Assessing Blame

Human Smoke
The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization
Nicholson Baker
Simon & Schuster, $16, 576 pp.


Refugees and Rescue
The Diaries and Papers of James G. McDonald (1935-1945)
Edited by Richard Breitman, Barbara McDonald Stewart, and Severin Hochberg
Indiana University Press (published in association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum), $29.95, 376 pp.


Despite reams of scholarship and reportage, we remain at a loss to understand how, and why, the world went so badly off-kilter in the 1930s. Can we lay it at the feet of the Great Depression? There's some—but, to my mind, less than overwhelming—evidence for that. If not economic turmoil, then perhaps we are better advised to delve into other realms such as arms races, diplomatic history, mass psychology, or political biography—the last of which just happens to be my choice.

Award-winning author Nicholson Baker's controversial Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization falls within this camp. The main protagonists in this high drama are Winston Churchill, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and to no one's surprise, Adolf Hitler. If Baker had asked me, I would have added Joseph Stalin to the list, but his absence does not materially detract from the overarching argument that it was Hitler, Churchill, and FDR who bore ultimate responsibility for leading us into World War II.

This is not a book in the most literal sense. It is, instead, a highly selective rendering of events taken from newspapers, magazines, diaries, notes, and speeches from this period that are stitched together into a cumulative narrative. Baker, in other words, lets his “facts” speak for themselves. They paint a damning picture of how these three individuals helped lay the groundwork for World War II. Ironically enough, Hitler's all-too-well-documented outrages end up letting him off the hook, in this reviewer's opinion. There's nothing Baker can tell us that we do not already know about him. On the other hand, Baker—or more accurately his narrative—argues that Churchill and FDR have gotten off far too easily. He believes it's time to set the record straight on these two.

The largest portion of Baker's ire is reserved for Churchill, who comes off as, among other things, a sadistic bully and a rabid militarist. Some British leaders with fresh memories of the carnage caused by World War I—such as the hapless Neville Chamberlain—might have been repelled by the thought of bombing unprotected cities in Italy and Germany in a new war. The very prospect of it drove Churchill into outright raptures of ecstasy. Germ warfare, mass starvation: whatever it took to destroy the “enemy” was fine with him. As Churchill remarked to a cabinet minister early in the conflict: “You and others...may desire to kill women and children...but the British government's desire is to destroy military objectives. My motto is ‘Business before Pleasure.'”

FDR comes in for special criticism on two counts: first, for goading Japan into war with the United States, despite Tokyo's best efforts to prevent it; and, second, for his passive response to Germany's persecution of its Jews. On Japan, Baker's documents lead him to conclude that from the onset of his administration, FDR consciously put the United States on a collision course with Japan in the Pacific. Those provocations included: the establishment of a large U.S. naval presence in Alaska and the Aleutians; the granting of a permit for Pan American Airways to build runways on Wake Island, Midway Island, and Guam; and most fatefully, the U.S. embargo of raw material exports, which, most historians now agree, was the proximate cause of Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor.

FDR's background did not predispose him to sympathize with Jews. A member of Harvard's Board of Overseers, Roosevelt became alarmed over the number of Jews being admitted to Harvard in the early 1920s. His solution: reduce their acceptance rate. Once in the White House his views gradually softened, up to a point. Kristallnacht, the Nazi rampage against Jewish property, jolted him out of his complacency. “I myself could scarcely believe that such things could occur in a twentieth-century civilization,” he exclaimed at a press conference soon after the event. Tellingly enough, however, his condemnation did not specifically refer to the object of his concern: Jews. Good intentions were as far as FDR was prepared to go, according to Baker.

Baker's is not the only voice to enter into the debate about FDR's role in the Holocaust, however. Other, more sympathetic views are also making the rounds. At the top of the list is volume 2 of the collected papers of James G. McDonald, who served as League of Nations high commissioner for refugees, and subsequent president of a White House-sponsored committee on refugees. Edited by historians Richard Breitman, Barbara McDonald, and Severin Hoch­berg, Refugees and Rescue: The Diaries and Papers of James G. McDonald, 1935-1945, has been hailed by revisionist scholars as a long-overdue corrective to the conventional view that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was indifferent to the fate of German Jews and did little to rescue them.

The McDonald papers suggest otherwise: while most of FDR's efforts to save German Jewry came to naught, he did a great deal more behind the scenes to help than was previously known. In one ill-fated, and only just revealed, case, Roosevelt charged McDonald with mobilizing a consortium of private financiers to facilitate Jewish immigration to a German, French, or British colony. Internal bickering among this group ended up dooming the enterprise. But, thanks to FDR's tacit support, McDonald fared better with Bolivia where he was able to talk the government into taking in twenty thousand Jews between 1938 and 1944.

The McDonald papers also bring to light some previously unknown details on behind-the-scenes talks in the spring of 1936 between Heinrich Himmler (future head of the dreaded SS), McDonald, and the U.S. consul in Berlin charged with helping relocate Germany's Jews to other parts of the world. This was during the period when Nazi ideologues were still playing around with the idea of solving their Jewish “problem” through forced emigration. Himmler initially voiced enthusiasm for the idea, going so far as to set up a meeting between McDonald and his deputy in charge of “Jewish Questions” (Juden Fragen). At the conclusion of an amiable enough conversation, Himmler's deputy was thoughtful enough to provide McDonald with a comprehensive list of all the influential Jews in every German city, along with his private phone number. The upsurge of more vitriolic forms of anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany soon thereafter put an end to those talks.

Of the two books, the McDonald volume is far easier to digest: his diary notes are, for the most part, well written, nonpolemical, and, unfortunately, all too prophetic. Not so with Human Smoke. Since its release early last year, Baker has become the focus of a spirited debate between historians and novelists. Where the historians, such as John Lukacs, accuse Baker of willful distortion of history—à la Michael Moore—novelists, such as Colm Tóibín, cut him more slack. Even if, for example, his depiction of Churchill and FDR is somewhat overblown, they maintain that Baker still deserves credit for putting the two in the docket. For what it's worth, my vote is with the historians.

Published in the 2009-10-09 issue: 
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John Starrels is a nonresident senior fellow at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

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