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Eisenhower’s War-II

Eisenhower: At War, 1943–1945

by David Eisenhower
Random House, 977 pp., $29.95

1.

Once Germany neared defeat, the problems of the postwar era began. They brought on an acute crisis between the British and Americans and an incipient falling out between both of them and the Soviets, with such grave consequences that we are still living with them today.

Much of David Eisenhower’s book Eisenhower: At War is devoted to the disputes between the British and the Americans over military strategy.1 The main difference between them was that increasingly the British were interested in the future balance of power in Europe, and the Americans were more interested in first defeating Germany and Japan. The British concern had led Churchill to offer Stalin a deal in percentages in October 1944, whereby Great Britain and the Soviet Union would engage in a power-sharing arrangement in Eastern Europe. The Americans were by that time looking forward to the climactic phase of the war in the Far East and the organization of a more effective successor to the League of Nations. To President Roosevelt, the only thing that could justify the sacrifices made in the war was a United Nations capable of guaranteeing the peace, a vision that had not yet been made into a mockery. Historically, the British had pursued a balance of power in Europe for centuries; it had long been a dirty word in the United States.

For better or worse, Roosevelt did not think that the country was ready to be permanently entangled in Europe. Until the atomic bomb put an end to the prospect of Japanese resistance, a large portion of the American forces in Europe had been designated for transfer to the Far East. The President could not in any case make binding commitments in Europe without congressional approval—a daunting condition at that time for any longterm engagements. Personal inclination and practical politics made Roosevelt and those around him prefer to hold the future open and deal with it when it came.

The American dilemma was that Roosevelt and the country at large knew what they didn’t want far more clearly than what they did want. They knew that they did not want Hitler’s Germany to win the war. They knew that they did not want Great Britain to go under. They knew that they did not want Soviet or Communist influence to expand. But they did not know what kind of world they wanted except in the vaguest and most ideal formulas. These inchoate impulses and ill-defined interests resulted in a virtual paralysis of postwar policy making, despite some of the thought given to it in official and unofficial circles. When it came to making decisions, it was more prudent not to foreclose options than to choose between them. In comparison with the United States, Great Britain had well-defined interests and a balance-of-power policy to uphold in Allied negotiations, especially in the case of the traditionalist Churchill.

Here again it was not a matter of which country was right or wrong. It was a matter of different countries with different interests, institutions, and traditions. If the United States had then been willing to take over the British imperial role or to help maintain Great Britain in that role, it would have been required to make an overnight transmutation of its old self into a new one. If the British and Americans had so much trouble agreeing on military policy, it was only to be expected that they would have even more trouble dealing with the postwar political world.

The hitch was that the future could not wait. The line between the military and the political, between the war and the postwar, increasingly narrowed. For Eisenhower, that line pointed in the direction of three European capitals—Vienna, Berlin, and Prague. And they in turn pointed toward the Soviet Union, out of which the Russian armies were inexorably advancing toward them.

One critical postwar decision was made before the war came to an end. Its political implications were apparently not fully realized at the time because it was thought of as merely the military partition of a defeated Germany into zones of occupation. A British-inspired plan was proposed as early as July 1943; it tentatively assigned northwest Germany to the British, southern Germany to the Americans, and everything to the east of the British area to the Soviets. Formal proposals along these lines were submitted by the British in January 1944 and by the Soviets the following month. So far the Americans had taken little initiative in the matter. Roosevelt, however, objected to a southern zone, because he thought that it would make it necessary to “police” France, and possibly Italy, as well as the Balkans in order to safeguard supplies and communications. His effort to exchange zones with the British failed after months of negotiations: a final agreement between the three powers was not reached until the Yalta Conference in February 1945, with a fourth zone added for France in the southwest, carved out of the British and American zones. Berlin, which was well within the Soviet zone, was provided with a four-power administration.2

Ironically, none of this was what Roosevelt had previously wanted. In 1943, he had resisted the southwestern zone for one reason, because he believed that it was an area in which “the British would undercut us in every move we make,” a remark that brought to the surface his limited tolerance of long-range British aims. In that year he also wanted Berlin to be included in the American zone. He once said that he wanted “United Nations [sic] troops to be ready to get to Berlin as soon as did the Russians.” (The record apparently should have read “States” rather than “Nations.”) He believed that there “would definitely be a race for Berlin” and suggested that “we may have to put the United States divisions into Berlin as soon as possible.” His most intimate adviser, Harry Hopkins, had thought that “we [should] be ready to put an airborne division into Berlin two hours after the collapse of Germany.”3 These remarks show that there had been no prior disposition in principle to cede Berlin to the Russians. By 1945, these initial inclinations had been made moot by the movement of the Allied armies and the zonal agreement.

