Otto John (19 March 1909 – 26 March 1997) was the first head of West Germany’s domestic intelligence service, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, from 1950 to 1954. He is best known for his controversial move to East Germany in 1954, which has been interpreted as treason or an abduction.
Initially, the only information available to the Allies on the failed twentieth of July attempt on Adolf Hitler’s life had been what the Nazi propaganda minister, Josef Goebbels, chose to tell the German people and the world, a story of almost divine salvation of the Führer. A narrow window into the plot opened two months afterward. Otto John, a lawyer with Lufthansa, the German passenger airline, who worked undercover for the Abwehr and who was a member of the conspiracy, provided an eyewitness account. Previously, while moving between Berlin and Lisbon, John had delivered intelligence to the Allies on German atomic research and on rocket and missile testing conducted at Peenemünde. He had managed to escape to Madrid four days after the coup collapsed. There he told his story to the OSS chief in Spain, an account subsequently relayed to FDR.
John described how he had arrived in Berlin on July 19, 1944, to play his part in the overthrow of the Nazis. The next day, at 6 P.M., he went to the Bendlerstrasse, the German General Staff headquarters. There he saw Lieutenant Colonel Count Klaus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, who, five and a half hours before, had planted the bomb to kill Hitler at the Wolfsschanze, the Führer’s military headquarters in East Prussia. After Stauffenberg had returned to the Bendlerstrasse, he announced confidently that the Führer had been killed. “I myself saw Hitler being carried out dead,” he said, which was not true. But thereafter his authority was accepted unquestioningly by far senior officers. John was struck by Stauffenberg’s cool self-possession as he reeled off orders and made phone calls to set in motion a strategy to seize the levers of government. John was especially surprised to hear Stauffenberg take a call from Albert Speer, the Reich’s armaments czar and Hitler favorite. In an organization chart that the conspirators had drawn up for their new government, Speer’s name appeared in a box marked “Armaments.” If Speer was coming over to them, the plotters reasoned, that would spell success.
They had, however, already committed fatal blunders. Despite Stauffenberg’s assurances, Hitler was not dead, not even seriously hurt. Secondly, the plotters failed to cut communications between the Wolfsschanze and Berlin. Consequently, Stauffenberg’s orders were countermanded almost instantly by Hitler’s chief military aide, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel. Sensing that the plot was unraveling, John slipped out of the Bendlerstrasse. Upon his arrival home, as he recounted, “I heard the radio announce a message by Hitler. I could not believe my ears and was convinced that the Nazis were using a double.” They were not. The conspirators had also failed to seize control of Berlin’s radio stations, and Goebbels quickly exploited the blunder by putting the Führer on the air.
Upon telling his story to the OSS in Madrid, John turned over a list of the plotters and their sympathizers, adding a fervent plea: “The following information must not be used as propaganda. It must be placed only at the disposal of such persons who will promise that the names followed by X will remain secret, as the fate of these persons is still uncertain, and they would run the risk of being exposed to reprisal action by the Nazi terror if their names were to be linked in a general way with the attempt against Hitler.”
John’s and Ambassador Oshima’s were the only insider accounts available to Roosevelt until Allen Dulles obtained a report from Hans Bernd Gisevius. The hulking, half-blind Abwehr agent and conspirator assigned to the German consulate in Zurich had, without a word to Dulles, suddenly disappeared back into Germany on July 12. Three weeks after the failure, a German undercover courier arrived at Herrengasse 23 with a message for Dulles from Gisevius. The American was happily surprised. He had assumed that the man had perished in the massacre the Gestapo was conducting against the plotters. Yes, the coup had failed, Gisevius wrote, but conditions within Germany were still unstable. “… [I]t is only necessary for the Allies to strike hard and the entire German structure will collapse,” he claimed. When five more months passed and nothing further was heard, Dulles again concluded that Gisevius had been caught and executed. Just days after the thwarted coup, Dulles had cabled Washington, “The blood purge will be ruthless.” The Gestapo had indeed continued its remorseless manhunt, arresting anyone however distantly connectable to the plot while the Nazi People’s Courts dispensed drumhead justice. The vendetta ultimately cost the lives of 4,980 officers and civilians, with Count von Stauffenberg and Otto John’s brother among the earliest victims. In the end, all that the twentieth of July plot achieved was to enable the Gestapo to solidify its grip on the German populace.
