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October 31,2002
Conquering Evil
in Iraq and Nazi Germany
Marcia Todd, Contributor

     FRESNO -- George W. Bush isn't the first president to consider how to turn a dictatorship into a democracy. During World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman worked to make sure Germany would never threaten the world.
     That's the subject of the book "The Conquerors" by Michael Beschloss. His book includes some revelations about what the U.S. knew about Nazi death camps and when they knew it. Michael Beschloss reports there has always been suspicions that FDR knew more than was stated publicly.
     FDR knew a lot in 1942. What troubled me for almost two years, Roosevelt knew a lot about the fact that the Nazis were trying to murder an entire people, the Jewish people, and knowing Roosevelt, just as a presidential historian, I would have expected him to give a speech saying, this is what we Americans are fighting against, you should know, you Americans, what is going on inside Nazi Germany.
     He did not make that public, and he never even said in public that the Nazis should worry about if we Allies win the war, we would penalize the fact they had tried to do this horrible thing.
     He once said to one of his cabinet, Henry Morganfeld, who was a Jewish and a Catholic official, you should remember, this is a Protestant country, and you Jews and Catholics are here under sufferance. You have to go along with everything I want.
     The most important thing about Roosevelt always to remember is he is the one who won World War II, led us into that victory. Had he not done that, we would not be living in a happy world today. Many of us would not even be living. But, at the same time, you always have to look at a president in terms of how he handles the tough calls. One of the biggest events of the 20th century, if not the largest, was the Holocaust. And on that, Roosevelt really did not do very well.
     One thing that was wonderful about President Harry Truman was, it was the American dream that anyone can become president. He became that without much preparation and made great decisions. But, at the same time, there was an undercurrent. For instance, when it was revealed finally that the death caps had been open and you had horrible pictures on the front of newspapers at Buchenwald and Belsen.
     Truman's diaries continue to make petty anti-Semitic comments, like "The Jews claim they are God's chosen people. I think God had better judgment." And knowing Truman, he was a humane man. I couldn't understand how someone with his values, especially even anti-Semites were saying, look at these horrible death caps, I've got to re-evaluate my own values, Truman could have gone on that way.
     I think Truman was a complex guy, on the large things, recognition of Israel, strategy that finally won the Cold War, Truman was a great president. But what's fascinating about these guys, is it's never one thing. There is always light and dark. And much of the dark in Truman's life is even though he became a president of huge stature, there was this sort of petty undercurrent, a very sort of small town retro comments and values.
     What is it that the current president could learn from some of these stories, particularly at a time when there is much debate about whether it makes sense to go to war against Iraq now.
     I think George W. Bush, will look back to the last time America succeeded in doing this. That was Nazi Germany. That is one lesson for us now with Iraq, and that is if we are going to do this war, Americans have to be totally behind it, and not only fight a war to unconditional surrender, topple Saddam, but be prepared for the fact that if Iraq is going to become a democracy, we may have to stay there for many years to create things like schools, and a free press. Our military may have to be there for a long time.
     Based on the polls we've seen, we don't think the American public is that patient, and that willing to spend that kind of money. It's a different situation from 1945.
     But if we go through the experience of a war and if President Bush says to Americans, we've now done half of the job, let's finish it and have a beacon of democracy in the Middle East, people might change their minds.

   [Editor's Note: Go to PBS for Harry S. Truman Notes and a biography sketch.]

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