The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler's Germany, 1941-1945

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A New York Times bestseller, The Conquerors reveals how Franklin Roosevelt's and Harry Truman's private struggles with their aides and Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin affected the unfolding of the Holocaust and the fate of vanquished Nazi Germany. With monumental fairness and balance, The Conquerors shows how Roosevelt privately refused desperate pleas to speak out directly against the Holocaust, to save Jewish refugees and to explore the possible bombing of Auschwitz to stop the killing. The book also shows ...
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A New York Times bestseller, The Conquerors reveals how Franklin Roosevelt's and Harry Truman's private struggles with their aides and Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin affected the unfolding of the Holocaust and the fate of vanquished Nazi Germany. With monumental fairness and balance, The Conquerors shows how Roosevelt privately refused desperate pleas to speak out directly against the Holocaust, to save Jewish refugees and to explore the possible bombing of Auschwitz to stop the killing. The book also shows FDR's fierce will to ensure that Germany would never threaten the world again. Near the end of World War II, he abruptly endorsed the secret plan of his friend, Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, to reduce the Germans to a primitive existence -- despite Churchill's fear that crushing postwar Germany would let the Soviets conquer the continent. The book finally shows how, after FDR's death, President Truman rebelled against Roosevelt's tough approach and adopted the Marshall Plan and other more conciliatory policies that culminated in today's democratic, united Europe.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
Armed with information gleaned from newly opened archives, popular historian Michael Beschloss has penned a fascinating look at how Franklin D. Roosevelt arrived at, and Harry Truman instituted, a plan for the reconstruction of postwar Germany.

Bechloss breathes new life into this well-known history. He shows how Roosevelt evolved from embracing the Morgenthau Plan, which called for the reduction of Germany to a pastoral country devoid of industry, to accepting British prime minister Winston Churchill's desire for a revived but divided Germany. He also provides fascinating insight into Roosevelt's style, depicting the ever-astute president playing members of his cabinet against one another as they presented various visions of a post-Hitler Germany.

Beschloss recounts the conferences of the Big Three -- Roosevelt, Churchill, and Soviet premier Josef Stalin -- revealing how these leaders used the German question in their maneuvering for power in the postwar world. He also shows that after FDR's death, Truman assumed the presidency with little knowledge of the issue, because FDR had kept him at arm's length through the great deliberations. Nevertheless, Truman was able to successfully assert his authority at the Potsdam Conference because he was the only world leader whose nation possessed an atomic bomb.

Beschloss has given us an enthralling work that illuminates this amazing period of history. With keen observation and graceful prose, he shows how FDR and Truman made it possible for Germany to rise from the ashes and become a peaceful and democratic country. Glenn Speer

