by Conrad Black
A review of Roosevelt and Stalin: Portrait of a Partnership by Susan Butler
Roosevelt and Stalin is an interesting but bad book.1 Susan Butler argues that the Cold War and the terror of its nuclear arms race might well have been avoided had Franklin D. Roosevelt’s suave and sage benignity not abruptly given way to his crude successor Harry S. Truman and the saturnine influence of Winston Churchill. Butler portrays Churchill as an incorrigible Victorian imperialist, a profoundly dishonest and treacherous ally, a venomous racist, and almost a mass murderer, morally on no higher a plane than Stalin. In order to rewrite history so radically, Ms. Butler engages in the wholesale splicing of historic documents, the willful misrepresentation of the views of several prominent statesmen, recurrent recourse to unsubstantiated surmise and mind-reading, and histrionic magnification of trivial events, while passing off, as necessary (i.e., quite often), grievous Stalinist misconduct as cultural differences and understandable reaction to Western chicanery. Ms. Butler’s thesis begins unexceptionably from the position that Roosevelt recognized that Stalin ran a dictatorship as severe and morally reprehensible as Hitler’s, and rightly castigated him for attacking Finland in 1939, having warned him that if he made a pact with Hitler, the Nazi leader would knock France out of the war and then attack the Soviet Union. So far, so good, and she gives Roosevelt credit for extending Lend-Lease assistance to the USSR soon after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. She does exaggerate the boldness of Roosevelt’s exchange of ambassadors with Stalin in 1933 and underrates the irritation of the Communist International’s subversive agitation and espionage activities in the West, but these are fairly minor liberties.
The narrative begins to wobble and shudder with the complete omission of Roosevelt’s imposition of an embargo on oil and scrap metal against Japan as the cause for that country’s attack on the U.S. and Britain, and Roosevelt’s advice to Stalin that the Japanese had moved their Manchurian army to the south, releasing the Soviet Far Eastern forces for transportation west in the final defense of Moscow and Leningrad in November 1941. She seems to think only two divisions were involved in this shift (the real forces moved from the Chinese border were at least five times as great) and implies that this was a spontaneous inspiration of Stalin’s. Thus, by mere happenstance and the misjudgment of the Japanese, the Grand Alliance of Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill came into being, and Roosevelt tried diligently and with success to strike up a relationship of trust and frankness with Stalin, despite ideological differences and past animosity (which is papered over with official Soviet claptrap in support of the New Deal).
There follows a frenzied attack on Winston Churchill as a racist colonialist and a treacherous, knuckle-dragging exploiter of non-whites, pathologically concerned with the evils of Marxism, rather than manning up, as Roosevelt did, to the wholesome mission of winning Stalin over to the virtues of Western civilization by being generous and forthright to him. Though Stalin had been responsible for the deaths of a significant number of his countrymen (the general estimate that up to 20 million people were thus starved or massacred is not even hinted at), Churchill’s disparagements of the Chinese and Indians, and especially his alleged complicity in the death from malnutrition of, supposedly, a million people in the British Indian Empire in 1942, installs him in just as prominent a place in the pantheon of human wickedness as Stalin—but less excusably, as he was a scion of a noble family in a civilized country. The detention of Nehru and Gandhi in 1942 is deemed a heinous crime, though the Indian leaders were advocating granting Japan free passage through Burma, India, and Pakistan to the Middle East. Gandhi urged the sabotage of the war effort and counseled Europe’s Jews to go uncomplainingly and without any theatrics to their deaths in the Nazi pogroms. His concept of non-violence did not admit of the possibility that, faced with some practical and moral emergencies, such as the attempted Nazi conquest of the world and extermination of the Jews, violence could be justified. Ms. Butler would have her readers believe that India sullenly withheld any serious contribution to the Commonwealth war effort, and that for 250 years, the British simply plundered India. In fact, more than one million citizens of the British Indian Empire volunteered and fought with distinction for the Allies in World War II, and Britain endowed India with the only political institutions of any value that it now has, and governed much more progressively and productively of general prosperity than Nehru and his Congress Party did in the first thirty-five years of Indian Independence.
As one who, for thirty years, has railed against the long-held orthodoxy of most Britons and the American right that Churchill, from 1940 to 1945, conducted a strategic tutorial for the naïve Roosevelt, who was easily duped by Stalin, it was briefly a relief to this reviewer to be spared that worm-eaten fraud. Still, portraying Churchill as a bigoted, dishonest, almost senescent monster is not an improvement, especially when it is compounded by a depiction of Roosevelt as an Emersonian optimist, a mighty Eagle Scout, successfully translating generosity to Stalin into burgeoning mutual trust, whose efforts were posthumously destroyed by Truman’s and Churchill’s bullying and provoking a Stalin who had been responding with cordiality and goodwill to Roosevelt. In furtherance of this fable, Ms. Butler claims that Churchill was trying unreasonably to combat an expansion of Russian influence in the Balkans by advocating an attack up the Adriatic and through the Ljubljana Gap; that Stalin didn’t know what democracy meant; and that his promise of free and democratic elections in Poland was just no-fault “pie-in-the-sky,” as was his promise of independence for the countries the Red Army liberated in Eastern Europe, and that Roosevelt and Churchill knew that. Countless times we read that Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin “must have thought” or “would have felt” whatever it pleased the author to impute to them, with no authentication whatever of these aperçus.
