DATE October 30, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Michael Beschloss discusses FDR's role in World War
II as described in Beschloss's new book, "The Conquerors:
Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler's Germany"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Presidential historian Michael Beschloss has written a new book that he
describes as telling the story of an important American success. He says
during World War II, many Americans expected that, even if the Allies won the
war, the world would someday have to cope again with a militaristic Germany
under some future version of Hitler. Instead, almost 60 years after VE Day,
Germany is democratic and peaceful. Beschloss's new book "The Conquerors:
Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler's Germany," draws on recently
opened American, Soviet and British documents, as well as private diaries,
letters and audio recordings.
Beschloss is the author of six previous books, including two annotated
collections of Lyndon Johnson's tapes. He's a frequent commentator on ABC
News and public television.
One of the questions Beschloss set out to answer in his new book is, how much
did FDR know about the Nazi death camps? I asked him if there is new
information on this.
Mr. MICHAEL BESCHLOSS (Author, "The Conquerors"): There is. And I've always
admired Roosevelt hugely and still do. I mean, he's the one who won this war,
and if it weren't for him, we'd be living in a very different world. But I
was, frankly, pretty disappointed because what I found was that Roosevelt, as
early as 1942, had pretty good information about the fact that the Nazis and
Adolf Hitler were committing this great crime in human history, the murder of
the Jews, millions of Jews being murdered at the time. And, you know, knowing
Roosevelt just as an historian, I would have expected him to react to that by
giving a speech, releasing the evidence and telling Americans, `This is the
kind of horrible thing that the Nazis and Adolf Hitler do. This is the reason
that we're fighting this war,' and what I found was that he did something that
was very different from that.
There were Jewish leaders as early as '42, through 1943 into '44 that would go
to Roosevelt in the Oval Office and they would say, `Here's the evidence. You
must speak out against this. Release the information, give a speech saying to
the Nazis, "If you do not stop this, then if the Allies win the war, there's
going to be huge punishment." Perhaps that'll cause some of the people
participating in this genocide to stop.' And to my huge disappointment,
Roosevelt kept on saying, `I won't do it. The way to deal with this is simply
to win the war as soon as possible.' And with 20/20 hindsight, I don't think
that was enough.
GROSS: You say one of the things that Roosevelt was worried about was that
anti-Semites in America would say that he was fighting a Jewish war in Europe
if he released, you know, evidence of the death camps and made a big issue out
of that. Exactly what was he afraid of? How much power did the anti-Semites
in the United States have?
Mr. BESCHLOSS: They had a lot, and I think it shouldn't be underestimated.
There were a lot of anti-Semites, open ones, in Congress, in the House and
Senate giving speeches of a kind that you couldn't imagine. At the same time,
you know, it's the duty of a president to try to create a society in which
these people do not loom so large. Roosevelt, I think, was too worried during
World War II about the charges of people like Charles Lindbergh, who before
World War II had said, `Roosevelt is trying to get you Americans involved in a
war against Germany to save the Jews. Don't get involved in this Jewish war.'
Roosevelt, I think, was oversensitive to that. One of the things I've got in
the book is that Roosevelt says to one of his cronies--he says, `If an
American demagogue like Huey Long ever took up the cause of anti-Semitism,' he
said, `the blood flowing through the streets of New York City would be even
greater than the blood flowing through the streets--Jewish blood--in Berlin.'
That was how oversensitive he was to this.
The other thing is that Roosevelt had an idea, which is, fortunately, very out
of date nowadays, that if a leader of an ethnic group like the Jews came to
him and said, `I want you to do something about the Holocaust while you're
fighting this war,' he thought that was unpatriotic. It was sort of special
pleading. He once had a lunch early in the war with Leo Crowley, a Catholic
who worked for him, and Henry Morgenthau, his Treasury secretary and very
close friend, and to both of their surprise, he said, `Remember, this is a
Protestant country, and you Catholics and Jews are here under sufferance, so
during this war, it's your job to do anything I want.'
GROSS: Say FDR decided to take action to try to end the death camps when he
found out about their existence in about 1942. What were his options? What
could he have done?
Mr. BESCHLOSS: Well, the time that it really became possible for him was
probably later, probably more like early 1944, because as you know, in 1942,
we were still in a situation where we didn't even know that we were going to
win World War II, especially in Europe. But by early 1944, we were obviously
going to win the war in Europe. Our troops were moving onto the European
continent in a very big way. We had the possibility of using American bombers
that could have flown over a camp like Auschwitz, the great death camp, and
bombed it, made sure that it could not be used to kill Jews and others.
Roosevelt did not allow that to happen.
GROSS: You also said he could have bombed the railroads that took Jews in
boxcars to the death camps.
Mr. BESCHLOSS: That would have also helped, but probably not as much, because
if you bomb, for instance, a rail line, that could have been rebuilt fairly
quickly. But to build a death camp with all that awful machinery, that would
have taken a longer period of time.
