for a year. After lunch, he told his aide Harry Vaughn, "I had no idea he was in such feeble condition ... It doesn't seem to be a mental lapse ... but physically he's just going to pieces. I'm very much concerned about him."
As for Roosevelt and the Holocaust, it remains an enigma. Beschloss has developed a fine narrative that shows how these events were related and led, one to the other, to victory and a peace that still remains.
Jules Wagman, former book editor of the Cleveland (Ohio) Press, reviews books in Jacksonville, Fla.
By Michael Beschloss
Simon & Schuster, 377 pages, $26.95
St Louis Post Dispatch
Story of shaping
peace in Germany is a lesson for today
By Harry Levins
The subtitle of Michael
Beschloss' new book reads, "Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler's
Germany, 1941-1945." But the "destruction" of the subtitle is political and
diplomatic, not military. The book studies the American planning for a new
Or maybe "planning" is too kind a word. Beschloss reminds us again that Franklin D. Roosevelt ran a chaotic shop, filled with contradictions, rivalries and clever confusion. That's about the way the planning for postwar Germany ran.
At the center of much of "The Conquerors" stands an unlikely figure, Treasury Secretary Henry Morganthau. To the extent that anybody remembers Morganthau today, it's for the Morganthau Plan -- his vision of postwar Germany as a land of 40-acre farmers, stripped of industry, unable to bother the rest of the world again.
Morganthau used his personal friendship with Roosevelt -- they were country-squire neighbors in New York's Dutchess County -- to butt into a field that more properly belonged to the secretaries of state and war.
Others were appalled. Among them was Winston Churchill, who saw a weakened Germany as an invitation to Soviet encroachment into Western Europe. Secretary of State Cordell Hull and Secretary of War Henry Stimson also lined up against Morganthau; the infighting for Roosevelt's ear was vicious. And from Yalta on, Roosevelt's ear was faltering, as was the rest of his body, slipping toward an early death.
Beschloss records the backstabbing, the bureaucratic maneuvering and the hesitation and doubts. It's not a pretty picture. You know the advice to people who like sausage: Never watch it being made. The same thing might hold for foreign policy buffs.
Early in the book, Beschloss quotes Churchill as saying, "The main thing is to keep Germany divided, if only for 50 years." And that's pretty much the way things worked out, if only for 45 years.
Still, Beschloss sees Roosevelt -- and, to a lesser extent, Truman -- as the architects of today's democratic and stable Germany. Maybe that's the way it worked out in the end. But after reading about all the chaos and confusion at the beginning, you may find it hard to credit anybody.
I think this book is more useful for the latter-day lessons to be drawn from it. Four years ago, NATO conquered Kosovo. Now, rather uneasily under a U.N. cover, NATO owns Kosovo and seems uncertain what to do with it.
The parallels with Afghanistan are obvious, and now we have Iraq looming before us. The people in Washington who are making decisions about what to do with these places might benefit from dipping into "The Conquerors," if only to see what happens when you go to war without thinking through the peace.
By Michael Beschloss
Published by Simon and Schuster, 377 pages, $26.95
WWII history lost in details
Lack of crisp prose makes for slow read between the facts
By Gil Asakawa, Special To The News
November 1, 2002
As time marches ever forward, new perspectives and documents offer historians tantalizing opportunities to set the record straight about any past event or era. But digging deeper into history doesn't always reveal anything new, beyond details.
In The Conquerors, award-winning historian Michael Beschloss tackles the end of World War II and the machinations that led to the division of Germany after the war. The work is exhaustive in its research, but the reader might be left asking, "So what?"
The problem is, the history Beschloss traces isn't revelatory. There is so much already written on the various personalities that molded the postwar world, from Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman to Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin and the decisions they made.
This volume doesn't add new perspective. What we're left with is a decade worth of intensive research, absorbed and spit out in a small pieces within a somewhat sludgy narrative.
Beschloss begins the book with a bang - literally - describing an assassination attempt on Hitler with the breathless narrative of a detective novel.
But he bogs down in minutiae as he follows the various personalities that worked behind the scenes, especially in the Roosevelt administration, to set policy toward the end of the war.
Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau and others are given voice through their day-by-day interactions, discussions, backstabbings and grandstandings via myriad records, documents, notes, journals, diaries, letters and reminiscences.
The effort to capture the moment is Herculean, but ultimately clunky, with quoted snippets dropped in helter-skelter among other snippets and forced into context with each other.
