Contributor: Morgan Bell
Review Date: 19 Jan 2005
Despite the title of The Conquerors by Michael Beschloss, along with pretty cover picture of the determined faces of FDR and Harry S Truman overlooking a burning map of Germany, this book is not a military or even diplomatic account of America's role in defeating Nazi Germany and it's axis partners in the Second World War. It is about the inner workings of the Roosevelt administration and later the Truman administration in relation to deciding what to do with post-war Germany. It begins with an account of FDR's level of acknowledgment of the Jewish plight in Europe and policy of Unconditional Surrender, which leads to Henry Morgenthau Jr's conviction to make Germany suffer as a agricultural country in the post-war world. Eventually, in an effort to pursue this goal, Beschloss describes how Morgenthau releases the "Program to Prevent Germany from Starting World War III", which from the moment of it's inception has become known as the Morgenthau Plan.
The author excels at describing the different positions within the Roosevelt and Truman cabinets, and how each president handled new ideas, different views and the interactions between personalities. Every time a historical personality comes into importance, in a way not to destroy the account of the events, Beschloss gives a brief but informative description of the person's background, and how that person arrived at the decisions they made and actions they took. Henry Morgenthau, Harry Dexter White, Edward Stettinus, Cordell Hull, John McCloy and Henry Stimson all play a part in this saga, and the descriptions of their lives and careers are helpful as their importance doesn't warrant a reading of a full, hard-to-find biography, as there are so many things to read.
Beschloss also incorporates the thinking behind FDR's policies such as Unconditional Surrender and avoiding being too dogmatic on the issue of the Jews in the light of foreign policy and keeping out allies pursuing the war. At the same time, late in the book, Soviet policy intrudes on the book's subject matter as Soviet spies try to influence American policy to give the USSR a favourable outcome, and Soviet stubbornness over Eastern Europe leads to a softening of the policy on Germany in the light of the Cold War. Even though many authors veer off to the left or the right at this point, downplaying the problems the USSR causes or blowing them totally out of proportion to their influence, Beschloss steers a fairly clear course without getting too entangled.
The book ends with the knowledge of a Germany reunited and not being exactly as Roosevelt, Truman, or Morgenthau saw it, but somehow the American policy achieved an even greater peace than all the men ever envisaged possible. In defence of the Morgenthau Plan, it's author once wrote that the proof that all the lives hadn't been lost in vain in this effort to squash the Third Reich will be seen in 50 years. This books shows the variety of policy decisions available to a President's cabinet, the decision making process, and the achieving of a desired goal even more than anyone thought possible.
So if you are looking for a book for the American military's role in the Second World War, I suggest you overlook The Conquerors. However, if you enjoy something different and a complex tale of the formation of American postwar policy on Germany even before the war was over, you will enjoy the friction between so many different personalities in both the Roosevelt and Truman cabinets that Michael Beschloss weaves into an interesting and informative narrative.
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James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy, 23 Feb 1945