Roosevelt and Stalin; Portrait of a Partnership by Susan Butler. Vintage, 2016 paper.

Even in the dedication of her book, Susan Butler makes her point: “To the 405,000 Americans and the 27,000,000 Russians who died in World War II.” This was an uneven partnership, based on Russia’s assuming a greater share of the human sacrifice. Perhaps for that reason alone Stalin would have had the keener interest in the peaceful settlement to a long and deadly war.

Wars were fought by armies to be sure. But the author has carefully argued that this was not so true of World War II where planning and critical decisions were made well ahead of time and in concert with other allies.

In the nineteenth century, the European peace was dominated by a system of alliances and alignments kept together by the Prussian statesman, Otto Von Bismarck; nothing like the conferences in the inter-war period or the war years. A century after Bismarck’s dismissal, European peace was kept in place by the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact, signed on 23 August 1939 by Joachim von Ribbentrop and Vyacheslav Molotov.

Stalin was not fooled into thinking that this Pact was a permanent solution. He hoped that he had bought time, which Russia badly needed. Its army was not in any shape to fight the Wehrmacht at that point. True to the agreement, on 1 September 1939 the German and Russian Armies invaded Poland from their respective sides as they had agreed.

The British also moved to make peace with the German domination of Central Europe. Hence the famous (notorious?) Munich Pact between Britain and Germany, signed on 29 September 1938.

Much of the planning for the Allied conduct of the war and the peace-keeping mechanism after the German defeat took place at a series of conferences that Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Josef Stalin, and other diplomats attended during World War II

They began with a meeting of Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt off the coast of Newfoundland in 1941.  Josef Stalin attended most of the subsequent conferences, which included a varied list of other diplomats. On to Casablanca, Cairo, Tehran, Yalta, and ending with Potsdam after Roosevelt’s death. The American delegation was headed by a less than enthusiastic President Harry Truman. These conferences required huge amounts of planning and much concern about the safety and security of their participants.

These conferences did not anticipate the continued maintenance of post-war Europe by a triumphant American military machine. Nor a North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Instead the peace was to be maintained by an organization called the United Nations and planning for a post-war peace was a major part of the conversation and then commitments that arose out of these discussions.

Most of the issues that these conferences discussed concerned the European front. And here the most significant issue was the opening of another front – Normandy – that would relieve some of the pressure on the Russian armies trying to recapture vast territory lost to the Germans. Stalin understood that the invasion across the English Channel would involve considerable planning, and he wanted to see signs that it had begun. The Russians had timed an offensive on their front to relieve pressure on the American-British army at the Battle of the Bulge (December 1944 to January 1945).

The war with Japan in the Far East also involved the some bargaining. The Russians could promise assistance there in return for military equipment – tanks and heavy trucks – in the reoccupation of Poland. The American military leadership was assuming that they would have to invade the Japanese homeland to end the war in the Far East and asking for an unconditional surrender. Hence Russian military assistance would be valuable in that sphere in return for Allied assistance in France. The Roosevelt-Stalin partnership involved some “horse trading,” and critics of our wartime diplomacy believed that we got the worst of it.

Neither Stalin nor Roosevelt was as concerned as Winston Churchill about the fate of European colonialism – particularly India. Britain had used their Sepoy army to fight their battles in colonial Malaysia. Churchill made it clear, “I have not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.”  He was always informed about issues coming before the Stalin-Roosevelt partnership, but not always consulted.

Should the “partnership” between Roosevelt and Stalin continue after the War? Opposition within the US to any permanent alliance with the Russians was growing. They; the Russians, “were not our kind of people.”

There were few “thanks” to Russia from members of the Roosevelt Administration. Averell Harriman pointed out that had Russian soldiers not liberated those concentration camps in Poland and Eastern Germany when they did many more American POWs would have died.

We quickly assumed the mantel of the victor and constructed our own stories about the wartime Soviet-American partnership. This was an uneven partnership, so Butler maintains, based on Russia’s bearing a greater share of the fatalities and carnage of WWII.

Unfortunately FDR did not include Harry Truman in the work of these conferences, and when he became President upon Roosevelt’s death, he knew little about these discussions, over this five-year period. Moreover he had a different set of advisors. Many Americans felt that Stalin had taken advantage of an ailing Roosevelt and a novice Mid-Westerner.

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