Too much of the text departs from the crisp prose of the opening, exchanged for passages such as, "Farming was the 'one thing' his father 'knew nothing' about," quoting from Morgenthau's diaries. Elsewhere, Beschloss at least feels comfortable enough to quote entire sentences. But the cut-and-paste rhythm of the book robs the voices of the men he researched of their authority and actually places them outside of their historic context.
A lot of important history is covered, of course, including the U.S.' refusal to make stopping genocide one of the country's war aims, and the radicalization of Morgenthau, who pushed FDR to acknowledge the German slaughter of Jews and then advocated a harsh postwar plan that would have crippled Germany and was wisely ignored.
The inexorable march to the end of the war and the conquerors' wrangling to make sure the country would not once again wage a worldwide conflict is important reading.
As the author explains in his final chapter: "At the dawn of the twenty-first century, it is now clear that Franklin Roosevelt had more influence than any other non-German on what Hitler's nation has now become. The democratic, decentralized Germany is largely the country that Roosevelt imagined and worked for. Of the many things that Roosevelt and his generation of Americans made possible during World War II, today's Germany is one of the most important."
It's too bad that Beschloss' book bogs down between his exciting opening and the persuasive closing.
Gil Asakawa is a freelance writer living in Arvada.
Nov. 22, 2002, 10:59AM
By LYNWOOD ABRAM
Roosevelt, Truman and the
Destruction of Hitler's Germany.
By Michael Beschloss.
Simon & Schuster, $26.95; 362 pp.
PUBLISHED at a time when George W. Bush is contemplating a "regime change" in Iraq, this book describes how a previous occupant of the White House handled a somewhat larger problem during World War II.
At the time, Franklin D. Roosevelt feared that Germany, after being defeated, might rise again to threaten the peace of the world.
What actually happened after the war seemed at the time only remotely probable: that Germany, and later Japan, would evolve into democratic, peaceful nations, something neither had managed to do during their brief experience with democratic institutions.
For a time Roosevelt went along with his friend Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, who, horrified by the Nazi treatment of Jews and others, proposed severe punishment: destroying Germany's industrial capacity and leaving its population to "stew in their own juice." Roosevelt suggested feeding the Germans from Army soup kitchens and on one occasion floated the idea of castrating German males.
Although Roosevelt quickly dropped the castration idea, he did sign a document endorsing the Morgenthau plan, although he later said he could not recall having done so.
Morgenthau also envisaged placing the rich mining and industrial area in the Ruhr Valley of Germany under international control. He advocated giving German equipment and industrial apparatus to the Russians and other victims of German oppression.
In the end, wiser and cooler heads, including that of Winston Churchill, prevailed. Churchill condemned the Morgenthau plan as revenge that would almost certainly provide Germany with an excuse to start a new war. Magnanimity and common sense set Germany -- and later Japan -- on the high road to international responsibility.
Secretary of War Henry Stimson, a gentlemanly Republican who fell in with a crowd of Democratic street fighters, also opposed the Morgenthau plan. His opposition, however, was fired more by snobbish anti-Semitism than sympathy for the Germans.
FDR believed, Michael Beschloss writes, that "while born out of justifiable anger at the Nazis and dread of a revived postwar Germany, Morgenthau's plan would have violated old American traditions of magnanimity and that, by fueling German resentment, it might have created conditions for another Hitler."
In effect, Germany was given a chance to prove itself. So far, with a few predictable blunders, that trust has been justified.
Another controversy Beschloss confronts is the action -- or lack of it -- in connection with the Nazi death camps.
"In his self-assured private monologues about the German national character, FDR did not mention the Holocaust," Beschloss writes. "Shockingly disengaged from the struggle to rescue Jewish refugees from Hitler, he made no serious attempt to explore whether bombing death camps and transportation facilities might have saved lives."
In fairness, it should be noted that one did not have to be indifferent to the fate of the Jews to question the wisdom of bombing Auschwitz and other death camps. For one thing, bombing might have goaded the Nazis into speeding up the killing. Bombing also would necessarily have killed many prisoners in the camps, thus placing the Allies in the position of taking part in the slaughter they were trying to halt.
Over the years, much of the outrage over the decision against bombing has focused not on Roosevelt but on John J. McCloy, who at the time was assistant secretary of war. McCloy, who insisted on limiting bombing to traditional targets, over the years maintained that he never discussed the matter with Roosevelt.
