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Could Stalin Have Been Stopped?

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Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images
Joseph Stalin and Franklin D. Roosevelt at the Tehran Conference, 1943

What was once Roosevelt Square (in Hungarian: Roosevelt tér) near the left-bank entrance to the glorious old Chain Bridge across the Danube River in Budapest has been recently renamed. Following its dedication, in 1947, by a freshly democratic city council to the memory of the great statesman who had done so much to help defeat fascism, Roosevelt Square survived the Communist takeover, the Stalinist tyranny, the 1956 anti-Soviet uprising, the Communist revenge, Goulash Communism, and the 1989 triumph of parliamentary democracy. But in the spring of 2011, a newly elected right-leaning city council removed the president’s name from the square.

All through the turbulent years from 1948 to 1989, while government-ordered truth became untruth again and again, Hungary’s Communist leaders, no matter how anti-American, paid homage to Roosevelt—as well as to the American bomber crews shot down over Hungary during World War II. Meanwhile, many Hungarians, perhaps the majority, thought that rather than having been a great liberator, Roosevelt had handed over their country to Stalin. Obviously, the city council feels that obscurity is what FDR deserves.

Bad feelings about Roosevelt’s policy of cooperation with Stalin persist in the rest of Eastern Europe, too, especially in Poland, which, unlike the other Eastern European countries, never collaborated with the Nazis. The Polish people fought Germany with amazing fortitude; yet at the end of the war, the Western Allies consented to Poland’s political subjection and territorial losses to the Soviet Union—with partial compensation for the losses in the form of German territories.

Frank Costigliola, who teaches history at the University of Connecticut and is the author of other important monographs on the history of US foreign policy, wants to combat such a negative judgment. He hopes to show that, popular perceptions to the contrary, FDR did as much as anyone could to mitigate the effects of the inevitable Soviet imperial presence in Eastern Europe. The president did this not by pressuring and threatening but by preserving a working relationship with Stalin. Pressure and threats, Costigliola argues, could achieve nothing against the Soviets, whose forces were not only in physical control of most of Eastern Europe but who were wildly suspicious in any case.

Unfortunately, during the last year of the war and in the immediate postwar era, Costigliola states, more and more Western statesmen, including Harry Truman and Winston Churchill, saw the policy of pressure as the only way to deal with the Russian barbarians. Churchill said in one of his postwar speeches: “There is nothing they [the Soviets] admire so much as strength and there is nothing for which they have less respect than for weakness, especially military weakness.” Yet when he was prime minister, Churchill himself repeatedly accepted the primary Soviet interests in Eastern Europe.

As Costigliola sees it, Roosevelt hoped that, at least during the early postwar years, Great Britain, the US, and the Soviet Union would act together as the policemen of world peace. He never subscribed to the Churchillian and Stalinist notion of dividing the world into areas of great power interest; yet, somewhat illogically, he accepted the fact that wherever American, British, or Soviet armies went during the war, their respective power would prevail. But this would only be temporary, Roosevelt argued. Once the Soviets convinced themselves of the West’s readiness to play a fair game, a peaceful world would become a genuine possibility, and the Soviet Union—or so Costigliola speculates—might well abandon its idée fixe regarding the need for tightly controlled buffer states along its borders.

Costigliola confidently asserts that both Roosevelt and Stalin intended to continue the wartime great coalition, and that Stalin was pragmatic enough to pursue any course that would assure the Soviet Union’s security with the added prospect of further expanding Soviet power. In Roosevelt’s eyes, so Costigiola believes, the immediate obstacle to the creation of a harmonious postwar world was not Stalin but the often truculent imperialist and colonialist Churchill; hence the president’s sarcastic and dismissive treatment of the prime minister at the conferences at Tehran in the late fall of 1943 and at Yalta in February 1945.1 Yet Roosevelt also knew that the fundamental economic weakness of Great Britain and its dependence on the United States would make British submission inevitable. Greater problems for FDR were his own declining health, the loss of some of his most trusted advisers, and his conviction that Soviet help would be needed for the conquest of Japan.

Tragically for the world, the president died in April 1945; thereafter, Costigliola writes, a poorly prepared and less imaginative Truman fell under the sway of his advisers, none of whom had statesmanlike qualities. Had Roosevelt not died an untimely death, attributable at least in part to his inept personal doctor, the world may well have been spared the agonies of the cold war. Or in the author’s own words: “If Roosevelt had lived a while longer…he might have succeeded in bringing about the transition to a postwar world managed by the Big Three.”

