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.
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.
Fear that the Soviets would have the upper hand after the war grew with the course of the war. No one had a monopoly of clairvoyance—the British no more than the Americans. If Churchill was any more remonstrative than Roosevelt, it was only toward the end of the war, after it was too late to do much about it. One important reason for the earlier equanimity was a common assumption that after the war the Soviets would need the Western powers far more than they would need the Soviets. So long as this view prevailed on both sides of the Atlantic, there seemed to be no need to worry.
In January 1942, Churchill advised Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden on what to expect after the war:
No one can foresee how the balance of power will lie or where the winning armies will stand at the end of the war. It seems probable however that the United States and the British Empire, far from being exhausted, will be the most powerfully armed and economic bloc the world has ever seen, and that the Soviet Union will need our aid for reconstruction far more than we shall then need theirs.5
A remarkably revealing discussion took place among the top British and American military in August 1943. The Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, led off with the opinion that there was little chance of the Germans succeeding in getting a negotiated peace with the Russians, which had long been the Western bugbear.
The American Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall, spoke next.
From reports he [Marshall] had received, it appeared that Russia was turning an increasingly hostile eye on the capitalistic world, of whom they were becoming increasingly contemptuous. Their recent “Second Front” announcement, no longer born of despair, was indicative of this attitude. He would be interested to know the British Chiefs of Staff’s views on the possible results of the situation in Russia with regard to the deployment of Allied forces—for example, in the event of an overwhelming Russian success, would the Germans be likely to facilitate our entry into the country to repel the Russians?
Brooke answered that
he had in the past often considered the danger of the Russians seizing the opportunity of the war to further their ideals of international communism. They might try to profit by the chaos and misery existing at the end of hostilities. He had, however, recently raised the point with Dr. [Eduard] Benes [president of the Czechoslovak government in exile], who had forecast the Russian order to international communist organizations [referring to the dissolution of the Comintern on May 15, 1943] to damp down their activities. Dr. Benes’ view had been that since Russia would be terribly weakened after the war, she would require a period of recovery, and to speed up this recovery would require a peaceful Europe in which she could take advantage of the markets for her exports.
To which Brooke added that there would be
Russian demands for a part of Poland, at least part of the Baltic States, and possible concessions in the Balkans. If she obtained these territories, she would be anxious to assist us in maintaining the peace of Europe.6
These expressions of guarded optimism, typical of the early and middle war years, starkly contrast with the fear and hostility that came toward the end of the war. It was only with the approaching collapse of Germany and the menacing advance of the Russian army into Eastern Europe that the British alarm signals went off. The changeover, which did not become marked until well into 1944, was largely restricted to the highest official circles, with little effect on Western public opinion.
For the British to react to the later mood, it was again necessary for them to manipulate the much stronger forces that the Americans commanded. Until 1943, the British had actually surpassed the Americans in armed strength. The two sides began to draw further and further apart in 1944. In March, British-controlled and American divisions in contact with the Germans were equal. In July, the figures were thirty-eight British, forty-eight American; by the end of the year, forty-eight to seventy-eight. The disparity in total armed forces was even greater—4.9 million British and 11.2 million American in March 1944; 5 million to 11.8 million in July; 4.9 million to 12 million at the end of the year.7 Military and industrial production drew even further apart. Coalition warfare with equal partners would have been difficult enough; with such unequal partnership it was vastly more trying—especially for the weaker partner. As the war progressed and their relative position deteriorated, the British felt increasingly that they were losing ground to the Americans instead of to the Russians or Germans.
There was, however, one respect in which the British always thought of themselves as superior. It was in the realm of political experience and military acumen. Nothing made the Americans so bitterly resentful as the barely disguised attitude of Brooke or Montgomery that Marshall, Eisenhower, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff were bumbling amateurs and that the British chiefs were seasoned professionals. Brooke never got over the sentiment which he put into his diary: “I despair of getting our American friends to have any strategic vision.”8 Montgomery thought so little of Eisenhower’s intelligence that he charged even in his memoirs that “Eisenhower failed to comprehend the basic plan to which he had himself cheerfully agreed”—the plan having been nothing less than that of the Normandy operation.9 To the Americans, the British were perfectly willing to provide the brains as long as the Americans supplied the brawn. Under such conditions, the manipulation of the stronger part of the coalition by the weaker was bound to be exasperating for both sides.