Publishers Weekly
Beschloss provides an engaging, if not revelatory, narrative of key events leading up to the conferences at Yalta (Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin) and Potsdam (Truman, Churchill, Stalin) and the Allies' decisions about how to prevent future aggression by post-WWII Germany. In his preface, Beschloss makes much of the fact that this study draws on newly released documents from the former Soviet Union, the FBI and private archives. But Beschloss has unearthed nothing to change accepted views of how FDR developed and then began to implement his vision for postwar Germany. The tales Beschloss gathers here are no different from those already told in such books as Eric Larrabee's Commander-in-Chief: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, His Lieutenants and Their War (1987) and Henry Morgenthau III's Mostly Morgenthaus: A Family History (1991). With reference to the latter volume, one of Beschloss's major subplots traces Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr.'s efforts to interest FDR in a draconian, retributive plan (the "Morgenthau Plan") to destroy what little might remain of Germany's infrastructure after the war. Wisely, FDR demurred. Although breaking no new ground, this book by noted presidential historian Beschloss (who has published a trilogy on Lyndon Johnson's White House tapes) will fill the bill for those who need a readable account of how American officials and their Allied counterparts came to draw the map of postwar Europe. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Foreign Affairs
World War II is the most intensively studied conflict in history, and nearly 60 years after its end, fresh information is still emerging. Beschloss' account of U.S. policy toward Germany during the war integrates new archival research to place some of the war's crucial actors and events in illuminating new perspective. In particular, Beschloss's account of the relationship between Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau and the president he served for 12 years leads to surprising and disquieting insights into Franklin Roosevelt's failure to publicize — much less to obstruct — the Holocaust. John McCloy emerges from these pages with a reputation considerably enhanced. Often singled out as the official responsible for blocking proposals to bomb Auschwitz or its feeder railroads, McCloy is shown here to have acted under direct and specific orders from Roosevelt — a source he loyally concealed for decades after the war. Beschloss' sensitive portrayal of the difficulties of assimilated, educated Jews such as Morgenthau with a political culture still strongly influenced by antisemitism is both disturbing and moving. Some of the material he handles is radioactive, such as antisemitic comments from Roosevelt and Harry Truman against the background of the Holocaust, yet Beschloss neither palliates evil nor imposes the standards of the present on the past.
Library Journal
Beschloss draws on newly opened archives to show how Roosevelt and Truman decided Germany's fate. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A lucid study of how FDR's evolving vision of postwar Europe, enacted by Truman, prevented a recapitulation of Versailles and allowed for the rise of a prosperous, democratic, peaceable Germany. Political historian Beschloss (Reaching for Glory: Lyndon Johnson's Secret White House Tapes, 1964-1965, not reviewed, etc.), both an able scholar and a gifted interpreter of the past for a popular audience, addresses episodes of wartime diplomacy that have been well studied in the professional literature. Even so, he turns up a few surprises, notably Roosevelt's changing view of how Germany would best be kept from rearming itself after Hitler's fall and starting trouble again, as seemed to be a well-established pattern. In 1943, Roosevelt was inclined to carve up postwar Germany into three or more states, "bound only by a system of common services, and strip those new states of 'all military activities' and 'armament industries' "; two years later, having gained greater insight into Josef Stalin's ambitions thanks in part to constant admonitions from Winston Churchill-who warned, presciently, "Sooner or later they will reunite into one nation. . . . The main thing is to keep them divided, if only for fifty years"-Roosevelt was inclined to a clement but firm peace that would draw the defeated nation into the Western camp. His view was sharpened when it became apparent that Stalin was eager to keep Germany whole so that it could be milked for billions of dollars in reparations and be drawn into the Soviet bloc. Roosevelt died just before Hitler's regime ended-Beschloss offers the fascinating tidbit that FDR's last act before expiring was to throw away his draft card-but the underestimated Trumandid a remarkable job of negotiating a pact that "created the opportunity for the United States, Great Britain, and France . . . to create, at least in part of Germany, a democratic state whose system . . . would one day spread to the East." As it did, Beschloss observes, in some measure because of the foresight of the American leadership. An altogether valuable addition to the historical literature.
From the Publisher
The New York Times Book Review Vigorously written....This is history as it was spoken at the time, and there is not a dull page.

The Wall Street Journal Opinion Journal, "Editor's Choice" A gripping narrative of the struggles at the end of World War ensure that Nazi Germany would never be allowed to repeat its horrific acts.

Richard Bernstein The New York Times The main lesson of Mr. Beschloss's fine study is that what happens after a war is as important as what happens on the battlefield.

Jim Hoagland The Washington Post An incomparable account.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780786251711
  • Publisher: Gale Group
  • Publication date: 4/28/2003
  • Pages: 771
  • Product dimensions: 5.76 (w) x 8.75 (h) x 1.52 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael R. Beschloss

Michael Beschloss has been called "the nation's leading Presidential historian" by Newsweek. He has written eight books on American Presidents and is NBC News Presidential Historian, as well as contributor to PBS's The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife and two sons.


It's not for nothing that Newsweek has called Michael Beschloss "the nation's leading Presidential historian." As a political science major at Williams College, he wrote his honors thesis on the ambivalent relationship between FDR and Joseph P. Kennedy. Reworked and expanded to book length, the material was published in 1980 under the title Kennedy and Roosevelt: The Uneasy Alliance. Although the book was met with subtle condescension from the notoriously snarky academic community, mainstream critics were quick to lavish praise on Beschloss for his meticulous research and reader-friendly prose style. Encouraged by his publisher, he followed up his debut with another historical narrative, Mayday: Eisenhower, Khrushchev, and the U-2 Affair (1986). Reviewed by Paul A. Kreisberg in Foreign Affairs magazine, the book was described as "popular history at its best: accessible and fascinating reading for those who know little about the subject; containing enough new material and insight to command the attention of serious scholars."

Since then, the high-profile author has carved a lucrative career out of the American Presidency, penning several bestselling biographies and political histories, including The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev, 1960-1963, The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler's Germany, 1941-1945, and Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America, 1789-1989. In addition, he has edited Lyndon Johnson's White House tapes into a critically acclaimed trilogy and is in demand both as a lecturer and television commentator.