To prove his point, Costigliola begins by systematically examining the early years, personal characteristics, goals, achievements, and intimate affairs of Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin. This was no easy task because while there is ample documentation on the early years of the two Western aristocrats, we know little about the son of a drunken Georgian cobbler and his illiterate wife. Costigliola uses sources only in English, which makes one wonder whether it is possible to write a valid study of World War II developments in Europe without some familiarity with the languages of its two greatest antagonists, the Russians and the Germans. Roosevelt’s Lost Alliances is eminently readable and often highly persuasive, but like so many other specialists in the history of US foreign policy, the author relies on the not-so-numerous translations of foreign-language works.

Roosevelt’s Lost Alliances is a diplomatic history that does not attempt to deal with the physical and moral effects that political decisions had on the lives of nations. Costigliola has read Timothy Snyder’s recent Bloodlands, which, more than any earlier monograph, shatteringly describes the hell that was Eastern Europe at war,2 yet the reader of Costigliola’s otherwise valuable monograph is given almost no inkling of the manifold tragedies that unfolded in those years. He gives no adequate sense of the operations of the Soviet NKVD and the other secret police forces allied with it in arresting, interrogating, torturing, and murdering thousands of opponents of Soviet control in Eastern Europe. Nor is there sufficient indication of how the often casual agreement of the Three Greats on the “inevitable and necessary” redrawing of political boundaries and the multiple ethnic cleansings added to the civil wars, the destruction, the flights, the hunger, and the deaths in the region.

Attempting to analyze the personal qualities of the leaders, Costigliola writes that Roosevelt excelled through his supreme self-assurance, irresistible laughter, and genuine optimism. Churchill’s own peculiar habits, such as working throughout much of the night, exhausted Roosevelt as well as his own advisers and secretaries. Stalin himself was famously a night worker, which turned upside down the lives not only of his immediate underlings but of many important Communists inside and outside the Soviet Union. Few could be acknowledged as truly belonging to the Party elite unless they worked all night and slept through most of the day. As a host, Stalin liked to order his underlings to sing and to dance. In the author’s words, “Stalin liked imposing humiliation with homoerotic overtones.”

Costigliola makes it clear that Stalin was one of history’s worst mass murderers, yet at the same time he sees Stalin as an astute statesman with whom it was possible to cooperate. How much did the president and the prime minister know about Stalin’s misdeeds? Even if they had heard little of the mass deportation and partial extermination of many ethnic minorities during World War II, they should have been aware of the intentional killing by starvation of millions of Ukrainian and other peasants in the early 1930s, and the shooting of hundreds of thousands of imaginary political enemies in the later 1930s. Moreover, the Polish exile government in London had scrupulously informed both Western leaders of the Soviet attempts, beginning in 1940, to eliminate much of the Polish leadership, including tens of thousands of Polish officers, civil servants, and professionals, at Katyn and elsewhere.

Accustomed to the death of millions in the war, the two leaders should still have been deeply shocked by the brazen Soviet lies and the mendacious finger-pointing that followed the German discovery, in 1943, of the Katyn mass graves. Churchill had outbursts of fury over it; Roosevelt had no visible reaction. Motivated as they were by the need to defeat Nazi Germany and Japan and by their interest in a future world peace, the two felt they had no choice but to seek Soviet cooperation at Tehran and Yalta.

The president’s travels to Casablanca and Tehran in 1943 and to Yalta in 1945 form one of the most informative parts of Costigliola’s book; they make the reader grasp how much this badly paralyzed man had to suffer through the shaking and wallowing of the warships and military planes that took him on seemingly endless trips.3 Official Russian receptions, however, whether at Yalta or in Moscow, aimed at getting the guests drunk, presumably in order to coax from them their secrets. In reality, the hosts did not take better to alcohol than most Americans. So these nights were marked by drunken scenes, babbled declarations of brotherly love, and traditional Russian kisses on the mouth, which Costigliola calls “homosocial” behavior.

Costigliola is convinced that things would have gone much better had the Western diplomats been able to understand the predicament of the Soviet bureaucrats—their total submission to Stalin and their fear of making fools of themselves in front of their more sophisticated British and American counterparts. It seems true that many Soviet bureaucrats and diplomats suffered from a sense of inferiority, which they tried to counterbalance with contempt and arrogance. The Soviets had the impression that the Western diplomats believed they came from a nation of uncouth peasants. In Costigliola’s words:

Racialized cultural stereotypes of “semi-savage” Soviets and of “conniving” cosmopolitans eager to make “fools” out of Russians hampered the formation of the alliance in 1941 and helped destroy it after the war.

