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Bush, the Nazis and America
by David Niewert
Original URL: http://dneiwert.blogspot.com/2003_09_07_dneiwert_archive.html#106314632241306908
Thus with a simple, sneering aside Lowry casually dismisses what should in fact be a serious question worth addressing. Other conservatives, notably Jonah Goldberg, have given this question more or less the same contemptuous treatment -- as if the accusation were too over-the-top, too ludicrous to even dignify with a serious response.
The problem is, it isn't. In fact, there is a great deal of factual truth to it.
The questions raised by the known facts about the Bush family's connections to the Nazi war machine should really be a matter of some national moment, because they raise serious issues about the relationship between America and Nazism and its atrocities, and the ramifications of those ties in today's world.
These are not only serious but deeply disturbing issues, which may be why there has been relatively little mainstream effort to address them. Unfortunately, the highly partisan way that they have been framed to date has done little to make the debate a serious or thoughtful one. And conservatives' attempts to pretend that the questions should not even be taken seriously are a sort of historical revisionism -- falsifying history by pretending it didn't even happen.
TakeBackTheMedia has already fired back at Lowry and other critics, including Fox News, by observing:
This in fact is entirely accurate -- more so, I might add, than the TakeBack's original description of the connection. More on that later.
The claim that some of Prescott Bush's assets were seized under the Trading with the Enemy Act for his dealings with Nazi Germany has been thoroughly documented. Here, for instance, is a copy of the 1942 Vesting Order naming Bush, among others.
Michael Kranish at the Boston Globe discussed this in an April 23, 2001 piece titled "Triumphs, Troubles Shape Generations," that explored some of the Bush family's past troubling connections. It began like this:
The Globe story, however, manages to overlook some of the grave issues that are raised by Bush's connections to the Nazi regime. Foremost among these: To what extent is the Bush family fortune -- which is unquestionably one of the foundations of the current American presidency -- based upon the wealth engendered by its role in building the Nazi war machine?
However, a close examination reveals this is not so easy to answer as either side would suggest. What is clear is that the evidence that doing business with the Nazi regime substantially enhanced the Bush family fortune is nearly overwhelming.
The main remaining questions are: What proportion of the Bush fortune is based on this trade? And what were the family's ideological connections to the Nazis? These are much murkier issues that remain unresolved.
2: The Bush fortune
Hamburg-Amerika also played a more insidious role in events unfolding within Nazi Germany. Hitler's notorious Brownshirts -- the armed "citizen" platoons of the Sturmarbteilung, or SA -- who were providing so much of the violent thuggery associated with its rise to power, particularly in such events as Kristallnacht, were in fact being armed primarily with American weapons, many of them made by Remington Arms.
Samuel Pryor, the Remington Arms chairman, was also a founding director of both the Union Banking Corp. and the American Ship and Commerce Corp., which was the company that controlled Hamburg-Amerika. In 1934, U.S. Senate investigators began examining the traffic in weapons from the United States to other nations where conflict was erupting, and they began looking into Remington after it entered into a cartel agreement with the German explosives firm I.G. Farben (which would go on to gain infamy for its notorious role in many of the Nazis' concentration camps, as well as in creating the Zyklon B poison gas that killed millions of victims in the Holocaust). Testimony produced in the so-called "Nye Committee" revealed that Remington guns were being unloaded from Hamburg-Amerika boats to the waiting arms of the SA.
A Col. William J. Taylor told the committee that "German political associations, like the Nazi and others, are nearly all armed with American ... guns.... Arms of all kinds coming from America are transshipped in the Scheldt to river barges before the vessels arrive in Antwerp. They then can be carried through Holland without police inspection or interference. The Hitlerists and Communists are presumed to get arms in this manner. The principal arms coming from America are Thompson submachine guns and revolvers. The number is great."
