Season 2 Episode 1 – “Rebuilding the Shattered Worlds of 1918 and 1945 with Dr. Michael Neiberg"

World War II On Topic Podcast Series

About the Episode

This episode is brought to you by the Museum’s Jenny Craig Institute for the Study of War and Democracy.

We are taking a trip back to 2020 where our own Research Historian, Dr. Jason Dawsey had a discussion with Dr. Michael Neiberg, the inaugural Chair of War Studies in the Department of National Security and Strategy at the United States Army War College.

This conversation commemorated the anniversary of The Potsdam conference, which started on July 17, 1945.

Doctors Dawsey and Neiberg review how leaders, after the War, confronted the task of rebuilding a new international order.

Key parts of this wide-ranging conversation cover the rise of Bolshevism and fascism after 1919, the invention of the atomic bomb, and the emergence of the Cold War and how world leaders dealt with these major challenges.

Catch up on all episodes of World War II On Topic and be sure to leave us a review on your favorite podcast platform.

Topics Covered in this Episode

  • Potsdam Conference
  • Winston Churchill
  • President Harry Truman
  • Joseph Stalin

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Featured Historians

Dr. Jason Dawsey

Jason Dawsey, PhD, is Research Historian at The Jenny Craig Institute for the Study of War and Democracy, where he researches the service records of WWII veterans and writes their biographies for family members.

Dr. Michael Neiberg

Michael Neiberg, PhD, is the Professor of History and Chair of War Studies in the Department of National Security and Strategy at the US Army War College. His published work focuses on World War I and World War II in global context. The Wall Street Journal named his Dance of the Furies: Europe and the Outbreak of World War I one of the five best books ever written about that war. He is also the author of two World War II books, The Blood of Free Men: The Liberation of Paris, 1944 and Potsdam: The End of World War II and the Remaking of Europe.

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"World War II On Topic" is made possible by The Herzstein Foundation.


Jeremy Collins

Hello. I'm Jeremy Collins, the director of conferences and symposia at the National World War Two Museum in New Orleans. Thanks for tuning in to World War Two on topic. This episode is brought to you by the museum's Jenny Craig Institute for the Study of War and Democracy We are taking a trip back to 2020 where our own research historian Dr. Jason Dawsey had a discussion with Dr. Michael Neiberg, the inaugural chair of War Studies in the Department of National Security and Strategy at the United States Army War College.

This conversation should commemorated the anniversary of the Potsdam Conference which started on July 17th. 1945. Doctors Dawsey and Neiberg review how leaders after the war confronted the task of rebuilding a new international order. Key parts of this wide ranging conversation covered the rise of Bolshevism and fascism after 1919 the invention of the atomic bomb and the emergence of the Cold War and how world leaders dealt with these major challenges.

Dr. Jason Dawsey

I Want to extend our welcome to all the viewers out there who are joining us It's just a great pleasure for me to be able to talk to my friend and one time colleague Mike Neiberg who is inaugural chair of war studies and professor of history in the Department of National Security and Strategy at the Army War College.

Mike and I were actually colleagues. Mike, this is going back a ways, so. Back around 2006 or so in the history department at the University of Southern Mississippi. But we've stayed in touch over the years and seen each other quite a bit as we've both moved on to other things. And we've always had a set of shared interests, so.

Mike, it's, it's great to be here with you today and have a conversation, I think on a subject that is extremely timely, which is really responding to crisis and, you know, obviously what needs to be said for our audience. I mean, they've seen all the evidence they can of a current crisis. The Corona virus crisis, an economic downturn, that that's going to be a serious issue for leaders, for everyday people for a while to come.

And it seems a good time to talk about two major 20th century crises at the end of two world wars and how leaders responded. And to raise the issue about what light that might throw on the present, about a kind of framework for for comparison and Mike, obviously, you're one of the people to talk to about this there just too many of your books here to list for the audience.

But I thought I would just mention you're fighting the Great War. You're in history of World War One, Dance of the Furies, Europe and the Outbreak of World War One, The Blood of Free Men. The book you wrote about the liberation of Paris in 1944, but two books, I think for our audience will be of great interest given our subject today, which is your concise history of the Treaty of Versailles and your book about Potsdam and the end of World War Two and the remaking of Europe.

So I thought what I would just do is, is, is start with World War One, just take a chronological approach here and have a conversation with you about how leaders responded to these two major crises. And maybe if we have a little time here at the end, could even, you know, raise some issues about how that relates to the present.

So where to begin? Mike, I think maybe the place naturally to begin is pretty straightforward. Is the world as it appeared to allied leaders in 1918 1919 the end of World War one some 10 million people had perished in that conflict and as the American French British Italian leaders met to talk about how to go forward they've been faced a course of their own pandemic the great 1918 influenza.

So I thought Mike what kind of you know looking at that world kind of looking back on it how did these leaders respond to these crises? You know what how did the world look to them and how did they think about moving beyond the World War.

Dr. Michael Neiberg

So first off thanks Jason and thanks to the museum. Thanks to Chrissy and Kate for for all the work that we've done putting this together and thanks to all of you for signing in.

I hope you're being safe and I hope you're using this as an opportunity you obviously are, if you're in this Zoom meeting to to use this time productively, hopefully. And for me, it's been a time to sort of reflect about the ways in which the days that you live in, the present time that you live in, changes the way you think about the past and changes the way that you think about these big questions that Jason is identifying both how you deal with pandemic and how you deal with great power competition in the era of crisis, which is certainly what's going on in 1919 I don't think anybody was under any illusions that whatever they

decided at the Paris Peace Conference was going to end great power competition. The question was how do you make sense of the new world that you're living in and what kinds of sets of ideas or philosophies do you want going forward? And one thing that this crisis has done for me, it's made me realize just how similar in some broad respects they were thinking 100 years ago.

And what I mean by that is this is simplifying things too much. But but there are at least two major groups of thinkers. One is represented by Woodrow Wilson, who argues that the right solution is international and multilateral, that problems like pandemics, great power competition, decolonization, dealing with communism and the growth of Bolshevism, those are international problems that need international solutions.

