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"When Good Men Did Nothing"

It's the seventieth anniversary of Kristallnacht.

While many Americans would also claim they were unaware of the atrocities committed by the Nazis during the Holocaust, the events of November 9-10 were well documented. The New York Times ran a front-page story on November 11: "A wave of destruction, looting and incendiarism unparalleled in Germany since the Thirty Years War and in Europe generally since the Bolshevist Revolution swept over Great Germany today as National Socialist cohorts took vengeance on Jewish shops, offices and synagogues for the murder by a young Polish Jew of Ernst vom Rath, third secretary of the German Embassy in Paris." Another Times story was headlined, "All Vienna's synagogues attacked."

FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT made no immediate comment after Kristallnacht, referring questions about it to the State Department. Only after five days of widespread public outrage did he take any action: recalling the US ambassador from Germany and stating in a press conference, "The news of the past few days from Germany has deeply shocked public opinion in the US. Such news from any part of the world would inevitably produce a similar profound reaction among American people in every part of the nation. I myself could scarcely believe that such things could happen in a 20th century civilization..."

Roosevelt agreed to allow 15,000 German Jews already in the United States to remain, but resisted all calls to increase the overall quota of immigrants from Nazi-occupied countries. Equally significant, his failure to take any action against Germany, or to mobilize an international coalition to challenge Hitler, sent the message that the world would not intervene to save the Jews. How much he could have done given the isolationist and xenophobic mood of the American public at that time is debatable, but the consequences of his inaction were catastrophic.

If President Obama continues to show signs of coddling Ahmajinedad and the Iranian mullahs, he will be sending a similar signal. If this history ever repeats itself, it won't be farce--it will be tragedy anew, because we inexcusably forgot it.

[Update a few minutes later]

Synagogues around the world are being asked to keep their lights on tonight, in remembrance.


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MG wrote:

Re: FDR...

Q: When is this man gonna quit being a Democrat quasi-religious icon, and become a fallible, historical human figure?

A: Only when it is politically profitable for Democrats to do so... and they will try to have it both ways.

PS: Republicans do the same w/ Reagan... so I am an equal opportunity complainer.

Jim Harris wrote:

Republicans do the same w/ Reagan... so I am an equal opportunity complainer.

You may have a point there, MG. The topic of this post is Iran and whether it would be dangerous to "coddle" it. And Reagan has an interesting relationship to that question. Here is what the Great Communicator said about Iran:

During the course of our secret discussions, I authorized the transfer of small amounts of defensive weapons and spare parts for defensive systems to Iran. My purpose was to convince Tehran that our negotiators were acting with my authority, to send a signal that the United States was prepared to replace the animosity between us with a new relationship...
For these reasons, it is in our national interest to watch for changes within Iran that might offer hope for an improved relationship. Until last year there was little to justify that hope. Indeed, we have bitter and enduring disagreements that persist today. At the heart of our quarrel has been Iran's past sponsorship of international terrorism. Iranian policy has been devoted to expelling all Western influence from the Middle East. We cannot abide that because our interests in the Middle East are vital. At the same time, we seek no territory or special position in Iran. The Iranian revolution is a fact of history, but between American and Iranian basic national interests there need be no permanent conflict.

How should we understand Reagan's position on Iran? Was he right? Was he a little misguided but meant well? Or did he channel an outrageous impulse of appeasement from the ghost of Neville Chamberlain?

Carl Pham wrote:

You should probably understand Reagan in 1986 (assuming your purpose is to understand, as opposed to merely fling mockery) as standing in roughly the middle of the giant shift of Iran from its 1950s through 1970s status of being a client of the United States, an ally, someone to whom we solid F-15s and other advanced weaponry, to its 1980s through 2000s status of being an Islamofascist dictatorship which has become increasingly at odds with American interests.

Not surprisingly, Reagan's rhetoric is harsher than that before the Islamic Revolution, but far less harsh than today's rhetoric, after it has become clear that the Islamic Revolution has poisoned itself, like the French and Russian Revolutions before it, and turned into a class post-revolutionary terror regime awaiting only its Napoleon to turn outward and wreak havoc.

Reagan can be seen as holding out hope that the young Islamic Republic would recover its senses, preserve the good it had done in freeing the Persian people from the dictatorship of the shah -- and from the accompanying harsh class system -- while rejecting the madness of religious totalitarianism. It probably still seemed possible in 1986, a mere 7 years after the Revolution.

He was mistaken, of course, as subsequent events have proved, but he can hardly be faulted for hoping for better. He did not, after all, sacrifice nor propose to sacrifice any serious American interests in his hope. The notion that Reagan would have been perfectly comfortable allowing even the young Islamic Republic to acquire nuclear weapons doesn't even pass the laugh test, unless you're a partisan screwhead with zero independence of judgment.

