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Thursday, July 6th, 2006
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My Dear Mr. Stalin: The Complete Correspondence Between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph V. Stalin

by Susan Butler

Allies and Enemies

A review by Istv?n De

It was the worst of times. Between 1939 and 1945, fifty million people died a violent death, the absolute majority among them not as soldiers in arms but as defenseless civilians. Yet it was, in one way, also the best of times, because the countries of the world rallied, step by step, against those ultimate rogue states Germany and Japan, and because German Nazism and Japanese militarism suffered total defeat. Moreover, toward the end of the war it appeared to many that the heads of the grand anti-Nazi coalition were firmly set on laying the foundations of a lasting peace and a more humane society.

More particularly, the future seemed to rest in the steady hands of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin, the imperial leaders of the two world powers. My Dear Mr. Stalin, the first complete collection of the correspondence between the American leader and the Soviet leader, pays tribute to wartime humanity's hopeful dream -- except that Susan Butler, the book's editor and commentator, does not treat it as a dream. She believes that the opportunity for a bright future genuinely existed. Unfortunately, in her rather simplistic view, all of it was undone by Roosevelt's heirs.

Butler is the author of a fine biography of the aviator Amelia Earhart and undoubtedly did much research for this book. She often shows considerable insight, but she also makes factual mistakes that demonstrate that she is not a specialist in this subject. In her detailed notes, Butler points to the many vital issues that, between 1941 and 1945, linked the fates of the two countries. Her message is that if Roosevelt's policy had been followed, the Cold War could have been avoided. Maybe so; but it is also possible that it was the Cold War that saved the world from mutual destruction and hastened the welcome implosion of the Soviet Empire.

This does not mean that the cooperation between Roosevelt and Stalin was not genuine, or that it brought no benefits to the two countries and to the world. (It alone enabled the Grand Coalition to defeat Germany and Japan.) Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who wrote the foreword to this book and who is one of the great New Deal historians, shares Butler's optimistic outlook on Stalin and Roosevelt's wartime cooperation, but he also points out that even before the Yalta Conference in February 1945, Stalin instructed communist leaders in the West to prepare for new confrontations in the postwar era. And after Yalta, the Soviet propaganda offensive intensified. So one cannot agree with Butler when she writes that "Stalin did more than pay attention to what was important to Roosevelt; he followed his lead and made a significant change in Russian society."

What this change consisted of was, according to Butler, Stalin's instructions to the Soviet press that it take notice of Roosevelt's statement according to which the Soviet Constitution granted freedom of conscience and religion. Also, the fact that Stalin, at Roosevelt's urging, re-established the Russian Orthodox Church. Now, Roosevelt no doubt tried his best to persuade the American public to accept the Soviet alliance, but it is wrong to call the publicizing of the Soviet Constitution, which was a sham, a significant change in Russian society. As for the re-establishment of the Russian state church, it had been totally infiltrated by Soviet state security.

It is indeed difficult to imagine a more incongruous friendship -- for friendship it truly seemed to have been -- than the friendship between the Hudson Valley aristocrat educated at Groton, Harvard, and Columbia and the son of a drunken Georgian cobbler. One was a master politician who defeated his rivals at the ballot box, the other was a rigid ideologue who had his rivals (and many other people) shot. One was a firm believer in a socially conscious capitalist society, the other was a cynical manipulator of great ideals who may have truly believed in the greatness of his country and the communist future of the world. There can be little doubt that the two men respected each other even while nurturing no illusions about the differences in their worldviews and goals. (The two had one thing in common: Roosevelt was crippled by polio, and Stalin had a withered left arm and a face marked by smallpox.) Because Roosevelt died in April 1945, when the United States was still an ally of the Soviet Union, his revered memory was perpetuated in monuments, streets, and public squares throughout the Soviet Union and the rest of the Soviet bloc. Stalin, on the other hand, who died in March 1953, in the middle of the Cold War, was execrated in the United States and the rest of the free world during the last years of his life and forever after.