In any event, it is clear that Harriman's enterprises, with Prescott Bush playing at least a significant role, was an important player in providing the capital that produced the Nazi war machine during the 1930s, and its activities had also played a role in facilitating the violent eliminationist politics that were being practiced by the fascists throughout Europe (Harriman also had major dealings with Italy's Benito Mussolini).
After 1937, the picture becomes much murkier. Thyssen in 1939 fled Germany because he believed Hitler was about to turn on him, following the Fuhrer's first military invasions and the nightmare of Kristallnacht. The German government confiscated all of his holdings. That same year, Hitler invaded Poland and the German government took control of the United Steel Works plants in Silesia, which were a significant interest of Union Banking and W.A. Harriman & Co.
According to Loftus, Harriman's firm, with Prescott Bush in charge, nonetheless continued to oversee operations at the Silesian plant. Indeed, Loftus charges, Bush was involved in obtaining slave labor from the nearby Auschwitz concentration camp to work at the operation's mines and mills. His basis for making this charge is a 1941 memo from a Dutch intelligence agent, though Loftus' reporting does not evaluate the reliability of the memo or its contents.
However, the 1942 vesting memo that seized Union Banking Company's assets tends to at least corroborate the contention that the Harriman firm remained active in managing its German and Polish assets and in trading with Nazi industries. That is the basis, after all, of the seizure.
What is completely unknown is the extent to which the gains in wealth made during the 1928-37 period of heavy German investment by the Bush and Harriman families were significant. Certainly Loftus and others believe that the bulk of the Bush family fortune actually arose during that period, and it may be reasonable to surmise this, but there is simply no evidence to prove it definitively, mainly because the Harriman and Bush families' investments were extremely diverse. Germany was decidedly not the only place they invested. The family has never opened its books, and considering the extreme secrecy with which it has dealt with issues and records regarding the presidential behavior of George H.W. Bush, it is not likely to any time soon.
However, it is worth noting that when the Union Banking Company's assets were finally unfrozen in 1951 and distributed to the owners of the original shares, Prescott Bush received $1.5 million for his single share -- in those days, a large fortune in itself.
3: The Bush ideology
This bears a remarkable resemblance to a passage in Tarpley and Chaitkin:
The book cites "among other such letters, George Herbert Walker, 39 Broadway, N.Y., to W. A. Harriman, London, Feb. 21, 1925, in WAH papers," but neglects to detail any of the contents of these letters that could support this characterization. This is, unfortunately, typical of this text's propensity to make damning assertions without supporting evidence. Obviously, we know that the Walkers and Bushes were socially close to the Harrimans, but that does not necessitate that they shared views on race and eugenics. It's not an unreasonable surmise, but there is no hard evidence currently available to assume it is true.
Averell Harriman, too, was a major and reportedly enthusiastic contributor to various eugenics causes, including sponsorship of the 1932 International Congress of Eugenics, held at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Harriman also personally arranged for Hamburg-Amerika to bring Nazi eugenicists, notably the "scientist" most often fingered for inspiring the Holocaust, Dr. Ernst Rudin, who was then a psychiatrist at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Genealogy and Demography in Berlin. (Rudin was elected president of the Congress at the New York gathering.) I have found one report that says Bert Walker was among the lesser contributors, but I have found no substantiation of this.
Beyond this, there has never been any hard evidence introduced that would substantiate any connection between either the Walkers or, particularly, Prescott Bush and eugenics. This has been a particularly persistent myth for the latter; it is common to find anti-Bush rants on the Web which claim that the elder Bush lost his campaign for the Senate in 1950 because his supposed connection to "the eugenics movement" had been uncovered.
This is afactual. What happened was that Bush, who had worked hard to recover his public image through his tireless USO work, had won the Republican nomination. But on the Sunday before the election, nationally syndicated columnist Drew Pearson intimated that Bush was president of the Birth Control Society, the predecessor of Planned Parenthood.
As the aforementioned Boston Globe profile details:
There is an important subtext to all of this: The eugenics movement, from its very origins late in the 19th century, was divided into two wings. "Positive" eugenics emphasized encouraging the healthiest and ablest people to reproduce. "Negative" eugenics stressed culling the "less fit" from the population as a means of improving the common stock.