An enormous contrast can be made with Barack Obama, who is speaking thirty years after the Islamic Revolution, and after it has long ago become clear that the Islamic Republic is a thorough-going totalitarian monster intent (as all are) on distracting its populace from its inability to run a functioning domestic economy by paranoia about "encirclement" and "Great Satans" abroad. Reagan spoke in early days, and he spoke out of hope. Obama speaks a full generation after hope has died in any reasonable person's imagination, and out of profound ignorance.

What has also become clear is that the Islamic Republic is failing internally, not unlike the Soviet Union in the late 70s and early 80s. One can make a good case, therefore, that a Reagan is exactly what is needed for Iran now. Someone who will really put the screws on them, force them to choose between preserving the ideology and preserving the nation. I expect, just in the way Russians chose to preserve Russia and abandon Stalinism, so in the face of similar pressure the Iranians would chose to preserve Iran and abandon Islamofascism.

But we won't find out, will we? Not for at least four years. Because the guy we've got in the White House doesn't give a fuck about Iran, or indeed about foreign policy in general, except insofar as criticizing that of George Bush and parroting their favorite naive slogans was helpful to dupe the young useful idiots in the Democratic Party in the primaries. So it goes.

MG wrote:

'tis too early to see how the President-elect will actually behave.

He remains a cipher... and he has left himself lots of "wiggle room". As time goes by, he will define himself by his actions. And only with his actual ACTIONS (not just public pablum) will we learn who amongst his supporters he has duped.


PS: Mr. Harris, my only unhappiness w/ Reagan and Iran was that he didn't find some way to discipline Jim Wright and the other Dems who were usurping the Executive Branch's foreign policy prerogatives in Central America.

Jim Harris wrote:

Mr. Harris, my only unhappiness w/ Reagan and Iran was that he didn't find some way to discipline Jim Wright and the other Dems who were usurping the Executive Branch's foreign policy prerogatives in Central America.

So you really think that it was a good idea to send weapons to Iran, to make a positive impression on those terrorism-sponsoring mullahs?

I personally don't think that negotiation is, by itself, coddling. But if Obama ever sent weapons to Iran, then he certainly would be a coddler. Sending weapons would go way, way too far.

Anonymous wrote:

PS: Mr. Harris, my only unhappiness w/ Reagan and Iran was that he didn't find some way to discipline Jim Wright and the other Dems who were usurping the Executive Branch's foreign policy prerogatives in Central America.

Huh? The Boland Amendment was the law of the land passed by the legislature. The Reagan administration broke that law by secretly funding the contras through arms sales to Iran. The only "discipline" any patriotic American should've wanted would be on the various criminals involved in the scandal.

And in fact that's what would've happened if Reagan hadn't pardoned them all. But at least we got this priceless from dear ol' Ronnie:

"A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that's true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not. As the Tower board reported, what began as a strategic opening to Iran deteriorated, in its implementation, into trading arms for hostages. This runs counter to my own beliefs, to administration policy, and to the original strategy we had in mind."

MG wrote:

Mr. Simberg,

I see that my diversion from Kristallnacht (a "never again" which will, unfortunately, continue to return again and again), and my attempt at non-partisanship, has unleashed the Furies.

Sorry about that.

Rand Simberg wrote:

I see that my diversion from Kristallnacht (a "never again" which will, unfortunately, continue to return again and again), and my attempt at non-partisanship, has unleashed the Furies.

To call them "furies" is to grant them too much power. They're just mindless trolls.

Carl Pham wrote:

I think, in fairness to FDR ,there was fairly little he could do, and not because of the "isolationist and xenophobic mood of the American public." That's a glib assertion, appealing to our natural tendency to hold our ancestors in contempt because they didn't know all that we know, and I doubt it's true, inasmuch as I doubt they were any more isolationist and xenophobic than they ever are, or any public ever is.

But, realistically, short of simply declaring war, what could FDR have done? The article speaks airily and vaguey of "taking action" against Germany and "mobilizing" an "international coalition to challenge" Germany. But aside from fine rhetoric, stiff diplomatic notes, what does that actually mean? What seems to be forgotten here is two grim realities about international relations, viz.:

(1) If you are not willing to go to war to back them up, very little in the way of "pressure" or "challenges" or whatnot has any effect at all. We've seen a full century in which the fantasy that "economic sanctions" could substitute for war has been indulged. Leaving aside the question of whether they are really more humane, it's evident now that they don't work.

(2) War is such a crude instrument that it's only really practical to adjust extremely serious problems between nations, or (if you're going to be the world's ethical policeman) profound injustices within nations.

