Liberal invective against George W. Bush has not yet descended to the depths plumbed by conservatives in their crusade against the Clintons, but that isn’t because nobody’s trying. Mr. Bush’s most zealous opponents apparently believe that his faults, and those of his cronies and his administration, will be insufficient to unseat him next year.
That may be why some Bush critics have been circulating a story about the financial connections between his paternal grandfather, Prescott Bush Sr., and a Nazi industrial magnate named Fritz Thyssen.
The sinister cooperation between prominent American businessmen and their counterparts in Hitler’s Germany is an important episode whose details are still being revealed by historians. It instructs us about the terrible crimes that can be committed in the pursuit of profit by men (and they were all men) who regard themselves as a superior race and class. It implicates such famous names as Ford, Standard Oil, General Motors and Dupont. In the case of Prescott Bush Sr., this sorry history shows that even a man who later displayed decent instincts could have been guilty of awful judgment and worse.
According to archival and declassified material recently published, the founder of the Bush political dynasty had much to answer for during his earlier career on Wall Street. Picking up on an investigative story in the New Hampshire Gazette, last week the Associated Press reported on Prescott Sr.’s role in the Union Banking Corp., which served as a front for Thyssen’s conglomerate.
Quite reasonably, the U.S. government suspected Union Banking of aiding the Nazis through Thyssen, who had helped to finance Hitler’s rise and whose coal and steel holdings were integral to the German war machine. That suspicion led federal officials to seize Union Banking’s assets in October 1942 under the Trading With the Enemy Act. While Prescott Sr. held only a single share of Union Banking stock, he also served as one of seven corporate directors whose apparent purpose was to help Thyssen conceal the bank’s real ownership.
What the A.P. story notes – unlike many of the Internet stories circulating about the “Bush-Nazi connection”-is that, by 1938, Fritz Thyssen had fallen out with the Nazi regime he had helped bring to power, evidently “over their persecution of Catholics and Jews.” After fleeing to neutral Switzerland, Thyssen was arrested by the Nazis. At the moment when his U.S. assets were seized, Thyssen was in a Nazi prison, where he remained until the end of the war.
Those complicating facts don’t absolve Thyssen or his American associates. The involvement of Prescott Sr. and other members of the American business aristocracy with Nazi-era industry was shameful, and in some instances illegal-and they knew it. Like so many Americans who made deals with fascist interests or lent political support to them during the 30’s, those businessmen got off rather easily after the war. Most of them, including Bush, were permitted to keep the money they had made with the Germans.
They’re all dead now, however. Prescott Sr. died more than 30 years ago.
Before he went to his final reward, the Bush patriarch was elected from Connecticut to the U.S. Senate, where he served from 1952 until he retired 10 years later. He was a liberal Eisenhower Republican who distinguished himself as an opponent of McCarthyism and an advocate of public housing.
Henry Ford was a Nazi collaborator. Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. was a Nazi sympathizer. Unless additional information emerges to indict him, Prescott Bush Sr. was neither. To misuse such terms for political advantage against his grandson is to trivialize very grave offenses.
Whatever the President’s grandfather did or may have done, how does that reflect on George W. Bush? In 1942, he hadn’t been born yet. If he is nevertheless accountable for Prescott Sr.’s actions, fairness requires that a similar standard be applied to other descendants of politicians and businessmen whose attitude toward Nazism was, at best, ambivalent. Should anyone named Kennedy, Harriman, Dupont or Fish be arraigned for the offenses of their dead ancestors? Should everyone boycott Ford Motors?
The obvious answer is no. In America, the sins of the fathers are not held against the children, nor should they be. Although the Bushes have too often lowered themselves into the gutter for political gain, that doesn’t give license to libels against them.
It is ironic that the President would be arraigned on a bum rap at a moment when his poll numbers are declining, his advisers admit he is vulnerable, and several books excoriating him have appeared on the best-seller lists.
There are many unflattering terms that can and should be used to describe George W. Bush. He is, among other things, a truly bad President. But neither his offenses, nor the Republican Party’s politics of personal destruction, can justify using such tactics against him. Imputing Nazi sympathies to the President or his family ought to be beneath his adversaries.