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.
Eisenhower justly asked: What did we hope to gain? Churchill’s answer had been that the fall of Berlin was bound to be decisive militarily; that the Russians should not be permitted to take it, because it would give them the sense of having done most for the common victory and would make them too headstrong in future relations; and that “from a political standpoint we should march as far east into Germany as possible.” Each of these considerations was highly dubious.
It was too late to prevent the Russians from thinking they had done most for the common victory; they had faced and overcome about three quarters of the German armed forces; snatching a ruined Berlin out of their grasp would hardly have been likely to do more than infuriate them. The fall of Berlin itself was never in doubt; the only question was whether the Russians or British-Americans would claim credit for it. The Russians expected to fight bloodily for it; the British-Americans expected to enter the city unopposed. Some American generals would, temporarily, have won the battle for headlines (no negligible factor in those days) but hardly the glory they also craved. If they had reached the city, they would have put themselves in the position of defending the German survivors from the Russians. The city itself was scarcely worth fighting for. It was largely destroyed; ministries had already left for the south, aiming at a last-stand National Redoubt the Germans did not have time to set up. Even if Berlin represented something of psychological value, whatever that was worth, its political and military significance at this stage was being exaggerated in the interests of something else.
The deeper reason for wanting to beat the Russians to Berlin and go as far east as possible was the desire to register a largely symbolic change in the British-American relationship with Soviet Russia. Churchill had come back from the Yalta Conference in February 1945 publicly satisfied with the results. After Yalta, everything seemed to fall apart. Churchill himself had made a quick turn in his estimation of coming events and soon regarded Soviet intentions with the greatest pessimism. Just what he had hoped to achieve by going as far east as possible is not altogether clear, most likely because it was not yet clear in his own mind. He seems at most to have wished to use the territories gained by the Western allies in Germany in order to reach a new “settlement” with the Soviets.7
What Churchill most probably meant has been given an authoritative interpretation by the official British military history.8 It is admitted there that Churchill at that time could not have put across a policy based on the assumption that Russia might be a potential enemy—even in Great Britain, let alone the United States—and that he had had no intention of doing so. At most, he wanted to negotiate from strength to achieve the objects, or even the hopes, of the Yalta Conference. The British and Americans at the Elbe, it should be recalled, were already deep inside the Russian zone of Germany. Eisenhower had not interpreted the zones to be a boundary of military action but had considered that the zones made military occupation a temporary expedient. In his memoirs, Churchill never mentions what would have happened to the zonal agreement, largely British in inspiration, if the British and Americans had held on to their German territory until some sort of “settlement” had been reached.
Paradoxically, the State Department feared a British proposal that “our respective armies will stand fast until they receive orders from their governments” on the ground that it might inspire the Russians to race for remaining German areas in order to get as much territory as possible before the war ended.9 Two could play at that game; it was doubtful that a hundred or so more miles of German territory in British and American hands would have forced the Russians to back away or produced a better standoff than the zonal arrangement already agreed on. Churchill’s approach suffered from trying to do too much with too little—and prematurely.10
Churchill’s talent for phrasemaking sometimes obscured his strategic limitations. “Soft underbelly” and “stab in the armpit” had little to do with the physical reality on the ground in Southeastern Europe. He sometimes drove his military advisers to despair by demanding that something should be done and then being utterly uninterested in whether it could be done.11 He blew up the importance of Berlin out of all proportion to its real merit as a political or strategic objective, as if his country or the United States were ready to begin the postwar struggle with Soviet Russia as the war with Germany was just coming to an end.
It is dangerous to isolate a single event, such as Berlin, from all that went before and pass judgment on it. The balance of forces at Berlin in March-April 1945 was the result of the way the entire war had been fought. If Churchill was right about the portentous importance of Berlin at that late date, open military competition on the ground with Soviet Russia over the future of Europe would have had to start long before. Churchill should not have tried to delay the “second front” even beyond mid-1944; nor should he have wanted to peck away at the periphery of Southern Europe while the Russians were moving at frightful cost into the European heartland; nor should he have agreed to zones of occupation that were sure to bring the Russians into Central Europe.