GROSS: Is there any evidence that FDR had any regrets at any point before his
death that he didn't speak out about the death camps or take any action
Mr. BESCHLOSS: None, and as a matter of fact, this is one of these
fascinating things, Terry, that we now can see with 20/20 hindsight that
people could not see at the time. If you were to go back to Franklin
Roosevelt, if he were alive today, and say, `One of the most interesting and
controversial issues having to do with your presidency is the fact that many
people think that you didn't do enough to stop the Holocaust, and specifically
that you didn't bomb Auschwitz and other death camps,' I think he would be
absolutely astonished, because if you go back to the secret record of what
Roosevelt was doing during World War II, the arresting thing, Terry, is that,
you know, you would expect, given the fact that the Holocaust was so
important, that he would have been talking about it, writing about it. When
he met with Churchill and Stalin, this would have been a big issue at their
summits. And I looked, for instance, through his correspondence, the
correspondence between Roosevelt and Churchill. The Holocaust is never
mentioned. I looked at the records of what Stalin and Churchill and Roosevelt
said to one another at these famous summits like Teheran and Yalta--the
Holocaust was never mentioned.
Roosevelt, until the spring of 1944, never even mentioned in public the fact
that the Nazis were murdering Jews. And so from Roosevelt's point of view
during World War II, sadly the Holocaust--which was not called that in those
days--the genocide against Jews, was something that he was concerned about,
but it certainly did not have the enormous priority that it should have.
GROSS: So the issue for him was the German conquering of territory, German
invasions, but not the Holocaust.
Mr. BESCHLOSS: He was obsessed with the idea that the way to win the war is
to win the war and concentrate all of our military resources, our soldiers and
everything else on that one single war aim.
GROSS: Would you go so far as to call FDR anti-Semitic or do you think that
this was a kind of pragmatic thing that he was doing in overlooking the
Holocaust and just pursuing the larger war?
Mr. BESCHLOSS: No, I would never call FDR anti-Semitic, which I think really
is a term that should be reserved for people who are strenuously and
energetically trying to hurt and oppose Jews. I think he was insensitive.
For instance, if a WASP American, an Anglo-American, had come to Roosevelt in
1940 and said, `I think we should aid Britain,' Roosevelt wouldn't have dreamt
of throwing him out of the office and saying, `Why are you pleading for your
own ethnic group?' But if a Jewish-American had come to Roosevelt, as they
did, and said, `I want you do to something about the Holocaust,' Roosevelt
would have felt it was right to be skeptical and say, `Well, maybe you're
unpatriotic because you're not devoted to the war effort.'
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael Beschloss. His new
book is called "The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of
Roosevelt had a policy of unconditional surrender. Germany had to surrender
unconditionally. Why did he insist on that?
Mr. BESCHLOSS: Well, you know, we've been talking about what I think is the
deeply disappointing side of Roosevelt in World War II. Unconditional
surrender, I think, is the wonderful side. At the beginning of World War II,
when the US got into this war against Germany and Japan, it was Roosevelt and
the American government beyond almost anyone else who said, `We're not
fighting this war merely to get Hitler to surrender. We've got to do it
differently this time.' In World War I, we fought against the Kaiser and the
Germans and we had a negotiated settlement, and the result of that was the
Germans came back stronger than ever, waged a second world war against the
In the 1940s, you know, when you thought of the Germans, you thought of the
fact that this was a country that had waged three big wars in a generation:
Franco-Prussian War and the two World Wars. There was a feeling that there
was something almost in the German gene pool that made them want to make war.
One thing Roosevelt said privately at the time--I've got it in the book--he
says, `You know, I think that this thing in the Germans is so strong that we
may, after the war, have to castrate the German men to keep them from
reproducing people who want to make war.' I don't think he meant that
literally, but the point is that that is the attitude that he had, that if you
were going to fight against Germany, you had to have an unconditional
surrender by Hitler or whoever was in power at that time, and the US and the
Allies would have to go in, start from scratch and from the ground up, build
Germany into a democracy, which ultimately, of course, thankfully is what
GROSS: How controversial was his idea of unconditional surrender within the
Mr. BESCHLOSS: Very, and it's sort of one of the unspoken things about World
War II because, you know, we read all these World War II books about the way
the soldiers fought and the way that Eisenhower and Marshall and Roosevelt ran
the war, but what people don't mention is the fact that if Roosevelt had not
been for unconditional surrender, World War II in Europe could have ended
perhaps a year or two earlier, we Americans would not have lost a lot of lives
who were given because Roosevelt said, `I'm not going to settle for making a
deal with Hitler or some German government. I want to go all the way--I want
the Allies to go all the way to Berlin and essentially achieve scorched earth
so that we can start this from the ground up after the war.'
