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Harry Truman on Trieste

This extract from President Truman's Memoirs, covering the period from 13 April to 25 June 1945, includes two cables, Truman to Stalin on 20 June 45 and Stalin to Truman on 23 June 45, which are perhaps the first hints of the Cold War and Iron Curtain That would keep Allied forces at the Yugoslav border for the next nine years.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945. On April 13 President Harry S Truman requested and received from Secretary of State Edward R. Stettinius, Jr. "an outline of the background and present status of the principal problems confronting this government in its relations with other countries". That part of the report covering Italy follows.

[Chapter 1; pp 16-17:]

April 13, 1945

ITALY. Although a cobelligerent since October 1943, Italy is still subject to an armistice regime and considerable control by the Allied Commission. Chiefly through our efforts, Italy's status has improved, but less than we desire in view of the British policy of keeping Italy dependent. We have been unable to end the anomaly of Italy's dual status as active cobelligerent and as a defeated enemy. Great pressure is being brought to bear by groups in this country to make Italy one of the United Nations - a step essentially in accordance with our policy but not with that of certain other allied governments.

Our greatest problem at present, aside from the country's economic distress, is to forestall Yugoslav occupation of an important part of northeastern Italy, prejudicing by unilateral action a final equitable settlement of this territorial dispute and precipitating serious trouble in Italy. Difficulties may be encountered in maintaining Allied (Anglo-American) military government in this area. ...

[Chapter 16; pp. 243-253:]

We had another explosive situation on our hands that could become serious, and that was in the Trieste area. This was brought on by the nationalistic ambitions of the partisan leader, Tito. Allied and Russian support had enabled Tito to campaign successfully against the Germans and to establish himself as the head of the Yugoslav National Provisional Government. Tito was a Communist, but he combined with his communism an appeal to the ardent nationalism of the Yugoslav peoples. In the name of Yugoslav nationalism he was laying claim to the important seaport of Trieste and the surrounding area of Venezia Giulia.

In this area population and language groups were intermingled. The city of Trieste is overwhelmingly Italian in population, while the surrounding countryside is inhabited primarily by Slovenes, one of the nationalities that comprise Yugoslavia. Slovene and Croat settlements are also to be found in the border sections of the Austrian provinces of Styria and Carinthia, and Tito was moving troops into those sections with the idea of obtaining them for Yugoslavia.

Trieste was particularly important because it is a major port forming an outlet into the Adriatic for the entire surrounding region, as well as for landlocked Austria and other portions of the Danube River basin.

The Allied plan called for all these contested areas to be occupied by forces under Field Marshal Alexander's command [the British Eighth Army]. The Allied forces at that time [late April 1945] were driving into north Italy and would shortly have to spread out in order to seize such important centers as Milan and Turin.

On April 27 Churchill cabled me, saying:

"The plan for the Anglo-American occupation of Venezia Giulia has been hanging fire in Washington for a considerable time, with the result that Field Marshall Alexander is still without orders. I should therefore be most grateful if you would give your personal attention to this. ... It seems to me vital to get Trieste if we can do so in the easy manner proposed, and to run the risks inherent in these kinds of political-military operations. ... The great thing is to be there before Tito's guerillas are in occupation. Therefore it does not seem to me there is a minute to lose. The actual status of Trieste can be determined at leisure. Possession is nine points of the law. I beg you for an early decision."

I consulted with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and wired Churchill that "the Combined Chiefs of Staff with my approval authorized Alexander to accomplish what I understood to be your idea regarding Trieste and other areas formerly under Italian rule as a matter of military necessity."

Alexander was instructed to establish Allied military government in Venezia Giulia and in the areas to the north which, until 1919, had been Austrian Territory. He was told that the successful working out of the plan depended on Soviet co-operation and that the United States and Britain were considering the best method of seeking such co-operation and subsequent Yugoslav agreement to the plan, but that in the meantime he should carry out the plan if military necessity "so requires even before Soviet and Yugoslav agreements have been obtained".

