A discussion about the Berlin Wall broke out in the comments section of my blog posting on John Weeks. That inspired me to post an excellent review of Carolyn Eisenberg’s “Drawing the Line” from the Nation Magazine in 1996, when it was still readable. Nothing can substitute for reading Eisenberg’s book, but Kai Bird’s review comes close. Louis Proyect
December 16, 1996
Stalin Didn’t Do It
by KAI BIRD
DRAWING THE LINE
The American Decision to Divide Germany, 1944-1949.
By Carolyn Eisenberg
Cambridge. 522 pp. $59.95.
Nothing is inevitable in the course of human events. Yet every historian finds it difficult to persuade readers that what happened all those many years ago was not preordained, that indeed, choices were made which at the time were not necessarily obvious or at all inevitable. This challenge becomes particularly formidable when the historian’s topic is invested with powerful myths cultivated by the state.
Carolyn Eisenberg shatters the central myth at the heart of the origins of the cold war: that the postwar division of Germany was Stalin’s fault. She demonstrates unequivocally that the partition of Germany was “fundamentally an American decision,” strongly opposed by the Soviets. The implications are enormous. Germany’s division led to the rapid division of Europe, condemning not only East Germans but millions throughout Eastern Europe to a forty-year siege. If the responsibility for this cruel separation of a continent into two armed military camps lies with Washington and not Moscow, then the entire canon of the orthodox history of the cold war is called into question.
Eisenberg, a professor of history at Hofstra, took more than a dozen years to produce this exhaustively researched text. Drawing the Line opens with a moving description of the idealistic hopes evoked by the meeting of U.S. and Soviet troops at the Elbe River on April 25, 1945. In the face of a common peril, a Grand Alliance had triumphed over German fascism.
A half-century later, we forget that many Americans had been confident that U.S.-Soviet cooperation could continue in the postwar period despite ideological differences. Even an establishment figure like Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy noted in his diary on April 30, 1945, “It is little wonder that as [the US. and the U.S.S.R.] emerge in their own and in the eyes of everyone else as the two greatest powers that they should walk stiff-legged around the ring a bit.” But McCloy and Secretary of War Henry Stimson believed that with time and hard work a “practical relationship” was possible and desirable. As for Germany, the New Dealers who then prevailed in foreign policy deliberations-Henry Morgenthau Jr., Harry Hopkins, Harry Dexter White, Henry Wallace, Harold Ickes-fully intended to cooperate with the Soviets in administering a “hard peace” in a unified German state. Roosevelt had agreed to a firm program of denazification, deindustrialization and demilitarization. The Soviets would share in the supervision of a jointly occupied German state and be assured a share of reparations.
Then came Harry Truman, who was pretty much an empty vessel when it came to foreign policy. His instincts were erratic, McCloy wrote in his diary after observing him at Potsdam, “He always gives me the impression of too quick judgment.” Roosevelt’s Soviet policies were soon shoved aside. In the judgment of Truman’s influential advisers-Dean Acheson, Averell Harriman, John Foster Dulles, George Marshall and James Forrestal- partition was preferable to the uncertainties of cooperating with a difficult wartime ally in a joint occupation of the defeated enemy.
Acheson and his colleagues did not fear the Soviets-they understood that the Soviet system was economically and militarily weak. And that was precisely why Washington could act unilaterally with little risk of provoking a war. “This judgment,” says Eisenberg, “allowed them to make careless calculations, to disregard the Soviet interests with a sense of impunity, and to sacrifice potentially favorable bargains with the expectation of a complete collapse down the road.” And act they did. In violation of Potsdam and Yalta, the Truman Administration fused the British and U.S. occupation zones economically in December 1946, incorporated western Germany into the Marshall Plan in July 1947, implemented a currency reform in June 1948 and convened a parliamentary body in September 1948 for the purpose of creating a formal West German state. Washington also abruptly ended denazification (leaving approximately 640,000 “highly incriminated persons” un- prosecuted), halted deindustrialization and canceled steps already taken to break up the German economic cartels.
Truman’s men feared not an invasion from the east but that the Soviets in their weakened position would offer a deal that could not be easily rejected in a public forum. As Ambassador Walter Bedell Smith wrote in December 1947 to his old friend Dwight Eisenhower, “The difficulty under which we labor is that in spite of our announced position, we really do not want nor intend to accept German unification in any terms that the Russians might agree to; even though they seemed to meet most of our requirements.”
Soviet demands were remarkably consistent. They wanted what they understood the Allies to have promised at Potsdam and Yalta: the $10 billion in reparations; four-power control of the Ruhr Valley; vigorous denazification and permanent demilitarization. In return they’d permit a freely elected German government, modeled along Weimar constitutional lines-a program, Eisenberg observes, that “did not differ appreciably from that previously advanced by liberals in the Roosevelt administration.”
