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D-Day: How the US Supported Hitler’s Rise to Power

June 6, 2019

Historian Peter Kuznick joins Paul Jay to discuss the role of Ford, GM, and other industrialists in rearming Germany and supporting Hitler’s rise to power

On June 6, 1944, Allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy, France, opening a second front against German fascism. The largest contingents of fighters were British, American, and Canadian. This battle has been depicted in movies and books as the decisive turning point of World War II, a ferocious struggle against a superior enemy. But as The Real News Network's Paul Jay and author Peter Kuznick discuss, D-Day was also the moment where the United States' opposition to communism could no longer outweigh its tacit acceptance of Nazism, and the U.S. industrialists who helped rearm Germany after World War I could no longer profit from Hitler's Germany.

“In the aftermath of [World War I], there was such strong anti-war sentiment throughout Europe and throughout the United States that people were very, very loath to get involved in another war, and they were willing to tolerate things they perhaps shouldn't have,” Kuznick said. “The attitude in the United States was that the United States had been effectively suckered into the war by the munitions manufacturers and the bankers. That instead of it being a noble cause to make the world safe for democracy, to fight the war to end all wars, it was really a war to secure the vast Morgan loans to the British and the French and way to fatten the coffers of DuPont and the other munitions makers.”

This opposition to war is why the U.S. and other countries tolerated German rearmament in the '30s, and in the case of many American manufacturers, helped Germany rearm. GM, IBM, and Ford played a major role in rearming Germany. Jay mentioned that in 1938, Hitler even gave notorious anti-Semite and anti-unionist Henry Ford the Grand Cross of the German Eagle, the highest medal a foreigner could receive from the Nazi party. Then, going into World War II, the U.S.'s “big underlying strategy,” Jay explained, was to allow Germany and Russia to fight and “kill each other,” even as the Soviet Union wanted “the British and the Americans and Canadians to join a united front or a broad front of alliance against Hitler as far back as 1939.”

Kuznick explained that then-Senator Harry Truman suggested that the U.S. support whoever was winning the war, whether that was the Russians or the Germans. Moreover, U.S. neutrality in the Spanish Civil War was an example of how extreme post-World War I anti-war sentiments were—as well as a missed opportunity to prevent fascism from spreading.

All of this was happening at the same time that U.S. industrialists were rearming Hitler's Germany, and making money from it.

“There are a lot of American elites who were involved in helping finance and helping rearm and helping rebuild the German economy during this period,” Kuznick said. “A lot of those folks who we call the ‘Greatest Generation' were Nazi enablers, and many of them saw the Nazis as a bulwark against Bolshevism, as against communism, and were therefore happy and willing to support and allow and tolerate and turn a blind eye to the rearmament of Germany during this time because they saw the Nazis as the way to stop the Communists and the Soviet Union.”



D-Day: How the US Supported Hitler's Rise to Power

Story Transcript

PAUL JAY: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.

On June 6, 1944, the Allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy, France, and opened a second front against German fascism. The largest contingents of fighters were British, American, and Canadian. This battle has been depicted in movies and books as the decisive turning point of World War II, a ferocious struggle against a superior enemy. Here’s Donald Trump in London speaking about D-Day and the triumph of those soldiers.

DONALD TRUMP: On June 6, 1944, tens of thousands of young warriors left these shores by the sea and air to begin the invasion of Normandy and the liberation of Europe and the brutal Nazi occupation. It was a liberation like few people have seen before. Among them were more than 130,000 American and British brothers in arms. Through their valor and sacrifice they secured our homelands and saved freedom for the world.

PAUL JAY: No doubt the soldiers who sacrificed in the tens of thousands, killed and wounded, did wage a valiant and courageous fight. My father was in the Canadian Air Force, attached to the RAF, and was part of a mission to arm and support the French partisans. Most of my father’s fellow airmen were killed. Like many vets, my dad did not like talking about the war and he was not filled with stories of triumph and heroism, although surely he and millions of others were such heroes. But was D-Day the dramatic turning point in the war? Was the role of the United States the critical difference in the defeat of the Nazis? And what really drove the decisions that led to so much horror and death?

Now joining us from Washington is Peter Kuznick. He’s a professor of history and director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University. He’s the author of The Untold History of the United States, co-written with Oliver Stone, as well as Rethinking the Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Thanks for joining us, Peter.

PETER KUZNICK: Hi, Paul.