It was very controversial. Churchill didn't want it, Stalin didn't want it, a
lot of Roosevelt's own people didn't want it. Even Eisenhower and Marshall
privately said to Roosevelt, `Why do we have to have unconditional surrender?
It's killing an awful lot of American boys.'
GROSS: FDR was also afraid that the Soviets would make their own separate
pact with the Germans. What were the concerns about that?
Mr. BESCHLOSS: That was another reason for unconditional surrender, because
if you didn't say, with Stalin and Churchill, that `The only thing we three
allies will settle for is the white flag flying over Berlin at the end of
this thing,' there would have been an enormous temptation for some group
inside Germany to try to make a deal with the Russians or with the British or
the Americans to stop the war and stop the fighting.
For instance, in 1944 and 1943, there were a number of groups that were within
Germany trying to kill Adolf Hitler with the idea that perhaps they would
surrender, for instance, to the British and the Americans because they thought
that if the British and Americans conquered Germany, they would be easier on
the Germans than the Russians would have been, and there were others who were
doing the same thing with the Russians. So if you didn't have Stalin,
Roosevelt and Churchill all agreeing that `The only thing we will settle for
is an unconditional surrender to all three allies,' Roosevelt knew that there
was a good chance that Stalin might make some deal with some group within
Germany to, you know, stop the fighting on the eastern front and end the war,
and the British and the Americans would be left holding the bag.
GROSS: Now in 1944, Hitler narrowly escaped an assassination attempt by
Germans, by Germans who opposed the Nazis. If that assassination attempt had
succeeded, what would that have meant for the end of the war? Do you think it
would have ended the war or complicated the end of the war?
Mr. BESCHLOSS: Well, you know, that's the great irony. This was July 20th,
1944, and what happened was--I mean, it's a fascinating story which I open the
book with--there was a colonel in the German military who was there at
Hitler's retreat, which was called the Wolf's Lair. It was in East Prussia,
which is now in Poland. And he went there, he was secretly an anti-Nazi. He
was part of the secret cabal that wanted to kill Hitler. And so what he did
was he was called into a barracks where Hitler was standing, and he was being
briefed, and this man, whose name was Claus von Stauffenberg, came in and left
a briefcase under the table. Inside the briefcase was a ticking time bomb.
He went outside, the bomb went off, and so Stauffenberg then, when he heard
the bomb go off and saw the building--the debris beginning to fly, he figured
that Hitler was dead. He flew to Berlin, and the idea was that he would be
part of a new German government that would surrender to the Allies, possibly
to the British and Americans, the kind of thing I was talking about just a
It turned out by the time he got to Berlin, the bomb had gone off but Hitler
had not been killed because someone at the table had accidentally kicked the
briefcase on the other side of an oak support, somewhat protected Hitler, so
Hitler's hair was singed, he had burns, his trousers were in tatters, but he
And so the result of this was that when Roosevelt himself heard the news, he
had sort of a mixed reaction. On the one hand, of course, emotionally I think
he would have loved to see Hitler dead, but at the same time, he knew that if
Hitler, indeed, had been killed and you had some Stauffenberg-supported
government who was essentially saying to the Americans or to the Russians,
`Let's have a separate peace,' Roosevelt would have been under enormous
pressure to shut down the war because Americans would have said, `Look, Hitler
is gone. The Germans are suing for peace. Why do you, Mr. President, want to
keep on fighting for this unconditional victory that you seem so obsessed by?'
But had Roosevelt given that up, there's a very good likelihood that Germany
would not have been changed after the war, and we wouldn't today be dealing
with a democratic Germany. We might be dealing with another Hitler.
GROSS: Roosevelt didn't come from a military background. What do you think
he was able to draw on in thinking about how to wage the war or in calling for
the unconditional surrender of Germany? What kind of experience did he have
that prepared him for this?
Mr. BESCHLOSS: The biggest experience was this: Roosevelt was assistant
secretary of the Navy in Woodrow Wilson's Cabinet in World War I. He was one
of those who actually argued with Wilson and said, `I think you should have
unconditional surrender, demand that from the Kaiser, and occupy Germany after
the war to make sure it becomes a democracy.' Wilson turned that down and, of
course, the Treaty of Versailles was something very different. So because
Roosevelt had that searing firsthand experience, I think we were terribly
lucky that he was president in the 1940s and knew that we had to do something
that was very different if we didn't want another Hitler to plague the world
GROSS: My guest is presidential historian Michael Beschloss. His new book is
called "The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler's
Germany." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Michael Beschloss, author of the new book "The Conquerors:
Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler's Germany."
Now Henry Morgenthau, who you spoke about briefly before, was only the second
Jewish person to serve in an American presidential Cabinet. He was the one
who really thought FDR should be doing something to specifically address the
Holocaust, and he came up with this plan for a post-war Germany. Describe the
plan that Henry Morgenthau, the secretary of the Treasury, came up with.
