The following op-ed appeared in slightly edited forms in:
The Houston Post, Sunday, May 5, 1985, under the headline “Bitburg is not as important as where we go from here.”
The Times, San Mateo, California, Saturday, May 4, 1985, under the headline “Psychology of war can lead to atrocities.”
The Palo Alto Weekly, July 17, 1985, under the headline “Setting the stage for genocide?”
Boston Province Newsletter, Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, May 1985, under the title “The Nazi Within.”
For those too young to remember the controversy which motivated this piece, I should note that in 1985, at the height of the cold war and nuclear saber rattling, President Ronald Reagan scheduled a speech at the Bitburg military cemetery. Since thousands of Nazi soldiers, including SS storm troopers, were buried in the cemetery, this created an outcry, especially among Holocaust survivors and the Jewish community in general. They argued that Reagan's visit to the cemetery would be seen as condoning or downplaying the horror of the concentration camps. On the other hand, the political right argued that the visit was necessary to cement relations with West Germany, a valued ally in our efforts to contain Communism, which they saw as a modern day equivalent of the Nazis. It was in this context that I wrote the following op-ed.
I am an American and a Jew. I was born in October 1945, just after the war ended. Growing up in New York City, some of my friends' parents were concentration camp survivors. I remember furtively glancing at the tattooed numbers on their arms with a mixture of horror and fascination. Could the Germans really have treated other human beings this way? Or were the Germans maybe not human? Could this happen again? To me?
Having grown up with questions like these, I understood the furor over President Reagan's visit to the German cemetery which included graves of the "elite" Storm troopers who were so often associated with the horror of the concentration camps. But by focusing on the evil that was Nazism and dwelling on the past, we overlooked an equally horrible crime against humanity which all of us, Jew and non-Jew alike, are about to commit today.
How can we or the Soviets criticize the Nazis when, at this very moment, 30,000 American nuclear weapons and 20,000 Soviet nuclear weapons stand poised, ready to commit genocide on a scale that Hitler could only dream of?
We shield ourselves from knowledge of the crime with words like "strategy", "deterrence", "nuclear war", and "nuclear weapons". But these words are facades.
Our current strategy is not a strategy; it can lead nowhere but global annihilation.
Because deterrence cannot work perfectly forever, it really is synonymous with Chamberlain's now infamous statement that we shall have "peace in our time", without any consideration for the fate we bequeath our children.
Nuclear war is not war. It is suicide and genocide rolled into one.
Nuclear weapons are not weapons. They are instruments of genocide.
We must strip these words of their facades if we are not to become modern day Nazis. And we must see that the enemy is not Nazism or communism or capitalism.
The enemy which allows seemingly civilized human beings to commit unspeakable atrocities against their fellow men is the psychology of war itself. In that psychology, we are able to project all of our own shortcomings and misdeeds onto the perceived enemy, blame him for all of our problems, and paint him as an inhuman creature fit only to be annihilated.
The Nazis who excelled at subterfuge, plunder and crime projected all of those qualities onto us. In Nazi propaganda, Jews were sneaky, greedy and vile. Jews were responsible for the German loss in World War One. Jews were responsible for the hyper-inflation and then the Depression. Jews were the enemy and, if only we could be eliminated, Germany's problems would disappear.
That psychology allowed men to become animals and commit the atrocities at Auschwitz and Dachau. And that psychology is what allowed other men to commit atrocities in Viet Nam and Afghanistan [Note 1] and everywhere else that the scourge of war touches.
We must not forget those who died in the concentration camps. We must not forget any of those who died in war. So let President Reagan go to Bitburg and redeem the dead. Not by excusing what the Nazis did. And certainly not by committing their sin and painting some new perceived enemy as the focus of evil in the world.
Rather, let him truly redeem the dead by making our actions conform to the sacred pledge that we made in the spring of 1945 while the stench of death and the smell of victory were still fresh in our nostrils, that "We the peoples of the United Nations [are] determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind."
That would not only redeem the dead. It would redeem the living.
Note 1: It is ironic that today, in 2003, I have to clarify that this referred to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan which was in full swing when this op-ed appeared and which was widely decried by America. It does not refer to the American invasion of Afghanistan that took place following the horror of September 11, 2001. The Taliban, who aided and abetted the terrorists in that act, were many of the “freedom fighters” we supported in their war against the Soviets. Even in 1985 it was known that the major recipients of our arms were chanting “death to America” around their campfires at night after fighting the Soviets by day. Because such information did not fit with our national mythology at the time, it was not widely printed, another example of the danger of confusing myth with reality.