Funded largely by private donations, the War Refugee Board was founded frightfully late, and in millions of instances too late, in January 1944. Nonetheless, after the appointment of a new interim director, Treasury Secretary John Morgenthau’s hard-nosed counsel John Pehle, the board got down to business. Provided with both institutional backing, $250,000, and, finally, genuine moral authority—it nominally consisted of the secretaries of the treasury, state, and war, but for all practical purposes it was run by Morgenthau’s department—it quickly injected into the efforts of Franklin Roosevelt’s administration a spirit that had for too long been woefully lacking.
The WRB rapidly developed multipronged plans for the rescue and relief of Adolf Hitler’s victims, wherever they could be found. Speed was one watchword; action was another. Morgenthau himself remarked that the board was made up of “crusaders.” While there remained influential opponents of the WRB—one State Department official snidely commented, “That Jew Morgenthau and his Jewish assistants like [Josiah] DuBois are trying to take over this place” (actually DuBois was Protestant)—converts to its way of thinking were now found even in the least likely places.
As early as February 11, 1944, staff officers gathered around a large oak table in the secretary of war’s conference room to discuss the new WRB and how to explain it to commanders in the field. “We are over there,” one officer protested, “to win the war and not take care of refugees.” Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy’s executive assistant, Colonel Harrison Gerhardt, snapped back: “The president doesn’t think so. He thinks relief is a part of winning the war.” So the WRB scoured Europe for opportunities. The board was nothing if not ambitious. That spring, Pehle proposed that the Spanish government open its borders to the pockets of Jews fleeing Nazi-occupied France; notably, here the WRB had the support of the War Department. Meanwhile, the board financed a series of covert operations to protect the thousands of Jewish children remaining in France; the agents provided counterfeit birth certificates, work permits, and baptismal certificates—anything and everything that would do the job. Soon an escape route was organized, over the Pyrenees from France into Spain.
For refugees seeking to make their way to Palestine, the WRB representative pressured Turkish officials to allow 200 Jews every 10 days to use Istanbul as a way station; this measure rescued some 7,000 in all. In the Balkans, under Pehle’s aggressive leadership, the WRB opened a land route for the Jews in Bulgaria and a sea route for those in Romania. The Romanian government, desperate to quit the war, was finally prodded into evacuating 48,000 Jews (out of the original 70,000) from Transnistria to the Romanian interior, saving their lives by taking them out of the way of the German troops frantically retreating from the front lines. In Switzerland, the WRB bribed border guards to let refugees slip into the country; all told, some 27,000 Jewish refugees made it. In a small but symbolic step, the Irish government was induced to take in 500 Jewish refugee children; approaches were also made to Portugal and Sweden to accept fleeing Jews.
Not every battle was won. Later, Pehle came up with a sweeping proposal for President Roosevelt to announce that the United States would now temporarily accept “all oppressed peoples escaping from Hitler.” Would the president accept it? Pehle dictated a memo for Roosevelt, arguing that no rescue program could succeed unless refugees had some prospect of a haven. In reality, he assured the president that very few refugees would come to the United States. But he pleaded with Roosevelt to understand that to induce other countries to fling open their doors to aid the Jews, Washington had to set an example. The solution, Pehle recommended, was for the president to do what he had done so many times before: take unilateral action and sidestep a reluctant Congress, in this case by issuing an executive order allowing refugees into the country on a temporary basis. Morgenthau strongly endorsed this proposal.
But the secretary of war, Henry Stimson, vehemently dissented, and Roosevelt agreed. “I fear that Congress will feel that it is the opening wedge to a violation of our immigration laws,” Stimson said. The president vetoed Pehle’s draft, and instead approved only a far more modest compromise. In June, two days after the Normandy invasion, he offered temporary haven to 982 refugees, principally Jews from southern Italy, a number of whom had survived the horrors of Dachau and Buchenwald. In August, they would be housed in a shabby, run-down shelter at Fort Ontario, in the town of Oswego, New York, where they would remain through the frightfully cold winter like prison inmates, behind a barbed-wire fence and guarded by the army.