The two men met only twice, in Tehran in November 1943, and in Yalta, in the Crimea, in February 1945. Both meetings were preceded by lengthy and complicated negotiations in which Roosevelt consistently played the role of the ardent suitor. He proposed several meetings to Stalin, not always with the participation of Churchill, at locations including Newfoundland, "either ... side of [the] Bering Straits," Fairbanks, Alaska, and Khartoum. Stalin turned down most of the proposals with the somewhat questionable argument that his presence was needed at the front. In the end, the places where they met were much nearer to Stalin's home than to Roosevelt's and Churchill's; and in Tehran, Roosevelt chose to reside at the Soviet Embassy compound, for security reasons, and not at his own embassy. The trips were arduous for the American and British leaders, involving lengthy flights and travel on warships. The pilgrimage to Yalta may well have contributed to the death of the already exhausted president.

It was easier to exchange letters, and there are 304 of them in this book, their contents ranging from simple acknowledgments of messages received, to congratulatory telegrams on the occasion of the other's birthday or in praise of the "success of your heroic army, which is an inspiration to all of us," to the detailed discussion of major issues. (Many of these letters have already appeared in print in other publications.) Mutual politeness was often marred by Stalin's increasingly rude complaints about what he perceived as the duplicitous behavior of the United States and its British ally. Roosevelt's own complaints were always mild: they consisted principally of protestations of innocence, or of attempts to explain the behavior of the Western allies. Not even such appalling Soviet crimes as the massacre at Katyn of Polish POW officers, or Stalin's refusal to allow the Western Allies to help the anti-Nazi Polish insurrectionists in Warsaw in the fall of 1944, elicited a letter of protest from Roosevelt or, to that effect, from Churchill.

Clearly, both Roosevelt and Churchill saw it as one of their major tasks to palliate and even humor the Soviet dictator, without whose help the war could not have been won. Valentin M. Berezhkov, who was Stalin's interpreter, wrote in his memoirs that "Roosevelt ... understood how important it was to find a common language with the Kremlin dictator. And as it turned out, he succeeded in finding an approach to Stalin that seemed to have convinced the suspicious oriental despot that democratic society was ready to take him into its arms. ... But then Stalin had also decided to use his charm, and he was great at that." It is useful, for purposes of context, for Butler to remind us that Roosevelt was not the only American trying to please the Soviet leader. Joseph E. Davies, a millionaire playboy who was the American ambassador to Moscow from 1936 to 1938, had been one of the first American officials to heap praise on Stalin; and Time magazine in 1942 chose the Soviet dictator as its Man of the Year, and described him as the savior of the Western world.

During the war, as Butler explains, Roosevelt kept all the messages exchanged with Churchill, Stalin, and Chiang Kai-shek in the Map Room of the Navy Department, to which only he, his intimate adviser Harry Hopkins, Admiral William Leahy, and Churchill had direct access. The president did not trust the State Department with the cables, in part because of the isolationist conservatism of some of its top functionaries and in part because some of the cables channeled through the State Department took six months to reach Moscow.

Stalin's letters to Roosevelt, although translated into English by Soviet specialists, were often stylistically clumsy and grammatically incorrect. It is worth noting that it did not seem to occur either to Roosevelt or to Churchill to send any of their letters to Stalin in a Russian translation.

The president's first letter to the Soviet leader, dated July 26, 1941, was presented in Moscow by Harry Hopkins, who had traveled there through Scotland and Archangel. In it, the president offered "to extend all possible aid to the Soviet Union at the earliest possible time." Thus the United States, a country not yet at war, declared itself ready to deprive itself of crucial war matériel to help another power that had not only consistently decried America as an imperialist arch-enemy, but had also been a staunch ally of Nazi Germany until the latter chose to attack the Soviet Union. Only Roosevelt had the talent and the prestige to persuade a hesitant Congress -- and a hesitant nation -- that this was the right course to follow. Recall that the extension of the Selective Service Act passed the House of Representatives on August 12, 1941 by only a single vote. In that year, the American Army and Air Force were inferior in quantity and quality to those of a dozen other countries, whereas the Soviet war planes, tanks, guns, and especially troops far outnumbered those of the Germans, at least until the first day of the German invasion on June 22, 1941.

