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How the Big Three concluded the Good War

Sep 20, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 01 • By ALONZO L. HAMBY
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Yet Roosevelt, fully as much as his cousin Theodore, was conscious of the paramount role of power in world politics. As assistant secretary of the Navy under Wilson, he had been an advocate of a big navy and a strong American global presence. He personally delighted in the exercise of power. His approach to foreign relations was an uneasy and inconsistent mix of publicly declared utopian ideals and a privately held sense of power realities. Having no immense formal empire to defend, he differed from Churchill largely in his preference for proclaiming a grand liberal vision.

For a time, Roosevelt talked privately of a postwar world that would be managed by “four policemen” (the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and China) with the sanction of the United Nations organization. As the war progressed, with China remaining in hopeless disarray and Britain increasingly dependent upon American largesse, he seems to have decided that the two surviving truly great powers would be the United States and the Soviet Union. Given his indulgence in the original sin of summit diplomacy—a belief that relations among states depended upon personal relationships between their leaders—he surely came to feel that friendship with Stalin was more important than with Churchill, who in any case had no recourse.   

From the beginning of his political career, Roosevelt had defined himself as a progressive—by the 1940s, the term of art was “liberal”—and his diplomacy fit the reform mood of the time. However fond he may have been of Churchill, he had nothing but disdain for the British Empire, which he saw as exploitative of its native peoples and an economic rival to the United States. In fact, he saw no interest in supporting the survival of any of the Western European empires threatened by the war. He seems particularly to have deplored that of France, whose leader, General Charles de Gaulle, he heartily disliked. 

Conversely, the president and most liberals considered the Soviet Union a compelling, if flawed, social experiment. Harbutt cites John Kenneth Galbraith, then an upper-level official in the Office of Price Administration, as remarking that “Russia should be permitted to absorb Poland, the Balkans, and the whole of Eastern Europe in order to spread the benefits of Communism.” Roosevelt had extended diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union in 1933, appears (according to George F. Kennan’s memoirs) to have sanctioned the disbanding of the State Department’s Division of Eastern European Affairs (a focus of anti-Soviet sentiment) in 1937, and consistently disregarded warnings of Soviet espionage efforts in the United States. The war and the massive Soviet contribution to allied victory made it all the easier, indeed imperative, to assume a sunny disposition toward Stalin and his regime.

Stalin was the primary object of Roosevelt’s diplomacy at Yalta. Roosevelt likely saw himself and the Soviet dictator as the primary arbiters of world politics in the postwar years and behaved accordingly. He positioned himself, not as half of the Anglo-American alliance, but as an independent mediator whenever disputes arose between Churchill and the Soviet dictator, referring to himself as “Judge Roosevelt.” It is impossible to know how seriously Stalin took this, but he encouraged it. 

Roosevelt clearly had his illusions about his Russian allies and was willing to make concessions to them, but he was no dupe. His priorities at Yalta were probably not neatly ordered in his mind—he was anything but a neat thinker—but two seem to have stood out. Politically, he wanted Soviet adherence to the new United Nations organization, which he envisioned as a necessary mechanism for long-term U.S. international involvement. Here, he appears to have drawn on the World War I experience: Convinced that the American people once again would demand the return of their soldiers posthaste, he freely expressed his sense that American armies could not be kept in Europe for more than two years after the defeat of Germany. A solidly established postwar peacekeeping organization, embodying the continuing unity of the wartime alliance, seemed the best hope for avoiding a replay of the isolationist unilateralism that had characterized the 1920s and launched the world on the road to the next global conflagration. (Some historians have also noted that a United Nations that recognized regional agreements and understandings could legitimize U.S. hegemony in the Western hemisphere at least as fully as Soviet dominance in Eastern Europe. In 1945, American presidents could reasonably expect to command a near-unanimous bloc of Latin American nations in the new world body.) 

Militarily, Roosevelt’s crucial priority was to bring the Soviet Union into the war against Japan. The price was high: effective control of Manchuria and the transfer to the Soviet Union of strategically important Japanese islands in the northwestern Pacific. Moreover, Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese regime claimed Manchuria but had not exercised control over it since the Japanese takeover of 1931. The Red Army, the only force capable of dislodging the Japanese, would likely seize the province anyway once the enemy was making its last stand on the home islands. The president stalled at first, but soon decided it was expedient to give Stalin what he wanted. American military leaders were positively ebullient: Admiral Ernest J. King, perhaps the toughest and hardest among them, declared, “We’ve just saved two million Americans!” 