A still greater problem loomed as well. In early March, Hitler, suffering from a cold, summoned his propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels to the Berghof, his residence in the Bavarian Alps. Now badly losing the war, the Führer was nonetheless adamant about putting an end to the ongoing “treachery” in Hungary. For some time, the Hungarians, watching the Nazis’ fortunes wane, had put out feelers to both the western Allies as well as the Russians. Admiral Miklos Horthy, the 75-year-old Hungarian head of state, had also allowed the almost 1 million Hungarian Jews to exist largely unmolested, and thousands of Jews from Poland, Slovakia, and Romania had already sought refuge in his country. Two weeks after the meeting with Goebbels, as Hitler was bullying Horthy to sign a joint declaration consenting to the military occupation of Hungary, German armies readied for their last invasion of the war. The next day—March 19, 1944—Adolf Eichmann’s men entered the capital accompanied by throngs of German troops. Hungary was now firmly a Nazi client state. With the takeover complete, the stage was set for the largest single mass murder in human history—the destruction of the country’s 750,000 Jews.
The Nazis wasted no time. In a matter of days, they seized 2,000 Jews. Within a month, the first deportation train carrying more than 3,000 Jews, sandwiched together in horrific surroundings inside 40 cattle wagons, departed. Their destination was Auschwitz, the centerpiece of the Final Solution.
An astounding number of lives were at stake.
Morgenthau and the WRB exhorted Roosevelt to make a strong statement about Hungary. The board’s staff drafted one, but could the president deliver it? Roosevelt was now seriously ill, his lungs filled with fluid and his heart faltering, yet he was also still smarting from Morgenthau’s report on the government’s acquiescence in the fate of European Jewry. Thus, on March 24th, just a few days before his fateful visit to Dr. Bruenn at Bethesda Naval Hospital, the president went to great lengths to articulate the government’s goal. That was to provide assistance not simply to the Jews facing Nazi brutality in Europe, but, as Roosevelt’s aide William Hassett explained, the aim had been “enlarged also to include an appeal on behalf of all who suffer under Nazi and Jap torture.” Roosevelt spoke in a raspy voice, but his statement was nevertheless his most compelling to date.
“In one of the blackest crimes of all history,” the president said, his usual sonorous tones sounding out of pitch, “the wholesale systematic murder of the Jews of Europe goes on unabated every hour.” He continued: “As a result of the events of the last few days hundreds of thousands of Jews, who while living under persecution have at least found a haven from death in Hungary and the Balkans, are now threatened with annihilation as Hitler’s forces descend more heavily upon these lands.” Knowing that the D-Day invasion was not far off, he added, “That these innocent people, who have already survived a decade of Hitler’s fury, should perish on the very eve of triumph over the barbarism which their persecution symbolized, would be a major tragedy.”
There would be, Roosevelt promised, swift punishment of the Nazis. “It is therefore fitting that we should again proclaim our determination that none who participate in these acts of savagery shall go unpunished.” Nor was he simply warning the Nazis; he was warning the satellite countries as well. “All who knowingly take part in the deportation of Jews to their death in Poland . . . are equally guilty with the executioner. All who share the guilt shall share the punishment.” He reached out to the German people to separate themselves from Hitler’s “insane criminal desires.” He exhorted those under Nazi rule to hide Hitler’s victims and to “record the evidence, to convict the guilty.” And he maintained that the United Nations would “find havens of refuge for them,” until the tyrant Hitler was driven “from their homelands.”
The statement was electrifying. Suddenly the Final Solution was receiving the treatment it had long merited. There was a front-page headline in the New York Times: “Roosevelt Warns Germans on Jews; Says All Guilty Must Pay for Atrocities and Asks People to Assist Refugees.” In the days that followed, Roosevelt’s statement was translated into numerous languages throughout Europe. It was broadcast many times by the BBC, as well as by numerous underground channels. Neutral radio stations quickly followed their lead. The speech was widely read behind enemy lines, and was even printed by many publications in the Nazis’ satellite nations. Perhaps most important, the WRB saw to it that Budapest was blanketed with the statement: Many thousands of leaflets were dropped by air over Hungary.