The fate of three European capitals was bound up with this relationship between the British and the Americans.
Vienna was the first of the three to come up for decision, because it was the earliest to be proposed as a Western military objective. The possibility seems to have been tentatively brought up first by Churchill in July 1943, when he was still preoccupied with the Italian campaign. He threw out the suggestion to the British Chiefs of Staff that the forces in Italy, after reaching the Po River, might “attack westward in the South of France or northeastward towards Vienna.”10 At this time, Roosevelt was quite taken with the idea of going into the Balkans. None of his military advisers agreed with him, and the slow, painful progress in Italy as well as the increasing demands of the buildup in England put a temporary end to the idea of going into the Balkans or as far as Vienna. Nevertheless, it was a time both Churchill and Roosevelt could agree on getting into Europe from the southeast; there was no political inhibition against it; the opposition came from both the British and American military. If Vienna had been considered militarily feasible in 1943, it might well have been aimed at, and the Americans would not have been charged with thwarting a race to Vienna.
The British generals in the Mediterranean had brought up Vienna more seriously in June 1944, soon after the Normandy landings when plans for the subsidiary landings in southern France—called ANVIL—were still being debated. Instead of ANVIL, they had suggested taking off from Italy across the Adriatic to Trieste, then through the Ljubljana Gap on the frontier of Austria and Yugoslavia, and on to Vienna. The plan never had a chance, because the Americans were totally opposed to it, and the British were split on it. Churchill was for it, but Brooke sided with the Americans. The main argument against it was that it was bound to be a logistical nightmare and at best practicable only if the Germans were so far gone that they would offer little or no resistance. With Eisenhower still stuck in Normandy, and counting on ANVIL for support, and with major German forces in the Balkans, the preconditions for success were most unpromising, as the German resistance at Arnhem and in the Ardennes later confirmed. In fact, the British-American forces in Italy were so hard-pressed that weakening them in order to go off to Vienna, about six hundred miles away across mountains in mid-winter, soon became unthinkable.11
Thus Austria was again not ruled out for any political reason or Soviet opposition. Curiously, Stalin invited the Western allies into Austria on two occasions at the end of 1944. In October, during a Soviet-British meeting in Moscow, Stalin proposed a joint attack on Vienna.12 He again made the same sort of suggestion the following month, to the American envoy, W. Averell Harriman.13 Nothing came of Stalin’s overture, for one reason because the British-American forces in Italy were not able to take advantage of it, even if he had meant it sincerely.
Vienna was never a likely Western military objective, for which reason, as I noted in my previous article, David Eisnehower thinks that it should not be taken seriously as a military proposal owing to its “unreality.” However that may be, Vienna came to mean for Churchill resistance to the dangerous spread of Russian influence in the heart of Europe. Churchill’s wartime attitude toward the Soviet Union was so changeable and ambivalent that he can be made to be both confident and fearful about future relations, depending on the quotation attributed to him. In 1942, he was confident that the Soviet Union could be handled, because it would need the West more than the West would need it. In September 1944, he confronted the American for the first time with the thought that it would be necessary to prevent the Soviets from going too far. At the second British-American conference in Quebec, he made a plea for the plan to go from Italy to Trieste to the Ljubljana Gap all the way to Vienna, in order to give “Germany a stab in the armpit.” But then he said that an added reason for the move was
the rapid encroachment of the Russians into the Balkans and the consequent dangerous spread of Russian influence in the area. He preferred to get into Vienna before the Russians did as he did not know what Russia’s policy would be after she took it.14
The Americans said nothing in opposition to the idea; they simply did not commit themselves to it. Roosevelt did not reply directly to Churchill’s feeler. It was merely agreed to ask the British command in the Mediterranean to draw up a plan for a move into the Istrian Peninsula in northwest Yugoslavia, which was still a long way from Vienna, with the understanding that the operations had not been approved and “might, in fact, never take place.”15 Nevertheless, Churchill later put into his memoirs a rather far-fetched version that the Americans had fully accepted “the idea of our going to Vienna, if the war lasts long enough and if other people do not get there first.”16
No plan was ever made, for one reason because the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Brooke, was opposed to the whole idea for purely military reasons. He later wrote: “We had no plans for Vienna, nor did I ever look at this operation as becoming possible.”17 The Americans did not have to knock it down, because Churchill could not get his own high command to pick it up.