The president’s strategy glossed over wide ideological differences. Stalin’s leadership, domestic and diplomatic, was built on the brutal exercise of raw power. Roosevelt had taken a cue from Woodrow Wilson in justifying the war with high-minded, utopian rhetoric. As early as January 1941 he had committed himself to four freedoms—of speech, of religion, from want, from fear—“everywhere in the world.” That August, he and Churchill had ended their dramatic meeting off the coast of Newfoundland by issuing the Atlantic Charter. Reminiscent of Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, it pledged a list of personal and collective freedoms that would underwrite a new and peaceful world order. 

No less than Wilson, Roosevelt had identified victory with the end of a sordid era of episodic violent upheaval and power politics, perhaps an end to history itself. Yet in order to defeat the most menacing totalitarian threat of the 20th century, he and Churchill found themselves forced to ally with the other great totalitarian power of their time. Neither could do much for the unfortunate peoples of Eastern Europe, trapped between Hitler and Stalin; yet neither could publicly repudiate their shining ideals. Yalta was their last attempt to come to grips with the cunning of a history beyond their control.


Within the administration there were a few quiet dissenters who understood the immense gap in perspective between the liberal West and the Soviet state, anticipated Soviet totalitarian dominance in Eastern Europe, and foresaw a long period of tension between the United States and its Russian ally. One was the counselor of the American embassy in Moscow, George Kennan. Kennan privately suggested to Charles Bohlen, Roosevelt’s interpreter and an adviser on Soviet affairs at Yalta, “divide Europe frankly into spheres of influence—keep ourselves out of the Russian sphere and the Russians out of ours.” Better a cynical exercise in Machtpolitik, he allowed, than a denial of reality and the pursuit of illusion. “Foreign policy of that kind cannot be made in a democracy,” Bohlen replied. More than a quarter of a century later, almost as if he were channeling Roosevelt, Bohlen elaborated on his point in his memoirs: “Foreign policy in a democracy must take into account the emotions, beliefs, and goals of the people. .  .  . The good leader in foreign affairs formulates his policy on expert advice and creates a climate of public opinion to support it.” 

Bohlen was surely correct that the president could not have sold to Congress or American voters a blatant division of peoples and territories, but Roosevelt erred in the other direction. In the final months of his life, he substituted utopian hopes for the probability that the postwar world, while better and safer, would remain one dominated by national states with conflicting interests and tendencies to engage in power politics. All the same, he had sacrificed no vital American interest, conceded to Stalin practically nothing that the Soviet leader could not take anyway, and extracted from him the valuable pledge, secured by major territorial concessions, to join the fight against Japan. 

By the end of the conference, Roosevelt surely believed he had closed deals with Stalin that would both shorten the war and underwrite an enduring alliance. Churchill could leave feeling optimistic about future British hegemony in the Mediterranean. Stalin could luxuriate in territorial concessions that exceeded the achievements of the greatest czars. Roosevelt’s closest aide, Harry Hopkins, recalled the American mood to his biographer, Robert E. Sherwood: “We really believed in our hearts that this was the dawn of the new day we had all been praying for and talking about for so many years. We were absolutely certain that we had won the first great victory of the peace.” His one worry was the possibility that Stalin—“reasonable, sensible, and understanding”—might somehow fall from power. 

The wheels of international politics turned on inexorably. In a matter of weeks, Soviet suppression of democratic forces in Eastern Europe, along with Russian accusations that the United States and Britain were discussing a separate peace with Germany, touched off a “crisis” (both authors use the word) within the alliance. Scarcely a week after Roosevelt’s death (April 12, 1945), Ambassador Harriman was telling the new president, Harry S. Truman, that the Soviet consolidation of its sphere of influence amounted to a “barbarian invasion of Europe.” One year later, Churchill would deliver the Iron Curtain speech. A year after that, a thoroughly disillusioned Truman would proclaim the Truman Doctrine. 

The Cold War had begun.

Alonzo L. Hamby, biographer of Harry Truman and the author, most recently, of For the Survival of Democracy: Franklin Roosevelt and the World Crisis of the 1930s, teaches history at Ohio University.

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