And three days later, hoping to give Hungary further pause, Roosevelt again warned that “Hungary’s fate will not be like that of any other civilized nation—unless the deportations are stopped.” To add bite to Roosevelt’s words, the WRB prodded General Dwight Eisenhower, the supreme Allied commander in Europe, to make his own statement, to be disseminated in June, after the Normandy invasion. Roosevelt quickly approved the WRB’s warning to the Nazis not to harm innocents (“whether they were Jewish or otherwise”). Eisenhower slightly watered down his statement, but still, his injunction was as direct as the president’s:
Germans! You have in your midst a great many men in concentration camps and forced labor battalions.
Germans! Do not obey any orders, regardless of their source, urging you to molest, harm or persecute them, no matter what their religion or nationality may be.
The Allies, whose armies already established a firm foothold in Germany, expect, on their advance, to find these people alive and unharmed. Heavy punishment awaits those who . . . bear any responsibility for the mistreatment of these people.
Thus would begin one of the most momentous decisions of Roosevelt’s presidency, and of the war. While American, British, and Canadian GIs were rushing onto the beaches of Normandy and punching through the German defenses, the fateful question arose: Should the Allies bomb the rail lines to Auschwitz, or even Auschwitz itself?
On May 10, 1944, several weeks after the United Press reported that 300,000 Hungarian Jews had been forced into assembly camps, the New York Times published one of its most stunning reports, a wire from Istanbul headlined “Jews in Hungary Fear Annihilation.” “Although it may sound unbelievable,” wrote correspondent Joseph Levy, “it is a fact that Hungary, where Jewish citizens were comparatively well treated until March 19, is now preparing for the annihilation of Hungarian Jews by the most fiendish methods. Laughing at President Roosevelt’s warnings, Premier Doeme Sztojay’s puppet Nazi government is completing plans and is about to start the extermination of about 1 million human beings who believed they were safe because they have faith in Hungarian fairness.”
The article went on to quote a neutral diplomat who was lamenting “the most abominable crimes” being perpetrated. Despite his affection for Hungary, he all but called for “Allied bombings of Budapest” to put an end to the barbarism.
A few days later, the Times published another report, this time saying the first group of Jews had been removed from the Hungarian countryside to “murder camps in Poland.”
In mid-June, activists spearheaded a concerted effort to prod the American government into helping Hungary’s Jews. Jacob Rosenheim of the Agudas Israel World Organization wrote a series of plaintive letters (“I beg to approach you”) to high-ranking administration officials, asking them not just to utter strong words but to take concrete action. In the past, activists like Stephen Wise and Gerhart Riegner had often deferred to the government, but this time Rosenheim outlined specific policy suggestions. He asked that the Allies bomb the rail junctions at Presov and Kosice along the main railway route to Auschwitz. Such a measure, he argued, would “paralyze” the Nazis’ extermination efforts. He noted that time was of the essence: “The bombing has to be made at once,” he wrote, “because every day of delay means a very heavy responsibility for the human lives at stake.”
Rosenheim’s information was not speculative. He had had access to the Vrba-Wetzler report, an account by two inmates who had managed to escape from Auschwitz and make their way to freedom. For the first time, the report gave a specific name to the extermination camp—Auschwitz—and in the course of 30 pages laid out in minute, chilling detail the inner workings of the death camp, including the gas chambers themselves. After the report reached Budapest and the leadership of the Hungarian Jews in early May, it was relayed to Allen Dulles in Switzerland by mid-June—Dulles, then with the Office of Strategic Services, would later become the first civilian director of the Central Intelligence Agency—and then sent on to Roswell McClelland, the WRB’s representative in Geneva. McClelland made a snap decision: Vrba and Wetzler’s testimony was so gruesome and so strong, that McClelland decided to compose a longer cable outlining its implications. But knowing that haste mattered, on June 24th he dispatched an overview—a three-page cable to Pehle at the WRB in Washington.
