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Elbridge Durbrow Oral History Interview

Oral History Interview with
Elbridge Durbrow

United States Foreign Service officer, 1930-68, including service as liaison secretary at the U.N. Monetary and Financial Conference, Bretton Woods, N.H., 1944; chief, Eastern European Division, State Department, 1944-46; counselor of embassy, Moscow, U.S.S.R., 1946-48; deputy for Foreign Affairs, National War College, 1948-50; chief, Division of Foreign Service Personnel, State Department, 1950; and minister counselor, American Embassy, Rome, Italy, 1952-54.
Elbridge Durbrow
Washington, D.C.
May 31, 1973
by Richard D. McKinzie

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Notice
This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Harry S. Truman Library. A draft of this transcript was edited by the interviewee but only minor emendations were made; therefore, the reader should remember that this is essentially a transcript of the spoken, rather than the written word.

Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. [45]) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.

RESTRICTIONS
This oral history transcript may be read, quoted from, cited, and reproduced for purposes of research. It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.

Opened April, 1978
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri

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Oral History Interview with
Elbridge Durbrow

Washington, D.C.
May 31, 1973
by Richard D. McKinzie

 

[1]

MCKINZIE: Mr. Ambassador, I wonder if you could talk a little bit about your work in the Eastern European Division in the State Department in 1944 and 1945 when the war was coming to a close, and the kind of things with which you personally dealt; and I'd be interested to know about what postwar planning activities were

 

[2]

going on?

DURBROW: Well, in ‘44 and '45 obviously we were going to win the war. The Eastern European Division dealt with Poland, the Baltic States and the Soviet Union. The Baltic States had already been swallowed up in 1940, but we in the United States did not recognize the Soviet conquest so we had our problems with our Soviet Allies at the time. How were you going to get those countries unstuck from the annexation of 1940? How were you going to get a truly democratic Polish Government that could get along with the Soviet version of a Polish Government, the Lublin Government, which had already been created by that time in Moscow? So, a good part of our problems were, how do we get things restored which were already going to go the other way; because

 

[3]

with the decisions made at the Teheran and Yalta Conferences the big question was what is Poland going to look like territorially after the war? The Soviets claimed, and quite correctly, that during the Bolshevik Revolution the Allied Powers had pushed the frontiers in the East a little bit further than history would deem it appropriate. So that sort of thing is what we were basically dealing with. That was part of postwar planning. We drew up position papers for these various conferences, Teheran in '43, of course, and then Yalta, and the various other conferences like the Quebec meeting between President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill -- things like that.

MCKINZIE: Some of the people who were involved in some of the conferences, particularly the Yalta

 

[4]

Conferences -- I'm thinking now particularly of Charles Bohlen -- they said they didn't think President Roosevelt paid much attention to background work that was done within the Department. That he tended to sort of, I guess the phrase these days is, "play it by the seat of his pants" when he got to a place like Yalta.

DURBROW: That is correct. Because the President was his own Secretary of State. He hardly got along with Mr. [Cordell] Hull toward the last three or four years Mr. Hull was there. FDR dealt with whatever he did in the Department, basically through Mr. [Sumner] Welles the Under Secretary. So, we were asked to get up position papers and we did, and we thrashed them over with the Secretary eventually, and they were put in the briefing book. Chip Bohlen was in on these

 

[5]

things although he was attached to the White House at the time. He would bring certain points that were worked out in these position papers to the President's attention or to Harry Hopkins' attention; and so we got some input. But, as far as I recall from what others told me who were at Yalta -- Freeman Matthews, Chip Bohlen and others, FDR didn't take the trouble to read the books or only read ones that the members of the staff suggested, unless he felt he had to go deeper. Like the important matter of the Oder-Neisse Line between Poland and Germany. I worked very hard on that with a lot of my colleagues in the State Department -- the geographer, and people of that kind, and the historian -- trying to establish, for instance, what the ethnic and historical frontiers of Poland were over the centuries in

 

[6]

the West and matters of that kind. At the Teheran Conference, and particularly at Yalta, it had been agreed that they were going to lop off the Eastern part of Poland to give it to the Soviet Union, including East Prussia and places like that in Germany. Give them Koenigsberg and other areas. The Danzig Corridor was going to disappear. How could we get an equitable -- not just a compensatory -- swap with German territory for Polish territory that Stalin insisted on taking in the East. For instance the town of Lvov -- Lemberg it's called in English -- Lvov down in Southeast Poland had been Polish for just centuries -- never been Ukrainian or Russian or anything else for any length of time. There was also oil in that area, not very much; but oil had been discovered there and there was some production. Stalin was looking for oil and that

 

[7]

sort of thing, so the allied leaders decided, at Stalin's insistence, to give the Lvov area to the Soviet Union. What should we do in the West? So, we worked out the maps, that are now published in the Foreign Relations of the United States, of two different Oder-Neisse lines in that area. Since much of Eastern Germany had never been Polish we tried to not take too much territory from the Germans on the theory, rightly or wrongly, just because then it was supposed to be a nice thing to do. The German Nazis were a bunch of mean scoundrels and that sort of thing, but will this grab of basically historic German territory be the seed to World War III? Perhaps, because the Germans will want to retake these territories in the future? Most of that area had been either Germans, or Prussians for centuries.

