The Magazine

The Big Two

Stalin's lies, Roosevelt's anger, and an awkward alliance.

Oct 2, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 03 • By ANDREW ROBERTS
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My Dear Mr. Stalin

The Complete Correspondence of Franklin D. Roosevelt

and Joseph V. Stalin

Edited by Susan Butler

Yale, 384 pp., $35

Although Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin only met twice, at the Tehran Conference in November 1943 and at Yalta in February 1945, they kept in very regular personal correspondence. The first letter was sent by FDR soon after Hitler had invaded the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, and the 304th, also sent by him, was dated April 11, 1945, the day before Roosevelt died.

Astonishingly enough, this is the first complete and accurate record of the whole correspondence ever to be published, although it rates alongside Roosevelt's letters to and from Churchill in importance. The letters occasionally include the crossings-out and alterations made by FDR as he formulated exactly what he wanted to say, making them even more interesting. The letters' fascination lies in the way that they chronicle the subtle shift in power between the leaders of the two emerging superpowers as the Second World War progressed.

In late 1941, the Soviet Union was on the ropes; Hitler's invasion, code-named Operation Barbarossa, had involved over two million well-armed and well-trained men storming across thousands of miles of European Russia to lay siege to the cities of Leningrad, Moscow, and Stalingrad. On October 16, Stalin, who seems to have suffered some kind of mental breakdown when told of the invasion, even had his personal train made ready to spirit him out of Moscow and behind the Urals. If that had happened, the collapse in Soviet morale might well have allowed the Wehrmacht to win the war in the East. Somehow, however, the Russians hung on--even though Leningrad, for example, was subjected to a grueling 900-day siege by the end of which cannibalism was being practiced.

Stalin's letters to Roosevelt during this desperate time are those of a drowning man begging for a lifeline. His thanks when FDR extended lines of credit $1 billion at a time were effusive and heartfelt. On November 4, 1941, Stalin wrote begging for "exceptionally substantial assistance to the Soviet Union in its great and difficult struggle with our common enemy, bloodthirsty Hitlerism. I am prepared to do everything necessary to make this possible."

Asking for virtually nothing in return, Roosevelt supplied the Red Army with as much as America could possibly spare, at a time when General George C. Marshall--one of the great heroes of the 20th century--was building up the military forces of the United States as fast as the Constitution and Congress would allow.

Roosevelt's letters to Stalin in this early period occasionally listed the huge supplies being shipped to the Soviet Union, for example: "Item Six: Trucks, 5,600 immediately and 10,000 monthly thereafter . . . Item 66: Army Boots, at least 200,000 pairs monthly. Item 67: Army Cloth, one million yards will be available"--and so on. In the end, the United States provided the Red Army with no fewer than 5,000 aircraft, 7,000 tanks, and 50 million pairs of boots.

As the war progressed, however, and especially after the Germans surrendered at Stalingrad at the end of January 1943, Stalin reverted to his suspicious, anticapitalist, ungrateful, anti-Western self. Furious at the Anglo-Americans for not invading Western Europe earlier, sensing treachery behind every strategic decision of theirs, fearful lest he would not be able to crush Polish nationalism and grab Eastern Europe, Stalin's letters became more demanding and angry as 1943 turned into 1944.

On December 27, 1944, he wrote to Roosevelt to complain that the Western Allies were effectively supporting Polish democrats, who he characterized as "a criminal terrorist network against Soviet officers and soldiers on the territory of Poland. We cannot reconcile with such a situation when terrorists instigated by Polish emigrants kill in Poland soldiers and officers of the Red Army, lead a criminal fight against Soviet troops who are liberating Poland, and directly aid our enemies, whose allies they in fact are." To describe Polish democrats as the allies of the Nazis shows Stalin's mentality at the time, only two months before Yalta.

By the time of the Yalta conference in 1945, it is Roosevelt who was attempting to keep the alliance together, trying to entice the Soviet Union into a meaningful United Nations organization after the war. With millions of Red Army troops swarming over Poland, and Soviet divisions only 44 miles from Berlin by the end of the conference, there was nothing that either FDR or Winston Churchill could have done to safeguard political freedom in Eastern Europe--and both knew it. Roosevelt certainly tried everything, including straightforward flattery, to try to bring Stalin around to a reasonable stance on any number of issues after the war was won. But he overestimated what his undoubted aristocratic charm could achieve with the homicidal son of a drunken cobbler.

It is not, however, true to say--as anti-Roosevelt historians regularly do--that FDR went too far in his attempt to win the recalcitrant marshal over to the cause of decency. No vital American interests were compromised. He could also be sharp with the unrepentant killer. On April 4, 1945, Roosevelt wrote to Stalin, "I have received with astonishment your message of April 3 containing an allegation that arrangements which were made between Field Marshals [Harold] Alexander and [Albert] Kesselring at Berne." Pointing out that no negotiations had taken place, Roosevelt concluded, "Frankly I cannot avoid a feeling of bitter resentment towards your informers, whoever they are, for such vile misrepresentations of my actions and those of my trusted subordinates."

This book proves, yet again, that although Roosevelt strove for good relations with Stalin, he was no dupe, and that the Cold War was entirely the fault of the Russian dictator.

Andrew Roberts is the author of the forthcoming A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900.