Beginning in the spring of 1944, US Army air force planes1 had the ability to reach the Auschwitz-Birkenau killing center from a base in Italy. In June (only a few weeks after the D-Day invasion), several Jewish organizations sent pleas to the War Refugee Board (WRB) to request the US military to do something to halt the deportations of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz. They suggested either destroying the railroad lines and bridges used to transport Jews to the camp or damaging the the gas chambers and crematoria inside the camp. John Pehle, the director of the WRB, spoke to Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy on June 24, 1944, and later sent him additional information and pleas from Jewish organizations. Still, Pehle commented in a memo, "I had several doubts about the matter…I made it very clear to Mr. McCloy that I was not, at this point at least, requesting the War Department to take any action on this proposal other than to appropriately explore it."2 McCloy wrote to Pehle on July 4, 1944, to explain that he viewed the operation as "impracticable."3
With this letter, dated November 8, 1944, Pehle forwarded a copy of the so-called "Auschwitz Protocol" to John McCloy, along with his recommendation that the War Department bomb the gas chambers and crematoria at Auschwitz-Birkenau.4 "I strongly recommend that the War Department give serious consideration to the possibility of destroying the execution chambers and crematories in Birkenau through direct bombing action," Pehle wrote.5 Unbeknownst to anyone in the US government, the gas chambers at Auschwitz had already shut down.
On November 18, McCloy responded, stating again that "the War Department has felt that it should not, at least for the present, undertake these operations."6 He returned the copy of the Auschwitz Protocol with his response, and likely never read it.7
Historians have long debated whether the US military could—or should—have destroyed the rail lines leading to the Auschwitz-Birkenau killing center or bombed the gas chamber or crematoria inside Birkenau. These debates intensified in the 1980s, after the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) released newly discovered photographs taken by the American air forces in the summer of 1944, some of which show lines of prisoners and smoke coming from the Birkenau crematoria.8 Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, historians waged debates in scholarly journals and in letters-to-the-editor, arguing over the bombing issue. Some claimed that targeted bombing raids would have been difficult due to technical considerations. Others believe that even a chance to disrupt the killing would have been worth the attempt—and that even an unsuccessful bombing raid would have sent a strong moral signal, both to the prisoners at Auschwitz and to the Nazi leadership. These debates are ongoing and historians are unlikely to reach a conclusion.9