Only a month later, Churchill took a rather different line on the Russian menace. In October 1944, he talked to his physician, Lord Moran, about his dealings with the Russians:
Of course, it’s all very one-sided. They get what they want by guile or flattery or force. But they’ve done a lot to get it. Seven or eight million soldiers killed, perhaps more. If they hadn’t we might have pulled through, but we could not have had a foot in Europe.
Moran then said that “Russia would have things all her own way in Europe after the war.” To which Churchill replied:
Oh, I don’t think so. When this fellow [Stalin] goes you don’t know what will happen. There may be a lot of trouble.18
At about the same time, Churchill drew up a memorandum, which he later published as “an authentic account of his thought” about future relations with Soviet Russia. It contained a clear anticipation of what came to be known as the “convergence theory”:
We have the feeling that, viewed from afar and on a grand scale, the differences between our systems will tend to get smaller, and the great common ground which we share of making life richer and happier for the mass of people is growing every year. Probably if there were peace for fifty years the differences which now might cause such grave troubles to the world would become matters for academic discussion. 19
As late as February 6, 1945, Moran recorded Churchill as saying: “I do not think that Russia will do anything while Stalin is alive. I don’t believe he is unfriendly to us.”20
We are now approaching the fifty years that Churchill foresaw with such hope and comfort. It is easy to scoff at such prophecies, which were not very different from some remarks attributed to Roosevelt. Life during the war would have been far harder to endure without hoping against hope for a better world and a more stable peace. Like some others, Churchill wavered between fearing the Soviet Union when it came too close for comfort and taking a far more relaxed view from a longer perspective. Meanwhile, his fears came to dominate.
As a result, he could not shake off his concentration on Austria, as if that country were the key to saving the West from Russian clutches. He brought the subject up again, even more urgently, at the Malta conference in early February 1945. The record reads:
The Prime Minister said that he attached great importance to a rapid follow-up of any withdrawal or of any surrender of the German forces in Italy. He felt it was essential that we should occupy as much of Austria as possible as it was undesirable that more of Western Europe than necessary should be occupied by the Russians.21
It should be noted that this exhortation was again predicated on a German collapse in Italy, which would have opened the way across the Adriatic with a minimum of risk. Actually, there was no such collapse for another two months; fighting in Italy went on until the end of April. Churchill was still speaking largely for himself; whenever he returned to his idée fixe, he reduced Brooke “almost to despair.”22 The official British military history blames the difficulties of fighting on the Italian front, not Americans, for frustrating Churchill.23 There was never any expectation that the British and Americans could fight their way into Vienna ahead of the Russians. American as well as British opposition to the venture was far more military than political.
February 1945 was in any case very late in the day to raise such an alarm. In February, the Russians had gone on the offensive all along the eastern front. They had crossed the Austrian border on March 30, but the Germans still fought back and Vienna was not entered until April 7.24 A western push across the Adriatic, with only a single mountain road through the Ljubljana Gap, on to Vienna with a handful or two of available divisions would not have been much competition.
Even if the Western allies had beaten the Russians to Vienna, with a heavy Russian tide of whole armies flowing all around them, the zones of occupationalready proposed by the British would have complicated any effort to take advantage of Churchill’s advice. Austria had been, quixotically, declared a “liberated” state back in 1943, so that the return of Austria to full sovereignty was foreordained. The British had taken the initiative in August 1944 in proposing temporary zones of occupation, with Vienna to be administered by all three powers. Satisfying everyone was so difficult that full agreement was not reached until July 1945. In any event, the British and Americans—the latter at first did not even want a zone—would have gained little in occupying “as much of Austria as possible” so long as they were bound to end up with three roughly equivalent zones of occupation.”25
In the case of Vienna, then, it is hard to see what reality there was to Churchill’s call in February 1945 to occupy as much of Austria as possible in order to keep the Russians out of as much of Western Europe as possible. Yet the failure of the Western allies to get to Vienna first has been taken as one of the three capital exhibits to show their abdication in the face of the Soviet advance into Western Europe.