Good To Know

From 1982 until 1986, Beschloss served as a historian at the Smithsonian Institution.

From 1985 until 1987, he was a senior associate member at St. Antony's College, in the University of Oxford, England.

From 1987 until 1996, he was a senior fellow of the Annenberg Foundation in Washington, D.C.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Michael Beschloss
    2. Hometown:
      Washington, D.C.
    1. Date of Birth:
      November 30, 1955
    2. Place of Birth:
      Chicago, Illinois
    1. Education:
      Williams College, Harvard University

Read an Excerpt

From one of America's most respected historians, The Conquerors reveals one of the most important stories of World War II. As Allied soldiers fought the Nazis, Franklin Roosevelt and, later Harry Truman fought in private with Churchill and Stalin over how to ensure that Germany could never threaten the world again.

Eleven years in the writing, drawing on newly opened American, Soviet, and British documents as well as private diaries, letters and secret audio recordings, this audiobook let us eavesdrop on private conversations and telephone calls among a cast of historical giants. The Conquerors casts new light upon Roosevelt's concealment of what America knew about Hitler's war against the Jews and his foot-dragging on saving refugees; FDR's actions so shocked his closest friend in the Cabinet, Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr., that Morgenthau risked their friendship by accusing the President of "acquiescence" in the "murder of the Jews."

The Conquerors explores suspicions that Soviet secret agents manipulated Roosevelt and his official to do Stalin's bidding on Germany. It reveals new information on FDR's hidden illnesses and how they affected his leadership and his private talk about quitting his job during his fourth term and letting Henry Truman become President. Finally it shows how unprepared new President Truman managed to pick up the piecesand push Stalin and Churchill to accede to a bargain that would let the Anglo-Americans block Soviet threats against Western Europe and ensure that the world would not have to fear another Adolf Hitler.

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Table of Contents

Ch. 1 The Plot to Murder Hitler 1
Ch. 2 "Unconditional Surrender" 9
Ch. 3 "Fifty Thousand Germans Must Be Shot!" 18
Ch. 4 "On the Back of an Envelope" 29
Ch. 5 The Terrible Silence 38
Ch. 6 The "One Hundred Percent American" 44
Ch. 7 "Oppressor of the Jews" 56
Ch. 8 "We Will Have to Get Awfully Busy" 70
Ch. 9 "Not Nearly as Bad as Sending Them to Gas Chambers" 82
Ch. 10 "Somebody's Got to Take the Lead" 91
Ch. 11 "Christianity and Kindness" 98
Ch. 12 "It Is Very, Very Necessary" 113
Ch. 13 "Do You Want Me to Beg Like Fala?" 121
Ch. 14 "A Hell of a Hubbub" 136
Ch. 15 "As Useful as Ten Fresh German Divisions" 150
Ch. 16 "Lord Give the President Strength" 166
Ch. 17 "The Only Bond Is Their Common Hate" 178
Ch. 18 "Arguing About the Future of the World" 189
Ch. 19 "No Earthly Powers Can Keep Him Here" 203
Ch. 20 "What Will We Make of It?" 216
Ch. 21 "I Was Never in Favor of That Crazy Plan" 226
Ch. 22 "You and I Will Have to Bear Great Responsibility" 238
Ch. 23 "How I Hate This Trip!" 247
Ch. 24 "We Are Drifting Toward a Line Down the Center of Germany" 260
Ch. 25 "The Spirit and Soul of a People Reborn" 271
Ch. 26 The Conquerors 283
Author's Note and Acknowledgments 293
General Sources 297
Notes 315
Index 361
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First Chapter


Chapter One

The Plot to Murder Hitler

Had the plotters been more deft, Thursday, July 20, 1944, would have been Adolf Hitler’s last day on earth.

Six weeks after D-Day, the United States, Great Britain and their allies had landed a million men in France. The Red Army was marching westward. When Hitler’s generals proposed retreat behind more defensible lines, the Führer had shaken his head, crying, “Victory or death!”

Now Hitler was burrowed in at the Wolf’s Lair, his field headquarters

near Rastenburg, in a melancholy, dank East Prussian forest. At noon, in a log barracks, he listened to a gloomy report from one of his army chiefs about Germany’s retreat on the Eastern front. In the steamy room, Hitler took off the eyeglasses he vainly refused to use in public and mopped his forehead with a handkerchief. SS men and stenographers stood around the massive, long oak table like nervous cats. Maps were unfurled. Hitler leaned over them and squinted through a magnifying glass, grimacing at the bad news.