Mr. BESCHLOSS: Well, Morgenthau I found one of the most mesmerizing people in
the book because here is this man, as I was saying earlier, Roosevelt had
made him Treasury secretary, he was certainly his closest friend in
government, but a lot of Morgenthau's position with Roosevelt had to do with
the fact that he did not bring up Jewish concerns with the president. He was
very careful about that, wouldn't raise them because he thought that if he did
that, that Roosevelt would be alienated from him and say, `Well, this is
someone who's really more concerned about Jewish affairs than he is about
So Morgenthau was quite quiet not only about the Holocaust, but even in the
late 1930s about getting the United States and Roosevelt to do things to help
Jews get out of Germany. And something changed him, and the something was
this: In 1943, Morgenthau was called on by Rabbi Stephen Wise, who had
actually officiated at his wedding. Wise came to Morgenthau and said, `You
just don't know what's going on in Germany. Here are the reports of the death
camps and the people being shot and the people being gassed, all these
horrible things that are happening.' He said to Morgenthau, `Did you know
that they are making lamp shades out of the skins of the Jews?' At this point
Morgenthau almost fainted and he had to leave the room, and from that moment
on, Morgenthau was radicalized. He was not this timid person that he had been
before. He basically said, `Even if FDR doesn't like what I have to say, this
is so important that, if he fires me, so it will have to be,' and that's when
he went to Roosevelt and said, `You have to do more to get Jewish refugees
out. You have to do more to try to stop the Holocaust.'
And he did something else. He went on to say, `Not only do you have to do
those things, Mr. President, you have to be even fiercer about postwar
Germany, and I will write you a plan,' which he did. And Morgenthau's plan
was this: He said, `When the war is over, we should destroy all German
factories, we should flood the coal mines, we should destroy almost all of
their economic infrastructure so that the Germans will stew in their own
juice. They might even have to starve for a while. That's the only way that
the Germans will realize that they have lost the war and, therefore, come to
the Americans for help and look to our way of doing things.'
GROSS: Did Morgenthau see this as a way of basically transforming Germany
from an industrial state to an agricultural one?
Mr. BESCHLOSS: He did. He wanted it to be reduced to a farming state, and
this was something that he actually shared with Roosevelt, because Morgenthau
and Roosevelt were both farmers in the Hudson Valley of New York. They all
felt that the best state of nature for a human being was the Jeffersonian
agrarian state of nature, and that if you wanted a democracy that was
Jeffersonian, you started out by being a farming country, and that was his
idea for Germany, which attracted Roosevelt a lot.
GROSS: And what about Churchill and Stalin? What did they think of the
Mr. BESCHLOSS: Stalin would have loved it because what Stalin wanted, we now
know--now I've been able to write about this, because we now have a lot of
documents that have just come out in the former Soviet Union that show us
Stalin's thinking--what Stalin wanted was a decimated, weak Germany of exactly
the kind that Morgenthau was talking about because Stalin felt that if Germany
were that weak, there'd be a vacuum in the middle of Europe, so after the war
the Red Army could roll through; you might very easily have a Soviet Europe.
Churchill saw exactly that and he was terrified of the Morgenthau plan because
he thought that it was a recipe for a Communist Europe.
GROSS: Do you think Churchill was right to be suspicious?
Mr. BESCHLOSS: I think he was because, as it turned out, of course, in the
end, after World War II, the United States built up West Germany as an
obstacle to the Soviet Union in Europe. Had we not done that, you might well
have had a Soviet Europe.
GROSS: Michael Beschloss has written a new book called "The Conquerors:
Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler's Germany." He'll be back in
the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Music from the band Motorpsycho. Coming up, Milo Miles talks about
modern psychedelic music and this year's Terrastock Festival. And we continue
our conversation with presidential historian Michael Beschloss about
Roosevelt, Truman and the destruction of Hitler's Germany.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with presidential historian
Michael Beschloss. We're talking about his new book, "The Conquerors:
Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler's Germany." Much of the book
is about the Allies' behind-the-scenes debates and disputes about how to deal
with a defeated Germany and prevent it from ever threatening the world again.
How much do you think Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin trusted each other?
Mr. BESCHLOSS: Not a huge amount, which is pretty true of most world leaders.
Roosevelt and Churchill, of course, had no reason to trust Stalin, who had
been all over the map, had just made a deal with the Nazi Germans a year and a
half before the war began. Between Roosevelt and Churchill, it was a little
bit different. Roosevelt was always skeptical of Churchill, knew that
Churchill and Britain desperately needed American help and was always looking
for cases in which Churchill might be putting something over on him. And that
was largely because Churchill had been accustomed to being the prime minister
of the British Empire, this great powerful force around the world, as opposed
to the United States, which was sitting here in North America. Suddenly, at
the time of Pearl Harbor, Churchill and Great Britain were the junior partner.
Churchill was hugely dependent on almost everything that Roosevelt did. He
was almost a supplicant. So that was a big change for him. So one of the
fascinating things is, as you look at World War II in general and especially
this story, these odd-shifting relationships among these three men.