There are other folks like Georges Clemenceau, so the French prime minister who aren't opposed to negotiating with other countries, but they want to go strictly through a national model and there are Americans like Theodore Roosevelt who are making the same argument back in the US. So in some ways, the question comes to your perspective. What do you think is causing the problem and what do you think is the appropriate, the appropriate solution?

And there are people who are thinking internationally a hundred years ago, and there are people who are thinking nationally. So in some ways I think those two mindsets would be very familiar to people from a hundred years ago. Looking at our world. They would have recognized, I think, an awful lot more in our present situation than they maybe we would expect.

Dr. Jason Dawsey

That leads me to a next question, Mike. You were talking about the issue of frameworks and different visions that were were there already. You know, from the very beginning, these course of these countries had fought together. Britain and France have been in the fight since 1914. The US jumping in three years later. At what point did tensions between say Wilson and Clemenceau and Lloyd George already begin to emerge about an international versus a national framework, how to deal with Germany?

The fact that Germany was defeated. But Germany, we'll get to this obviously later. This is a very different thing. Germany is not occupied in 1918, 1919 and how to deal with that and obviously we'll come back to the question of the Bolsheviks and and the like too. But in this case there were already very early on tensions about how to respond and what kind of vision would really inform a peace.

And could you say a bit about that?

Dr. Michael Neiberg

Sure. You know that very famously when George Clemenceau saw Woodrow Wilson's 14 points, he very famously said God himself was content to give us just ten. And David Lloyd George after the Paris Peace Conference was asked to evaluate his own performance in the House of Commons. And he said, I don't think I did too bad seeing that I had Napoleon on one side of me and Jesus Christ himself on the other.

So there are tensions with kind of the way that Wilson is thinking about this, the first American president ever to go to Europe while in office, the first American president really to try to take American ideals and apply them to the old world. So there's that problem that's plaguing him. I think a lot of that also depends on what you think caused fundamentally caused the war.

If you're George Clemenceau, it is the aggression. The the there's something inherent in the German character. And remember that it was Clemenceau who had been the mayor of Montematre, one of the Paris neighborhoods during the Franco-Prussian War. He had argued for fighting on rather than giving up Alsace Lorraine. So to his mind, the the problem that there's something different about Germany that you have to deal with to David Lloyd Georges mind, it's a balance of power problem that that Germany just simply grew too quickly, too fast.

To Wilson's mind, the problem is a lack of democracy and a lack of of open markets, a lack of incentives for states to work together. So although they were allies during the war, they had very different definitions of what they thought they were doing there and very different definitions that come out of that of what they think the way to solve it is.

And we can talk about this for World War Two as well, because I think many of the same problems are there. What do you think is the fundamental cause of the problem? And until you answer that question, you really can't look to solutions. So to someone like Clemenceau, the American approach looks way too idealistic. It looks way too pie in the sky.

Whereas to Wilson, Clemenceau, solutions just look like more of the same so part of it comes from, I think, an understanding of how you view the past. To borrow the old phrase, the further you look back, the further you can look forward. So it's a different definition of what they see when they look backwards.

Dr. Jason Dawsey

In that also, you know, you notice the differences about Germany and how they understood the sources of the conflict and how, for example, Clemenceau views Wilson's idealism.

But it's obviously one of the things that people always bring up about a kind of Wilsonian perspective is its idealism beyond Wilson. Is there any on the French and British side, is there any real sense that democracy in Germany, in the fact that the Kaiser had been forced out? I mean, Germany in 1918, 1919 has become a republic or is in the process of becoming a republic.

Right. And so that you think that that might for a Wilson be a signal that yes, the German people are trying to step up and move past an older authoritarianism but and the British and French side who have been in the war much earlier, northern France, much of it is devastated that the wariness, the suspicion would be significantly deeper about Germany and not at all convinced that just because we have a Friedrich Ebert, you know, now running Germany instead of Wilhelm the second and Ludendorff, that there really is been much change.

So that's one thing. Things I wanted just to ask is that on the British and French side, is there much, you know, interest at all in the fact that Germany is seems to be transitioning to some kind of democratic system whereas for Wilson, that may be some confirmation for him that his own point of view is correct.

Dr. Michael Neiberg

I think you're right about both of those points. Not all Frenchmen are quite see the world in the way that Clemenceau does. There are plenty of French people, intellectuals, politicians who argue that, look, Germany's going to need time to figure out what what its democracy is going to look like. It doesn't have the democratic traditions that Britain and France have.

You need to open the borders up. You need to build links between the British and the French. There are Catholic movements inside France. There are youth movement, socialist party movements that are trying everything they can to build these bridges across the Rhine River. Not to say, let's just kiss and make up, but to say, look, the fundamental problem of Germany was the Kaiser.

It was Prussia, it wasn't Germany that essentially the bad Prussians had lied to the good Germans. Which also comes up at the end of World War Two. So, you know, as Americans are going through World War Two, the number of Bavarians who are like, Hey, it wasn't us, it was those guys, you know, something similar is happening in World War One as well.

And there are people who are sympathetic. It's what they call the true Germany's argument that there was this kind of, you know, of Germany, of Beethoven and Gotha, and medicine and higher learning that it's somehow been corrupted by this Prussian autocracy. And now with the Prussian autocracy gone, Germany has a chance to move forward. So it doesn't necessarily mean that everybody in France and Britain trusts that, but it means that they're saying, look, if we're looking for a postwar strategy, it's better to leverage that and try to build that up than it is to continue the hatred in the enmity.

And again, we all know this. This works better at the end of the Second World War, at least by the 1960s and seventies. Until you're at a point right now where France and Germany have no border between them, which is, you know, an expression that you can do this under different historical circumstances. So to me as a historian, every time I cross that border with nobody checking a passport and nobody I know it's been a while now, but you know, a shared currency consultation on foreign policy, this is what a lot of people are envisioning in 1919 and into the 1920s that you might eventually get to something like that, maybe not quite as in-depth as we have it now. So it's not all they're not all wildly optimistic or wildly too idealistic, I guess I want to say. But they are hoping that if you can build bridges between the two in some way, you increase the chance for cooperation rather than competition. And again, that to me is very similar to the debate we're having right now.