The courier from Berlin returned again, and Dulles was amazed to learn that Gisevius was still alive, hiding in the apartment of his girlfriend, Gerda. The Bern spy chief notified the OSS mission in London, which set a rescue strategy in motion. The plan demonstrated how far OSS technical sophistication had advanced in just two and a half years. Since Gisevius had once been an early member of the Gestapo, the London station forged papers to cast him again as an agent of that organization. The first obstacle was to locate a photograph. Gisevius’s face could be found only in a group shot. The London counterfeiting section managed to enlarge the image of his head to passport size. Stationery seized from Gestapo headquarters in liberated areas was rushed to London and used to produce phony orders. The thorniest challenge was to replicate the Gestapo’s Silver Warrant Identity Disk, a gray medallion of unknown alloys, and serially numbered. Possession of the medallion provided the bearer with unlimited access anywhere and the power to arrest.
On January 20, 1945, the six-month anniversary of the failed plot, Gisevius heard the bell ring in Gerda’s apartment. He opened the door a crack and spotted a package on the doorstep. In it he found the medallion, Gestapo ID, a German passport, and orders to proceed from Berlin to Switzerland as Dr. Hoffmann of the secret police. Thus armed, the huge and imperious Gisevius managed to bully his way through several checkpoints, and by January 22, he was at Herrengasse 23 giving Allen Dulles the fullest firsthand account yet of what had happened at the Bendlerstrasse. Five days later, the conspirator’s report was on the President’s desk. Gisevius explained that the July 20 attempt on Hitler’s life had been the third that month. An earlier bomb had been set to go off during the Führer’s visit to Munich on July 6, but an Allied air raid upset this plot. Ten days later, General Helmuth Stieff brought a concealed explosive into the Wolfsschanze, but at the last minute lost his nerve and left. Four days later, Stauffenberg carried out the attempt that Hitler miraculously survived. Gisevius confirmed Otto John’s identification of the fatal flaws in the coup, particularly the failure “to destroy Central Information office including all communications installations of East Prussian Headquarters to prevent any communication. So that even if Hitler was not killed, he would not be able to make this known until plotters had control of the situation.”
Gisevius’s most startling revelation was contained in another report Donovan relayed to FDR on January 27, five days after the German’s escape. It dealt not with the mechanics of the plot, but with its politics. Until now, the assumption in the White House had been that anti-Nazi conspirators were interested only in making peace with the Western Allies in order to keep the Russians out of Germany. But Gisevius revealed that Count von Stauffenberg intended to conclude a peace with the Soviets if the putsch were successful, and proposed to announce the establishment of a “workers and peasants” regime in Germany. “The present situation on the Eastern Front and the general trend of the situation in Germany,” Gisevius concluded, “indicate that an eastern solution of the war may be more attractive to Germany.” He claimed further that Stauffenberg had been in secret contact with the Seydlitz Committee, led by General Walter von Seydlitz, who was captured at Stalingrad and had gone over to the Russians. Seydlitz had assured Stauffenberg that the Soviet Union would accept fair peace terms and not demand that the Wehrmacht disarm completely. The Seydlitz conditions could have been extended only with Moscow’s approval and made one thing clear: for all of FDR’s scrupulous determination never to give even the appearance of abandoning the Soviet Union, Stalin was evidently willing to consider a separate peace that would leave Britain and America to fight on alone.
Donovan urged the President to change course. FDR’s insistence on unconditional surrender, the general argued, could drive Germany into the Russians’ arms. He suggested “a subtle psychological approach” to turn anti-Nazi Germans toward the West while still sticking to unconditional surrender. Under Donovan’s formula, if the German officer class would give up a hopeless struggle and end further bloodshed, “Wehrmacht officers who contribute to such a constructive policy… would be treated with the consideration due their rank and according to the services which they render in the liquidation of the Nazi regime… . “ Roosevelt disregarded Donovan’s recommendation to soften unconditional surrender by so much as a word, just as he had rejected every other suggestion that might conceivably trigger Stalin’s distrust.