GROSS: Toward the end of FDR's final period as president, toward the end of
his life, he was really sicker than anyone knew. What were some of the
medical problems he was having?
Mr. BESCHLOSS: You know, I have always been interested in the degree to which
leaders are affected by hidden illnesses that we can't see and in Roosevelt's
case, we know that he died of a stroke in April of 1945. But his medical
records have been somewhat obscured. They've only been opened the last few
years, which I was able to get access to. And you look at him during the last
year in power, turns out Roosevelt was only working about two to four hours a
His doctor had found him in 1944 in cardiac failure. He knew that Roosevelt
was dying, felt that he should not run for a fourth term. Roosevelt ran
anyway--felt he was indispensable. And in Roosevelt's last months in the
presidency, as he's dealing with the last months of the war against Germany,
you see him doing all sorts of things. He will sign an important document and
then he'll forget he ever signed it. He was very tired and the people around
him were trying to make sure the public did not realize that.
One thing that was particularly new--I found in a diary of someone who was
close to him that has just come out in the last couple of years--Roosevelt,
during the last couple of weeks of his life, was talking about quitting the
presidency in 1946. As the war was over, he thought that his job might be
done. And he spoke more and more about possibly being the first
secretary-general of the United Nations, this organization that he planned to
found at the end of World War II. He even talked about maybe getting the UN
to have its headquarters near his house in Hyde Park to make it easier and he
would put in a little airstrip and chiefs of state would come in and fly--land
on the airstrip and come and see him.
GROSS: Roosevelt died before the war ended. He died in April of 1945.
Germany surrendered a month after that. Roosevelt died of a cerebral brain
hemorrhage. Was it a shock to insiders? The public didn't know how sick
Roosevelt was, but did the insiders know and were there contingency plans in
place in case he did die?
Mr. BESCHLOSS: The people around him did know. What I show is, for
instance, his daughter Anna, by the late winter of 1945, she knew that her
father was just not what he had been and she actually came up with a plan for
herself and her husband, John Boettiger, to have sort of a regency where they
would protect her father and they would get decisions from him. So they knew,
but they also didn't want the public to know that. It was an enormous shock,
of course, to Americans when Roosevelt died, but not to Roosevelt's vice
president, Harry Truman. It turns out that when Truman began seeing Roosevelt
in the fall of 1944 in a serious way, he knew how sick Roosevelt was.
And something else I have new in the book is that just after Truman was
nominated for vice president in 1944, Roosevelt had him to lunch at the White
House and according to Truman, Roosevelt told him this. He said, `You know, I
picked you for a reason and the reason is this. After every great war,
Americans need a rest and I think I should be succeeded by someone who is
slightly right of center who can give Americans that rest.' Truman went away
from that lunch assuming that he was going to be president within a short
period of time.
GROSS: What did Truman do to study up on everything he needed to know before
Mr. BESCHLOSS: Well, he was a complete neophyte because--and this was one
thing that Roosevelt did not do well. Roosevelt felt that he was himself so
indispensable that even though he thought about retiring in '46, it never
occurred to him that he might die before World War II was ended. And so
Truman was not prepared. And when Truman became president April 12th, 1945,
he knew so little about what Roosevelt wanted to do about Germany or how he
wanted to end the war or even what he wanted to do with Adolf Hitler had
Hitler been captured alive, that he had to interrogate Roosevelt's Cabinet and
he had to go down to the Map Room in the White House and read millions of
words of cables and documents that he should have read a long time before
GROSS: After Roosevelt's death in April 1945, when Truman becomes president,
he has to deal with the Morgenthau plan for a post-war Germany, the plan you
had just described. Truman didn't like that plan. In fact, he asked
Morgenthau to resign from his position as secretary of the Treasury, which
Morgenthau did. What was Truman's problem with the Morgenthau plan?
Mr. BESCHLOSS: Well, it's this interesting relationship. Morgenthau lasted a
few months into the Truman administration and actually thought he might be
kept on by Truman, and that was because he was Roosevelt's closest friend and
he thought he was pretty indispensable, too. He didn't realize that something
had happened years ago that forever jaundiced Truman against him, and that is
that when Truman was elected to the Senate in 1934, he came to Washington. A
lot of people in Washington, even Democrats, fellow Democrats thought that
Truman was this sort of corrupt party boss who had somehow sleazed into the US
Senate, and some of them snubbed him.
And during Truman's first weeks in Washington, he went to call on the
secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau and was told that Morgenthau was
out and couldn't see him. But Truman, because he had a bit of an inferiority
complex about this, was always convinced that Morgenthau just refused to see
him because he thought that Truman was a sleazy person. He didn't want to
lower himself to have this meeting. So in comes Morgenthau to see Truman,
just after Truman is president, and needless to say, Truman was against the
Morgenthau plan for Germany. Truman was. He felt that it would be too harsh.
