Laying the Foundations of a New Germany

By Richard S. Dunham


Roosevelt, Truman and the

Destruction of Hitler's Germany, 1941-1945

By Michael Beschloss

Simon & Schuster -- 377pp -- $26.95

At the end of World War II, as the Allied powers assumed control of Germany from a shattered Third Reich, General Dwight D. Eisenhower declared: "The success of this occupation can only be judged fifty years from now. If the Germans at that time have a stable, prosperous democracy, then we shall have succeeded." By this definition, the conquerors achieved their goal. But according to Michael Beschloss' new account of behind-the-scenes intrigue and chaotic decision-making, the triumph of the American Presidents--aided and abetted by Britain's Winston Churchill, complicated by the scheming and paranoia of the Soviet Union's Joseph Stalin--was as much an accident as it was the grand design of policymakers.

The colorful, larger-than-life figures in The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler's Germany, 1941-1945, are familiar to us all, since a surfeit of material is already available on the World War II era. The challenge for a historian is to carve a distinctive niche in the literature on the period. And while Beschloss--a high-visibility TV presence who wrote two fascinating volumes on Lyndon Johnson's White House tapes--labors mightily, he doesn't altogether succeed.

The author has unearthed a trove of previously unpublished documents, but his slim volume suffers from a misguided focus on Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau's ill-fated blueprint for the radical economic restructuring of Germany. Morgenthau aggressively pursued a controversial proposal to turn post-Hitler Germany into an agrarian nation, something ultimately dismissed by Harry Truman as "that crazy plan." With 60 years of historical distance, Morgenthau's idea looks laughably naive.

The book's concentration on Morgenthau (the only Jew in Franklin D. Roosevelt's viciously anti-Semitic Cabinet) leads Beschloss to make several tactical mistakes. There's an inordinate amount of attention given to often-boring Administration debates over the economy of Germany, from the Ruhr Valley factories to the Kiel Canal. Meanwhile, Beschloss does not devote enough time to discussing how the U.S. planned to build democratic institutions, de-Nazify a nation full of Hitler's brainwashed subjects and true believers, and reeducate the nation so that Germany would never again pose a threat to the world. And as Beschloss showers attention on Morgenthau, whose own secretly recorded conversations and private papers he reviewed, the author neglects to tell us what was going on in the minds of FDR and Truman.

The Allies faced the dual challenges of crushing the Axis militarily and of considering how best to govern the postwar world. Yet Beschloss talks little of Allied military strategy in Europe--other than the immoral decision not to bomb the Nazi death camps. (Even after Eisenhower and others described the horrors of the Holocaust, FDR's anti-Semitic Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, continued to refer in his diaries to "so-called atrocities.")

Still, despite its shortcomings, The Conquerors should not be dismissed. It effectively captures Roosevelt's well-documented ability to play off one top aide against another. The eminent historian James MacGregor Burns (Beschloss' former teacher at Williams College) famously subtitled his biography of Roosevelt "The Lion and the Fox." Beschloss is describing the lion in winter. As the war with Germany is reaching its climax, the American President is falling apart before our eyes. He is weakened by severe weight loss and unable to concentrate. Meanwhile, he is guarded by his fiercely protective daughter, Anna. When he repudiates a controversial memo from the State Dept. that he had earlier initialed, Roosevelt says he can't remember ever seeing it. No one can be sure whether the once-great leader was playing the sly fox or the dying lion.

The author also shows how, despite Churchill's warnings, both Roosevelt and Truman were taken in by Stalin. FDR, as he looked forward to the postwar world, said that "perhaps during Stalin's training for the priesthood, `something entered into his nature of the way a Christian gentleman should behave."' And Truman, at Potsdam, described Stalin as "honest, but smart as hell." He was half-right.

Indeed, Truman and Roosevelt seemed to misunderstand Stalin's postwar aims. While U.S. policymakers were engaged in internal debates over the demilitarization and deindustrialization of Germany, Stalin was pushing for dividing Europe into Soviet and British spheres of influence. (Churchill may have emboldened Stalin by telling him that the U.S. didn't plan to be in Europe for long after Hitler's defeat.) At Yalta and Potsdam, the U.S. Presidents unwittingly gave Stalin at least tacit approval for his westward expansion.

Considering the many miscalculations by U.S., Soviet, and British leaders, it's amazing that things turned out so well in Germany. Then again, in trying to avoid the punitive excesses that followed World War I, Roosevelt and Truman allowed Stalin's Iron Curtain to descend. The conquerors may well have avoided a third world war with Germany. But the cost was the Cold War.

Beschloss says he decided to write this book in 1991, just two weeks before the demise of the Soviet Union. Indeed, Eisenhower's reflection about the fate of post-Hitler Germany can now be applied to postcommunist Russia. It will be up to future historians to judge whether Russia passes Eisenhower's test.

Dunham covers the White House.

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