The fact that Hitler had utterly crushed his opponents after the conspiracy became manifest five months later when he was able to mobilize the Wehrmacht for its stunning offensive through the Ardennes. Even before the Battle of the Bulge, OSS Bern had produced troubling evidence of Hitler’s intention to fight to the death. The Germans were reportedly building a “National Redoubt” centered in the Salzkammergut, rugged and inaccessible mountain terrain in western Austria and bordering southern Germany. There, according to Bern, “vast underground factories, invulnerable in their rocky depths,” were being hewn from the mountainsides. Preparations were said to be under way to enable Nazi leaders to withdraw into this impenetrable fastness where elite troops, sustained by huge, buried stores of food, fuel, arms, and ammunition, would carry on the struggle. Bern predicted that subjugation of the Redoubt could extend the war from six months to two years and exact more casualties than all the previous fighting on the western front.
The superheated rhetoric of an Alpine rampart “defended by nature and by the most efficient secret weapons yet invented” had the ring of thriller fiction. General Eisenhower, however, did not dismiss the threat. “If the German was permitted to establish the Redoubt, he might possibly force us to engage in a long, drawn-out guerrilla type of warfare, or a costly siege,” he wrote in his memoirs. “Thus, he could keep alive his desperate hope that through disagreement among the Allies, he might yet be able to secure terms more favorable than those of unconditional surrender.” Eisenhower concluded: “The evidence was clear that the Nazi intended to make the attempt… .”
Oddly, the signals of a last-ditch Nazi stand were contradicted by intelligence also coming out of OSS Bern. “This whole project seems fantastic,” Dulles cabled Washington. He had become more interested, not in a Nazi scheme to prolong the war, but with an opportunity presented to him to hasten its end. He had word that the commander of German forces in northern Italy, the former Luftwaffe star tactician, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, might consider a secret surrender. The struggle up the Italian boot had been long and bloody with Kesselring conducting a brilliant withdrawal and giving up every mile grudgingly at a steep price to the Allies. If such a surrender could be arranged, it would remove one of the most stubborn German forces from the field, and, coincidentally, represent a major coup for the OSS.
The possibility of a secret surrender on the Italian front, so seemingly desirable at first blush, was to initiate a particularly acrimonious chapter in the long saga of East-West distrust. A split among the Allies remained the dying Nazi’s last hope against obliteration. That objective became apparent in a long Ultra intercept picked up between Berlin and Dublin and relayed to the White House in February 1945. Hitler’s foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, had prepared a policy directive to be transmitted in the Enigma code to all German embassies in neutral countries. Each chief of mission was to attempt a high-level contact from among enemy representatives. As Ribbentrop instructed, “… [R]estrict yourself to one particularly important English and American channel through a secret agent.” This go-between was to leak Berlin’s current thinking, which ran: “The new and greatest fact that this war has brought out is the military power of the Soviet Union. Stalin has subjected [sic: subjugated] all of Eastern Europe and the Balkans (Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Greece, Serbia, Hungary)… . Russia has no intention of ever releasing them again… . it intends to make these countries finally communistic states as part of the Soviet Union… . The offensive against Germany, however, shows that Stalin is pursuing a much greater objective even beyond that: he wishes to conquer and occupy Germany and thus complete the conquest of Europe.” Ribbentrop further directed his ambassadors to tell their Allied targets that “Germany is today the only power still fighting the Soviet Union… . If Stalin should succeed in overcoming German resistance on the East Front, the BOLSHEVIZATION of Germany, and consequently of all Europe, would be once and for all an irrefutable fact.” Lest the British and Americans think they would be spared, Ribbentrop told his emissaries to make clear that “Stalin hates England. After the conquest of Europe, therefore, the destruction of the English Island by the Soviets would only be a question of time… . The Bolshevization of the U.S.A. itself would then only be a question of time. The only political and spiritual counterpoise against the undoubtedly strong doctrine of Communism is National Socialism, therefore just the factor which the English and Americans want to exterminate. The English Crown, the English Conservative Party and the American governing class should therefore have only the wish that nothing should happen to Adolf Hitler.” The Nazi foreign minister directed his representatives to express dismay at the pigheadedness of Western leaders. They were to say to their contacts, “One marvels in Berlin that in London and Washington no one is willing to see this and that the present policy of the English and American governments must lead not to securing a long period of peace, but quite to the contrary, to producing a state of perpetual war.” Ribbentrop anticipated that any agent peddling this line would be asked about the fate of the Jews. “The question of the Jews,” they were to answer, “is a German domestic affair which, if Germany doesn’t want to fall to Communism, must be solved in Germany. The Jewish question in other countries does not interest Germany.” He neatly sidestepped the fact that millions of non-German Jews from all over occupied Europe had already perished in Nazi extermination camps.