With a heavy heart, he summarized: “There is little doubt that many of these Hungarian Jews are being sent to the extermination camps of Auschwitz (Oswiecim) and Birkenau (Rajska) in Western Upper Silesia where according to recent reports, since early summer 1942 at least 1,500,000 Jews have been killed.”
That same day, a worried Pehle sat down with Assistant Secretary McCloy in his spacious office at the War Department and discussed Rosenheim’s suggestion. This was murky territory for Pehle, and he knew it. The WRB’s initial mandate was to rescue Jews in imminent danger of death “consistent with the successful prosecution of the war.” Did this mean the WRB could propose measures that entailed military force to rescue Jews?
Pehle intimated that he had “several doubts about the matter.” He was reluctant to ask for military personnel, and he wondered aloud whether the rail lines would be incapacitated long enough to make a measurable difference to the functioning of the death camps. At this stage, Pehle was clearly feeling his way. Afterward he wrote a memo in which he made it “very clear” to McCloy that he was not specifically asking the War Department to take any action on the proposed bombing other than to “appropriately explore it.”
McCloy, a master at working the system, told Pehle that he was taking this seriously and would “check into the matter.” For his part, Pehle now sought to increase the pressure on McCloy. Within the week he sent him a copy of McClelland’s cable, underlining the injunction to bomb “vital sections” of the rail lines. Meanwhile, the machinery at the War Department was in motion, already generating a response to Rosenheim’s original request. Here was institutional behavior reminiscent of the State Department. Absent further pressure from above, no actual study of the military feasibility of bombing the rail lines, or of any comparable measures to slow the deportations, was conducted. Instead, Lieutenant General John E. Hull, who had the onerous task of answering the cable, simply employed Roosevelt’s public statements as well as the War Department’s internal memoranda of February 1944. He gave the stock reply that “the most effective relief which can be given victims of enemy persecution is to ensure the speedy defeat of the axis.”
When McCloy received Hull’s response, he promptly signed off on it, and instructed Colonel Gerhardt, his personal aide, to “kill” the matter.
On July 3, 1944, Gerhardt wrote to McCloy. “I know you told me to ‘kill’ this but since those instructions, we have received the attached letter from Pehle. I suggest that the attached reply be sent.”
As if everything had changed and nothing had changed, the response said: “The War Department is of the opinion that the suggested air operation is impracticable. It could be executed only by the diversion of considerable air support essential to the success of our forces now engaged in decisive operations and would in any case be of such very doubtful efficacy that [it would] not amount to a practical project.” McCloy scarcely gave it a second thought, and signed Gerhardt’s draft response.
This was cant, and Gerhardt must have known it. At the WRB, one of the staffers, Benjamin Akzin, was livid. He knew it was untrue that bombing the rail lines could be carried out only through the “diversion” of extensive air support. In fact, the United States would conduct an intense air war against Germany’s synthetic fuel plants in that same region in the weeks to come; frequently these attacks were close to the death camps themselves. So effective were the bombing raids that German production of synthetic oil fell from more than 1,000 tons a day on July 1st to only 417 tons on July 25th; by all accounts, the Third Reich’s military operations were being strangled by this loss of oil. In Germany itself, the minister of armaments, demoralized and desperate to ration fuel, requested that Hitler cease all air courier services, a measure that was once almost unthinkable. The same with passenger planes. The Allies had no such restrictions.
On August 7th, a fleet of 76 bombers and 64 fighters of the US Air Force set their sights on their targets and struck the refineries at Trzebinia, only 13 miles northeast of Auschwitz. Then, at 10:32 p.m. on August 20th, the 15th US Air Force bombed the Monowitz camp just three miles east of Auschwitz-Birkenau, causing “considerable damage.” For 28 earsplitting minutes, 127 Flying Fortresses, escorted by 100 Mustangs, dropped a total of 1,336 500-pound explosive bombs from an altitude of about 27,000 feet. The depleted German defenses were able to bring down only one plane. On the ground, there were casualties. More than 300 slave laborers were injured; and although SS guards “ran away,” scurrying into the bunkers, nonetheless a number of these guards themselves were also wounded.
