Foundations of Holocaust: Roosevelt’s decision to not bomb Auschwitz David Turner Feb 28, 2013
Much controversy has surrounded Roosevelt's decision to not bomb Auschwitz continuing even today. I have presented as wide an array of opinions in discussing the issue and its implications for the relationship between the president and the Jews then, and now. I add my own wrinkle to the debate as well, offering a practical reason that might, in the end, have provided at least a military rationale for choosing not to bomb. Not the reasons offered by the military at the time, nor present-day military historians, but a plausible reason none the less.
The short answer for the impatient is that bombing Auschwitz was not only possible, but would have posed little or no risk to US airmen and their aircraft. To what degree the decision to NOT bomb was moral and antisemitism inspired is up to the reader to decide. My own speculation regarding the president's decision based on military considerations has nothing, in the end, to do with that other consideration, morality.
A 1944 survey found that 24.2% of Americans considered Jews “most dangerous” compared to 8% for Germans and 16% for Japanese. American soldier fighting Germany and Japan, but American Jews were considered “most dangerous”?
Introduction: Franklin Delano Roosevelt was an anti semite. And perhaps a case could, based on his personal sentiments to explain his administration’s hands-off approach to the unfolding persecution, the unfolding Final Solution to the Jewish Problem. But he was also FDR, the president who invited more Jews to participate in government and the courts than any predecessor; who accepted criticism from a generally antisemitic country which earned him the label, “Rosenfeld” for his assumed control by “the Jews.” I write this not to suggest he is unjustly criticized for his and his administration’s inaction regarding the plight of Europe’s Jews, because I do hold him directly accountable. Rather my intention is to return focus to America, public sentiment, as a responsible agent in the failure to bomb “Auschwitz.”
Picture of the Birkenau (Auschwitz II) extermination camp taken by an American surveillance plane on August 25, 1944. Crematoria II and III and the holes used to throw cyanide into the gas chambers are visible. (Wikipedia)
Background: In early 1941, drawn by the promise of free slave labor the German petro-chemical giant IG Farben, sister company to America’s DuPont, built an industrial complex at a site three miles from what would become Auschwitz I, the extermination center. While IBM keypunch machines sorted through the cards of the approximate 10,000 daily arrivals those designated suitable were assigned to work details at IG Farben where they were intended to die of their labor, while the remainder of the arrivals would be assigned a more immediate death.
“In late 1943 and early 1944, the Allies began bombing oil-production facilities, including the small-to-middling-size petrochemical plant at Auschwitz III. Auschwitz III, or Monowitz, was a satellite camp about four kilometers from the gas chambers at Auschwitz II, or Birkenau.”
Soon after IG Farben began producing synthetic petroleum products and other war materiel Allied bombers targeted the site. There is some debate over when intelligence analysis actually identified Auschwitz I as a death factory. But this is a question apart from when and how the decision not to interfere with the extermination process was arrived at.
American policy regarding the unfolding Holocaust was apparent early in the 1930’s. If the United States would refuse temporary haven to 20,000 Jewish children left homeless by Krystallnacht; if FDR would respond to the pleas of the 900 Jewish refugees of the SS St. Louis by dispatching a Coast Guard cutter to secure Florida from a Jew desperately attempting to swim to shore; if the US State Department refused to issue even the paltry number visas permissible to Jews fleeing the Holocaust:: was there ever any likelihood that the president would seriously consider bombing the death camp or the rail lines feeding the gas chambers?
Layers of reasons were advanced by the government, excuses continue by present-day defenders. We will consider some of these below. But in the end this discussion is not about the logistics or feasibility of bombing the death centers, although personnel involved in bombing IG Farben have written that they could easily have dropped bombs on Auschwitz as they flew over the gas chambers en route to Birkenau three miles away. There was no realistic risk to airmen or aircraft at the time because by November, 1944, the Allies had air superiority over most of Europe, including these sites.
But my discussion involves another question; that the decision to not target Auschwitz was consistent with a hands-off policy regarding the plight of the Jews beginning in 1933. I will speculate beyond even the antisemitic motive and suggest a more practical reason by the commander in chief serving another purpose. But that discussion is for later.
The decision to bomb or not the death camp at Auschwitz has been debated for decades, beginning in 1943-4 and continuing to present. And while the arguments pro and con are more or less plausible, in the end the decision was consistent with the president’s position evidenced by the 1938 Evian Conference; backed by five years of bureaucratic State Department actions trapping Europe’s Jews to face their terrible end.