Beschloss, however, cites an interview with McCloy three years before his death in 1989 in which McCloy says he did discuss the question with FDR and that the president was "irate" at the proposal to bomb the camps. The interview includes this comment from McCloy:
"It seemed to be a bunch of Jewish fanatics who seemed to think that if you didn't bomb, it was an indication of lack of venom against Hitler, whereas the president had this idea that it would be provocative and ineffective. He took a very strong stand."
Assuming McCloy's memory was accurate and that he was telling the truth, this means that McCloy for 42 years "had covered up Roosevelt's refusal to bomb" the camps, Beschloss writes.
Beschloss, whose previous work includes studies of 20th-century politics and diplomacy, tells this story briefly and well, and with memorable character portraits of FDR, Morgenthau, McCloy and Stimson.
Lynwood Abram writes for the Chronicle.
Sunday, January 19, 2003, 12:00 A.M. Pacific
All the president's men
By Kimberly B. Marlowe
Seattle Times staff
"The Conquerors: Roosevelt,
Truman and the Destruction of Hitler's
by Michael Beschloss
Simon & Schuster, $26.95
The Allied defeat of Nazi Germany at the end of World War II is a complex knot to untangle, even for keen history buffs.
Historian Michael Beschloss' new book combs through many strands — most notably the back-channel maneuverings by Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin; and FDR's cast of Machiavellian advisers who influenced him on matters of unconditional surrender, genocide of the Jews and the vision for postwar Germany.
As he untangles, Beschloss also adds to the complexity of the war story. He breaks new ground with his profiling of two men: FDR's Treasury Secretary Henry Morganthau Jr. and the neophyte Vice President Harry Truman, who took over in 1945, having been kept completely in the dark about U.S. and Allied strategies.
The book is an unusual mix: It employs the accessible tone one expects from a well-spoken presidential historian who spends as much time on TV (PBS' "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer") as Beschloss does. Yet it is very much an inside-baseball story, told in places with minimal context and built on archives unavailable until the end of the 1990s. (Beschloss started the book almost a decade earlier, then set it aside until the sealed war documents were opened.)
The author uses the new material deftly, but the book is oddly unfleshed as a portrait of Roosevelt. Readers who have read more widely about the FDR era will wonder at the scarce mentions of Eleanor Roosevelt's influence during the war years. (There should be a requirement that anyone embarking on Beschloss' book must first read Doris Kearns Goodwin's Pulitzer-winning "No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II.")
Some of the stickiest questions facing scholars of the war years are addressed well by Beschloss. One in particular is the matter of how much and when FDR knew about the extermination of the Jews, homosexuals, Gypsies, Catholics and others by Hitler. Beschloss' work sheds a lot of light here, focusing as it does on Morganthau's crusade to persuade Roosevelt that failure to address the "Jewish question" was tantamount to joining in the genocide.
Others in FDR's Cabinet were vehemently opposed to the strategies and war plan secretly proposed by Morganthau, which called for completely crushing German industry and therefore its people's chances for any postwar resurrection.
Morganthau is himself an arresting figure. Raised to eschew his Jewish heritage, he experienced an awakening to the Nazi genocide that was profoundly significant on both personal and professional levels. A close friend of the president's, he was resented heartily by many of the FDR contingent (including possessive daughter Anna Roosevelt Boettiger) who feared the secretary's influence.
The poison of personal anti-Semitism tainted many of the campaigns against Morganthau. Beschloss documents this neatly.
The level of infighting became so vicious that the Morganthau plan was leaked to the press in 1944, giving Germany and anti-Roosevelt forces an opening to condemn FDR for strengthening the German resolve to fight on, and needlessly sending more U.S. troops to their death as the war dragged on.
It is easy to think that today's politicians are more conniving and divisive (particularly when it comes to war strategies) than those of earlier eras. A few evenings spent with this book will dispel that notion promptly — while revealing many new facets of the interactions between FDR, Churchill, Truman, Stalin and their brilliant, warring lieutenants.
Kimberly B. Marlowe: firstname.lastname@example.org.
'Conquerors' gives insights into FDR's German policy
By Ray Locker
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Sunday, February 16, 2003
· “The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler's Germany, 1941-1945."
· By Michael Beschloss.
· Simon & Schuster, 377 pages, $26.95.