PAUL JAY: So before we get into D-Day and what happened there, and what the significance of D-Day was, I think there’s sort of a bigger backstory here about the rise of Hitler and Hitlerite militarism. And I always understood that the Versailles treaty after the end of World War I, one of the most important parts of that treaty, was that Germany should never be allowed to rearm. And the second [war] should never have been possible. What happened?

PETER KUZNICK: Well, that’s actually a long and complicated story, partly that also is a product of World War I. You have to remember that in the aftermath of the war, there was such strong anti-war sentiment throughout Europe and throughout the United States that people were very, very loath to get involved in another war, and they were willing to tolerate things they perhaps shouldn’t have. The attitude in the United States was that the United States had been effectively suckered into the war by the munitions manufacturers and the bankers; that instead of it being a noble cause to make the world safe for democracy, to fight the war to end all wars, it was really a war to secure the vast Morgan loans to the British and the French, and a way to fatten the coffers of DuPont and the other munitions makers.

PAUL JAY: And this is–you’re talking about the first World War.

PETER KUZNICK: Yeah, the first World War. Because there’s such strong anti-war sentiment that nobody really wants to get involved in World War–another war in Europe in the 1930s. So they tolerate German rearmament in ways that they shouldn’t have, even though they were aware this was taking place. And as you know, it was more than just tolerating it. The American manufacturers were involved in helping it happen.

One of my Ph.D. students recently completed an excellent dissertation about the role of GM, IBM, and Ford in rebuilding the German economy in the 1930s, and helping directly, in the case of GM and Ford, with German rearmament. They were willing to do things to support the German military they were not willing to do to rearm in the United States during this period. And they stayed involved in ways that really defied U.S. law up until the war actually began. And then during the war their subsidiaries in Europe continued to produce, continued to make profits, which they were able to accrue after the war ended. In fact, GM and Ford were able to sue the U.S. government for millions of dollars for reparations for their plants that the U.S. bombed and destroyed in Europe during the war that were producing for the Nazis. So American business had a shameful record.

PAUL JAY: Talk about the story of Henry Ford, because it’s a good–it’s not just Henry Ford. The sections of the American elites, the British elites, including the king of England, who now–we now know didn’t step down because of his marriage to an American woman. He really stepped down because he was so pro-Hitler he became an embarrassment. And Henry Ford himself gets some kind of award from Hitler.

PETER KUZNICK: Yes, Henry Ford got an award. Henry Ford–there were some good things one might say about Henry Ford, but we have to also note that he was viciously anti-union, and that he was a vicious anti-Semite. His newspaper reprinted the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, helped popularize that myth, that falsity, throughout America; spewed anti-Semitism in his publications, and his personal life. Hitler had a portrait of Henry Ford above his desk in his office. And Hitler said, Henry Ford is my hero. And that was in part because of his anti-Semitism, and a lot of his other reactionary ideas that-

PAUL JAY: Henry Ford used to send Hitler money on his birthday every year.

PETER KUZNICK: And then the Germans did give Henry Ford an award, and Henry Ford was happy to accept it. He later tries to change the record and say that he wasn’t a supporter of Hitler, but I think clearly the Ford Motor Company was doing Germany’s bidding. But it wasn’t just that. It was Prescott Bush. It was the uncle of George Bush, and father, and grandfather, who was very much instrumental in working with Brown Brothers Harriman, and got called on the carpet for this during the war with the Trading with the Enemies Act.

So there are a lot of American elites who were involved in helping finance and helping rearm and helping rebuild the German economy during this period. It’s a shameful episode. Oliver and I go into it in some depth in the documentary Untold History and the book of Untold History because we think it’s a very important story that gets swept under the carpet when we’re talking about these people being the greatest generation. A lot of those folks who we call the ‘greatest generation’ were Nazi enablers, and many of them saw the Nazis as a bulwark against Bolshevism, as against communism, and were therefore happy and willing to support and allow and tolerate and turn a blind eye to the rearmament of Germany during this time, because they saw the Nazis as the way to stop the Communists and the Soviet Union.

PAUL JAY: And wasn’t that really the–that was the big underlying strategy, wasn’t it? They thought that the Germans would march east, not west, and that if there was a war with Germany and Russia that would just be hunky dory for the West. Let the Germans and these Russians kill each other.