David Eisenhower deals with the issue of Vienna whenever it directly concerns General Eisenhower. When the subject had first arisen, in June 1944, while Eisenhower was still hard-pressed in Normandy and was counting on assistance from the ANVIL landings in southern France, he had responded that the whole idea of “wandering overland via Trieste to Ljubljana” was to “indulge in conjecture to an unwarrantable degree at the present time” and to entail “dispersion of our effort and resources.”26 David Eisenhower comments that General Eisenhower “needed reinforcements, and assurances of close Russian cooperation in the coming weeks and months.” The General undoubtedly needed and wanted reinforcements in Normandy as well as close Russian cooperation, but both appeared to be mandatory for military reasons. It was not necessary for him to act and think politically to oppose investing scarce resources in a diversionary campaign to Vienna.
Many years later, David Eisenhower talked with General Lucius Clay, who had joined Eisenhower’s headquarters in Normandy as deputy for administration and civil government in the summer of 1944 and who later served as Eisenhower’s intimate adviser. Clay
readily acknowledged the implications for Eisenhower’s political future of likely postwar charges that high officials had treasonably accepted Soviet influence over Allied military strategy, charges that originated in Eisenhower’s arguments with the British beginning in late June 1944. I asked Clay if Eisenhower perceived these political implications at the time, and whether he was in fact aware that he was being marked as a future political figure, Clay replied, “Of course.”
It is interesting to learn that Clay thought that Eisenhower was aware as early as late June 1944 that “he was being marked as a future political figure.” Presumably Clay knew because he had heard Eisenhower say something about it, which would have been quite out of order in the military service for someone of Eisenhower’s rank, or else Clay had read Eisenhower’s mind. But David Eisenhower also makes Clay appear to say that Eisenhower at that very time had perceived that his arguments with the British—apparently over ANVIL and Vienna—were likely to engender “postwar charges that high officials had treasonably accepted Soviet influence over Allied military strategy.”
If Clay had actually meant to say this, many years after the event, one wonders how trustworthy it can be. It clearly suggests that Eisenhower was so prescient that in 1944 he had anticipated that treason charges would be made after the war, something that no one else had foreseen or could have foreseen so far in advance.27 Even if Eisenhower was so farsighted that he was aware of such future charges while he was desperately embattled in Normandy, such awareness had no necessary connection with “Soviet influence over Allied military strategy.” Close Soviet cooperation in June 1944 was a military imperative for Eisenhower by virtue of the German ability to move forces from east to west and vice versa. Brooke was equally opposed to the Vienna proposal for purely military reasons. Clay’s remarks are uncritically dropped on the page, apparently to bolster the thesis of Eisenhower’s overriding political concerns during the war. This use of an interview long after the event raises more questions than it answers.
Berlin was a much harder case. Eisenhower was a central figure in it, and the military and political aspects were far more serious.
In August 1944, Montgomery had presented his plan to commandeer all available resources for a strike toward Antwerp, seizure of the Ruhr, and the capture of Berlin in one “pencil-like” drive. At that time, Eisenhower had appeared to be more opposed to Montgomery’s method than to his objectives. Eisenhower had assured Montgomery: “Clearly, Berlin is the main prize, and the prize in defense of which the enemy is likely to concentrate the bulk of his forces. There is no doubt whatsoever, in my mind, that we should concentrate all our energies and resources on a rapid thrust to Berlin.”28 At the same time Eisenhower had given himself plenty of leeway to deflect Montgomery from Berlin in an order that could be read in more than one way. Nothing more than the capture of Antwerp had come immediately from this move, and it had left Montgomery permanently embittered because he thought he had not been given enough forces to do the whole job.
In any case, Eisenhower continued to agree on the importance of Berlin. In October he repeated his understanding that Montgomery would be in a position for a “direct thrust upon Berlin” after capturing the Ruhr. In January 1945, he foresaw “a thrust northeast towards Berlin or a thrust eastward towards Leipzig,” whichever proved to be the most promising. Marshall seems to have agreed at this time that the principal objective was still Berlin. The real difference over Berlin came later.29
The dispute over Berlin, then, was not a simple one. The nature of the question changed over time. Eisenhower seems to have backed away gradually from the commitment to make Berlin the objective of a “rapid thrust” or a “direct thrust.” The main obstacle, as Eisenhower first saw it, was how to satisfy the preconditions for a successful “thrust,” not the goal itself. In mid-January 1945, the Russians were still about three hundred miles from Berlin; they were not so close that an equal race for the city from the east and west was inconceivable.
