Pardons are a presidential power that usually generate interest as a president leaves office. Pardons were at the heart of the Watergate situation as Nixon would not promise a pardon, or would dangle the promise of a pardon in front of men. Gerald Ford famously pardoned Nixon despite Nixon not being convicted of anything. George W. Bush never pardoned old Scooter Libby, which many pundits expected. Bill Clinton pardoned some minor figures and then Marc Rich. Rich’s ex-wife had donated millions to the Clinton library. No corruption there. Clinton and Bush both pardoned, individually, two men involved in a smuggling crime from the ’40s. No media outcry or much attention, yet it reveals much about America’s geopolitical stance today.
Charles Winters and Al Schwimmer were buddies involved with smuggling three B-17 bombers from the US to the newly-formed Israel during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Winters claims that he did this because of his friend Schwimmer, for what he felt was right, and received no compensation. These bombers were credited with helping the Israelis win the war and acted as the start of their air force. Schwimmer was effectively the father of the Israeli Air Force, and Winters the godfather.
Once the smuggling was discovered, Winters and Schwimmer were punished. Winters went to jail for eighteen months; Schwimmer was fined but never spent time in jail. These are pretty lenient sentences for violating the Neutrality Acts and smuggling bombers to another nation. While there was a strong push within the US for recognizing Israel, Truman debated this and waffled on it. Even when he signed recognition, there are scratch marks on what exactly was the name of the nation he was recognizing. At that time, America had an Arabist and a Zionist wing to foreign policy. Fifty years later, the pro-Israel side had won out. While Schwimmer himself never sought a pardon, Clinton gave him the pardon. Despite being dead for over a decade, Bush pardoned Winters. It was symbolic. Israel, the US has your back, always.
Times had changed. But what had changed, exactly? These two men broke a law. The law enforcement of their time punished them, if lightly, and did not pardon them when the crime was fresh. They were not pardoned even after the US had bailed Israel out in Nixon’s day. Nothing about the law changed. What changed was AIPAC’s stranglehold on Congress. What changed was the idea of Israel being the source of multiple questions at presidential debates. What changed was that breaking the law for Israel was not such a bad thing, as long as it did not put the US at risk.
These men are dead. The pardons have little tangible meaning but plenty of symbolism. Touchdown celebrations have no value except to taunt the other side. It is okay to get outraged by the pardon of Marc Rich. It is okay to wonder if Bush would pardon old crony Scooter Libby. Just don’t discuss the history, the odd push, and the lobby behind the pardon of two old smugglers.Read More