The quantity and the quality of American aid in the so-called Lend-Lease program, as well as the speed at which it was delivered, were (along with the question of a second front) the most important issues that both tied together and separated Roosevelt and Stalin. As the date of the establishment of a second front was postponed from 1942 to 1943 and then to 1944, Roosevelt tried to console the Soviets with increasing deliveries of arms, food, and transport. The quantities transferred from the United States to the Soviet Union between 1941 and 1945 were indeed staggering: they included, among other items, nearly 15,000 airplanes, 7,000 tanks, more than 51,000 jeeps, almost 376,000 trucks, almost 132,000 machine guns, 4.5 million tons of food supplies, 107 million tons of cotton, and more than 15 million army boots. At its peak in 1944, Western help amounted to 10 to 12 percent of the Soviet GNP.

Those who, like myself, witnessed the arrival of the Red Army in Central Europe can certify that the Soviet forces traveled in American-made trucks and jeeps, and that the foot soldiers carried American canned food in their miserable knapsacks. Apparently their amazingly practical winter clothing was padded with American cotton, and they wore American boots. But we also know that American aid was not everything: Soviet-made tanks, airplanes, and artillery far outnumbered the American deliveries; and the Soviet T-34 and other models were superior in quality to the Shermans. Or as Stalin liked to remind Roosevelt in his letters, American tanks had weak armor, and they traveled in a cloud of gas vapor that made them extremely vulnerable to fire.

Transports from the United States (and even from Great Britain) to the Soviet Union had to overcome terrible difficulties, whether on the hastily built railroad line connecting the Persian Gulf with the Soviet Union (which was preceded by a maritime transport of more than 12,000 nautical miles around the Cape of Good Hope) or by sailing in arctic waters to the north of Norway. Losses to the cargo ships were especially terrible, and when, in the summer of 1942, the PQ17 convoy, which had sailed from Great Britain, lost the majority of its ships, together with the lives of 153 seamen, Churchill ordered a temporary cessation of deliveries. Needless to say, Stalin complained repeatedly about the delays.

The problem was not only that ever more aid was needed by the Soviets, who in Europe stood alone against the Germans until the Anglo-American invasion of Sicily on July 10, 1943, but also that the Soviets and the West had different notions about what constituted permissible sacrifices and acceptable casualties. What for Churchill and Roosevelt were intolerable losses, namely the sinking of valuable cargo and the death of a few hundred skilled seamen, counted as nothing for Stalin, who thought in terms of millions of dead.

The biggest bone of contention was the second front, which the West promised but again and again did not deliver. Early in June 1942, Roosevelt authorized Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov to inform Stalin that the United States expected the formation of a second front in that year. The president promised Stalin an invasion with forces sufficient to draw off forty German divisions; but Roosevelt surely knew that his general staff was preparing for an invasion for April 1, 1943 only, and that the Allies did not have the means to mount such a large-scale invasion, or indeed any invasion, in Europe in 1942. Later he must have realized that the Anglo-American landings in French Morocco and Algeria in November 1942 were not the second front that he and the Soviets had been considering. Today it is hard to understand why Roosevelt and Churchill so brazenly lied to the Soviets, whose young men and women perished at Leningrad, Moscow, and Stalingrad.

The elimination of more than 300,000 Axis soldiers in North Africa between November 1942 and May 1943 -- the majority of them Italians who were eager to surrender -- was a great victory for the Grand Alliance, which Stalin did not sufficiently appreciate. Instead he argued that neither the North African campaign nor the subsequent invasion of Italy constituted the establishment of a second front. Churchill wrote to him that a cross-channel invasion in 1943 would be a waste of effort: "It would be no help to Russia if we threw away 100,000 men in a disastrous cross-channel attack." And Stalin replied on June 24, 1943 by quoting sarcastically from the many misleading statements the Western Allies had made regarding the cross-channel invasion. He concluded: "You write to me that you fully understand my disappointment. I have to tell you that this is not simply matter [sic] of disappointment of the Soviet Government, but a matter of preservation of its confidence in the Allies which confidence is subjected to hard trials."

