George McGovern, a former U.S. senator and the 1972 Democratic nominee for president, said he could have bombed the Auschwitz concentration camp when he was an Air Force pilot during World War II.
60 years after Auschwitz was liberated, McGovern met with interviewers from Israel Television and the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies. He recalled his days as the pilot of a B-24 Liberator in the 455th Bomb Group, targeting German synthetic oil plants -- many of them within a few miles of the Auschwitz gas chambers.
According to McGovern, the Franklin Roosevelt administration made a strategic mistake when it chose not to order bombing raids on the camps gas chambers. There is no question we should have attempted to go after Auschwitz. 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, he said.
After the Allies gained control of the Foggia Air Base in Italy in December 1943, Auschwitz was within striking distance of Allied planes for the first time.
In June 1944, two Auschwitz escapees provided U.S. diplomats and Jewish leaders in Switzerland a detailed report about Auschwitz. It included descriptions of the mass-murder facilities and diagrams locating the gas chambers and crematoria.
Following this report, Jewish organizations repeatedly asked the Roosevelt administration to order the bombing of Auschwitz and the railroad lines leading to the camp.
The War Department rejected the bombing requests. They stated such raids would be "impracticable" and require "considerable diversion" of planes needed for the war effort.
U.S. government officials claimed to have conducted a study that found that bombing Auschwitz was not militarily feasible, but no evidence of a study has ever been found.
Other "diversions" of military resources for non-military reasons were made during the war, further incriminating the U.S. government's refusal to bomb Auschwitz. Secretary of War Henry Stimson blocked the plan to bomb the Japanese city of Kyoto because of its artistic treasures. Stimson's deputy John McCloy, who dismissed many requests to bomb Auschwitz, blocked plans to bomb the German city of Rothenburg because of its famous medieval architecture. And General George Patton diverted U.S. troops to rescue 150 Lipizzaner horses in Austria.
The administration's "diversion" argument was just "a rationalization," according to McGovern. He and other U.S bomber-pilots already were flying over the area, so bombing Auschwitz would not have been much of a diversion at all.
In the summer and fall of 1944, the Allies repeatedly bombed the oil refineries near Auschwitz. On December 26, 1944, for instance, McGovern's squadron dropped 50 tons of bombs on oil facilities that were located less than five miles from the Auschwitz ovens. At this site 1.6 million people were murdered from 1942 to 1944, and at this time hundreds of Jews were being murdered every day.
McGovern is certain the U.S. made a mistake in refusing to bomb Auschwitz. Even if there was a danger of accidentally harming some of the prisoners, "it was certainly worth the effort, despite all the risks," he noted, because the prisoners were already "doomed to death." An Allied bombing attack might have slowed the mass-murder process and saved many more lives.
"Franklin Roosevelt was a great man, and he was my political hero," McGovern said. "But I think he made two great mistakes in World War II." One was the internment of Japanese-Americans, and the other was the decision "not to go after Auschwitz.
God forgive us for that tragic miscalculation."
McGovern believes the Auschwitz experience should produce a determination that "we must never again permit genocide." The Holocaust should teach us to condemn both the savagery of the Nazis as well as the role of bystanders who didn't do enough to stop it. McGovern's comments appear in a new film, They Looked Away.