Into the room strode a thirty-seven-year-old officer named Claus von Stauffenberg. He was a Bavarian nobleman, with blond hair and sharp cheekbones, who had lost an eye and seven fingers to an Allied mine in Tunisia while fighting for Germany. Unknown to the Führer or the other two dozen people in the chamber, Stauffenberg was part of a secret, loosely rigged anti-Hitler conspiracy that included military officers, diplomats, businessmen, pastors, intellectuals, landed gentry.

Some wanted historians of the future to record that not all Germans were Nazis. Some simply wanted to spare their nation the full brunt of conquest by the Soviet, American and British armies. Still others were unsettled by Hitler’s war against the Jews. For years, the plotters had tried to kill Hitler with rifles and explosives, but the Führer had always survived.

Disgusted by what he heard about Nazi brutality in Russia, Stauffenberg had taught himself how to use his remaining three fingers to set off a bomb. By luck, in July 1944, he was summoned to the Wolf’s Lair to help brief Hitler about the Eastern front. When Stauffenberg entered the room, the Führer shook his hand, stared at him appraisingly, then returned to his maps.

Inside Stauffenberg’s briefcase, swaddled in a shirt, was a ticking time bomb. While the Army chief droned on, Stauffenberg put the briefcase under the table. Leaving his hat and belt behind, as if he were stepping out for a moment, Stauffenberg walked out of the room and left the barracks.


About a quarter to one came a loud boom and swirl of blue-yellow flame, followed by black smoke.

Outside the barracks, Stauffenberg saw men carry out a stretcher on which lay a body shrouded by what seemed to be Hitler’s cloak. Rushing to his car for a getaway flight to Berlin, he presumed that Adolf Hitler was no more. Stauffenberg hoped that next would come a public declaration of Hitler’s assassination, an Army revolt and establishment of an anti-Nazi government in Berlin.

But when he arrived at General Staff headquarters on Bendler Street, there was only disarray. Fellow plotters were not convinced that Hitler had been killed. Aghast, Stauffenberg cried, “I myself saw Hitler carried out dead!”

But he was wrong. Striving for a better view of the maps, one of the Führer’s aides had pushed the briefcase behind one of the table’s massive supports, protecting Hitler from certain death. Stauffenberg and his adjutant, Werner von Haeften, a collaborator, had felt too rushed to put a second bomb in the briefcase. Had they done so, Hitler would have certainly been killed.

Instead, when the smoke cleared Hitler was still standing. With bloodshot eyes staring out from a soot-blackened face, he tamped down flame from his trousers. His hair stood out in spikes. His ruptured eardrums were bleeding. His right arm dangled numb at his side.

A weeping Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel threw his arms around Hitler: “My Führer, you’re alive! You’re alive!”

After donning a fresh uniform, seemingly exhilarated by his survival, Hitler was almost merry. “Once again everything turned out well for me!” he chortled to his secretaries. “More proof that fate has selected me for my mission!” That afternoon he showed his scorched clothes to the visiting ousted Italian dictator Benito Mussolini: “Look at my uniform! Look at my burns!” Hitler had the uniform sent to his mistress, Eva Braun, for safekeeping as proof of his historical destiny.

When generals telephoned from the far reaches of the German Reich to learn whether, as some had heard, Hitler was dead, the Führer was furious that they should even raise the question. With froth on his lips, he shouted, “Traitors in the bosom of their own people deserve the most ignominious of deaths. . . . Exterminate them! . . . I’ll put their wives and children into concentration camps and show them no mercy!” He even confronted his Alsatian dog: “Look me in the eyes, Blondi! Are you also a traitor like the generals of my staff?”

It did not take Hitler’s men long to discover who was behind the plot. In Berlin, Stauffenberg and three fellow plotters were arrested. A five-minute trial, “in the name of the Führer,” found them guilty of treason. In a shadowy courtyard, they were hauled before a firing squad.

Just before his execution, remembering his country before Hitler, Stauffenberg cried out, “Long live eternal Germany!”


An hour after midnight on Friday, July 21, Berlin time, Hitler spoke by radio from the Wolf’s Lair.1 After a burst of military music, he declared, “Fellow members of the German race!” An “extremely small clique of ambitious, unscrupulous and foolish, criminally stupid officers” had plotted to kill him and the German high command—“a crime that has no equal in German history.”