There's another element of this which is a little bit more awkward, and that
is that Truman, in public on the large things, was large-minded about Jews and
Jewish affairs. He was the president who famously recognized Israel, for
example, in 1948. But one thing I found that was pretty distressing is that
in private, Truman had this sort of stream of anti-Semitic comments.
For instance, a couple of weeks after he becomes president, he writes in his
diary, `The Jews think that God made them the chosen people. Well, I think he
had better judgment.' And he would say, "New York City is a Kike-town,"
quote-unquote, or `a greedy person was like a Jewish merchant.' And even
after the Holocaust--the death camps were revealed and photographed in 1945.
In April, they were on the front pages of papers all over the United States.
Even many Americans who had been anti-Semitic regretted it because they
saw--`Look at this horrible thing that's happened. How could I have said
those horrible things?' Truman in private kept on making comments like this,
which made me pretty disappointed.
GROSS: Well, one of the comments you report in the book is that he said,
`Neither Morgenthau nor any of the Jew boys would be going to Potsdam.'
Mr. BESCHLOSS: Truman was overly skeptical of Jews in the government and
their ability to think not like Jews, but like Americans. To some extent I
think he suspected that Jews had dual loyalties, which is an absolutely
dreadful thing. And that's something that I found actually ran through much
of the Roosevelt and Truman administration. For instance, when Morgenthau
came up with his plan in 1944 to be very hard on Germany after World War II,
you'd find people like Henry Stimson, the secretary of War, saying that
Morgenthau--he's say in private in his diary, `Morgenthau is a Jew who likes
to push his way into Germany. He's the last person who should be doing this.'
And he called the Morgenthau plan Semitism gone wild for vengeance. There was
this kind of talk.
One thing that I think is sort of inspiring, Terry, is that nowadays I think
you'd see very little talk like that, and that's the kind of thing that's
really been banished from most of American life.
GROSS: My guest is presidential historian Michael Beschloss. His new book is
called "The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler's
Germany." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is historian Michael Beschloss. He has a new book called
"The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler's Germany."
Are there any new documents that show what Stalin was thinking and planning
for after Germany's defeat?
Mr. BESCHLOSS: It's interesting because Stalin was playing a double game all
through World War II. In private, for instance, at these summits at Tehran
Stalin is telling Roosevelt, `You're too soft on Germany. We have to be tough
on Germany. Maybe divide it up into about 10 parts after World War II.' And
there was a dinner at which Stalin made a toast in Tehran--this is 1943--where
Stalin says, `I propose a toast. And the toast is that on VE Day, when we
Allies take over Germany, that we all murder at least 50 to 100,000 German
And Roosevelt, of course, was trying to get along Stalin to keep him in the
war and Roosevelt said, `Well, I agree with you. That's exactly what we'll
have to do, murder them in cold blood.' Churchill was outraged and was so
disgusted he almost threw up. He ran from the room. Stalin came out and
threw his arm around Churchill and said, `I'm only kidding.'
But the point is that during the war, Stalin was always trying to get the
United States to agree to do all sorts of Draconian things to decimate
Germany, make a weak Germany that would allow the Soviets to roll in after
World War II, and also to put the burden on the Americans so that Stalin would
say, `Wasn't me who wanted to be tough on the Germans, you Germans. It was
the horrible Americans. You should welcome your friendly Soviet captors.'
GROSS: You wrote your new book, "The Conquerors," with the help of recently
released or declassified documents, you know, from the United States, from the
Soviet Union--from Russia and I think perhaps from England as well. As a
historian, what were some of the most thrilling documents to get your hands
Mr. BESCHLOSS: Well, one was--you know, there was this idea before I wrote
this book that this decision we talked about earlier not to bomb
Auschwitz--that that was made not by Roosevelt, who perhaps didn't know about
it, but by Assistant Secretary of War John McCloys, who never took it to
Roosevelt. And I found--it was absolutely fascinating--an interview that
McCloys had done just before he died--it'd been lost for years and it's never
been published before--in which McCloys said, `It turns out I actually did
take this to Roosevelt and it was Roosevelt who said, "Absolutely not. I will
not bomb Auschwitz. I won't have anything to do with that."' And it also
gave Roosevelt's reasons why.
It said that Roosevelt had told them, you know, `If we bomb Auschwitz, you
will not only antagonize the Nazis to do something more provocative'--although
I can't imagine what could have been more provocative--but he also said,
`You'll kill the Jewish refugees in the camps.' What we did not know was that
people like Elie Wiesel, who was in Auschwitz at the time, have now told us
that even if the Americans had bombed those camps and killed the inmates, the
inmates would have been thrilled because at least they would have felt that
the killing was ending.
