President George Bush reopened one of the most sensitive issues in Allied conduct of the Second World War by saying yesterday "we should have bombed" the Auschwitz concentration camp.
The President's declaration, reviving one of the most enduring controversies from the war, came as he made an hour-long tour of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum before leaving Israel for Kuwait.
Although some historians have disagreed, many others have argued that an Allied bombing of Auschwitz and other German concentration camps might have saved the lives of large numbers of Jews slaughtered in the camps.
Avner Shalev, Yad Vashem's director, who accompanied the President on his tour, said that, at one point, Mr Bush examined aerial photos of the Auschwitz camp taken during the war by US forces and called over Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to discuss why the US government had decided against bombing the camp.
Mr Shalev said the President had then said: "We should have bombed it." He added that during the tour "Twice, I saw tears well up in his eyes'."
Mr Bush is in good company among post-war US politicians in criticising the failure of Franklin Roosevelt's wartime administration to sanction the bombing of Auschwitz. The same view was taken by former Democrat Senator George McGovern, who stood unsuccessfully against Richard Nixon for the Presidency in 1972 and was a B-24 Liberator bomber pilot during the war.
In an interview three years ago the former senator, whose own squadron carried out a bombing raid on an oil facility just five miles from Auschwitz, declared: "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."
Yad Vashem's own encyclopaedia points out that by the spring of 1944, as some 435,000 Hungarian Jews were being deported to the camp, "the Allied governments knew a lot about the mass annihilation going on at Auschwitz, the largest of the Nazi extermination camps." Two escapees from the camp had smuggled out detailed maps of its lay-out.
The Yad Vashem account says that although Jewish leaders in Slovakia and elsewhere begged the Allies to launch bombing raids, the US War Department refused to do so on the grounds that it would "divert military power from essential war operations." The raid carried out by Senator McGovern's squadron was one of many on oil and industrial installations within a 45-mile radius of the camp which were repeatedly bombed by 2,800 US aircraft between July and November 1944, eliminating any doubt that the extermination camp itself was within range.
The encyclopaedia says that, while in Britain Winston Churchill assented to a Jewish Agency request for bombing Auschwitz, the British air minister and the Foreign Office "kept stalling in order to avoid bombing operations".
Responding to Senator McGovern's arguments, the US Holocaust historian Peter Black said that had the rail lines been destroyed, the Nazis might have shot the Jews instead. He also said the government could not pinpoint where the gas chambers were and would have had to carpet-bomb the camp.
But the Yad Vashem encyclopaedia argues that the "fact that Auschwitz was not bombed to save Jewish lives shows that the Allies' desire to help the Jews were not nearly as strong as the Nazis' desire to murder them".
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