Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Franklin Delano Roosevelt; drawing by David Levine


In 1932, Walter Lippmann famously remarked that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a “pleasant man who without any important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be President.” Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes was said to have described FDR, who had just paid him an unexpected visit on his ninety-second birthday, as having a “second-class intellect but a first-class temperament.” Both assessments were wrong, Lippmann’s notoriously so. Holmes hardly knew FDR, and the President soon proved he had a quick mind, a retentive memory, and a strong sense of what he wanted to accomplish.

Roosevelt was devious, imaginative, dishonest, charming, empirical, calculating, but nonetheless Churchill was surely right when he observed, as Jon Meacham writes in his excellent book Franklin and Winston, that meeting FDR “with all his buoyant sparkle, his iridescence,” was like “opening a bottle of champagne.”

Unlike Churchill, Roosevelt was not sentimental. Underneath his habitual cheerfulness he was a somewhat cold man. Meacham quotes Harry Truman as saying of Roosevelt, “He was the coldest man I ever met. He didn’t give a damn personally for me or you or anyone else in the world as far as I could see. But he was a great President. He brought the country into the twentieth century.”

Whether you succumbed to the charm or not—and most did—the difficulty was to know exactly what the President really wanted. In a heroic attempt to uncover FDR’s personality and policies, Conrad Black, a Canadian-born press magnate who now sits in the British House of Lords, and whose control of his newspapers has recently been challenged, has produced a remarkably balanced and lucid assessment. It is also an exhausting, though not a ponderous, book, 1,134 pages excluding notes and index, a monumental work making the case for a man Black immensely admires.

There were two presidents whose politics profoundly affected Franklin Roosevelt—Eleanor’s Uncle Theodore and Woodrow Wilson, in whose administration he served as assistant secretary of the navy during World War I. FDR very much wanted to emulate TR, whose daring use of broad executive action greatly increased the power of the presidency. Above all, FDR admired TR’s “New Nationalism,” which was designed to make national leadership transcend self-interest. Both Roosevelts were especially contemptuous of the greedy rich who betrayed the patrician values they both embraced. Like TR, FDR believed that happiness “lies not in the possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of the creative effort.”

In FDR’s second term, Wilson’s ideas of the “New Freedom,” which stressed curbing monopolistic practices in order to stimulate competition, tended to predominate, in part as a reaction to earlier measures taken by the New Deal that resulted in overregulation. But in FDR’s third term, Wilson also served as a cautionary model for FDR as a war leader. His grievous error had been his refusal to seek bipartisan cooperation in postwar planning. FDR was in favor of a system of collective security, and was determined not to fail in this, as Wilson had.

Faced with the enormity of the Great Depression, FDR, who always thought of himself in peace and war as a practical idealist, was willing to try almost anything. “I have no expectation of making a hit every time I come to bat,” he declared in one of his early Fireside Chats on radio. He later added, “The country needs…bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: if it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.” No national politician could talk like that today.

In trying something, anything, that might alleviate the nearly 30 percent unemployment, the collapse of banks, and the seeming threat of revolution, Roosevelt sought national solutions. This often meant turning away from an internationalism that had been narrowly conceived. In scuttling the 1933 London Economic Conference, convened to stabilize world currencies, he was right not to endorse a stabilization based on a return to the gold standard. This would have led to further deflation and depression, not only in the United States but worldwide, as John Maynard Keynes argued. It was not until the Bretton Woods agreements at the end of the Second World War that the United States was prepared to manage its economy cooperatively with others. (It was also evident in 1945 that the United States would direct any effort to manage the world economy, with the dollar as the principal reserve currency, in effect, world money.)

Roosevelt’s attempts to regulate the excesses of capitalism helped to save capitalism, as Black repeatedly points out. These efforts in themselves, along with emergency measures such as loans to farmers, however, did not cure the Depression. It was not until 1939, two years before America entered the war, that large-scale spending programs, some of them for rearmament, managed to put the country on the way to full recovery. Government expenditures throughout the war virtually eliminated unemployment and demonstrated to the world the enormous vitality of the American industrial machine. As Black points out, the New Deal reforms of banking and credit, as well as revised tax codes and new welfare systems, would prove to be safeguards against another collapse. So did the new regulation of the securities market, which led to the creation of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).1 To help Americans survive the Depression, the country needed Roosevelt’s buoyant optimism, his understanding that not only was emergency relief available to give the unemployed food and shelter, but also that “useful work” was possible in order to provide men and women with self-respect. He preached freedom from fear, and he himself seemed free from any fear of the future.