US planes flying reconnaissance above Auschwitz took aerial photographs of the camps on numerous other occasions in addition to April 4th and June 26th, including August 9th, 12th, and 25th. Had these images been carefully examined—they were not—the analysts could have pinpointed the gas chambers, the crematoriums, the railway sidings, the trains and the platforms, the huts in the women’s camp, and even the specially landscaped gardens created to conceal the gas chambers. Taken in bright sunlight, the photographs of August 25th particularly stand out—hundreds of bomb craters are readily discernible, as are 151 different buildings, including the camp housing for some 30,000 Jews transferred from Birkenau to Auschwitz III. Also visible is something quite startling: a snaking line of Jews trudging on their way from a cattle car to a gas chamber. Moving across the frame, they are hauntingly visible.
As for the Hungarians arriving at Auschwitz by the hundreds of thousands, there was little doubt that most of them were fervently hoping for bombers to come, even if it meant that they themselves perished in the raids. Watching the passage of Allied aircraft far overhead en route to their more distant targets, or hearing “the tremendous rumble” of bombers, deeply affected the inmates of Auschwitz. “We saw many times the silver trails in the sky,” one prisoner, Erich Kulka, later recalled. “All the SS men would go into the bunkers but we came out of our huts, and prayed that a bomb will fall, or soldiers and weapons will be parachuted, but in vain.”
In Washington, Pehle himself was still nursing some doubts about the utility of bombing, cautiously navigating the bureaucratic maze. However, members of his own staff had no such hesitation. Akzin, one of Pehle’s aides, sat down and wrote a memo unflinchingly arguing for bombing the gas chambers themselves.
Akzin pointed out that bombing the gas chambers would cause the “methodical German mind” to devote extensive time and resources to reconstructing them, or force it “to evolve” equally efficient procedures of mass slaughter; in any case, he rightly noted that German manpower and material resources were “gravely depleted” and that German authorities might no longer be in a position to devote themselves to the task of equipping “new large-scale extermination centers.” Therefore, “some appreciable saving of lives” would be the outcome, “at least temporarily.” Akzin also insisted to Pehle that this was a moral imperative, or what he called a “matter of principle.” Marking the camp for destruction, he noted, would constitute the most tangible “evidence of the indignation aroused by the existence of these charnel houses.”
Moreover, the bombings would, he contended, have sound military logic as well. For a start, they would cause many deaths among “the most ruthless and despicable of the Nazis.” Akzin pointed out that the bombings would also be consistent with current military objectives, inasmuch as the Auschwitz complex was a crucial military target that contained “mining and manufacturing centers” playing an important part in the industrial armament of Germany. And he wrestled forthrightly with whether the Allies should be deterred by the fact that a large number of Jews would be killed by such a military operation. Resoundingly, he said no. Pointing out that these Jews were “doomed to death anyhow,” he wrote that “refraining from bombing the extermination centers would be sheer misplaced sentimentality, far more cruel a decision than to destroy the centers.” Actually, however, in the confusion created by the bombing some of the inmates might be able to hide and escape.
So here, finally, was a powerful, persuasive case for bombing Auschwitz. It was now clear to Akzin, as it was increasingly clear to much of the world, that some 15,000 Hungarian Jews were being shipped every 24 hours to Auschwitz. And as the days went by, evidence mounted that some 12,000 Jews were being gassed each day in the camps, a figure that would rise in August to 24,000 a day—a record even for the Nazis. Nevertheless, for the next couple of weeks Pehle remained unsure how to proceed. He was decisive on numerous issues facing the WRB, but when it came to bombing Auschwitz, he was in a box. Should he go to the War Department again? Enlist Secretary Morgenthau’s aid? Approach the White House?