What's the best way to deal with this crisis? Is it to continue to build those bridges even between governments that don't necessarily trust each other or governments that know they have different things that they're trying to accomplish, or is the best way to do it, to kind of wall yourself off and deal with it from the national perspective?

There's no obvious answer to that question. But again, to me, it resonates with the kind of stuff that I studied at the end of the two world wars.

Dr. Jason Dawsey

Well, Mike, that's those are very important points. And I think then lead to to kind of follow up on that is one is that you were just noting that we shouldn't be monolithic in the way we understand the responses of these three countries to how to build a new order after World War One.

And so the first question would be is what kinds of popular pressures do you see? Britain, like Lloyd George had just had an election right at the end of 1918, Woodrow Wilson. There had been a congressional election and he now has Republicans in Congress who are not terribly excited about a lot of the internationalist side of this whole peacemaking process.

Clemenceau does not really have an election so much to deal with. But nonetheless, as you point out, there are popular pressures that he does have to respond to as well. I mean and a lot of people the the sacrifice, the casualties that France undergoes, the destruction and significant parts of the country that he has to listen to these pressures, you can't just simply ignore them.

So I guess here we can often get so focused on the big three and what's going on with them as they're trying to figure out a treaty that everyone can agree to. But they also have to as quote democracies. The Third Republic, Britain, with its long tradition in the US, they all have to deal with pressures from below.

Could you say something about that?

Dr. Michael Neiberg

Yeah, I think the easiest way and I said this in the Treaty of Versailles book, the easiest way to to study the Treaty of Versailles is to look at those big three. But of course, looking around at our own country, there's no one American answer to the COVID crisis. There's no one British answer to the COVID crisis.

These things are determined by where you live, what, you know, middle class versus working class. All kinds of things are going to determine your response so to me, it's more interesting kind of the ways in which the debates reach across national lines. So again, the big one is do you want to solve these problems at the national or in 1918, 1919 imperial level?

So if you're British, do you want to do this by opening up the empire to international trade, which is an answer, or do you want to do this by increasing those imperial ties? In other words, increasing tariffs, keeping Americans out of those markets and trying the best that you can to kind of reinforce the empire and the strength of the empire.

Both of those arguments are out there. The imperial argument wins at the end of World War One. Largely it doesn't win at the end of World War Two. Again, two different, completely different contexts where the Americans are able to force open the British Empire and the United States. To me that the debate over the Treaty of Versailles in the League of Nations is fascinating.

There's a group of senators that just say, I don't care what's in the thing, I'm not signing it. And there's another group that says, hey, look, there's ways in which we think this is unconstitutional. There's ways in which the League of Nations could draw the United States into a war. And the obligation to declare war belongs to the US Senate.

That's unconstitutional. You can't you can't do that. There are ways in which this ties us down. There are also people who are making the argument the League of Nations is one nation, one vote. Why would we as Americans accept the same level of power in an international organization that Ecuador would have, why would we do that on on a pure power basis?

It makes no sense, which is why in World War Two, the UN comes with the Security Council and the five vetoes. Otherwise it's not clear that the U.N. would have gotten through the US Congress. So there are arguments there that are perfectly legitimate to paint opponents of the league as just these backward looking dinosaurs I think is unfair.

They had legitimate grievances. And again, there are things that we still talk about today the World Health Organization. Do you want to be part of an organization in which you cede some of your sovereignty and you pay money into the organization knowing that you're probably not getting as much out of it as you as a smaller state would because you believe in the health of international organizations?

If you accept that principle, then WHO membership makes perfect sense. If you don't, then you're not going to do that. And again, the same exact debate was happening a hundred years ago. The French case is more complicated because of the immediacy of the German threat. So maybe we don't want to run down that rabbit hole unless you want me to.

But the French situation is a little bit more complicated.

Dr. Jason Dawsey

Right? And I think, you know, you already sort of set me up for this. The second question which is really is the issue of democracy and kind of coming back to that just for a second in that there's you pointed out about popular pressures and they're just a range of different views that are coming forward.

And we should take these seriously, these different perspectives about should there be a League of Nations what kind of authority should it have? Should it be able to intervene in conflicts? Is it really only there to arbitrate ones that have broken out already? There's a lot of different perspectives in there. And and I think because of the 1930s, the league is so badly remembered for people that it is even difficult to have a serious conversation about what things look like in 1918, 1919 were people are first just trying to envision it. Just on the side of democracy.

The fact is, is that the U.S. is fighting know fought World War One with a segregated military. You know American women at least at the national level don't get the right to vote until 1920 with the 19th Amendment. British women during the 1920s don't get it French woman not until the end of World War two.

Dr. Michael Neiberg

So the fourth republic right?

Dr. Jason Dawsey

Right and so and then of course that's the whole issue of the colonies you know where the British and French had used colonial troops and those respective countries part of the British and French empires are like, well what about democracy here that so much of this was being fought in the name of democracy and against German militarism and German autocracy. What is this really going to to mean? And obviously at the Versailles during the deliberations, these become real issues right. About what do we do about opening things up. And you mentioned the issue of trade, but you know this in the sense of what kind should we grant more autonomy if we, you know, what do we do about these movements that are calling for for independence and obviously those become quite violent in 1919.

I mean the the Amritsar massacre in India right that you have in 1919 et cetera. So what should we do with that. And you think about the issue of democracy and how it that that rhetoric had been there very late in the war and how the big three then have to confront that, that that'll be also just for our viewers a kind of segue into addressing the Bolshevik Revolution and the particular challenge that has.

But these three countries have real issues about democratization. They have to to address.

Dr. Michael Neiberg

They have enormous issues. And of course there's a difference between the democracy and the polity, the polity being that group that kind of has the right to vote. The imperial question is an enormous one. It's an enormously complicated one. My Canadian friends are very fond of the anecdote.