In his controversy over Berlin, Eisenhower repeatedly insisted that his decisions had been based on strictly military rather than political grounds. He said that he regarded it “as militarily unsound at this stage of the proceedings to make Berlin a major objective,” and he had challenged the Combined Chiefs of Staff to order him to put political ahead of military considerations.12 It is one thing to assert that his military decisions had political implications, even if he did not take them into account; it is another to make Eisenhower “think and act as a politician” in making those decisions. Curiously, David Eisenhower succeeds in arriving at an original interpretation of this issue only by making his grandfather seem to have been guilty of dissimulation.
The supreme irony was that Eisenhower as Supreme Commander earned derision and contempt from his British and American subordinates when he compromised with them. In the Berlin case, he actually came forth boldly as Supreme Commander; he knew his own mind and refused to give way to pressure from the British or from the American generals in the Ninth Army. He was scorned when he did not play the part, and he was no better off when he did.
Prague and Berlin presented the same kind of problem to Eisenhower but not in exactly the same way.
By the time the Prague decision came up in late April 1945, Eisenhower was working harmoniously with the Russians to determine where the respective armies should meet in order to avoid “unfortunate incidents.” They were exchanging messages and reaching common decisions. Again the Russians were moving ponderously from the east, the Americans and British, against minimal resistance, from the west. The German forces east of Prague were either still fighting the Russians desperately or trying desperately to escape from the Russians into the arms of the waiting Americans. This turn of events, here and elsewhere, put the western forces in the awkward position of being used by the Germans as their saviors from the wrath of the Russians. It also opened up the old question between the British and Americans about who should get there first.
At the end of April, when both Russian and American forces were approximately equidistant from the Czechoslovak capital, Churchill and the British Chiefs wanted the Americans to do in Prague what they had failed to do in Berlin. Churchill urged the new president, Harry S. Truman, to make General Eisenhower aware of “the highly important political considerations” involved in “the liberation of Prague and as much as possible of the territory of western Czechoslovakia.” A similar message went to General Marshall from the British Chiefs of Staff.
Eisenhower again decided to resist a “political prize” that was “militarily unwise,” unless specifically ordered to do so by the Combined Chiefs of Staff. Marshall backed him up with the comment that he “would be loath to hazard American lives for purely political purposes.”13 By implication, the British wanted to use Prague as a bargaining chip, and the Americans did not think the objective was worth any more American lives and did not wish to risk any contretemps with the Russians over a city that was about to fall to one of them one way or another.
At first the decision was less difficult, because Eisenhower expected the Russian forces to get there first anyway. If that had happened, Prague and Berlin would have been very much alike. But the Russian steamroller was delayed by German resistance to such an extent that Patton’s Third Army was able to move into position to win the race to Prague. Patton’s advance toward the Czech border while Marshal Konev’s forces were held back almost made Eisenhower change his mind. On May 4, Eisenhower was disposed to let Patton go into Prague instead of stopping him, as he had planned, on the line of Pilsen-Karlsbad, within Czechoslovakia about forty miles west of Prague. If Eisenhower had done so, Patton was almost sure to have made it into Prague before the Russians could get there—a circumstance that made Prague different from Berlin, where the odds had been different.
But Eisenhower in a gesture of cooperation took the precaution of advising Marshal Alexei Antonov, the Russian Chief of Staff, of his change of plans. Antonov quickly protested, with an argument that put Eisenhower in a corner. It turned out that Eisenhower had previously asked Antonov to stop the Russian advance short of Lübeck, at the entrance to Denmark, in order to leave the way open for Montgomery. The sequence of events at this point is confusing because both Montgomery’s forces and the Russians under Marshal Rokossovsky seem to have proceeded as of there had been no understanding between Antonov and Eisenhower. Montgomery triumphantly reported to Brooke on May 2 that “we only just beat the Russians by about twelve hours” to Lübeck.14 David Eisenhower suggests that Eisenhower had tried to arrange a trade of Prague for Denmark. If there was such a trade between Eisenhower and Antonov, Montgomery and Rokossovsky do not seem to have done much about it. In any case, Eisenhower changed his mind again after Antonov’s protest and ordered Patton to hold up at Pilsen, which he occupied on May 5. Since the Germans, after Hitler’s death on April 30, had been ordered to resist the Russians but not the Americans, Patton could have “captured” Prague on May 6 or 7 in time to avert the bloodletting following the rising of the Czech resistance movement on May 6. The Russians did not get into the city until May 9. Prague would have been different by two or three days.
