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Eisenhower’s War: The Final Crisis

Eisenhower: At War, 1943–1945

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


The decision to let the Russians take Berlin and Prague created a more acute military-political crisis in the British-American alliance than anything else in World War II. It came at the very end of the war when the Supreme Commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, had finally begun to live up to his lofty title. The decision was essentially his, and he has been blamed the most for it.

David Eisenhower, the author of the latest and fullest study of his grandfather’s career as Supreme Commander, Eisenhower: At War,1 raises the question: “Did Eisenhower oppose Berlin?” In the end, there is no doubt that he did, and the question might well be rephrased: “When and why did Eisenhower oppose Berlin?”

The subject again gives David Eisenhower the opportunity to stress the Russian aspect of Eisenhower’s problems and policies, because Berlin was a potential prize for both the Russians and the Americans. The American generals waited anxiously to see how soon the Russians would strike out for Berlin after they had reached the Oder River, only about thirty-five miles from the German capital at the end of January 1945. The long Russian delay of over two months enabled the Americans to reach the Elbe River about sixty miles away but still without any assurance that they could get there first if the Russians suddenly decided to go all out for the city.

At one point, David Eisenhower leans toward the view that Eisenhower for months past “had long since ruled out Berlin, but even the firmest plans rested on one major contingency: that the Russians act in timely fashion to take Berlin.” In effect, the Russians could have taken Berlin without stirring up any Western ambition to beat them to it if they had not stopped for so long at the Oder to resupply their forces for their stupendously massive assault. David Eisenhower also traces Eisenhower’s decision on Berlin to his “broad-front strategy decision in August 1944, which had all but ensured that Russian forces would be at the German frontier when the Allies invaded.” Some historians go all the way back to the British holdup of the Normandy invasion in 1943 as the root reason for the Western predicament over Berlin.

David Eisenhower’s view that Berlin had long been ruled out does not seem to do justice to the abundant evidence of Eisenhower’s wavering on the issue. He had, after all, committed himself, at least in principle, in August 1944 to a “rapid thrust to Berlin,” and in October 1944 to a “direct thrust upon Berlin.” By the first week of April 1945, he was taking the position that the cost of taking Berlin was uppermost in his mind—it was worth doing but only “at little cost” or “cheaply.” According to General Omar N. Bradley, his leading field, commander, “the capture of Berlin was still under active consideration by us as late as April 15, the day before the Russians jumped off”2 Eisenhower did not make the decision on the probable cost by himself; he had consulted with Bradley, who had estimated the probable casualties at one hundred thousand and had concurred in the verdict. In the end, Eisenhower had to decide how much Berlin was worth for how many American lives. When he decided that “Berlin itself is no longer a particularly important objective,” the cost in lives to take it had, in his mind, become exorbitant.

Thus the issue hinges on a judgment that depended on conditions in March-April 1945 that were very different from those in August-October 1944. If so, it would seem dubious that Eisenhower had “long since ruled out Berlin,” except for the Russian contingency, unless he had been dissembling in 1944. Yet if the British were genuinely shocked at the end of March 1945 by the revelation that he was ready to forgo Berlin, something had gone wrong. Either he had failed to open his changing mind to his allies or he had kept his intentions to himself because he was still not sure of them. Either way, the British seem to have had a real grievance.

What Eisenhower cannot be accused of is having made his decision merely to please the Russians. It is clearly possible to disagree with him, but it is not right to do so as if he had deliberately capitulated to the Russians. When he came to give the grounds for his action, they were perfectly reasonable and tenable. One of his explanations was given in a published interview with Alistair Cooke, which David Eisenhower mentions. It is worth recalling because it is not so well known and seems to reflect most accurately what was uppermost in his mind:

My own feeling was this: Political decisions had already divided Germany for occupational purposes. Remember that. There was no possibility of the Western Allies capturing Berlin and staying there. If we’d captured it, the agreements were made and approved. And, in fact, after the fighting stopped, we had to retreat from Leipzig 125 miles to get back into our own zone.

Now, this brings up two things. One, was it tactically possible, under the situation we then had, to capture Berlin? and, second, what did we hope to gain? Because, as I said, we had to retreat back to our own place as quickly as the fighting was over. Just remember this, when my final plans were issued, we were about two hundred miles to the westward of Berlin. The Russians, ready to attack, were thirty miles off Berlin, eastward, but with a bridgehead already west of the Oder River. It didn’t seem to be good sense to try, both of us, to throw in forces toward Berlin and get mixed up—two armies that couldn’t talk the same language, couldn’t even communicate with each other. It would have been a terrible mess. What would be the gain? Today people have said, well, we’d have gotten prestige. I just want to know whether this matter of prestige was worth, let’s say, ten thousand American and British lives, and possibly thirty thousand. [General Bradley] put it much higher.3

From this it appears, as David Eisenhower notes, that the division of Germany into occupation zones was a crucial factor in Eisenhower’s thinking. It made no sense to him to sacrifice lives for a city for which a four-power administration had already been agreed upon and which was located far inside the Russian zone. The American generals who were hellbent on getting into Berlin assumed that they were going to ride into it as if on a holiday. On the front of my own 84th Infantry Division, which would have been assigned the mission to Berlin, an estimated 200 Germans with their backs to the river fought bitterly on April 21, five days after our leading elements had reached the Elbe, and three companies had to be used to deal with them.