Black is strongest in his portrayal of FDR as a war leader. He describes how FDR shrewdly managed public opinion in order to persuade citizens to shed their isolationist yearnings, though here and elsewhere he credits the President with too precise a vision of the road he intended to follow. He writes that at the outset of the war in Europe, FDR had a design for the future that included “winning the war and leading the world to a postimperial Pax Americana.” Despite Roosevelt’s deft maneuverings between 1937 and 1940 to prepare the nation for war, it seems dubious that he planned so far ahead to carry out such an ambitious goal.

On taking office, Roosevelt, as a former member of Wilson’s administration and vice-presidential candidate in the 1920 election, was rightly seen as an internationalist. But just as he willingly abandoned international economic cooperation, he was also prepared to shed any residual support for the League of Nations. In January 1932, the publisher William Randolph Hearst, in what turned out to be the last time he would have any serious influence in a presidential election, castigated Roosevelt and other Democratic candidates as dangerous Wilson- ian internationalists. In response to this attack, FDR disavowed his long-held support for the League.

His wife, Eleanor, according to Black, “was so disappointed in her husband that she didn’t speak to him for some time.” Roosevelt’s political adviser Louis Howe pointed out to her that, in trying to placate Hearst, FDR was taking into account political realities. And it was true that the League was an ineffectual talking shop. Black is right to point out that only an American military alliance with France and Britain would have dramatically changed the course of events in the 1930s by challenging Hitler. But Roosevelt’s repudiation of the League sent an important signal to beleaguered internationalists that American foreign policy was going to largely follow the pattern that had emerged in the Hoover administration.

That Roosevelt intended to do just that is evident in the meeting he had with Hoover’s secretary of state, Henry Stimson, who had also been Taft’s secretary of war, and was a fervent admirer of TR. As such, Stimson was a man who preferred action to temporizing; but he had found himself unable to do much of anything to counteract Japanese aggression in Manchuria in 1931. Instead, he announced what became known as the Stimson Doctrine, which decreed that the United States would not recognize territorial or jurisdictional changes that violated the 1928 Kellogg-Briand peace pact, which had outlawed war as an instrument of national policy. “We have nothing,” Stimson lamented, “but scraps of paper.”

On a snowy day in early January 1933, the president-elect had a lengthy lunch with Stimson at Hyde Park. Though both men came from the same social milieu in New York, Stimson had never met FDR, who received him with great cordiality. To his surprise, Stimson found that Roosevelt and he agreed on all major issues. On the question of Japan’s aggression against China their opinions were especially close: they thought that economic sanctions against Japan (but nothing more severe) would be useful, and they had faith in the continued vitality of Japanese liberalism. FDR also adopted Stimson’s Latin American policy of avoiding US military intervention and relying on local leaders to preserve stability (even if those leaders proved to be less than democratic). FDR remarked to the man who would become his secretary of war in 1940, “We are getting so that we do pretty good teamwork, don’t we?” Blending Stimson’s cautiousness about intervention with New Deal economic nationalism, FDR devised an approach that he hoped would allow him effective freedom of action, as long as he accompanied it with plenty of moral pronouncements.

It was a foreign policy that sustained Roosevelt until 1937, when the aggressive actions of the Japanese and German governments, encouraged by the timid behavior of Britain and France, persuaded Roosevelt that the United States must begin to take a more active part in supporting the large democracies and prepare to take military action as well. Black believes that Roosevelt was getting the American people ready to fight a war that he expected would come. But a case can be made that he continued to hope to the end that he could find a way to avoid committing US forces to combat. He often referred to himself as a poker player and juggler; by employing American power on the side of the Allies he thought he could find a way to continue to provide the economic and industrial means to prevent Hitler’s final victory in Europe while at the same time intimidating Japan so that it would make no further conquests.


His critics have accused him of plotting to get America into the war, but the evidence for this is lacking. The late Isaiah Berlin, writing on Roosevelt after the President’s death, is more persuasive in believing that

when he promised to keep America at peace he meant to try as hard as he could to do so, compatibly with helping to promote the victory of the democracies. He must at one period have thought that he could win the war without entering it, and so, at the end of it, be in the unique position, hitherto achieved by no one, of being the arbiter of the world’s fate, without needing to placate those bitter forces which involvement in a war inevitably brings about, and which are an obstacle to reason and humanity in the making of the peace.