British Permanent Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs Sir Alexander Cadogan wrote in his diary in January 1944: “They [the Soviet diplomats] are the most stinking creepy set of Jews I’ve ever come across.”4

The prejudices were mutual but the Soviet side had the advantage that Western preconceptions had no noticeable influence on the Soviet dictator. Most advantageous of all for Stalin was that through British spies such as Kim Philby he had access to every important communication exchanged by the British and American leaders regarding Soviet policy. The Westerners had no comparable sources.

By the time of the Yalta conference in February 1945, some of Roosevelt’s closest advisers, including his irreplaceable assistant Marguerite “Missy” LeHand, had died; his adviser Sumner Welles had had to resign in 1943 because of charges of homosexuality; and his most important assistant, Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt’s alter ego, had been forced by illness and by deteriorating relations with his boss to reduce his presence in the White House. Hopkins had been the first of FDR’s special envoys to brave great danger by flying through the Arctic Circle, in July 1941, to reach what appeared to be a collapsing Soviet Russia. Upon his return, he reported favorably to FDR on Stalin’s resolve to fight to the bitter end; this, at a time when many in the State Department and in the US military, and even the British military attachés in Moscow, rooted for German victory against the Russians.

Despite all the worries in both camps, developments at first looked favorable. Many major issues had been settled by the time of the Tehran and Yalta conferences, especially at the 1942 and 1944 Moscow meetings between Churchill and Stalin. There was agreement on the Allied military occupation of Germany and Austria, as well as on the Soviet entry into the war against Japan. The latter meant the transfer of a million soldiers and their equipment to the Far East, yet the Soviets, in contrast to their takeover of Eastern Europe, were ultimately satisfied with a relatively modest territorial reward in Asia in return for the costly movement of their forces.

Roosevelt had indeed been extremely worried about the million-strong Japanese Kwantung Army in Korea and Manchuria. To defeat it, he feared, would cost a huge number of American lives if the Soviet forces were not willing to engage their armies there. In order to avoid such a calamity, the president was willing to make significant concessions to Stalin, yet these could only be made in the one area—Eastern Europe—that the Soviets were claiming for themselves.

The problem was that, in his reluctance to make allowances for what he perceived as the colonial ambitions of Great Britain and the Soviet Union, Roosevelt avoided any binding agreement with regard to the Eastern European countries. His silence amounted to an informal acceptance of the settlement reached at the Moscow meetings between Churchill and Stalin in October 1944, which left Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria in the hands of Stalin. The question was not settled whether these countries would merely be forced to pursue foreign policies friendly to the USSR or have to accept Soviet-controlled Bolshevist regimes. The Soviets did not try to contest British predominance in Greece or the later suppression of the Communist revolt there.

Regarding Yugoslavia, the rather vague fifty-fifty agreement between foreign ministers Vyacheslav Molotov and Anthony Eden in Moscow became meaningless when it turned out that the Communist President Tito and not the great powers that had backed him would decide the country’s future. Britain and the US only formally disputed the Soviet reannexation and brutal control of the three Baltic countries, while the USSR imposed punitive but not intolerable treaties on Finland, which both sides subsequently respected.

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Koch/Lorber Films/Everett Collection
Polish officers being held by Soviet forces before the massacre in Katyn forest; from Andrzej Wajda’s film Katyń, 2007

Costigliola oddly makes no mention of Czechoslovakia, yet late in 1943 exiled President Edvard Beneš traveled to Moscow with reluctant British permission in order to sign a treaty of mutual assistance with the Soviet Union. Some months later the Czechoslovak government, while still in exile and financed by the British, formally recognized the Polish government in Lublin, a Soviet creation imposed on Poland in July 1944, as the sole legitimate representatives of the Polish nation. In brief, long before the end of the war, the Czechoslovak government in exile had voluntarily subordinated its foreign political interests to those of the Soviet Union; this in exchange for Stalin’s permission to expel several million Germans from Czechoslovakia after the Allied victory.5

The readiness of the Soviets, at least temporarily, not to contest Western predominance in Italy, Greece, Western Europe, and Japan—places where they had no occupying forces—and the willingness of the Western powers to accept Soviet rule in much of Eastern Europe still left open the issue of Poland, at least for a while. At the conferences at Tehran and Yalta an enormous amount of time was spent discussing the Polish question.