On April 30 I received Churchill's comment on the instruction cabled to Alexander.

"The military part," he said, "seems to me very good; but it is surely a delusion to suppose the Yugoslav government, with the Soviet government behind them, should agree to our entering or taking control of Venezia Giulia including Fiume, etc. They will undoubtedly try to overrun all this territory and will claim and occupy the ports of Trieste, Pola and Fiume, and once they get there I do not think they will go. No one is more keen than I to play absolutely fair with the Soviets on matters of the surrender of the German forces. ... On the other hand we have never undertaken to be limited in our advances to clear Italy, including these Adriatic Provinces, of the Germans by the approval of either the Yugoslavs or the Russians, nor to report to them the military movements our commanders think it right to make. ... We are as much entitled to move freely into Trieste, if we can get there, as were the Russians to win their way into Vienna. We ought if possible to get there first and then talk about the rest of the Province. After all the basic principle on which we have been working is that territorial changes must be left for the peace or armistice settlement.

"I therefore hope that Alexander will be left to carry out the plan, which the Chiefs of the Combined Staffs have approved, as quickly and secretly as possible and that above all we shall try to take possession of Trieste from the sea before informing the Russians or Yugoslavs, assuming of course that the Supreme Commander considers that it can be successfully accomplished with the amphibious and other forces at his disposal. ..."

I thought it necessary and important at this point to make our position clear to Churchill. I cabled him the same day, April 30, as follows:

"It seems to me that Field Marshal Alexander has all the military guidance he needs from the Combined Chiefs of Staff. I agree that in the operational phase when he is endeavoring to establish his lines of communication to Austria and to establish his control over Trieste and Pola, there is no need for obtaining prior Russian consent. I note that before his task force enters Venezia Giulia Alexander will inform Marshal Tito of his intentions and explain to Tito that if any of his forces remain in that area they must necessarily come under Alexander's command. Alexander is directed to communicate with the Combined Chiefs of Staff before taking further action in the area in question if the Yugoslav forces there fail to cooperate. I think this is important for I wish to avoid having American forces used to fight Yugoslavs or being used in combat in the Balkan political arena."

I was trying to be extremely careful not to get us mixed up in a Balkan turmoil. The Balkans had long been a source of trouble and war. I believed that if the political situation in the Balkans could be adjusted so that Hungary, Yugoslavia, Rumania, and Bulgaria, as well as Poland and Austria, could all have governments of their own people's choosing, with no outside interference, this would help us in our plans for peace.

I did not want to become involved in the Balkans in a way that could lead us into another world conflict. In any case, I was anxious to get the Russians into the war against Japan as soon as possible, thus saving the lives of countless Americans.

Churchill, on the other hand, was always anxious to do what he could to save British control of the eastern Mediterranean area in order to maintain Great Britain's influence in Greece, Egypt, and the Middle East. I could not blame Churchill for the position he took. Had I been in his place, I might probably have been inclined to do as he wanted to do.

General Marshall and I, in discussing each military phase, agreed that if we were to win the peace after winning the war, we had to have Russian help. I was trying to get Churchill in a frame of mind to forget the old power politics and get a United Nations organization to work.

It had long been evident that the northern frontiers of Italy would be in dispute. In September 1944, at the Quebec conference, President Roosevelt had approved a plan that would leave the final disposition of disputed areas on Italy's borders to a final peace settlement. Meanwhile, however, Allied military government was to be established in Italy with her 1939 frontiers under Allied control, and it was on this basis that the directive of April 20 had been sent to Field Marshal Alexander to maintain Allied and military government in areas along the Italian northern likely to be disputed, including Venezia Giulia.