The first time Canada ever signed a document in its own right is the Treaty of Versailles. And the original one. The first one they signed they signed on the wrong line. So they had to put an addendum on the original treaty or sign documents. So my Canadian friends love to point that one out just you know how ambiguous this kind of leap on the world stage was for Canada?

Much more negatively. You pointed out India and Amritsar when the First World War began, Gandhi was a supporter of the war because he thought that the British Empire was doing the right thing by standing up to German aggression. By the end of the war, he's realized this isn't a war about democracy at all. This isn't a war about independence and freedom and all of the things that the allies had talked about.

Erez Manela, a supremely talented historian at Harvard, wrote a book called The Wilsonian Moment, in which he argued that people around the world Cairo, South Korea, Vietnam, China, all over the world read Woodrow Wilson and thought, well, the Americans are actually going to fight for democracy. This is what they need. The 14 points can be read this anti-imperial.

He's serious about this. And the point that he makes is by the Middle of the Paris Peace Conference, it becomes perfectly obvious that that's not what Wilson has in mind at all. He doesn't have in mind the end of the British Empire and the end of the French Empire at all. What he really has in mind is America's right to trade in those empires.

So Erez's book is really about the kind of disillusion that a lot of people around the world start to sense in American rhetoric. And of course, President Roosevelt's going to try to bring that back in the Second World War with the Atlantic Charter. He's going to try to put a lot more teeth behind it than Wilson did. So it's a really complicated and there are a couple of parts of the world, the Shantung Peninsula controversy in China and Syria, which are two of the areas that are Palestine's third, where these these kind of interest and values come in conflict with each other.

Our media is another example, and the United States simply doesn't know what to do because we're still trying to figure out what all of this means. So the end of the First World War creates a lot of these kind of legacy conflicts Palestine, Shandong, all of these things, Vietnam that are going to come back and bite people before the 20th century is over.

And I think in a lot of ways, you know, we talk at the Army War College sometimes about the wars we're fighting right now as the wars of the Ottoman succession. Right. Which we mean we're still trying to figure out how you govern a complicated place like the Middle East in the absence of a centralized authority like the Ottoman Empire, semi centralized.

There's a wonderful quotation. I'll just end with this and then we can talk about the competing enterprise relations between the United States and the Bolsheviks. But there's a wonderful quotation David Lloyd George in 1917 in the middle of the third battle of in the middle of Passchendaele, he's talking about British operations in Mesopotamia, Iraq and Palestine. And he says, look, right now we're focused on Passchendaele, we're focused on Third Ypres because it's the thing where our troops are fighting.

So when we look down the road, it's Mesopotamia and Palestine that are going to be the things that we're going to have to deal with. And of course those are two fundamental issues to American foreign policy even as we sit here.

Dr. Jason Dawsey

Right. Yeah. There's so much more Mike we could say about that. And uprising in present day Iraq in 1920 did the British have to deal with.

Right. And, and then the issue, the issue of Palestine would be a whole other webinar. We could talk about. Right, so these are big ones. China, you mentioned the May 4th movement that starts in 1919 so this is a huge question and I think connects directly then to the particular kind of challenge that the Bolshevik Revolution would pose to the big three.

And this is a subject I'm very interested in and how once Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks seized power in October, November, depending on your calendar, 1917, they of course publish all of the secret treaties that Imperial Russia had signed with Britain and France expecting a victory. And what kind of who was going to get what in terms of Ottoman territory from Austria-Hungary, et cetera.

They were very glad to kind of show countries around the world this is really what this war is being fought over and Lenin really gives this kind of overriding vision to revolutionaries that that the World War was not a tragedy, it was not an aberration. It wasn't that Europe went crazy. This was a necessary outgrowth of what he calls imperialism.

Imperialism is a worldwide system, and so there is no there's really no desire to go back to the status quo ante, which a lot of socialists, in fact, during the war say we should go back to what we had prior to June 28. 1940. Let's just go back. And Lenin...

Dr. Michael Neiberg

What we had in January 2020. Right? Just trying to turn the clock back...

Dr. Jason Dawsey

Like this kind of like, if we could just go back.

And Lenin's like, no, the only way that you're actually going to move beyond the sources of the World War is, is revolution and so he saw the revolution in Russia as the beginning of a worldwide revolution that would not only take place in the capitalist countries themselves, but in the colonized world. It would be it would really global is a global vision.

And so for the big three and we could even bring in here Italy and say some Orlando because there's going to be so much turmoil in Italy that that would be the Mussolini time coming next. But this is Mike. How do you think that the 3-4 leaders of the Western allies, how did they make sense of this and how they thought?

What should we do to respond to this?

Dr. Michael Neiberg

So it's really interesting. There is a way to interpret the Treaty of Versailles and the Paris peace conference as the understanding among the Western powers that pre power competition has now shifted, that Germany is in fact no longer your great power competitor. It is now the Soviet Union. And there is a way to understand Wilson's 40 points and even the Treaty of Versailles itself as responses to that.

So the Treaty of Versailles, if you read it, I don't recommend that people do. But if you want to read it, it includes a lot about protection of labor. It includes a lot about the right of women to vote in plebiscites, even if they're not allowed to vote in the states in which they live. As you talked about a little earlier, it talks about guarantees of minimum wages.

It talks about the right of people, no matter where they live in Europe, if they move from one country to another, that their wages can't be cut. It talks about all that stuff. And one way to understand that is, of course, that they're trying to undercut the Bolshevik argument. They're trying to say, don't throw the whole baby out with the bathwater.

We can sustain this capitalist economic system without going down that crazy road. And then there is a way to understand the Treaty of Versailles, the Paris Peace Conference, as a way to say to the imperial world, to India, to Africa, to China, to all of these places, there's a way in which you can get what you want without going down that Bolshevik road.

There's a way in which we can understand this. And as you mentioned, one of the things I think that is so different in great power competition at the end of World War One. From its beginning. From its beginning, it's a it's a national war. It's France against Germany. By the time you get to the 20s -- 30s and I would argue into World War Two, there's an ideological dimension that's playing over.