As Ms. Butler confects her argument, let us recall that Roosevelt concluded in 1940 that if Hitler were allowed to make his conquests up to that point permanent (Austria, Bohemia, Moravia, most of France and Poland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, and Luxembourg), Germany would have as large a population and almost as great an industrial strength as the United States; most of the rest of continental Europe, as far east as the USSR, would remain German satellites (Salazar’s Portugal, Franco’s Spain, Mussolini’s Italy, Antonescu’s Romania, Horthy’s Hungary); Hitler, Stalin, and the Japanese would control the entire Eurasian land mass. This would be a mortal threat to democracy, specifically to the United States, which would become a “prisoner” in the Americas, “fed through the bars by the unpitying masters of other continents,” as Roosevelt said at the University of Virginia in June 1940. To address this extreme threat, he broke a tradition as old as the republic by successfully seeking a third term, extending territorial waters out into the Atlantic from three to 1,800 miles, and ordering the U.S. Navy to attack on detection any German or Italian ship while practically giving Britain, Canada, Australia, and eventually the USSR anything they asked for while calling it a loan. When Hitler did not treat that idiosyncratic redefinition of neutrality as an act of war, Roosevelt stopped oil sales to Japan, which imported 80 percent of its oil from the U.S., until it vacated China and Indochina, which he knew Japan would not do.
Since Hitler reckoned, after Lend-Lease in February 1941, that he was almost at war with the United States already, and that Roosevelt would somehow provoke outright combat when he was ready, at which time he could be attacked in the back by Stalin, his best bet was to attack Stalin preemptively.
Roosevelt concluded that if Stalin made a separate peace with Hitler, as Lenin and Trotsky had with Germany in 1918, it would be practically impossible to dislodge Hitler from control of continental Europe, and his best course was to provoke Japan into an attack that would galvanize a unanimity of opinion behind an American war effort and motivate Stalin to fight on and take the great majority of the casualties that would be incurred in subduing Nazi Germany. To avoid a German–Russian peace that would leave both dictatorships durably in place, it would then be necessary for the Anglo–Americans to invade Western Europe without undue delay. The Germans, given the savage ferocity of the war in the East, would fight much more fiercely there than in the West, as they knew that the Western powers would be comparatively civilized occupiers and imposers of post–war conditions. Roosevelt’s plan was for the Americans and British to occupy Germany, France, and Italy, as well as Japan, and integrate them into the democratic West, while Stalin, for all his vastly greater war-losses, would be squatting in Eastern Europe, inhospitable and comparatively uninteresting territory in strategic terms. All of these calculations were correct. Bringing them about required Roosevelt to get Stalin to help him at Tehran to require that the Western powers invade France and not Yugoslavia, which Churchill wished, but not for the fatuous reasons ascribed to him by Susan Butler, but because of his memories of the bloodbath of the Western Front in 1914–1918.
All of this came to pass in a prolonged strategic feat of astounding virtuosity by Roosevelt. Churchill had kept democracy alive by pulling Britain and the Commonwealth together and winning the Battle of Britain, by retaining control of the Atlantic and Mediterranean in 1940–1941. Roosevelt’s grand strategy was steadily implemented successfully in 1942–1945, and where Germany, France, Italy, and Japan had all been undemocratic countries hostile to the English-speaking peoples in mid–1940, they were all, at the end of the war, in the hands of the English-speaking countries. It was a triumph, first of courageous survival led by Churchill, supported by Roosevelt, and then of masterly world-strategic execution by Roosevelt, supported by Churchill. All of this blissfully escapes the comprehension of Susan Butler, who instead inflicts on us a gruesome tale of Hitlerian wickedness aggravated by Churchillian skulduggery, surmounted only by Soviet heroism and Roosevelt’s Peter Pan-like benignity.
