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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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."