While the foreign minister’s instructions were to make his arguments known through high-level Britons and Americans, his message reached the most prominent American of all within days. The Ultra cable delivered to FDR by the British comprised a remarkable stew of lies, truth, and prophecy. Ribbentrop’s forecast of the postwar fate of the Balkans and Eastern Europe, then being overrun by the Red Army, and the emergence of “perpetual war” between East and West, at least a cold war, proved remarkably on target.
Roosevelt has left no indication of his reaction to Ribbentrop’s intercepted stratagem. However, its existence made not a dent in his determination to stick by the Soviet Union, a resolve that was tested just days later by the latest news out of OSS Bern. Two months had gone by since the first hint that Field Marshal Kesselring might be receptive to a separate German surrender in Italy. Then, on February 25, Dulles learned through Baron Luigi Parilli, an Italian industrialist, that Karl Wolff, an SS general associated with Kesselring, wanted to meet with him secretly. According to Parilli, General Wolff claimed that the Germans in Italy were demoralized by their remorseless retreat up the Italian peninsula. They wanted to quit.
Dulles put Wolff to the test. The Germans had captured two leading Italian resistance fighters, Ferruccio Parri and Antonio Usmiani, the latter also an OSS spy in Milan. Dulles would talk to Wolff only if he released the two men. Three days later, he received word to present himself at a hospital in Zurich. On his arrival, he was taken to a room where he met the unshaven, unkempt, but beaming Parri and Usmiani. They had been blindfolded and driven over the Italian-Swiss border on Wolff’s orders the very day that they were condemned to be shot. In giving up the two Italians, the SS officer believed he had proved his good faith. He next sent Dulles a message from Italy suggesting they meet in Switzerland to start discussing a surrender.
Within days, Dulles found himself in a country inn outside Zurich where a tall, thin man, with a knife-edge profile and self-important air, rose to greet him. Karl Wolff, dressed in civilian clothes, first engaged Dulles in small talk, boasting of how he had managed to relieve the Italian king, Victor Emmanuel, of his coin collection. Dulles, nevertheless, knew that he was dealing with no Nazi bon vivant. Ultra intercepts suggested that Wolff was a key participant in sending Italian Jews to their death at Auschwitz. Finally, the SS general got down to business. Germany had lost the war, he admitted to Dulles. He believed that his superior, Field Marshal Kesselring, an independent spirit and no Hitler sycophant, would not only be willing to take his forces out of the fight, but would do so unconditionally. After the two men parted, Dulles returned to Bern and informed Field Marshal Sir Harold Alexander, commander of Allied forces in Italy, of his conversation with Wolff.
And then Wolff’s hopes seemed to be dashed. Hitler’s personal plane unexpectedly arrived at Kesselring’s headquarters and whisked the field marshal away to become the Wehrmacht commander on the western front. Kesselring’s replacement was to be General Heinrich von Vietinghof, an unknown quantity as far as his attitude toward surrendering his troops. Wolff managed to get a message through to Dulles that he would need a couple of weeks to work on Vietinghof. There the matter hung while General Donovan briefed FDR on what could be the OSS’s greatest triumph of the war.
