Close your eyes, breathe in deeply, now exhale slowly… That was easy, wasn’t it? Not for everyone…
“We should have bombed it.”
With those five words, President Bush helped shatter one of the most enduring myths of the Holocaust – the notion that U.S. forces were unable to reach and destroy Auschwitz.
On his visit to Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial on January 11, the president viewed an enlargement of an aerial reconnaissance photograph of Auschwitz that was taken in the spring of 1944. Mr. Bush then turned to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and remarked, “We should have bombed it.”
But was “should have” necessarily the same as “could have”?
For many years after World War II, the popular assumption in the United States was that the answer to that question was negative. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was the hero who guided his country out of the Great Depression and led it to the verge of victory in the war, only to die in office. With his reputation as a humanitarian, it was assumed that he must have done whatever was feasible to save Jews from the Holocaust.
Three decades later, the truth about the bombing issue was finally revealed. In 1978, David S. Wyman, a Harvard-trained scholar – and, incidentally, a Christian – authored a groundbreaking essay in Commentary magazine titled “Why Auschwitz Was Never Bombed.”
Wyman was the first historian to examine the internal records of the U.S. War Department to determine the real reasons behind the administration’s refusal to bomb Auschwitz. He was also the first to reveal the incredible fact that U.S. bombers did repeatedly strike the Auschwitz area – but not in order to stop the mass murder of Jews.
The aerial reconnaissance photo that President Bush viewed exists because U.S. planes flew directly over Auschwitz in the spring of 1944, taking surveillance photos in preparation for bombing. Not for bombing the gas chambers or crematoria – rather, for bombing German oil factories nearby, some of them fewer than five miles away.
The Roosevelt administration knew about the mass murder going on in Auschwitz, and even possessed diagrams of the camp that were prepared by two escapees. But when Jewish organizations asked the War Department to order the bombing of the camp or the railways leading to it, the requests were rejected. U.S. officials claimed such raids were “impracticable” because they would require “considerable diversion” of planes needed for the war effort.
But in fact, with U.S. bombers already flying over Auschwitz to attack the oil factories, no “diversion” would have been necessary to hit the gas chambers or railway lines. The planes were already there.
There are those who question whether such a bombing have made a difference – after all, by the time the U.S. had the ability to reach Auschwitz, in the spring of 1944, the war was nearly over and most of the Six Million were already dead. But it is important to remember that during the same period that U.S. bombers were flying over Auschwitz, more than 400,000 Hungarian Jews were deported to the death camp.
Even after the Hungarian deportations ended, approximately 150,000 more Jews were gassed in Auschwitz. Bombing the railways on which they were transported, or the gas chambers in which they were murdered, could have saved many lives.
As Prof. Wyman explained in his 1984 bestseller The Abandonment of the Jews, the U.S. refusal to bomb Auschwitz was part of a broader policy by the Roosevelt administration to refrain from taking action to rescue Jews from the Nazis or provide havens for them. The U.S. did not want to deal with the burden of caring for large numbers of refugees. And its ally, Great Britain, would not open the doors to Palestine to the Jews, for fear of angering Arab opinion. The result was that the Allies turned away from one of history’s most compelling moral challenges.
President Bush joins a growing list of American leaders who have acknowledged that the U.S. should have bombed Auschwitz.
According to the Jerusalem Post, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, visiting Yad Vashem on February 16, 1977, “showed particular interest in a letter written by a deputy U.S. defense secretary stating that he would not allow the bombing of Auschwitz which had been called for to save the concentration camp inmates. ‘Even my country didn’t act,’ Vance said with emotion.”
Senator Claiborne Pell (D-Rhode Island), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a radio interview in 1987: “The more you read [about America’s response to the Holocaust], the more you realize that we did not bomb the railroad lines that brought the Jews into Auschwitz, the more you realize that we did not bomb the camps themselves and the incinerators – which we could have done…”
President Bill Clinton, in his remarks at the opening of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., on April 22, 1993, said: “For those of us here today representing the nations of the West, we must live forever with this knowledge – even as our fragmentary awareness of crimes grew into indisputable facts, far too little was done. Before the war even started, doors to liberty were shut and even after the United States and the Allies attacked Germany, rail lines to the camps within miles of militarily significant targets were left undisturbed.”
More recently, former senator (and 1972 Democratic presidential nominee) George McGovern weighed in on the issue, when he was interviewed by Stuart Erdheim of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies (Erdheim is director of the acclaimed documentary “They Looked Away,” about the bombing issue) and Haim Hecht of Israel Television.
McGovern was one of the pilots who bombed the German oil factories near Auschwitz in 1944. 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…Franklin Roosevelt was a great man and he was my political hero. But I think he made two great mistakes in World War Two.”
One of those mistakes was the internment of Japanese-Americans; the other was the decision “not to go after Auschwitz … God forgive us for that tragic miscalculation.”
President Bush has now focused important new attention on the issue, and significantly strengthened the bipartisan consensus that America should have, and could have, bombed Auschwitz.
About the Author: Dr. Rafael Medoff is the founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and coeditor of the Online Encyclopedia of America's Response to the Holocaust.
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