- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 5, 2002

In Washington, a titanic debate rages over what to do with a soon-to-be defeated nation. Led by a criminal mastermind and his evil toadies, the nation's security forces have committed genocide and horrendous war crimes. Some in the administration advocate demolishing its government and starting over. Others advocate building on existing institutions after cleaning out the old regime.
While this debate is going on in Washington today regarding Saddam Hussein's Iraq, it mirrors one that took place in the 1940s regarding Nazi Germany. That debate is recounted in Michael Beschloss' "The Conquerers." It is a timely and thought-provoking look at an issue that again has become topical.
The subtitle might be, "How Henry Morgenthau Almost Wrecked the Peace." Morgenthau, a thoroughly assimilated American of Jewish descent, served for 12 years as secretary of the treasury in the Roosevelt and Truman administrations. He was an unlikely candidate to become an anti-German crusader. His father was so adamant in his rejection of his heritage, he once advised Henry that "the Jews will stab you in the back." This lineage made the younger Morgenthau a surprising convert and champion of the rights of Jewish immigrants fleeing Hitler, and Zionism.
In his conversion, Morgenthau became a zealot, and like many zealots, he lost his sense of proportion. He was the first high-ranking American official to become aware of the full horror of the Holocaust and made the cause of punishing the German people, not just the Nazis, a crusade. None of this is new to readers with a general knowledge of World War II.
However, the depth of the animosity and ill-feeling in the wartime Democratic administration will surprise many readers. Cordell Hull, Henry Stimson, Harry Hopkins and Morgenthau are often viewed as loyal, but minor, assistants to the overwhelming figure of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In reality, they were major powers in their own right. Internal backbiting among them was every bit as vituperative as in the often-fractious administration of Ronald Reagan, but the schisms remained largely hidden by the need for the facade of wartime solidarity.
Almost everyone despised the lisping Hull, but the internal rivalries became bitter as the war progressed and came to a head when Roosevelt died and Harry Truman assumed the presidency.
Morgenthau owed his special position to his early support of Roosevelt's political career, the friendship of their wives, and the fact that they were upstate New York neighbors. However, Morgenthau often overestimated his influence with the enigmatic and Machiavellian Roosevelt. He was played off against other Cabinet members in the chess game that was Roosevelt's management technique.
Morgenthau developed a plan for the punitive reduction of Germany to a collection of agrarian provinces with no military capability. Given the passions of the moment, the desire for revenge is understandable, but it would have been disastrous in the shadow of the looming Cold War. Morgenthau's battling to craft his plan is the heart of the book, which, its subtitle notwithstanding, has little to do with the strategy that brought the Germans to their knees. Nonetheless, it makes for fascinating reading.
Mr. Beschloss, a noted historian, writes in clear prose and knows how to tell a story. The characters are compelling. Most of Roosevelt's Cabinet consisted of upper-class WASPs with all of the strengths and limitations entailed by that which in most cases included a genteel anti-Semitism. Morgenthau, the WASP wannabe, largely fit in until he discovered the true story of the Holocaust. Disastrous as his plan would have been in the Cold War world, he comes across as a sympathetic figure.
Although Truman shares the title with Roosevelt, he is overshadowed until the end in this story, as he was before Roosevelt's death. It fell to Truman to resolve post-Hitler plans for Germany at the allied Potsdam postwar planning conference and not so gently to push Morgenthau out of public life.
At the end of the day, Truman's decision paved the way for victory in the Cold War and a reunited and democratic Germany. Americans who are upset with Germany's lack of support for an aggressive policy toward Iraq in the present crisis need only look to this book to realize that we are reaping what we sowed when we constructed a democratic and peace-loving Germany at the end of the world's greatest war.

Gary Anderson, a retired Marine Corps officer, is an academic center director at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide