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Neoconservative History: An Exchange

In response to:

Neoconservative History from the January 16, 1986 issue

To the Editors:

If there is an art to making someone else seem foolish without claiming to be wise oneself, then this is an art Theodore Draper has yet to learn about. And is Mr. Draper really so wise? Is it wise to deny, as he does [NYR, January 16], that President Roosevelt was in fact responsible for his own foreign policy (with respect to Eastern Europe) during the last great war? According to Mr. Draper, the President did not make a gift of Eastern Europe to the Soviets. Eastern Europe became theirs by force of arms. The Red Army had taken it. Quite so. But it had been a tradition of American policy, long before Roosevelt’s presidency, not to recognize acquisitions of territory by force of arms. Yet President Roosevelt accepted Stalin’s incorporation of a part of Poland into the Soviet state, and a part of East Prussia into Poland. (This was a devilishly clever move of Stalin’s, for it made Poland dependent for its security on Russian arms.) Now it was not up to the Red Army to acquiesce politically to the acquisitions it had made by force. This was for our President to do or refuse to do. Our whole policy toward Eastern Europe was dependent on his decision in this matter.

Mr. Draper claims that the President’s policy toward Poland would have been “satisfactory”—whatever that means—if only Stalin had kept his pledged word and permitted free democratic elections in Poland. (Instead of which Stalin jailed the members of the Polish government in London we sent to take part in these elections.) Now these are my questions for Mr. Draper: Does he think President Roosevelt was foolish enough to expect Stalin to keep his word in such a matter? And why should Stalin have risked a political defeat, even a minor one, in Poland, which according to Mr. Draper was already his by force of arms? And if Roosevelt had by that time come to some understanding of Stalin’s ways, then he was worse than foolish in his policy making; he was the accomplice of Stalin—as is Mr. Draper by defending him—in the enslavement of Eastern Europe.

And just one point of logic. If the President really thought that Stalin, famed for perfidy, would keep his pledged word and permit elections in Poland, then isn’t it just reasonable, and not nastily neoconservative, to infer, as Mr. Draper will not, that he was overly trustful of Stalin?

Lionel Abel

New York City

To the Editors:

Theodore Draper writes: “The Western allies did not give away anything at Yalta that they actually had.” From my limited Czech perspective, I wonder. General Patton’s Third US Army liberated Pilsen, a city divided from Prague by some seventy miles of very good highway, on May 5, 1945. On that day, the nearest Red Army units were engaged in heavy fighting in Berlin, some 350 miles away. On that day, also, an uprising broke out in Prague which involved Prague’s citizen army in fierce struggle with SS units that entered the city from the south. They were trying to secure Prague railway stations for Marshal Schörner who hoped to transport most of his army group, fighting the Soviets in Moravia, westward and surrender it to Patton. On that same day, in the afternoon, American army negotiators reached Prague, got in touch with the headquarters of the Czech insurgents and offered that the Third Army would move to Prague—a matter of an hour for the Sherman tanks—and rid the city of the Germans. Josef Smrkovský, much later a minister in Dubcek’s government, and the Communist éminence grise in the headquarters, refused this offer and asked only for weapons. Nevertheless, Patton, reportedly, intended to proceed on to Prague, but was prevented from doing so by his superiors. And yet another action began that same day: Marshal Konev’s units, still fighting in Berlin, were given orders to turn south and march on Prague. It took them four days to reach, utterly exhausted, the Czech capital.

I don’t know how else to explain these strange military maneuvers except by some agreement somewhere where the Western allies did indeed “give away something they—if not actually, then practically—had.”

Josef Skvorecky

Amherst, Massachusetts

To the Editors:

I’ve only just seen Theodore Draper’s article on “neoconservative historians.” In it he insists that he has “read and reread” the Churchill–Roosevelt correspondence, finding nothing about Roosevelt’s credulity toward Stalin and about Churchill’s “cautionary advice.” Therefore “all these charges against Roosevelt have been invented by Nisbet; they are not in the correspondence.”

Turn first to Roosevelt’s letter to Churchill dated March 18, 1942. “I know you will not mind my being brutally frank with you when I tell you that I think I can personally handle Stalin better than your Foreign Office or my State Department. Stalin hates the guts of all your top people. He thinks he likes me better, and I hope he will continue to do so.”

If I may stray from the correspondence for a moment, there are two equally revealing comments along this line, the first cited by Ambassador Bullitt in an article written after the war, the second by Secretary Hull in his Memoirs: “I think that if I give him everything I possibly can, and ask nothing from him in return, noblesse oblige, he won’t try to annex anything, and will work with me for a world of democracy and peace” (Bullitt, Life magazine, August 30, 1948). Secretary Hull gives us a remark by Roosevelt to Churchill at the Cairo Conference: “You have four hundred years of acquisitive instinct in your blood, and you just don’t understand how a country might not want to acquire land if they can get it.” I should emphasize that it is of the Soviet Union, not the US, that Roosevelt speaks.

So much for credulity. Mr. Draper should not think the kind of remark Roosevelt made to Churchill in the March 18, 1942 letter was a simple vagary, the thought gone after the utterance. It is a matter of common record in the diaries, memoirs, and historical studies that Roosevelt repeatedly sought private meetings with Stalin, all British including Churchill excluded. Indeed he wrote Stalin early in the war suggesting private meetings between the two of them.

As to credulity and Churchillian “cautionary advice,” it is hard to know where to begin in the correspondence. May I suggest the following as samplers: discussion of a cross-Channel Anglo-American assault, first in 1942, then 1943; of the frightful and militarily unacceptable losses by the British and Americans in their convoys to Murmansk—not to forget Stalin’s sneers at the losses and frequent taunts respecting British and American courage; the unilateral present by Roosevelt to Stalin of one-third of the surrendered Italian navy (Stalin hadn’t even asked for it); of the British Empire’s immediate dissolution as a win-the-war measure, with Roosevelt adducing, of all people, General Hurley and Chiang Kai Shek in support of his suggestion.

Mr. Draper tosses a red herring at me in his remark that the Yalta Conference, though unmentioned by me in my Commentary article, would be the “prime test” of my case. Far from it. My interest was solely in what happened after the Yalta Conference; to wit, Stalin’s rape of Poland despite his declaration to the contrary at Yalta. I will add here that Roosevelt’s chief mistakes at Yalta have always seemed to me his refusal to join Churchill in a proposal for a high commission to supervise the Polish postwar election and establishment of a new government, and his gratuitous promise to Stalin that all US troops would be out of Europe within two years.

For a very feast of credulity and cautionary advice I recommend the telegrams exchanged by Churchill and Roosevelt between March 8 and April 11, 1945. Among the subjects treated are the sovietization of Eastern Europe—begun before the Yalta Conference—the blatant domination of Poland by Stalin, and Eisenhower’s extraordinary, unilateral notice direct to Stalin that the Anglo-American forces would not enter and occupy Berlin. Firebell in the night is a better description than “cautionary advice” for much of Churchill’s cables to Roosevelt on these matters. Let Mr. Draper judge for himself whether there is incomprehension, indifference, or credulity in Roosevelt’s replies: for example in the message that ends in “I very much hope, therefore, that you will not send any message to Uncle Joe at this juncture—especially as I feel that certain parts of your proposed text might produce a reaction quite contrary to your intent.” Churchill’s reply reads: “I wonder what you have in mind. We might be able to improve the wording. But I am convinced that unless we can induce the Russians to agree to these fundamental points of procedure, all our work at Yalta will be in vain.”

Roosevelt was a sick, a dying man, when that interchange took place. But in strict fairness, his still credulous attitude toward Stalin goes directly back to his letter to Churchill in early 1942 that he could handle Stalin. Not, apparently, until two days before his death did Roosevelt wearily say—under stimulus by Harriman and General Deane in Moscow as well as Churchill—that either Stalin was breaking his word to him or else other people had come into charge.

The larger point of my Commentary piece was that Rooseveltian credulity toward Stalin and the Soviets became one of his legacies to the American people. I don’t censure Roosevelt nearly as much as I do the long line of Henry Wallaces and George McGoverns whose credulity has lasted forty years and shows little sign of diminishing.

Robert Nisbet

Washington, DC

Theodore Draper replies:

The first paragraph in Lionel Abel’s letter requires clarification. It refers to “Stalin’s incorporation of a part of Poland into the Soviet state, and a part of East Prussia into Poland.” It neglects to mention that the part of Poland incorporated into the Soviet state had been Russian territory incorporated into the Polish state after World War I. The post–World War II boundary put Poland back to the so-called Curzon Line, which the British had proposed in 1920 and which Poland had then rejected. The Treaty of Riga of 1921 had pushed the Polish border far beyond the Curzon Line almost as far east as Minsk in the former Russian territory. The primary responsibility for Polish policy during World War II rested with the British, who had the Polish government in exile in London. Churchill had strongly pressed the “London Poles” to accept a return to the Curzon Line; Roosevelt followed Churchill’s lead in this matter. The Polish leader, Stanislaw Mikolajczyk, was deposed by the London Poles because he accepted Churchill’s advice. Churchill also advocated compensating the Poles with East Prussia in return for going back to the Curzon Line (letter to Roosevelt, May 25, 1944). The whole subject is far more complex than Abel suggests.

Abel’s second paragraph deserves nothing but contempt; it is literally a throwback to McCarthyism. The late, unlamented Senator Joseph R. McCarthy put out a book that accused General George C. Marshall of having made “common cause with Stalin on the strategy of the war in Europe and marched side by side with him thereafter.” Abel similarly accuses Franklin D. Roosevelt and myself as “accomplices of Stalin…in the enslavement of Eastern Europe.” As I showed in my article, it was Churchill, not Roosevelt, who had publicly expressed faith in Stalin’s word after the Yalta conference (see p. 10, note 8). Even if Churchill and Roosevelt had made a mistake in expecting or rather hoping that Stalin would keep his word, when they could do little more in the circumstances, that would hardly have made them “accomplices…in the enslavement of Eastern Europe.” It is even more indefensible to denounce me as another “accomplice” of Stalin because I may have dared to defend Roosevelt. If it were not for the convention of replying to letters by someone mentioned by me, I would have preferred to ignore this type of political obscenity. In my article, I had merely quoted a single sentence from Abel’s contribution to Commentary and had wryly noted that his recent book was aptly entitled The Intellectual Follies. His letter belongs in a book entitled The Intellectual Gutter.

Josef Skvorecky raises a question that I did not address. He correctly quotes me: “The Western allies did not give away anything at Yalta that they actually had.” The Yalta Conference took place in early February 1945. But then Skvorecky immediately jumps to May 1945, after Roosevelt had died. My article was limited to points raised by a number of writers in Commentary and elsewhere; I did not try to deal with every major decision during World War II.

Nevertheless, a few words on the problem of Prague may not be amiss. Patton, whose governing passion was his own self-glorification, was hardly the one to consider all the factors that went into the problem of racing for Prague. He could probably have reached Prague first with what amounted to a spearhead, compared with the immensely greater Soviet forces that were advancing on a broad front toward the city. By that time the Germans were trying to surrender to the Americans rather than to the Russians, which was why Patton could have put his force into Prague ahead of the Russians.

Whatever its symbolic value, however, Prague was most problematic militarily; Soviet forces already occupied about five-sixths of Czechoslovakia, having fought hard and at great cost all the way against tenacious German resistance. A dash by Patton could not then have been coordinated with the onrushing Russians; a limited American force in the capital could soon have found itself with vastly superior Russian armies all around it; even a collision between the two forces could not have been ruled out. Such a race for Prague would have had the most far-reaching implications for future Soviet–American relations, which had still not been fully worked out in Washington. Czechoslovakia, moreover, was partially behind the zone of occupation in eastern Germany that had been previously allotted to Russia. In this case, as in others, it is much easier to foretell the post–World War II future in 1986 than it was in the spring of 1945.