Instead, he waited in his office in the Treasury Department—and read the river of cables that came across his desk outlining the Auschwitz death machine in gut-wrenching detail. On July 1, his representative in Sweden, Iver Olsen, sent him a lengthy description of Auschwitz that left little question about the atrocities taking place—and the results of doing nothing. He read slowly, and would later comment that the news was “so terrible that it is hard to believe,” adding, “There are no words to qualify its description.” And the figures alone were equally unfathomable: some 600,000 Jews were now already dead or deported.
Olsen’s account continued: “According to the evidence, these people are now being taken to a place across the Hungarian frontier in Poland where there is an establishment at which gas is being used for killing people. . . . These people of all ages, children, women, and men are transported to this isolated spot in boxcars packed in like sardines and . . . upon arrival many are already dead. Those who have survived the trip are stripped naked, given a small square object which resembles a piece of soap and told that at the bathhouse they must bathe themselves. The ‘bathhouse’ does in fact look like a big bathing establishment. . . . Into a large room with a total capacity of 2,000 packed together closely the victims are pushed. No regard is given to sex or age and all are completely naked. When the atmosphere of the hall has been heated by this mass of bodies a fine powder is let down over the whole area by opening a contraption in the ceiling. When the heated atmosphere comes in contact with this powder a poisonous gas is formed which kills all occupants of the room. Trucks then take out the bodies, and burning follows.”
Pehle was shaken enough to again raise the issue of military action. This time he wrote a long report to the other members of the WRB and sent copies to the secretary of war, Henry Stimson, as well as to the assistant secretary, McCloy. Pehle proposed a number of audacious military actions, including bombing the camps, air-dropping weapons to the inmates of Auschwitz, and parachuting troops to help bring about the “escape of the unfortunate people.” Once more, McCloy did nothing. Did he believe that the mass extermination was being carried out on such a terrifying industrial scale? Probably. Did he comprehend it? This is unclear. But at the same time, it is clear that there was no follow-up from Roosevelt or the White House to force McCloy’s hand or strengthen the WRB’s. McCloy was content to wait out Pehle.
As it happened, similar information had reached the Foreign Office in London. Unlike the Americans, the British moved quickly and publicly. Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden informed the House of Commons that the “barbarous deportations” had already begun and “many persons have been killed.” And on a grim note he added that “unfortunately” there were no signs that the repeated declarations by the Allies had in any way mitigated “the fury” of the Nazi death machine.
The next day, Eden sat down with Prime Minister Winston Churchill and raised the matter of bombing the death camps. Head bowed, eyebrows knitted, Churchill listened attentively. Eden explained that the idea had “already been considered” but said that he was now entirely in favor of it. As it turns out, so was the prime minister. In stark contrast to McCloy, the War Department, the State Department, and others in Washington, Churchill immediately grasped the significance of the reports about Auschwitz. He promptly gave his imprimatur for military action against the camps. Then, in language that one might have expected from Roosevelt—though in truth, the president had remained totally silent on the matter—several days later Churchill eloquently told his foreign secretary: “There is no doubt that this is probably the greatest and most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world, and it has been done by scientific machinery by nominally civilized men in the name of a great State and one of the leading races in Europe.” He added that everyone connected with it “should be hunted down and put to death.”
Eden wasted little time in following up on Churchill’s declaration. He wrote to the British secretary of state for air, Archibald Sinclair, about the “appalling persecution” of Hungary’s Jews, and asked the Air Ministry’s opinion about the “feasibility” of bombing Auschwitz itself. “I very much hope that it will be possible to do something,” he told the secretary. “I have the authority of the Prime Minister to say that he agrees.”
But despite Churchill’s wholehearted support, the bureaucracy wavered. Sinclair told Eden that disrupting the rail spurs to the death camps “is out of our power.” As to bombing the camps, he maintained that “the distance” from British bases entirely ruled out “our doing anything of the kind.” But, he suggested, the Americans might be able to carry out such raids in daylight, though these would be “costly and hazardous.” Then he added, with a touch of Orwellian doublespeak: “Even if the plant was destroyed, I am not clear that would really help the victims.”