Poland’s case was truly special. From the distant past loomed the memory of mutual invasions and, from a more recent past, the Polish advance deep into Russia during the war of 1919–1921, which resulted in Poland’s acquisition of tsarist Russian territory that came to be known as Eastern Poland. The Soviets made it clear they harbored a grievance over the mistreatment and widespread deaths of captured Red Army soldiers when the Bolsheviks were driven out of Poland after World War I. But following the Soviet pact with Nazi Germany signed on August 23, 1939, the Red Army invaded Poland on September 17 without any Polish provocation and at a time when many Poles were being killed by the German onslaught. The Soviets annexed or re-annexed the eastern half of Poland, deported to Siberia and Kazakhstan a large part of the Polish population, and massacred thousands of innocent Polish soldiers and civilians. The opening scene in Andrzej Wajda’s powerful movie Katyń, in which masses of fleeing Polish civilians bump into each other on the bridge connecting the Soviet and German occupation zones, illustrates the entire Polish tragedy.

Back in 1939, Britain and France had made a binding commitment to the defense of Poland but then did little or nothing to stem the combined Nazi and Soviet invasions. The Poles went on fighting nevertheless, both by means of anti-Nazi underground armies and organizations and as soldiers in Norway and France in 1940; as the best of the RAF fighter pilots during the Battle of Britain; in giving crucial assistance in the decoding of German military communications; as sailors in the Polish navy and commercial fleet; as members of the anti-Nazi army formed by General Władysław Anders, which was initially made up entirely of Poles who had survived deportation to the Soviet Union; and as members of the Polish army set up by the Soviet Union.

Polish divisions invaded Nazi-occupied Europe on the side of the British and the Americans in 1944; Polish tanks closed the famous Falaise Gap, thereby helping to destroy the German army in Normandy. Polish troops conquered Monte Cassino in Italy; the Polish Home Army reconquered Warsaw in August 1944. But then the Red Army, which was already in Poland, not only refused to come to their aid but did much to prevent the Allied air forces from dropping supplies to the besieged insurgents. The conquering Red Army treated members of the Home Army as fascist enemies, killing thousands of them, and Polish resistance leaders were tried and sentenced in Moscow.

Costigliola writes that “the Polish Home Army (Armia Krajowa or AK), linked with the London exiles and supplied by British air drops, switched from combating Germans to fighting Russians and pro-Soviet Poles.” But in reality, the “London exiles” had been recognized even by Stalin as the legitimate government of Poland until the break of diplomatic relations, in 1943, over the Katyn massacre, for which the Soviet government ignominiously denied all responsibility. American and British pilots, trying to help the Home Army against the Nazis, had been routinely denied landing rights for fuel by the Soviet military command, and Home Army commanders were lucky if the Soviets only disarmed them and did not throw them in prison or shoot them outright.

Ignoring Polish protests, the often erratic Churchill accepted the so-called Curzon Line as Poland’s new frontier, meaning that the Polish conquests of 1919–1921 were lost. In exchange, the Western Allies squeezed a vague promise out of Stalin for the Soviet-sponsored Lublin government to accommodate a few representatives of the London exile government as well as to allow for fair national elections. Neither promise was kept.

Could the British have extracted some concessions from Stalin regarding Poland? Halik Kochanski, the author of a new and most thorough book on Poland during World War II, argues that in the summer of 1941, when the Soviets were desperate for Western help, “Britain could credibly have bargained with the Soviet Union over Poland’s future.”6 But in fact, as Kochanski herself admits, Churchill did not dare put too much pressure on the Soviets for fear that they might conclude a separate peace with Hitler, and this was a fear that persisted. In any case, the years 1944–1945, when Soviet armed might was many times that of the Western forces and when nothing could stop the Red Army’s advance to Berlin, was not the time for forcible bargaining.

Stalin’s hatred for the Poles was so great that while he allowed Hungarians and Czechoslovaks to form more or less genuine multiparty governments for as many as three years (while also installing secret services loyal to Moscow), he immediately imposed a completely nonrepresentative government on Poland, and both Britain and the US withdrew their recognition from the Polish government in London. The Polish exiles were allowed to remain in the country but were never recognized for their wartime service. For instance, General Stanisław Maczek, who had fought under British command since 1940 and who had led a highly decorated Polish tank division in Normandy, worked as a bartender in an Edinburgh hotel after the war. The British government denied him and his fellow Poles recognition as Allied soldiers; they were given no rights as combatants, and they were given no pensions.

The minor political concessions on Poland that Roosevelt and Churchill had squeezed out of the Russians were immediately violated, but at least they formed the basis for the creation and gradual assertion of the Polish freedom movement between 1956 and 1989. The Polish crisis helped to create an anti-Soviet backlash among the Western leaders and the public.

