The Magazine

A Cabinet at War

How Roosevelt managed World War II.

Dec 30, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 16 • By ALVIN S. FELZENBERG
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The Conquerors
Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler's Germany, 1941-1945
by Michael Beschloss
Simon & Schuster, 377 pp., $26.95

A RECENT Washington Post headline for an excerpt from Bob Woodward's "Bush at War" read, "A Struggle for the President's Heart and Mind." Had such a headline run sixty years ago, the president would have been Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and the advisers struggling for his heart and mind would have been Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr., War Secretary Henry L. Stimson, and Stimson's assistant John McCloy. Making more than cameo appearances in such a story would have been Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, and, oh yes, Harry Truman, the man both history and Roosevelt selected to complete Roosevelt's work.

Such is the theme of Michael Beschloss's new book, "The Conquerors." It could not have appeared at a better time. Tugs of war to influence a president are as old as the presidency itself. An underlying lesson in Beschloss's well-written narrative is that presidents can find kernels of wisdom in advice they reject as well as in what they follow. It takes a president of extraordinary vision and sense of purpose to know that. Franklin Roosevelt was certainly that kind of president--most of the time.

Among the questions Roosevelt had to face, once the United States was at war with Germany, were what terms of peace to seek and what kind of postwar Germany the Allies would bring into being. Roosevelt acted decisively and firmly in resolving the first. Overriding the objections of some of his military advisers--as well as Churchill--Roosevelt decreed that the Allies would pursue a policy of unconditional surrender.

That increased casualties and stiffened German resolve to fight on, but Roosevelt had his reasons for insisting on these terms. As Woodrow Wilson's assistant secretary of the Navy, Roosevelt was privy to Allied war plans during the First World War and had been an eyewitness to the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. With Hitler's rise to power, Roosevelt came to believe the Allies had made a mistake in ending that earlier conflict with an armistice. Along with General John Pershing and others, he concluded that because foreign troops had never occupied Germany, its people never learned they had been defeated. Nor had they had to endure the carnage that Belgium and France had witnessed. These deficiencies, he felt, made it easier for Nazi-instigated lies such as the "stabbed in the back" theory to gain popular currency. Roosevelt resolved that, this time, things would be different. The German people would know who had started, waged, and lost the war.

ROOSEVELT WAS LESS CERTAIN about the kind of Germany the West should create once the war was won. Claiming special expertise on the subject because he had spent many summers on the Continent as a child and had a rudimentary knowledge of the German language, Roosevelt did conclude that the country must shed its "Prussian militarism." He attributed Germany's aggressive stance toward its neighbors and its instigation of two world wars to this trait. He felt the best way to eradicate it was to return to the twenty fiefdoms, free cities, and provinces that had coexisted until Bismarck forged them into a nation in the 1870s.

Roosevelt, however, remained open to differing points of view as events changed. Sharing his initial views, but for different reasons, was Secretary of the Treasury Morgenthau. A highly assimilated Jew (the second person of his religion ever appointed to a cabinet position--the first, Oscar Straus, was Teddy Roosevelt's commerce secretary), Morgenthau became increasingly troubled by what he had learned about the systematic destruction of Jews and other "undesirables" in the death camps. He believed the only way to ensure that Germany would never be able to start another war was to transform it into an agrarian nation. He vigorously pressed for the destruction of its industrial base in the Ruhr valley.

Arguing against the "Morgenthau plan" were Stimson, McCloy, and their allies, who favored the full integration of Germany into Europe. They saw a strong democratic Germany as a necessary bulwark against what was already an expansionist Soviet Union. Although it is this group of "realists" that eventually prevailed, Morgenthau, the persistent "idealist," also achieved some painful, but not insignificant, victories. In "The Conquerors" Beschloss breaks new ground with his treatment of this much maligned and usually underestimated Treasury secretary.

Though he was wrong about postwar policy towards Germany, Morgenthau was right in pushing the administration to do more about the plight of Jews in Europe. At his insistence, Roosevelt overruled the State Department and allowed a small number of Jewish refugees into the country. Because of Morgenthau's relentless prodding, Roosevelt eventually established a War Refugee Board charged with the task of rescuing Jews as Allied forces advanced against the Nazis. (Under its auspices, Swedish banker Raoul Wallenberg was sent to Hungary, where he saved thousands of lives.) Morgenthau worried that Roosevelt--his Hyde Park neighbor--would look upon his entreaties as "special pleading," but he nonetheless pressed on. The same conscience that drove him led him to conduct an investigation after the war as to whether his deputy, Harry Dexter White, had manipulated him into pushing policies that might favor the Soviet Union. (White was later identified as a Soviet agent. Stalin certainly had much to gain by a weaker Germany.)

OF ALL THE BATTLES Morgenthau lost, the most controversial remains the American decision not to bomb the death camps or the railroads leading to them. Prior historians have placed the blame on Morgenthau's nemesis, McCloy. But Beschloss suggests that though the voice was McCloy's, the decision was Roosevelt's. Though the British were both able and willing to take this step, they deferred to their senior partner. Roosevelt and McCloy saw it as a distraction from the main objective of winning the war. Beschloss argues that their failure to act deprived the Allies of the opportunity to "deliver a moral statement . . . that the Americans and the British understood the historical gravity of the Holocaust." In ruling out this option, Roosevelt let pass an opportunity to redefine the objectives of the most devastating war in history. Just as Lincoln transformed the Civil War from a "struggle to save the Union" into a crusade to abolish slavery, Roosevelt had it within his grasp to record the United States as firmly and irrevocably against genocide. Had he done that, Roosevelt might have bequeathed a less murky legacy to his successors.

Morgenthau lost the struggle for the president's heart and mind. But the argument he started goes on. Right though he was about postwar German policy and much else, Harry Truman was dead wrong about Morgenthau. He told cronies that Roosevelt's Treasury secretary was a nut and a blockhead "who did not know sh-t from apple butter." Actually, the man Roosevelt delighted in calling "Henry the Morgue" knew a hell of a lot.

Alvin S. Felzenberg writes and lectures about the American presidency. He is editor of "Keys to a Successful Presidency."