The Military Option
“Former U.S. Senator George McGovern piloted a B-24 Liberator in December 1944, and his squadron bombed Nazi oil facilities less than five miles from Auschwitz. In 2005, he said “There is no question we should have attempted ... to go after Auschwitz. There was a pretty good chance we could have blasted those rail lines off the face of the Earth, which would have interrupted the flow of people to those death chambers, and we had a pretty good chance of knocking out those gas ovens.”
The most persistent and credible-sounding reason advanced for the decision against bombing the extermination camps and their railroad feeder tracks was the risk to airmen and aircraft. But all accounts indicate that the Allies had air superiority over Europe by March, 1944. According to Air Force Magazine by November, 1944,
“as US Army Air Forces Gen. Henry H. "Hap" Arnold recalled—American airmen were "roving at will over all Germany, and the Luftwaffe’s air and ground defenses [were] helpless to do anything about it." Oil and transportation attacks had robbed the Nazi air service of fuel and parts, even as steady attrition cost it pilots and airplanes. No safe airspace existed anywhere, and any German airplane faced the risk of Allied fighters striking any time out of threatening skies.”
Another reason advanced for not bombing the camps and rail lines was that it would divert air power from military targets and lengthen the war. And possibly had the military resources been diverted from bombing, for example, oil refineries supplying the Wehrmacht with fuel the war might well have been extended. But the assault on infrastructure frequently found Allied aircraft overflying the death camps and rail line known to be executing the Final Solution:
“On August 20, 1944, a fleet of U.S. bombers dropped more than one thousand bombs on the oil refineries in the factory areas of Auschwitz, less than five miles from the gas chambers. On September 13, American bombers struck the factory areas again; this time, stray bombs accidentally hit an SS barracks (killing fifteen Germans), a slave labor workshop (killing forty prisoners), and the railroad track leading to the gas chambers… U.S. bombers carried out similar raids on December 18, December 26, and January 19.”
And, as Hungarian Jewry were boarding freight cars for delivery to Auschwitz,
“American bombers flew over all five deportation railways from Hungary on more than ten different days between June and October 1944 on their way to bombing missions, and they raided the Monowitz plant five times between August 1944 and January 1945… On their way back to Italy, the bombers regrouped directly above one of the deportation railways from Hungary to Poland (at this point no longer used for deportation of Hungarian Jews). Some of them dropped leftover bombs on a freight yard below and in doing so cut the rail line.”
And finally, and most bizarre excuse of all, was the “fear” that bombing the gas chambers would endanger the lives of the condemned!
“If we had bombed Auschwitz with the inevitable consequence of killing hundreds, perhaps thousands of Jewish prisoners, [theU.S. would have been blamed as] accomplices in the Nazi genocide. “
Numerous pleas/requests by Jewish groups were made to the War Department, particularly as news leaked out that Hungarian Jewry were being about to be sent to Auschwitz. Among these were, Treasury Secretary Morgenthau, Agudas Israel, the World Jewish Congress. When the argument that bombing “might provoke even more vindictive action by the Germans” (more vindictive than the gas chambers?) failed to convince the War Department advanced the following argument:
Proposed Air Action to Impede Deportation of Hungarian and Slovak Jews.
26 June 1944, reply to Mr. Morgenthau:
"The War Department is of the opinion that the suggested air operation is impracticable… "The War Department fully appreciates the humanitarian importance of the suggested operation. However… the most effective relief to victims of enemy persecution is the early defeat of the Axis, an undertaking to which we must devote every resource at our disposal."
Thos. T. Handy,
Assistant Chief of Staff
War is an extension of politics, and politicians, dependent on popular vote, are more likely to follow than lead their constituents. The interwar years of the early twentieth century and The Great Depression were a time of anxiety and nativism in both Americaand Germany. I earlier mentioned the,
“1939 Roper poll [that] found that only 39% of respondents felt American Jews should be treated like all other people – 10% even believed Jews should be deported.”
Sixty-one percent of Americans polled responded that “American Jews should [NOT] be treated like all other people. Immediately following Krystallnacht “10% even believed Jews should be deported.” Regarding the Jews, at least, popular sentiment in Germanyand the United States was not that far apart. A 1944 survey found that 24.2% of Americans considered Jews “most dangerous, compared to 8% for Germans and 16% for Japanese. American soldier fighting Germany and Japan, but Americans viewed Jews “most dangerous”?
