May 9, 2013

Beschloss' The Conquerors: White House Decision Making on the Holocaust and Conquered Germany

Last night 14 members of the History Book Club met at Barnes and Noble Montrose Crossing to discuss The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler's Germany, 1941-1945 by Michael Beschloss. How appropriate that the discussion took place on May 8th, Victory Day, the anniversary of the Nazi surrender to the USSR ending World War II.

Beschloss has focused this relatively short book on a narrow set of events, especially those relevant to the U.S. policy with respect to the Holocaust and with respect to treatment of Germany when conquered. To properly reflect the interactions of most interest to Beschloss in this book, club members suggested that the title and subtitle should have focused on Henry Morganthau Jr (the Secretary of the Treasury) and Roosevelt -- the principle protagonists in the book. There is a large supporting cast in the text, including Truman, Churchill, Stalin, Secretary of State Hull, and Secretary of War Stimson.

One theme of the meeting was that it was important to have an understanding of the broader situation just before, during and shortly after World War II to properly understand the content of this book. It is now hard to identify with the hardships Americans suffered in the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and World War II. But those would seem good times compared to the suffering in England; the human suffering in Germany and Russia was much greater. We recalled that some movies made after the war showed the devastation it caused (e.g. The Third Man, Judgement at Nuremberg, Open City). Our recent reading of Embracing Defeat on the aftermath of the war in Japan was mentioned.

U.S. Army Photo: U.S. Army tanks entering Nuremberg
It was also important to understand the complexity of the situation that decision makers in Washington were facing. Treasury Secretary Morganthau had been faced with reconciling Keynesian stimulus policies with conservative federal budgetary theory during the New Deal; he had had to manage the lend lease financing; his Department had to finance World War II through the sale of War Bonds; he had to lead the Treasury in the negotiations leading to the Bretton Woods system regulating global finance after the war and the creation of the International Finance Corporation. The most secular of Jews, of German Jewish ancestry, he had to deal with the leaders of the American Jewish community who saw him as their natural representative in the Roosevelt cabinet, as well as with his increasing knowledge of the horrors of the Holocaust, and with the prejudice against him by anti-Semites in the cabinet and in the country.

President Roosevelt was simultaneously"
  • Holding together the Democratic Party which in his day included southern Conservatives, big city machines and bosses, and a range of liberals from Wilsonian Progressives to American Communists
  • Leading the Democratic Party in elections that had to be won in order to assure the support and continuation of his policies
  • Convincing the public first to prepare for war and then to fight the war, a task made difficult by isolationism, anti-war sentiment, racism, and ethnic divisions within the country
  • Providing leadership for the federal bureaucracy and the Congress to obtain and implement the legislation he needed
  • As commander in chief, leading the military in the conduct of the most complex war in history
  • Creating and leading an alliance of the most diverse and fractious nations in the conduct of the war.
Other government leaders were also dealing with hugely complex and unprecedented problems and situations.

The book in its narrow focus on a couple of the issues faced by these decision makers ran the risk of making its seem smaller and more petty than they really were.

We noted that great presidents of the United States -- Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt -- handled all of these challenges at least adequately, and some of them brilliantly.

Still some of us found Roosevelt's unwillingness to share results of the summit meetings with his cabinet to be shocking, especially since those cabinet members then had their Departmental staffs prepare to implement policies that differed significantly from those which Roosevelt chose. The failure to provide Vice President Truman with information on international agreements, government programs, and FDR's own thinking proved especially dangerous for the country when Roosevelt died and Truman was thrust into the presidency. The degree to which Roosevelt's abilities were deteriorating in the last year of his life, when his responsibilities were huge, was very unsettling.

There was some discussion of our own difficulty in seeing the uncertainty that decision makers felt at the time. We have the benefit of hindsight -- of decades of illumination from the opening of Soviet, English, and American archives, and of knowing how the options that were accepted ultimately worked out. The people with the responsibilities at the time really could not know how their decisions would work out, and indeed, we can not really know whether alternative decisions would have been better than those actually made at the time.

Former prisoners of the "little camp" in Buchenwald. (Photo courtesy USHMM)
Should the U.S. air force have bombed railroads leading to the concentration camps and the gas chambers, or was it better to continue focusing all the air power on ending the war quickly? Why didn't U.S. troops push to enter Berlin before the Russians, and would subsequent events have been better if they had? Was the lack of concern for the victims of the Holocaust simply wrong; was it simply insensitivity to civilian deaths (e.g. Stalin and the kulaks and pograms, Americans and Hiroshima and Nagasaki)?

We recognized the anti-Semitism in America in the 1040s, but were surprised by its casual expression in the highest levels of the government. We understood the book's argument that people within the State Department and War Department bureaucracy were blocking offers of sanctuary to European Jews. Still we recognized that hundreds of thousands of lives could have been saved had the U.S. government acted with proper compassion; the failure to bring Jews refugees to our shores stands as a stain on the Roosevelt administration and on the United States.

We wondered why the French had been granted a zone of occupation in occupied Germany and so great a role in the post war global government. (Perhaps we fail to consider the importance of the French empire in Africa, French Indochina, and elsewhere.) While Americans (especially Wilsonian liberals imbued with support for self determination) opposed the imperial aspirations of allies, Churchill very much wanted a restoration of British imperial power, and the Soviets were establishing imperial control over what would become the Warsaw Pact nations.

We discussed the Soviet demand for reparations from the Germans, recognizing how greatly Russian industrial infrastructure had been destroyed by the German invasion. On the other hand, the Soviets also took a great deal from other countries over which they had gained control in the war, including Manchuria as well as central and eastern Europe. So too we discussed the Marshall plan and the provision of emergency aid to European allies after the war, and the decision of Stalin to forego U.S. humanitarian relief rather than accept the strings that would have been attached.

Opinion of the book was very divided: some really disliked it, others liked it very much. It was seen as relatively easy to read. There was wide agreement that the book would have benefited from stronger edition; it was commented that publishing houses are now less likely than in the past to provide that service for books, authors and readers. Michael Beschloss had obviously done a great deal of research in the preparation of the book, and it benefited from his access to foreign archives. The focus fit with his expertise as a historian of the American presidency. However, at least one member commented that he might have better integrated the individual facts he found into the narrative. A couple of members mentioned that a stronger introductory chapter might have helped, especially had it identified the thesis he was trying to advance in the rest of the book. Others seemed more content with the structure.