The latter form of eugenics was that which was practiced by the Eugenics Record Office, which went on to gain notoriety not only for its ideological connection to the Nazis (who, following one of the "model laws" developed by Davenport's ERO colleague Harry Laughlin, established laws that led to the sterilization of 350,000 people in Europe) but for its own record in America, where the sterilization laws he promoted were responsible for the involuntary sterilization of some 60,000 Americans.
Vehemently opposed to this -- and particularly to the racialist orientation that was the thrust of so much of the "negative" eugenics that enjoyed so much popularity -- were the less-known "positive" eugenicists, who soon began abjuring the term altogether to avoid association with their ostensible cousins. Much of this latter philosophy gradually transformed from advocating sound reproduction for the "fit" to emphasizing sound and healthy reproductive choices for everyone, a decidedly more egalitarian approach. It was also, however, far more controversial, since it inherently argued for greater rights for women.
Foremost among these was the founder of Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger, as well as other multiculturalists such as Margaret Mead and Franz Boas. These thinkers specifically and ardently rejected the tenets of white supremacism and "negative" eugenics. Of course, in subsequent years, all of these people have been tarred -- mostly by anti-abortion activists -- with guilt by association to the eugenics movement. (Planned Parenthood has a thorough and well-argued defense of Sanger up on its Web site.) But there was no mistaking the differences between them at the time.
And if subsequent history is anything to go by, Prescott Bush was ultimately drawn to this segment of the eugenics movement, in contradistinction with that favored by his family friends the Harrimans. There is in fact no evidence produced yet that Bush himself participated in the "negative" eugenics popular in the 1930s.
Indeed, Bush had in 1931 set himself apart politically from his father and his partners, who all were Democrats, by announcing that he was a Republican -- which, at the time, was decidedly the more progressive of the two parties on issues of race and civil rights. When his real political affiliations and beliefs became even more manifest in the 1950s and '60s, as a U.S. senator from Connecticut, it was clear that this progressivism was a central feature.
Prescott Bush was, in fact, the model of the patrician "progressive Republican" from the Northeast whose tradition continues in such moderates as Lincoln Chaffee of Rhode Island. In those days, of course, they were the predominant force in GOP politics; nowadays, in a GOP dominated by the politics of the Southern Strategy and the "conservative movement," they have been relegated to the party's powerless fringes. But in his day, Prescott Bush was an outspoken and effective advocate of civil rights, women's reproductive rights, and a number of other progressive platforms that earned him the enmity of the party's conservative wing. Indeed, it is one of the more grotesque ironies of the presidency of Bush's grandson that it has done its utmost to empower the same kind of religious extremists who once tormented his forebear.
For that transformation, of course, George H.W. Bush's craven capitulations to the religious right beginning in 1988 and throughout his administration are largely responsible. In many ways, it marked the death knell for any genuinely progressive wing of the Republican Party, and finalized the exodus of many former party stalwarts (myself included).
However, before then, George H.W. Bush's politics had primarily been modeled after his father's, which were decidedly progressive in nature. And his own combat service in World War II should lay to rest any questions about his relationship to the Nazis.
In that respect, one of the accusations hurled by the "Bushes were Nazis" theorists -- that George H.W. Bush signed up for service in the Pacific to deflect questions about the family's patriotism -- is fairly bothersome. TakeBackTheMedia put it this way:
Tarpley and Chaitkin (and others as well) take this a step further: They argue that young Bush was specifically sent to the war in the Pacific because the war in Germany was viewed by many on the right at being against our "friends," while the war with Japan was being billed as a "race war," which would have meshed with the Bush family's ostensible white-supremacist views.