Nevertheless, the Western allies betrayed some embarrassment that the Germans were still doing most of the fighting against the Russians. On May 8, the Combined Chiefs of Staff informed their Soviet counterparts: “We do not accept that any German forces may continue to fight the Red Army without, in effect, fighting our forces also.” When the German commander, Field Marshal Schörner, was captured by the Americans, he was handed over to the Russians.15 Even Montgomery had acted in the same way. On May 3, when the German northern commanders tried to surrender their forces to him, he had replied: “Certainly not! The armies concerned are fighting the Russians. If they surrender to anybody it must be to the Russians. Nothing to do with me.”16 It was an indication of how strong the wartime bonds still were in the field, even as other forces were pulling them apart.
The same question that Eisenhower asked about Berlin may be asked about Prague: What did we hope to gain?
To answer that question a glance at the map helps. Prague happens to be in the westernmost part of Czechoslovakia. At best, it meant that the Americans would hold the capital and about one sixth of the country, the Russians five sixths, without the capital.17 At worst, the Russians might have flowed past Prague to avoid contact with the Americans and moved around the city north and south to make it a virtual hostage. At the very worst, the two advancing forces might have found themselves firing at the wrong side.
Much depends, then, on how one reckons the mystique of a capital city. Both sides were committed to eventual withdrawal from all of Czechoslovakia. Capitals can be made just as helpless as any other big city. They do not function in a vacuum; they play their leading roles only so long as they have viable, united countries in which to play them. Prague torn from the rest of Czechoslovakia was not the same as Prague the capital of a unified Czechoslovakia—as was equally true of Berlin torn from the rest of Germany. Moreover, the political fate of Czechoslovakia differed from that of Poland. The country was occupied by both American and Russian forces. The Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia took place in 1948 long after the Americans and Russians had left the country.
Just what Churchill thought he could achieve by holding on to Prague is still hard to fathom. His foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, once thought that “it might do the Russians much good if the Americans were to occupy the Czech capital, when no doubt they would be willing to invite the Soviet ambassador to join the United States and ourselves in contrast to the behavior the Russians have shown to us.” 18 If the political point of the exercise was to teach the Russians better etiquette, Eisenhower and Marshall were probably right that it was not worth doing.
The deeper question in the spring of 1945 was whether an isolated capital such as Prague offered the right time and place for a showdown with the Russians. Public opinion in both Great Britain and the United States was wholly unprepared for it. The two countries’ immediate interests were not synchronous. Great Britain knew that it could not break away from its European connection; the United States, at that moment absorbed in the changeover from Roosevelt to Truman, still thought that it had to fight a savage war in the Far East and had not even made up its mind that it wanted to stay in Europe. In the end, the similarities between Berlin and Prague proved to be stronger than the differences.
David Eisenhower does not devote as much attention to Prague as he does to Berlin. He believes that Patton could not have counted on entering Prague without “heavy casualties,” though Patton clearly thought that he had a clear field. If David Eisenhower is right, the parallel between Berlin and Prague is even closer, and the Russians might have won the race into both of them. As in other matters, David Eisenhower abstains from taking too dogmatic a stand on the merits of Eisenhower’s decision and is content to tell the reader that “historians would be left to puzzle over Eisenhower’s failure to exploit an open front in western Czechoslovakia to seize the Czech capital.” From today’s perspective, it does not seem too much of a puzzle.
The two main themes I have been pursuing in this reconsideration of the Second World War in Europe are the nature of its coalition warfare and the relationship with the Soviet Union. There was a British-American alliance and a British-American-Soviet “alliance.” Each was troubled to such an extent that it sometimes seems improbable that the coalition survived to the end of the war. The first managed to work itself out successfully, while the other virtually broke apart.