But in mid-January the Russians carried out a great offensive, which brought them by the end of the month all the way to the Oder River, only about thirty to forty miles from Berlin. The British-American forces had not yet crossed the Rhine and were just recovering from the Ardennes setback. A lucky break enabled Hodges’s 9th Armored Division to find a Rhine bridge intact at Remagen on March 7, after which the Western forces were drawn up along the river, still about three hundred miles from Berlin. It was in these circumstances that Eisenhower had to reconsider Berlin as a prime objective or, for that matter, any objective at all.
By mid-March, Eisenhower was worried about the coming encounter between the British-American and Russian armies somewhere in Germany. How to prevent the onrushing armies from colliding if no agreements had been reached on where they were to stop demanded his immediate attention. On March 28, Eisenhower sent a message to Stalin outlining his plan in the west. In effect, it proposed a junction on the Erfurt-Leipzig-Dresden line along the Elbe River. This message set off the last great controversy between the British and Americans; the old struggle over Berlin broke out anew and with an intensity that shocked Eisenhower.
The British were infuriated by the message for two reasons. They charged that Eisenhower had no business communicating with Stalin directly, without the approval of his military and political superiors—a complaint they later withdrew. But, more important, they immediately realized that Eisenhower had written Berlin off as a Western objective, inasmuch as it was about sixty miles east of the Elbe at the closest point.
The internecine struggle that broke out between March 29 and April 18 in the very last days of the war is a study in how the closest allies can misunderstand each other on an issue that had been actively before them for months. The argument still rages over whether Eisenhower did the right thing or cravenly surrendered a key Western citadel to the Russians without resistance. Some even try to make it appear that all of Western history to our day would have been different if only the Americans had beaten the Russians to Berlin.30
There has been so much bitter controversy over the Berlin decision that it is well to follow the argument as it developed in the words of the principals:
Eisenhower to Marshall, March 30, 1945: “May I point out that Berlin itself is no longer a particularly important objective.”
Eisenhower to Montgomery, March 31, 1945: “That place [Berlin] has become, so far as I am concerned, nothing but a geographical location.”
Eisenhower to Combined Chiefs of Staff, March 31, 1945: “Berlin as a strategic area is discounted as it is now largely destroyed and we have information that the ministries are moving to the Erfurt-Leipzig region. Moreover, it is so near to the Russian front that once they start moving again they will reach it in a matter of days.”
Churchill to Eisenhower, March 31, 1945: “I do not consider that Berlin has yet lost its military and certainly not its political importance. The fall of Berlin would have a profound psychological effect on German resistance in every part of the Reich…. But while Berlin remains under the German flag it cannot, in my opinion, fail to be the most decisive point in Germany.”
Churchill to Roosevelt, April 1, 1945: “The Russian armies will no doubt overrun all Austria and enter Vienna. If they also take Berlin will not their impression that they have been the overwhelming contributor to our common victory be unduly imprinted on their minds, and may this not lead into a mood which will raise grave and formidable difficulties in the future? I therefore consider that from a political standpoint we should march as far east into Germany as possible, and that should Berlin be in our grasp we should certainly take it. This also appears sound on military grounds.”
Eisenhower to Churchill, April 1, 1945: “Quite naturally if at any moment ‘ECLIPSE’ conditions [the collapse of Germany] should suddenly come about everywhere along the front we would rush forward and Lübeck and Berlin would be included in our important targets.”
Churchill to Eisenhower, April 2, 1945: “I deem it highly important that we should shake hands with the Russians as far to the east as possible.”
Eisenhower to Churchill, April 3, 1945: “If Berlin can be brought into the orbit of our success the [British-American] honors will be equitably shared.”
Montgomery to Eisenhower, April 6, 1945: “I would personally not agree with this [that Berlin was not any longer an important objective]; I consider that Berlin has definite value as an objective, and I have no doubt whatever that the Russians think the same; but they may well pretend that this is not the case!”
