Obama, the Tuskegee Airmen, and the Genocide Issue

By: Dr. Rafael Medoff

In honor of the birthday of the Rev. Dr Martin King Jr.

The invitation to members of the Tuskegee Airmen, the all-black units of World War II pilots, to attend the presidential inauguration, is an important reminder of the long road America has traveled from the era of segregation to the election of the first African-Ameican president.

It also offers an opportunity to reflect on a little-known episode involving the Tuskegee Airmen and the Holocaust–and on the question of how the new president will respond to genocide in our own time.

Defying racist War Department officials who regarded them as inferior and did not want them to fly, the Tuskegee Airmen scored extraordinary achievements in battle. Tuskegee squadrons shot down more than one hundred German planes and repeatedly won Distinguished Unit Citations and other medals for performance in their missions over Europe. They were so admired by their fellow-pilots that bomber groups often specifically requested the Tuskegee units as escorts for their bombing raids.

One of those raids took place in the skies over Auschwitz.

On the morning of August 20, 1944, a group 127 U.S. bombers, called Flying Fortresses, approached Auschwitz. They were escorted by 100 Mustang fighter planes. Most of the Mustangs were piloted by Tuskegee Airmen of the 332nd Fighter Group. The attacking force dropped more than one thousand 500-pound bombs on German oil factories less than five miles from the gas chambers. Despite German anti-aircraft fire and a squadron of German fighter planes, none of the Mustangs were hit and only one of the U.S. planes was shot down. All of the units reported successfully hitting their targets.

On the ground below, Jewish slave laborers, including 15 year-old Elie Wiesel, cheered the bombing. In his bestselling memoir, Night, Wiesel described their reaction: “We were not afraid. And yet, if a bomb had fallen on the blocks [the prisoners’ barracks], it alone would have claimed hundreds of victims on the spot. But we were no longer afraid of death; at any rate, not of that death. Every bomb that exploded filled us with joy and gave us new confidence in life. The raid lasted over an hour. If it could only have lasted ten times ten hours!”

But it did not. Even though there were additional U.S. bombing raids on German industrial sites in the Auschwitz region in the weeks and month to follow, the gas chambers and crematoria were never targeted.

The Roosevelt administration knew about the mass murder going on in Auschwitz, and even possessed diagrams of the camp that were prepared by two escapees. But when Jewish organizations asked the Roosevelt administration to order the bombing of the camp and the railways leading to it, the requests were rejected. U.S. officials claimed such raids were “impracticable” because they would require “considerable diversion” of planes needed for the war effort.

But the Tuskegee veterans know that claim was false. They were right there in the skies above Auschwitz. No “diversion” was necessary to drop a few bombs on the mass-murder machinery or the railways leading into the camp. Sadly, those orders were never given.

The decision to refrain from bombing Auschwitz was part of a broader policy by the Roosevelt administration to refrain from taking action to rescue Jews from the Nazis or provide havens for them. The U.S. did not want to deal with the burden of caring for large numbers of refugees. And its ally, Great Britain, would not open the doors to Palestine to the Jews, for fear of angering Arab opinion. The result was that the Allies failed to confront one of history’s most compelling moral challenges.

Today, America again faces the challenge of responding to genocide. The Darfur genocide continues, yet the Arab League, China, and Russia are trying to prevent the prosecution of Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir for his role in the slaughter. What will the United States do? Iranian leaders have threatened genocide against Israel, and Syria is developing nuclear weapons to go along with its other weapons of mass destruction. How should America respond?

The Roosevelt administration had the opportunity to send the Tuskegee Airmen and other pilots to interrupt the Nazi genocide, but it chose not to do so. The Obama administration will face comparable moral challenges.

This week, as we commemorate the birthday of one of the greatest moral figures in American history, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., one must wonder what Dr. King might have advised the new president on this question, and what lessons he would have wanted us to learn from the 1940s.

(Published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Detroit Free Press, and Jerusalem Post – January 19, 2009)
(January 2009