When the Kennedy School of Government recently announced that it would name an exchange scholarship after John J. McCloy, officials probably felt they were merely honoring one of America's preeminent public figures of the past 40 years McCloy's list of impressive posts--both in and out of government--includes: assistant secretary of war during World War II; U.S. High Commissioner for occupied West Germany after the war president of the World Bank in its first years; chairman of the Chase Manhattan Bank; chairman of the Ford Foundation; chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations. Friend of presidents and cabinet secretaries. McCloy has been dubbed by many the most influential private citizen in America.
Nonetheless, for several Jewish and Asian-American groups on campus, the naming of the scholarships--funded by the Volkswagen Foundation of West Germany to the tune of $1 million--has re-opened some nasty wounds. In particular, the 87-year-old McCloy is linked to some of the most enduring controversies of the war and immediate post-war period. As assistant secretary of war, he played an instrumental role in administering the Japanese-American internment camps in 1942. He also was influential in the Allies' decision not to bomb the Auschwitz concentration camp. Finally, in his capacity as high commissioner in Germany, he was the authority who commuted the sentences of nearly two dozen convicted Nazi war criminals.
This background has prompted students at the College, the Law School and the K-School to demand that the name of the exchange program be changed. K-School administrators have agreed to meet with student leaders to discuss the issues, but they maintain that the chances of succumbing to the demands is very slim. The charges against McCloy have been raised before and cleared to their satisfaction. "McCloy is a great man, and unless any new charges are unearthed, there is no reason why he shouldn't be honored," says Guido Goldman, director of the Center for European Studies. Goldman will direct the scholarship program, which will bring 25 West German students to the K-School each year.
Whatever the final decision, officials will never resolve the questions raised in the lively historical debate about some of the more murky aspects of U.S. wartime activities. McCloy's involvement in these chapters of history is common knowledge; what is contested is the extent to which he shaped some of the controversial decisions of the period, many of which have only become clarified by hindsight.
Bombing of Auschwitz
McCloy, a graduate of Harvard Law School, left his New York Law firm in 1941 to become assistant secretary of war under Roosevelt. As Allied forces began to move across Europe in 1944, Jewish leaders lobbied the War Department to bomb the railroad tracks leading to the Auschwitz concentration camp and the camp itself--a move that they believed would hamper the Nazi atrocities. It was to McCloy that Jewish leaders were told to address their petitions; McCloy answered that the bombing was not feasible.
Despite McCloy's role as bearer of bad news, several prominent scholars and writers who have researched the period believe that McCloy was in fact acting as little more than a mourthpiece for higher Allied officials who had already decided on a course of action for strategic reasons. "McCloy was not in a position to order the bombing and was not responsible for the veto," says Dunwalke Associate Professor of American History Alan Brinkley, author of a recent Harper's article on McCloy.
And New Republic Editor-in-Chief Martin Peretz--who by his own admission has written "very critically" of McCloy--adds. "It is unfair to say be made the decision himself."
What's more, even after 30 years of reviewing the record, historians don't agree on whether Auschwitz should have been bombed in the first place. Holocaust historian Lucy Dawidowicz, for example, thinks that documents show it was not feasible for the United States to bomb the camp.
"The bombing of Auschwitz was a complex issue," Dawidowicz says, citing the need to take into account the risk to the lives of the people in the camp. "If we had gone ahead with the bombing. I'm not at all sure that young people today wouldn't be screaming 'mass murderers,'" she adds.
But Professor of Law Alan M. Dershowitz disagrees with Dawidowicz's inclination to absolve McCloy. He said that McCloy played a part in the decision, although it may have been small. "When you are studying war criminals [as Dawidowicz does] McCloy's role is minor. Compared to Hitler his role is minor."
Pardoning War Criminals
While McCloy's guilt--if any--concerning the Auschwitz decision remains in doubt, Peretz and Brinkley agree that he was totally responsible for the decision after the war to commute the sentences of 21 prisoners who had been sentenced to death at the Nuremberg trails. That decision came in 1951, when McCloy had held for two years the post of American high commissioner in occupied Germany.
As high commissioner, McCloy--whatever the outside pressure--had ultimate responsibility for the decision to commute the sentences, argue Brinkley and Peretz Still, they point out, that outside pressure was great.
Calling the commuting the issue for which McCloy was "most culpable." Brinkley explains that the onset of the Cold War put pressure on members of the Western alliance to normalize retions with Germany as soon as possible. The review of the Nuremberg sentences was viewed by many observers as a symbol of the easing of the postwar occupation, he adds.