Eisenhower to Marshall, April 7, 1945: “At any time that we could seize Berlin at little cost we should, of course, do so. But I regard it as militarily unsound at this stage of the proceedings to make Berlin a major objective, particularly in view of the fact that it is only thirty-five miles from the Russian lines. I am the first to admit that a war is waged in pursuance of political aims, and if the Combined Chiefs of Staff should decide that the Allied effort to take Berlin outweighs purely military considerations in the theater, I would cheerfully readjust my plans and my thinking so as to carry out such an operation. I urgently believe, however, that the capture of Berlin should be left as something we would do if feasible and practicable.”
Eisenhower to Montgomery, April 8, 1945: “As regards Berlin, I am quite ready to admit that it has political and psychological significance but of far greater importance will be the location of the remaining German forces in relation to Berlin. It is on them that I am going to concentrate my attention. Naturally, if I get an opportunity to capture Berlin cheaply, I will take it.”
Eisenhower to Combined Chiefs of Staff, April 14, 1945: “The essence of my plan is to stop on the Elbe and clean up my flanks.”
April 18, 1945: British Chiefs of Staff reluctantly agree to Eisenhower’s final plan.31
The bare words of this exchange hardly begin to convey the anger and anguish with which it was conducted. Eisenhower had his way because he was supported by Marshall and the American Joint Chiefs of Staff. When he challenged the Combined Chiefs of Staff to order him to take Berlin, they made no move to do so. Eisenhower had taken the precaution of consulting Bradley on the probable casualties resulting from an effort to take Berlin from the west; the answer, one hundred thousand, undoubtedly helped to persuade him that the price was too high.
Meanwhile, the Russians were prepared to pay a higher price for Berlin. After reaching the Oder early in February, the armies of Marshal Zhukov found that they still had to fight every step of the way. The Russians prepared the attack on Berlin, south, center, and north of the city, with over 190 divisions containing at least two and a half million men in arms. The Russian offensive opened from the Oder to Berlin on April 15; the defense, however futile, was still so tenacious that the first Russian forces did not enter the German capital until April 24, and the city’s encirclement was not complete until the following day. The Russians had to fight for virtually every street and every story of the Reichstag. Hitler did not give up all hope until April 30, when he committed suicide in his bunker. The end came with the military surrender on May 2. Even then, German units continued to fight in the suburbs. From April 16 to May 8, the Russian casualties amounted to 304,887 men killed, wounded, and missing. The total cost of Berlin to both sides is estimated at half a million men.32
By chance, the American division of which I was the historian would have been given the assignment to Berlin if it had been ordered. The 84th Infantry Division reached the Elbe on April 16, just as the Russian offensive across the Oder was starting off. Six Russian divisions came up to the river on May 2. We did not know when they were going to arrive, because liaison was nonexistent; the only indication came from the hordes—literally literally thousands—of German soldiers and civilians fleeing ahead of them as the Russians came closer.33
According to one account, the week before the 84th’s arrival at the Elbe, Eisenhower asked the division commander, General Alexander R. Bolling, where he was going next. “Berlin,” Bolling replied, “we’re going to push on ahead, we have a clear go to Berlin and nothing can stop us.” Bolling later recalled Eisenhower’s reply: “Alex, keep going. I wish you all the luck in the world and don’t let anybody stop you.”34 If we can believe this story, Bolling let someone—Eisenhower—stop him a few days later. Either Eisenhower had changed his mind or else he was trying to break the news gently. In any case, it seems that the 2nd Armored Division and the 84th Infantry Division were all set to head for Berlin as if it was going to be a joyride—when they were told the trip was off.35
Such was the dim view from the bottom of the army’s ladder. From the top, the factors that went into Eisenhower’s decision were vastly more complex. Who was right—Bradley with his probable one hundred thousand casualties or the Ninth Army generals with their nonexistent German resistance? What was likely to happen if the Americans did make it into Berlin unopposed just as the Russians were fighting their way in or around the city? Was Berlin just a “geographical location,” as Eisenhower claimed, or had it retained its major military and political importance, as Churchill maintained? What might be the repercussions on British-American relations of rejecting Churchill’s urgent advice? Was it going to matter so much whether the Russians went into the city first so long as a fourpower administration was supposed to be set up according to the zonal agreement?