That's where fascists in all countries are seeing similarities, and Bolsheviks in all countries are seeing similarities. So you get this kind of multidimensional war that that you see starting to begin intellectually in this process that you're describing. So for Wilson, for Clemenceau, for Lloyd George, what do we do about the Soviet Union? The most obvious question they ask is should we invite them to the Paris Peace Conference?

The answer to that is no. So if you're not going to do that, what do you do about them? And of course, we all know Wilson will make the decision to send American troops into Siberia. They're going to have to work hard with Japan in order to get Japan support, which is part of the reason they give the Shandong peninsula, which is 100% Chinese.

They give it to Japan at the end of World War One, which causes tremendous disillusion inside the United States as a as a sellout of every principle that Wilson had, which it is. But on the other hand, it's a way to get Japanese support for this war that they think they have to fight in Russia. So the interlocking pieces and the way that if you think about it, for the engineers out there, like a systems engineering problem, when you push on one part of the system, it's going to produce weird outcomes in another part of the system.

So in order to prevent Bolshevism from taking over in Germany, you have to give a peninsula in China to the Japanese and that's the kind of thing that they're trying to deal with in Paris.

Dr. Jason Dawsey

That's a fascinating point, Mike. And also just to add to that, that one of the things, of course, the Bolsheviks just overtly present as an alternative is instead of the parliamentary democracy kind of models for all their variations, British French, American, they'll say, well, look, those models are directly tied to this war.

They're really kind of mask for bourgeois class power and they present the Soviets these councils that that emerged in 1917 workers radicalized soldiers, sailors, peasants. This is a model of working in a worker's democracy that they want to present obviously this is before this turns into a one party state. I mean the Bolsheviks are even governing with another party for several months in 1917 1918.

So the challenge is directly there and it's an interesting way of thinking about it is Wilson is really crafty in a response that he hopes will sap some of the energy and the discontent and the anger coming out of the war that the Bolsheviks are directly trying to appeal to Germany, Austria, Hungary, Italy, Bulgaria, the Baltic States all over.

They're really trying to mobilize it, but they're not the only ones, obviously, that are trying to mobilize discontent. When we get into 1919, we also have a brand new player politically on the scene and that's Benito Mussolini's fascist movement, which in the space then of remarkably three years, then they're actually in power, 1919 is the same year. We have the first kind of version of what will become the Nazi party in Bavaria that Hitler will get involved in right away.

And you know there's a lot to pack in here but from the way you look at this history, how do we relate the beginnings of fascism to the Versailles process and this rebuilding movement? How did Mussolini and Hitler not only there's the anger about the, the territorial kind of remapping that that's always brought up, but there's a larger challenge that Mussolini and Hitler pose to this system.

Dr. Michael Neiberg

Yeah. So I once did this at Southern Miss so well that a student complained to the dean and my department head that I was trying to turn them into fascists. So that's not what I'm trying to do here. The original intellectual model of fascism made the argument that Marxism and communism could not be right, because if class conflict was truly the engine of world change, as Marx argued then the workers in France would not have killed the workers of Germany, and the workers of Germany wouldn't have killed the workers of Russia, et cetera, et cetera.

So in effect, Marx had to be wrong so what what Mussolini and the intellectuals around him were the intellectuals and Mussolini himself concluded is that it must be the nation state and it must be some irrationality in people's identification with the nation state that drove them forward. Now, as you pointed out, what that does is it taps into this febrile environment of all of these land claims and everybody that's disaffected by the war and the way that the war ends.

And I also think you get this kind of almost mirror identification so that fascism becomes identified by the ways in which it is not Bolshevik and bolshevist become identified by the ways in which they're not fascist, so that you get this, you know, polarized nation in these societies. It occurs all across Europe. It occurs in France. Of course, there's a civil war in Spain that's partly informed by this, not totally, but partly so that the center really comes under a lot of pressure.

So the way that I try to describe it to students is that both of these systems are are real challenges to the kind of democratic capitalist system that at least in the Anglo-American world and the British Empire world they're trying to hold on to, they're trying to to hold that center ground and the Second World War is very much the story of how that doesn't happen.

And two of those systems end up fighting the third so that the Anglo-American capitalist system and the Bolshevik system end up as temporary allies. And then, of course, you can see the Cold War as the final kind of at least in some versions of history, the final competition of of the end of the First World War, when the Bolshevik system is finally defeated itself, at least the Soviet model of it.

So you can take a very broad picture of the First World War and argue that that's what this is. It's a competition of ideologies as you're moving forward. It's also, I think, instructive to think about the ways in which, you know, fascism as an ideology is more nationalistic than Bolshevism is. So that it's actually difficult in some cases for fascists to think across national borders.

For Bolsheviks, it's easy. The ideology is by definition, international.

Dr. Jason Dawsey

Workers of all lands unite right?

Dr. Michael Neiberg

Workers of all lands unite. So you end up with a very different kind of way of thinking about the world. So that's about as quick as I can do it. Like I said, I did this for 50 minutes once depicting these two ideologies in class, and I actually got reported to the dean's office.

So I don't want I don't want to make the case, but, you know, but, but there is a way in which you have to explain why people in Europe are so disaffected by the world that they see that they're moving to these two extremes rather than reinforcing the center. And of course, the Great Depression only fuels that further.

Dr. Jason Dawsey

Right. Well, you've already raised the Second World War making this watching our time here. I think we should we should transfer over. So we have, I think, a very good basis now for thinking about the precise moment, the end of the First World War and how that we can really compare that. Then looking at the world in 1945 and you've already pointed out that there is this I think Walter LaFeber used the term a shotgun marriage between a kind of Anglo American liberal democratic capitalist states and the Soviet Union of course under Joseph Stalin and that they have to come together and cooperate to defeat Mussolini, Hitler, Imperial Japan.

How does the world look if we're going to now work out this framework of comparison at Potsdam and now what's the kind of choices that they're kind of faced with making then and, and instead of having the, you know, it's Clemenceau, Lloyd George, and Wilson, you know, you have Churchill, Harry Truman. Churchill is actually going to leave in the middle of the Potsdam hearings.