The threat of a National Redoubt was tied closely to what happened on the Italian battlefront. If the Germans in Italy fought on, they would provide a shield behind which the reported fortress in the Alps could be built. If they surrendered, the Redoubt would be exposed on its southern flank. Churchill, ever the geopolitician, saw that determining the truth or falsity of the Redoubt was crucial. Diverting troops to conquer it could reduce the Western Allies’ chances of taking Berlin and would leave the city to the Russians. Who occupied the German capital, Churchill believed, would decisively influence who dominated postwar Germany. But the reality of the Redoubt remained confused. Just as Churchill was preparing to leave London for a mid-March trip to the western front, the Americans provided him with a Magic decrypt in which the Japanese ambassador to Bern informed Tokyo that the Germans were indeed turning the Alps into an impregnable stronghold. Dulles’s operation, however, continued to send mixed signals. On March 6, FDR received a dispatch radio-telephoned from Bern reporting the publication in Swiss newspapers of maps showing the borders of the Redoubt and descriptions of vast stores piling up in underground bunkers. Another OSS assessment reported, “It is believed that eventually the Redoubt will hold 15–25 divisions composed of SS Storm Troop detachments, Hitler Jugend [Youth], and the special OKW Führer Reserve created for service in the Redoubt.” Yet the same Bern operation concluded, “Much of this is probably fiction… . Talk of building in the mountains great new underground factories is nonsense. It would take years.” Allen Dulles cabled Washington, “I do not believe … that months of elaborate preparation have been devoted to fortifying, arming, and stocking a great German reduit.”
Sharing this skepticism, Churchill showered Roosevelt and Eisenhower with pleas not to abandon Berlin to the Soviets. On April 1 he sent the President a “Most Secret” message questioning Eisenhower’s shifting of armies southward. “I say quite frankly that Berlin remains of high strategic importance. Nothing will exert a psychological effect of despair upon all German forces of resistance equal to that of the fall of Berlin. It will be the supreme signal of defeat to the German people… . The Russian armies will no doubt overrun all Austria and enter Vienna,” he told Roosevelt. “If they also take Berlin, will not their impression that they have been the overwhelming contribution to our common victory be unduly imprinted in their minds, and may this not lead them into a mood which will raise grave and formidable difficulties in the future?” He advised FDR, “… [F]rom a political standpoint we should march as far east as we can into Germany as possible and that should Berlin be in our grasp, we should certainly take it.” But Eisenhower was nevertheless diverting forces southward should the Redoubt prove real.
Bill Donovan’s fortunes continued to gyrate. The OSS might succeed in arranging the early surrender in Italy of a tough, stubborn foe. Yet Vessel had been blown the day before Donovan gave FDR his first report on General Wolff’s overtures for an Italian surrender. And then, not long after the Trohan stories had painted him as a potential American Gestapo chief, another potential disaster arose.
The OSS’s employment of Communists had proved a tangled affair. On a simplistic level, it seemed obvious that no one should be employed by the United States whose allegiance was to a party favoring the overthrow of the government. But a world at war created ambiguities. Donovan, staunch Catholic, Wall Street Republican, thoroughgoing establishment figure, was using Communists knowing that they were virulent anti-Nazis. He had once remarked, “I’d put Stalin on the OSS payroll if I thought it would help defeat Hitler.” Since the fall of the previous year, Donovan, in his determination to penetrate the Reich itself, had allowed his officers to recruit refugee labor leaders, including Socialists and Communists. In a remote corner of liberated France, the OSS ersatz German infantry company, the Iron Cross mission under Captain Aaron Bank, was continuing to train to parachute into southern Germany and capture high-ranking Nazis expected to flee into the Redoubt.