After Berlin came Prague with some of the same contentious issues. Beyond the affair of the three capitals were the suspicions and anxieties which they engendered. None of them would have gone so far if the alliance with the Soviet Union had been similar to the alliance between Great Britain and the United States. All these aspects of Eisenhower’s decisions on Berlin and Prague deserve more extended consideration.
This is the second part of a three-part article.
October 9, 1986
See my first article on David Eisenhower’s book, The New York Review (September 25). ↩
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. ↩
William M. Franklin, “Zonal Boundaries and Access to Berlin,” World Politics (October 1963), pp. 7, 10–11. ↩
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. ↩
Winston S. Churchill, The Grand Alliance (Houghton Mifflin, 1950), p. 696. ↩
Foreign Relations of the United States: The Conferences at Washington and Quebec 1943 (Government Printing Office, 1970), pp. 910–911. ↩
Ehrman, Grand Strategy, vol. VI, p. 19. ↩
Arthur Bryant, Triumph in the West (Doubleday, 1959), p. 49. ↩
The Memoirs of Field Marshal the Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, K.G. (World Publishing Co., 1958), p. 229. ↩
Michael Howard, The Mediterranean Strategy in World War II (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1968), p. 45. ↩
The subject is fully treated in Trumbull Higgins, Soft Underbelly (Macmillan, 1968). ↩
Bryant, Triumph in the West, p. 228. ↩
W. Averell Harriman and Elie Abel, Special Envoy to Churchill and Stalin, 1941–1946 (Random House, 1975), p. 379. ↩
Foreign Relations of the United States: The Conference at Quebec 1944 (Government Printing Office, 1972), p. 314. ↩
Foreign Relations of the United States: The Conference at Quebec 1944, pp. 305, 322. ↩
Winston S. Churchill, Triumph and Tragedy (Houghton Mifflin, 1953), p. 155. These words occurred in a message to London, September 13, 1944. Churchill sent an even more questionable message to the British commanders in the Mediterranean: “The Americans talk without any hesitation of our pushing on to Vienna, if the war lasts long enough” (p. 156). The official British military history more accurately says that “the Americans had not opposed such a move” at Quebec and were willing to consider it “provided Italy had been cleared” (Ehrman, Grand Strategy, vol. VI, p. 86). ↩
Bryant, Triumph in the West, p. 204, note 6. ↩
Lord Moran, Churchill Taken from the Diaries of Lord Moran (Houghton Mifflin, 1966), p. 218. Hereafter Moran Diaries. ↩
Churchill, Triumph and Tragedy, p. 233. ↩
Moran Diaries, p. 241. Historians have used these diaries extensively, though there is some question about how much they can be trusted. It is most unlikely, however, that all the words attributed to Churchill are open to doubt, especially since some ideas are expressed repeatedly. ↩
Foreign Relations of the United States: The Conferences at Malta and Yalta (Government Printing Office, 1955), p. 543. ↩
Bryant, Triumph in the West, p. 294. ↩
Ehrman, Grand Strategy, vol. VI, p. 336. The most recent study of the Italian campaign by two British historians has this to say on the prospect of advancing from Italy to Vienna: “The military side of this option, put up in outline by [General] Alexander, to be immediately rejected by the Combined Chiefs of Staff, was to gain the head of the Adriatic by a combination of land and amphibious thrusts and then advance on Vienna via the so called ‘Ljubljana Gap.’ The plan ignored the fact that the Allies had taken over a year to battle their way up the length of Italy where the natural defensive lines, though strong, at least were long enough to offer some room for manoeuvre and surprise. Yet it envisaged an advance in winter along a narrow mountain route 250 miles long, first over the Julian Alps, then through the high pass or ‘gap’ near Ljubljana, no more than thirty miles wide and offering many good defensive positions, along the valley of the Save and then over the great Alpine massif. Central Europe as a goal was political and military moonshine” (Dominick Graham and Shelford Bidwell, Tug of War: The Battle for Italy, 1943–1945 [St. Martin’s, 1986], p. 400). Graham now teaches in Canada; Bidwell served in Italy and is now a vice-president of the Royal United Services Institute for Defense Studies in London. ↩
Earl F. Ziemke, Stalingrad to Berlin: The German Defeat in the East (Center of Military History, US Army, 1968), pp. 440, 445–446. ↩