The plotters had “no bond and nothing in common with the German people.” He was “entirely unhurt, apart from minor grazes, bruises or burns.” Failure of the plot was “a clear sign from Providence that I must carry on with my work.”

Hitler had come to power claiming that Germany had lost World War I because craven politicians in Berlin had betrayed the generals. The newest plotters, he now said, had planned to “thrust a dagger into our back as they did in 1918. But this time they have made a very grave mistake.” His voice rose to a shriek: “Every German, whoever he may be, has a duty to fight these elements at once with ruthless determination. . . . Wipe them out at once!”

Fearing for his life, Hitler never again spoke in public. By his orders,

hundreds of suspected conspirators were arrested, tortured and executed. Another five thousand of their relatives and suspected anti-Nazi sympathizers were taken to concentration camps. A decree went out for Stauffenberg’s family to be “wiped out to its last member.”

Hitler ordered some of the chief plotters “strung up like butchered cattle.” A motion picture of their execution was rushed to the Wolf’s Lair for the Führer’s enjoyment. By one account, Hitler and his chief propagandist, Joseph Goebbels, watched in the Führer’s private theater as the shirtless men on the screen swung from piano-wire nooses, writhing and dying while their carefully unbelted trousers fell off to reveal them naked.

Goebbels had demanded for years that Hitler’s enemies be stalked with “ice-cold determination.” But when the top Nazis watched the ghoulish flickering images of the lifeless plotters, it was later said, even the cold-blooded Goebbels had to cover his eyes to keep from passing out.


As Hitler finished his speech from the Wolf’s Lair, Franklin

Roosevelt gave his own radio address from California. Speaking from a private railroad car at the San Diego naval base, he accepted the 1944 Democratic nomination for President. For wartime security reasons, the public was told only that the base was on the “Pacific coast.”

The President was taking a five-week, fourteen-thousand-mile military inspection trip of the Pacific Coast, Hawaii and Alaska. His special nine-car railroad caravan had moved slowly from Chicago to Kansas City, El Paso and Phoenix, to “kill time” before his arrival in San Diego and spare him from having to sleep at night in a moving train. Secret Service agents had tried to keep Roosevelt’s exact whereabouts a secret. At each stop, the President and his party were asked to stay aboard the train. But Roosevelt’s famous Scottie dog, Fala, had to be taken off to relieve himself. When Pullman porters and ticket takers saw Fala, they knew who was really aboard the train called “Main 985.”

One might have expected Roosevelt to be delighted when he heard the news of a coup that might topple Adolf Hitler. If a new, post-Hitler government accepted the Allied demand for unconditional surrender, it would save millions of lives and let the Big Three—Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill—throw Allied forces fully into the war against Japan.

But Roosevelt knew that life was rarely that uncomplicated. For months, American intelligence had secretly warned him of plots against Hitler. In early July 1944, Allen Dulles of the Office of Strategic Services reported from Bern, Switzerland, that “the next few weeks will be our last chance to demonstrate the determination of the Germans themselves to rid Germany of Hitler and his gang and establish a decent regime.” Eight days before Stauffenberg set off his bomb, Dulles warned that “a dramatic event” might soon take place “up north.”2

Roosevelt would have certainly realized that a new, post-Hitler junta would probably demand a negotiated settlement. It might insist that certain members of the German military high command, government and other institutions stay in place. This would frustrate his declared intention to remake postwar Germany from the ground up so that it could never threaten the world again. Official Allied policy was unconditional surrender. But

Roosevelt knew that if a rump post-Hitler government sued for peace, it would be difficult for Churchill and himself to persuade their war-exhausted peoples to keep fighting and lose hundreds of thousands more lives.

Dulles had reported that one group of anti-Hitler conspirators wanted “to prevent Central Europe from coming . . . under the control of Russia.” As Roosevelt knew, Churchill might be sorely tempted by a deal with a new German government that could save British lives and block the Soviets in Europe, provoking an immediate confrontation with Stalin. Even worse was the possibility that a post-Hitler government might side with the Soviets against the Anglo-Americans.

Told of the attempted assassination, reporters in San Diego badgered Roosevelt’s aides for the President’s reaction to the news. The President offered no comment. Whatever he said would be playing with fire. If he publicly welcomed the plot, he might seem to be backing off from unconditional surrender. If he denounced it, he might appear indifferent to a development that might end the war quickly. If he opposed the plot and it proved ultimately to succeed, Stalin would have a better chance to make a deal with a new post-Hitler government that would let the Soviets dominate Europe.

