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The Lion King’: An Exchange

In response to:

The Lion King from the December 18, 1997 issue

To the Editors:

Joan Didion’s article [NYR, December 18, 1997] repeats an erroneous story about Ronald Reagan and the Holocaust that first circulated in the 1980s and recently has been recycled in a New Yorker article by Michael Korda and a Washington Post column by Richard Cohen. The correct version appears in George Shultz’s book Turmoil and Triumph: My Years as Secretary of State, in the chapter on President Reagan’s visit to the cemetery at Bitburg (p. 550). To be fair to the former president, I believe that the story recounted by Mr. Shultz should be put before your readers: During the latter part of World War II, Reagan’s job involved viewing film shot by military cameramen and war correspondent photographers. He assembled the selected shots into briefing films for senior officers. When he saw the first footage of the horror inside the concentration camps, filmed at the time the death camps were liberated, he was immensely shocked. Against regulations, he kept copies of the films because, he said, the scenes were so appalling that some people would later deny that it could have been so bad—or that it had taken place at all. Four years after the war, Reagan recounted, a guest at his house for dinner said he found the stories impossible to believe—it couldn’t have happened that way. So Ronald Reagan got out the can of film and ran it for his skeptical guest. When Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir made his first visit to Washington during the Reagan administration, the president told this story to Shamir, who was deeply moved by it. Upon his return to Israel, Shamir told the story to Israeli journalists, who reported it in the Hebrew language press. English translations were picked up by American reporters. As the story emerged in American newspapers, it had become garbled, maintaining Ronald Reagan had said that he was present at the liberation of the camps as part of a U.S. army film crew. The president had said no such thing. But the critics then cited it as an example of Reagan’s inability to distinguish fact from fantasy or real life from an actor’s role that he had played or wished he had played. But I had heard the true version. I knew that the president back then had, in his own way, created his own Holocaust memorial.

Charles Hill
(Executive Assistant to Secretary Shultz, 1984-1989)
New Haven, Connecticut

Joan Didion replies:

Secretary Shultz’s version of this story, which suggests that the American press garbled an exchange understood by Prime Minister Shamir to mean that President Reagan had merely seen film of the camps, may be a little wishful. Lou Cannon, White House correspondent for The Washington Post during the Reagan administration, gave, in his 1991 President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime, a detailed account of both how the story was originally reported and how the White House recast it. Cannon reports having first run into the story in the February 10, 1984, issue of the weekly newsletter Near East Report:

Under the headline “Reagan’s Real Feelings,” the newsletter carried an approving account of an article in Ma’ariv, an Israeli newspaper close to the government. The article said that Reagan had told Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, during his November 29, 1983, visit to the White House, that the roots of his concern for Israel could be traced to World War II when he photographed the Nazi death camps. Afterward, Reagan said, he had saved a copy of the death camp films for himself because he believed that the day would come when people would no longer believe that six million Jews had been exterminated. Years later, said the article, Reagan was asked by a member of his own family if such an event had really occurred. “That moment, I thought this is the time for which I saved the film and I showed it to a group of people who couldn’t believe their eyes,” Ma’ariv quoted Reagan as saying. “From then on, I was concerned for the Jewish people.”

An editor who had also received the newsletter sent it to me with a quizzical note penned in the margin: “First time I ever heard of this.” I was busy with other stories and put the newsletter aside. Then, on February 16, 1984, Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal and Rabbi Marvin Hier called upon Reagan to discuss the dedication of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. After the meeting Wiesenthal told Washington Post reporter Joanne Omang that he was “very very satisfied” with Reagan’s interest in efforts to track down a former Wehrmacht officer believed responsible for the murder of a quarter million Jews who was hiding in Chile. While Omang was writing this story, she asked me when Reagan had photographed the Nazi death camps. “Never,” I told her. “He was never out of the country during the war.” She then related to me an account from Hier and Wiesenthal that was nearly identical to the story that Reagan had purportedly told Shamir. In the version he told Hier and Wiesenthal, Reagan had shown the films soon after the war to a person who claimed that reports of extermination of the Jews had been exaggerated. “He [Reagan] said he was shocked that there would be a need to do that only a year after the war,” Hier said.

I remained journalistically cautious, perhaps overly cautious, even though it seemed unlikely that Shamir and Wiesenthal had reached identical misunderstandings at their separate meetings with Reagan. But all I knew about the Reagan-Shamir conversation had come from a secondhand account of a report in an Israeli newspaper. I let the story sit until Ed Walsh, then The Washington Post correspondent in Jerusalem, was able to confirm the accuracy of the Ma’ariv report with Dan Meridor, the Israeli cabinet secretary. Shamir had accepted Reagan’s moving story at face value and had related it to the cabinet as evidence of the president’s support of Israel. Finally, in mid-March, I sought to confirm this story at the White House, sending the press office into red alert. Bob Sims, the deputy press secretary I had asked to check into the meeting, called me back to deny Reagan had ever claimed to have photographed the death camps. “There’s no story here,” he said. “The only story is that The Post is out to make the president look bad.” This was an unusual comment from Sims, who was known for his gentle manners and honesty. Never before had he responded to any inquiry of mine in an accusatory manner. I told him that his answer wasn’t good enough and that I needed to know Reagan’s personal response to what he was alleged to have said. Pretty soon, I received a call from James Baker, who preferred to talk to reporters on background. Not this time, I said. Baker was a great douser of fires, particularly in an election year. He went to Reagan immediately and called me back, saying that the president had told him he “never left the country” during World War II and “never told anyone that he did.” Baker said Reagan had told him he kept a copy of the film on the death camps after he left the service because he remembered that World War I atrocities had been questioned and “didn’t want atrocities against the Jewish people to be forgotten.” Reagan had told Baker that “a Jewish friend” had questioned him about the accuracy of the death camp reports a year or two later. Reagan had shown him a copy of the film. I put this in a column that concluded with the reservations that I hold today:

How could Shamir and Wiesenthal, fluent in English and known for their grasp of detail, have misunderstood so completely what Reagan said to them in two different meetings more than two months apart? What Jew would doubt the existence of the Holocaust?

The story in any of its versions was new to this reporter, who, in the course of preparing two biographies and interviewing many people who knew Reagan during his World War II days, had never heard it. There is no reference to it in any other Reagan biography nor in his autobiography. It is a story no one seems to have heard.”1

We also have, from Michael K. Deaver, in his 1987 Behind the Scenes, this further elucidation:

In the mid-1980s, a growing number of people seemed willing to believe that for Reagan reality and myth often blur. It has been suggested that he would borrow from his movie roles to give texture to his wartime duties. He was, and is, fond of telling stories about heroic pilots, or POWs who staged daring escapes.

Reagan may have heard the stories firsthand, from the veterans who brought them back. He may have had burned into his mind a scene from the combat footage his unit would sometimes edit. Or, yes, the real acts of courage or horror may have blended with moments from his old films.

Another issue seemed to bother some of his critics: that Reagan wanted people to believe he had seen these deeds, or had somehow brushed the actual events….

But Reagan is a romantic, not an imposter. When he talked about seeing the bodies of the Holocaust victims piled like firewood, he may or may not have explained that he had been viewing the footage shipped home by the Signal Corps. (He saw this nightmare on film, not in person. That did not mean he saw it less.)2

  1. 1

    Simon and Schuster, pp. 487-488.

  2. 2

    Morrow, p. 177.

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