Michael Dobbs, Six Months in 1945: FDR, Stalin, Churchill and Truman:
From World War to Cold War
Ian Buruma, Year Zero: A History of 1945
1945 opened with history’s most horrific war, in which German and Japanese regimes had sought to conquer much of the world by force, still raging. The year closed with a sinister Cold War that divided the world for several decades already well underway. Michael Dobbs’ Six Months in 1945: FDR, Stalin, Churchill and Truman From World War to Cold War and Ian Buruma’s Year Zero: A History of 1945 should be of interest to readers seeking to deepen their understanding of this pivotal year, which I hope would include most of my high school and college classmates — almost all of us were born in 1945, literally our year zero. The two books not only have similar titles, but also a similar look. The paperback editions are the same size and nearly the same length.
Moreover, Dobbs and Buruma are both top-notch writers of almost the same age, each with a British background and a highly successful career in the United States. Buruma was born in 1951 in The Hague, the Netherlands, to a British mother and Dutch father. Dobbs (not to be confused with the British politician of the same name, who is also author of the political thriller House of Cards) was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1950. He served as a foreign correspondent for the Washington Post for several years, working in Eastern Europe and Moscow. Buruma is a professor of human rights and journalism at Bard College, where he specializes in Asian Studies, especially Chinese and Japanese history and culture.
Readers need not worry about repetition in the two books. Although Dobbs and Buruma are both concerned primarily with the aftermath of the war, rather than the final rounds of fighting, they approach their subject matter from entirely different perspectives. As his sub-title indicates, Dobbs concentrates on the American, British and Soviet leaders and their decision-making in the six months he covers, February to August 1945. His work is a classic piece of “top down” historical writing, focused on “great men” — unfortunately, somewhat derisive terms in some contemporary academic circles. Buruma by contrast approaches his subject “from the bottom up.” He writes about life on the ground during the seminal year and how the policies which Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin, Truman and others fashioned affected average people. Readers willing to take on both books should emerge with a heightened understanding of a profoundly transformative year.
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The Yalta Conference of February 1945 in the Soviet Crimea, and the Potsdam Conference that took place just outside Berlin from July 17 to August 2 of that year serve as the bookends to Dobbs’ study of the period from February to August 1945. The book is organized in a strict chronological manner. All but the last of Dobbs’ 21 chapters bear both a name and a date. The first three, for example, covering the opening sessions at Yalta, are entitled “Roosevelt February 3”; “Stalin February 4”; and “Churchill February 5.” Not every February day gets an individual chapter, but three additional chapters, roughly one-third of the book, are also devoted to the Yalta conference and its immediate aftermath. Throughout, Dobbs provides intimate, detailed and frequently amusing portraits of the four leaders, describing their work habits, world views, personal peccadilloes and much else, along with rich peeks at their interactions at the two conferences.
In February 1945, when Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin convened at Yalta, an Allied victory in Europe appeared inevitable but had not been achieved. Roosevelt in Dobbs’ account was a particularly sad, even inept leader at the conference. He was, of course, a dying man in the last months of his life when he traveled to the Crimea to meet Churchill and Stalin. But even granting him the requisite amount of slack on that account, Roosevelt was abysmally ineffective at Yalta. He ignored briefing papers his subordinates had prepared, and had at best a loose grip on the key facts he needed to match up with Stalin.
Going into Yalta, Dobbs writes, Roosevelt had decided that the best way of winning over Stalin was “through a mixture of flattery and snide remarks about other allies” (p.31). Roosevelt “preferred to improvise, to try whatever seemed to work” (p.19-20). Substantively, Roosevelt most wanted Stalin’s assent to join the war in Asia, and for the new world organization, the United Nations. But the FDR charm offenses which worked countless times for a healthier Roosevelt in trying to persuade a recalcitrant Senator to support an administration bill were “fatally flawed” when applied to Stalin (p.40). Returning from Yalta, Churchill grumbled that the “Americans had been very weak. The President looked old and ill, had lost his powers of concentration and had been a hopelessly weak chairman” (p.99).
Churchill was only marginally more effective than Roosevelt at Yalta. He knew his facts in a way that Roosevelt did not, but was given to long-winded speeches that the other leaders largely ignored. His points, as recounted by Dobbs, were often mawkish and sentimental, as if he understood that time was running out on the British Empire. Moreover, Clement Atlee, although not worthy of mention in Dobbs’ sub-title, replaced Churchill at the mid-point of the Potsdam Conference after Atlee’s Labor Party defeated Churchill’s Conservatives in July 1945 Parliamentary elections.