During the war, the British-American struggle over strategy and policy overshadowed the struggle with the Soviets, simply because the British-American relationship was so much more intimate. For the most part, two wars against Germany went on separately and simultaneously in the east and west, with a measure of coordination coming only toward the end. Marshall and Eisenhower, Brooke and Montgomery were far more preoccupied with themselves than with their Soviet counterparts, whom they hardly knew and whom they dealt with, if at all, at arm’s length. A study of Eisenhower as Supreme Commander inevitably deals more with his embroilments with the British than with the Soviets. One almost feels that he was fighting two wars at once—a war against the Germans and a “war” with the British—and that the latter took up most of his time and energy.
Some British war memoirs and other war literature have been very rough on Eisenhower. Montgomery’s memoirs and Brooke’s diary were particularly wounding. Many of the complaints against Eisenhower seemed to be based on alleged personality faults in his makeup, unfitting him to play the role that had been assigned to him. Thus the question arises whether another general might have done better, or at least avoided the interminable British-American wrangling.
Though Montgomery contributed more than anyone else to the denigration of Eisenhower’s military reputation, he must be given credit for seeing starkly and coldly what the real British-American differences were about. “It was always very clear to me,” he wrote, “that Ike and I were poles apart when it came to the conduct of the war.”19 That was the real trouble. They were poles apart, because they differed on basic concepts of how to conduct the war; those differences were British and American as much as Montgomery’s and Eisenhower’s. Back of those differences was not only a clash of ideas but a struggle for power within the coalition. Personalities exacerbated the disputes; they did not beget them. In the matters that really counted, Eisenhower did not follow an Eisenhower plan; it was an American plan, behind which stood the awesome figure of Marshall, who could always have overridden him.
Any other American general would have been put in the same position. Sir Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, once tried to use Bradley to get rid of Eisenhower as ground commander. The only other American candidate might have been Patton—a frightful possibility. Either of them would have given the British far more trouble; they would not have made so many concessions to British demands; they could hardly bear to stay in the same room with Montgomery. If Marshall had had Eisenhower’s job, it is unthinkable that he would have been as conciliatory. For months Eisenhower had gone so far to appease Montgomery that Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, the Deputy Supreme Commander, had had to warn him that “his own people would be thinking that he had sold them to the British if he continued to support Montgomery without protest.”20 Tedder was right; Bradley and Patton virtually accused Eisenhower of having sold out to the British. Eisenhower was the best American general the British had, but he could only give them half a loaf, and they wanted or needed the whole thing.
Churchill, the old master, knew better than his chief generals and tried to call off their relentless vendetta against Eisenhower. When Brooke tried to force Eisenhower out as ground commander, Churchill demurred. He told Brooke that “he did not want anybody between Ike and the Army Groups, since Ike was a good fellow who was amenable and whom he could influence. Bradley, on the other hand, might not listen to what he said!” Brooke replied resentfully that “I could see little use in having an ‘amenable’ Commander if he was unfit to win the war for him.”21
It is hard to know what would have happened if Eisenhower had not been so amenable and Churchill had not been so canny. If personalities had mattered the most in holding the coalition together, these two, in their different ways, mattered the most. The great merit of Eisenhower was that he really believed in making coalition warfare work, even to the point of worrying Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson that he might “lose sight of the necessity of supporting sufficiently our national views where they were at variance with the British.”22 When Eisenhower said that in a coalition it was necessary “to forget nationality,” it rings true.23 It is not so easy to imagine any other American general sending an officer home because he had shouted that someone was “a British so-and-so.”
As a Supreme Commander who was never supreme and could rarely command, Eisenhower’s weaknesses were almost indistinguishable from his strengths. He behaved as a dedicated civil servant in an international organization should behave and seldom does. According to General Francis de Guingand, Montgomery’s chief of staff, Eisenhower “had a magic touch when dealing with conflicting issues or clashes of personalities; and he knew how to find a solution along the lines of compromise, without surrendering a principle.”24 This was no ritualistic tribute; it alone can explain why Eisenhower succeeded in winning over the high British officers attached to his headquarters, so that no solid British front was ever ranged against him. His British deputy, Tedder, stepped in more than once to defend him against the anti-Eisenhower cabal in London, and suffered for it. Eisenhower was not brilliant; he compromised; he backed and filled; but the job needed something other than brilliance, unwillingness to compromise, and inability to see some merit in opposing arguments.