Instead, Roosevelt wrote a carefully worded private message to Stalin suggesting that the plot was encouraging because it revealed a Nazi foe in disarray: “We have just received news of the difficulties in Germany and especially at Hitler’s headquarters. It is all to the good.” With the same cheerful presumption that the plot could be nothing but good news, Roosevelt wrote his wife, Eleanor, “Dearest Babs. . . . I might have to hurry back earlier if this German revolt gets worse! I fear though that it won’t.”


On Friday evening in Chicago, with Roosevelt’s consent, Democrats had chosen Senator Harry Truman of Missouri for Vice President. In San Diego, with Truman safely nominated, the President and Fala were driven in darkness to Broadway Pier and piped aboard the heavy cruiser Baltimore, bound for Honolulu. To protect Roosevelt from Japanese attack, the gleaming new ship was escorted by four destroyers. It followed an unpredictable route and was darkened from sunset to sunrise. During the voyage, sailors had to be stopped from cutting snippets of hair from Fala to send home.

The President slept soundly and sat on the vessel’s flag bridge, enjoying the sun and cool breezes. During his Pacific idyll and later in the trip, Roose-

velt received intelligence reports that after Hitler’s near-murder, the “blood purge” of the Führer’s internal enemies was “ruthless.” So many Germans were being arrested that “schools and other large public buildings are being used as supplementary jails.” Roosevelt was informed that after Hitler’s clean sweep, Germans would now “probably have to wait for the complete military collapse of Germany to rid themselves of the Nazis.”

When the Baltimore arrived in Honolulu, its presidential flag was hoisted. This upset the Secret Service, but by now, almost everyone in the Hawaiian capital knew that Roosevelt was coming. Staying in a mansion bequeathed to the United States by a hard-drinking millionaire who had committed suicide, the President had what he called a “splendid” talk with General Douglas MacArthur about the Pacific war.

Only a full week after Hitler’s near-assassination did Roosevelt make his first public comment about the plot. As the President sat with reporters on the emerald lawn of the Hawaiian governor’s palace, he was excruciat-

ingly careful: “I don’t think I know anything more about it than you do. . . . We can all have our own ideas about it.”3 He went on to reaffirm the Allied demand for unconditional surrender: “Practically every German denies

the fact they surrendered in the last war. But this time, they are going to know it!”

From Moscow, Stalin’s propagandists agreed: “Hitlerite Germany will be driven to her knees not by insurgent officers, but by ourselves and our Allies!”


Churchill scoffed at the anti-Hitler plot. Before the House of Commons, he explained that high German officials were merely trying to elude their inevitable, absolute defeat by “murdering one another.”4

The Prime Minister’s icy dismissal concealed a secret that few in His Majesty’s government knew. According to British intelligence documents released in 1998, Churchill’s secret agents were themselves trying to have Hitler murdered. Under the code name Operation Foxley, they schemed to have Hitler’s tea poisoned, his uniform doused with lethal bacteria, his train blown up, or for him to be shot during his daily walk.5

One British colonel who knew about the operation could not understand why they were going after Hitler: He was doing such a good job of losing the war! Killing the Führer, he warned, might unite Germans against the Allied armies. Assassination would “canonize” Hitler and “give birth to the myth that Germany would have been saved had he lived.” Another British officer said, “I think Hitler should be permitted to live until he dies of senile decay before the eyes of the people he has misled. . . . Make him a laughing stock.”

A more sober British intelligence man insisted that they keep on trying. Hitler’s “mystical hold” over the German people, he wrote, was “keeping the country together” as the Anglo-Americans struggled to free Europe.


Roosevelt agreed with Stalin and Churchill that the paramount question left by the European war would be what happened to Germany. He believed that a lasting peace would depend on whether he and Churchill could maintain their friendship with the Soviet Union and whether Germany could be so transformed that it would never threaten the world again.

But how? Even with the European war rushing toward climax and Allied armies about to pierce the German border, the President refused to commit himself. He told exasperated aides that much would depend on “what we and the Allies find when we get into Germany—and we are not there yet.”

With his extravagant confidence in his ability to master events, Franklin Roosevelt was keeping his options open until the final possible moment.

Copyright © 2002 by Michael Beschloss

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Interviews & Essays

Talking with Michael Beschloss

Barnes & What made you want to write a book on this particular topic? You typically write about a later period.