Until he learned about what we now call the Holocaust, Henry Morgenthau Jr. was a Jew in name only, a staunch assimilationist who steadily shunned appeals by other Jews to their common religion.
From late 1942 on, Morgenthau, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Treasury secretary, was a holy warrior on the topic of the nature of postwar Germany.
In "The Conquerors," presidential historian Michael Beschloss brings his considerable skills to the debate among Morgenthau, Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and others about the future of Germany while Allied armies fought their way toward Berlin.
By early 1943, the Big Three knew the Allies eventually would win the war. But there was little consensus on what to do with Adolf Hitler's Germany once they had taken it.
Morgenthau, alarmed by increasing reports of the Holocaust, had his own plan that would, as Beschloss quotes him, "divide Germany up into a number of small provinces, stop all industrial production and convert them into small agricultural landholders."
Known as the Morgenthau Plan, it sparked a long-running debate within the Roosevelt administration and the Big Three.
Most Treasury secretaries wouldn't be key players in determining military strategy, unless it involved finding a way to pay for it. But Roosevelt never followed the lines written on any organizational chart. Instead, FDR excelled at playing his advisers against each other while juggling their competing interests to develop policy.
That worked for most of Roosevelt's 12 years in office, as he adroitly kept dozens of balls aloft simultaneously. As the war continued, however, Roosevelt's energy and skills began to erode. By 1944, many associates were convinced he would die soon; these concerns led Democratic Party leaders to push to add Harry Truman to the 1944 ticket.
Beschloss excels at detailing the administration's internal battles. Morgenthau, who derived much of his influence from his long relationship with Roosevelt, consistently pressed the president with his plan, while others, inside the administration and outside, considered it drastic and punitive.
No management textbook would ever recommend Roosevelt's management style, and there are many passages in "The Conquerors" that make the reader cringe. We see Morgenthau butt heads with Secretary of War Henry Stimson or his deputy, John McCloy, or Treasury aides scurry to develop their own plans, all without unifying leadership. Meanwhile, Roosevelt made contradictory promises to Morgenthau, Stimson, Churchill and Stalin.
Beschloss is a traditional historian who presents the details and then uses the final chapter to elaborate on the conclusion he had led the reader to reach earlier: Roosevelt let things get out of hand before ultimately creating the framework that built modern Germany. That speaks to the strength of how Beschloss marshals his facts and arguments -- show, don't tell -- but it can sometimes seem a bit bloodless and without passion.
"At the dawn of the twenty-first century," Beschloss writes near the end of "The Conquerors," "it is now clear that Franklin Roosevelt had more influence than any other non-German on what Hitler's nation has now become. The democratic, decentralized Germany is largely the country that Roosevelt imagined and worked for."
We know that now, but the course Roosevelt took in getting there is one filled with intrigue and conflict that is now told definitively by a historian in top form.
Chapter One: The Plot to Murder Hitler
Had the plotters been more deft, Thursday, July 20, 1944, would have been Adolf Hitler's last day on earth.
Six weeks after D-Day, the United States, Great Britain and their allies had landed a million men in France. The Red Army was marching westward. When Hitler's generals proposed retreat behind more defensible lines, the Führer had shaken his head, crying, "Victory or death!" Now Hitler was burrowed in at the Wolf's Lair, his field headquarters near Rastenburg, in a melancholy, dank East Prussian forest. At noon, in a log barracks, he listened to a gloomy report from one of his army chiefs about Germany's retreat on the Eastern front. In the steamy room, Hitler took off the eyeglasses he vainly refused to use in public and mopped his forehead with a handkerchief. SS men and stenographers stood around the massive, long oak table like nervous cats. Maps were unfurled. Hitler leaned over them and squinted through a magnifying glass, grimacing at the bad news.
Into the room strode a thirty-seven-year-old officer named Claus von Stauffenberg. He was a Bavarian nobleman, with blond hair and sharp cheekbones, who had lost an eye and seven fingers to an Allied mine in Tunisia while fighting for Germany. Unknown to the Führer or the other two dozen people in the chamber, Stauffenberg was part of a secret, loosely rigged anti-Hitler conspiracy that included military officers, diplomats, businessmen, pastors, intellectuals, landed gentry.
