Saturday, November 29, 2003
Post-war planning: 1941-1945 vs. 2002-2003
I've just finished Michael Beschloss' new book, The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler's Germany, 1941-1945.
I wish I could recommend it, but it's written with a stylistic quirk that — completely apart from content — drove me up the wall. Beschloss includes extensive endnotes and I take on faith his historical accuracy throughout. But he writes with very extensive — painfully extensive — embedded quotations mid-sentence, packing in phrases and clauses and semi-sentences surrounded by quote marks. The result is prose that ends up reading like a legal appellate brief that's summarizing a trial record — which is fine when you're working under strict space limitations and there's going to be an advocate writing an opposing brief that challenges your every factual assertion, but which becomes extremely tedious after about the first twenty-five pages of this book. The jacket liner describes this as "let[ting] us eavesdrop on private conversations and telephone calls among a cast of historical giants," but I, for one, would far rather either read full-bodied block quotations or else pithy summaries in the author's own words.
The book is copyrighted 2002 and Beschloss began work on the book in 1991, but the central subject — the planning that went on during World War II for what to do with Germany after the war — is extremely relevant today. The description of the actual post-war occupation and reconstruction is extremely brief. Instead, the focus is almost entirely on the policy struggle between Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. on the one hand, and Secretary of State Cordell Hull and Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson on the other, to influence FDR (and indirectly, Churchill and Stalin) during the planning for the post-war period.
Morgenthau was a non-practicing Jew and a close personal friend of FDR who wanted to punish the German people for this war and ensure that they'd never be able to wage another like it. To accomplish this, he proposed to systematically demolish Germany's entire industrial capability; to give its industrial equipment and markets to the USSR and Britain in lieu of reparations; to forcibly deport Germans with industrial training and skills; and to dismember the country into feudal, agricultural semi-states. Hull and Stimson opposed such dramatic measures, both on humanitarian grounds and because of their growing concerns that a rebuilt and stabilized Germany would be needed as a bulwark against post-war Soviet expansion. Apparently, FDR deliberately waffled on this subject — and Beschloss paints this as a characteristic and deliberate management strategy whereby Roosevelt would maintain his own political power by playing off his strong-willed subordinates against one another. Nevertheless, by Roosevelt's death just before VE-Day, the "Morgenthau Plan" was almost a dead letter, and new President Truman paid it lip service, and nothing more, only as long as he wanted to keep Morgenthau at Treasury — which turned out not to be very long.
Today, of course, no one would ever dream of arguing for something like the "Morgenthau Plan" for Afghanistan or Iraq; it simply goes without saying that we want to rebuild and improve these countries after defeating their ruling regimes. And on both broad concepts and the devilish details, America's 2002 and 2003 pre- and during-war planning for post-war periods looks pretty damned sophisticated in comparison to what was done during World War II.
Beschloss does offer this tidbit that is particularly timely and interesting in ways he probably couldn't have predicted when he wrote it:
At the White House, Truman was surprised to learn that Hitler had killed himself. He had expected "many high German officers" to "take this way out," but Hitler, "in his fanaticism," to "resist to the very end."
Accustomed to mistrust what they heard from Nazi Germany, sixty-eight percent of American respondents to a Gallup poll questioned whether Hitler was really dead. A Michigan animal trainer named Spikehorn Meyer wired Truman, "I am offering $50,000, cash American money, for the capture of Adolf Hitler, delivered to me.... I want to make Hitler a sideline attraction with my bear show, and I will tour Russia, England and other Allied countries."
Herr Hitler's availability to tour with the bears notwithstanding, Americans then seemed to be reasonably sure that we had done a worthwhile thing in that war; they should feel the same now about Afghanistan and Iraq regardless of whether we ever actually account for the bones, living or dead, of those monumental losers bin Laden and Saddam.
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