Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Thoughts on Reading The Conquerors

I just finished reading The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler's Germany, 1941-1945 by Michael Beschloss. As the title describes, the book focuses on the FDR and Truman administrations, especially at the end of World War II. I think we have trouble today recalling how terrible was the time, how grave the crises faced by these men.

There were over 16 million deaths and 20 million wounded in World War I according to Wikipediaestimates range from 50 million to 70 million killed in World War II.

In the Holocaust, Nazi Germany killed some 6 million of the 9 million Jews who had lived in Europe at the beginning of World War II; estimates of the death toll of Romanies targeted by Nazi Germany range from 220,000 to 1,500,000. "Recent estimates based on figures obtained since the fall of the Soviet Union indicates some ten to eleven million civilians and prisoners of war were intentionally murdered by the Nazi regime." Nazi Germany also conducted mass murder of other groups such as the mentally retarded or ill, those with birth defects and homosexuals.

The United States had failed to join the League of Nations after World War I and the League had failed to prevent World War II. The economy of Germany had been decimated by the reparations after World War I, leading directly to political crisis, the rise of Hitler and to the War. The Depression of the 1930s had darkened the economies of the Allies, and the Roosevelt administrations was still seeking its solution when World War II broke out in Europe. Clearly  Roosevelt, Truman and their cabinet officers were fully committed to finding a solution to the peace that would prevent Germany from starting World War III while containing Communist expansion.

Beschloss' book focuses on President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Secretary of the Treasury Morganthau, Secretary of State Hull and Secretary of War Stimson. The author paints a picture of dysfunction; the president refusing to share minutes of his meetings with Stalin and Churchill with his cabinet members, and the cabinet members poaching on each others responsibilities and back biting as they sought the favor of FDR. Yet the Roosevelt administration successfully led the nation from its isolationist position in the 1930s to support for Britain and the Soviet Union in the early days of the war, to full participation leading to victory for the allies. The administration, although not emphasized by Beschloss, mobilized the military, financed the deficit incurred during mobilization and war, and produced huge amounts of armaments for U.S. and allied troops.

The book spends fewer pages on the early days of the Truman administration. Truman was thrust into office at the death of FDR without having been briefed on the key agreements among the allies, nor about the development of the atom bomb. He is given credit for honoring the agreements made by his predecessor, for the flexibility to change policies in view of negative results, and of more effective management of his cabinet than FDR achieved. Beschloss suggests that Truman became much more assertive in negotiations with Stalin with the news that the trial of the first atom bomb had been more successful than expected.

The book tells of a huge success. Germany has since the end of World War II been democratic and peaceful. During the Cold War, expansion of global Communism was contained and the Communist governments eventually fell; the world is more democratic and capitalistic market economies are found almost everywhere. Much of the credit must go to FDR and Truman and the policies that their administrations pursued -- a point stressed by Beschloss. He might have given more credit to the United Nations and the efforts of other governments.

We must remember that not only were the Nazis rabid racists and anti-Semites, but racism and antisemitism were rampant in the United States. Henry Morganthau, portrayed as the most secular of Jews, is also portrayed as working hard to get the United States to intervene to save European Jews from the Holocaust. Surely the failure to do so is one of the worst blemishes on American foreign policy in history. Yet Roosevelt was clearly right in insisting that World War II was more deadly than the attempt to exterminate the Jews, even that the mass murders being committed by the Nazi regime exceeded even the murders of Jews in magnitude. Winning the war, ending Nazi mass murder, and avoiding (a nuclear) World War III were by any reckoning more important than ending the Holocaust. Of course the Holocaust should have been ended, and of course the casual antisemitism of the Allied leadership was despicable, but the priorities on even worse problems was were not wrong.

Michael Beschloss clearly mastered a great deal of information from U.S., British and Soviet sources in preparing this book. He has chosen to write a relatively short book focusing on a small part of the problems facing the American presidents during and immediately after World War II -- mainly the summit meetings with the British Prime Minister and Stalin (and the meetings of their foreign ministers). By doing so, he has created an immensely readable book, yet one that changed my understanding of World War II in fundamental ways.

1 comment:

John Daly said...

The book focuses on Henry Morganthau's desire to reduce Germany to a level that it could no longer start a World War and his desire that the United States help European Jews avoid the Holocaust. It does not stress his role as Secretary of the Treasury in using War Bonds to raise the money to finance the war, nor his leadership of the Treasury team that negotiated for the U.S. in the creation of the Bretton Woods system.