RACE IN THE COUNTRY: IBM Fetes Leave Out Crucial World War II Role

IBM is making a comeback.  Over the last five years, they have launched a major PR campaign, which thus far has included an enormous exhibit at Lincoln Center last fall, the celebration of “Watson,” IBM’s super computer and Jeopardy! contestant, and now the appointment of a female CEO. The point is to make IBM look like a cutting-edge technology company, instead of an aging behemoth behind the times.

IBM isn’t used to playing catch-up.  Twenty years ago, before Apple was really off the ground, IBM still had pole position in the personal computer market.  Its founder, Herman Hollerith, was the inventor of the first personal computer in 1896.  But it was James Watson, the namesake mentioned above, who catapulted the company to a worldwide monopoly through the use of its punchcard technology during World War II. By installing offices all over Europe, starting with the Nazi controlled Census Bureau in 1921, Watson, a Hitler sympathizer, created an empire parallel to Hitler’s. For years, IBM assembled data about European citizens culled from documents as disparate as marriage certificates, loan applications, and doctor’s office forms, to determine who had Jewish blood.  This often involved complex (for the time) computations, following people back several generations.  Sometimes, citizens identified as Jews didn’t know they were Jewish, ignorant of their 1/16th heritage. Because of IBM’s pioneering technology, Hitler didn’t skip a beat.  He could invade a European town and roundup all the Jews in the same day.  IBM licensed their technology to the Nazis only – and they had no competition.

So it is with gritted teeth that I witness these efforts to rehabilitate IBM’s image for all the wrong reasons, meaning to pump up the stock price.  I was perusing Jon Sarna’s new book When General Grant Expelled the Jews, and I was struck by the difference in Grant’s approach compared with IBM.  In 1862, during the Civil War, Grant expelled the Jews from the territory in the central Southern states that he controlled, despite the fact that most were Union sympathizers.  People were driven from their homes with only what they could carry and sent to camps, confined by the military.  Grant knew that many citizens, including Jews, were participating in illegal cotton trading – the North still needed cotton, even during the war – and that angered him.  He took it out on the Jews.  But the Jews appealed to Lincoln, and Grant, after being forced to rescind the order, spent the rest of his life compensating for it.  When he became president, he championed Jewish rights at home and abroad, going so far as to appoint an emissary to travel to Romania to protect Jewish rights, and advocating secular, non-Christian public education for Jews and Gentiles alike. He was also the first American president to attend Jewish worship services, a big deal in the late 1800s.

As recently as 1967, IBM published its own promotional pamphlet entitled “The History of Computing in Europe”, lionizing its role in World War II. They soon realized their PR mistake and shortly after its publication, IBM pulled the book from the market and destroyed all known remaining copies. It cannot be found at any public library, anywhere in the world.  But as far as I know, they have done nothing to counteract the damage they did.  As I told my sister today, saying “I’m sorry” or “I was wrong” once in a while really helps – no matter if it’s in a relationship with one or with a million customers. So, IBM, if you’re listening, try it sometime, even if you don’t mean it, at first.

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