Professor Nisbet’s letter is largely fraudulent. To appreciate how fraudulent it is, it is necessary to recall what he actually wrote in Commentary of November 1985.

The recently published correspondence between Churchill and Roosevelt must make for bitter reading in some quarters. All that we have known in a general sort of way about Roosevelt’s strong disposition to trust Stalin, even over Churchill’s cautionary advice, is detailed richly in these letters. Roosevelt’s credulity toward Stalin and his sometimes rather pathetic ignorance of political history and geopolitics were joined unfortunately to a complacent certainty that Stalin wanted only one thing out of the war: world peace and democracy.

Nothing in Nisbet’s letter bears out these specific charges of Roosevelt’s “credulity” in the correspondence. Let us turn first to the snippet from Roosevelt’s letter to Churchill dated March 18, 1942. Even in its worst interpretation, it has nothing to do with “Roosevelt’s strong disposition to trust Stalin” or “credulity” or all the rest. All it says is that Roosevelt believed that he could “personally handle Stalin” better than the Foreign Office or the State Department. Roosevelt’s high opinion of his personal diplomacy may have been right or wrong; as it happens, Stalin decided at this time that he could do better with Churchill than with Roosevelt. The editor of the correspondence, Professor Warren F. Kimball, notes: “Other references indicate that Roosevelt disapproved of any agreement to Soviet territorial claims, particularly to the Baltic states, whereupon the Soviets decided to deal solely with the British in the hope of reaching an Anglo-Soviet agreement on the matter” (Vol. I, p. 420).

Nisbet later returns to this remark of March 18, 1942, as if it were the corpus delicti. It is nothing of the sort; it is nothing more than some boastfulness on Roosevelt’s part of how adroit he was in managing people—misguided perhaps, but far from the heavy construction that has been put on it.

As for the two “equally revealing comments,” into which Nisbet has strayed, one is totally spurious. The citation allegedly from Secretary Hull’s Memoirs is not in the memoirs; Hull was not even present at the Cairo Conference, as he himself notes (Vol. II, p. 1110). The whole story makes Nisbet’s version into a scholarly farce. It is worth going into in some detail as a cautionary tale.

Nisbet’s quotation actually appears in a book by former secretary of state Edward R. Stettinius, Jr., Roosevelt and the Russians: The Yalta Conference (Doubleday, 1949). It concerns a different subject and a different person in a different country.

Stettinius relates that he talked to Roosevelt on March 17, 1944, before leaving for London to discuss postwar problems, including the troublesome issue of trusteeships. Roosevelt told Stettinius that he had discussed the future of French Indochina with General Chiang Kaishek at Cairo. When Roosevelt had reported to Churchill that China was willing to accept a trusteeship but did not want Indochina, Churchill had replied, “Nonsense.” Then Stettinius’s notes of the conversation with Roosevelt go as follows:

The President had said to him, “Winston, this is something which you are just not able to understand. You have 400 years of acquisitive instinct in your blood and you just don’t understand how a country might not want to acquire land somewhere if they can get it. A new period has opened in the world’s history, and you will have to adjust to it.” (p. 237)

There are at least three things wrong with Nisbet’s version: (a) the source is Stettinius, not Hull; (b) the words apply to China, not the Soviet Union; (c) they may suggest Roosevelt’s mistaken trust in Chiang Kai-shek, but they cannot conceivably refer to Stalin. (I am indebted to Professor Robert J. Maddox of Pennsylvania State University for locating the source of this straying sentence for me.)

The citation from Bullitt is something else; it must be understood in the context of Bullitt’s entire article, in which he says that he had a three-hour discussion with Roosevelt, apparently in 1942. The quotation rests entirely on Bullitt’s say-so six years later; there is nothing else of a similar character to back it up. Bullitt was a thwarted, embittered man who professed to have believed that Roosevelt could have dictated any terms to Stalin by threatening to withhold material assistance. His article begins, “Three years ago we forced our enemies in Europe and Asia to surrender unconditionally”—as if Soviet Russia and Great Britain had had nothing to do with it. Bullitt’s villains also included Harry Hopkins and General Marshall. We will never know whether Roosevelt used just those words during his discussion with Bullitt; it is not inconceivable to me that Roosevelt said something favorable about working with the Russians to mollify Bullitt at a time when the Russians were still retreating before the German offensive and the Western allies were not even sure that the Russians could hold out.