Some wanted historians of the future to record that not all Germans were Nazis. Some simply wanted to spare their nation the full brunt of conquest by the Soviet, American and British armies. Still others were unsettled by Hitler's war against the Jews. For years, the plotters had tried to kill Hitler with rifles and explosives, but the Führer had always survived.
Disgusted by what he heard about Nazi brutality in Russia, Stauffenberg had taught himself how to use his remaining three fingers to set off a bomb. By luck, in July 1944, he was summoned to the Wolf's Lair to help brief Hitler about the Eastern front. When Stauffenberg entered the room, the Führer shook his hand, stared at him appraisingly, then returned to his maps. Inside Stauffenberg's briefcase, swaddled in a shirt, was a ticking time bomb. While the Army chief droned on, Stauffenberg put the briefcase under the table. Leaving his hat and belt behind, as if he were stepping out for a moment, Stauffenberg walked out of the room and left the barracks.
About a quarter to one came a loud boom and swirl of blue-yellow flame, followed by black smoke.
Outside the barracks, Stauffenberg saw men carry out a stretcher on which lay a body shrouded by what seemed to be Hitler's cloak. Rushing to his car for a getaway flight to Berlin, he presumed that Adolf Hitler was no more. Stauffenberg hoped that next would come a public declaration of Hitler's assassination, an Army revolt and establishment of an anti-Nazi government in Berlin.
But when he arrived at General Staff headquarters on Bendler Street, there was only disarray. Fellow plotters were not convinced that Hitler had been killed. Aghast, Stauffenberg cried, "I myself saw Hitler carried out dead!"
But he was wrong. Striving for a better view of the maps, one of the Führer's aides had pushed the briefcase behind one of the table's massive supports, protecting Hitler from certain death. Stauffenberg and his adjutant, Werner von Haeften, a collaborator, had felt too rushed to put a second bomb in the briefcase. Had they done so, Hitler would have certainly been killed.
Instead, when the smoke cleared Hitler was still standing. With bloodshot eyes staring out from a soot-blackened face, he tamped down flame from his trousers. His hair stood out in spikes. His ruptured eardrums were bleeding. His right arm dangled numb at his side.
A weeping Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel threw his arms around Hitler: "My Führer, you're alive! You're alive!"
After donning a fresh uniform, seemingly exhilarated by his survival, Hitler was almost merry. "Once again everything turned out well for me!" he chortled to his secretaries. "More proof that fate has selected me for my mission!" That afternoon he showed his scorched clothes to the visiting ousted Italian dictator Benito Mussolini: "Look at my uniform! Look at my burns!" Hitler had the uniform sent to his mistress, Eva Braun, for safekeeping as proof of his historical destiny.
When generals telephoned from the far reaches of the German Reich to learn whether, as some had heard, Hitler was dead, the Führer was furious that they should even raise the question. With froth on his lips, he shouted, "Traitors in the bosom of their own people deserve the most ignominious of deaths … Exterminate them! … I'll put their wives and children into concentration camps and show them no mercy!" He even confronted his Alsatian dog: "Look me in the eyes, Blondi! Are you also a traitor like the generals of my staff?"
It did not take Hitler's men long to discover who was behind the plot. In Berlin, Stauffenberg and three fellow plotters were arrested. A five-minute trial, "in the name of the Führer," found them guilty of treason. In a shadowy courtyard, they were hauled before a firing squad. Just before his execution, remembering his country before Hitler, Stauffenberg cried out, "Long live eternal Germany!"
An hour after midnight on Friday, July 21, Berlin time, Hitler spoke by radio from the Wolf's Lair. After a burst of military music, he declared, "Fellow members of the German race!" An "extremely small clique of ambitious, unscrupulous and foolish, criminally stupid officers" had plotted to kill him and the German high command — "a crime that has no equal in German history."
The plotters had "no bond and nothing in common with the German people." He was "entirely unhurt, apart from minor grazes, bruises or burns." Failure of the plot was "a clear sign from Providence that I must carry on with my work."
Hitler had come to power claiming that Germany had lost World War I because craven politicians in Berlin had betrayed the generals. The newest plotters, he now said, had planned to "thrust a dagger into our back as they did in 1918. But this time they have made a very grave mistake." His voice rose to a shriek: "Every German, whoever he may be, has a duty to fight these elements at once with ruthless determination … Wipe them out at once!"
