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Conversation: The Conquerors

Terence Smith talks with Michael Beschloss about his new book, "The Conquerors."

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  • TERENCE SMITH:

    The book is "The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman, and the destruction of Hitler's Germany." The author is NewsHour regular and Presidential historian Michael Beschloss. This is an inside look at the last time the United States successfully fought a major war to convert a dictatorship into democracy. It reveals the hidden decisions made by Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman during World War II to ensure that there would never be another Hitler.

    Michael, welcome.

  • MICHAEL BESCHLOSS:

    Thank you, Terry.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    You write in here that you spent 11 years writing and researching this book, but that you stopped in the middle. Why?

  • MICHAEL BESCHLOSS:

    I did. I started writing this in 1991 with the idea that I would finish it on a normal timetable, and what I found out was that even 40 or 50 years after World War II, there were still a lot of documents in England and the United States and especially the former Soviet Union coming open that could give a new view that we didn't have before. So I set this aside for a few years, and then picked it up once those documents were open.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    Describe for us, if you will, President Roosevelt's attitude when he was presented, piecemeal, with the information about the Nazi plan to exterminate the Jewish people.

  • MICHAEL BESCHLOSS:

    One of the reasons I wrote this, because I've always been curious. You know, I give lectures about Roosevelt and other Presidents, and the first thing you always get as a question is, "why didn't Roosevelt do more about the Holocaust?" And as I investigated it, I found that Roosevelt actually found a lot about the murder of the Jews by Hitler rather early, 1942, '43. A lot of Jewish leaders came to Roosevelt and said, "please make a speech. Say this is exactly what the Nazis are doing. They're trying to exterminate the Jews," to give the Nazis the idea that if the United States wins this war, there'll be big penalties. But Roosevelt, in every case, said to them, "All I'm going to do is win this war." He refused to say anything about it in public or even release the evidence, and I was terribly puzzled by it. And I speculated and I found that a lot of the reason was this: Roosevelt, in those days, felt that for a member of an ethnic group to come to him and plead for something during a war was somehow unpatriotic.

    Nowadays, if an Irish American, for instance, goes to a President and says, "I want a free Ireland," we celebrate that, we think it's Democratic. But Roosevelt was very sensitive to the charges of people like Charles Lindbergh that World War II was a war to save the Jews. I think he was wrong on this. At one point, he told his treasury secretary, Henry Morgenthau, "this is a Protestant country and the Jews and the Catholics are here under sufferance. It's your job to go along with everything I want."

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    Which was reflecting, I suppose, to some degree his patrician background and attitudes of the time.

  • MICHAEL BESCHLOSS:

    It was. And also, a view that I think was absolutely wrong, which was that people should not ask for things like this if it was for their own group. Another thing was that Roosevelt was always sensitive to charges that there were too many Jewish people, for instance, in the New Deal, and he once said– I've got it in the book– he once said to someone, "if an American demagogue took up the cause of anti-Semitism," he said, "there would be more blood running through the streets of New York City than in Berlin."

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    How did Roosevelt react to the suggestion, or the proposal, actually, that he got to consider bombing the concentration camp at Auschwitz and the railheads that led to it? That was… that was proposed to him? How did he react?

  • MICHAEL BESCHLOSS:

    It was, in 1944. Before I wrote this book, the common evidence was that it never came to Roosevelt, that that plan was turned down by John McCloy, the assistant secretary of war. I came upon an interview, unpublished, that John McCloy did just before he died, a couple of years before he died in the 1980s, where he actually conceded that he had taken this to Roosevelt and said, "do you want to bomb Auschwitz or not?" And he said that what Roosevelt said was, "absolutely not." He said Roosevelt was irate. He said, "If we bomb Auschwitz, we'll probably kill more people. The Nazis will rebuild the camps and we Americans will be accused of participating in this horrible business."

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    To what degree, if at all, did your perception of President Roosevelt change with the research that you did on this book?

  • MICHAEL BESCHLOSS:

    He was absolutely right on the goals. He was the one who saw the danger of Hitler, he was the one who told Americans, "you have to fight this war. You have to eliminate Germany as a threat to all of us." At the same time, if you look at him behind the scenes, he makes a lot of decisions that are very ad hoc and in some cases I think not very well met.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    A central character in your book is Henry Morgenthau, President Roosevelt's secretary of treasury and friend, close friend.

  • MICHAEL BESCHLOSS:

    Indeed.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    And he had a vision for postwar Germany. Tell us about that and what he did to try to forward it.

  • MICHAEL BESCHLOSS:

    Morgenthau was only the second Jew in American history to be in a President's cabinet, his Hudson… Roosevelt's Hudson Valley friend and neighbor. He was horrified by what he learned about the Holocaust, and he went to Roosevelt and confronted him. He had been told that they were making lampshades out of the skins of the Jews, and he said to Roosevelt, "you have to stop this." Roosevelt began to act, but Morgenthau went further. He said, "not only do you have to try to stop the Holocaust, you have to make sure that Germany will never threaten the world again," came up with something called the Morgenthau Plan, and went to Roosevelt and said, "After this war is won by the United States and our allies, we should take apart the factories of Germany, flood the mines, make sure that there's no industry in Germany, even if the Germans starve, to teach them a lesson."

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    Of course, after Roosevelt died and Truman became President, he saw it differently.

  • MICHAEL BESCHLOSS:

    Truman turned it around, because after Roosevelt died, Truman said, "yes, we have to eliminate Nazism, but if you make Germany that weak, not only will the Germans be resentful and perhaps start another world war, but also you'll leave Europe open to the Soviet Union." So Truman, after World War II and after Roosevelt's death, he was the one who presided over the big effort to build democratic institutions in Germany– schools, newspapers, all those things that we now see today– and the result is that Germany is one of the strongest democracies on earth.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    Is there a parallel, in your view, between the considerations that the Bush Administration is giving now to not only confronting Saddam Hussein in Iraq, but also what would happen the so-called "morning after," in other words, what the United States would have to do in Iraq after a war?

  • MICHAEL BESCHLOSS:

    Absolutely, because Roosevelt, for instance, had to say, "how do I fight World War II in a way that's going to make Germany a democracy at the end?" That's why he asked for unconditional surrender. It meant that those soldiers had to fight perhaps a year or two longer than they would have otherwise. But the result was that we won the war, we could into Germany and say, "now we're going to start from scratch and build a democracy." If we're going to have that kind of war with Iraq, we Americans are going to have to have that kind of commitment, not only to unconditional surrender from Saddam Hussein and his regime, but also to stay there, occupy the country and try to make it into a democracy. That's going to be a very big commitment.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    It was a huge task in Germany. Does it suggest to you a multi- year task in Iraq?

  • MICHAEL BESCHLOSS:

    It would have to be. Roosevelt during the war, it turns out– I've got it in the book– he keeps on saying, "you know, we may have to keep troops in Germany for even a year or two after victory." It turned out that they were there for a half century. I don't think that'll be true in Iraq, but you're going to have to go back to the last big case in which the United States succeeded in building a democracy where there had not been one before, and that was Germany in the mid-20th century. It turned out to be one of the best things we Americans ever did.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    And I gather now that some– some, anyway– in the upper ranks of the bush administration are reading The Conquerors.

  • MICHAEL BESCHLOSS:

    So it is said, and I think there are lessons to be learned, some from that success in Germany and some, probably, to be avoided.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    Michael Beschloss, thanks so much.

  • MICHAEL BESCHLOSS:

    Thank you, Terry.