Alexander had discussed the Allied occupation plans with Tito in Belgrade in February 1945. Tito had accepted this plan, which provided that local authorities, whatever their nationalities, would come under the Allied military government. Russia had been informed of the British-American position on Venezia Giulia on March 19. Russia had not dissented. Now, however, Tito claimed that because conditions had changed since the time he made the agreement with Alexander he would no longer observe it. He informed Alexander that he intended to occupy Venezia Giulia up to the Austrian border, but that he would allow the Allies the use of the port of Trieste and of the railway up to Austria. But when Alexander's troops reached the cities of Trieste, Monfalcone, and Gorizia, they found that Tito's forces were ahead of them and that Tito was continuing to pour Yugoslav troops into the entire area east of the Isonzo River. Furthermore, he persisted in his claim that this area was his exclusive operational theater. His forces were also setting up the administration of the area, and Alexander's forces were unable to establish an Allied military government, even in the portion of the three cities he had entered. And finally, the formation of a Slovene government at Trieste was actually announced.

The Italian government became increasingly alarmed, fearing that Tito's action would play into the hands of subversive groups in Italy. On May 7 our Ambassador in Rome, Alexander Kirk, reported that east of the Isonzo River a Yugoslav military government was in full control. All public buildings had been occupied and Yugoslav flags were flying over them. Italian names of towns had even been replaced by Yugoslav names. A large number of persons, including the Italian Archbishop of Gorizia, had been arrested and removed.

Two days later Ambassador Kirk reported growing tension in Italy, and Premier Bonomi complained that the Italian Communists were claiming Tito's actions had the approval of the Allies. The American government had never for a moment considered that Trieste should go to Yugoslavia. That was Roosevelt's position, and it was mine. Tito was now plainly determined to use force to gain his territorial objective instead of waiting for a peace conference to settle all boundary claims. I therefore called the Chiefs of Staff and representatives of the State Department to a special conference at the White House. I then cabled Churchill on May 11 and issued a directive to the Chiefs of Staff. The cable to Churchill follows:

"Since sending you my telegram of April 30 I have become increasingly concerned over the implication of Tito's actions in Venezia Giulia. You are no doubt receiving the same reports which indicate that he has no intention of abandoning the territory or of permitting a peaceful solution of this century old problem as part of a general pacific postwar settlement. I have come to the conclusion that we must decide now whether we shall uphold the fundamental principles of territorial settlement by orderly process against force, intimidation or blackmail. It seems that Tito has an identical claim ready for South Austria, in Carinthia and Styria and may have similar designs on parts of Hungary and Greece if his methods in Venezia Giulia succeed. Although the stability of Italy and the future orientation of that country with Russia may well be at stake the present issue, as I see it, is not a question of taking sides in a dispute between Italy and Yugoslavia or of becoming involved in internal Balkan politics. The problem is essentially one of deciding whether our two countries are going to permit our Allies to engage in uncontrolled land-grabbing or tactics which are all too reminiscent of those of Hitler and Japan. Yugoslav occupation of Trieste, the key to that area and a vital outlet for large areas of central Europe would, as I know you would agree, have more far-reaching consequences than the immediate territory involved. ... I suggest we instruct our ambassadors at Belgrade to inform Tito along these lines: that Venezia Giulia is only one of the many territorial problems in Europe to be solved in the general peace settlement. The doctrine of solution by conquest and by unilateral proclamation of sovereignty through occupation, the method used by the enemy with such tragic consequences, has been definitely and solemnly repudiated by the Allied governments participating in this war. ... The plan of Allied military government for Venezia Giulia was adopted precisely to achieve a peaceful and lasting solution of a problem of admitted complexities. It is designed to safe guard the interests of the peoples involved. ... With these considerations in mind, and in view of the previous general agreement of the Yugoslav government to the plans proposed for this region, my Government has instructed me to inform you that it expects the Yugoslav Government will immediately agree to the control by the Supreme Allied Commander in the Mediterranean of the region which must include Trieste, Gorizia, Monfalcone and [Pola], and issue appropriate instructions to the Yugoslav forces in the region in question to cooperate with the Allied commanders in the establishment of military government in that area under the authority of the Allied commander. ..."