The star of the show at both Yalta and Potsdam in Dobbs’ account was Joseph Stalin, the Man of Steel, or the vozhad, as Dobbs refers to him throughout most of this book, utilizing the Russian term for supreme leader. Stalin was wily, soft spoken, polite, jocular when the need arose, and thoroughly in control of the necessary facts, with a “talent for exposing any contradictions in the hypocrisy of the Western position” (p.171). He seemed to have a plausible, sometimes powerful, rejoinder to every point made by the American and British leaders. When the Americans argued that the post-War order should not be predicated upon spheres of influence, they “made exceptions for the Western Hemisphere when they talked about the Monroe Doctrine. The British excluded their colonies. Whenever Churchill or Roosevelt tried to carve out a sphere of influence for themselves, they strengthened Stalin’s case for a Russian sphere of influence in Eastern Europe” (p.82). Stalin impressed a Churchill advisor as “much the most impressive” (p.65) negotiator of the Big Three at Yalta. Only the neophyte Harry Truman, who assumed the Presidency after Roosevelt’s death in April 1945, proved to be much of a match for the vozhad at the Potsdam conference.
How Poland would be governed was a principal item on the Yalta agenda, and remained the most contentious of the many issues that divided the Western Allies from their Soviet counterparts during the following months. In addition to being thoroughly in control of the facts, Stalin had an even more critical advantage in his discussions with Roosevelt and Stalin on the fate of Poland: his Red Army was already thoroughly in control of the territory. In this sense, the middling performance of the Western leaders was irrelevant. Two Polish governments claimed to represent Poland: a government-in-exile, based in London and supported by the United States and Great Britain; and a government established in the eastern Polish city of Lublin, supported by the Red Army and the Soviet Union, with effective control of the country.
The agreement worked out at Yalta had the effect of recognizing the Lublin government as the core of the new Polish state, calling for this government to be “reorganized on a broader democratic basis with the inclusion of democratic leaders from Poland itself and from Poles abroad” (p.84), a concession to the London Poles. A “Polish Provisional Government of National Unity” would be recognized, “pledged to the holding of free and unfettered elections as soon as possible on the basis of universal suffrage and secret ballots,” with all “democratic and anti-Nazi parties” having the right to take part in the elections (p.84-85). When Roosevelt asked Stalin how long it would take to hold elections in Poland, the vozhad replied, “About one month. Unless there is some kind of catastrophe on the front and the Germans defeat us . . . I do not think that will happen” (p.71). The parties agreed that Stalin’s Foreign Secretary Vyacheslav Molotov would meet subsequently with his Western counterparts to nail down the details.
When an advisor pointed out to Roosevelt that Yalta’s arrangements on Poland favored the Soviets, Roosevelt responded that it was the “best I can do for Poland at this time” (p.85; “The Best I Can Do” is Dobbs’ title to the entire section on Yalta). Roosevelt left Yalta satisfied that he had obtained Russian support for the war in the Pacific against Japan, in exchange for the island of Sakhalin and control over Manchurian ports in the Russian Far East, and for Russian participation in the United Nations. Critically, a “façade of unity” had been preserved on Yalta’s most divisive issues, with the differences between the allies reduced to questions of drafting and “etymology – finding the right words” (p.86), which Roosevelt considered the job of diplomats, not presidents. But, as Dobbs points out, a “heavy price” would be paid for “papering over the most difficult problems at Yalta. . . The misunderstandings would grow and fester, with each side accusing the other of bad faith and breaking solemn agreements. The words that temporarily united the World War II victors would return to divide them” (p.87).
One of Dobbs’ main contributions is to demonstrate how ideological differences over the meaning of key words not only divided the Soviets from their Western allies but also precluded any meaningful diplomatic solution to the issues left open by Yalta. Words like “democracy,” “independence,” “fascism,” and “freedom” had entirely different meanings for the two sides. Molotov insisted that the enlarged membership of the new Polish government be restricted to the “’real democratic leaders’ of Poland, a euphemism for the Communists and their allies” (p.133). To the Soviets, all anti-Communists were presumptively “Fascist.” With the Soviet Union reserving the right to define who was “Fascist” and who was “democratic,” Stalin was able to do “pretty much as he pleased” in his interactions with the American and British leaders (p.230). But, as Dobbs points out more than once, the Americans were “at least as ideological” as their Soviet counterparts. They “behaved as if their amalgam of free peoples, free markets and free speech should be adopted by every country in the world” (p.359). What the Americans saw as “benign internationalism” the Soviets regarded as an “insidious form of imperialism” (p.87).