The Soviets began to clamp down on Eastern Europe only in response to the U.S. decision to partition Germany. When they did so, Truman’s men were not at all surprised. When, for instance, Stalin imposed a ground blockade around Berlin after a unilateral American announcement of currency reform in western Germany, veteran diplomat Robert Murphy cabled Washington, “The Berlin blockade, with all its consequences, has had widespread repercussions, most of them favorable.”
Not everyone agreed. The military governor of occupied Germany, Gen. Lucius Clay, opposed partition. So did the author of the containment theory, George Kennan. In 1948-49, Kennan vigorously contested both the division and militarization of Europe. In an attempt to preserve access to Eastern Europe he crafted what became known inside the bureaucracy as “Plan A” or “A Program for Germany” to create a unified German state. Both U.S. and Soviet troops would have been required to withdraw to the borders of Germany. U.N.-supervised elections would have created a new all-German government. This reunified Germany would still have participated in the Marshall Plan, which implied, of course, that the German economy would be revived. Plan A was extraordinarily one-sided. The only thing the Soviets would get would be guaranteed access to German exports-and the right to continued participation in the supervision of the German state through a diminished Allied Control Commission. Presumably, Germany would remain demilitarized.
Kennan very much doubted the Soviets would accept a plan requiring them virtually to surrender exclusive powers in eastern Germany for a limited role in supervising a unified German state. But he thought it imperative that the proposal be put on the table; if the Soviets accepted, the impending division of Europe could be avoided.
Astonishingly, the Soviets were not even given a chance to reject Plan A. Instead, the Truman Administration went ahead with unilateral partition. An appalled Kennan wrote Secretary of State Acheson, condemning the “steady and progressive discarding of all possibilities which might really have led to something like the unification of Germany under allied blessing.” He warned that “some day we may pay bitterly for our present unconcern with the possibility of getting the Russians out of the Eastern zone.”
Thus began the cold war, a forty-year conflict for which we all paid, but none more so than the millions in Eastern Europe who were forced to live in police states.
Drawing the Line was largely researched prior to the opening of some relevant archives in Moscow and Berlin. But none of the documents released in the East to date contradict Eisenberg’s view that the Americans unilaterally opted for partition. Nor is she alone in her assessment of the origins and nature of the cold war. Significantly, her thesis has been endorsed by Melvyn Leffler, whose A Preponderance of Power: National Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War (1992) established him as the preeminent chronicler of the period. Leffler flatly states that Eisenberg has “proven her case,” that her findings “will compel a rethinking of basic assumptions about the origins of the Cold War”—this from a historian who has written with great caution about politically charged questions of assigning responsibility.
Even more startling, however, is an essay Leffler wrote in this past summer’s Foreign Affairs, the house organ of the foreign policy establishment, titled “Inside Enemy Archives: The Cold War Reopened.” Leffler’s survey of the “enemy archives” depicts a paranoid adversary always on the defensive. The Soviets, says Leffler, “did not have pre-conceived plans to make Eastern Europe communist, to support the Chinese communists, or to wage war in Korea.” Stalin had no ‘‘master plan” for Germany, and wished to avoid military conflict with the United States. Indeed, he hoped a policy of Realpolitik would somehow lead to a grudging cooperation between the former wartime allies. Leffler quotes David Holloway-a Stanford professor and author of Stalin and the Bomb (1994)–who studied records of Stalin’s military thinking in the postwar period and concluded, “There is’ no evidence to show that Stalin intended to invade Western Europe, except in the event of a major war.” Certainly, Stalin ran a cruel police state, but Leffler argues that “U.S.words and deeds greatly heightened ambient anxieties and subsequently contributed to the arms race and the expansion of the Cold War into the Third World.” The new archival findings suggest that U.S. policy prolonged the cold war, making it “difficult for potential reformers inside the Kremlin to gain the high ground.” To compound matters, Leffler suggests there were many missed opportunities in the fifties, sixties and seventies when Stalin’s successors might have curtailed the conflict-but the “perceived threat emanating from the United States held them back.” Not surprisingly, Leffler’s article has disconcerted such conservative historians as Richard Pipes and John Lewis Gaddis.
Eisenberg’s book ends in 1949, when the cold war is about to open in earnest. But Leffler’s essay underscores the tragic costs of a conflict that began with the U.S. decision to divide Germany. The most painful consequences, as Eisenberg points out, were “mainly borne by others.” And yet, the tally sheet indirectly includes all those Americans who died in Korea and Vietnam. “In the wreckage of the Cold War,” she concludes, “America has yet to acknowledge responsibility for the structures it has built.”
Kai Bird, a Nation contributing editor, is the author of The Chairman: John J. McCloy-The Making of the American Establishment (Simon & Schuster) and co-editor, with Lawrence Lifschulk, of Hiroshima’s Shadow: Writings on the Denial of History & the Smithsonian Controversy, forthcoming from Pamphleteer’s Press.