- Historic Sites
Aide To Four Presidents
February 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 2
President Roosevelt dominated that meeting. He was alert, tactful, and resourceful in smoothing the ruffled feathers of the other two and holding the discussion to the final issue—which was the post-war handling of Germany. It was evident that Stalin liked and trusted Roosevelt. He deferred to him and his whole expression softened when he addressed the President directly. He and the Prime Minister did a good deal of sparring whenever Mr. Churchill injected one of his artful and clever trial balloons to probe Russian post-war ambitions. In the joint effort to win Stalin’s confidence in the West, Churchill had to overcome centuries of European distrust of “perfidious Albion,” whereas Roosevelt had a great advantage because of his known sympathy with the underprivileged and America’s reputation for fair play. Each of the three principals consulted their advisors from time to time and in turn the advisors whispered to their principals. The principals as a rule remained seated when they addressed the conference. Toward the end, however, the Generalissimo rose to his feet and delivered a prepared speech. Though he spoke in Russian and we didn’t understand what it was all about until the Russian interpreter repeated the whole thing in English, one could understand how Stalin was able to sway multitudes by his logic, eloquence and vibrant personality. Instead of the guttural tone characteristic of the Slav voice, there was in his voice a clear, well-modulated, baritone quality. He stood proudly erect with an air of assurance. One forgot his short legs and saw only his powerful chest and shoulders. The theme of his address was “ Germany must pay .” He pounded the table at times to emphasize his points. He left little doubt in the minds of his listeners that, if given the power, he would be cruel and ruthless in exacting penalties for Russian sufferings. He presented his demands for reparations and German territory. When the speech was over, President Roosevelt eased the tension by finding fault with the use of the word “reparations.” He said that the American people had a serious dislike for that word because of the unhappy aftermath of the Versailles Treaty. He suggested that the conference should find some other term such as “payment in kind.” The final meeting adjourned on that note, leaving it to the hard working secretaries to draw up the agreements and the joint announcement for the press.
The morning before leaving Yalta, President Roosevelt told Admiral McIntire that although he was disappointed with some of the European boundary settlements, he felt that all the major aims of the United States had been accomplished. He was content and hopeful for the future.
There was no place in Livadia Palace where those of us who lived there could foregather, when not at work, except the bedrooms. Watson and I had one of the larger rooms of the Tsarina’s suite directly below the room occupied by Admiral King and General Marshall. French windows opened onto a veranda that looked down on the Black Sea. They must have been pleasant quarters before the Germans stripped them of royal trappings. It was still a room of comparative comfort on a sunny day even though our only furniture was two army cots and a few very uncomfortable chairs. Having no closets, we stacked our baggage along the walls and this lent a camping-out touch. Mr. Churchill borrowed my bunk one afternoon for his nap. Many of our friends gathered there at all hours of the day and night, partly because it was roomier than most of the other bedrooms but also because we had one of the few fireplaces. When we could get a little fire wood—it was doled out to us in small quantities—the blaze partly relieved the chill of the unheated barracks.
My greatest concern at that time, however, was to get the President back to the Saki airfield without the danger and discomfort which attended the drive over. The only alternative that we could find was a comparatively short drive along the Black Sea to Sevastopol where the Catoctin was moored. We would spend the night on board, we decided, and take off next day for a shorter and easier drive to Saki, around the flank of the mountain instead of over it. Above all we must not risk being caught in a snow storm in the mountain pass. Mr. Roosevelt approved the Sevastopol route. At the last minute Harry Hopkins advocated going by rail; but after all we had heard of Russian trains, there was little enthusiasm for that.
We left Livadia in sunshine, just after lunch, with no prospect of snow. Had we made an early morning start over the mountain the next morning, the weather would have been a gamble. As it was, that drive to Sevastopol was an extremely tiring journey over rough mountain roads that taxed the endurance of all of us “tired old men.” We were rewarded by the sight of many historic scenes, where Briton, Slav and Roman had disputed the Crimea in times past. We got to the ship before dark in time for a good American beefsteak dinner and a long night’s rest. But it was the beginning of tragedy.
Just as we were leaving the Catoctin next morning, General Watson had a heart attack. He refused to be left behind and Drs. McIntire and Bruenn literally supported him between them through that whole long drive. When we reached the Russian airfield, the Russian sentries tried to hold us up for the parade ceremonies; but our car broke through in spite of their protests and we got Watson into a bunk where he was soon reasonably comfortable. A haggard Harry Hopkins arrived meanwhile by train, announcing that between the bedbugs and the constantly crashing cars, with their flat wheels and lack of springs, the journey had been a nightmare.