And then you're going to end Joseph Stalin. Like it's a different it's a different Big Three. And in fact, it's really two. When we come down to it about the terms of the emerging superpowers. So how would how do we make sense then of that 1945 perspective?

Dr. Michael Neiberg

So here's what I think is going on. I argued in the Potsdam book that every single issue except what to do with the atomic bomb that they discussed at Potsdam, they also discussed at Versailles at the Paris Peace Conference.

What do you think caused these wars? What do you want to do with Germany? How do you rebuild the economies? What do you do with the empire? So they're all familiar questions from the Americans, at least. The answer is we're going to hold to the Wilsonian principles of internationalism, but we're not going to rely on faith and love and the trust of man to do this.

We're going to come in with serious instruments of power behind us and the way that I describe this is Truman was a poker player. He didn't want to go to Potsdam until he had chips in his pocket. So before he left for Potsdam, he knew that the Senate had approved American membership in the UN, the Bretton Woods Agreement, the International Monetary Fund, all those instruments of power that the US would have economically.

And of course, he knew once he got to Potsdam that the atomic bomb had succeeded. So we're going to take the same principles that we took. Truman took the oath of office for president under a portrait of Woodrow Wilson. But we're not doing this by persuasion anymore of, you know, the Wilsonian rhetorics. This time we're going to say, look, if you don't want to play the game our way, here's the ways in which we can hurt you.

So the atomic bomb is obviously the most extreme version of that. But even the the loan terms to the British Empire at the end of the war are things that you can use. So part of Lend-Lease says, hey, we're going to get to trade inside your empire, that those days of the imperial preference system, they're done. So the way I think about Potsdam, it is the Americans coming in with very similar ideals, but very different ways that they want to achieve it.

The fundamental questions that still remain, though, what do you think caused this war? If you think it's Germany that there's something wrong with the German people, then you're going to argue for an occupation. You're going to argue for something like what Henry Morgenthau told the American treasury secretary argued, which was to break Germany up basically to its 1648 borders, but remove it from having a central government.

If you think that it's a balance of power issue, then you're going to actually want to put resources into Germany so that the Germans can then balance the Soviet Union, which now looks like it's an emerging threat. It's not an enemy quite yet. So to me, you know, and they know it. These guys know it, right? I mean, they all remember their side, the Treaty of Versailles.

It's not something that happens hundreds of years ago. To that day, they know it right? So they come in and they say, look, we've got another bite at this apple. If we do as badly as they did 25 years ago, we're just we're just going to screw it up and create a third world war. So the American decision is there's going to be no single treaty that comes out of it because they don't want to do what Wilson had to do.

There's going to be no set reparation so that we can adjust whatever we have to do economically as we go. And we're just going to have three parties represented there. The whole world is not going to come. There's going to be three parties there. France doesn't come Poland doesn't come, just three countries. That's it. So it is done very, very differently than the way they do it at Versailles with, I think, a very, very different outcome.

Obviously, we know now it's a more positive outcome, though I think we sometimes underestimate how chaotic the world was in 1945 and how lucky Europe actually got at the end of the war.

Dr. Jason Dawsey

That's that that makes me think about you know we're just talking about there's, there's really three that are just there we could easily just simply focus on Truman and Stalin and of course are hugely important.

But Mike obviously in the British case, if we think about Lloyd George, he's been faced with an election in 1918 when he was at Versailles and what was expected of him or what he thought was expected of him in the British case they have an election in the summer of 1945 where Churchill's out and Labor is in Attlee, Clement Attlee is in and I think we shouldn't lose sight of the fact Britain had been a world power for so long and is now being faced with a situation where it really is number three at best in a kind of distant third given where the Americans and Soviets were at, what should we do with this with the British, you know, what kind of changes or what was going on there in the way Britain understood itself at Potsdam from Churchill to Attlee and understanding this is a very different landscape than we faced 25 years earlier.

Dr. Michael Neiberg

So I think the British are going through that same question. What do you want to do? Do you want to reinforce the empire, be able to draw resources out of that empire at the end of the war?

Or do you really need to think about radical changes to the way that you're going to organize society? John Maynard Keynes, who was the British economic adviser both at the Paris Peace Conference and at Potsdam, was perfectly well aware. He argued as often as he could. We cannot go back to the way that we had things before. It's just not going to work.

We're going to have to be subservient to the Americans whether we want to or not. Our future political and economic success will be tied to the Americans, whether we want it to or not. And the empire is going to be a money loser because it's going to be too hard to go back in there and do things the way that we had done it before.

So he's a voice that's arguing for just a complete change of thought on the way that Britain thinks about everything that it organizes. As with many visionaries, a lot of people don't like listening to him because they think that it's too radical to change. One Bank of England executive said the only thing worse than losing the war is winning it with the Americans by our side, meaning that America's price for victory is too high.

So I think a lot of this kind of rhetoric and special relationship is built to mask an awful lot of that, an awful lot of the way that Americans understood we're not going back to what we had. We are now clearly going to be top dog and we're going to we're going to set things the way that we want to set them, which is what the United States did.

It's the postwar world for the United States, for Britain. It really is an awareness that you're going to come out of this war much the way the French came out of the First World War, victorious, but very weak and you're going to need time to build back up and you're going to have to face some very, very difficult questions going forward, especially given that the British want to put in national health insurance and all these kind of social rewards.

A good friend of mine, Jonathan Fennell, has just written a book basically arguing that this is what British soldiers believed they were fighting for in 1944-45. Yes, the defeat of Germany but we're fighting to create a Britain that will provide the working classes with some of the rewards that citizens of a of a great country should have.

Those things are expensive and they're difficult to deal with. There's a wonderful one of the British Air Force museums says one of the first British nuclear missiles there and there's a sign on it from Bevin, the foreign minister at Potsdam, in which he says Britain is going to have an independent nuclear force and that missile is going to have a great big bloody union Jack on it.

