Fdr's Auschwitz Secret

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.