Still, FDR’s journalistic nemesis, the McCormick-Patterson chain, was not about to let any Roosevelt vulnerability go unexploited. That March, the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Times-Herald published the names of ten Army officers alleged to be Communists or to have close Communist ties. Four of the ten belonged to the OSS. A subcommittee of the House Military Affairs Committee summoned Donovan to explain the presence of Reds on his payroll. In preparation, Wild Bill had Otto Doering, another alumnus of his New York law firm, now an OSS aide, check federal law on the hiring of Communists. Doering briefed his boss the day before the general was to testify and told him that he stood on solid legal ground. The War Department had issued instructions saying, “[M]ember-ship in the Communist Party will not affect the status of Army personnel if it is established that their loyalty to this country is greater than any other loyalty.” Furthermore, Doering could point out that the Supreme Court had recently stated it had not yet decided whether or not the Communist Party actually advocated the overthrow of the government by force.
On March 13 an Army sedan flying the two-starred flag of a major general halted under the Capitol portico. For the first time since the creation of the OSS, Donovan faced congressional interrogation. He well knew the prejudices he confronted. The OSS had a reputation as the place where the well-connected could play at war. With its personnel recruited from the old-boy network, prestigious law firms, old-line banks, the academic elite, those who had been educated abroad, and friends of friends of these people, the agency’s image as an enclave of privilege was inevitable. Far preferable for a draft-age American with influence to wrangle an OSS commission and comment mysteriously at Georgetown dinner parties, “I’m simply not in a position to discuss what I do,” than to crouch in a foxhole at Anzio. To its enemies, the OSS was a preposterous fraternity of tycoons, scholars, football stars, scientists, financiers, playboys, pickpockets, counterfeiters, and safecrackers. Rumor even had it that the OSS sprang useful criminals from jail. The truth was rather less colorful. As for imprisoned counterfeiters, the OSS chief of document forgery observed, “These people were a bunch of dilettantes, amateurs. If they were any good, they wouldn’t have been caught. We wanted professionals.” In a probably accurate assessment of Donovan’s personnel, one OSS veteran concluded, “In half of my comrades, I knew the bravest, finest men I would ever meet. The rest were phonies.”
Taking this elite organization down a peg or two appealed enormously to anti–New Deal Republicans on the House Military Affairs subcommittee. But once in the hearing room, Bill Donovan, fixing his interrogators with cool blue eyes, speaking with the quiet authority that had become his trademark, stood by his people. “These four men I’ve been in trenches with,” he testified, “I’ve been in the muck with, and I’d measure them up with any men. I did not find that they were Communists. I found that they were not.” The hearings ended without any action taken against the ten officers, including the four from the OSS. Still, the anti-Roosevelt members of the subcommittee achieved a marginal victory. They had fresh ammunition for their old accusation, however denied, that the Roosevelt administration was riddled with Reds.
The general’s protégé Duncan Lee, placed initially in the OSS front office and by now chief of the Japanese section, was not among the four allegedly Communist OSS officers named in the original newspaper story. By the time Donovan appeared before Congress, Lee had broken off his contacts with Communists. While Donovan knew the four officers against whom the charges had been lodged, he doubtless would have been staggered to learn that a member of his law firm whom he personally had brought into the OSS was reported to have spied for the Soviets.
Though he had come out of the congressional investigation with only flesh wounds, Donovan thereafter became more cautious in the use of Reds. Parachuting 175 well-armed German Communists into the Reich just as the country teetered on the rim of collapse might prove difficult to justify. The Iron Cross mission was scrubbed. Far better to display OSS’s mettle by achieving the surrender of whole German armies in northern Italy than snagging a few Nazis on the run in the Alps. The former possibility grew when Field Marshal Sir Harold Alexander, the Allied commander in the Mediterranean, agreed that the pursuit of a separate peace in the Italian theater could go forward. On March 12 he notified the Combined Chiefs of Staff in Washington, who represented all Allied forces, that he was prepared to negotiate. An encouraged Allen Dulles gave the enterprise a code name, Operation Sunrise. The Combined Chiefs, however, notified Alexander to hold off until the Russians could be informed. FDR thereafter instructed Averell Harriman, his ambassador in Moscow, to alert the Soviet foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, that peace negotiations on the Italian front were imminent. Molotov replied that Russia would immediately dispatch three Red Army officers to join the talks. The Americans rejected this move out of hand, as did Field Marshal Alexander. The Combined Chiefs of Staff concurred, suggesting that with the Soviets involved, something that might take “four hours would take four months.” Harriman was instructed to advise Moscow that, at this preliminary stage, no point would be served by direct Soviet participation. Russians could attend, but only as observers. Molotov shot back that, under those conditions, they chose not to send anyone.