Back in Washington, this same hesitant attitude continued to prevail in the War Department. However, activists still pushed for the military option. In early August Leon Kubowitzki, head of the rescue department of the World Jewish Congress, sent McCloy an impassioned plea from a member of the Czech government in exile to bomb the camps and railways. Once more, McCloy dismissed the request.
Repeating what he had said in the past, McCloy responded that the bombings would require the “diversion of considerable air support . . . engaged in decisive operations elsewhere.” But this time he added a new wrinkle to the government response. While acknowledging the humanitarian motives behind the request, McCloy offered the mind-numbing notion that “such an effort, even if practicable, might provoke even more vindictive action by the Germans.”
The War Department was against a coordinated bombing attack on Auschwitz. The military was against bombing the camp. And clearly so was the silent White House. Remarkably, it happened anyway.
On September 13th, as part of the sustained Allied “oil war,” the US Air Force made another run at the Monowitz oil plant, just five miles from the Auschwitz gas chambers. But this time a number of the bombs veered slightly off course, accidentally dropping on Auschwitz I. While air-raid sirens wailed, some of the SS barracks were destroyed, either flattened like paper bags or incinerated in a maelstrom of flame and smoke. Dashing for the shelters, or caught completely by surprise, 15 SS men were killed; 28 more were severely hit and left moaning and writhing. By happenstance, the clothing workshop was also struck. Twenty-three Jews perished, and 65 other inmates lay bleeding and badly hurt.
Significantly, in the same errant attack, American bombs fell for the first time on the nefarious Auschwitz-Birkenau itself—where the gas chambers were. Here was a measure of vengeance. Thirty civilian workers died when one bomb hurtled into the crematorium sidings. A second bomb plummeted down on the railway embankment leading into the camp. Still another bomb screamed into the SS bomb shelter. Suddenly, there was mayhem. Guard dogs barked wildly. The German soldiers frantically ran for the shelters. Sirens blared. But the Jews just stood there and watched. For a fleeting moment their own agonies subsided. Barely able to think, barely able to stand, they were nonetheless ecstatic. Never before had they seen the Nazis so vulnerable and so helpless. Never before had they seen the Nazis not in control.
“How beautiful was it to see squadron after squadron burst from the sky, drop bombs, destroy the buildings, and kill also members of the Herrenvolk,” one inmate thought, using the Nazi term for their so-called master race. “Those bombardments elevated our morale and, paradoxically, awakened . . . hopes of surviving, of escaping from this hell.”
At the Treasury Department in early November, Pehle at last received the entire 30-page text of the Vrba-Wetzler report. Now there could be no doubt of the existence of death camps. Pehle was normally levelheaded, but as he read he grew angry and disgusted and sickened. He now realized that the time for bureaucratic excuses had long since passed. On November 8th, once more he contacted McCloy. Appended to his cover note was a copy of the escapees’ reports. “No report of Nazi atrocities received by the board has quite caught the gruesome brutality of what is taking place in these camps as have these sober, factual accounts of conditions in Auschwitz and Birkenau,” he wrote. “I earnestly hope that you will read these reports.”
In his own summary he noted that the destruction of so many victims was “not a simple process.” In order to carry out such “murder on a mass production basis,” the Nazis had to devote “considerable technological ingenuity and administrative know-how.”
Then in perhaps one of the most poignant moments of decision in the war, he pointed out that despite pressures from many sources, he had been hesitant to urge the destruction of the camps by direct military action.
But he was hesitant no longer.
“I am convinced that the point has now been reached where such action is justifiable if it is deemed feasible by competent military authorities.” He then made a strategic case for systematic bombing of the death camps. Krupp, Siemens, and Buna factories (“all within Auschwitz”), which manufactured hand grenade casings, would be destroyed in the operation, along with German barracks and guardhouses and even homes of the leadership. Echoing what Benjamin Akzin of the WRB had already stressed to him, he wrote that the morale of the Polish underground, vital allies of the United States, would be “considerably strengthened.” At the same time, an attack would destroy significant numbers of Nazi soldiers guarding the camp, among the worst of the worst. Last, many of the prisoners could escape in the chaos of battle.