To accomplish all this, he “too often trusted in his own magical power of improvisation.”2

Roosevelt’s long struggle over the issue of neutrality legislation in the mid-1930s was yet another expression of the President’s desire to ensure US freedom of action. By 1935, many in Congress wanted a formal declaration of neutrality that would prevent future presidents from being drawn into a war, as Wilson was in 1917. The first Neutrality Act in August 1935 put a mandatory embargo on shipments of “arms, ammunition and implements” of war “to all foreign belligerents,” but left it up to the President to determine what the “implements of war” were. This was a compromise between FDR, who wanted to have the power to define neutrality (and thus discriminate against those nations he viewed as potential enemies), and those who wanted complete American neutrality in all foreign conflicts. The act satisfied no one.


FDR viewed Europe as the most potentially dangerous region of the world for US interests. He was privately critical of France’s unwillingness to confront Germany’s military reoccupation of the Rhineland, which was a violation of both the Versailles Treaty and the 1925 Locarno Pact, under which Germany promised to leave the Rhineland demilitarized. Confiding in his cousin Margaret (Daisy) Suckley, a woman whose company FDR thoroughly enjoyed and whose diaries and papers have proved invaluable to Black and others in revealing his views on great contemporaries and events, the President wrote:

The tragedy—deepest part of it—is that [Germany’s] words and signatures are no longer good. If France had a leader whom the people would follow their only course would be to occupy all Germany quickly up to the Rhine—no further. They can do it today—in another year or two Germany will be stronger than they are—and the world can not trust a fully rearmed Germany to stay at peace.

As Black points out, unlike the

temporizers and appeasers in London and Paris and other capitals of democratic states, [FDR] had known from the start that Hitler was a compulsive war-maker and a pathological liar and that no durable accommodation could ever be made with him.

FDR, however, could do little if anything to aid the European democracies during the 1930s. On October 5, 1937, he gave an eloquent speech in Chicago citing “the epidemic of world lawlessness” that was spreading. When such an epidemic starts to gain headway, he said, “the community approves and joins in a quarantine…against the spread of the disease.” Did this mean that FDR was prepared to open the way to economic sanctions against the Axis powers, and perhaps even military moves? Clearly not, for the next day, at a press conference Roosevelt was quick to say, “Look, ‘sanctions’ is a terrible word to use. They are out the window.”

In fact, Roosevelt had no immediate plan to counter the actions of what he called the “bandit nations.” Instead, he was trying to urge other nations to find new ways of controlling aggression; and at the same time he wanted to get a sense of American public opinion on intervention. He found that few were ready to support programs that might lead to war. Roosevelt would later remark of this period that “it’s a terrible thing to look over your shoulder when you are trying to lead—and to find no one there.” As a result, any strong response to Japanese moves in China was ruled out.

In December 1937 Japanese aircraft attacked and sank the American gunboat Panay, one of eight vessels that made up the American Yangtze Patrol to assist in any evacuation of Americans still working in the Chinese capital of Nanjing. Roosevelt seems to have been convinced that the Panay incident was evidence of a grand design on the part of Japan to force all Westerners out of China and thus clear the way for their own political and economic expansion. Despite this view, FDR heeded the advice of his old friend Joseph Grew, the US ambassador in Tokyo, who warned that a reckless response to the bombing—such as economic sanctions or military moves—would push the United States into a war it was not prepared for and did not want. Roosevelt agreed, accepting a Japanese apology and reparations payment. An editorial in the Christian Science Monitor summed up the general response best when it wrote, “The gunboat Panay isn’t the battleship Maine.” As always, Roosevelt’s first concern was to prevent his policy from running too far ahead of public opinion.

Britain and France’s sellout of Czech- oslovakia to Hitler at Munich in September 1938 seemed to FDR to increase the danger of war. He now believed it was imperative to find some way to materially aid the British and French. That same autumn he met at Hyde Park with Jean Monnet, now head of the French military purchasing mission. Monnet was not a graduate of one of the grandes écoles, but was a businessman who had a distinguished career in finance. Together he and Roosevelt came up with a plan to circumvent the neutrality acts and add to the French air force by allowing American aircraft to be shipped in parts across the border to Canada, completed, and then shipped to France.3

After the outbreak of the European war in September 1939, the Neutrality Act was repealed by Congress two months later. There were still problems impeding Roosevelt’s effort to aid Britain and France, for example a congressional ban on US shipping within war zones, and once again he sought ways to stretch the revised neutrality rules. One of his most ingenious solutions was the “Destroyers for Bases” scheme, which he devised in the fall of 1940. The deal would trade “fifty World War I destroyers for long leases on a series of British bases from Newfoundland to the West Indies.”

