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General Discontent

March 2024
6min read


EMBATTLED, SCRUTINIZED, POWELL SOLDIERS ON , ran the headline on the front page of The New York Times , as if the writer was astonished to find Colin Powell still at the State Department despite his disagreements with some of the more overweening members of the present administration. Somehow, for all his defeats in various different policy debates, we were informed, the Secretary of State kept “doing his best to justify the administration’s view to often-critical allies around the world.”

No one familiar with Secretary PowelPs character or his record of public service should be surprised that he values the welfare of his country above all. And contrary to what the media like to believe, disagreement and debate at even the highest levels of a functioning democracy are refreshing and, in fact, vital.

Much less invigorating has been the campaign in certain media and political circles that blames Powell for the decision not to go “on to Baghdad” in 1991 when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Gulf War. It is unclear whether this is simply another crude attack on the Secretary by his enemies or a more subtle pre-emptive attempt to clear Bush père and his civilian underlings of the time—such as then Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney—of any blame for casualties that may be incurred in a renewed conflict against Saddam Hussein. It is in any case a calumny, one that badly misrepresents both the facts of the Gulf War and the way our constitutional system is designed to work. It has also been tried before, and against no less an American than Dwight D. Elsenhower.

Revisionism is a necessary part of the historical process, and from George Washington on we have regularly hauled up our military commanders for target practice once the fog of battle has lifted.

Yet the campaign that threatened to engulf Eisenhower, like that directed against Secretary Powell, was a much more dangerous thing. The charge was that as supreme commander of the Allied forces in Europe, Ike had deliberately failed to take Berlin ahead of the Red Army during the closing days of World War II. The implication, sometimes stated outright, was that Ike was at best a communist dupe or at worst a traitor.

“The major myth in regard to Berlin is that if the Americans had captured the city they would have held it and there would be no Berlin problem today,” Stephen Ambrose wrote in Elsenhower and Berlin, 1945: The Decision to Halt at the Elbe , published in 1967, just a few years after the German capital nearly became a flash point in the Cold War. “It is impossible to work out the origins of the myth,” Ambrose complained. “I have never seen it in print. Yet nearly everyone to whom I talk, be he a veteran who fought under Eisenhower or a college student who was not even born at the time, believes that if Eisenhower had taken the city the Americans would have full possession of it today.”

Whoever started it, the myth got a key boost from the journalist Drew Pearson in the Washington Post on April 22, 1945, when he wrote: “Though it may get official denial the real fact is that American advance patrols on Friday, April 13 … were in Potsdam, which is to Berlin what the Bronx is to New York City. … [but] the next day withdrew from the Berlin suburbs to the River Elbe about 50 miles south. This withdrawal was ordered largely because of a previous agreement with the Russians that they were to occupy Berlin and because of their insistence that the agreement be kept.”

Pearson was often, shall we say, factually challenged, and that was certainly the case here, despite his blatant attempt to inoculate himself from any “official denial.” By late March of 1945, U.S. and British troops were more than 200 miles from Berlin, while the Red Army was within 35 miles of it. A surge by Gen. William Simpson’s 9th Army did establish an American bridgehead over the Elbe south of Magdeburg on April 14, but this was still 50 miles from Berlin.

General Simpson did ask Eisenhower, through Gen. Omar Bradley, for permission to try to beat the Soviets into the city, and he was denied. Eisenhower’s longtime friend and subordinate George Patton was infuriated, as were our British allies Field Marshal Montgomery and Winston Churchill, the latter having said he wanted to “shake hands with the Russians as far to the east as possible.”

Ike held firm, and for the best of reasons. Simpson had only 50,000 men available, and they were already beyond effective fighter support. The Soviets, meanwhile, had some 1.25 million troops and 22,000 artillery pieces poised on the city’s eastern edges. And while there was no secret plan to give Berlin to the Soviets, there was an agreement made at Yalta, in February, that both Germany and Berlin would be divvied up among all the Allied powers. General Bradley, assessing the situation for Eisenhower, estimated that taking Berlin would cost some 100,000 casualties, “A pretty stiff price to pay for a prestige objective, especially when we’ve got to fall back and let the other fellow take over.”

