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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Honorable or Criminal?

--The Kennedy School's John I. McCloy Fellowship

By Mary Humes

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.

Perhaps some of the outrage directed to McCloy on this matter can be attributed to his controversial decision to order the unconditional release of Alfried Krupp, the armaments magnate. Krupp had originally been convicted for employing slave labor from the concentration camps in his family's munitions factories during the war. McCloy received a barrage of criticism back home for freeing this man who for many was a living symbol of the Nazi nightmare. This is a point consistently raised by students protesting the scholarship naming. McCloy, Brinkley says, simply saw the commuting of Krupp's sentence as a symbolic, friendly gesture to German industry.

Internment of Japanese-Americans

In February 1942, eight weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Roosevelt signed an executive order calling for the commitment of about 120,000 Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast to "relocation centers." At the time, the government cited military necessity for this action; a commission appointed by Congress to look into the matter two months ago concluded that prejudice and war-time hysteria were responsible for this dark chapter in American history.

An assistant secretary of war. McCloy was officially responsible for carrying out the internment program. However, the debate still lingers over just how important-he was in pushing the program in the first place.

Brinkley, for example, writes in Harper's that McCloy "had not initiated the relocation plan, and he was not a major factor in the decision to implement it." Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson strongly supported the proposal, as did the West Coast military command and California Attorney Genera Earl Warren, he notes.

However, both James Rowe, then assistant attorney general, and Arthur Goldberg, the former Supreme Court justice, credit McCloy as the driving force in the War Department in getting the proposal turned into an executive order. Goldberg says that McCloy opposed the idea at first, but then became one of its strongest supporters.

"I think McCloy was wrong. We were all wrong," adds Rowe, expressing the belief, however, that policy reasons--not racism--were behind the internment.

But despite the ambiguity of his role, one factor that may have particularly irritated students protesting the scholarship is McCloy's continuous defense--to this day--of the program. For instance, McCloy recently defended the internment in a New York Times op-ed article. In addition, he expressed no misgivings about it in an interview with Brinkley. "I don't apologize a bit for that," he told the Harvard historian. The relocation, he said, was "reasonably undertaken and thoughtfully and humanely conducted."

* * *

It apparently was not the student who first got wind of what some consider the K-School's gaffe in naming the scholarship after McCloy Rather, it was a group of several Law School alumni in Washington who read of the naming in the Harvard Gazette. These young lawyers--including one in the Justice Department who deals with Nazi war criminals, notified Dershowitz, who in turn notified members of the Harvard Jewish Law Students Association. One of the lawyers also contacted the head of the Law School's Asian American Association.

"There are many people more deserving of this honor than John J. McCloy," several campus groups then wrote K-School Dean Graham T. Allison '62. Argued members of Hillel: "McCloy served as more than a mere spokesman for the decisions of the Roosevelt Administration. His recommendations and suggested policies carried great weight, and it clearly fell within his power to protest these policies he felt were improper."

Nonetheless, it appears likely that the efforts to get the name changed will fall short. It was Volkswagen officials idea to name the scholarship after McCloy, a decision based on his service in reconstructing postwar Germany during his years spent as the high commissioner, according to James A. Cooney, who will be the assistant director fo the program.

And while Volkswagen or K-School officials have yet to make an official statement on the name protest, that idea seems here to stay, as all indications seem to suggest they believe the good in McCloy's record overweighs any possible bad.

"McCloy is Mr. Germany in this country," observes Goldman, noting the statesman's "distinguished" record in bolstering German-American relations. Adds Hale Champion, executive dean of the K-School: "If you object ot McCloy's name on the scholarship, then you'd have to object to Earl Warren on the Supreme Court."

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