As a matter of fact, the Pacific war indeed was being widely portrayed as a fight against the "Jap race." Consider the following speech from John Rankin, the Mississippi Democrat, on the floor of Congress Dec. 15, 1941:
While Rankin was a Democrat, these views were held across the range of American politics. And as one might infer, their broad acceptance in fact played a major (if not the decisive) role in causing 110,000 Japanese-Americans to be interned in concentration camps during the war. This project was clearly bipartisan in nature, and indeed many Republicans played leading roles in it. Prescott Bush, however, was not one of them.
In this regard, it is important to remember that there is no evidence that Prescott Bush himself was either a eugenicist or a racist. He may have been utterly amoral and conscienceless in his willingness to do business with Nazis and his eugenicist friends the Harrimans, but there is even yet no evidence he in fact shared their views. We might be able to surmise such views from the circumstances, but there is no real proof of them.
Likewise, there are no letters or statements even intimating that George H.W. Bush fought in the Pacific for any purpose other than patriotism, and there is no evidence he was shipped there instead of to Europe by any kind of deliberate efforts on his father's part or his own, let alone for any racist reasons. To suggest otherwise is, frankly, a groundless and careless smear.
In the end, it should be fairly clear that the grounds for claiming that the Bush forebears were "Nazis" are thin and largely nonexistent. However, that does not relieve them of culpability, moral and otherwise, for their roles in the rise of the Nazis.
4: Keeping Conscience
What is essential to remember is that, historically speaking, fascism has only ever taken root as a genuine political power when it has formed an alliance with mainstream corporatist conservatives. While proto-fascist elements have had their moments in the sun in America -- particularly the ascendant Ku Klux Klan of the early 1920s -- they have fallen short mainly because the nation's corporatist conservatives have not deigned to ally themselves with them. This was not true in Germany or Italy, where corporatists such as Fritz Thyssen were all too happy to ride the fascist tide until it began to reveal its true nature and turn on them -- by which point, of course, it was all too late to do anything about it.
In that respect, today's mainstream corporatist conservatives -- and I think it is clear that not only President Bush but the bulk of his administration fit that description -- do not resemble Hitler and the Nazis so much as they resemble the Thyssens and Hindenburgs, the fools who believed that by co-opting their nation's growing extremist contingent, they could control it. And they resemble the Prescott Bushes and Averell Harrimans who only saw the chances for increased profits and consolidation of their power in underwriting the Nazi military machine. In the process, they all combined to unleash one of history's greatest nightmares.
And to the extent that today's Republicans pander to and traffic in extremism within their own ranks, the more they create the actual conditions that give rise to fascism. Especially troubling in recent weeks has been the increasing repetition of the meme that dissent is treason and that therefore liberals are seditious traitors. This ranges from Ann Coulter's attempts to revive McCarthyism to Donald Rumsfeld's charge that critics of the administration are "opposition to the U.S. President was encouraging Washington's enemies and hindering his 'war against terrorism'."
This really is why the questions around the Bush family's connections to the Nazi regime are relevant today. The episode does not point to some secret ideological affinity for fascism so much as it reveals a willingness to empower them if it furthers their ends. The really interesting question raised by the "Bush-Nazi connection" is not so much a hidden skeleton in the family closet as what the episode says about American society's willingness to ignore inconvenient truths of history, and how that affects the ethos of current public policy.
Cecil Adams, in his attempt to debunk the connection, alludes to this when he argues:
While this is quite accurate as far it goes, for some reason, Adams considers this an excuse of some kind: "Hey, everybody did it, and we still do it." This elides the larger question of the real moral culpability that exists for aiding and abetting not just the Nazi nightmare, but violent totalitarian regimes through succeeding years. While it is true that certain American figures -- notably Henry Ford -- faced even greater degrees of culpability for their overt support of fascism, the people who gladly profited from providing essential cogs to the Nazi war machine cannot escape accountability by merely claiming that it was "just business." This defense for all kinds of atrocities is common among American capitalists, and it is at base corrupt and amoral. Indeed, it continues to serve as a handy excuse for the kind of foreign policy that has been practiced ever since the war, and which was specifically shaped by the same self-interested forces that gave way to the Holocaust.