PETER KUZNICK: Among those who explicitly stated that was Senator Harry Truman, who on the floor of the Senate said if the Germans are winning we support the Russians, and if the Russians are winning we support the Germans. And that way let them kill as many of each other as possible. That was not Roosevelt’s attitude. But we had time, we had chances to intervene to prevent this. One of the key episodes in the rise of fascism, the spread of fascism, was the Spanish Civil War. And the U.S. maintained a dumb neutrality in the Spanish Civil War. And again, this was a product of this strong hatred of World War I and the deep anti-war sentiment, which normally would be a positive sentiment. We wish we had more of that in the United States today. But in the 1930s this was a chance to stop Hitler, and the U.S. maintained its neutrality throughout the Spanish Civil War. The only nation that was really supporting the Spanish Republic was the Soviet Union.

PAUL JAY: And that was–the Spanish Republic was the elected government, overthrown by the fascist Franco backed by Hitler. And it was–in fact Hitler, uses the Spanish Civil War as a way to show off his air force, and his new military ability, and test some of his weapons. I mean, an obvious place to intervene if they actually wanted to stop fascism in Europe.

PETER KUZNICK: Well, and Roosevelt looked back on it and said we were going to rue the day when we didn’t intervene to stop Hitler when we had the chance.

There are a number of times when we could have stopped Hitler. But number one, people didn’t want to go to war. Number two, they downplayed the threat that Hitler represented, even though Hitler lays this out explicitly. In Mein Kampf he talks about taking over the Soviet Union. He talks about populating the Ukraine. He really lays out his plans very, very clearly, but people didn’t want to take it seriously. And then we pay the price for that. So sometimes it is necessary to fight. And we do have to be vigilant. But what complicates it, of course, is the post-war history, where the Cold War was, as we’ve talked about, extraordinarily dangerous and unnecessary and avoidable. And the U.S. interventions repeatedly, militarily, were not in the cause of freedom and stopping fascism, but were more often in the cause of spreading U.S. foreign policy goals and interests and intervening repeatedly on the wrong side in support of the oppressors, support of the militarists. We can through that history. We have before.

PAUL JAY: My understanding is the Soviet Union had been asking for the British and the Americans and Canadians to join a united front or a broad front of alliance against Hitler as far back as 1939. And once the Germans did start directly engaging, fighting against the Soviet Union, and began the invasion, Stalin kept asking over and over again for a second front to be opened in the West. And there wasn’t much interest in it up until the defeat of the Germans at Stalingrad.

PETER KUZNICK: Yeah. Well, in fact, it goes back long before 1939, when the Soviets adopted the popular front strategy in 1935. That was an attempt to reach out to the liberal progressive forces in the West for an antifascist alliance to stop Hitler in the mid-1930s. The Soviets saw what was coming, and they interpreted the West’s refusal to ally against Hitler as a sign that the West was hoping that Hitler would move East, as he promised, against the Soviet Union and destroy communism.

On the British side, Churchill says back after the Bolshevik Revolution that he wants to strangle Bolshevism in the cradle. You have to remember that the West sent troops into the Soviet Union in 1918 and 1919, and this was partly an effort to defeat the Russian Revolution. We’ve got the prolonged Russian Civil War as a response to that. And then the U.S. also sent more than 10,000 troops into Russia in 1918 and 1919. So this goes way back. The Brits, the Japanese, the French, they all had troops in there right after the Russian Revolution. They saw Bolshevism as a threat. And clearly the Bolsheviks were not playing by the rules. When the Bolsheviks released the diplomatic papers showing the Sykes-Picot treaty and showing that the British and the French and the Russians had divided up the world after World War I, that World War I was really a war to make the world safe for colonialism, to redivide the world’s colonies, not a war to make the world safe for democracy, it had exposed the lie at the source of American involvement in World War I.

Woodrow Wilson gets us involved because he wants to have a hand in shaping the post-war world. And he says so explicitly. He says otherwise we’ll be forced to sit outside the door and try to shout through a crack under the door. He says we want to be involved with shaping the world. And the world that the British and the French shape after World War I is not a world opposed to colonies, is not a world of self-determination, not a world of freedom, not a world of democracy. It’s a world of colonialism and repression, which is another reason why the Americans did not want to get involved in Europe. They saw the Europeans as corrupt, and Roosevelt says this explicitly in the 1930s and 1940s. He talks about British colonies in Gambia. Talks about the French colonies in Indochina. Talks about the British in India. And he says that this kind of repression cannot be tolerated after World War II. Unfortunately, Roosevelt dies and Truman does allow the British and the French to re-establish their colonial domains after World War II.

PAUL JAY: In the next segment of our interview we’re going to talk more about D-Day and whether it was the decisive battle that broke the back of German fascism, German militarism. So please join us for that on The Real News Network.