By late 1943, it was apparent that the Allies would ultimately defeat the enemy, so it became increasingly important to make high-level political decisions about the course of the war and the postwar future of Europe. (Wikipedia)
Roosevelt and the decision not to bomb: In The Conquerors, historian Michael Beschloss,
“casts new light upon Roosevelt's concealment of what America knew about Hitler's war against the Jews and his foot-dragging on saving refugees”
In his book Beschloss referred to a 1986 interview Treasury Secretary Morgenthau’s son had with John McCloy in which the undersecretary for war in the Roosevelt administration seemed to reverse himself as decision maker regarding bombingAuschwitz. William vanden Hueval, co-chair of the Roosevelt Institute, attacks the book’s representation of the president and, by vanden Huevel’s tone, reflects the level of emotionalism continuing to revolve around the president and Auschwitz:
“The principal marketing thrust for Beschloss's book centers on the issue of whether or not the Allies should have bombed Auschwitz and on "new information" that the man who made the ultimate decision not to bomb Auschwitz "may not have been John McCloy but Franklin Roosevelt himself.”
“Beschloss identifies this"new information" as a taped private conversation in 1986 between John McCloy and Henry Morgenthau III who was researching a family memoir. In his PBS interview, he says:" I came upon an interview, unpublished, that John McCloy did just before he died... where he actually conceded that he had taken this to Roosevelt and said 'do you want to bomb Auschwitz or not?' And he said that what Roosevelt said was, 'absolutely not...?'"
“I have read the transcript of the McCloy-Morgenthau interview. Nowhere does the above-cited conversation take place.”
In fact a transcript of the interview had been public for several years before vanden Hueval’s charge:
“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 bombingAuschwitz 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!"
An assertion by the Roosevelt Institute over many years represents David Ben-Gurion and the Jewish Agency as supporting the administration decision to not bomb Auschwitz, repeated in support of vanden Hueval’s critique of Bescholss:
“Were David Ben-Gurion and his ten colleagues of the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem immoral because they voted against asking the Allies to bomb the Death Camps?” [he asks]
In this case the historian is only half-confabulating. Rafael Medoff, director of the Wyan Institute challenges vanden Hueval’s misrepresentation of the facts. Two meetings of the Jewish Agency Executive met in Jerusalem in June, 1944 to discuss the possibility of bombing Auschwitz. At the first,
“on June 11, 1944, JAE chairman David Ben-Gurion and his colleagues "voted eleven to one against the bombing proposal." What actually happened at the June 11 session is that Ben-Gurion opposed requesting an Allied attack on Auschwitz because "we do not know what the actual situation is in Poland.”
To this point vanden Huevel is correct, the assertion being that Ben-Gurion supports the administration policy. What he fails to mention is that a second meeting of the JAE took place eight days later to which,
“Richard Lichtheim, in the Jewish Agency's Geneva office, sent the Jewish Agency leadership in Jerusalem a detailed summary of the first eyewitness account of the mass-murder process (the account was produced by two Auschwitz escapees… What the Vrba-Wetzler report revealed, Lichtheim wrote… was that in addition to the "labour camp in Birkenau" there were also "large-scale killings" in Birkenau itself "with all the scientific apparatus needed for this purpose, i.e. . . . specially constructed buildings with gas-chambers and crematoriums. . . .The total number of Jews killed in or near Birkenau is estimated at over one and a half million… Upon receiving this information, the Jewish Agency leadership promptly launched a concerted lobbying effort to persuade the Allies to bomb Auschwitz.”
Afterthought: By 1944 it was increasingly clear that the war was coming to its end. Faced with the choice to defend the homeland or pursue the war against the Jews, Hitler diverted limited rail resources from resupply of the Wehrmacht to delivering Jews toAuschwitz.
Roosevelt is described as a hands-on commander in chief, intensively involved in all aspects of the conduct of the war. Which raises the question: What effect would bombing Auschwitz or rail lines feeding the factory of death fit in with the Allied war effort?
If, as he clearly did, Hitler was consumed in killing as many Jews as possible before the end of the war, then Roosevelt as commander in chief might well have decided that it served American war aims to not disrupt that obsession. And while this may or not have been his primary reason not to bomb Auschwitz, it may well have contributed.
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