In short, unless Roosevelt was prepared to wage war in response to Kristallnacht (and by the time the Final Solution came along he already was waging war), it's difficult to see what else he could have that would be effective (as opposed to merely making Americans feel morally superior).

It's an ugly and disheartening fact, but I think the only people who could realistically have prevented the Holocaust were the German people themselves, and that is where the blame must squarely lie.

Did the German people of 1933 know enough about Hitler to realize what path he was taking against the Jews, and what intentions he had for European conquest?

If they did, how many actually supported him, and how many were like Benjamin the donkey of Animal Farm who knew what was going on but didn't life a finger (or hoof) to fight against it? Could the Benjamins of Weimar Germany have successfully staved off the emergence of the Third Reich?

A lot of people are mystified by the notion that bunches of average Germans actually favored the Nazis. So am I, but I see modern-day counterparts. The Castro personality cult is a classic example. Fidel the censor who jails people for listening to the "wrong" radio stations is loved by people who hate censorship. Fidel the lethal torturer is loved by people who oppose nonlethal waterboarding. (Is watereboarding scarier than roller coasters? Put me on a roller coaster long enough and I'd confess to anything.) Fidel the man whose nation has fewer freedoms than the Jim Crow South is loved by Harry Belafonte and many other black leftists. What is the explanation for this insanity?

MG wrote:

Re: Roosevelt and Kristallnacht...

Perhaps he could have offered to take Germany's Jews?

Just sayin'

MG wrote:

Also, 19th anniversary of Berlin Wall going kaput.

Carl Pham wrote:

Perhaps he could have offered to take Germany's Jews?

What, all of them? Millions?

I dunno. I mean, I would've approved of such a thing, but just because I think America should always offer to take skilled and/or energetic immigrants. (If only there was a way for us to deport native-born Americans who have become fat and lazy whiners, the Republic would be a utopia! I propose annual citizenship tests for everybody -- and if you fail, you have to leave for some stupider place or become a slave, ha ha!)

But I wouldn't have thought it would do any good. The gates were relatively open early on in the Nazizeit, and not all who could took advantage of it. I can understand that; not everyone believed the storm was coming, that their own neighbors would turn on them viciously like that, and it is an awful wrench to up stakes and leave everything. So they waited, just a bit too long, to see how things worked out.

Furthermore, it's not likely the Nazis would have let a "boat people" exodus occur in 1938 unless the Jews offered to flee naked. Part of the purpose of the Nazis was to expropriate the property of the Jews. It wasn't just tribal hatred, it was also state-sanctioned robbery.

Finally, it doesn't help solve the problem of Germany. What was needed is for Germans to get a grip, wake up, realize the trajectory of their nation, and put a stop to it. Taking all the Jews that wanted to leave in 1938 might help the Jews of Germany, but it wouldn't put a stop to the monstrous German state and its evil plans for Europe -- which means the millions more Jews in Poland, who were snuffed when the Nazi war machine rolled over them, would not have been helped.

There's an equivalent today, unfortunately. The United States in the 1980s took a huge raft of refugees from Lebanon. Unfortunately, as you would expect, these were for the most part the best and brightest, exactly the people who'd form the backbone of any successful moderate state. Partly as a consequence of this diaspora, Lebanon, which used to be a beacon of tolerance, prosperity and culture in the Middle East, has sunk into the ignorant violent pit occupied by its (formerly) poorer cousins Syrian and Jordan.

The Palestinians are a similar case: an even greater disapora of the smart and capable, some to the US, others to Europen and all over the Middle East as "guest workers," has led to a concentration in the West Bank and Gaza of the dregs of Palestinian society. The reverse natural selection of emigration has only served to boost the fraction of Palestinians in Palestine who are violent, stupid, and incompetent.

In a general way I'm sympathetic to the proposition that the United States should, as the Founders wished, remain simply a beacon of freedom and hope to the rest of the world, and take in those who are energetic enough to swim to our shores. But the history of the 20th century suggests that the "Fortress America" strategy has its limitations. Sometimes the barbarians come and get you, and it turns out, in hindsight, that it would've been easier to go deal with them when they were merely prancing around their campfires singing evil songs, waving sticks, before they learned to build missiles and nuclear bombs. This is the policy dilemma with respect to Iran.