Operation Sunrise began to provoke an extraordinary exchange between the leaders of two presumed allies. Molotov, besides rejecting Soviet officers as mere observers, was now demanding that the talks be called off completely if the Russians could not take part. On March 24, FDR sent a “Top Secret” cable to placate Stalin. In it, he was not above dissembling. He told Stalin, “The facts are as follows: some few days ago unconfirmed information was received in Switzerland that some German officers were considering the possibility of arranging for the surrender of German troops… in Italy.” He reminded Stalin that the Soviet government had immediately been informed of this development. Ignored in this message was the fact that two of Field Marshal Alexander’s high-level officers had already been dispatched incognito to Switzerland to meet with General Wolff. FDR also maintained that if an enemy facing American troops appeared willing to surrender, his generals were bound to pursue the opportunity. “It would be completely unreasonable for me to take any other attitude or to permit any delay which must cause additional and avoidable loss of life in the American forces.” He appealed to Stalin “as a military man” to understand his reasoning. FDR reminded the Soviet leader that his position was no different than Stalin’s upon the recent entrapment of German troops by the Red Army at Koenigsberg and Danzig, a Russian matter in which FDR had no reason to involve the United States. Secretary of War Stimson put it more bluntly to the President. The surrender of German armies in Italy was, he said, “a matter in which Russia has no more business than the United States would have at Stalingrad.”
Stalin’s response was swift and the harshness of tone shocking. “I agree to negotiations with the enemy,” he cabled Roosevelt, “only in the case where these negotiations will not make the situation easier for the enemy, if there will be excluded a possibility of the Germans to maneuver and to use these negotiations for shifting their troops… to the Soviet front… . I have to tell you,” Stalin went on, “that the Germans have already used these negotiations… in shifting three divisions from Northern Italy to the Soviet front.” As for Roosevelt’s analogy of Koenigsberg and Danzig, Stalin curtly dismissed it. The Germans in these sectors were surrounded, he said, and “if they surrender, they will do it in order to avoid annihilation. They could not be shifted elsewhere.” As for the Italian front, Stalin could not understand “why representatives of the Soviet command were refused participation in these negotiations and in what way could they cause inconvenience to the representatives of the Allied Command.” Stalin’s reaction was not entirely paranoid. The Soviet leader understood that if the German army did surrender in Italy, every soldier, gun, and tank not immediately penned in by the Allies could be expected to be thrown against the Russians.
The shrillness of Stalin’s message alarmed Roosevelt. He fired back, “I must repeat that the meeting in Bern was for the single purpose of arranging contact with competent German military officers and not for negotiations of any kind.” He intended to set Stalin straight on one further point: “I feel that your information about the time of the movements of German troops from Italy is in error.” He acknowledged that three German divisions had indeed been shifted from Italy to the Russian front. But “the last division of the three started moving about February 25, more than two weeks before anybody heard any possibility of surrender” in Italy. Roosevelt was so taken aback by Stalin’s hostility that he asked Harriman to find out if the words represented the Soviet leader’s thinking or merely that Stalin had signed a draft originating in the Kremlin bureaucracy. Harriman reported back that both the words and the sentiments were Stalin’s. The President, who believed he could woo and win anybody and who had invested so much capital in charm and persuasion to establish mutual trust with the Soviet dictator, now began having second thoughts. His fear, he confided to an associate, was that “Stalin has been deceiving me all along.”
