On Friday, in a somber ceremony in Normandy, France, President Obama remembered those who landed on the beach, under withering enemy fire, exactly 70 years ago.
“America’s claim — our commitment to liberty, to equality, to freedom, to the inherent dignity of every human being — that claim is written in blood on these beaches, and it will endure for eternity,” he proclaimed.
While D-Day represents tremendous bravery and sacrifice on the part of Allied troops, and was the momentous start of the liberation of Western Europe from the Nazis, it’s somewhat revisionist to claim that D-day was about the “commitment to liberty … for every human being.”
Because it wasn’t.
If D-Day epitomizes a fight in the name of human rights, somehow Jews were left out of the equation. The truth is that the Allies were at best indifferent to the plight of the Jews prior to the start of hostilities, and this apathy continued even as they waged war on every front. Using the absurd excuse that refugees could be spies, the United States government deliberately made it difficult for Jews to arrive here from Europe, slowing Jewish immigration to a trickle by the end of 1941 and leaving millions to the mercy of the barbaric Nazis. The Evian conference, convened in 1938 by 32 countries to find a place of refuge for the Jews under the Nazi regime, accomplished nothing once it became clear that both Great Britain and the U.S. had no intention of relaxing immigration laws. In fact, the hypocrisy evinced by the West at the conference served as a cue to Hitler that he would be allowed a free hand with the Jews under his regime.
After the war, in an attempt to resolve the apparent contradiction of the war being a fight for human rights even though the U.S. government’s response to the genocide of the Jews was pathetic at best, FDR’s defenders claimed that the extent of the carnage was unknown to the American government. But as the years passed, historians learned exactly what the U.S. government knew of the atrocities and when they knew it. It became clear that as early as August 1942, the State Department knew that the Germans were intent on annihilating European Jewry. By 1943, the details of the German extermination program were reaching the White House. An OSS communication received in the White House Map Room on March 17, 1943, reported that “several hundred” Jewish adults were shot in Berlin, and that Berlin “would be liberated of all Jews by mid-March.”
Neither were the actions in Auschwitz a secret. The administration knew full well what was taking place and did nothing to prevent it. The Vrba-Wetzler report, detailing the extent of the annihilation in Auschwitz, landed on Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy’s desk only several weeks after D-Day, on June 29, while hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews were being sent there to their deaths. McCloy received several pleas to bomb the rail lines and the camps, but he responded that such action was “impracticable.”
But that was a lie. The success of D-Day and the advance into France gave Allied forces an enormous strategic boost with the construction of dozens of airfields used as a base from which to bomb targets throughout Europe. From airfields in Belgium, Italy and France, Allied planes pulverized the German war industry throughout Europe almost around the clock. From bases in Italy, Allied bombers flew no fewer than 2,800 missions to put the I.G. Farben petrochemical plant and other factories in Poland out of action.
The I.G. Farben plant was five miles from Auschwitz, a distance that would have taken mere seconds for American bombers to traverse. The 1972 Democratic Party candidate for president and former Senator George McGovern, who flew missions in the area of Auschwitz, said in a 2004 interview that “[t]here was a pretty good chance we could have blasted those rail lines off the face of the earth [and] interrupted the flow of people to those death chambers, and we had a pretty good chance of knocking out those gas ovens.”
The world owes an immeasurable debt to those who hit the beaches of Normandy 70 years ago. Many of them went on to become the liberators of the concentration camps throughout Germany. But for six million Jews, liberation would come too late, and the West bears some culpability in not making true efforts to save them. Along with the tremendous accomplishment and heroism of June 6, 1944, and the rescue of freedom for Europe, Americans have to ask themselves this: Why was evil allowed to flourish and prevail for so many years until D-Day? And how can we make sure that it will never happen again?