Initial reaction to Yalta in Britain and America, was upbeat – or, as one British diplomat noted, “almost hysterically enthusiastic” (p.94). But both Roosevelt and Churchill had to persuade their legislatures and fellow citizens that their trust in Stalin had not been misplaced. Churchill went out of his way to refute any comparison between Yalta 1945 and Munich 1938. But the parallels were unsettling. When Roosevelt headed to Warm Springs, Georgia for a long-awaited break in early April, he was beginning to see the vozhad as an adversary. Stalin had taken the position that the Western Allies would not be allowed into Poland until they recognized the Lublin government and, to make matters worse, had sent Roosevelt an “insulting telegram” accusing the Western Allies of “striking a secret deal with the Germans” (p.153). “We can’t do business with Stalin,” Dobbs quotes Roosevelt telling a friend, as he thumped his fists against his wheelchair. “He has broken every one of the promises he made at Yalta” (p.153).
Roosevelt died during that visit to Georgia. Harry S. Truman replaced Roosevelt as president after serving 82 days as Roosevelt’s vice-president, during which he had had almost no contact with the President and no engagement on issues related to the war. The United Nations held its initial meeting in San Francisco at the end of April (which Buruma covers in greater detail than Dobbs). At the conference, Molotov startled his Western counterparts by announcing that sixteen Polish underground anti-Nazi activists who had disappeared in March while on their way to meet with the Red Army had been arrested for anti-Soviet activity. Up to this point, Molotov had said repeatedly that he had no knowledge of the whereabouts of the sixteen activists. Dobbs notes that the rift between the Soviet Union and the Western Allies, “papered over at Yalta” (p.178), became clear to the public after the San Francisco conference.
But at almost the same time, the Red Army and Western forces met at the Elbe in Germany, giving rise to further euphoria. Hitler took his life a few days later, the Red Army entered Berlin, the Allies liberated Nazi death camps and, on May 8th, “VE Day,” the Nazis capitulated. During the ten weeks between VE day and the start of the Potsdam conference on July 17th, Russia tightened its grip over territories it controlled in Eastern Europe, especially Romania. In July, the British and American governments severed their ties with the government-in-exile in London and recognized the Lublin government, now based in Warsaw. Churchill became particularly despondent about the rift in Europe and at one point had his military advisors draw up a plan for a preemptive military strike against the Russians, appropriately named “Operation UNTHINKABLE.” Meanwhile, the war continued in Asia, the Americans’ work on the atomic bomb neared fruition, and the points of disaccord between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union seemed to be growing daily.
The Potsdam conference took place from July 17 to August 2, 1945, at Cecilienhof, located not far from the rubble of Berlin. Mid-way through the conference, Churchill suffered a crushing defeat in Parliamentary elections, sending Clement Atlee to represent Great Britain, and thereby reducing the “Big 3” to the “Big 2 ½,” as one British wit put it (p.342). We get little sense of Atlee’s performance at Potsdam. Truman, however, although a novice on the world stage, was conspicuously less deferential to Stalin than his predecessor had been. Truman wrote that Stalin “seems to like it when I hit him on the head with a hammer” (p.328). One historian noted that Truman at Potsdam “sounded more like a teacher reminding a forgetful pupil [Stalin] of his chores” (p.343).
The final arrangement at Potsdam was, Dobbs writes, “as clear as it was cynical. All three parties would hold on to what they already had, making only token concessions to grand but nebulous concepts such as ‘Allied cooperation,’ a ‘united German,’ and the ‘spirit of Yalta’” (p.340). Potsdam resulted in Germany’s eastern border being shifted westward, as Stalin had insisted since a conference in Teheran in 1943, reducing Germany in size by approximately 25% compared to its 1937 borders. The western Allies dropped their insistence on elections in Poland. Stalin quite plainly “would not permit Poland to slip from his grasp” (p. 331) but, in a concession to the Western Allies, allowed the inclusion of a few London Poles into the Communist-dominated government. In what the Russians considered a retraction of Roosevelt’s commitment to Stalin at Yalta, Truman firmly opposed general German reparations to the Soviet Union. Any German reparations to the Soviets would come only from Soviet controlled zones. Although the conference preserved the fiction of a unified German state, the Allies reaffirmed their commitment to divide Germany into four administrative zones, and similarly divide Berlin, its capital, into four zones, leading “inexorably to the division of the country into two rival entities – guided by competing ideologies, geopolitical ties, and economic and political systems” (p.344).