The Soviet leader was not yet finished. On April 3 he fired an even more brutal salvo. He cabled FDR regarding the peace maneuvering in Italy: “You insist there have been no negotiations yet. It may be assumed that you have not been fully informed.” Not only had negotiations been held, Stalin insisted, but the German commander on the western front “has agreed to open the front and permit Anglo-American troops to advance to the East, and the Anglo-Americans have promised in return to ease for the Germans the peace terms.” This was not the first time that Stalin’s deep-dyed distrust had surfaced. In March the American 9th Armored Division had been astonished to find the Ludendorff railroad bridge across the Rhine near the town of Remagen intact and had poured troops across it. The Russians did not regard this breakthrough as an American military triumph. German thoroughness and efficiency were legendary. How was it possible, the Russians reasoned, that the enemy had not blown a bridge pointing straight into Germany’s heartland, unless they wanted the Americans to cross it? Stalin regarded the bridge’s capture as further proof, as he put it to FDR, that “the Germans on the Western front have in fact ceased the war against England and the United States. At the same time they continue the war against Russia.” The fact that Hitler had had four officers responsible for the loss of the bridge shot and that the Luftwaffe had bombed it into the Rhine were merely inconvenient facts interfering with Stalin’s preconceptions.
An angered FDR called in Admiral Leahy and General Marshall to help him draft his reply to Stalin’s cable of April 3. “I have received with astonishment your message,” the response began, “containing an allegation that arrangements which were made between Field Marshal Alexander and Kesselring, ’permitted the Anglo-American troops to advance to the East and the Anglo-Americans promised in return to ease for the Germans the peace terms!’ “Roosevelt repeated his argument that thus far no actual negotiations had taken place. “… [Y]our information,” FDR went on, “must have come from German sources which have made persistent efforts to create dissention between us… . If that was Wolff’s purpose in Bern your message proves that he has had some success. Frankly,” Roosevelt concluded, “I cannot avoid a feeling of bitter resentment toward your informers, whoever they are, for such vile misrepresentations of my actions or those of my trusted subordinates.”
Stalin now held out a slim olive branch. Three days after the President’s retort, he cabled back, “I have never doubted your honesty and dependability… .” But he was still not done pressing his major premise, that Russia was being abandoned to carry on alone. The Germans, he noted, “continue to fight savagely with the Russians for some unknown junction, Zemlianitsa in Czechoslovakia, which they need as much as a dead man needs poultices, but surrender without any resistance such important towns in central Germany as Osnabrück, Mannheim, Kassel. Don’t you agree that such a behavior of the Germans is more than strange and incomprehensible.” He had one more charge to unload. Back in February, he claimed, General Marshall had tipped off the Red Army staff to expect major German attacks at two points, in Pomerania and at Maravska Ostrava. Instead, the Germans struck in a completely different sector southwest of Budapest, “one of the most serious blows in the course of the war… .” Here Stalin was accusing the chief of the American Army not simply of bad faith but of treachery. These exchanges marked the nadir in the three and a half years of wary alliance and threatened to create the only outcome that could give Hitler any hope of salvation, a rupture between the East and the West.
Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin at the Yalta Conference, February 1945
FDR still faced the threat that Hitler would hole up in the Alps for a fanatic Armageddon. In the midst of the Roosevelt-Stalin countercharges over Operation Sunrise, General Marshall sent the President an estimate on April 2 that the “will to fight of these [German] troops will depend largely on whether Hitler and his subordinate Nazi leaders, or the German High Command will have transferred their headquarters into the ’redoubt’ area. If Hitler does so, a fairly formidable military task requiring a considerable number of divisions may still confront the Allies… .” Now was hardly the time to risk the alliance, especially since the Russians had made their first installment on their promise at Yalta to enter the war against Japan. On April 5 they broke their peace pact with the Japanese. Through a Magic decrypt it was as if FDR were in the room in Moscow when the Soviet foreign minister, Molotov, delivered the blow to the Japanese ambassador, Naotake Sato. Sato answered, hopefully, “The Japanese government expects that even after the abrogation of the treaty by the Russian government there will be no change in the peace in the Far East from what it has been in the past.” Molotov gave a chilling answer: “At the time when this treaty was concluded Russia was not yet at war with Germany… . After that Japan began war with England and America which are allies of Russia.” And, as Molotov well knew, the Americans, pursuing Project Hula, were already well along in turning over ships and training Soviet seamen to enter the war in the Pacific.