While Roosevelt’s New Deal–era advisers gradually disappeared from the scene, younger intellectuals around the president looked at the alliance with Russia with growing suspicion. Within the military, the calming influence of Generals George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower, as well as of Secretary of War Henry Stimson, was challenged by the inflammatory, strongly anti-Russian statements of the popular hero General George Patton and Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, who as early as April 1945 said to the newly installed President Truman that if the Soviets did not retreat on the question of Poland, “we had better have a showdown with them now than later.” Truman himself fell immediately into a belligerent mood: “I gave it to him straight. I let him have it. It was straight one-two to the jaw,” he reported to his advisers on a meeting with Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov late in April 1945, although he also asked, “Did I do right?”

This was, of course, empty talk, as neither the American nor the British leadership ever seriously considered fighting a Third World War or threatening the Soviets with one. Still, it is characteristic of the general mood created by the terrible Polish crisis that in April 1945, while the Red Army was marshaling two and a half million soldiers, forty thousand guns, and six thousand tanks into the battle for Berlin, sustaining horrendous losses, and while the Western powers were greatly counting on extensive and timely Soviet military intervention against Japan, the British Foreign Office and War Office already viewed Russia as an enemy. In April 1945, the British high command produced a contingency plan, at Churchill’s orders, for an attack on Russia on July 1 of the same year—a plan, however, that made it clear how hopeless such a campaign would be.

At the Potsdam Conference in July–August 1945, both President Truman and the new British prime minister, Clement Attlee, agreed to the expulsion—by then partly accomplished—of over ten million ethnic Germans from the Baltic countries, and from Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary as well as Yugoslavia. This would become one of the greatest and cruelest ethnic cleansings in modern European history. Meanwhile, in Eastern Europe, Poles and Ukrainians continued their informal war that had begun under German occupation. In the forests in many parts of Eastern Europe, anti-Soviet partisans clashed with Soviet and other security forces; the sudden rise of anti-Semitism and the desire to hold on to appropriated Jewish property led to some horrible pogroms.

Did Stalin’s crushing of Poland and the general Soviet ruthlessness that followed cause the cold war? This is not an adequate explanation but both must have contributed to the deterioration of relations. What then caused the cold war? Many historians have debated this question, at first generally putting the blame on the Soviet Union, then in a drastic reversal blaming American imperialist economic expansion, and finally settling on theories of shared responsibility.7 Perhaps one must look at forces beyond the control of Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin. The development of the atomic bomb in the United States upset the precarious balance between the West and the Soviet Union, inevitably precipitating the arms race. There was also the impossibility of agreeing on the terms of reunifying Germany. The US offered the Marshall Plan to the Soviet Union and to the other Eastern European countries, but its strict requirements of economic and financial openness as well as close cooperation with a United States–dominated international agency made it unacceptable to the Soviet leaders.

So the cold war developed and flourished for many decades. But even though some devastating proxy wars were fought, no armed conflict arose between the great powers. Soviet–Western cooperation in preserving world peace continued until 1991, when the former Soviet Union more or less accepted the economic, social, and political model that General Marshall had offered and President Roosevelt had originally envisioned.

Nothing in 1944–1945 could stop the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe. The installation of the Lublin government in Poland occurred before the cold war broke out; but Roosevelt’s influence on these events and on the developing cold war was very limited indeed. We will never know if he might have helped to prevent even greater suffering and tragedies.

  1. 1

    It is worthy of note that Churchill was equally concerned about what he saw as Roosevelt’s plan to break up the British Empire and to inherit the blessings and burdens of imperial hegemony. In the words of Fraser J. Harbutt in Yalta 1945: Europe and America at the Crossroads (Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 407: “It is hard to tell which of his two great allies Churchill worried about more.” 

  2. 2

    Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin (Basic Books, 2010). 

  3. 3

    According to S.M. Plokhy, Yalta: The Price of Peace (Viking, 2010), p. 59, Roosevelt and Churchill did not realize that the devastation they had witnessed on their way to Yalta was the result not only of German barbarism but also of Beria’s deportation to Siberia of 225,000 inhabitants of the Crimea, mostly Crimean Tatars. 

  4. 4

    Cited in Plokhy, Yalta, p. 64. 

  5. 5

    The Czechoslovak government also wished to expel half a million Hungarians but the Americans and the British at the Potsdam Conference in July 1945 refused their consent; therefore the majority of Hungarians were allowed to stay. 

  6. 6

    Halik Kochanski, The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and the Poles in the Second World War (Harvard University Press, 2012), p. 163. 

  7. 7

    This triune explanation of the causes of the cold war is persuasively presented by the Hungarian historian Csaba Békés in Cold War, Détente, Revolution: Hungary, the Soviet Bloc and World Politics, 1945–1964 (Columbia University Press, 2012). 

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