Another example of something I found fascinating was Henry Morgenthau kept a
diary. And it wasn't really a diary. Part of it was Morgenthau dictating his
reminiscences and thoughts as he dealt with Roosevelt during the war. But it
turned out that Morgenthau had the first presidential taping system. Turns
out that Morgenthau had a recording device that recorded a lot of his
telephone calls, a lot of his office meetings and gives us exact dialogue of
what was said between him and Roosevelt, and others. He destroyed the
recordings, but kept the transcripts, which I've used. And they've got these
I mean, one little example, at the time that Morgenthau was fighting Roosevelt
to get him to do more about the Holocaust, he went to the secretary of State,
Cordell Hull, and it turns out that Cordell Hull's wife was Jewish, although
that was not widely know at the time. It is not particularly well-known now.
Hull tried to keep it a secret because Hull always wanted to be president, and
felt that if the public knew that his wife was Jewish, it would keep him from
getting to the White House. And so finally Morgenthau went to Hull and put
his cards on the table and said, `Look, Cordell, if you let the Holocaust go
on, your wife might be sent to a prison camp. She might even be killed. And
God knows what would happen to you.'
GROSS: Did that change Hull?
Mr. BESCHLOSS: It didn't change Hull much at all. If anything, it made him
even more worried that if he got involved in trying to help Jewish refugees it
would cause people to point at his wife and say that Hull was operating on
behalf of the Jews.
GROSS: I want to ask you a question about history and historians. You know,
recently there have been a couple of historians who have been--their work has
been tarnished by charges of plagiarism, and I'm thinking of Doris Kearns
Goodwin and the late Stephen Ambrose. And you know, apparently one of the
things that went wrong is that--correct me if I'm wrong--that they were using
researchers who in writing up history, you know, borrowed directly from texts
that they were using during their research. I'm wondering what impact you
think this is having on people who write popular histories, including
Mr. BESCHLOSS: Well, you know, I like both of them. And I like Steve
Ambrose very much humanly and I don't want to talk about their professional
cases 'cause I haven't studied them sort of bit by bit. But when I can tell
you is about what I do. And that is that I don't use a research assistant in
the sense that some people use them to take notes or in some cases to, you
know, sort of do, I guess, perhaps some writing in the cases of some people.
My feeling is that if you don't do that kind of thing yourself in a way it's
not entirely your book. So on this book, for instance, I had my sister-in-law
do some Xeroxing at the very beginning I think of newspaper articles, and at
the very end I had someone for the last couple of months of the 11 years of
writing who helped me get books out of the library and get primary sources for
me to use.
So I think the dividing line is really--you know, it's an absolutely fine
thing to get people to help you if they're fetching documents or if they're
fetching books or doing Xeroxing. I think there's a difference between that
and someone who is taking notes and really getting into sort of the meat of
writing history. And it's something I've never done and probably couldn't do
temperamentally anyway because I'm probably too much of an obsessive
GROSS: Your work as a historian has relied on and benefited from the fact
that people in the White House and people who've worked with them have taken
notes, they've made recordings, they've left documents that might not have
been immediately available but were eventually available to historians such as
yourself. What about, for instance, the Bush White House now? Do you think
it's keeping records that will help historians understand the past? Or do you
think that things have gotten too tight for the sake of history?
Mr. BESCHLOSS: I think they're not doing enough. And that is true in general
these days, because people in a White House are advised not to keep records
because they might be subpoenaed or they might be leaked. And particularly in
this White House I think, which tends to be somewhat secretive. And the
problem is that, for instance, I could not write the book that we're talking
about if I didn't have the kind of sources that I think are not being made
nowadays. For instance, these Morgenthau tapes I was talking about--those
allowed me to really give actual dialogue about what was said--give us an idea
of what Roosevelt said to people in the room behind closed doors that would
have been lost if you didn't have that kind of record, or a diary, for
Roosevelt had a secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, whose son later was a
deputy chief of staff to President Clinton. Ickes kept a six million word
diary, which is absolutely terrific for historians because, especially, Ickes
the elder hated just about everyone and he just spills into this diary all the
reasons that he hates all these people around him, which are really sort of
juicy things to quote. But he also takes down this wonderful dialogue that
allows you to take a reader into the room and know something that happened 50
or 60 years ago. For instance, he says in this diary, `As far as I'm
concerned, the Germans all should be sterilized after what they did in World
War II.' These are the kind of records that nowadays are not being kept.
And one of the reasons for them not being kept these days is that we Americans
feel that things should be transparent, there should be a lot of reportage,
that things should be subpoenaed if necessary, and I think that's absolutely
right, but the bizarre result is that it may have the opposite effect, which
is that the records just will not be kept at all. And the result of that
could be that someone like me could end up having to write a history of the
Bush administration or another presidency of this period almost from speeches
and press releases because you won't have something like the Ickes diary or
the Morgenthau tapes.
GROSS: Michael Beschloss, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. BESCHLOSS: Pleasure.
GROSS: Michael Beschloss' new book is called "The Conquerors: Roosevelt,
Truman and the Destruction of Hitler's Germany."
