What Congress should learn from Auschwitz before the Syria vote

In light of America’s failures in responding to the Holocaust, the moral dimension of Syria’s use of chemical weapons should be at the heart of the Congressional debate.

By  | Sep. 3, 2013 | 4:57 PM
Auschwitz train station

The railroad tracks leading to the entrance of the Auschwitz concentration camp, January 1941 . Photo by AP
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The British declined to join an attack even though the Prime Minister supported it. American officials argued that an attack would be of “doubtful efficacy” and might unleash even more “vindictive” behavior. No attack was carried out, which did lasting damage to the historical reputation of every American official involved, especially the President.

This is not a prediction of the outcome of next week’s Congressional vote on authorizing an attack on Syria for using chemical weapons. It’s a description of the Allies’ rejection in 1944 of impassioned pleas by American Jewish groups and the War Refugee Board (which President Franklin D. Roosevelt expressly set up to rescue Jews in Europe) that the American and British air forces halt the chemical gassing of Jews by bombing the tracks leading to Auschwitz.

The ensuing bitter debate between historians has largely focused on the “doubtful efficacy” argument, advanced by Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy in rejecting requests for a bombing mission. FDR’s defenders argue that bombing would not have changed the fate of Jews still alive in occupied Europe because Hitler would have found some other way to murder them. FDR reportedly said when approached about a bombing mission, “Why, the idea! They’ll only move it down the road a little way.”

Even if we grant the FDR defenders’ arguments – Hitler’s fanatic commitment to exterminating Jews can never be overstated – they missed the point. Without interfering with the war effort, the United States could have devoted at least one bombing mission to destroying the tracks to Auschwitz. Even if it had failed, the bombing mission would have made a powerful moral statement and mitigated the damage to America’s reputation from its failure to do more to rescue Jews during World War II. Instead, as President Bill Clinton remarked nearly 50 years later at the opening of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, “We must live forever” with the knowledge that “far too little” was done, including the failure to bomb the “rail lines to the camps.”

Syria’s use of chemical weapons poses the same moral challenge even though the loss of life is incomparably smaller than in the Holocaust. After the initial reports of chemical weapons emerged, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council stated that the use of chemical weapons, if confirmed, is “so reprehensible as to demand an immediate, unequivocal response from the international community.”

Thus far, however, opponents of an attack on Syria seemingly discount the moral dimension of the use of chemical weapons to kill civilians. Republican Senator Rand Paul opposes an attack because “I just don’t want to see my kids or weapons of the U.S. used to kill Christians in Syria,” as though the regime’s chemical weapons, if used widely, will somehow distinguish Christians from Muslims. The chattering class unconsciously has adopted the same arguments made by John J. McCloy in 1944. A column in The American Conservative recently argued that limited strikes “are likely to intensify the conflict and cause even greater loss of life.” A column in Slate contended that “it is by no means clear that bombing military institutions will reduce the number of civilian casualties.”

To be sure, the United States cannot militarily intervene in every humanitarian or genocidal crisis. But the instant, mass lethality of chemical weapons, like nuclear or biological weapons, puts them in a special category. The Nazis turned to Zyklon B precisely because conventional weapons such as machine guns or grenades were hopelessly inadequate to the task of murdering millions. In three days of attacks on the Kurdish city of Halabja in 1988, Saddam Hussein killed 5000 Kurds immediately and seriously or fatally injured thousands more, who suffered ghastly burns, cancer, DNA mutations, and neuropsychiatric injury. And Halabja was only one of forty chemical assaults by the Hussein government. There is no reason to think that Bashar al-Assad will be more restrained than Saddam Hussein if he concludes that the United States and the rest of the world will avert their eyes while he conducts chemical weapons assaults.

In the final analysis, Congress will vote on a supremely moral issue – whether in the face of such a supreme moral atrocity, a meaningful sanction is required from those with the means to carry it out. Especially in light of this country’s failures in responding to the Holocaust, the moral dimension of Syria’s use of chemical weapons should be at the heart of the Congressional debate.

Gregory J. Wallance, a former U.S. Department of Justice prosecutor, is a lawyer and writer in New York. His most recent book is “America’s Soul in the Balance: The Holocaust, FDR’s State Department, and the Moral Disgrace of An American Aristocracy” (Greenleaf, 2012).