The Bounty on Hitler

The United States entered World War II in December of 1941, and only after Japanese planes bombed the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor. Even though the U.S. was, relative to Western Europe and the Soviet Union, slow to involve itself in World War II, there was certainly anti-Hitler sentiment in America. And no one exhibited that sentiment better than Samuel Harden Church.

Church was the President of the Carnegie Institute, which would later become part of Carnegie Mellon University. But his place in history is so minor a blip that he does not yet have a Wikipedia entry. But on April 30, 1940, Church took a step which, had a soldier of fortune risen to the occasion, could have changed the course of history — and Church’s legacy — insurmountably.  On that date, he wrote a letter to the New York Times on behalf of a group of well-to-do Pittsburgh residents (reprinted in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette the next day). It read, in part:

In order to prevent further bloodshed and outrage in this war of German aggression, I am authorized by competent Americans to offer a reward of the person or person who will deliver Adolph Hitler, alive, unwounded and unhurt, into the custody of the League of Nations for trial before a high court of justice for his crimes against peace and dignity of the world. This proposal will stand good through the month of May, 1940.

The amount of the reward? $1 million — or, about $15 million in today’s dollars.

The purpose of the offer was not only to save Hitler’s victims, but also to save Hitler’s countrymen. Church told the Post-Gazette that his group “had received private advices from Europe that Hitler would strike soon on the Western front [. . .] even at the cost of 500,000 German lives.” The Pittsburgh citizens affiliated with Church saw an opportunity to save a lot of lives, German and otherwise, by funding the capture of the German leader — with an emphasis on doing so quickly to avoid more carnage.

No one took Church up on his offer — and, in fact, many wrote in to the Pittsburgh Press to object to his plan. But Church and his group were correct. On May 10, 1940, Germany began the invasion of France; each side had over 3 million troops in strength during the two month struggle. A total of 150,000 Germans and 360,000 French died or were wounded before France agreed to German cease-fire terms in late June of that year.

Bonus fact: While Church wrote his letter to the New York Times, Mohandas Gandhi took a different approach — he wrote directly to Hitler himself. In a letter dated July 23, 1939 (seen here), Gandhi asked Hitler to eschew war: “It is quite clear that you are today the one person in the world who can prevent a war which may reduce humanity to a savage state.”

From the ArchivesHitler, One Night Only: The story of a really bad idea for a TV show.

Related: Apparently Samuel Harden Church wrote a book. It has two reviews, one of which is a one star review: “I would be embarrassed to give her [the reviewer’s sister] this as a Christmas present.”

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