On May 12 Churchill replied:

"I agree with every word you say, and will work with all my strength on the line you propose. ... If it is handled firmly before our strength is dispersed Europe may be saved from another blood-bath. Otherwise the whole fruits of our victory may be cast away and none of the purposes of World Organisation to prevent territorial aggression and future wars will be attained. ..."

Churchill agreed to have the British Ambassador join ours in the representation to Tito, but he made a plea for a standstill order on the withdrawal of American troops from Europe. He wanted me to commit myself to the maintenance under Alexander's command of the same number of American divisions he then had.

I could not make any such commitments. Victory over Japan would require the transfer of troops from Europe to the Pacific, and this movement had already been started. There was also strong pressure building up throughout our country to "bring the boys back home". The American people wanted nothing more at that moment than to end the war. I cabled Churchill that I could not consider a standstill order unless further developments should make it necessary. "Unless Tito's forces should attack," I wrote, "it is impossible for me to involve this country in another war."

Churchill, in his reply, said, "I quite understand your wishing to wait further developments before deciding on such serious steps and we should await the result of our message to Tito. I am not quite sure about your sentence 'unless Tito's forces should attack, it is impossible, etc.' I thought from your number 34, that if he were recalcitrant, we should have to push his infiltrations east of the line you have prescribed. I presume his prolonged intrusion into these regions would, if persisted in, constitute 'an attack'. I believe myself he will give in and conform to our wishes, especially when he realizes we are in deadly earnest. Anyhow I agree we must wait until he replies.

On the following day, May 13, Churchill cabled again, proposing that I join him in a message to Stalin with regard to the Trieste situation. I agreed, and in a joint message we set out in full the background of the controversy and informed Stalin of the sharp note that had been sent to Belgrade. On May 16 I cabled Churchill again as follows:

"I am pleased with your agreement that we should await results of the messages to Tito before deciding upon further action.

"To clarify understanding of my message beginning, QUOTE: Unless Tito should attack, it is impossible, etc., UNQUOTE, it means definitely that I am unable and unwilling to involve this country in a war with the Yugoslavs unless they should attack us, in which case we would be justified in using our Allied troops to throw them back to a distance that would preclude further attack on our troops."

Churchill replied on May 19, saying that in view of the completely negative response to our note by Tito he thought such action as Alexander might have to take could not be considered a war with Yugoslavia. He did not think we should wait on a clear-cut act of aggression before taking action because it might be possible for Yugoslav units so to isolate Allied elements that they would be completely helpless.

"There should be no question," I answered, "about our commanders taking essential precautions to prevent their forces from being placed in an untenable position. However, I think we should make it very clear to our leaders that this should be done with maximum precautions to insure that an overt act, if any, comes from Tito's forces.

I then suggested new instructions to be sent to Eisenhower and Alexander to reinforce the front-line troops in and around Trieste. I again emphasized that "I must not have any avoidable interference with the redeployment of American forces to the Pacific."

The Yugoslavs continued to push their occupation attempts. On May 17 Field Marshal Alexander sent a message to General Eisenhower saying that the situation had seriously deteriorated and that the Yugoslav activities could not be controlled without the use of force.

Several days before, I had called in the Chiefs of Staff. I wanted to know what forces were available in the immediate area in case it became necessary for us to make a show of strength. I believed that all it was necessary for us to do to impress Tito was to show such overpowering strength that he would back down before undertaking anything foolhardy. Through General Marshall I asked General Eisenhower if he could send three divisions to the Brenner Pass or above Trieste. I asked Admiral King if he could send some units of the Mediterranean fleet to the Adriatic and how long it would take to get there. I told him to alert the necessary ships. I asked [General] Arnold what air squadrons he could move, and to alert them.

General Marshall reported that Eisenhower was prepared to dispatch General Patton with up to five armored divisions to the Brenner Pass and, if necessary, into Italy. Admiral King reported that units of the Mediterranean fleet had been alerted to steam into the Adriatic, and General Arnold told me that several Air Force squadrons were ready to move at a moment's notice.

