The defeat of the Axis Powers in World War II did not usher an era of peace. Rather, decades of unease between the United States and the Soviet Union characterized the postwar world. This period would be termed the Cold War—the absence of direct military confrontation replaced with economic and political struggles. The wartime conferences at Teheran and Yalta between British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, United States President Franklin Roosevelt and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin discussed policies that resulted in the postwar spheres of influence. Harry Truman assumed the presidency upon Roosevelt’s death. He appointed James Byrnes as his Secretary of State. Together they met at Potsdam with Stalin and his foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov and British Prime Minister Clemet Attlee and Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin in the final discussions about the postwar policies.
Herbert Hoover was not part of any of the discussions dealing with the postwar policy decisions by the Allied Powers. He had, however, his own views which he expressed in a humorous way at the Gridiron Dinner in Washington, D.C. on May 10,1947. The following is an excerpt from those remarks:
My first Gridiron dinner was thirty-five years ago when I was seated at the far end of the corner table. I had come to Washington to undertake a small mission for President Taft. In these thirty-five years I have been undertaking missions for every Democratic or Republican President—except one [Franklin Roosevelt].
You are aware that I recently made three reports on European economic and political subjects. There was a fourth part of that last mission which I will disclose to you. It seemed to me desirable to find out whether there was any humor left in European statesmen. It has importance as it would make our international relations more endurable. Moreover, I hoped that we might get for the American taxpayer a few refreshing jokes as repayment for Lend-Lease and subsequent loans. Finding little spontaneity, I tried force only once. A British Food Minister had been moaning at great length over the hardships of their monotonous diet. I suggested that they could greatly improve matters by reforming that institution of British self-castigation—the eternal boiled potato. I went so far as to suggest their employing a few French or Belgian chefs to teach them how to cook a potato, at least for official banquets. He observed that we should discuss only matters of importance to the laboring classes.
I had no luck for some time, although some of the statemen along the Iron Curtain shook my hand smilingly and looked me straight in the pocketbook.
I, however, persisted in my quest through the thickets of innumerable conferences with high officials of many countries. I had no tangible results until I came to the most tragic city of all the world—Vienna. There I found an official who really wanted to help. His contribution has particular point for President Truman in these days. Discussing with this Viennese official the lack of humor in Communist Governments, he dissented, and as proof reported to me a meeting between Secretary Byrnes and Mr. Molotov. He said Secretary Byrnes was trying to instruct Molotov in the ways of democracy by describing how any respectable citizen with something on his mind could come to the White House, see the President, and even denounce the President’s policies to his face. He could be sure when he went away that nothing harmful would come to him. Molotov replied that likewise any respectable citizen of Russian could come to the Kremlin, be received by Mr. Stalin, denounce Mr. Truman’s policies to Mr. Stalin’s face, and nothing harmful would come to him, either.
This same official, to illustrate the problem from which his country was suffering, described a meeting of all three—Bevin, Byrnes and Molotov. Secretary Byrnes had taken out his plain silver cigarette case, and Bevin, noticing it carried an inscription, read aloud: ‘To James Byrnes, from his devoted friends in the South Carolina Legislature.’
Bevin remarked that he also had received such a gift and produced his plain silver case upon which was inscribed: ‘To Ernest Bevin, from his devoted friends in the British Labor Party.’ Molotov accepted a cigarette from both of them.
A little later on, Molotov took out his own solid gold and bejeweled case but offered no solace to his colleagues. However, they observed that the inscription on his case read: ‘To Count Esterhazy, from his devoted friends of the Vienna Jockey Club.’
The listener needed to be a bit of a history buff to get the gist of the last joke. Count Esterhazy was a 17th Century nobleman in the Kingdom of Hungary that helped create the Hapsburg Empire, Vienna served as its capital. The partition of Vienna among the Allied Powers suggested that the Soviets pilfered national treasures.