Ehrman, Grand Strategy, vol. VI, pp. 106–107. ↩
The Papers of Dwight David Eisenhower (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1970), vol. III, p. 1958. ↩
Curiously, much later, David Eisenhower says that “it is doubtful that Eisenhower, in March 1945, foresaw the intensity of the debates ahead or realized how misunderstood Allied restraint on Berlin would be” (p. 731). If he did not anticipate the charges over Berlin in 1945, it is hardly likely that in 1944 he was aware of future charges over ANVIL and Vienna, as Clay implied. ↩
The Papers of Dwight David Eisenhower, vol. IV, p. 1957. Eisenhower’s memoirs are less than candid at this point. He merely says that Montgomery mistakenly wanted to “rush right into Berlin” (Crusade in Europe [Doubleday, 1948], p. 305). He wholly neglects to mention his own commitment to “a rapid thrust to Berlin,” an omission hard to explain except that he was embarrassed by it. Montgomery’s memoirs do not fail to mention it (The Memoirs of Field Marshall the Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, K.G., p. 248). ↩
The Papers of Dwight David Eisenhower, vol. IV, pp. 2223, 2451; Forrest C. Pogue, George C. Marshall: Organizer of Victory, 1943–1945 (Viking, 1973), p. 513. Eisenhower’s memoirs do not mention any of these later references to Berlin. ↩
An effort was made almost two decades ago by Stephen E. Ambrose to dispel some of the “myths” in his Eisenhower and Berlin, 1945 (Norton, 1967). It does not seem to have done much good. The Berlin mythology was most recently resurrected by Sir John Colville, Churchill’s wartime private secretary, in his article “How the West Lost the Peace in 1945” in Commentary (September 1985). One would never know from this article that Eisenhower had to take into account (1) the huge Russian army bearing down on Berlin from the east; (2) General Bradley’s estimate of about one hundred thousand American casualties to take Berlin from the west; (3) the risks of a Soviet-American collision; (4) the dubious residual importance of Berlin in ruins, with the German commanders only days away from surrender; and (5) the agreement on a four-power administration of Berlin far behind the Soviet zone of occupation, first proposed by the British themselves. ↩
These citations are derived from: The Papers of Dwight David Eisenhower, vol. IV, pp. 2551–2610; Churchill, Triumph and Tragedy, pp. 463–467; Ehrman, Grand Strategy, vol. VI, pp. 148–149. ↩
John Erickson, The Road to Berlin (Westview Press, 1983), pp. 539–622. ↩
Lieutenant Theodore Draper, The 84th Infantry Division in the Battle of Germany (Viking Press, 1946; reprinted Nashville: Battery Press, 1985), pp. 237, 247. Two veterans of the division have recently put out a remarkably vivid and unsparing history of a single company in combat: Harold P. Leinbaugh and John D. Campbell, The Men of Company K: The Autobiography of a World War II Rifle Company (Morrow, 1985; Bantam, 1986). ↩
Cornelius Ryan, The Last Battle (Simon and Schuster, 1966), p. 292. ↩
Twenty years later, Lieutenant General W.H. Simpson, commander of the Ninth Army, to which the 84th belonged, declared: “My plan was to have the 2nd Armored Division accompanied by an infantry division in trucks take off at night and push down the autobahn toward Berlin. With only 60 miles or less to go they could have reached Berlin by daylight the next morning. The remainder of the army would have followed of course.” Major General A. C. Gillem, Jr., commander of the XIII Corps of the Ninth Army, said that “I had very aggressive commanders and specifically General Bolling I thought was a most able commander and he had one of the leading divisions . It is my judgment that we could have been in Berlin ahead of the Russians because the distance was relatively nothing; that is, maybe a day and a half march the rates we were making, and the German resistance was nonexistent” (Russell F. Weigley, Eisenhower’s Lieutenants [Indiana University Press, 1981], pp. 699, 771). I, of course, was not told of this higher-up imbroglio at the time and learned about it almost four decades later from Weigley’s book. This expected truck ride through no resistance was described as “the momentous drive to Berlin” that Eisenhower allegedly frustrated for purely political reasons, according to Paul Seabury in Commentary (August 1986, p. 49). Seabury must have mistaken the Russians for Americans. ↩