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FDR and Truman, Germans and Jews

Chronicling creation of today's Germany, with eye on Iraq

By Todd Leopold

Michael Beschloss
Michael Beschloss

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(CNN) -- In 1995, the historian Michael Beschloss finished the draft to his latest book, "The Conquerors," about the creation of modern Germany. And then he put it aside.

"I realized important documents still had to come out," he said, in a phone interview from a book tour stop in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

When he started the book in 1992, the USSR had just collapsed and a unified Germany had recently become a reality. Nothing said the new Germany would succeed, or in what form; and thousands of Russian documents were now available to shed light on the process that created the initial postwar Germany.

When he resumed work on "The Conquerors" (Simon & Schuster) a few years later, the answers appeared clearer. Modern Germany owes a good deal to U.S. presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman's work during wartime -- a model for any future nation-building and a blueprint many Americans ignored.

"People didn't stop to notice the dog that didn't bark," Beschloss said in press notes. "The dog that didn't bark was something we had feared for a half century -- that even if we won World War II, as we did, it would only be a matter of time before Germany was led by another Hitler ... That didn't happen. And it turns out that much of the reason was what Roosevelt and Truman secretly did during the war."

'He's at the center'

Although the two presidents are important to the story, Beschloss' work shines a light on a secondary figure: Roosevelt's secretary of the treasury -- and close friend -- Henry Morgenthau Jr.

In 1943, Morgenthau found out the Nazis were murdering millions of Jews in concentration camps. Although he was a highly secular Jew -- he hadn't so much as attended a Passover seder in his life -- he was radicalized by his knowledge and pushed Roosevelt to do something, anything, to stop the carnage.

'He's at the center'

"He's at the center of two big historical events," said Beschloss, adding that Morgenthau played a role in educating Roosevelt about the Holocaust and assisting Roosevelt and Truman in the planning of postwar Germany.

But Morgenthau faced several obstacles. He wanted blood for blood, pushing a plan to leave Germany a wasteland -- an idea that ran against the grain of negotiators who wanted to create some kind of German future. Also, in the dog-eat-dog world of Roosevelt advisers, his proximity to the president and his Jewishness sometimes counted against him.

The diplomatic corps, a mostly white-shoe Protestant world, could be offhandedly, cruelly anti-Semitic, Beschloss noted. "I was surprised by that, and it looks even worse from the perspective of today," he said.

Morgenthau's rivals could be blithely provocative. At one point, Beschloss writes, Henry Stimson -- a former secretary of state and FDR's secretary of war -- attended a dinner at Morgenthau's home. He disagreed with his host over postwar Germany by saying, "I think we can't solve the German problem except through Christianity and kindness" -- a statement that recalled the '60s U.N. negotiator who called for the Arabs and Israelis to settle their differences "like good Christians."


Still, FDR was a shrewd politician, and listened only so much to advisers. He zigged and zagged on the level of retribution, ideas on spheres of influence, plans for reconstruction. He also had to deal with Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill, both of whom had their own concepts of postwar Germany.

"In retrospect, I emotionally understand where Morgenthau is coming from, and I admire him for it," Beschloss said. "At the same time, Morgenthau's plan was too vindictive. In retrospect, if it had been instituted ... it would have left a vacuum for the Soviets."

Roosevelt's illnesses toward the end of the war were well known to his inner circle, and Stimson and Secretary of State Cordell Hull were openly defying the president by late 1944. And though Beschloss says in his book that Roosevelt wasn't as easygoing with Stalin as some have suggested, he acknowledges that FDR's health couldn't help but affect talks at the 1945 Yalta Conference and afterwards.

"At the very end, Roosevelt was not what he was," he said. "But he felt he should delay [making certain policy decisions] until the last possible minute." The catch was, when FDR died in April 1945, nobody knew exactly what he had planned to do, which forced Truman into a quick learning curve.

Historians are still sorting out the results of FDR and Truman's work. Some believe FDR should have bombed Auschwitz -- an idea, Beschloss reveals, he turned down. Moreover, Germany and Berlin were divided for almost 50 years, costing billions of dollars in defense and many lives.

However, postwar Germany has not succumbed to another Hitler, and it's become the economic engine of Europe -- neither of which could have been predicted in 1945, Beschloss observed.

With current rumblings about going to war against Iraq, Beschloss can't help but make comparisons. He's been told that members of the Bush administration have read the book and he hopes they draw some lessons from the experiences of FDR and Truman.

"There are two big lessons if we fight Saddam," Beschloss said. "One is that there has to be unconditional surrender. And also, if the Bush administration is [going to] make Iraq into a democracy, [there will] have to be the will to stay there."

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