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Should the U.S. Have Bombed Auschwitz? And Other Thorny Questions From Ken Burns’ New Series on the Holocaust

8 minute read

Should the U.S. have bombed the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II?

That’s one of several “what if?” questions Ken Burns tackles in his latest documentary The U.S. and the Holocaust, which airs over three nights beginning Sept. 18 on PBS.

A running theme in the six-hour-plus feature, co-directed with Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein, is what the U.S. could have done to avoid the worst of the atrocities that resulted in the deaths of approximately six million European Jews.

Deborah Lipstadt, the current Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism, argues that bombing Auschwitz would have sent “a message” to the Germans that “‘we know what you are doing. We cannot abide what you are doing. This is our response to what you are doing.’”

Leaders at the time considered attacking the concentration camp where at least 1 million people were put to death, but worried that it wouldn’t be effective. During the war, aerial bombing was imprecise; only one out of five bombs hit within five miles of its target. U.S assistant secretary of War John McCloy claimed President Franklin D. Roosevelt rejected the idea, worried the Germans would just rebuild the camp somewhere else.

“It is one of those tragic questions,” Rebecca Erbelding, Rescue Board: The Untold Story of America’s Efforts to Save the Jews of Europe, says in the film. U.S. authorities weighed the risks of doing nothing at all with the risk of bombing prisoners and people who would have survived. “No matter what we did, I think we’d look back and wonder what would have happened had we done the other thing.”

Ken Burns believes there’s no question that the U.S. could have done more. He believes that even if ten times as many refugees were let in, it wouldn’t be enough. “Despite the fact, as we say in the intro of the film, that the United States let in more people than any other sovereign nation—we didn’t do enough. We failed,” Burns tells TIME.

Read more: Ken Burns on His New Documentary The U.S. and the Holocaust

In Nov. 1938, two weeks after Kristallnacht—in which the Nazis destroyed Jewish homes and synagogues in Germany—polling showed that more than 90% of Americans disapproved of that kind of violence, but more than seven out of ten Americans opposed letting more Jewish exiles from Germany into the U.S.

The documentary covers the many reasons for such resistance. The Great Depression was one factor, as Americans feared refugees could take already scarce jobs away from them. But there was also widespread antisemitism, espoused by leading Americans, including Charles Lindbergh. Automobile pioneer Henry Ford wrongly blamed Jews for President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and even for making candy bars less tasty. While there were American Jewish organizations that did heroic work to get persecuted Jews out of Germany, there were also American Jewish people who were afraid to speak out about the issue and jeopardize their already precarious positions in American society.

The documentary also spotlights voices in America critical of the U.S. approach to the Holocaust. In a 1943 op-ed, The Nation’s editor-in-chief and New Deal supporter, Freda Kirchwey reamed out FDR for not doing enough to stop the Nazis’ genocide of the Jews, arguing, “If we had behaved like humane and generous people instead of complacent, cowardly ones, the two million Jews lying today in the earth of Poland and Hitler’s other crowded graveyards would be alive and safe…. We had it in our power to rescue this doomed people and we did not lift a hand to do it—or perhaps it would be fairer to say that we lifted just one cautious hand, encased in a tight-fitting glove of quotas and visas and affidavits, and a thick layer of prejudice.”

The restrictive quota system for southern and Eastern European Jews that Kirchwey is referring to predated Nazism, all the way back to the 1920s, and was maintained because of antisemitism, xenophobia, and national security concerns.

Read more: America Denied Refugees After the End of World War II—Just As We Are Today

During World War II, the U.S. took in some 225,000 refugees from the Nazis—more than any other sovereign nation. But, even here, America held back. “The U.S. government doesn’t issue the maximum number of visas that it could have, so there’s thousands and thousands of visas that go unissued,” says Daniel Greene, one of the historians interviewed in the film. “If the U.S. government had issued all of those visas, it doesn’t stop the Holocaust, but it does mean hundreds of thousands or tens of thousands of people are able to enter the United States who otherwise were kept out.”

But the filmmakers argue that no one person can be responsible for averting the worst of the Holocaust. FDR had to navigate widespread antisemitism in the electorate and in Congress.

“Yes, he’s the President, and yes, there is responsibility there, but he’s also dealing with a huge domestic crisis,” as Sarah Botstein put it to TIME. “He’s answerable to his electorate. He’s dealing with Congress. He doesn’t act alone. He’s a more complicated character in this history.”

One of the big questions is whether the U.S. could have done a better job of publicizing more of the private intelligence on the murder of Europe’s Jews as the details became available, and whether that could have turned public opinion around. Given the widespread antisemitism and xenophobia rising throughout the 1930s, public information campaigns about the march of fascism in Europe focused on broader themes of freedom-fighting. Earlier in the war, American media outlets did report the mass killing of Jews, but in tiny articles deep in the newspapers. “You either missed it or if you saw it, you would say the editors don’t think this is true—if they thought this was true, this would be on the front pages,” as Lipstadt puts it in the film.

However, Black newspapers, like the Pittsburgh Courier, did put the killings of Europe’s Jews on the front page, likening southern whites to Nazis. The full extent of the horror of the Holocaust only became apparent to many Americans after the liberation of concentration camps in 1945.

Read more: ‘It’s Not That the Story Was Buried.’ What Americans in the 1930s Really Knew About What Was Happening in Germany

“The United States government—especially after Europe goes to war, but before the United States joins the war—is very wary of this being perceived as a war to rescue the Jews of Europe,” Greene tells TIME. “Indeed, it never is a war to rescue the Jews of Europe. It’s a war to defeat fascism and save democracy. But when we do think about what [more] could have been done, perhaps circulating more information in the United States or circulating more information in European countries, in allied countries, about the dangers of Nazism to Europe’s Jews.”

In The U.S. and the Holocaust, viewers learn about bureaucrats who did try to get the word out about the Nazis’ atrocities. In 1942, Gerhart Riegner, who represented the World Jewish Congress in Geneva, Switzerland, alerted the U.S. State Department that the Nazis were going to round up and murder Europe’s Jews. At first American diplomats were skeptical of the intelligence, but when an influential American rabbi Stephen Wise tipped off the Associated Press to the news, the coverage sparked public outrage. In the fall of 1944, John Pehle, a director of the War Refugee Board in his early 30s, made the decision to release a report on eyewitness details on Auschwitz from escapees that made front-page news. A child from an immigrant family, he led an organization that saved tens of thousands of Jews.

Burns is known for a series of documentaries on the American experience ranging from the Civil War and the Vietnam War to jazz and baseball. As for where The U.S. and the Holocaust fits in his four-decade film career, Burns concludes, “I will not work on a more important film than this one.”

The U.S. and the Holocaust will air Sept. 18, 19 and 20, at 8:00-10:00 p.m. ET on PBS, PBS.org and the PBS Video app.

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com