As world leaders gathered at Auschwitz last week to mark the 60th anniversary of its liberation, a former U.S. pilot reopened a decades-old debate over whether the Allies should have bombed the death camp to shut down Nazi gas chambers. The pilot: George McGovern, now 82, who for the first time is publicly telling the story of his mission over occupied Poland in a B-24 Liberator in December 1944.
"There is no question we should have attempted . . . to go after Auschwitz," the former Democratic senator and presidential nominee says in a taped interview shown at a forum on Capitol Hill. "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."
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McGovern, whose squadron bombed Nazi oil facilities less than five miles from Auschwitz, spoke on camera with interviewers from Israel Television and the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies. "He was a rare eyewitness to the fact that the Allies could have bombed the camps," the institute's director, Rafael Medoff, told us. Medoff and former congressman Steve Solarz wrote an op-ed article that appeared in several newspapers Thursday quoting McGovern and questioning U.S. rationale for not bombing Auschwitz in the summer, fall and winter of 1944.
The issue of Allied capability and willingness to take out the rail lines to Auschwitz and its death chambers remains contentious. "Given the way we look at it now, with eyes of 2005, it would have been a gesture to have bombed," Peter Black, a senior historian at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, told us. But had the rail lines been destroyed, he points out, the Nazis might simply have resorted to shooting Jews slated for deportation.
As for the gas chambers, "at that time we just couldn't pinpoint individual buildings with strong success," Black says. "In order to bomb and make sure of knocking them out, we would have had to carpet-bomb the place, like Hamburg or Dresden" -- thus killing thousands of prisoners. "If bombing would have killed the people who are alive today, it's almost a nonsensical question. It's really an issue of how many people would we have saved."
But McGovern argues "it was certainly worth the effort, despite all the risks" and notes that prisoners were already "doomed to death." While calling President Roosevelt "my political hero," McGovern faults him for the decision "not to go after Auschwitz. . . . God forgive us for that tragic miscalculation."
(Note: We tried to reach the former South Dakota senator, but his office said he was driving cross-country last week to Florida with his wife and dog -- but no cell phone.)
Larry Summers, Dumping a Little Noise Pollution
Harvard President Larry Summers has issued three increasingly lengthy explanations to quiet the clamor over his recent remarks suggesting that "innate" differences between the sexes might explain why fewer women pursue science and math careers. The flap prompted one Washingtonian with a long memory -- Ralph Nader -- to call us and point out that it's not the first time the former treasury secretary has suffered from foot-in-mouth disease.
For years the Nader-founded Multinational Monitor magazine has issued a "Lawrence Summers Memorial Award" for ill-considered statements. It references a memo that Summers, then at the World Bank, wrote in 1991. "I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest-wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that," he wrote, adding, "I've always thought that under-populated countries in Africa are vastly under-polluted." The memo was leaked and Summers quickly apologized, saying it was meant to be "sardonic."
For the High-Gloss Lifestyle, a High-Gloss Magazine
Jason Binn publishes slick city mags that cater to glamorous people: He's behind Ocean Drive in Miami, Gotham in New York, Hamptons on Long Island, Aspen Peak and Los Angeles Confidential. Now he's wagering that his formula will work in Washington. During inauguration week, Binn, 37, came here to schmooze and talk up Capitol File, a quarterly that he says will launch in the fall.
"We're going to bring together some of the biggest boldface names in Washington as contributors," Binn tells us. "We're looking to give Washington a really luxe, full-color, glossy, comprehensive read. It'll be like a coffee-table book." The fast-talking, name-dropping Binn, a fixture on the New York party circuit, says Capitol File won't just focus on pretty faces, social climbers and fashionistas but also will cover politics, business and art. (Local angle: Binn's older brother, Jonathan P. Binstock, is curator of contemporary art at the Corcoran; he uses the family's original name.)
In competing with Washington Life and the monthly Washingtonian, Binn says his mag will be mailed free "to all the homes valued at over $1 million." He's also craving another rich market: Capitol File's promo for advertisers boasts of "a unique distribution partnership with NetJets," a private jet outfit. "With an average customer's net worth of $25 million, you will be in good company." Lofty targets indeed.
Former first lady Betty Ford has handed over control of the Betty Ford Center to daughter Susan Bales but will remain on the board of the famed substance-abuse treatment center in Rancho Mirage, Calif. "She'll still be there, and she'll be working with the patients," Bales told the Dallas Morning News last week. "But she's 86 years old, and my father is 91. She's wanting to relax and enjoy her life, and she's earned that." Bales, 47, led the family intervention in 1978 that resulted in her mother's treatment for alcohol and prescription drug addiction.