Great stress is placed on Stalin’s suspension of official discouragement of religion, as if he were doing more than dragooning the Russian Orthodox patriarchs—always servile to Russian rulers—into whipping up support for the Great Patriotic War. Stalin’s famous comment after the Tehran Conference that “Churchill would pick [his] pocket for a kopek but Roosevelt only dips in his hand for bigger coins” is explained as an attack on Churchill (whose greatness Stalin explicitly recognized in a way that eludes Ms. Butler). The reflection on Roosevelt may be comparatively gentle, but hardly expresses a growing friendship; even Stalin did not consider being a pickpocket to be a high calling. In the last months of Roosevelt’s life, there was much talk of sharing atomic information, and Ms. Butler claims that War Secretary Stimson wished to do this, but was overruled by Truman. Stimson makes it clear in his memoirs that the initial idea was to offer atomic information in exchange for the democratization of Russia, an insane concept that Roosevelt did not take seriously. Stimson, just before he retired in September 1945, thought that perhaps that could not be done, but that Russia should be told more about atomic weapons as part of a move to pursue atomic energy internationally for peaceful purposes, yet it is all presented here as a heroic effort—that Truman cavalierly rejected—to avoid an arms race. Similarly, there is no doubt that Stalin knew perfectly well what free elections were and had no intention of allowing them in Soviet-occupied territory, though he promised them in all liberated countries. Stalin is claimed to have been provoked by the proposal to admit Argentina as a founding member of the United Nations, and by the suspension, for one day, of Lend-Lease assistance to all recipients when the European War ended. George Kennan, the eventual primary author of the successful containment policy of the Cold War, is falsely portrayed as a deranged Russophobe.
Roosevelt had intended—once atomic weapons worked and had ended the war with Japan, so Russian assistance in invading the home islands would not be necessary—to offer the Finlandization of what became the satellite states, their autonomy and freedom in neutrality. He would also offer the permanent pacification of Germany (which is the only reason he heard out Morgenthau’s nonsensical plan to pastoralize the Reich), and $6.5 billion in direct aid and full recognition of the USSR as a co-equal super power, and perhaps some sharing of peaceful atomic information, all in exchange for compliance with the Yalta commitments to freedom for Eastern Europe. Because Stalin was already violating his Yalta commitments, Roosevelt held up the beginning of the promised financial assistance to the USSR, an inconvenient fact this author ignores. Truman had the right instincts, but not the political strength Roosevelt had accumulated to shift American opinion so quickly and profoundly over relations with the Soviet Union right after a terrible war in which 70 million people had perished. The European Advisory Commission, which demarcated the post–war zones of occupation in Germany, is not even mentioned. Churchill and Stalin, for different reasons, favored the pre-determination of zones, while Roosevelt thought, correctly, that without it the Western Allies could occupy almost all Germany. Instead of these facts, Ms. Butler gives us a complete fiction about Eisenhower’s magnanimity in not seeking to deprive Stalin of his right to take 400,000 casualties overrunning Berlin.
There are some interesting details, such as that Eisenhower, as has generally been suspected, facilitated Soviet occupation of what is now the Czech Republic (it was not mentioned in the Tehran or Yalta agreements or in the Churchill–Stalin spheres of influence agreement). But this book is bunk, deviously based on partial quotes or mere suppositions. It is almost as much a novel as a work of history, and is written with a workmanlike absence of stylistic distinction.
Conrad Black is the former publisher of the London Telegraph newspapers and the Spectator. He has written several biographies.
uper book for history fans. Lots of revelations.,
April 30, 2015
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This review is from: Roosevelt and Stalin: Portrait of a Partnership (Kindle Edition)
This is a thoroughly original and fascinating book. Based on meticulous research and often citing little-known or unknown letters, minutes and memoirs, Susan Butler paints a picture of FDR and Stalin's characters which I find convincing. Leaving aside Stalin's murderous paranoia, there is no doubt in my mind that he was a highly intelligent man (the picture Dr. Butler paints is consistent with Simon Sebag Montefiore's "Young Stalin" and "Stalin - the court of the red tsar"). The surprising "connecting" between FDR and Stalin was made easier by FDR's proverbial charm and intuition, but would not have translated into action on both sides had it not been for two other factors: First, both FDR and Stalin were "Realpolitik statesmen". Stalin realized that no nation on earth besides the US could help him materially defeat Germany; he therefore went to quite extraordinary lengths to accommodate FDR; FDR on the other hand, wanted passionately to do what Wilson, one of his main mentors, had so signally failed to achieve: establish an international organization that could police the world, and for this, he needed Stalin on board. Second, both FDR and Stalin delivered on their promises up to Yalta, and arguably after Yalta (FDR realized perfectly well that no free elections would ever take place in Poland; he is quoted in the book to this effect in private conversation). Only thus was trust built. When things went off the rails, FDR or Harry Hopkins (the only other American "official" with whom Stalin dealt productively) were able to set things straight again. What wrecked post-war trust was (a) the two H-bombs that hit Japan, which signaled to Stalin that the US was in a (temporary) monopoly position; and of course Truman's inability to understand, much less buy into, FDR's global vision. Dr. Butler's shows FDR in total control of the Teheran and Yalta discussions, debunking the usually-accepted notion that FDR was incapacitated at Yalta.