Continuation of Interview with Sir Frank Roberts
Q: Sir Frank, could you just outline for us the effects the airlift had far and away beyond the physical success.
Sir FRANK ROBERTS: Yes. Well, I think this was the turning point in post-war Europe when things had to be done for economic recovery, and that had been done through the Marshall plan and the European Recovery program in which West Germany had to be involved, then for military security basically by bringing the Americans back in to Europe and so enabling an effective defense alliance in NATO, the Atlantic Alliance built up which provided the security for the general feeling that we are safe, in spite of these very much larger Russian forces which were next door, because actually, American troops didn't come back until the Korean War in 1951. I mean, it was only a treaty commitment, it wasn't supported by American troops coming back until after the events we're now talking about. And then, of course, things came to a head in two places: they came to a headfirst. I think first in Berlin where the issue, of course, immediately was since Western Germany had to be built up economically, and there had to be a currency change with a new deutschmark in Western Germany, what was to happen in Berlin, which was then an open city, you see, which was open to Russians as well as to ourselves. And arrangements had to be made for what would be the currency in West Berlin. And that was very difficult. But that was not the real issue, because I got involved, of course, in negotiating with Stalin on the Berlin blockade and airlift in Moscow. And we had two major meetings with Stalin. And what for him was the major issue was that he saw that as a result of this, and not particularly because of an allied policy which wanted to do it, that Germany was going to be divided, with a strong Western Germany supported by America in the West and, anyway, being three-quarters of the total part of Germany which would become an independent country, and he wanted to stop that. He would be perfectly happy to have a united Germany under Russian auspices, but that wasn't possible. And, so that for him.. but he.. I don't think he felt he had made a mistake but, on the other hand, he had made a big mistake, because the original Economic Recovery program, the Marshall plan had been offered to the Russians and to the countries of Eastern Europe and to the extent that this was not just a paper thing, the Poles and the Czechs and Molotov himself - the Russian Foreign Minister - had come to the inaugural meeting. And then Stalin had said no, he wanted to have nothing to do with this American dominated organisation, and he took Molotov away and Molotov told the Poles and the Czechs they had to go away, too. I remember Jau Masaryk who was the Czech Foreign Minister saying to me that that was the worst day in his life when he had thought that they were going to be allowed to join the West in all this, and then they weren't allowed to. So from.. as seen from Russia, you seen, this was a strengthening of all the parts of Europe which they had very little influence over, and leaving them with a rather small part of Germany. For them, Germany was the most important country in Europe obviously, whoever controlled Germany controlled Europe, and they were losing the potential control of Germany.
Q. Was there any way in which the Marshall plan was framed, that it couldn't be accepted by Stalin and the West knew?
Sir FRANK ROBERTS: Well, of course, it could be.. It was accepted by the Poles and the Czechs. They said we're delighted with this. And even Molotov was sort of saying well, this looks rather good. But I mean, it would have changed the whole nature of the enterprise. I mean, had the Russians come in it would have been a different king of thing. But nevertheless, it was offered in perfect honesty to them. And they said no. And they said no, they didn't say this, but what.. because Stalin realized that this meant America being the dominant country in Western Europe.
Q. One thing we didn't cover was just a summary of the long-term significance of the success of the Berlin airlift.
Sir FRANK ROBERTS: And there, of course, we move onto - which,. I mean, a lot of people said it couldn't succeed but, luckily, it did. For that, of course, we needed the co-operation of the Berlin population, because they had to put up with pretty terrible privations throughout the airlift. You see, the Russians had offered the Berliners to be included in the same ration systems as the East Berliners. In other words, to say we don't want anything to do with your airlift, you see, we're going to be looked after by our East Germans and the Russians, but they had refused that. And because they didn't want to come under Russian domination. And, of course, the acceptance of the airlift with all its rigors and difficulties, and the collaboration of the West German population in unloading the aeroplanes and seeing that the economic system, however.. at however low a level, nevertheless, worked, was essential and we got a Mayor of Berlin, you see, Reuter,who had been a communist once and ceased to be, who led the way. And the day when he and his.. there was a woman who was the Christian Democrat deputy - in fact, the Russians didn't recognize Reuter because he had been a communist, they didn't like that, so they recognized the lady, so they were collectively running the West Berlin. And the day they came to see General Clay and General Robertson who were two Western American British commanders and said you can rely upon Berlin population being behind you. That was when we knew that the Berlin airlift could work; because without that it couldn't have worked. And even without that, whether it was going to work through the winter was very uncertain. Stalin, you see, thought it wouldn't and, therefore, he could afford to call our bluff, as he thought. But by the spring, of course, it had worked, and he was being very humiliated by it all the time. So finally, he decided he'd call it off. But it did - it did mean, of course, that he'd suffer a great rebuff and it had been shown that even in a place where Russia was geographically a military dominant, nevertheless, the West could stand up and hold its own. And this was immensely important for all the smaller countries joining an organisation like the Atlantic Alliance. At first they felt they needed it and, secondly, they felt they could, it wouldn't be too red.. too dangerous to join it.
Q: How much did it change Westerner's perception of Germany, the former enemy, was now...
