By GREGORY J. WALLANCE
This article originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post on 03/20/2012.
Israeli prime minister’s reference to War Department’s handling of Auschwitz was unwarranted.
In his address last week to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu provoked a controversy by comparing the Iran nuclear threat to the Holocaust. Yehuda Bauer, a scholar at Yad Vashem, dismissed Netanyahu’s analogy as “sheer nonsense.”
Overlooked in the din was Netanyahu’s other Holocaust parallel in his speech – his citation of the War Department’s refusal in 1944 to bomb the gas chambers and crematoria in Auschwitz. The War Department, Netanyahu pointed out, rejected Jewish bombing requests, partly on the bizarre ground that bombing Auschwitz would drive Nazi Germany to even more “vindictive action.”
This parallelism should have generated its own controversy because it implies that the American conduct during World War II — what Holocaust historian David Wyman called the “abandonment of the Jews” — could be repeated. In the speech, to be sure, Netanyahu acknowledged that the current American government is not the same as the 1944 one. If so, why mention the War Department incident other than to question American resolve in the face of a second potentially existential threat to the Jewish people and perhaps stir up a guilty national conscience?
The American government’s response to the Nazi exterminations was indeed, as Harry White, a senior official in FDR’s treasury department (and later an architect of the 1944 Bretton Woods agreements that established the IMF and World Bank), put it at the time, “little short of sickening.” Even before the War Department’s rejection of the Auschwitz bombing request, highly educated, patrician officials in the State Department had covered up reports of the extermination scheme and blocked the rescue of 70,000 Romanian Jews.
But these wartime diplomats were part of a now all-but-vanished American aristocracy that existed outside the experience or even awareness of most of their fellow Americans. Sheltered in a hermetically sealed aristocratic archipelago, they went from elite northeast boarding schools to Ivy League educations to diplomatic postings. Imbued with a sense of Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism, convinced that America needed them more than they needed America, and virulently anti-Semitic they developed a heartless indifference to the sufferings of human beings from different ancestries, religions or economic backgrounds (Breckinridge Long, a wartime assistant secretary of state once described Mein Kampf as “eloquent in opposition to Jewry and Jews as exponents of Communism and chaos”).
The head of the Division of European Affairs in 1940, Jay Pierrepont Moffat, as a young diplomat in Warsaw shortly after the end of World War I, had watched desperate refugees flee oncoming Soviet armies: “they sounded like so many cackling geese and generally behaved in a manner that made us pray like the pharisee, ‘Lord, I thank Thee that I am not as other men’.” It was as though whatever nerves transmitted human empathy and compassion had been amputated.
John J. McCloy, the War Department official who rejected the Auschwitz bombing request, hailed from this same eastern establishment tribe. His father-in-law refused to do business with Jews, his own clubs barred Jews, and he demonstrated a similar lack of compassion. After lawyers in the treasury department discovered the state department’s cover-up and obstruction — the lawyers called the diplomats “accomplices of Hitler” — FDR had no choice but to take refugee and rescue responsibilities away from the State Department and vest them in the newly-created War Refugee Board. But McCloy withheld War Department assistance from the board’s rescue efforts and then rejected the Auschwitz bombing request.
But the point is, that apart from a few yacht clubs, class no longer wields power in America (just ask any Tea Party member). It has been more than 15 years since the Secretary of State was a white man and the current president of the United States is not likely to utter the Pharisee’s prayer (except perhaps for the sake of private irony).
While there are important lessons to be drawn from the State and War Departments’ response to the Holocaust, especially the hazards posed by powerful elite groups cut off from society’s mainstream, how to formulate a policy toward Iran is not one of them. The American response to the Holocaust is irrelevant to the Iran nuclear crisis.
The writer lives in New York City and has authored several books, including America’s Soul in the Balance: The Holocaust, FDR’s State Department, and the Moral Disgrace of an American Aristocracy, which will be released on April 19, Holocaust Remembrance Day.