Fearing for his life, Hitler never again spoke in public. By his orders, hundreds of suspected conspirators were arrested, tortured and executed. Another five thousand of their relatives and suspected anti-Nazi sympathizers were taken to concentration camps. A decree went out for Stauffenberg's family to be "wiped out to its last member."
Hitler ordered some of the chief plotters "strung up like butchered cattle." A motion picture of their execution was rushed to the Wolf's Lair for the Führer's enjoyment. By one account, Hitler and his chief propagandist, Joseph Goebbels, watched in the Führer's private theater as the shirtless men on the screen swung from piano-wire nooses, writhing and dying while their carefully unbelted trousers fell off to reveal them naked.
Goebbels had demanded for years that Hitler's enemies be stalked with "ice-cold determination." But when the top Nazis watched the ghoulish flickering images of the lifeless plotters, it was later said, even the cold-blooded Goebbels had to cover his eyes to keep from passing out.
As Hitler finished his speech from the Wolf's Lair, Franklin Roosevelt gave his own radio address from California. Speaking from a private railroad car at the San Diego naval base, he accepted the 1944 Democratic nomination for President. For wartime security reasons, the public was told only that the base was on the "Pacific coast."
The President was taking a five-week, fourteen-thousand-mile military inspection trip of the Pacific Coast, Hawaii and Alaska. His special nine-car railroad caravan had moved slowly from Chicago to Kansas City, El Paso and Phoenix, to "kill time" before his arrival in San Diego and spare him from having to sleep at night in a moving train. Secret Service agents had tried to keep Roosevelt's exact whereabouts a secret. At each stop, the President and his party were asked to stay aboard the train. But Roosevelt's famous Scottie dog, Fala, had to be taken off to relieve himself. When Pullman porters and ticket takers saw Fala, they knew who was really aboard the train called "Main 985."
One might have expected Roosevelt to be delighted when he heard the news of a coup that might topple Adolf Hitler. If a new, post-Hitler government accepted the Allied demand for unconditional surrender, it would save millions of lives and let the Big Three — Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill — throw Allied forces fully into the war against Japan.
But Roosevelt knew that life was rarely that uncomplicated. For months, American intelligence had secretly warned him of plots against Hitler. In early July 1944, Allen Dulles of the Office of Strategic Services reported from Bern, Switzerland, that "the next few weeks will be our last chance to demonstrate the determination of the Germans themselves to rid Germany of Hitler and his gang and establish a decent regime." Eight days before Stauffenberg set off his bomb, Dulles warned that "a dramatic event" might soon take place "up north."
Roosevelt would have certainly realized that a new, post-Hitler junta would probably demand a negotiated settlement. It might insist that certain members of the German military high command, government and other institutions stay in place. This would frustrate his declared intention to remake postwar Germany from the ground up so that it could never threaten the world again. Official Allied policy was unconditional surrender. But Roosevelt knew that if a rump post-Hitler government sued for peace, it would be difficult for Churchill and himself to persuade their war-exhausted peoples to keep fighting and lose hundreds of thousands more lives.
Dulles had reported that one group of anti-Hitler conspirators wanted "to prevent Central Europe from coming … under the control of Russia." As Roosevelt knew, Churchill might be sorely tempted by a deal with a new German government that could save British lives and block the Soviets in Europe, provoking an immediate confrontation with Stalin. Even worse was the possibility that a post-Hitler government might side with the Soviets against the Anglo-Americans.
Told of the attempted assassination, reporters in San Diego badgered Roosevelt's aides for the President's reaction to the news. The President offered no comment. Whatever he said would be playing with fire. If he publicly welcomed the plot, he might seem to be backing off from unconditional surrender. If he denounced it, he might appear indifferent to a development that might end the war quickly. If he opposed the plot and it proved ultimately to succeed, Stalin would have a better chance to make a deal with a new post-Hitler government that would let the Soviets dominate Europe.
Instead, Roosevelt wrote a carefully worded private message to Stalin suggesting that the plot was encouraging because it revealed a Nazi foe in disarray: "We have just received news of the difficulties in Germany and especially at Hitler's headquarters. It is all to the good." With the same cheerful presumption that the plot could be nothing but good news, Roosevelt wrote his wife, Eleanor, "Dearest Babs … I might have to hurry back earlier if this German revolt gets worse! I fear though that it won't."
