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Postscript : No Peace in Potsdam as Debate Rages Over 'Little White House' : Truman's home during the famous World War II conference is caught in cross-fire between capitalist and socialist views of history.

June 27, 1995|MARY WILLIAMS WALSH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

POTSDAM, Germany — You could, without much stretching of the historical record, trace the origins of the Cold War to the rundown villa standing here on Karl Marx Strasse.

Robert Mackay certainly tries.

"The Truman Doctrine was born right in this house," says the American business consultant and longtime Berlin resident, ushering a visitor inside. Before you can say containment , Mackay is off on a fast review of America's postwar foreign policy to contain Soviet communism, beginning with Washington's emergency support of Greece and Turkey, then the objects of much Moscow-backed longing.

"George Marshall"--he of the $17-billion Plan--"lived right over there," Mackay continues, gesturing through the rippling glass of the three-story mansion's windows toward a neighboring house, partially screened by a grove of shade trees.

"Truman met Stalin for the first time in this house, and they had their first confrontation," he says, making his way out onto the back porch, which overlooks a disorderly lawn sloping down to the waters of the River Havel. "[Red Army supreme commander Marshal Georgi] Zhukov was here. The Berlin Wall ran right through the garden."

Indeed, a lawn mower negotiates its way around some leftover cement posts that stand amid the two-foot-high weeds. Mackay peers beyond these unsightly emblems of the East German past to where the pleasure boats of prosperous Berliners drift down the Havel under summer skies.

"This place has history running out of its ears," he says. "It's just too perfect to sell to some plastic surgeon from Stuttgart, to make into a fat farm."

Yet a fat farm--or an embassy for some Third World backwater, or some equally mundane project--is precisely what could become of the "Little White House," as President Harry S. Truman called the villa where he lived and worked during the history-making Potsdam Conference of July and August, 1945.

The Cold War may be over, but the villa is today a pawn in a low-grade vestigial quarrel between the ghosts of the East and West: a contest that will determine whether the house is permitted to serve as a shrine to America's productive relationship with West Germany or whether, in Mackay's words, it is "lost to history."

From the capitalist side comes a group of Berlin-based Americans, led by Mackay, who want to turn the house into a real estate moneymaker, a "corporate identity vehicle," in Mackay's words. Their plan is to find a buyer, renovate the place, treat the ground floor as a museum and call it the "Truman House."

The villa's current owners--the heirs of the publishing baron who built the place as a summer home in 1892--are asking 10 million marks, or about $7.4 million, for the house, an arresting sum even in Berlin's inflated real estate market. But under the American scheme, the buyers could cover their mortgage and additional renovation costs by leasing the upstairs to an American corporate tenant--a Kimberly-Clark, say, or a Procter & Gamble--which, Mackay thinks, would pay a premium to have its name and image linked to the Truman legacy.

"It's doable. It is doable!" says Mackay, who makes a living helping multinational companies set up shop in Germany. "Truman is such a massive figure now. It was Truman who called in the planes [for the Berlin airlift] and saved West Berlin. [John F.] Kennedy got all the credit, but that was just because he had a good hairdo and was in the TV age."

Coming from the opposing side, meanwhile, is Germany's Communist remnant. Potsdam lies in what used to be in East Germany, and it was here, during the Potsdam Conference, that Truman received a cable advising him that the first atomic bomb had been successfully tested in the New Mexico desert. From here, too, he and Winston Churchill--and Chiang Kai-shek, patched into the proceedings for this matter by radio telephone--warned Japan that it must surrender at once or face unspecified consequences.

Back in the bad old days, East Germany's Communists didn't make much of the Little White House itself--they used it merely to warehouse unused schoolroom furnishings--but they did turn the 33rd President's decision to destroy two Japanese cities into something of an ideological cash cow. Potsdam was designated a sister city to Hiroshima, and the schoolchildren and others who came here on guided tours were lectured on the city's nuclear connection and what it may have revealed about American militarism, past and future.

And today, the former East German Communist Party--now reorganized and renamed the Party of Democratic Socialism, or PDS--wants to keep those traditions alive. Its members think it would be a neat idea to make Truman's former residence into "Hiroshima House," an anti-war memorial.

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