Churchill’s great merit in the controversies of the coalition was that he knew when to stop. He goaded Eisenhower and his own generals mercilessly with ideas that were often logistical or strategic pipe dreams. He created many of Eisenhower’s problems, but he also put the worst of them to rest, as Brooke and Montgomery would not do. Once he saw that he could not have his way, he relented gracefully—until the next time. His generals knew how to handle him, how to cajole him out of the most extreme fancies or wait him out until he had forgotten what he was after. He recognized, however much it hurt, that the balance of power in the alliance and in the world had turned against Great Britain—and Churchill knew that power was the ultimate arbiter. This saving realism permitted him to indulge his most unrealistic extravagances without ultimate harm to the common cause. The official British military history notes that Churchill seldom had his way in the last two years of the war.25 He certainly did not fail for lack of trying. Yet he managed to keep everyone’s affection and respect, primarily because he never pushed a disagreement beyond the limits of compromise or retreat.
It would be naive to imagine that the British-American alliance survived its incessant crises at the top only because these two men prevented it from falling apart. The factors that held Great Britain and the United States together throughout the war were deeply rooted in self-interest, cultural affinity, historic connections, and common abhorrence of a world dominated by such an enemy as Hitler. But in the matters that have been discussed here, again and again one is driven to wonder what might have happened for the worse if someone else had been Supreme Commander and someone else had been Prime Minister. In this story of coalition warfare, we can safely say that they prevented the worst.
Why was there no more than an “alliance” with the Soviet Union?
The same reason was given by both Stalin and Churchill. It is the best and shortest answer we are likely to get. Stalin told Tedder, when the latter visited Moscow in December 1944: “It would be foolish for me to stand aside and let the Germans annihilate you; they would only turn back on me when you were dispensed with. Similarly it is to your interest to do everything possible to keep the Germans from annihilating me.”26 Churchill needed only a single sentence: “They [Communist Russia and the Western democracies] had lost their common enemy, which was almost their sole bond of union.”27
The wartime alliance and “alliance” betrayed themselves in their origins. There was no compelling threat to the United States in 1940 when President Roosevelt set a quasi-military alliance going with the transfer of 50 destroyers to Great Britain. The Roosevelt-Churchill relationship during the war was unique in the history of such partnerships. They agreed far more than they disagreed; and they agreed to disagree even when they disagreed. When Germany attacked Soviet Russia in June 1941, Churchill immediately said: “I have only one purpose, the destruction of Hitler, and my life is much simplified thereby. If Hitler invaded Hell I would make at least a favorable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons.”28 In his remarks in the House of Commons on the day Russia was attacked, Churchill did not say anything favorable about the Communist Devil; he said that “we shall give whatever help we can to Russia and the Russian people.” With those words he initiated the “alliance.” His motive had nothing to do with mutual economic interests, political sympathies, or cultural consanguinity. He was forced to embrace the Communist Devil by virtue of Britain’s desperate state in 1941. To the extent that there was collaboration with the Soviet Union during the war, it was almost wholly military, and even that was gratingly frustrating.
In military terms, the differences within the British-American alliance were tactical; those within the British-American-Soviet “alliance” were strategic. The first held because it was based on far more than temporary military calculations; the second came apart because it had little more in common than a common enemy.
The way the “alliance” came to an end in 1945, with the defeat of Germany, portended that it was going to turn into its opposite. This aspect of the origins of the “cold war” is still something of a skeleton in the historical closet. Historians have generally traced those origins back to the early Truman period, where its earliest symptoms have probably been exaggerated.29 The implications of Churchill’s desire to get to Vienna, Berlin, and Prague before the Russians and to push as far east as possible went far beyond what he himself was willing openly to recognize or admit.
On the surface, Churchill’s intentions seemed to be vague and confusing. He wanted to get a satisfactory “settlement” with the Russians on all outstanding postwar questions before giving up any Western-occupied territory. How he thought he could get so much with so little is hard to understand, and he did not try to explain how it could be done. In the shadows, however, there was more to it than that.
