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American Jewish History 88.3 (2000) 417-418

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The "Jewish Threat": Anti-Semitic Politics of the U. S. Army. By Joseph Bendersky. New York: Basic Books, 2000. xvii + 538 pp.

This is one of the finest studies that I have read about pervasive antisemitism in an American institution. Bendersky, focusing on army training and army officers, shows how from approximately the first World War through the 1940s, an overwhelming majority of those who attended West Point and heard lectures at the Army War College were imbued with the prevalent racist thoughts that passed for scientific analysis. Over 90 percent of those who moved to the highest levels in the American army during this era were ethnically of English, German, or Irish background who fully accepted and shared the beliefs in the superiority of WASP Americans and the deleterious effects of allowing non-Nordics into the United States. Christianity (and particularly Protestant Christianity), they believed, was the superior faith; other religions, therefore, were inferior.

In their views of Jews, Army officials reflected the values and attitudes of the dominant culture. Among the books officers-to-be read, and among the lectures that they heard, the racist views of Madison Grant and Lothrop Stoddard predominated. Jews were characterized as weak, selfish, cowardly, untrustworthy, parasitic, sly, duplicitous, and possessed of different "anatomical characteristics" (p.42). They were a "herd of inferior people 'of a different racial stock'" and a "troublesome racial minority" (p. 38) who lacked "moral fervor." Students were instructed that a Jewish plot foisted Bolshevism on the world while the Protocols of the Elders of Zion provided insights and "significant clues about international Jewry" (p. 157).

During the 1930s several American officers admired the way Hitler built up the German army. They did not endorse his policies towards Jews, but they recognized that the "Jewish problem" constituted a barrier for developing good relations between the United States and Germany. They faulted President Franklin D. Roosevelt for pursuing policies that accommodated American Jews too much. An army intelligence report characterized one of the President's confidants, Felix Frankfurter, as "a dangerous radical" (p. 244); another dubbed Albert Einstein "an extreme radical" (p. 307) By the time World War II began, [End Page 417] Jewish organizations like the B'nai B'rith and the Anti- Defamation League were being monitored for subversive activities. For most army personnel the words "Zionism" and "Communism" were interchangeable.

Fully one quarter of the book is devoted to the events that occurred during the 1940s. For many years now a variety of scholars have condemned Roosevelt for failing to do enough to save the Jews of Europe. Bendersky demonstrates clearly that John Pehle, executive secretary of the War Refugee Board, made many efforts to get army officials to help rescue Jewish refugees bound for Italy and elsewhere and also to bomb the death camp at Auschwitz. Officers always readily agreed to investigate these possibilities and claimed afterwards that they had done so when they had not done anything at all. While not blatantly antisemitic in their official responses, army personnel usually argued that the best way to help suffering Europeans was to end the war quickly. After reading Bendersky's account, however, it seems clear that hardly anyone in the military was willing to do anything to save Jewish lives.

After the war ended, soldiers were shocked by the survivors that they saw coming out of the concentration camps; but, after a few months, personnel changed, newer replacements were unaware of what the displaced persons had gone through, and the army focused on rebuilding Germany rather than helping survivors start life anew. The military also found Austrians and Germans warm, friendly and accommodating; Jewish displaced persons, on the other hand, always had complaints. These interactions led soldiers to indicate, as evidenced by a 1946 poll, that maybe Hitler was right about the Jews.

Bendersky has done a thorough job. His research in primary sources is deep; his analysis is sharp; and his writing is clear. Although the manuscript is massively detailed, it had to be...


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