The cross-channel invasion finally came on June 6, 1944, and it was duly celebrated by Stalin in his congratulatory telegrams. But the Soviets could never rid themselves of the suspicion that the delay in the invasion had been due to Churchill's insistence on mounting the major invasion from the south, which might have brought the Allied troops into Central Europe before the arrival of the Red Army. Stalin also suspected that the Allies had been waiting for the Germans and the Russians to exhaust each other, and that they invaded France only when it became clear that the Red Army was perfectly capable of defeating Germany on its own. In other words, Stalin suspected the Allies of the same Machiavellian behavior that he had exhibited toward the West between 1939 and 1941. (Still, it must be stated that, unlike the Western Allies, the Soviets kept their side of the military agreements by launching offensives whenever the West needed their indirect help.)

There were other reasons for grave disagreement between East and West, the most painful and embarrassing being the case of Poland -- not only had the Soviet Union attacked Poland in cooperation with Nazi Germany on September 17, 1939, and annexed the eastern half of the country, but its mistreatment of the Polish population surpassed in brutality even that of the German occupiers. Well before the German attack on Russia, Stalin pressed for Allied recognition of the Soviet Union's new western boundaries. One reason why Roosevelt sent aid to Stalin as early as 1941 was to divert Soviet attention from the Polish question. Soon after the start of Operation Barbarossa, the Soviets yielded to Western demands and recognized the Polish exile government in London as well as allowed Polish POWs in the Soviet Union to organize their own armed units. A substantial number of these Poles were able to leave the Soviet Union and to join the British forces in the Middle East.

The terrible Katyn affair erupted in April 1943, when the retreating Germans announced that they had found the bodies of thousands of Polish officers who had been shot in the back of the head. The Polish underground and the exile government soon came to the conclusion that the killers had been the Soviets in March 1940, and not, as the Soviet propaganda pretended, the Germans in July 1941. When Germany invited a committee of the International Red Cross to investigate the affair, and the Polish government allowed a few representatives of the Polish underground to join the committee, Stalin broke diplomatic relations with the exile government in London. Writing to Roosevelt that the government of General Wladyslaw Sikorski was "pandering to Hitler's tyranny," he used the Katyn affair as an excuse for forming a Polish countergovernment under the Soviet aegis.

The Katyn massacre is one of the best-known wartime tragedies, so it should suffice to say here that Roosevelt found himself in an extremely difficult situation. He never completely gave in to Stalin on the Katyn issue, refusing to break relations with the London Poles. But he tried to humor Stalin by apologizing for the behavior of the Sikorski government. He wrote on April 26, 1943: "It is my view that Sikorski has not acted in any way with [the] Hitler gang, but rather that he made a stupid mistake in taking the matter up with the International Red Cross. ... I have several million Poles in the United States, very many of them in the Army and Navy. They are all bitter against the Nazis and knowledge of a complete diplomatic break between you and Sikorski would not help the situation." Roosevelt might have been very serious about the Polish voters, but he must also have known that such an argument counted for nothing in the eyes of Stalin, who believed the president to be as powerful in the United States as he himself was in the Soviet Union. He expected Roosevelt simply to sweep away his opponents.

The Soviets treated the Poles under their authority abominably, killing thousands and deporting hundreds of thousands, which often amounted to a death sentence. They demanded on the radio that the Warsaw Poles rise and kill the "Hitler fascists," and then they refused to rush to the aid of the fighting city. Nor did they permit the Allies to help the Poles. Stalin called the heroes of the Warsaw Uprising "fascist adventurers." Or, as he wrote to Roosevelt on August 22, 1944 (his letter marred by the characteristic stylistic errors of the Soviet translators): "Sooner or later but the truth about a handful of criminals, who for the sake of seizure of power undertook the Warsaw adventure, will be universally known. These people have used the trustfulness of the Warsawites, having thrown many almost unarmed people under German guns, tanks, and aviation."