Once again I addressed myself to Stalin. "Through the Embassy at Moscow," I cabled him on May 20, "I have been keeping you informed of the American position on the interim administration of the Venezia Giulia. In particular your government has been given copies of the recent American and British notes to Marshal Tito which proposed, in accordance with the previous understanding reached in February between Field Marshal Alexander and Marshal Tito, that the Supreme Allied Commander should exercise control in an area including Trieste, Monfalcone, Gorizia and Pola in order not to prejudice any final disposition through occupation by either claimant. We have now had a reply from Marshal Tito which is entirely unsatisfactory in that he states that his government is not prepared 'to renounce the right of the Yugoslav Army holding the territory up to the Isonzo River'. As regards the administration of the area he offers a solution which cannot be reconciled with the principles we have enunciated. Meanwhile the proximity of Alexander's and Tito's troops in undefined areas of occupation and the dual nature of control thus created are fraught with danger. ... We cannot consider this simply in the light of an Italian-Yugoslav boundary dispute but must regard it as a question of principle involving the pacific settlement of territorial disputes and the foundation of a lasting peace in Europe. We will not now or in the future take or permit any action in respect of this territory which does not fully take into account legitimate Yugoslav claims and the contribution which Yugoslav forces made to the victory over Germany won at great cost to us all. We cannot however accept any compromise upon the principle of an orderly and just settlement and are so informing Marshal Tito.

"I know you will agree that we must stand firm on the issue of principle and I hope that we can count on your influence also to bring about the provisional settlement outlined in our recent note to Marshal Tito. After Field Marshal Alexander has extended his authority in the Venezia Giulia east of the line indicated in our note and tranquility has thus been restored, we could then continue in the spirit of our Yalta understandings looking toward further adjustments of the problem."

I notified Churchill of this move, and he replied that he would send a similar message to Stalin. He said, "Our firm attitude will be of value in our discussions with Stalin. It seems to me that the need for our triple meeting at the earliest possible moment is very great."

I answered Churchill that I would be able, in another week or so, to advise him when and where I might be able to attend such a high-level meeting. I thanked him for the British support of my message to Stalin, adding that "I indulge in a hope the U.J. ['Uncle Joe' Stalin] will use his influence to assist us in reaching a settlement of the Tito problem in Venezia Giulia."

Stalin's answer to my message came on May 23. It disappointed me. The Russian Premier backed Tito in his claims and hoped that the conflict would be settled by our acceptance of the Yugoslav position. Stalin wrote:

"I have received on May 21 your message on the question of Istria-Trieste. Somewhat earlier I have also received from you, through Mr. Kennan, the text of the message transmitted by the american Ambassador in Belgrade to the Yugoslav Government on the same question. Thank you for this information.

"In regard to the essence of the question I have to say the following:

"Your opinion, that this question is of principle and that in respect of the territory of Istria-Trieste no action should be allowed which will not fully consider the lawful claims of Yugoslavia and the contribution of the Yugoslav armed forces to the common cause of the Allies in the struggle against Hitlerite Germany, seems to be quite correct. It goes without saying that the future of this territory, the majority of whose population is Yugoslavian, should be determined during the peace adjustment. However, at the present time the question is the temporary military occupation of this territory. In this respect it is necessary, in my opinion, to take into consideration that it is the allied Yugoslav troops who have driven the German invaders from the territory of Istria-Trieste, thereby rendering an important service to the common cause of the Allies. By virtue of this circumstance only it would not be fair and would be an undeserved insult for the Yugoslav Army and the Yugoslav people to refuse Yugoslavia the right to occupy the territory retaken from the enemy after the Yugoslav people has made so many sacrifices in the struggle for the national rights of Yugoslavia and for the common cause of the United Nations. It seems to me that the correct solution for this problem is the one which would provide that the Yugoslav troops remain in the region of Istria-Trieste as well as the Yugoslav administration functioning at the present time in this region. At the same time in this region be established a control of the Allied Supreme Commander, and, on agreement between Field Marshal Alexander and Marshal Tito, a demarcation line be drawn. By accepting these proposals the question of administration in the region of Istria-Trieste would also receive a correct solution.

