Could Stalin Have Been Stopped?

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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…

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