In other words, we're still going to be here and we're going to be independent. Other people like Alan Brooke realized, no, you may have those things, but the Americans will never let you use them independently.

Dr. Jason Dawsey

Yeah, that's very interesting. And I think good for everyone to remember about the the you know, the fact that the United States and Soviet Union are the real power brokers in this immediate postwar world.

But in this case, we have Harry Truman, who's only been in office three months really, you know, after FDR's death. And of course, we have the changeover from Churchill. He'd been such a presence to Attlee, but the big the big change, of course, is the Soviets are they are they had not been in 1919 so much in fact had been about, as we noted, had been about positioning the Western world against the spread of of the Bolshevik Revolution.

But here Stalin is there. And how do they, how did the Americans and British deal with that? We now have, we have Joseph Stalin, we have the Red Army had played such a decisive role in defeating Hitler. What, what do we do with that? How do we how do we have them at the table while at the same time not, you know, letting them have their way?

How did the Americans and British respond?

Dr. Michael Neiberg

So that's the that's the great power competition question of 1945. How do you read the Russians? So there are folks like George Kennedy who argue the Soviets came out of this war victorious, but they're not going to be celebrating in Times Square like we did. They're going to come out of the war even more paranoid than when they went in it.

And whatever strength you push them with, they're going to push back twice as hard. So if you try to take Poland or you try to move up closer to their border, they're going to push back at you. So the question really becomes there's three very quickly, there are three at least different ways of looking at the Russians the first is Kennan's, which argues that it doesn't matter what ideology their government is, what they basically want is what the czar wanted in 1914.

They want control of Poland, warm water, ports, border security. There is a much more aggressive voice in Washington that says, no, this is an ideological problem, this is a global, worldwide Bolshevik communist problem. That we're going to end up dealing with all over the world. Better to deal with these guys now than let that grow. And there is a third argument eventually becomes Kennan's containment argument that says look you can't stop them from expanding.

What you can do is is keep them so you can't you can't stop them from being a world power what you can do is stop them from expanding until the internal contradictions of their own system make it collapse from inside. And that's, of course, the way that this eventually works, though it takes almost 50 years to make it happen.

But Kennan's core argument and the containment theory is that it's a system that's basically a house of cards. If you push against it, they have enough military strength to push you back. They've shown that over the past hundred and fifty years. But the best way to do it is to just let them kind of stew in their own juices until the economy, society politics of this corrupt system just comes apart.

So again, it's a question of how do you think the Soviets got there and what you think they're up to conditions. The American response at Potsdam, most people go into that conference still believing that the United States and Soviet Union can have a constructive relationship in the postwar period. There's a photograph I love to show when I talk about Potsdam.

It's Molotov, the Soviet foreign minister and the new American secretary of state, James Byrnes. They are arm in arm and smiling. Right. The notion here is we've beaten the Germans. We're not yet enemies. Right. That'll happen after Potsdam that they'll start to develop after the conference but it's not the zeitgeist. It's not the mood at the conference itself.

Dr. Jason Dawsey

Yes. And just worth pointing out, as we're wrapping up, Mike going about to take questions, too, and I think the Western allies, whether they were aware of it or not in many cases, didn't want to see it. It's interesting that Stalin shared much of their suspicion about revolution, that he was himself very wary about kind of workers and peasants movements emerging out of the resistance against the fascist powers, against imperial Japan.

If you think about China, Southeast Asia, he's very wary of them, too. I mean, he really wants to keep a tight lid on movements in his own sphere of influence, too. So it's interesting that one of the things they share, even though it's not something they share overtly, is a real wariness about anything too radical coming from below.

Dr. Michael Neiberg

This is the argument for this, sorry. This is the argument for seeing Stalin as just basically another czar, right when he wants geopolitically is the same thing that the Romanov's always wanted. So don't read too much ideology into it. What he really is, is a dictator trying to control the borders of his own country, just as any dictator would.

So again the key point is in 1945 we're just not sure what to do with the Soviets.

Dr. Jason Dawsey

Right. That's great. So Mike, I want to first thank you for a great conversation. I mean we covered a lot of ground in 45 or so.

Dr. Michael Neiberg

Yeah, we did.

Dr. Jason Dawsey

But we obviously should open things up and see what kinds of questions our viewers had.

I know we already had one here so I'm just going to jump in Mike, and, and take us through at least a few of these. We've got from Dan in Michigan. He wanted to know, can you help me understand why the U.S. allowed Berlin to be divided?

Dr. Michael Neiberg

So if you're a University of Michigan fan, I will. That's where I went. If you're Michigan State, we're going on to the next question. So the argument is that Eisenhower called Berlin a prestige objective. In other words, there's nothing militarily necessary about the occupation of Berlin, because the Yalta agreement had said that there was going to be a kind of shared occupation of Germany. So Eisenhower's argument is, look, we still have a war with the Japanese we have to deal with.

I'm not going to let my soldiers get killed for something that we have to give back to the Soviets. Anyway. So the argument was physically the occupation of it, the taking of it is the responsibility of the Soviet Union. But the postwar political arrangement is going to be that there's going to be some level of sharing, some level of cooperation in the occupation of Germany.

So the Eisenhower's mind, it makes no sense to see American soldiers get killed for something you're just going to have to hand back. I think that's a perfectly defensible point from the perspective of 1944 and 1945, especially given, as I said, Eisenhower's assumption that so many of those troops are going to have to be rotated back to Asia.

So that that's the basic thinking.

Dr. Jason Dawsey

Good. Thank you. Yeah. That leads to the next point which you mentioned about the atomic bomb as its own thing, right? I mean it's the fundamentally new development in world history. Truman announces it to, to Stalin there. Where do we fit the atom bomb into this, you know, this idea about we need a new world order, we shouldn't repeat the mistakes of 1918, 1919, yet there's this hugely complicating factor which is the splitting of the atom and the weaponization of that.

And how does that fit in the way we think about the resolution of the global world war two crisis. Mike?