As early as July 27, 1944, not long after the landings in Normandy, Brooke had had an intriguing conversation with the secretary of state for war, Sir James Grigg. His diary reads:
Back to War Office to have an hour with Secretary of State discussing post-war policy in Europe. Should Germany be dismembered or gradually converted to an ally to meet the Russian threat of twenty years hence? I suggested the latter and feel certain that we must from now onwards regard Germany in a very different light. Germany is no longer the dominating power in Europe—Russia is. Unfortunately Russia is not entirely European. She has, however, vast resources and cannot fail to become the main threat in fifteen years from now. Therefore, foster Germany, gradually build her up and bring her into a Federation of Western Europe. Unfortunately this must all be done under the cloak of a holy alliance between England, Russia and America. Not an easy policy, and one requiring a super Foreign Secretary.30
Churchill himself, if we may trust General de Guingand, later had much the same thought. In March 1945, as the decision over Berlin was coming up, he told De Guingand that “the danger to the Allies was in future going to be more from the Russians than from Germany.”31 In his memoirs, Churchill claimed that he had already known and felt that “henceforward Russian imperialism and the Communist creed saw and set no bounds to their progress and ultimate dominion.”32
On May 24, 1945, after the German surrender, Brooke returned to the theme in his diary:
This evening I went carefully through the Planners’ report on the possibility of taking on Russia should trouble arise in our future discussions with her. We were instructed to carry out this investigation. The idea is, of course, fantastic and the chances of success quite impossible. There is no doubt that from now onwards Russia is all-powerful in Europe.33
On the American side, there is to my knowledge only one such statement by anyone in a high official position. It was made by General Patton, whose ranting could not have been taken seriously and who died in a road accident later the same year. On May 7, 1945, the day that General Alfred Jodl signed the declaration of unconditional surrender at Reims, Patton had a conversation with Under Secretary of War Robert P. Patterson. Patton recorded in his diary that he had told Patterson to
present a picture of force and strength to these people [the Russians]…. If you fail to do this, then I would like to say to you that we have had a victory over the Germans and have disarmed them, but have lost the war…I would have your State Department or the people in charge, tell the people concerned [Russians] where their border is, and give them a limited time to get back across. Warn them that if they fail to do so, we will push them back across it…They could probably maintain themselves in the type of fighting I could give them for five days. After that it would make no difference how many million men they have, and if you wanted Moscow, I could give it to you.
Patterson protested: “You don’t realize the strength of these people.” Three days later, according to the editor of Patton’s diary, the general wanted to rehabilitate the Germans to fight the Russians. 34 A full investigation into American official and public opinion might turn up other such cases, but my impression is that nothing similar to the views expressed by Brooke and Churchill is likely to be found in comparable American circles.35
Some of the alarm and pessimism in this late-war and early postwar period proved to be excessive. The Russians were not “all-powerful in Europe” and could not exploit all of their power in all of Europe. It was bad enough that they were able to impose their own political and social system wherever they had wrested military supremacy from Germany in Eastern Europe. But Stalin was not ready to try to swallow all of Europe in one gulp. He indicated the kind of deal he was willing to make by permitting the Western powers to take the lead in Italy without protest, a plain signal that he expected them to do the same for him in Poland.
The power-sharing arrangement Stalin was willing to settle for in 1945 was no longer in Eastern Europe, as Churchill had contemplated the year before, but rather in an exchange of Eastern Europe for Western Europe. The division of Europe into a Soviet-dominated East and a non-Soviet West was more than anything else reflected in the agreement on the zones of occupation, which could only have been dispensed with by keeping the armies in place indefinitely or risking a confrontation between them. Whether an armed stalemate between the Soviet Union and the Western powers for an indefinite period would have resulted in anything better than the withdrawal to the agreed-on zones of occupation is at least doubtful.
The Second World War was, like all wars, full of might-have-beens. It is futile to take one moment in the war and lament that if only it had been handled differently the entire future would have been infinitely better. It was not handled differently, because the entire past conspired to make it what it was. Yet if there is to be an inquest into the way the war ended, it is unrealistic to think that the choice was between the present division of Europe and beating the Russians to Vienna, Berlin, or Prague, or grabbing a few more miles to the east. The real choice was between the halfway house of the present and a complete, classical, instantaneous renversement des alliances, risking some form of immediate conflict with the Soviet Union. No one in a responsible position was prepared for that in the spring and summer of 1945. It came to seem, at least to some, to have been the right thing to do, because it had in it the seeds of the future. But like all seeds these needed to mature. The unripe fruit of such a policy was not digestible in 1945, even if we have had to live with the regret that things did not work out otherwise.