MB: I think for any historian who is interested in the 20th century, World War II is really pivotal, and also if you take a look at what Roosevelt and Truman and the Americans did with Germany, you get into some of the most interesting questions that you can imagine. Did Roosevelt do enough to stop the Holocaust? Did we fight the war in a way that spared the world another Hitler? And also those times were just so dramatic -- they just weren't like the times we are living through now.

B& What were the new papers and other primary sources that you were able to include in the book?

MB: It may seem amazing to some, but 50 or 60 years after World War II, there are still papers just now being released.

For instance, a lot of the British intelligence documents were only released in the last few years, such as ones showing British secret agents were trying to kill Hitler and how they were trying to do it. Poisoning his coffee, shooting him during his daily walk, and so forth. Also the documents coming out of the Soviet Union which give for the first time an idea of what Stalin was trying to do in his war against the Germans. He hoped to get, after V-E Day, a Germany that was Soviet-oriented.

In addition, there are FBI files that have not been opened until the last few years, such as the files on Harry Dexter White, who was an official of the U.S. government. After the end of the war, White was accused of being a Soviet agent. It was an especially serious charge because others said that he manipulated FDR. Because the FBI and the CIA recently opened the cables between Soviet intelligence agents in Moscow and those in Washington, you can get a much better idea of whether White was a Soviet agent or not, and therefore whether FDR, in making policy for postwar Europe, was doing so at the behest of a Soviet agent.

B& What did you discover that other historians did not know?

MB: The biggest thing was that before this book, there was the common belief that when the bombing of Auschwitz was discussed in 1944, it went no higher than John McCloy, assistant secretary of war, and that he did not bring it to Roosevelt. FDR was thus thought not to have any input on what was one of the key decisions of the 20th century. But I found in an unpublished interview with Henry Morgenthau III (the son of Treasury secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr.) the information that shortly before McCloy died, he revealed that, indeed, he had taken this to FDR, who turned the idea down flat.

The good news was that this was an issue that was that important and went up to the level that it deserved, which was the president. But the bad news is that rather than considering the idea seriously and staffing it out and getting people to give him their opinions, Roosevelt, as I think he did too frequently during the war, handled it himself, essentially out of his hat, and decided on the spur of the moment that it should not be done. And I think there is a great possibility that hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives as a result. And also that the United States lost its chance to put itself on the record in history as understanding that the Holocaust was an unprecedented crime and that even though our sole war aim was unconditional surrender, this crime was so severe it deserved widening the war aims to stop it before the war ended.

B& Could you talk about the basic conflict in the book, between Secretary of the Treasury Morgenthau's vision for a postwar Germany and the views of other members of the cabinet, like Secretary of War Stimson. Where did FDR himself side in this feud, or was he actually directing it all the time?

MB: Morgenthau (who was not only the secretary of the Treasury but Roosevelt's closest friend in the Cabinet) was an unobservant Jew who was shocked by what he learned about the Holocaust, and it led him to do two things. It led him to go to Roosevelt and demand first that he stop it and then endorse what became known as the Morgenthau Plan, which specified that after V-E Day, German factories would be destroyed, mines would be flooded, German industry would be turned into a ghost town, and Germany would be turned into an agrarian, Jeffersonian country that could never make war.

Morgenthau pushed that plan very hard. Secretary of War Henry Stimson, who at best thought it was vindictive and would cause a resentful Germany to start a third world war, opposed it. Also, Stimson was probably afflicted by feelings of anti-Semitism toward Morgenthau. Sometimes their arguments got very ugly on an ethnic level. Roosevelt always gave both sides the impression that he endorsed them both. And for a time, late in the war, Roosevelt at least pretended to support the Morgenthau Plan and even forced Churchill to sign a document endorsing it. But I discovered that the reason that Roosevelt did that was that he was worried that the British especially, and people like Stimson, would go soft on Germany after V-E Day rather than make a big effort to punish the Nazis and convert Nazi Germany into a democracy.

B& What were FDR's relations like with Churchill and Stalin? How did their vision of postwar Germany conflict with FDR's?

MB: Roosevelt above all was trying hard to keep Stalin fighting the Germans throughout the war. He was always terrified that Stalin would turn around and make a separate deal with Hitler that would then let the Germans turn around and let the full brunt of their force go against the British and the Americans. All through the war he was buttering Stalin up and trying to make him happy, especially when Stalin was growing impatient about the delay of D-Day, the invasion of Europe by the Americans and British.

