George McGovern, Peace Candidate Who Knew When War Was Needed

Appreciation

Give War a Chance: George McGovern is remembered for fighting against the Vietnam War. He also battled for tougher U.S. action against the Nazis to end the Holocaust.
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Give War a Chance: George McGovern is remembered for fighting against the Vietnam War. He also battled for tougher U.S. action against the Nazis to end the Holocaust.

By JTA

Published October 21, 2012.
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“There is no question we should have attempted … to go after Auschwitz,” McGovern said in the interview. “There was a pretty good chance we could have blasted those rail lines off the face of the earth, which would have interrupted the flow of people to those death chambers, and we had a pretty good chance of knocking out those gas ovens.”

Even if there was a danger of accidentally harming some of the prisoners, “it was certainly worth the effort, despite all the risks,” McGovern said, because the prisoners were already “doomed to death” and an Allied bombing attack might have slowed down the mass-murder process, thus saving many more lives.

At the time, 16-year-old Elie Wiesel was part of a slave labor battalion stationed just outside the main camp of Auschwitz. Many years later, in his best-selling book “Night,” Wiesel described a U.S. bombing raid on the oil factories that he witnessed.

“[I]f a bomb had fallen on the blocks [the prisoners’ barracks], it alone would have claimed hundreds of victims on the spot. But we were no longer afraid of death; at any rate, not of that death,” Wiesel wrote. “Every bomb that exploded filled us with joy and gave us new confidence in life. The raid lasted over an hour. If it could only have lasted ten times ten hours!”

At the time, McGovern and his fellow pilots had no idea what was happening in Auschwitz.

“I attended every briefing that the air force gave to us,” he said. “I heard everyone, from generals on down. I never heard once mentioned the possibility that the United States air force might interdict against the gas chambers.”

Ironically, in one raid, several stray bombs from McGovern’s squadron missed the oil factory they were targeting and accidentally struck an SS sick bay, killing five SS men.

McGovern said that if his commanders had asked for volunteers to bomb the death camp, “whole crews would have volunteered.” Most soldiers understood that the war against the Nazis was not just a military struggle but a moral one, as well. In his view they would have recognized the importance of trying to interrupt the mass-murder process, even if it meant endangering their own lives in a risky bombing raid.

Indeed, the Allies’ air drops of supplies to the Polish Home Army rebels in Warsaw in August 1944 were carried out by volunteers, who agreed to undertake the missions despite the hazards of flying their planes to areas outside their normal range.

McGovern noted that he remained an ardent admirer of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

“Franklin Roosevelt was a great man and he was my political hero,” he said in the interview. “But I think he made two great mistakes in World War II.” One was the internment of Japanese Americans; the other was the decision “not to go after Auschwitz. … God forgive us for that tragic miscalculation.”

In contrast with his pacifist image, McGovern emphasized that for him, the central lesson of the U.S. failure to bomb Auschwitz was the need for “a determination that never again will we fail to exercise the full capacity of our strength in that direction.”

He added, “We should have gone all out [against Auschwitz], and we must never again permit genocide.”


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