President George Bush, conservative Republican, and former Sen. George McGovern, liberal Democrat and 197′ presidential candidate, finally have something in common other than their first names: they both believe the United States should have bombed Auschwitz.
Visiting Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial last Friday, President Bush viewed an enlargement of an aerial reconnaissance photograph of Auschwitz which was taken in the spring of 1944. The president remarked, "We should have bombed it," according to a Yad Vashem official who was with him.
This photo viewed by President Bush at Yad Vashem was taken as U.S. planes flew right over Auschwitz in 1944, taking surveillance photos in preparation for bombing—not for bombing the gas chambers or crematoria, but for bombing German oil factories less than five miles away.
But is "should have" the same as "could have"? Did the United States have the military ability to bomb Auschwitz or the railway lines leading there? And even if it did, could it have struck in time to save Jews who were being gassed to death there?
The answer to both questions is yes.
The photo that President Bush viewed exists because U.S. planes flew directly above 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 less 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 George McGovern knows that excuse was false. The future presidential candidate was the young pilot of a B-‘4 "Liberator" in the 455th Bomb Group. In an interview with Israel Television and the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, McGovern recently spoke on camera for the first time about his experiences in World War II. He said the administration’s "diversion" argument was just "a rationalization." After all, how much of a "diversion" would it really have been, when he and other U.S. pilots were already in the skies over Auschwitz?
"There is no question we should have attempted … to go after Auschwitz," McGovern said. "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."
Would it 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 close to its end and most of the 6 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 there. Bombing the railways on which they were transported, or the gas chambers in which they were murdered, could have saved many lives.
Ironically, the U.S. did divert military resources for various non-military reasons. For example, Secretary of War Henry Stimson blocked the Air Force’s plan to bomb the Japanese city of Kyoto, because of its artistic treasures, and his deputy John McCloy — who rebuffed many of the requests to bomb Auschwitz — diverted U.S. bombers from striking the German city of Rothenburg, because of its famous medieval architecture. Gen. George Patton even diverted U.S. troops in order to rescue 150 Lipizzaner horses in Austria.
The 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 United States 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.
These facts are more than a matter of historical curiosity. The failure to bomb Auschwitz goes straight to the heart of the question of whether the United States should use its military power to achieve humanitarian objectives abroad. America’s indifference to the genocide in Rwanda allowed the slaughter to proceed unimpeded. By contrast, America’s belated response to "ethnic cleansing" in the Balkans ultimately put an end to the massacres and expulsions there. American policy regarding the ongoing genocide in Sudan has wavered back and forth.
In George McGovern’s view, America’s disappointing response to Auschwitz should produce "a determination that never again will we fail to exercise the full capacity of our strength in that direction … we should have gone all out [against Auschwitz], and we must never again permit genocide." Will President Bush’s statement about the failure to bomb Auschwitz lead to a commitment to actively intervene against genocide in Sudan?
Rafael Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.