On Friday evening in Chicago, with Roosevelt's consent, Democrats had chosen Senator Harry Truman of Missouri for Vice President. In San Diego, with Truman safely nominated, the President and Fala were driven in darkness to Broadway Pier and piped aboard the heavy cruiser Baltimore, bound for Honolulu. To protect Roosevelt from Japanese attack, the gleaming new ship was escorted by four destroyers. It followed an unpredictable route and was darkened from sunset to sunrise. During the voyage, sailors had to be stopped from cutting snippets of hair from Fala to send home.
The President slept soundly and sat on the vessel's flag bridge, enjoying the sun and cool breezes. During his Pacific idyll and later in the trip, Roosevelt received intelligence reports that after Hitler's near-murder, the "blood purge" of the Führer's internal enemies was "ruthless." So many Germans were being arrested that "schools and other large public buildings are being used as supplementary jails." Roosevelt was informed that after Hitler's clean sweep, Germans would now "probably have to wait for the complete military collapse of Germany to rid themselves of the Nazis."
When the Baltimore arrived in Honolulu, its presidential flag was hoisted. This upset the Secret Service, but by now, almost everyone in the Hawaiian capital knew that Roosevelt was coming. Staying in a mansion bequeathed to the United States by a hard-drinking millionaire who had committed suicide, the President had what he called a "splendid" talk with General Douglas MacArthur about the Pacific war.
Only a full week after Hitler's near-assassination did Roosevelt make his first public comment about the plot. As the President sat with reporters on the emerald lawn of the Hawaiian governor's palace, he was excruciatingly careful: "I don't think I know anything more about it than you do … We can all have our own ideas about it." He went on to reaffirm the Allied demand for unconditional surrender: "Practically every German denies the fact they surrendered in the last war. But this time, they are going to know it!"
From Moscow, Stalin's propagandists agreed: "Hitlerite Germany will be driven to her knees not by insurgent officers, but by ourselves and our Allies!"
Churchill scoffed at the anti-Hitler plot. Before the House of Commons, he explained that high German officials were merely trying to elude their inevitable, absolute defeat by "murdering one another."
The Prime Minister's icy dismissal concealed a secret that few in His Majesty's government knew. According to British intelligence documents released in 1998, Churchill's secret agents were themselves trying to have Hitler murdered. Under the code name Operation Foxley, they schemed to have Hitler's tea poisoned, his uniform doused with lethal bacteria, his train blown up, or for him to be shot during his daily walk.
One British colonel who knew about the operation could not understand why they were going after Hitler: He was doing such a good job of losing the war! Killing the Führer, he warned, might unite Germans against the Allied armies. Assassination would "canonize" Hitler and "give birth to the myth that Germany would have been saved had he lived." Another British officer said, "I think Hitler should be permitted to live until he dies of senile decay before the eyes of the people he has misled … Make him a laughing stock."
A more sober British intelligence man insisted that they keep on trying. Hitler's "mystical hold" over the German people, he wrote, was "keeping the country together" as the Anglo-Americans struggled to free Europe.
Roosevelt agreed with Stalin and Churchill that the paramount question left by the European war would be what happened to Germany. He believed that a lasting peace would depend on whether he and Churchill could maintain their friendship with the Soviet Union and whether Germany could be so transformed that it would never threaten the world again.
But how? Even with the European war rushing toward climax and Allied armies about to pierce the German border, the President refused to commit himself. He told exasperated aides that much would depend on "what we and the Allies find when we get into Germany — and we are not there yet."
With his extravagant confidence in his ability to master events, Franklin Roosevelt was keeping his options open until the final possible moment.
FDR's Auschwitz Secret
For six decades, historians have debated the Allied reaction to Adolf Hitler's "final solution." Amid the complexities of war and the fog of battle, could Washington and London have done more to save Europe's Jews? Why not try to save Jewish lives by bombing the death camps and rail lines to Auschwitz.
REVERED IN MEMORY as a great war president, Franklin Roosevelt has always been at the center of the mystery. For generations historians have had no firsthand evidence that FDR was directly involved in the decision not to attack Auschwitz. Here, in an exclusive book excerpt from "The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler's Germany 1941-1945" (Simon & Schuster), Michael Beschloss provides a surprising new account of what the president actually knew and what he said and did.
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.