Bradley may well have been right about the casualties that would have resulted from sending a spearhead into Berlin. There is no precedent in modern history for the kind of resistance put up by the Germans in what had clearly been a lost cause for months. The proposed operation really assumed that the Germans around Berlin would resist the Russians but not the British and Americans; it was a highly dubious assumption so long as Hitler was alive and the German forces still took their orders from him. Very likely it was Hitler’s death and not the loss of Berlin itself that liberated the German generals to surrender: alive and out of Berlin he probably could have spilled a good deal more blood.

Eisenhower’s second critical reason was that Russians attacking in overwhelming force from the east and Americans riding, carefree, from the west could easily have got “mixed up” and have brought about “a terrible mess.” David Eisenhower believes that the major factor in the cooling off of the “sentiment for Berlin” among American field commanders was their “fear of running headlong into Russian forces.” This fear was not imaginary. Russian and American aircraft had already fired on each other. No damage had been done, but Eisenhower considered that “some serious incident” was inevitable unless precautions were taken.4 Trucks hurtling along at night without lights on strange roads in a foreign land would have had to be recognized immediately as American by both Russians and Germans, assuming the drivers knew how to get to Berlin and did not lose their way, as some were not unknown to do in the best of circumstances.

None of the reasons offered by Eisenhower in his talk with Alistair Cooke or in his memoirs gives any reason to believe that Eisenhower was thinking and acting as a politician “by such actions as his decisions to cede Berlin and Prague to the Russians,” as David Eisenhower alleges in his introduction. The political thesis seems to be arbitrarily superimposed on the facts, even as David Eisenhower gives them in the body of his book. If the major factor that made the American commanders draw back was the risk of “running headlong into Russian forces,” that factor was military and not “political” in any relevant sense.5

Eisenhower had decided on the Elbe as the best available dividing line precisely in order to avoid just such a nightmare as an unintended Russian-American collision by armies accustomed to shoot first at the least sign of unexpected movements. Even if a few American divisions had succeeded in winning a race to Berlin, the Russians were not likely to call off their prodigiously prepared offensive; they were still going to smash their way around and beyond the city, leaving the Americans with, at best, the rubble of Berlin and with their lines of supply and communication possibly at the mercy of surrounding Russian forces. No American or British plans had ever been made for such an eventuality; it would have had to be done on the spur of the moment—for which these armies were not particularly well suited. Montgomery, who was famous for his meticulous preparation, was the last man to urge such an extemporaneous junket.

There has been much speculation about Stalin’s moves and motives after receiving Eisenhower’s message of March 28, 1945, that the Americans were going to stop at the Elbe and not try to go on to Berlin. One thing to remember is that the interpretations are always speculative. In his authoritative work, The Road to Berlin,6 John Erickson points out that on April 1, Stalin ordered “the gigantic Soviet offensive” aimed directly at Berlin on the same day that he had replied to Eisenhower agreeing that Berlin was not a major objective. The timing seems to be suspicious; it has been interpreted to mean that Eisenhower’s message was somehow responsible for Stalin’s decision to move on Berlin before the Americans could get there. But just what Stalin had in mind is not so clear. Stalin ordered the offensive to be launched no later than April 16 and to be carried through in the span of twelve to fifteen days. He was apparently not so much in a hurry that he could not wait sixteen days for the offensive to start and a month for it to be completed. Moreover, Erickson also notes that Marshal Zhukov was already making plans for a direct assault on Berlin on the very day that Stalin received Eisenhower’s message (pp. 528–529). The question arises: Since Stalin had been assured by Eisenhower that there was not going to be any Allied race for Berlin, why did Stalin have to rush to get there first? What difference could it have made, if Stalin had not ordered the Soviet offensive on April 1, as long as he knew that the Americans were going to stop at the Elbe? All the more strangely, Stalin is supposed to have “exploded” at a meeting with his generals on April 1, “Well, now, who is going to take Berlin, will we or the Allies?” (p. 531). Does this mean that he did not trust Eisenhower’s disclaimer and thought that a race was on? If so, why postpone the assault for sixteen days? Erickson has no answer to these questions, and none is likely to be forth-coming in the present state of our knowledge of Stalin’s mind.

  1. 1

    See my previous articles on this book in The New York Review, September 25 and October 9.

  2. 2

    Omar N. Bradley and Clay Blair, A General’s Life (Simon and Schuster, 1983), p. 432.

  3. 3

    General Eisenhower on the Military Churchill (Norton, 1970), pp. 55–56. The explanation given in Eisenhower’s memoirs is not much longer and is much less explicit.

  4. 4

    The Papers of Dwight David Eisenhower (John Hopkins University Press, 1970), vol. IV, pp. 2602–2603. Hereafter Eisenhower Papers.

  5. 5

    David Eisenhower also writes in his introduction: “My grandfather’s reticence, which was typical of the American and British military leaders, about any aspect of his job that could be considered ‘political,’ as distinguished from ‘military,’ makes it perilous at times to generalize. But the loyalty he felt toward his civilian superiors cannot alter the nature of his job, that in Eisenhower, as Catton wrote of Lincoln, ‘war and politics walked together…not merely hand in hand but in one body.’ ” Eisenhower was not merely “reticent” about any “political” aspect of his job; he insisted repeatedly that he would have no part of it. The analogy with Lincoln shows how perilous the political generalization about Eisenhower is. Lincoln was a politician; he was president and as a consequence bore the highest constitutional political responsibilities. The analogy with Grant, who was a political cipher, would have been more convincing.

  6. 6

    Westview Press, 1983.

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