Roosevelt’s efforts to lead the American people to realize that the war in Europe posed a danger to American vital interests was now proving successful, partly thanks to Churchill’s own eloquence and the newsreels of Hitler’s brutality. On June 25, 1940, Black writes, the Gallup poll showed that 64 percent of Americans believed that it was more important to stay out of the war than to help Britain. By October, polls showed that the division on this question was 50–50. By late November, 60 percent said that it was more important to help Britain than to stay out of the war.

Elected to a third term in 1940, Roosevelt now believed he had prepared the American people for war if it came. What Churchill later called Roosevelt’s “most unsordid act” was his invention of the Lend-Lease program shortly after getting word from the British prime minister in December 1940 that Britain was simply running out of money to pay for American munitions and other aid. America would lend Britain whatever it needed—at no cost—and Britain would pay America in kind, by giving back what it had borrowed when it could. Roosevelt thought up the scheme while on a cruise in the Caribbean on the USS Tuscaloosa after receiving Churchill’s desperate plea for money. According to this plan, there would be no question of official loans, which had caused such bitterness in the US Congress after the Allies could not repay the war debts they had accrued during World War I. It was one of FDR’s most brilliant strokes. (It owed something, certainly, to the close relations between FDR and Churchill that are described with much discernment by Jon Meacham. They appreciated each other as maverick aristocrats who clearly perceived the Nazi threat when many of their contemporaries were hoping it would go away.)

Did Roosevelt consciously seek war with Japan as a way of engaging America in the global conflict, as some of his critics have claimed? Black argues that the ambiguous use of the oil embargo against Japan in 1941 might be seen as Roosevelt’s way of provoking the war.

By 1941, the only weapon Roosevelt saw at his disposal was the use of embargoes on American shipments to Japan in hopes that a less militaristic faction would gain power in Tokyo. By October 1940, after Japan had signed the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy, 83 percent of the American people favored an embargo on the sale of any war goods, including gasoline, to the three Axis powers. FDR, however, never ceased to remind the war hawks in his family and cabinet that a total ban on all oil exports would probably push the Japanese to invade the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) sooner rather than later. Thus, the decision was made in July 1940 to limit the embargo to high-octane aviation gasoline.

A year later, the Japanese started to move south, preparing to strike at Indochina and open the way to obtaining the oil reserves of the Dutch Indies. Roosevelt was determined to tighten the screws, but not enough to embargo all trade with Japan, which his naval advisers believed might provoke a Japanese attack on US air and naval bases in the Philippines. As a compromise, on July 24, 1941, FDR ordered a freeze on all Japanese assets in the United States, but then he made the freeze selective. Funds could be released to buy goods that Washington deemed the Japanese could have. This policy gave FDR as much flexibility as possible, and Black gives a revealing account of how he used it. Under Roosevelt’s orders, Sumner Welles, the undersecretary of state, sketched out a system that would release enough funds for Japan to purchase gasoline below 86 octane, which could not be used for aviation fuel, in amounts similar to those of the pre-war years of the mid-1930s. Dean Acheson, who was serving as assistant secretary of state for economic affairs, was made chairman of the Foreign Funds Control Committee, with responsibility for implementing the freeze.

By the end of July, however, Acheson made the freeze absolute. He took this action after Sumner Welles told him “to take no action on Japanese applications” until further notice; Welles then left to accompany Roosevelt on his first meeting with Churchill in Newfoundland. Until these discussions were concluded, no action would be taken to allow the Japanese any oil.

This was the state of affairs when Acheson saw Welles the day before Roosevelt returned from Canada. Welles almost surely reported the situation to the President, and no countervailing directive was issued. On August 20, Acheson noted that Japanese trade was discussed in confidence by the President and Secretary of State Cordell Hull. On September 5, after lunch with FDR, Hull gave departmental approval to these stalling maneuvers.

If Roosevelt had intended to let the Japanese know that they could still obtain some oil, he never made that clear to them. He probably thought that any shift in the embargo policy would be interpreted in Tokyo as weakness. Black believes that when FDR returned from Canada to find out that all exports to Japan had in fact been suspended, he “acquiesced knowingly in a policy that would result in a Japanese attack on the West.” This conclusion seems unwarranted. More likely, Roosevelt was still playing poker with Tokyo; he had raised the ante dangerously high, but he probably felt that he no longer had any better means of bringing Japan to its senses. The last thing FDR was about to abandon was his need for flexibility.