Coming up, music critic Milo Miles on current psychedelic music. This is
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Profile: Psychedelic rock festival in Boston
TERRY GROSS, host:
Psychedelic rock had its heyday in the '60s, but it's never faded away. In
the last few years, a series of concerts has been a major showcase for
dedicated fans of today's psychedelic music. Music critic Milo Miles spent
three days at the latest Terrastock festival and has this report.
MILO MILES reporting:
The Terrastock 5 festival held at the Axis club in Boston in early October was
ostensibly a benefit for the British magazine Ptolemaic Terrascope. But since
the Terrastock festivals began in 1996, they have never made any money. In
practice, the festivals have become a way to keep the flame burning for a
particular subculture of bands and their fans. The mind-blowing days of the
summer of love are more than a generation gone now. So who are these people
who paid $70 for a three-day pass to see 37 acts, like Sonic Youth, from a
(Soundbite of song)
SONIC YOUTH: (Singing) Heard your name the other day. It's been a long, long
time. Ain't you missed me some would say. Another state of mind. You smell
of memory. Felt it electric child. She takes a plastic pill. She plays the
weatherman. She screams religion kills more than it saves you, man. She...
MILES: It's inevitable that so-called head music should attract introverts
and, in the case of Terrastock, introverts with disposable income. The shows
at Axis had more the atmosphere of a brainiac rec room than an outlaw hideout,
more after-school games than acid test. And only performers who have appeared
in the Ptolemaic Terrascope magazine may play at the Terrastock festival.
Editor Phil McMullen is plainly more drawn to the instrumental side of
psychedelia, though he resists even using that term. At Terrastock 5, words
and singers were secondary. But there was enough vigor and diversity to argue
that the genre is enjoying a silver age. Psychedelia has the advantage of
never having been welded to youthful themes or male supremacist outlook. So
even the most hard-charging LSD garage rockers, such as Motorpsycho from
Norway, have their bouncy, sweet side.
(Soundbite of song)
MOTOR PSYCHO: (Singing) Whoo, whoo. Whoo, whoo. Whoo, whoo. Whoo, whoo.
MILES: No rock festival is complete without guitar heroics. Terrastock 5
featured a fine set from Bevis Frond, otherwise known as Nick Saloman, the
publisher of Ptolemaic Terrascope, a man who revived long-form acid freak-outs
on guitar back in the '80s when nobody was paying attention. The heavyweight
champion of Terrastock, though, was Wayne Rogers of the band Major Stars.
With the tune "Elephant" Rogers yanked the whole guitar rave-up into the
modern era with his fluent metallic solos.
(Soundbite of "Elephant")
MAJOR STARS: (Singing) All alone is just so against its grain. Only seeming
close as yesterday. And now it's feeling just right here. Now it's feeling
just right here.
MILES: The festivals is about surprises, not star trips. The biggest name
there, Sonic Youth, delivered an intensive and generous set. But it was more
of a thrill to discover that the Seattle group Kinski, a band I knew nothing
about, had a wonderful psychedelic punk kick on stage. Or that the Spacious
Mind from Sweden could take a crowd on a lighter-than-air voyage with trancey
Kraut rock overtones.
(Soundbite of song by Spacious Mind)
MILES: Finally there could be no better closer for Terrastock than Japan's
Acid Mothers Temple. In the grand Japanese tradition of impersonation and
replication, this group could be called `living cartoon version of a crazy
psychedelic band.' The howling, crashing music is almost an afterthought. We
get guitarist Kawabata Makoto and bassist Tsuyama Atsushi waving their huge
piles of hair. Even better was the charming keyboardist Cotton Casino,
smoking cigs and drinking beer every moment she wasn't caressing her
synthesizer or prancing about like a hippie chick waif in a WWF jersey. After
that no one could take any performance seriously, so the Terrastockers had to
file out back to the mere ordinary world.
(Soundbite of song by Acid Mothers Temple)
GROSS: Milo Miles lives in Cambridge.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
We'll close with a recording by the audio engineer and producer Tom Dowd(ph).
He helped create the sound of many of Atlantic Records' greatest jazz and
rhythm and blues recordings by such artists as Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane,
Charles Mingus, Ray Charles, The Clovers, The Drifters and Aretha Franklin.
Dowd died Sunday at the age of 77 of emphysema. Dowd engineered this Ray
(Soundbite of song)
Mr. RAY CHARLES: (Singing) Hey, mama, don't you treat me wrong. Gonna love
ya. That's all I know. Hey, hey. Come on, baby. Please girl, with your
diamond ring. She knows how to swing and swing. Hey, hey. Hey, hey. Tell
your mama, tell your pa, I'm gonna treat you right. That's all I know. All
right. Don't you worry. Whoa. Don't you keep me in misery. Come on,
(unintelligible). Oh, hey. Oh, hey.
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