Sir FRANK ROBERTS: Well, it changed, first of all, the German perceptions, I mean, that was the important point, because the minute the Berliners had taken this kind of approach and we were co-operating quite well in West Germany, but still, it was an occupation regime. And in Berlin it was collaboration, you see, and then developed from that into our being regarded as protecting powers. And we were always officially described after that. I mean, we were there legally under an occupation regime, because that was the only way we could justify it vis a vis the Russians. But we had become protecting powers. And you'd got a situation.. I mean, I was in Berlin last October for all the ceremonies of the departure of the Allies, and it was the most moving thing I've seen for a very, very long time. Very inadequately reported over here. And this spread from Berlin to the rest of West Germany, and it wasn't long, you see, before.. then we had the threat of the Korean War which was, of course, a case of another divided country in Asia where the communist part had been authorized or encouraged, whatever way you like to put it, by the two great communist powers- China and Russia - to attack and try and seize the much richer, but weaker, non-communist part and through, of course, the American reactions and so on, it failed. But there was a fear this could happen in Europe, it could be repeated in Europe. And so then we were in the position of saying we - we need American troops over here quick. And the Americans then said well, alright, if we're going to send them, we need evidence that the European countries are prepared to defend themselves, and that includes Germany. And so that was a great - a great problem, because our demilitarization policy had proved immensely successful in Germany. The Germans, having failed to win the war under Hitler, said well, armies are no good. I mean, we agree, we don't want to have an army anymore. And to persuade them only five years after they'd been told demilitarization was no good and they accepted it, that we now want you to arm again wasn't very easy. and that mood has continued. I mean, even though they have developed a pretty good army in the meantime. And so when, for example, you're faced with a crisis like the Bosnian crisis and the Germans take the lead in the policies which have got us involved in this crisis, but they take no military part in it, because they say well, you see, our armies can't operate abroad and, anyway, we were in the war against Yugoslavia, and they wouldn't like use, which is very true. But the demilitarization policy was almost too successful.
Q I want to move onto a change a regimes in the Soviet Union itself, the death of Stalin, but in particular, how much Churchill saw this as a great new opportunity to end what had become a cold war.
Sir FRANK ROBERTS: Yes, we can do that, with pleasure.
Q: How did he react?
Sir FRANK ROBERTS: Well, of course, the cold war had already started in '46/'47 but, of course it...
Sir FRANK ROBERTS: The cold war had really started in, looking back on it, in '46/'47 but, of course, it became a pretty frozen one after the Berlin airlift in.. from '48 on, really 'til the death of Stalin in '53. And Churchill came back to power in England in '51, in the autumn of '51. And entirely went along with all the policies which he'd inherited from Bevin of a European Recovery program and the Atlantic Alliance, although at first he thought it very odd that you could discuss military matters in an alliance of what was then 12 people, he said 12 is far too many to talk about military matters. But anyway, he accepted that in the end. The, of course, there came the question of setting up an actually independent West German government which was all ready, by 1952. But by that time the Americans had said if we are coming back to Europe Germany has to join in the defense of Europe. The French, of course, were horrified at the idea of there being an independent Germany army, we - Bevin - didn't like it at all, and wanted to persuade them that a small police force would be alright which, of course, it wouldn't, and so the French had insisted that the independence of Germany could not actually take place until this military matter had been settled and, of course, they could never get acceptance of their European Defense Community proposal which was to leave the French and the Germans as part of an amalgamated force under a special kind of uniform. And at that point we also had to engage in a long correspondence with the Russians to explain that all these developments were not aimed at Russia and that they were all very peaceful and that anyway, we didn't want to divide Germany, but we had to go ahead with these various plans. At that point Stalin died, in 1953. And that was succeeded very shortly afterwards by a rising in East Berlin against the communist occupation, which was put down by force by the Russians. Now today, it is generally taken for granted in Russia, although I have never seen actually any written evidence of this, but I think it is probably so, that of the successors of Stalin - potential ones - there was Malenkov who became Prime Minister, Khrushchev who eventually became the successor, Beria who was the police chief. Beria wanted, in order to have an easier position in Russia itself, to settle the German question, even if this meant allowing the unity of Germany. And it was.. and one of the things held against Beria when he was shot by his colleagues, was that he'd encouraged these independence movements in East Germany. But anyway, Churchill, who was then getting on, quite an old man, he suddenly saw, in Stalin's death, the possibility of ending the cold war and coming to some friendly arrangements with what he called the new leaders of Russia. No.. and he became very enthusiastic, because he was the only person who could do this, because he was the only on of the war leaders still in power; although Eisenhower was President in America. And that this must be done. There were several troubles about that. The first trouble was that neither America, under Eisenhower, nor Germany, under Adenauer, nor the French, under Lionel thought the time right for doing this. So he had no support from his Allies. The second thing was that the first of the so-called new leaders in Russia, who replied to Churchill's first letter was, in fact, a very old leader indeed, who was Mr. Molotov, who was the Foreign Minister, so that wasn't very encouraging. The other difficulty was none of the British Cabinet thought the time was right. Neither his Foreign Secretary, Eden, who was ill, nor any of them. Then there was the additional difficulty that we were then just at the critical moment in setting up a new West German government, we'd got all these new arrangements with settling the political position and all that of Germany which, once we'd started negotiating with the Russians, of course, what had once been destroyed or put in the Frigidaire. So nobody really was behind, least of all, the Russians, because the Russians hadn't yet got a new leader. They were quarrelling among themselves. They weren't in any position to negotiate with the West. And if they were going to negotiate with the West they weren't particularly keen to negotiate with Churchill, who was a rather elderly leader, no longer the strongest country in the West; they wanted to negotiate either with the American's who didn't want to, or, alternatively, with the Germans, who equally didn't want to. So Churchill really was trying to climb a mountain which was unclimbable. But of course, he was difficult to discourage. I was left to do a lot of the discouraging, because the Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, was ill at the time. And Eisenhower eventually.. he said well, alright, if you want to go ahead with this, it's your own business, but with no support from us. And so it petered out. Now there are people who say that his was a great opportunity missed. But I'm sure it wasn't, because the Russians weren't ready for it, nobody was ready for it, and it could have been very dangerous indeed.