Bob wrote:

Carl (and anyone else interested), please read the history of the SS St. Louis. Just google SS St. Louis. After Kristallnacht, the Nazis intentionally allowed some Jewish "Boat People" to go. The St. Louis sailed to Cuba, intending to remain there only until they gained legal entry into the USA. They were refused entry. They sailed past Miami. They cabled Roosevelt, who was completely aware of what was going on. Despite (or because of) the political uproar, they were refused entry into the US. The St. Louis sailed back to Europe. Some Jews were let off in the UK. The rest were sent to France, Belgium, and such, and were soon back under Nazi rule. Some survived the war, but a large number died in concentration camps. The St.Louis was a scheme perpetrated by Nazi propagandists to show that no one wanted the Jews, and Roosevelt's actions played right into their hands. The full story is much much worse than this poorly remembered Sunday school capsule history version. The example of the St. Louis is often held up when people ask "why didn't the Jews flee after Kristallnacht?

Bob wrote:

Also, consider this: many of the physicists working on the Manhattan Project were Jewish refugees from Germany, including Edward Teller,Otto Frisch, Felix Bloch, or as in the case of Enrico Fermi, whose wife was Jewish, from refugees from Italy.
And of course, there was Albert Einstein. And two Jewish refugees in the UK were the ones who invented the gaseous diffusion method which was used to get enriched uranium during the war (I mention this because, Carl, we chatted about Oak Ridge in the past)
I'm sure I'm leaving out plenty of more minor Jewish contributors to the Project. Oh, and I just checked: Hans Bethe was a Christian, but his mother was Jewish, and thus would have been slated for extermination had he not escaped. Hitler should have been harnessing all this brainpower, but had the war gone on longer, he would have been nuked by it.

Obviously, there was also the huge boon from taking non-Jewish German scientists and engineers after the war.

Frankly, I'm unimpressed with the brain drain argument, both for moral and pragmatic reasons.

Bob wrote:

I just noticed that Ulam was Jewish too. So the three guys most responsible for the H-Bomb, Teler, Ulam, and Bethe, were Jewish refugees from the Nazis.

And I just thought to check on Niels Bohr. Maybe he doesn't count -- too liberal. His father was Lutheran but his mother was Jewish, and sure enough, after his famous meeting with he escaped being arrested by the Nazis in 1943, and after he made his way to Sweden, the RAF evacuated him in an unpressurized bomb bay to the UK, and from there he came to the USA to work in Los Alamos.

Ok, ok, even if I find more, I'll stop commenting on them. I just hadn't realized what a role Jewish refugees from the Nazis played on the Manhattan project and on later nuclear weapon projects.

Carl Pham wrote:

Bob, I'm certainly not disagreeing that the United States should have taken in Jewish refugees. And, as your own example of the many scientists who fled demonstrates, they did, in some cases, at certain times. Perhaps the policy was twisted, or insufficient, or any number of things. But there's no point to me arguing the other side, because, as I said, I agree the US should have taken in the Jews, because we should take in anyone who's competent and energetic enough to flee oppression.

What I've argued is a different thing: I've argued that it would not have done much good for the general problem of Germany represented by Kristallnacht. In short, as I said, it might have saved some German Jews, but it would have done zip for the Polish or Ukrainian or Bohemian Jews. (That's where we came in here, with an article asserting that FDR should have "done something" about Germany, once Kristallnacht made in plain where the regime was headed. My response is that there was very little they could do, if they weren't willing to go to war.)

I can't say I'm impressed enough by the brain-drain argument to change immigration policy, either. But it is a real and potent effect, and the consequences can't be ignored. Remember, the plight of the Jews before the Second World War opened -- the "canary in the coal mine" view -- is supposed to be an argument why it's not possible to just sit back in Fortress America, taking in if necessary the world's refugees from injustice, and watch the rest of the world go to Hell in a handbasket. The argument is that FDR did just that for too long, that the U.S. refused to "get involved" overseas for too long, until the Hitler cancer had grown horribly big, and had to be put down at horrible cost. If only we had paid attention in 1938, after Kristallnacht, and put a stop to Hitler while it was still cheap.

Well, if you're going to take the position that you should nip problems in the bud, even if they are overseas and not yet directly affecting you, you can't ignore the fact that the brain drain makes those problems worse. If you believe the US should get involved to solve the Palestinian mess, that it isn't ultimately just up to the Palestinians to sort themselves out, then you can't ignore the fact that the US regularly siphons out of Palestine all the smartest, most peaceable, and most competent Palestinians. That may not be our intention, but that's what happens, and you ignore that reality at your peril.

I don't have a solution to this. I'm just pointing out the problem, and saying it can't be ignored by someone who does propose a solution, or, like President Obama, is responsible for finding and implementing a solution.

Barbara Skolaut wrote:

"'When Good Men Did Nothing'"

What makes you think the men (and women) who did nothing were good?

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This page contains a single entry by Rand Simberg published on November 9, 2008 8:22 AM.

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