Stopping at the Elbe


At the time of the Yalta conference, World War II in Europe was almost over. By February 1945, the Germans’ last gasp, the surprise attack at Ardennes, had failed. There was no further chance of a serious German counterattack. The three leaders who met there, Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill, knew this. Germany had no more left, and Japan, while still dangerous defending their islands, had no offensive strength left. The discussions and agreements were more about the shape of post-war Europe than about the ongoing war. There were actually two major areas of agreement at Yalta. One was to confirm the formation of the United Nations and its structure. The other laid out who would occupy what parts of Germany and the fate of the rest of occupied Europe.

Poland was to be clearly under the Soviet thumb. Russia had not done well against invasions coming out of Poland since the Red Army almost lost the 1920-1921 Polish-Soviet War. They were taking no chances of that happening again, even if it meant occupying Poland forever. There were details, but Stalin publicly agreed that most of eastern Europe would get elected governments within a year or so. History has shown the Soviet dictator had no intention of keeping his word on any free elections, but the United States wanted his help if it became necessary to invade the Japanese home islands, so they accepted this. Any invasion of the homelands was going to be vicious and generate a lot of casualties. A million or so hardy Russian soldiers joining in could make the conquest a lot easier. Also there were Japanese soldiers in Asia—mostly in China, Korea, and Mongolia—who needed pressure kept on them.

Between February and late April, the Allied armies pushed into the heart of Germany. By late April, the question was more one of what areas would be occupied rather than of defeating those remnants of the Wehrmacht that were still fighting. There was also concern about rumors of a guerrilla army forming in the south German mountains. These turned out to be false, but it was a worrisome possibility. The big question was, where would Eisenhower push? To the frustration of Patton and other commanders, the decision was made to turn away from Berlin and to actually reverse any penetrations into eastern Europe. This was ordered even as it became more apparent that Stalin had no intention of granting any real elections or giving up one ounce of control in any part of the nations Russia occupied. Word came down from Roosevelt, and the U.S. Army was effectively ordered to concede eastern Europe to the Soviets. The mistake here was not agreeing to the terms at Yalta. The mistake was not being concerned about a final guerrilla retreat in the mountains that never existed. The Americans’ real mistake was adhering to their parts of the treaty when it was already apparent the communists had no intention of honoring any of it.

Had the U.S. president and army been prescient enough to foresee the Cold War, as Churchill did, would Eisenhower have ordered a continued push? His divisions could have gotten to Berlin first, considering how resistance had collapsed. It would have been possible for the highly mobile American mechanized divisions to reach Austria, Berlin, Albania, Bulgaria, and maybe Czechoslovakia. Would, as Patton expected, or maybe hoped, this have resulted in a shooting war between the former allies? It was a war that neither side would have been guaranteed to win. But Russia was a nation as tired of war as the others.

There is no way to know what the world might have looked like had Roosevelt and then Truman risked war and stood up to Stalin. What America did instead was stick to the terms of a treaty that had become meaningless. This mistake resulted in tens of millions of eastern Europeans being condemned to fifty years of communist repression.

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