A review of The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler's Germany, 1941-1945 by Michael Beschloss

"Conquerors" are not generally smiled upon these days on public television and the major networks where Michael Beschloss is a ubiquitous presence. They tend to be grouped with imperialists, hegemons, and unilateralists—the sort of folks you might find around Crawford, Texas, but who cause some embarrassment in polite company. But Beschloss seems innocently to take his title from General Dwight Eisenhower's famous 1944 statement on the occasion of Allied forces entering Germany: "We come as conquerors, but not as oppressors."

Like its title, the book's subtitle may mislead some readers. While Roosevelt is a major character in Beschloss's story, he does not dominate it, and Truman occupies fewer than five out of 26 chapters. The surprising central figure of the book is Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr., and the central theme is Morgenthau's eponymous plan—ultimately rejected by Roosevelt, and firmly rebuffed by Truman—for the complete demilitarization of postwar Germany through its pastoralization and partial dismemberment. So much of the book is dominated by the shelved Morgenthau Plan and the man behind it that the narrative reads like a case study of a road not taken.

Beschloss carefully depicts U.S.-British relations and Washington bureaucratic infighting—especially between Morgenthau and Secretary of War Henry Stimson, Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy, and Secretaries of State Cordell Hull and Edward Stettinius. But in the end it is all about Morgenthau, a close friend of FDR, the only Jew in Roosevelt's cabinet, and the longest-serving Secretary of the Treasury (January 1934-July 1945) since the founding era. Beschloss vividly portrays Morgenthau's wartime transformation into an activist for European Jews—he is a lone voice in FDR's Cabinet bringing attention to the plight of the Jews and the Nazis' aim to destroy them. But Morgenthau's fight for the Jews is subordinated in this story to his ill-founded and ill-fated plan for postwar Germany. Indeed, even the actual policies of Roosevelt and Truman take a back seat in this book to a plan that was never to be implemented but in which its author never lost faith.

When he realized that Truman might replace him, Morgenthau left the Treasury Department and defended his plan with the publication of Germany is Our Problem in Fall 1945. "You're too young to know whether the Morgenthau Plan was a mistake," Morgenthau said years later to his doubtful young biographer. "And I'll bet you—though I won't be around to collect—that you're going to have to fight Germany again before you die."

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When Beschloss does write about Roosevelt and Truman, he writes with admiration tempered by reservations about some of their personal shortcomings. FDR was a giant, a world leader, but he arrogantly thought that he would live forever and kept his own vice president in the dark about foreign policy. Roosevelt frequently referred to his many trips to Germany as a youth as evidence of his understanding of German politics and psychology, but he did not have a strong ethical reaction to the Holocaust; Beschloss's pages on the president's "terrible silence" are as eloquent as any written on the subject. Of the U.S. decision not to bomb Auschwitz in 1944—long blamed on John McCloy's failure as Assistant Secretary of War to take the matter directly to the president— Beschloss concludes that McCloy had talked with FDR, who was "irate" at the suggestion and thought bombing Auschwitz would be "more provocative" and "wouldn't have done any good." (In a well-researched book, Beschloss unfortunately relies here on a single oral interview from McCloy, given late in his life in 1986 and contradicting what he had previously maintained for decades.)

Roosevelt believed his personal diplomacy could keep Stalin from shaping the postwar world, including Germany's future. Toward the end of the war, he was extremely ill, which we now know affected his judgment and actions, especially at Yalta in early 1945. Beschloss covers this ground well, although it is worth reading Robert Ferrell's elegant slim volume on the subject (The Dying President: Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1944-1945), on which Beschloss himself draws heavily.

Truman, by contrast, enters the story almost unnoticed as vice president in 1945. Having been told next to nothing about either the prosecution of the war or FDR's plans and expectations for after the war, Truman nevertheless had good instincts—setting aside his occasional personal comments about Jews. He also had a fundamental understanding that tyranny, both Nazi and Communist, should not prevail in or after World War II. As president, Truman's view of politics, including world politics, opposed Roosevelt's, who had talked about regime distinctions in his stirring wartime rhetoric but sought a neutral great-power arrangement for the postwar world. Truman thought that FDR's approach elevated the USSR to the same moral as well as political and strategic plane as the United States, and he instead pursued a policy in favor of Western leadership and democratic dominance.

The fate of the Jews and of Germany—at first intertwined but then diverging—is at the heart of Beschloss's story. Largely through the lens of the German question, he examines the efforts, first Roosevelt's and then Truman's, to shape the postwar world, and he grants that they succeeded. He wishes, however, that they had listened more to Morgenthau, who "introduced an element of reality that had been missing from the internal U.S. government debate by saying that the biggest reason to dread the Germans was not the penchant for uniforms that Roosevelt harped on but for murdering an entire people." But it was not an either-or proposition. It was both, and Beschloss suggests that Roosevelt understood one half and Morgenthau the other. If he had spent more time on the postwar period, Beschloss would have seen that Truman—for all his intemperate language and supposed inexperience in foreign policy—actually understood both Nazi Germany's militarism and its penchant for genocide.

Beschloss borrows again from Eisenhower, this time in Frankfurt in 1945, to endorse FDR's and Truman's overall policies toward conquered Germany: "The success of this occupation can only be judged fifty years from now. If the Germans at that time have a stable, prosperous democracy, then we shall have succeeded." According to Beschloss, we have all focused too much on the postwar policies that helped to build a democratic Germany—including the Marshall Plan, the Berlin Airlift, and NATO—and too little on the wartime decisions that insisted on the Germans' utter defeat. Had "Roosevelt and Truman not been so insistent not merely on conquering Germany but ensuring that it never again threatened the world, that nation might be more dangerous today." His conclusion is neither original nor convincing. Many historians and political scientists argue that the United States' postwar policies intended to contain, even conquer, Germany as much as the Soviet Union. Without question these postwar policies exerted more influence on Germany's future than did American wartime military strategy, much less the never implemented Morgenthau Plan.

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Most contemporary historians and political scientists tend to denigrate narrative historians like Beschloss. But good popular history is often superior to narrow, tedious academic accounts. Beschloss's book is lively, well written, and meticulously researched. He makes use of archival materials from the former Soviet bloc that have been released over the past several years (and translated and compiled for Beschloss and the rest of us by the Cold War International History Project) as well as the main primary and secondary source books and oral histories on America's role in the Second World War. Although its endnote style will frustrate the careful reader, The Conquerors does not suffer from the sloppy citations that plagued some of Stephen Ambrose's work or the plagiarism that has cropped up in other well-known popular writers' accounts.

In short, Beschloss relates an important and familiar story that is worth retelling. There is a certain timeliness, as well, to the story of building a stable democratic nation on the ruins of a defeated and debunked tyranny. As Beschloss says, the outcome could have been much different. Hitler, for example, might have been killed in the 1944 plot against him; or Roosevelt could have died while Henry Wallace was still his vice president. In the one case, the war might have been shorter and the postwar picture based on Casablanca and Teheran rather than Yalta; in the other, Germany's and the world's future could have been uglier and still more totalitarian, with all of Germany lost to Communism in the Cold War.

Fortunately, FDR's successor was not Wallace but Harry Truman. Though this book neglects him, to current statesmen seeking to build stable democratic regimes his example may be most pertinent.