Let us go on: Why should an American be outraged because an American president sought a private meeting with Stalin without being chaperoned by a British prime minister? Churchill, after all, succeeded in arranging private meetings with Stalin in Moscow in October 1944; Churchill even carefully excluded Roosevelt’s representative, Averell Harriman, during the session at which the “percentages deal” was offered by Churchill and accepted by Stalin. Churchill-worship seems to go along with Roosevelt-baiting.

The “samplers” which Nisbet next offers are all misleading in the present controversy. It would take too long to discuss them all, but the first is typical of the lot. There is nothing in the correspondence “as to credulity and Churchillian ‘cautionary advice’ ” in the pages devoted to the discussion of a cross-Channel Anglo-American assault in 1942 and 1943. If Nisbet had given some exact citations, he could more easily be caught bluffing throughout this paragraph. Thus it is clear from Churchill’s message to Roosevelt of January 16, 1944, that (a) the Soviets had asked for some Italian shipping at the Moscow conference of foreign ministers in October 1943 and (b) that both Churchill and Roosevelt had agreed to it at Teheran the following month (Vol. II, p. 665). Churchill later suggested changing this arrangement in favor of the loan of a British battleship, but that is another story.

Nisbet then returns to the correspondence between March 8 and April 11, 1945. Here he cavalierly mentions “subjects treated,” as if their treatment were self-explanatory. I discussed the differences that arose between Churchill and Roosevelt at that time at some length in my article; I showed that both had agreed that the differences were “tactical” and had ended with the Allies moving together in what Churchill called “perfect step.” I have judged for myself the exchange of messages between Churchill and Roosevelt as quoted by Nisbet; they represent a tactical disagreement that reasonable men might have had about the best way to proceed; they do not at all support the case that Nisbet seeks to present against Roosevelt’s “incomprehension, indifference, or credulity.”

It is unconscionable that Nisbet should suddenly drag in Eisenhower’s role in facing the problem of Berlin as another stick with which to beat Roosevelt. In late March 1945, when Eisenhower (with the concurrence of Marshall) made his decision not to race the Russians to Berlin, the Americans were two hundred miles away, the Red Army thirty-five (Stephen E. Ambrose, The Supreme Commander [Doubleday, 1970], p. 630). This is no way to treat a very difficult and many-sided aspect of the war.

In my article, I stated that Roosevelt as well as Churchill—and, as I showed, even someone like John Foster Dulles—“still hoped against hope to find some way to coexist peacefully, a hope that nourished illusions and compromises.” Roosevelt’s policy in the last days of the war was, as he himself put it, “that we must be careful not to do anything that would weaken the effectiveness of our efforts to get the Russians to honor those decisions on their side” (April 8, 1945). It was not a dishonorable position for a man who died four days later and could not see his policy played out to the end. Tendentious, isolated quotations cannot do justice to the complexities of the war; no mention is ever made of the stinging rebuke which Roosevelt sent to Stalin on April 4, 1945, far more scathing than anything that Churchill ever sent Stalin—and which made Stalin back down (Vol. III, pp. 611–612, 624–625).

Nisbet’s penultimate paragraph provides a fitting ending to this shabby affair. It reverts for the third time to Roosevelt’s letter of March 18, 1942, which is said to have contained nothing more than the boast that he “could handle Stalin.” A glance at Nisbet’s second paragraph is enough to show that something essential has been left out—that Roosevelt had said he could “handle Stalin better than your Foreign Office or my State Department.” This may not have been saying much but was at least more modest in its claim. I doubt whether Professor Nisbet would have permitted one of his under-graduates to get away with this kind of hanky-panky.

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