Dr. Michael Neiberg

One of my favorite anecdotes that comes out of Potsdam as soon as the reports come in that the, the, the Trinity test has succeeded there in Potsdam when this happens Churchill gives a speech to the British delegate or talks to the British delegation basically saying this is the end of all our problems.

Right? This is a cheap way to keep military power any time the Soviets try to push us around, we can just do this. We can knock out this city, we can destroy this city. And Alan Brooke, the British chief of staff, just writes in his diary something like I had to calm Winston down and he didn't like it. Right.

I had to explain to him that this is not like other weapons. Right. Alan Brooke understood. In July 1945 the only way once World War Two is over, the only way you can use nuclear weapons is for deterrence. That's it. That's it. It's a weapon. You're going to invest a lot of money in and never use. So he saw that right away.

So again, there's another question of what do you actually do with these weapons once you develop them? Now, we have followed the Alan Brooke method, the Alan Brooke strategy. So we there are other things we could have done, but that's another kind of dark cloud hanging over it. And I also cite in the Potsdam book and I like to recite these for my students here at the War College.

Most senior leaders other than Churchill, virtually all of them were incredibly depressed. That the Trinity test. It worked because what it meant was either war was going to be separated from its strategic dimension and just be about rock killing, or it meant that you were going to end up with whatever war you fight, killing hundreds of millions of people potentially every time you went about and did any military action at all.

So they are very dark. They're very morose, they're very upset about it. And I love to point that out to people. This is this is not a moment of triumph in their eyes. This is a moment of something that we may have to do. And it's certainly better that we did it before the Soviets or the Germans did it.

But this is a giant step backward in the way that people are thinking about military strategy.

Dr. Jason Dawsey

Mike, in fact, you just noted about, you know, you know, the Soviet Union being in this was a different thing and then how does that affect the whole framework of negotiations. France is out as opposed to in 1919 and we have a viewer who wanted to know about Charles de Gaulle.

He noted that you know they have the big three are there and they're going to decide really the Americans and Soviets and other countries are going to have to just accept that fact. In the case of de Gaulle, how does he respond to this new theory being proposed at Potsdam.

Dr. Michael Neiberg

He ain't happy de Gaulle is technically the leader of the provisional government of the Republic of France.

He is not the head of a government. So he is excluded on those grounds he's also excluded because Truman and Churchill had both just had enough of him. Truman makes a comment to James Byrnes' assistant, which I happen to just come across almost by accident in the Clemson Library when I was looking through Byrnes’ papers where he says, if I want to talk to de Gaulle, I will send for him as I would the head of any other small power.

So the notion is that they're not really sure what they want to do with France yet. Right. Do we treat France as a liberated country like we're going to treat Holland, or do we treat it as an occupied country the way we might treat Italy so how are we going to do this? The first time the Americans go into combat in Europe, of course, is against French troops.

It's against Vichy So what do we want to do? De Gaulle? That's not de Gaulle, de Gaulle is a very different kind of France and represents a different kind of France. But the United States has I think they more or less have determined by this point that it didn't have a choice that de Gaulle is going to be the leader of France when this is all over.

But that doesn't mean they have to give him the elevated status of letting him sit around the table with two elected officials. Right. Truman and Churchill and then with the leader of the Soviet Union, that de Gaulle is just not at that level yet. De Gaulle is furious and Churchill snubs him. Churchill before Potsdam went out Hendaye, which is a resort town near the Spanish border inside France, neither on the way down there nor on the way back to Churchill, go to Paris to meet with de Gaulle.

So there were intentional snubs aimed at him. And de Gaulle will get his revenge, but it'll be a few years in the making.

Dr. Jason Dawsey

He's thinking about it the whole time, though, right? I mean, about.

Dr. Michael Neiberg

Oh, no doubt right.

Dr. Jason Dawsey

He's really thinking about it. So, Mike, we're almost out of time. And I just want to close with one question has been posed here.

It's not exactly a small one, but maybe you can say briefly about it. Is that is there any unity at all among the leaders of the U.S., Britain and the Soviet Union? About the colonial issue at Potsdam? Is there anything that they can come together on with respect to, OK, here we are, another world war has been fought the colonized world was certainly played a huge role in that.

Is there anything that that they can agree on about what to do about about that coming out of Potsdam?

Dr. Michael Neiberg

Maybe my brain's about a little bit conditioned by the de Gaulle question, but the one thing they do agree on is that the French empire in Asia is done that it's Indo-China that's done well, it's not going to go back to France.

There's some backpedaling on that a little bit after the war. But the general sense is that that the general sense, I think, is that the United Nations is going to be the instrument to handle this. I think there was an expectation on the Soviet side, and I don't read Russian. I'm not a Soviet specialist that the Empire, just there's no way the British French could walk back into those places and exercise authority.

There's just no way. And I think there was some expectation on the American side that that that something similar would happen. The British you know, they're even Attlee who is a labor leader and fairly far to the left, wanted India to stay inside the British Empire. So the major big issues about what to do are perfectly wide open.

And of course, the issue of Palestine is one that will become a major sticking point between the British and the Americans in the late 1940s. So I don't think there's much agreement except that the states that aren't represented are the ones whose empires might go away.

Dr. Jason Dawsey

Well Mike, that, that yeah, there's so much to say about that question and all the other ones we've covered today.

But let me thank you very much for a great discussion. I hope our viewers really gotten some something out of it. And obviously, please consult if you want more on Mike's two books. About the concise history of the Treaty of Versailles in his book on Potsdam and the Remaking of Europe. But let me thank all of you for joining us today.

It's been a real pleasure for me. It's great to see you as always, Mike.

Dr. Michael Neiberg

Thank you. Be safe, everybody. Thanks!

Jeremy Collins

Thank you for listening. If you liked what you heard, please consider visiting National WW two Museum dot org backslash podcasts for more episodes. Again, that is National WW, the number two museum dot org backslash podcasts. This series is made possible by the Albert and Ethel Herztein Charitable Foundation, which supports content like this from the National World War Two Museum in New Orleans.

Don't forget to rate and subscribe. It goes a long way to helping others find this series I'm Jeremy Collins signing off.