Two other texts -- both balanced, accurate and reliable -- have tackled the larger issue of the role of corporate America's investment in and financial and logistical support for the Nazis, both in their nascent and military-building phases: New York Times reporter Charles Higham's groundbreaking 1983 book, Trading With The Enemy; The Nazi American Money Plot 1933-1949, and Christopher Simpson's 1993 The Splendid Blond Beast: Money Law and Genocide in the Twentieth Century.
Both books -- which deal at least tangentially with the Harriman-Bush connections -- focused on the question of why these captains of industry never had to confront their culpability in the Nazi nightmare. According to Higham, investigations were begun by international tribunals to look into this matter but "the government smothered everything during and even after the war." Higham contended that government officials believed "a public scandal ... would have drastically affected public morale, caused widespread strikes and perhaps provoked mutinies in the armed services," and thought "their trial and imprisonment would have made it impossible for the corporate boards to help the American war effort."
Simpson delves even deeper into this point and ultimately concludes that when it came time for accountability in the mass genocide sponsored by corporatists, international tribunals were stymied by the same machinations of privilege and power that were in fact responsible for the problem. The elites whose fortunes were at stake found that the structure of international law was weak and easily manipulated so that they could simply "get on with business."
As Phil Leggiere argues persuasively in his 2002 article, "The Indiscreet Charm of the Bush Nazi Web Conspiracists":
Leggiere's exegesis, by the way, is easily the most thorough and considered account of the matter on the Web, and I recommend it as essential reading for anyone wanting a balanced examination of the facts. I only came across it late in my research for this piece, and was pleased and slightly astonished to see he reached exactly the same conclusion as I had [I should also note that he is a superior writer]. This is its essence:
Americans have a well-noted tendency toward convenient historical amnesia -- witness the broad lack of awareness of such episodes in American history as the lynching era, or for that matter the current popular tendency toward the easy dismissal of minority grievances as "identity politics," which is clearly based on forgetting where such politics originated.
Coming to terms with the American role in unleashing the Nazi death machine is not a matter of "guilt" or self-hating recrimination: It is a matter of conscience, of keeping faith with real American ideals, such as decency and fair play. It is important to understand that having a conscience affects not only our views of the past but our present behavior. The relevance of the "Bush-Nazi connection" is what it says about the kind of politics being pursued by present and future administrations.
It is unfortunate, of course, that a discussion of the "Bush-Nazi connection" is inspired by the kind of partisan attacks that not only afactually assert the nature of the ties but, in doing so, muddy the waters so that the important underlying issues are obscured. Regardless of how the issue arises, however, it is such a serious matter with far-reaching implications, that eventually serious-minded Americans must confront it.
In this respect, the reaction of the mainstream right to the issue has been particularly telling: Rather than deal with the facts of the matter honestly, conservatives have simply tried to pretend that they don't exist. This is a falsification of history that smacks of the same kind of intentional omissions practiced by Holocaust revisionists or the Communist regimes who were, as Milan Kundera put it, dedicated to "obliterating memory."
George Santayana's famous admonition, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," has become such a commonplace that we seem now not to even recognize it when it manifests itself in public view. And when we dismiss the "Bush-Nazi connection" with a sneer and a roll of the eyes, we partake in nurturing the stuff of nightmares.
David Neiwert is a freelance journalist based in Seattle. His reportage for MSNBC.com on domestic terrorism won the National Press Club Award for Distinguished Online Journalism in 2000. He is the author of In God's Country: The Patriot Movement and the Pacific Northwest (1999, WSU Press), as well as Death on the Fourth of July: Hate Crimes and the American Landscape (Palgrave/St. Martin's, summer 2004) and the forthcoming Strawberry Days: The Rise and Fall of the Bellevue Japanese-American Community (publisher pending). His freelance work can be found at Salon.com, the Washington Post, MSNBC and various other publications. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.