Neither Dobbs nor Buruma dwells upon the devastation which the atomic bomb wreaked on two Japanese cities, Hiroshima on August 6 and Nagasaki on August 9, although both note that Truman justified the attack by considering both cities military rather than civilian targets, far from the case. Stalin delivered on his promise to support the war in Asia, sending 1.5 million soldiers across the Chinese border into Manchuria on August 9, the same day as the bombing of Nagasaki. Dobbs closes his narrative by noting that the “race to deliver a final knockout punch to Japan – pitting Russian land power against American airpower – had concluded with a virtual dead heat” (p.354).
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Buruma opens his narrative with an affecting story of his Dutch father’s experience in the war. A law student during the German occupation of the Netherlands, his father refused to sign a loyalty oath to the Third Reich. He ended up spending several months working in a factory in Berlin. He was able, sometimes only barely, to avoid Allied bombing of the city and its conquest by the Red Army in April 1945, and return safely home to the Netherlands where he sought to reestablish something akin to normality in his life. His father’s quest for normality after his harrowing but relatively mild war experience prompted Buruma to inquire about the effects of the devastating war. “How did the world emerge from the wreckage? What happens when millions are starving, or bent upon bloody revenge? How are societies . . . put together again?” (p.7). These questions frame Buruma’s look at the year 1945.
Year Zero does not purport to be chronological. After the anecdote involving his father, Buruma begins with VE Day in Europe in May 1945, and ends with the San Francisco United Nations conference which had taken place the previous month. The book is divided into three general sections, “Liberation Complex,” “Clearing the Rubble,” and “Never Again,” each with three chapters. Buruma treats a wide range of critical subject-matters across the three sections, such as vengeance, collaboration, justice, displacement, and the administration of Germany and Japan. Buruma’s narrative brings in the often overlooked perspective of the Netherlands, a natural perspective for him, without neglecting Great Britain, France, Germany, Poland, and the Soviet Union in Europe, and Japan, China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Korea and Vietnam in Asia. Buruma’s approach is thus topical and anecdotal. He ranges more broadly than Dobbs, but probes less deeply.
Noting that the desire for revenge is “as human as the need for sex or food” (p.75), Buruma devotes much attention throughout to how women became victims when the desire for revege and sex merged. Stalin had notoriously observed that his soldiers who had crossed through miles of blood and fire were “entitled to ‘have some fun with women’” (p.39). Contemporary accounts and comments in the press from 1945 give the impression that the “summer of ’45 was one long orgy indulged by foreign servicemen and local women, out of greed, or lust or loneliness” (p.28). The raping of German women continued in Russian-controlled zones through the summer of 1945, but subsided by the end of the year.
Buruma also addresses the fate of women, particularly in France and Holland, deemed to have collaborated by befriending German soldiers during their countries’ occupation — what the French term “horizontal collaboration.” Sleeping with the enemy was not treason in the legal sense, but the French in 1944 passed a law punishing “national unworthiness,” indignité nationale in French. Those found guilty were stripped of their civil rights. Popular wrath aimed at many forms of collaboration, but “fell disproportionally, and most publicly” on women accused of horizontal collaboration (p.84-85). But after a period of wild reprisals in France, the Gaullist government sought to close the fissures in society “by acting as if most citizens had stood up bravely to the German foe” (p.137).
Buruma uses Holland as an example of the fate of Jewish citizens who had somehow escaped the Nazis, only to return home to Holland to something less than an open-arms welcome. He quotes a shocking newspaper article in a Dutch resistance paper of July 2, 1945, lecturing Dutch Jews returning from captivity to their home country on proper post-war comportment:
There can be no doubt that the Jews, specifically because of German persecution, were able to enjoy great sympathy from the Dutch people. Now it is appropriate for the Jews to restrain themselves and avoid excesses; they should be constantly mindful of their duty to be grateful and that this gratitude should be primarily expressed by redressing that which can be redressed for those who fell victim on the Jews’ behalf. They can thank God that they came out alive. It is also possible to squander this sympathy [from the Dutch people] . . . The [Jews] are truly not the only ones who suffered (p.135)
This article, Buruma indicates, demonstrates that in Holland, as in much of Europe, “Jewish survivors were an embarrassment” (p.136). In Poland as well, the small number of Christians who had helped Jews survive were suspected of profiting financially from their assistance. Buruma also addresses the forced ethnic repatriation of Germans back to Germany, referred to at Potsdam as an “orderly and humane” repatriation, which had few indicia of being either orderly or humane. He further provides a glimpse of civil wars unfolding in Greece, and incipient liberation movements in Indonesia and Vietnam.