On the Churchill side, Roosevelt was always the senior partner and bullied Churchill because Churchill was so dependent on the United States and ultimately would have to do whatever the United States wanted, within reason. One of the things the Soviet documents showed me was that Stalin wanted a very weak Germany; that would allow the Soviet Union to potentially take over all of Europe. Churchill was terrified of this result, and that's why Churchill opposed the Morgenthau Plan and wanted a strong Germany -- to make sure there was a German state to stop the Red Army from rolling all over Europe.

B& What was FDR's vision of a defeated Germany? Did he succeed in setting about what he wanted to do? Do you consider him a success?

MB: His vision had become what Germany is in 2002. It was an enormous accomplishment, because in 1945, polls show us that most Americans thought that even if we won the war, it was only a matter of time before Germany waged a third world war under some future Adolf Hitler. And what Roosevelt's policy, which went beyond his death, managed to do was transform Germany into a democracy. And today it is one of the strongest democracies on earth. I am very tough on Roosevelt on some things, such as the Holocaust, some of the decisions he made. But the supreme lesson of the story is, if you like the fact that Americans do not have to fear another Hitler or Germany today, you can thank Franklin Roosevelt. And someone else who may not have been as adroit as the president may not have been able to do that.

B& You talked about this earlier, but exactly why didn't FDR do anything about the Holocaust? He received reports about the slaughter of Jews, didn't he?

MB: Here is an example of a president making a decision that doesn't seem that important to him in real time but with a half century of hindsight turns out to be monumentally important. I guarantee you that when Roosevelt turned down the idea of bombing Auschwitz, he would have been stupefied to think that a half century later, this is one of the decisions for which he would be remembered -- and, sadly, in some cases reviled. Many American Jews who once thought that Roosevelt was a hero are now deeply angry at him for making that decision. And I guess the lesson here for any president is that you can't make decisions in a cavalier way, and from what we know Roosevelt turned down the bombing of Auschwitz in a very cavalier way.

B& What was Truman's contribution to the establishment of postwar Germany? Do you consider him a success?

MB: Allowing for the fact that his time was briefer, I think his contribution was just as great. What Truman had to do during the months after World War II were two things that were almost antithetical or contradictory. One was to reform the Germans and get Nazism out of that system. The other one was to get the Germans to love the Americans and to love our system. And it was very hard to do both at the same time.

And the fact that he accomplished both had a lot to do with Truman's great sensitivity to how you mix the two bowls. At the same time, I was very badly disappointed by the fact that Truman, in private, would use ethnic epithets about Jews that really were those that cheap local courthouse politicians would use, not someone of Truman's stature. And you just marvel that someone could be so petty and ugly in private and still in his public acts essentially do the right thing.

B& What will be your next project? Will it be the third volume of the Lyndon Johnson tapes?

MB: Two things. I am doing a third volume of the LBJ tapes and also a book that I have wanted to write since I was seven years old, on Abraham Lincoln's assassination. The book will be less about Booth and more about Lincoln. Amazingly enough, there have been very few books that have been a comprehensive treatment of the assassination.

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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 17, 2003

    Difficult to read

    The topic is interesting but I strongly recommend reading it at the cafe at B&N all at one go. Its difficult to set down and resume because it all seems the same. Of course, having read the New Dealers War right before this one made The Conquerors seem like a companion volume that one can skip. Another 1/4 read book on my shelves.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 27, 2002

    Interesting book!

    Full of good information.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 9, 2002

    Great Book!!

    i thought the Conquers was a great book very informative and interesting. it held my attention very well unlike most books. i loved it

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 3, 2002

    The Conquerors: Review

    This book is very readable and the author has definitely done his homework. The very difficult dilemma of what to do with the defeated Nazi Germany was discussed from the view of the decision makers. The book does a good job of briging out the many factors that went into policy after the war including the all important goal of making it impossible for another similar war to occur and elimination of Nazi ideology. This was not just a simple account of the presidents actions as are so many other books -it included the policy makers that worked for the presidents. I was surprised at the amount of information included on Henry Morgenthau (who was in some ways, a 1940s version of Henry Kissinger). It was frightening how the cabinet members would fight and manuver and have such major differences over policy and the basic values of right and wrong and justice. I do feel that the authors opinions are also included and I also feel that the actions taken and policies are judged in the book by to our Nation's present 2002 values. This will encourage some readers but perhaps not others.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 4, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

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