If we have to look back at the reasons for the two-sided outcome of the Second World War we may get closer to the hard and bitter reality with the words David Eisenhower uses toward the end of his book:
Indeed, the endless debate on what the Allies might have done differently to block the Russians in eastern Europe then and later tends to obscure a deeper question: what the Allies might have done differently to check the Germans earlier and thus prevent the misery that Germany inflicted on Europe—how differently history might have turned out had Europe and America in the 1930s met the early threat of fascism, which, unlike communism, would in fact engulf much of Western Europe and paralyze the rest of it. By the outbreak of World War II communism had been confined to the Soviet Union with no prospect of its expansion elsewhere except by force, despite avowed Soviet promises to expand Bolshevism worldwide. And yet, strangely, fascism had come to power in Germany, Italy, Spain, Poland, Hungary and Rumania, and had contributed to the demoralization of France while dividing England and America on the practicality or wisdom of doing anything to halt its spread. One could only speculate, but the feeling was that had Europe met the threat of fascism resolutely and had the United States backed Europe early on, there might have been no Munich, no war to rid Europe of Hitler and to recover the self-respect of the democracies, and no Soviet occupation of Warsaw, Berlin and Prague. But by May 1945 such thoughts were idle speculation, and attention was shifting to the problem of reconstructing a devastated Europe.
This is the third part of a three-part article.
October 23, 1986
See my previous articles on this book in The New York Review, September 25 and October 9. ↩
Omar N. Bradley and Clay Blair, A General’s Life (Simon and Schuster, 1983), p. 432. ↩
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. ↩
The Papers of Dwight David Eisenhower (John Hopkins University Press, 1970), vol. IV, pp. 2602–2603. Hereafter Eisenhower Papers. ↩
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. ↩
Westview Press, 1983. ↩
Winston S. Churchill, Triumph and Tragedy (Houghton Mifflin, 1953), pp. 456–457. ↩
This interpretation is important enough to give at some length: “For the British attitude at this stage should not be misunderstood. It is perhaps easy, in view of developments in the following decade, to see in it the emergence of a policy which later became orthodox throughout the Westen world. But attitudes and policy should not be confused. In the first place, even if the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary—the authorities principally concerned at this stage—had decided in the spring of 1945 that action should be taken on the assumption that Russia might be a potential enemy, there was no likelihood of such action being adopted by their country or in the United States. But secondly, they did not so decide. Disappointed, distrustful, and sometimes deeply alarmed as they were, their hopes, and British policy, rested on a continuing partnership of the three powers expressed in and operating through the instrument of the United Nations to which it was complementary. ↩
Eisenhower Papers, vol IV, p. 2584, note 2. ↩
Even a Churchillian admirer such as Ronald Lewin agrees that Churchill’s determination to take Berlin was “unrealistic” and that “the stakes for which Churchill was playing were visionary” (Churchill as Warlord, Stein and Day, 1973, p. 261). ↩
Churchill “kept aloof from all details, drew magnificent plans, and left others to find magnificent means”—as Horace Walpole said of another great war leader, William Pitt (Memoirs of the Reign of King George II (London, 1846, vol. III, p. 173). ↩
Eisenhower to Marshall, April 7, 1945, Eisenhower Papers, vol. IV, p. 2592. ↩
Eisenhower Papers, vol. IV, p. 2662. ↩