“Clearing the Rubble” deals with the issue of how Germany and Japan should be governed. Buruma’s chapter on the division of Germany into separate administrative zones, “Draining the Poison,” and how each of the Allies administered its zone, covers ground similar to Frederick Taylor’s book Exorcising Hitler: The Occupation and Denazification of Germany, reviewed here in December 2012. In both countries, the Allies faced the delicate and difficult task of determining who were war criminals and what sort of legal process, if any, such persons should have. The dilemma, Buruma says, “was the same in all zones [of Germany]. You couldn’t really gut the German elites, however distasteful they may have been, and hope to rebuild the country at the same time, no matter whether that country was to be a communist or a capitalist one. Very quickly the Allies saw economic recovery as a more important aim than restoring a sense of justice” (p.181).
The Nuremberg trials began in November 1945. Like Hannah Arendt on Eichmann, Buruma notes how ordinary the Nazis leaders looked, “pale, tired figures in their ragged suits” (p.231). The court had to give an appearance of providing a fair hearing with due process accorded, while working inevitably toward “victors’ justice.” Buruma’s bottom line is that justice was not done at Nurenberg. “Punishment of the guilty had to be balanced by other interests. Too much zeal would have made the rebuilding of societies impossible. Too little effort to call the worst criminals to account would undermine any sense of decency. It was a delicate calibration that would inevitably be flawed” (p.235).
The administration of Japan is in large measure a study of the outsized personality of General Douglas MacArthur, the American viceroy in Japan. MacArthur, a deeply religious man who thought that the best long-term solution to rebuilding Japan was to have it convert to Christianity, entertained “remarkably crude” theories about the “Oriental mind” as being “childlike and brutal” (p.296). The Japanese blamed their catastrophic defeat on “militarists” and anyone associated with the armed forces, a view which MacArthur encouraged. Although “not inclined to help Japanese industry back to its feet,” MacArthur was convinced that punitive policies and forced starvation would render the Japanese an “easy prey to any ideology that brings with it life-sustaining food” (p.66).
Buruma provides high marks to the initial intentions of the Allied occupations of Germany and Japan, describing them as “unique in their earnest endeavors not to exact revenge, but to reeducate, civilize, change hearts and minds, and turn dictatorships into peaceful democracies so that they would never we wreak destruction on the world again” (p.276). Whether Buruma includes the Soviet occupation of Germany within this observation is not clear, and some historians might take issue with his upbeat assessment.
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Buruma and Dobbs close their books with related questions. Buruma asks whether World War II really ended in 1945. Dobbs inquires when the Cold War actually started. No single event defined the start of the Cold War in the way that the fall of the Berlin Wall, on November 9, 1989, came to symbolize its end, Dobbs writes. Dobbs suggests several possibilities: Churchill’s 1946 “Iron Curtain” speech at Fulton, Missouri (Dobbs demonstrates that this term was widely in use well before Churchill’s speech); the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia in early 1948 or the Berlin Airlift later that year; even the formation of two Germanys and NATO the following year. All these are plausible candidates. But Dobbs’ fine book shows that lines for a new ideological clash, although “papered over” at Yalta, were in place even prior to the end of the hostilities against the Axis powers.
Buruma suggests that 1989 might be considered the year that World War II hostilities came to a close, when the Eastern European Soviet bloc was “released from communist rule” (p.335). This suggestion is a device which allows Buruma to close with another anecdote involving his father in Berlin. Buruma, his sisters and his father spent a joyous New Year’s Eve 1989 in the newly-liberated city, where the wall had fallen a few weeks earlier. But if Buruma’s contrived answer to the question he poses is a little off key, his description of December 1945 could serve as a fitting conclusion to either book:
By the time autumn turned to winter, the high hopes of the spring of ’45 were already fading. There would be no world government, let alone a world democracy; there would not even be four or five world policeman. What powers were still left to the two European countries represented in the Security Council [France and Great Britain] would soon be further depleted by the bloody demise of their empires. The Soviets and the United States were drifting into open animosity. And China, a gravely wounded country after Japanese occupation, was itself divided into two blocs, with corrupt and demoralized Nationalists holding out in major cities south of Manchuria, and the Communists dominating the countryside and much of the north. (p.329-30).
Taking different paths through 1945, both writers show that, as the year wound down, the yearning for a return to normalcy after history’s most devastating war needed to be tempered by disturbing signs that seemed to be pointing toward still another world conflict.
Thomas H. Peebles
Cotonou, Benin (West Africa)
April 11, 2015