Once more McCloy dismissed Pehle’s request. McCloy’s arguments almost didn’t matter; they simply proved the maxim that when the military or the White House didn’t want to do something, they would find reasons not to. Nevertheless, the specifics merit scrutiny. On November 18th McCloy wrote that Auschwitz could be hit only by American heavy bombers based in Britain, and that this “would necessitate a hazardous round-trip flight unescorted of approximately 2,000 miles over enemy territory.” In any case, he added that the target was “beyond the maximum range” of the Allied bombers and that the mission would entail “unacceptable . . . losses.”
He of course made no reference to the Foggia air base in Italy, which reduced the distance by 700 miles. He ignored the fact that the round-trip had already been routinely carried out many times by US planes bombing industrial targets throughout the Auschwitz region, and that for each raid a fighter escort had been provided and had proved effective. He of course failed to mention that P-38 dive-bombers had made a longer run from their bases in Italy to destroy oil refineries at Ploiesti, in Romania, the previous June. And he of course made no note of the fact that Auschwitz-Birkenau had already been bombed inadvertently.
The War Department’s conclusion, he told Pehle, was “a sound one.”
As his biographer Kai Bird notes, McCloy had showed great courage and initiative when dealing with other controversial issues—such as racial discrimination in the Army and offering commissions to veterans of the Lincoln Brigade—but this courage was missing when he dealt with the proposed military strikes against the death camps.
It is hard to imagine a decision weighted with more pathos. Had McCloy ushered the policy to bomb in mid-August, some 100,000 Hungarian Jews almost certainly would have been given a reprieve from the gas chamber. If the decision had been made earlier—around July 7th—50,000 more would have been spared. Where was President Roosevelt during all this? Earlier in September, Benjamin Akzin had told Pehle, “I am certain that the president, once acquainted with the facts, would realize the values involved and, cutting through the inertia-motivated objections of the War Department, would order the immediate bombing of the objectives suggested.”
So what were the views of the era’s most prominent symbol of humanitarianism when he was confronted with the globe’s most compelling moral challenge? Here, history records a question mark. True, Roosevelt rarely put his private thoughts to paper and rarely confided his personal feelings to his aides. Yet, was there ever a spontaneous moment during this period when he put his head in his hands in remorse, as he did after the bombing of Pearl Harbor? Or, as the awful information about the ongoing slaughter filtered in, was there ever a time when he muttered under his breath in disgust and indignation? Did he ever pause to weigh the moral implications for history? Many years later McCloy told a journalist that Roosevelt’s close adviser and good friend, Harry Hopkins, maintained that “the Boss was not disposed to” order the bombing of the death camp. Nonetheless, Hopkins himself had enjoined McCloy to solicit the advice of the War Department. McCloy indicated that the Air Force was against the idea of bombing the camps. Insisting that he had “never talked” to the president in person, McCloy said bluntly: “That was the end of that.”
However, several years later McCloy, by then elderly and evidently conscience-stricken, gave a different version of what had happened. In an interview with Secretary Morgenthau’s son, he indicated that he and Roosevelt had talked about whether to bomb Auschwitz. In this account, McCloy said the president felt that the bombing would amount to little except to make the United States seem complicit in the Final Solution, a view some Jews themselves held. Roosevelt then evidently told McCloy that the United States would be accused of “bombing these innocent people,” and “we’ll be accused of participating in this horrible business.” Thus, the president himself denied the request, without offering any other imaginative alternatives.
Jay Winik is a member of the World Affairs Editorial Board and the best-selling author, most recently, of 1944: FDR and the Year That Changed History, from which this article is adapted.
From the book 1944: FDR AND THE YEAR THAT CHANGED HISTORY by Jay Winik. Copyright © 2015 by Jay Winik. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.