The Polish question continued to bedevil Western-Soviet relations to the end; it was a major issue at Tehran and Yalta. But all later accusations to the contrary, there was not much that the Western powers could have done for that embattled country. No matter how embarrassing it was for Roosevelt and Churchill to abandon their best ally, the only nation in Europe that had fought Nazi Germany from the beginning to the end, the military situation made it inevitable for Poland to fall under Soviet control. Consider that the Soviets absorbed with barely a murmur the Anglo-American domination of Japan, Italy, France, and the rest of Western Europe, as well as Greece and the entire Middle East. Soviet rule of Eastern Europe was similarly a direct consequence of war.

It is useful to remind ourselves that, at the time of the Yalta Conference in February 1945, the Red Army stood 35 miles away from Berlin, while the Allies were still licking the wounds they had suffered during the Germans' Ardennes offensive in France and Belgium. Finally, while it is true that the Soviet aggression in 1939 against Poland as well as the Katyn massacre and other atrocities were among the worst crimes of World War II (for which the Soviet leaders should have been tried in court after the war), Soviet insistence on the annexation of eastern Poland was no more of an outrage than the Polish exile government's insistence that it remain Polish.

The area encompassing interwar eastern Poland has been changing hands for centuries; its interwar incorporation into the Republic of Poland was the result of a war that the Poles and the Soviets had fought in 1920, in the course of which the Poles first took Kiev in eastern Ukraine, and then the Bolsheviks nearly conquered Warsaw. Finally, the Treaty of Riga, concluded in 1921, accorded the territory to Poland, even though the ethnic Poles formed a minority among the Russians, Ukrainians, Belorussians, and Jews. In September 1939, the Soviets underhandedly seized the area, profiting from their alliance with Nazi Germany; in June 1941, the Germans invaded eastern Poland; and in 1944 the Soviets returned, solemnly re-incorporating the area into the Soviet republics.

So whereas mutual claims based on military conquest more or less neutralized each other, the new boundary between the Soviet Union and Poland more or less conformed to the demarcation line suggested in 1919 by Lord Curzon, the British foreign secretary. As a consolation prize, the three great powers offered eastern Germany to Poland, shifting the country and its people westward. But Polish claims to eastern Germany were certainly no more legal and historically justified than the Soviet claims to eastern Poland. In Eastern Europe, where ethnic self-determination was then on everybody's lips, the violation of this principle was the rule rather than the exception. Only the ethnic cleansing begun before World War II and tremendously hastened by wartime developments would solve all these problems, at the price of millions of casualties and incredible suffering.

At Yalta especially, Churchill and Roosevelt endeavored to have a few representatives of the London government inserted in the Polish countergovernment created by the Soviets. They were temporarily successful. Roosevelt also got Stalin to sign the "Declaration of Liberated Europe," which guaranteed "the right of all people to choose the form of government under which they will live." In Eastern Europe, this had only theoretical significance at the time, but it is conceivable that the declaration, and other similar ones, played an important role in the Polish people's self-liberation less than half a century later. What counts is that, by the time of Yalta, the fate of Eastern Europe, including Poland, had long been settled. Back at the Tehran Conference, military reality had forced the Western powers to recognize the supremacy of the Soviet Union in that part of Europe. The Conference of Yalta was really not a crucial event.

Besides defeating the Germans and the Japanese, with British and Soviet help, Roosevelt's main goal was to assure a lasting peace. As early as 1941, he began to write to Churchill and Stalin about his concept of the "four policemen," namely the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and China, who would make sure that no rogue states would emerge again. This original idea gradually developed into the great concept of the United Nations, a world organization of free states that, unlike the old League of Nations, would be able to enforce its will through the agency of the Security Council, in which the "four policemen" would be endowed with veto power. It is hard to tell from the correspondence how seriously Stalin took Roosevelt's idea, but the latter went so far as to virtually isolate his great ally Churchill at Yalta, so as to demonstrate to the Soviet dictator that the United States and the Soviet Union would be the future leaders of the world. It certainly shows some interest in the United Nations on Stalin's part that he demanded a vote for every Soviet republic in the General Assembly of the United Nations, finally settling on extra votes for Ukraine and Belorussia. At other times, however, he tended to treat the idea of international organizations cavalierly.