 

[8]

So we prepared all the studies we possibly could and drew these various lines, which incidentally, brings in President Truman. This dilemma was finally settled at Potsdam. I didn't like that settlement. I was very much against it. I thought it was wrong, and I still think it was ethnically wrong, historically wrong; but in any event, to make a long story short, even [Stanislaw] Mikolajczyk, who was at Potsdam in the wings said, in effect after much allied pressure, "Go ahead, let's buy it; but I don't think it's correct, etc., etc." Jimmy Dunn, who was Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs, and Chip Bohlen and some of the other State Department experts sat up one night at Potsdam -- so they told me later -- with Mikolajczyk, and finally he said, in effect, "Well, if you can't get anything better, if we

 

[9]

get free elections and all the other promises made by Stalin and company at Yalta, I'll buy the Oder-Neisse line," which the Soviet insisted upon. There are two Neisse Rivers, by the way; so one of our maps that we worked out was the further East. But in any event that was the sort of thing we tried to work out; but the more Western version was agreed to.

Churchill at Teheran, as I understand it, said you've got to compensate "Uncle Joe" for Poland territory taken in 1920 and at the time of the Soviet revolution. That will make him more amenable. So FDR said, "Yes."

Well, that's when the Curzon line came in. The Curzon line was the eastern Polish boundary suggested by Lord Curzon in 1917 or '18, during World War I, as a boundary between the Soviet Union and the to be restored Poland. This was

 

[10]

necessary because Poland had been divided for over 100 years between the Germans and czarist Russia until World War I. There were two suggested lines that Lord Curzon and his team drew up in the late 1910's. One excluded Lvov and the other included Lvov on the eastern side of the frontier. Well, Churchill said, in effect, as I understand it, "Oh, there isn't very much oil down there anyway." We agreed to give the U.S.S.R. the western Curzon line, which gave the Soviet more territory including the whole Lvov area.

That, incidentally, brought them in closer touch with the territory of Czechoslovakia with whom they were playing cunning games, particularly with [Eduard] Benes and company, but not at all with [General Wladyslaw] Sikorski and the Poles So that's the way that thing came out. Now we

 

[11]

worked hard on that sort of planning, and it's because of that type of work that I happened to be on a short second assignment in Moscow in 1945 after the Yalta Conference to advise Ambassador Harriman on Polish matters. Since I had been following all these things, we did have position papers which helped out some.

MCKINZIE: A lot of historians these days are concerned with the kind of frame of mind that various people in the Government were in about Soviet intentions in Eastern Europe about the time of Yalta and the months thereafter. They make the point, for example, that Averell Harriman was by no means very optimistic about the future Soviet conduct, but on the other hand Harry Hopkins seemed to be pretty much optimistic about the future and, indeed, Franklin Roosevelt apparently

 

[12]

was fairly optimistic about the ability of the United States to cooperate with the Soviets. What about the Eastern European Division in the State Department?

DURBROW: Well, we'd been there before -- George Kennan, Chip Bohlen, and several others, including myself, all went to Moscow with Ambassador Bill [William] Bullitt's mission in 1934 when we first recognized the Soviet Union. It was recognized in '33, but the Embassy staff went in in March of 1934. We'd been through the whole 1935-38 purge period. We had seen the cruelties of that period. We knew how "Uncle Joe" (Stalin) was handling things internally. The Litvinov-Roosevelt agreements of 1933 were not lived up to at all. Bill Bullitt went in there very hopeful, optimistic, and bending over backwards

 

[13]

to see if he could find the Achilles' heel and get them to be more friendly -- more cooperative with the West. Our feeling about the 1933 accords was: "We don't care what happens in your country, you can have communism, Leninism, name it. It's your business, but just don't bother us." In common terms, "no monkey business in our country," etc. -- but these accords were all broken. We'd seen agreements broken before. I stayed there myself until the end of 1937. So you couldn't help but be skeptical about agreements they made. Other agreements that they had made with other countries were broken, were not lived up to, were not implemented properly the way they read to us and to the other countries. All of us couldn't help but be very skeptical based on their past record. So, come 1944-45 we were very concerned over the basic

 

[14]

optimism of a lot of people about our Russian allies. People forgot that it was the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939 that opened up and brought on World War II. People also forget that the Soviets and Nazis divided Poland and everything else right down the middle in a cold-blooded deal -- the Baltic States included, which of course, the Soviets got the next year. Then, by chance, those same people turned out to be our allies, as Hitler jumped on them and Russia was thrown on the side of the British and French. Then we were hit by the Japanese and thus strange circumstances