For almost two years, Churchill and FDR had been quietly receiving evidence of Hitler's ghastly effort to remove an entire people from the face of the earth. Churchill appeared interested in a military strike against the camps. He told his 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. But the eloquent Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel wishes that the Americans 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. A Hudson Valley neighbor of FDR's, Morgenthau was Roosevelt's closest friend in the government and only the second Jew in U.S. history to be in a president's Cabinet. He was, however, so unobservant a Jew that he had never attended a Passover Seder.
Morgenthau had long refrained from jeopardizing his friendship with Roosevelt--which he called the "most important thing" in his life--by special pleading on Jewish matters. After World War II began, FDR had privately said to Morgenthau and a Catholic appointee, Leo Crowley, "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."
But the Holocaust had radicalized Morgenthau. Even if it meant antagonizing Roosevelt, the Treasury secretary was bent on trying to slow the killing and also crush postwar Germany with a plan to make the conquered country "stew in its own juice." 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."
Morgenthau consented to have his former aide John Pehle, director of the War Refugee Board, cautiously explore whether bombing Auschwitz and/or the rail lines might save a serious number of Jewish 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." (McCloy had vehemently denied the charge.)
McCloy saw the Auschwitz bombing proposal as a flagrant violation of FDR's demand that U.S. military resources be used only for direct efforts to win the war. Flatly and repeatedly, McCloy said no.
Much of the modern indignation at the American failure to bomb Auschwitz has been centered on John McCloy. At best McCloy has been excoriated for his bullheaded concentration on traditional military targets; at worst he has been attacked for callous indifference to the murder of the Jews.
Didn't McCloy discuss such an important matter with the president? For decades after World War II, when interviewed about the subject, McCloy insisted that he did not. He told Washington Post reporter Morton Mintz in 1983 that he "never talked" with FDR about bombing Auschwitz. In a 2000 book, "The Bombing of Auschwitz," scholar Richard Levy concluded: "If McCloy is to be faulted, his fault must lie in having failed to go to the President himself."
But new information suggests that the man who made the ultimate decision not to bomb Auschwitz may not have been John McCloy but Franklin Roosevelt himself. In 1986, three years before his death, McCloy had a taped private conversation--unpublished before now--with Morgenthau's son Henry III, who was researching a family memoir. Frail but articulate and alert throughout the conversation, the 91-year-old McCloy told Morgenthau that of course he had personally raised with FDR the possibility of bombing Auschwitz. McCloy 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.' " (This referred to the prospect that the Nazis would have built other death mills to continue the killing.) McCloy recalled that the president "made it very clear" to him that bombing Auschwitz "wouldn't have done any good."
According to McCloy, Roosevelt told him that bombing Auschwitz would be "provocative" to the Nazis and he wouldn't "have anything to do" with the idea. McCloy said that FDR warned him that Americans would be accused of "bombing these innocent people" at Auschwitz, adding, "We'll be accused of participating in this horrible business!"
In his 1986 conversation with Morgenthau's son, McCloy went on to say, "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."
If we presume that the old man's memory was sound and that he was telling the truth, McCloy had concealed FDR's personal refusal to bomb Auschwitz for forty-two years. (McCloy's private papers offer no account of his remembered conversation with FDR; nor do they document every exchange he had on sensitive wartime issues.) Perhaps McCloy had been motivated by his old-fashioned notion of public service, which demanded protecting the secrecy of presidential conversations and deflecting criticism from the boss.
Why did McCloy change his story in 1986? Smarting from public criticism over Auschwitz, he may have grown tired of bearing the sole burden of what had become the most hotly debated decision of the Roosevelt presidency--especially among American Jews who had once hailed FDR as their hero. But there might also have been another reason. It could not be wholly coincidental that the outsider to whom McCloy insisted that Franklin Roosevelt, not he, was cardinally responsible for the failure to bomb Auschwitz was the son of the Jewish Treasury secretary who had once accused McCloy of being an "oppressor of the Jews."
John McCloy was a man so respected that he was once called the "chairman" of the American Establishment. His firsthand testimony is the first serious evidence we have that it was Franklin Roosevelt who made one of history's most crucial decisions--and of the president's rationale in making it. Based on McCloy's account, FDR made his decision on Auschwitz after little or no consultation with his key advisers. Historians will probably argue until the end of time whether or not Auschwitz should have been bombed. But as the United States contemplates war against Iraq, the story of FDR's choice not to bomb shows us how a wartime president may issue a swift and quiet ruling which, though it may not seem pivotal at the time, could prove to be one of the decisions for which history most remembers him.