In his dealings with the leaders of his two principal allies, Churchill and Stalin, Roosevelt always sought a similar elasticity. This was most evident in his discussions with both men on the advisability of opening a second front as early as 1943 through a cross-channel invasion of France. Stalin, of course, was constantly pressing the Western allies to do this in order to relieve German pressure on the eastern front. Churchill, perhaps haunted by the slaughter he had observed in World War I in eastern France, preferred what Black calls a Napoleonic strategy. He pushed for bombing, blockades, and assistance to insurrections at the periphery of Hitler’s empire.

At the Tehran conference of the Big Three in November 1943, Churchill proposed that after the Italian campaign, Allied troops should sweep through Yugoslavia and into Vienna and then Hungary. He further pushed for a strategy that would bring Turkey into the war, arguing that Romania, Bulgaria, and Greece could be seized as a result. Stalin clearly wanted to discourage any such plan. Roosevelt sided with Stalin on military strategy and in doing so openly humiliated his British ally. Churchill capitulated by agreeing to support the cross-channel invasion “Overlord,” along with a landing in southern France by the armies in Italy; but he wanted to postpone it well into 1944.

Black is rightly skeptical that the divergences between Roosevelt and Churchill persuaded Stalin that there were serious differences between the two Western allies. He told the Yugoslav Communist politician Milovan Djilas in 1944, “Churchill would pick your pocket for a kopeck. Roosevelt is not like that. He dips in his hand only for bigger coins.” Yet had Stalin supported Churchill’s Mediterranean strategy, as Black suggests, “he could have made matters difficult for Roosevelt and delayed Overlord, and would probably have ended the war occupying more of Germany than he did.”

At Tehran, in a private meeting with Stalin, Roosevelt sketched out his ideas for an international organization that would avoid the Wilsonian model by incorporating traditional notions of great-power leadership. FDR wanted a steering committee headed by the great powers that would provide the means to enforce the peace. He saw such a committee as the “Four Policemen” made up of the United States, Britain, the Soviet Union, and China. This became the template for the United Nations Security Council, the four major powers (plus France) having permanent veto power over economic and military sanctions, and thus control over peace enforcement.

Even though many of the discussions at Tehran were inconclusive, FDR was pleased that Stalin confirmed his previous promise that after Germany was defeated, Russia would enter the war against Japan. Between Roosevelt and Churchill, for all their camaraderie, there was always the underlying and, often, open tension over the British Empire. FDR concluded that there was no way he could persuade the British to divest themselves of any significant part of it. Toward the Netherlands and France he felt free to take a harder line, suggesting that French Indochina be made a UN mandate leading after a number of years to independence. FDR’s view that France should have a relatively inconsequential part in world affairs caused further rifts with Churchill, who insisted that France have a major part in European matters; nor was Churchill eager to dismantle the French Empire, which could open the way to independence for the British colonies.

For this reason, relations were always strained between Roosevelt and General de Gaulle, whom Churchill had anointed as the leader of the Free French forces. Precisely because France could no longer be counted as a great power and was now dependent on Churchill—and later Roosevelt—to arm the French forces outside Vichy’s control, De Gaulle, too poor to beg, insisted that his allies treat him as an equal. De Gaulle always remained impervious to FDR’s charm. As he wrote after his first meeting with Roosevelt at Casablanca in early 1943, “Like any star performer [FDR] was touchy about roles that fell to other actors. In short, beneath his patrician mask of courtesy, Roosevelt regarded me without benevolence.” Black is excellent in describing the wrangling, misunderstandings, and often genuine hostility that characterized the relationship between Roosevelt and De Gaulle. He shows that FDR was profoundly wrong in searching for a French leader other than De Gaulle to lead the provisional government of France. Here Churchill, who also suffered from Gaullist ingratitude, had his way. France was given an occupation zone and a permanent seat on the Security Council.


“It’s the best I can do for Poland at this time,” FDR protested to his chief of staff at the Yalta conference in February 1945. Meeting with Churchill and Stalin in the Livadia Palace in the Crimea, Roosevelt had obtained Stalin’s promise to hold “free and unfettered elections” in Poland. He may well have doubted the promise would be kept. The Communist Lublin government had been set up in Poland under Soviet auspices in July 1944; and the Soviets had stood by outside Warsaw while the Germans crushed the Polish uprising there during the following October.