"As the Yugoslav population is in majority on this territory and already in the period of German occupation a local Yugoslav administration was being formed, which at the present time enjoys the confidence of the local population, the present situation should be taken into consideration. By subordinating the already existing Yugoslavian civilian administration in this region to the Yugoslav military command the question of administrative direction of this territory would be appropriately regulated.

I would like to hope that the misunderstanding regarding the situation of the region Istria-Trieste, arisen among the Governments of the United States and Great Britain on the one hand and the Yugoslav Government on the other, will be eliminated and the whole matter will be favorably settled."

Field Marshal Alexander showed a great deal of patience throughout the crisis. But on the one occasion when he spoke his mind, he compared Tito to Hitler and Mussolini. The Yugoslavs and the Russians alike raised storms of indignant protest over this incident.

Later in May, Tito advised us he would agree to Allied control of Trieste and Venezia Giulia if Yugoslav units could remain in the Allied occupied area, if Yugoslav representatives could participate in Allied military government, and if our military administration would act through the civil authorities Tito had already set up in the area. This counterproposal was unworkable, as well as unacceptable from a military viewpoint to Field Marshal Alexander, but it kept the door open to further negotiations. That was what I wanted, and talks continued despite irritating local incidents. Then on May 29 Dr. Ivan Subasic, the Yugoslav Foreign Minister, called on me, accompanied by the Yugoslav Ambassador. Dr. Subasic had been at the San Francisco conference and was on his way back to Belgrade. He was a leader in the Croatian Peasant Party, had been Prime minister in the government-in-exile, and now represented the fusion element in the new Tito government. He made a fine impression on me. I talked very plainly to him and to the Ambassador. The Allies, I told them, intended to extend an impartial military administration to some of the disputed territory of Venezia Giulia without prejudice to the final disposition of the area, and we expected the Yugoslav government to co-operate, as a member of the United Nations. Tito, I pointed out, had already violated the Yalta agreement by setting up a totalitarian regime and was now trying to extend it to Venezia Giulia by force. If Tito persisted in this, we would meet him with overwhelming force, and the time had come for a decision. I let Dr. Subasic know that we now had completed a draft agreement and would soon present it to Tito, expecting him to co-operate without further obstructionist tactics.

On June 9 an agreement was finally signed making two military occupation zones out of Venezia Giulia. The western zone, known as Zone A and including the city of Trieste, was placed under Anglo-American occupation, and the eastern zone, known as Zone B, was to be under Yugoslav occupation. The line of demarcation had been worked out by General Sir Frederick Morgan, Alexander's Chief of Staff, in agreement with the Yugoslavs, and this line became known as the Morgan Line. Yugoslav troops were to be withdrawn to their own zone, and the Allied commander was to decide on the use of all civil authorities in our zone. Both zones were to be considered as temporary occupation areas and as not affecting the ultimate territorial settlement.

Getting supplementary agreement needed to implement military and technical details of this agreement met with further difficulties.

Now, on June 21, Stalin took up Tito's case.

"The tone," he said, " of the ultimatum of the declaration that was presented to the Yugoslav Government by Anglo-American representatives on June 2 was ... unexpected for the Soviet Government. How is it possible to believe that such methods will provide strong positive results? ... I, as before, hope that in respect to Trieste-Istria the just Yugoslav interests will be satisfied."

I cabled Stalin on June 25, explaining the course of the negotiations in detail and assuring him that any still unexplained questions could be discussed at our forthcoming meeting. Trieste was one of many problems that would have to be taken up at this meeting. Throughout May and June many difficulties developed between the Russians and ourselves and the British. ...

Memoirs by Harry S Truman : Volume 1 : Year of Decisions [1945-1946] / by Harry S Truman Copyright 1955 Time Inc. Publ: Doubleday, Garden City NY, 1955 LCC 55-10519. 596+ pp.

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