Eisenhower had had nothing to do with these zones. Agreement on them implied that, wherever the armies might stop in their advance across Germany, they would end by going back to the allotted zones of occupation. Military occupation was bound to have serious political, social, and economic consequences; they do not seem to have been taken very seriously in the planning stage. If anything foreclosed the immediate postwar fate of Germany, it was these zones of occupation, as long as they were supposed to be put into effect. The general who was put in the position of being damned if he did and damned if he didn’t was Eisenhower.

2.

Whenever the opportunity arises, David Eisenhower stresses how closely connected in Eisenhower’s view were the western and eastern fronts against Germany. The idea is, of course, not original with him, but he has taken special pains to demonstrate how sensitive Eisenhower was to the symbiotic relationship. The Normandy landings themselves were predicated on a simultaneous Russian offensive, as agreed at the Teheran Conference at the end of 1943. Any movement of German divisions from the eastern to the western front would have jeopardized the invasion of France to the point of making it unfeasible. As David Eisenhower astutely points out, the great question was whether Hitler would prefer to take risks in France rather than in Russia. When he decided to hold fast in Russia he virtually sealed the fate of his forces in France. With a sixty-mile bridgehead only five miles deep at points in Normandy late in June, the British and Americans were lucky that Hitler had decided not to send reinforcements to France at the expense of his still vast army in Russia.

After this, Eisenhower was immensely concerned with what was or was not happening or about to happen on the Russian front. It was not a one-way transaction. The only reason that Stalin was reconciled to the North African campaign in 1942, and why he later demanded a “second front” in Europe in 1943 or at latest in mid-1944, was his anxiety to relieve the German pressure in the east by keeping as many German divisions as possible busy in the west. Eisenhower could never afford to forget that the Russians were fighting about three quarters of the German armed forces, and that the burden on the eastern and western fronts was most unequal. If the percentages had been reversed, or even equal, the Western allies would probably not have stood a chance. One must try to put oneself back into the wartime reality to understand why 20 million Russian casualties constituted such a formidable bargaining counter.

The British-American “second front” in France had two lives. In public, the aim was to prevent the Germans from knocking out the Soviets or forcing them to make a separate peace. In private, the British and Americans knew that they had to put their forces on the Continent in order to compete in determining its destiny. By early 1943, as the battle of Stalingrad went in favor of the Soviets, “Roosevelt, Hopkins and Marshall all expressed a growing fear of the Soviet Union and a desire to place troops in Western Europe as soon as possible in order to block any attempted Soviet expansion and give the Western allies an equal voice at the peace conference.”4 One of the strongest arguments in favor of an early cross-channel assault was that nothing less could achieve this purpose.

All this was easier said than done, for one reason because the second front was an inherently difficult and hazardous undertaking, and for another because the British and Americans could not agree for so long on whether it was the best thing to do. With another war going on in the Far East and with the British pulling for the Mediterranean strategy, the only way to satisfy everyone would have been to provide enough resources for everything everywhere. But resources were in such short supply that the war in the Far East had to take second place, and the Italian and French fronts competed for the same landing craft. Time was the main problem, if the Western allies were to get far enough on the Continent to block the expansion of postwar Soviet power—and time was running out.

The resolution of British-American differences and the preparation for the Normandy landings took so long that the continental competition on the ground with the Soviets began long after the survival of the Soviets was no longer in doubt and the defeat of Germany was only a question of time. From the Teheran Conference in late 1943 onward, both Churchill and Roosevelt were put in the position of trying to win Stalin’s good will, because they were not in a position to force him to do their will. A reader of the records of the wartime conferences cannot help being struck by the demanding tone adopted by the Soviet spokesmen and the defensive attitude of the Western leaders. Too much has been attributed to personal failings or political shortsightedness; the real trouble was that a second front in mid-1944 could not get the same results in any territorial competition with Russia as a second front in 1942 or 1943 might have done, when it had first been promised. The delay may have been unavoidable, but it was no less costly for that reason.

  1. 1

    See my first article on David Eisenhower’s book, The New York Review (September 25).

  2. 2

    John Ehrman, History of the Second World War, vols. V and VI: Grand Strategy (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1956); vol. V, pp. 515–516, and vol. VI, pp. 107–110.

  3. 3

    William M. Franklin, “Zonal Boundaries and Access to Berlin,” World Politics (October 1963), pp. 7, 10–11.

  4. 4

    Mark Alan Stoler, The Politics of the Second Front (University of Wisconsin dissertation, 1971, p. 243; Greenwood Press, 1977). This work deserves to be better known; it is a model dissertation which breaks new ground and offers new insights.

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