As Black makes clear in his careful account, the Allies entered the conference with different goals. The Americans and British had launched their attack on the German army in France and were pressing forward into the German heartland. Churchill, again insisting that France be a major power on the continent, wanted to limit Soviet control of Poland. It was, after all, Germany’s invasion of Poland that had provided the casus belli for World War II. Stalin was obsessed with obtaining reparations to rebuild the devastated Soviet economy, including territory in Asia as a quid pro quo for entering the war against Japan; above all, he sought a weakened Germany that would never again threaten Russia.

Roosevelt wanted to press for clearer agreements to organize the United Nations. He also wanted to get a firm Russian commitment to fight against Japan, to reduce the Soviet presence in Poland, and to elevate China to great-power status, believing this was necessary in order to provide a balancing force between Japan and Russia. He obtained a consensus on all these points, although it was particularly hollow in the case of Poland, and short-sighted in the case of China, where Chiang Kai-shek’s army was already threatened by the forces of Mao Tse-tung.

Roosevelt was certainly in poor health—he died two months later—but Black finds no evidence that his mind was impaired. Charles Bohlen, the American diplomat who was with FDR at Yalta as his interpreter and Russian expert, thought Roosevelt was mentally and psychologically unaffected by his physical deterioration, calling him “mentally sharp [and] effective” when important matters were discussed.4

Both Roosevelt and Churchill hedged on the question of reparations, fearful of imposing so great a burden on Germany that it would not be able to recover sufficiently to take care of its own people. Roosevelt, like Churchill, also didn’t want Germany to become “a burden to the world” and preferred to give aid to the Soviet Union while Germany was being rebuilt. At one point, a figure of $20 billion for German reparations was mentioned, half of which would go to Russia; but the Allies agreed that they would discuss the exact amount in the future.

Stalin, it turned out, assumed that Britain and the United States would support a $10 billion payment by Germany to Russia. When FDR asked Stalin what distinction he made between imposing a reparations policy and establishing zones of occupation, Stalin answered that there was no distinction. The Russians simply took all the equipment and goods they wanted from their own occupation zone.

The Soviet promise to reorganize Poland’s provisional government on “a broad democratic basis with the inclusion of democratic leaders from Poland itself and from Poles abroad,” to be followed by the “free and unfettered elections,” was never ful-filled. When FDR said that the Polish elections had to be “beyond question like Caesar’s wife,” Stalin responded, “They said that about her but she had her sins.”5 In retrospect, and particularly in view of the American desire for Soviet help against the Japanese armies, which were putting up fierce resistance in the Pacific, the only leverage Roosevelt had to pressure the Soviet Union at Yalta was economic aid.

Upon his return from Yalta Roosevelt became discouraged by Stalin’s reluctance to fulfill many of his obligations. On March 23, he told the labor expert Anna Rosenberg, “We can’t do business with Stalin. He has broken every one of the promises he made at Yalta.” On April 8, writing to Churchill, Roosevelt decided that in view of current difficulties, he would not be sending a mission to Russia to discuss economic assistance: “We must be careful not to do anything that would weaken the effectiveness of our efforts to get the Russians to honor those decisions [made at Yalta] on their side.”

This struck a determined note; but only a few days later, just before his death on April 12, 1945, Roosevelt wrote Churchill more cautiously:

I would minimize the general Soviet problem as much as possible because these problems, in one form or another, seem to arise every day and most of them straighten out…. We must be firm, however, and our course thus far is correct.

These were Roosevelt’s last words on the subject.

When Roosevelt’s new secretary of state Edward R. Stettinius briefed Harry Truman on April 13, he told him that the Soviet Union “has taken a firm and uncompromising position on nearly every major question,” especially on Poland and the Liberated areas. “[The Soviets] have asked for a large postwar credit,” which, he explained, Roosevelt had withheld.

With Germany’s surrender on May 8, 1945, Lend-Lease aid was immediately curtailed (Truman soon partially restarted it), and Stalin told Harry Hopkins, who had been sent to Moscow in May as a special envoy, that the sudden cessation of Lend-Lease had been brutal: “If the refusal to continue Lend Lease was designed as pressure on the Russians in order to soften them up,” Stalin told him, “then it was a fundamental mistake.” Hopkins got Stalin to agree that non-Communist Poles would be appointed to a handful of ministries; but this promise did not change the fact of total Soviet control of Poland, and nothing resembling free elections took place.

Whether a calibrated policy of using the inducement of economic aid to get Stalin to comply with his promises would have worked seems unlikely. Still, Roosevelt, had he lived, might well have tried it; Truman did not. In the end, Roosevelt could plausibly claim he wanted to do the best he could for Poland. It was simply not enough.

This Issue

March 11, 2004