Stalin seemed fully to agree with Churchill that the world would ultimately be divided into spheres of interest, a practical solution that no world organization could effectively challenge. Witness Churchill's notorious proposal, which the British prime minister jotted down hastily on a piece of paper, to Stalin in Moscow, on October 9, 1944. It adjudicated 90 percent interest to Russia in Romania in exchange for 90 percent interest to Great Britain in Greece, and so on and so forth. The proposal was taken so seriously that, on the next day, Foreign Minister Molotov and Foreign Secretary Eden took up the negotiations, with Molotov asking for more than 50 percent Russian interest in Hungary, and Eden arguing for a little more British influence than the miserly 25 percent that Churchill originally wanted in Bulgaria.

What these percentages truly meant was never defined, but there could be no doubt that the Soviets and the British thought they were practicing realpolitik, as opposed to what they felt were Roosevelt's utopian ideas of international cooperation. No wonder that they at first tried to keep the informal agreement secret from Averell Harriman, the American ambassador to Moscow. And yet from the perspective of sixty years, it is clear that the British-Soviet percentage agreement was an illusion, because Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria eventually fell completely into the Soviet orbit, while the British profited nothing from their allotted 10 to 25 percent in those countries. Meanwhile, the Soviets got nothing out of their allotted 10 percent in Greece. As for Yugoslavia, where the agreement called for a fifty-fifty division of influence by the two powers, Tito played a trick on both sides by making his country both communist and independent. As opposed to the nonsense of the Moscow proposal, Roosevelt's United Nations is still with us, and so are a great number of other international institutions that the president forced upon his hesitant wartime allies.

There were as many reasons for continued cooperation among the three great powers after the war as there were reasons for an end to the cooperation. The happy scenes on the Elbe River in May 1945 were a good augury, as was the Soviet Union's willingness to go to war against Japan. In Nuremberg in 1945 and 1946, the Soviets, the British, and the French willingly accepted American leadership in prosecuting the major German war criminals. The peace treaties signed with Germany's former allies caused infinitely less rancor among the victors than the peace negotiations in 1919 had caused among the Allies. But Soviet anti-Western propaganda had become venomous by 1945, and the Soviets' bloody suppression of the anti-Nazi Polish Home Army was just one of the many outrages committed by the Red Army. Most importantly, Roosevelt died, and in September 1945 President Truman abruptly ended the Lend-Lease program, leaving millions of Soviet citizens on the edge of starvation. Later the Soviets refused to consider the Marshall Plan, the best and most generous of all American aid programs. Mutual suspicion now triumphed over mutual cooperation.

Reading Roosevelt's and Stalin's letters to each other, as well as the memoirs of Roosevelt's aides such as Charles Bohlen, B. Averell Harriman, Harold L. Hopkins, Cordell Hull, George Kennan, and Edward Stettinius Jr., it becomes clear that these educated, liberal, upper-class Americans mixed a judicious amount of idealism with realism in shaping the future of their world. This did not prevent them from often disliking one another, and later from criticizing their boss for excessive self-confidence and naïveté.

But considering that, despite all their mutual animosity, the United States and the Soviet Union never went to war against each other and at worst fought by proxy, one must admit that both the American and the Soviet leaders did a fairly good job, at least when it came to the preservation of humankind. What would Stalin and Roosevelt say if they could see Germany and Eastern Central Europe today: all democratic, all capitalist, all welfare states, and all completely free of Russian but not of American troops? Stalin would be complaining bitterly, and Roosevelt would rightly see his policies as justified.

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