Bradley’s estimates—and Ike’s decision —were dead on. The final battle for Berlin was a bloodbath, and the Soviets lost 100,000 men. Yet when it was all over, Stalin for once lived up to an agreement and ceded roughly half of the city and two-thirds of the country to the Western Allies.

Still, the idea that the United States had handed Berlin to the Russians continued to flourish, given new life by the 1948 Soviet blockade of the city. It became an adjunct myth to the enduring shibboleth that Stalin had been handed all of Eastern Europe at Yalta, a lingering and poisonous contention that America had somehow been betrayed from within.

Initially, these charges centered on Roosevelt—conveniently no longer around to defend himself—and other veterans of his and Truman’s administrations. Eisenhower’s emergence as a presidential candidate in 1952, however, soon drew the fire to him. As the historian Jeff Broadwater notes, in Eisenhower & the Anti-Communist Crusade , pamphlets distributed by far-right fringe groups at the time labeled the victor of Normandy “a crypto-Socialist who had turned ‘the best part of Germany over to the Russians.’” The campaign of his leading rival for the Republican nomination, Robert Taft, eagerly spread these charges around the country.

At first Ike responded with appropriate contempt. None of his critics, he pointed out, had been around in 1945 “to go out and pick the ten thousand American mothers” whose sons would have died to take “a worthless objective.” Yet the 1952 campaign was conducted during the nadir of McCarthyism, and Eisenhower was soon reduced to his own version of revisionism. He had supposedly entered the presidential race largely to preserve the bipartisan, internationalist foreign policy he had had such a hand in establishing after the war. Yet out on the hustings he blasted almost every aspect of it, including the “loss” of China to the communists, the Yalta accords, and even the decision not to race the Soviets to Berlin, which he himself had made. The Korean War, then still raging, might never have happened “if we had been less soft and weak.” The war itself was practically a conspiracy: “The Democrats could purchase full employment only at the price of dead and mangled bodies of young Americans.”


All this was too much for President Harry Truman, who, as a brand-new Chief Executive, had left decisions on whether to beat the Soviets to Berlin and Prague strictly to Eisenhower and who had consulted with Ike on virtually every aspect of his policy of containing the Soviets since then. Ike’s 1952 campaign caused a rift between the two men that lasted for years.

Eisenhower himself, perhaps driven by guilt, would continue trying to re- write the past in his retirement. His 1967 memoir, At Ease, recalled two different wartime warnings against the Soviet threat, but as Ambrose points out, Eisenhower “may well have uttered such warnings, but he did not mention them in Crusade in Europe , written almost two decades before At Ease , nor did he ever write anything during the war to indicate that he was fearful of Russian intentions.… The truth was that he may have wished by 1952 that he had taken a hard line with the Russians in 1945, but he had not.”

In the end, things didn’t work out so badly. East Germany, which the Soviets would have created in any case, proved a useful display window for the many charms of communist life, and while it was a shame that any people had to endure them, perhaps dividing Germany for a generation was the only thing that could have enabled it to be reincorporated into a peaceful, democratic Europe.

Eisenhower was right the first time, and our Gulf War revisionists might take note. Nice as it would be to have already consigned Saddam to the trash bin of history, things were not so simple back in 1991. The UN coalition that liberated Kuwait had no mandate to push on to Baghdad, nor is it at all clear what would have happened if it had done so. The first Bush administration had legitimate concerns that a leaderless Iraq would fall prey to the radical Shiite regime next door in Iran. Ten thousand American boys might have been sacrificed merely to empower the heirs of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Whatever happens in the future, it’s impossible to say that that would have been a better alternative.

Of course, General Powell had an advantage over Eisenhower. Unlike Ike, he was not under the command of a brandnew President, barely getting a grip on the immensity of the task before him. Regardless of what advice Colin Powell did or did not give President George H. W. Bush, had the President so ordered, Powell would have pushed on to Baghdad or anywhere else. Observers should not be surprised that he now offers his advice to George W. Bush and then, even when it’s rejected, follows the President’s orders and works as hard as he can for his country. It’s what a good soldier—and a good American—does.

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