Nigel Hamilton, Monty the Field-Marshal, 1944–1976 (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1986), p. 499. The connection between Berlin and Lübeck is raised by David Eisenhower in such a way as to cast doubt that Churchill ever really wanted the Western allies to take Berlin. In the body of his book, David Eisenhower cites a message from Churchill to Eden on April 19, 1945 to the effect that superior force was bound to favor the Russians on Berlin: “The Russians have two-and-a-half million troops on the sector of the front opposite that city. The Americans have only their spearhead, say twenty-five divisions, which are covering an immense front and are at many points engaged with the Germans” (Churchill, Triumph and Tragedy, p. 440). It is true as David Eisenhower says, that once Churchill had given up hope of taking Berlin, he was primarily interested in preventing the Russians from getting into Denmark through Lübeck (p. 778). But this does not mean, as David Eisenhower claims in his introduction, that the British aimed at occupying “northwest Germany and Denmark, rather [than] to challenge the Russians for control of east Germany (p. xxiv). It would be truer to say that Churchill would have preferred to challenge the Russians for both East and West Germany but as usual he put the best face on things and settled for Lübeck when he knew that he could not get Berlin. ↩
The most recent British biographer of Eisenhower confuses Prague with Czechoslovakia as a whole: “In fact, he [Eisenhower] was willing to sacrifice Czechoslovakia to secure good relations with the Russians, who were pathologically suspicious about Western intentions.” (Piers Brendon, Ike: His Life and Times, Harper & Row, 1986, p 184). The most that Eisenhower could have “sacrificed” at the time was Prague; the rest of Czechoslovakia was not his to sacrifice. If there was a trade, it was brought about by Eisenhower’s prior request for the Soviet forces to stop short of Lübeck, which Brendon never mentions. In fact, the disposition of Czechoslovakia was subsequently arranged to the satisfaction of both sides. The same fatuity—among many others—is committed by Nigel Hamilton in U.S. News & World Report, September 1, 1986, p. 30. Typically, in this piece, two successive sentences get everything wrong: “ Montgomery was denuded of the forces he needed to secure the Danish peninsula . Czechoslovakia also was surrendered to Stalin’s forces.” That Montgomery had the forces he needed to secure the Danish peninsula before the Russians got there is reported in Hamilton’s own book, (Monty the Field-Marshal, 1944–1976, p. 499). Czechoslovakia was largely occupied by Stalin’s forces by the time the question of Prague had arisen; Prague, not Czechoslovakia, was the only issue. ↩
Forrest C. Pogue, The Supreme Command (Office of the Chief of Military History, Department of the Army, 1954), p. 505. ↩
Hamilton, Monty The Field-Marshal, 1944–1976, p. 503. ↩
Churchill, Triumph and Tragedy, p. 516. ↩
The Memoirs of Field-Marshal the Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, K.G. (World Publishing Co., 1958), p. 235. ↩
Lord Tedder, With Prejudice (Little, Brown, 1966), p. 566. ↩
Arthur Bryant, Triumph in the West (Doubleday, 1959), p. 346. ↩
Forrest C. Pogue, George C. Marshall: Organizer of Victory, 1943–1945 (Viking, 1973), p. 509. ↩
General Eisenhower on the Military Churchill, p. 65. ↩
Major General Sir Francis de Guingand, Generals at War (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1964), p. 193. ↩
Ehrman, Grand Strategy, vol. VI, p. 335. ↩
Tedder, With Prejudice, pp. 649–650. ↩
Churchill, Triumph and Tragedy, p. 456. ↩
Churchill, Triumph and Tragedy, p. 370. ↩
See two papers by Robert J. Maddox, “Roosevelt and Stalin: The Final Days,” Continuity: A Journal of History (Spring 1983), and “Truman, Poland, and the Origins of the Cold War,” Presidential Studies Quarterly (Fall 1986). ↩
Bryant, Triumph in the West, p. 180. ↩
De Guignand, Generals at War, p. 158. ↩
Churchill, Triumph and Tragedy, p. 456. ↩
Bryant, Triumph in the West, pp. 357–358. ↩
Martin Blumenson, The Patton Papers 1940–1945 (Houghton Mifflin, 1974), vol. II, pp. 698, 709. ↩
The only other American general who ever avowed pro-German sentiments, as far as I know, was Albert C. Wedemeyer, and he apparently held them in the earliest stage of the war. As he himself told the story, he had been exposed “to constant propaganda about the Bolshevik menace” during his two years at the German War College in 1936–1938; it had convinced him that the “world-wide Communist conspiracy” was a greater menace than “the German search for Lebensraum.” He does not say how he felt at the end of the war. (Albert C. Wedemeyer, Wedeemeyer Reports, Henry Holt, 1958, p. 10.) ↩