Most Americans view World War II nostalgically as the "good war," in which the United States and its allies triumphed over German Nazism, Italian fascism, and Japanese militarism. The rest of the world remembers it as the bloodiest war in human history. By the time it was over, more than 60 million people lay dead, including 27 million Russians, between 10 million and 20 million Chinese, 6 million Jews, 5.5 million Germans, 3 million non-Jewish Poles, 2.5 million Japanese, and 1.5 million Yugoslavs. Austria, Great Britain, France, Italy, Hungary, Romania, and the United States each counted between 250,000 and 330,000 dead.
Unlike World War I, World War II began slowly and incrementally. The opening shots were fired in 1931, when Japan's Kwangtung Army overwhelmed Chinese forces in Manchuria.
While the Western powers expanded their colonial empires in the late nineteenth century, the rapidly modernizing and industrialized Japan sought its proper place among the world's leading nations. Japan demonstrated its new military prowess by defeating China in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894 - 95 and then delivering a stunning defeat to Russia in the Russo-Japanese War exactly a decade later. It was the first time in almost seven hundred years - since the days of Genghis Khan - that an Easter power had defeated a Western one. The loss devastated the Russian regime, sparking a revolutionary upsurge in 1905. This radical ferment, fuelled by tsarist injustice and heavy losses to Germany in World War I, would culminate in the Russian Revolution in 1917. The Russo-Japanese War also created a bitterness between Russian and Japan that would fester for decades.
Meanwhile, Germany, thirsting to avenge its own devastating defeat in World War I, was on the march in the West. Hitler and Mussolini formed the Axis in 1936 and began assisting General Francisco Franco's overthrow of the Spanish Republic. The Western democracies' spineless response to Fascist aggression in Ethiopia and Spain emboldened Hitler to believe that he could pursue his plans to conquer the rest of Europe. It also convinced Stalin that Great Britain, France, and the United States had no interest in taking collective action to slow the Nazi advance.
In 1937, full-scale war erupted in China as the powerful Japanese army captured city after city. In December 1937, Japanese soldiers brutalized the citizens of Nanjing, killing 200,000 to 300,000 civilians and raping perhaps 80,000 women. Japan soon controlled the east coast of China, with its population of 200 million.
The international situation deteriorated further in 11938 when the Germans annexed Austria and the Allies capitulated to Hitler at Munich, giving Germany the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain infamously proclaimed that the settlement had brought "peace in our time." Roosevelt know better. The British and French, he insisted, had abandoned the helpless Czechs and would "wash the blood from their Judas Iscariot hands." But Roosevelt also knew that the United States itself was offering little support to those who wanted to stand up to the Nazi dictator. Nor did the United States do enough to help Germany and Austria's desperate Jewish communities. In 1939, the United States admitted its full quota of 27,300 German and Austrian immigrants - the only year in which it did so. But with hundreds of thousands of Jews seeing refuge, U.S. assistance proved woefully inadequate. And Roosevelt made no effort to raise the low quota established by discriminatory immigration legislation in 1924.
Hitler struck again in March 1939, invading Czechoslovakia. Stalin understood that the Soviet Union's turn was coming soon. For years the Soviet dictator had implored the West to unite against Hitler and Mussolini. The Soviet Union even joined the League of Nations in 1934. But Soviet pleas for collective security against the fascist aggressors were repeatedly ignored. Following Hitler's assault on Czechoslovakia, Stalin again urged England and France to join in defence of Eastern Europe. His entreaties fell on deaf ears.
Fearing a German-Polish alliance to attach the USSR, he decided to buy time. In August, he struck an unsavoury deal with his mortal enemy. Hitler and Stalin shocked the world by signing a nonaggression pact with a secret protocol dividing Eastern Europe between them. In fact, the Soviet dictator had proposed a similar alliance with Britain and France, but neither would accept Stalin's demand to place Soviet troops on Polish soil as a way of maximizing the deterrent effect. Hitler invaded Poland on September 1. The Allies declared war on Germany. The Soviet Union invaded Poland on September 17. The Soviets soon thereafter asserted control over the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania and invaded Finland.
After a brief respite, in April 1940, Hitler unleashed his furious blitzkrieg. In rapid succession, Denmark, Norway, Holland, and Belgium all fell. On June 22, France, its younger generation having been decimated in World War I and its conservative ruling class anti-Semitic to the core, surrendered after only six weeks of fighting, leaving Great Britain isolated. During the Battle Britain in summer 1940, prospects looked bleak. But Germany's failure to destroy Great Britain's Royal Air Force made the cross-channel invasion planned for September 1940 impossible. Still, the German Luftwaffe's pummelling of British cities continued.
Roosevelt wanted to help, but with the neutrality legislation on the books, military preparedness at a low level, and isolationist sentiment running high, there was little he could do. He also encountered resistance from cabinet members and military leaders who thought that Great Britain was lost and resources should be concentrated on defending the homeland. He maneuvered to get Great Britain as much military aid as he could. Opening himself up to attacks that he was acting illegally, he bypassed the Senate and unilaterally decided to provide Great Britain with fifty old naval destroyers in exchange for ninety-nine-year leases of air and naval bases on eight British possessions in the Western Hemisphere. As the Battle of Britain raged on, Roosevelt was willing to absorb such attacks to bolster British resolve.
World leaders condemned Japanese aggression but did little to help China as Japan relentlessly bombed Chinese cities. In July 1939, the United States tightened the noose around the Japanese economy by terminating its 1911 commercial treaty with Japan, which cut off the flow of vital raw materials, and banning U.S. exports critical to the Japanese war machine. Meanwhile, in Manchuria, Soviet and Japanese armies battled over the disputed border, leading to Soviet General Georgi Zhukov's first victory and heightening tensions in the East.
In September, 1940, Germany, Italy, and Japana formally concluded the Tripartite Pact, establishing the "Axis powers" alliance. Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, and Bulgaria joined soon thereafter.
Seeing the war clouds gathering on the horizon, Roosevelt decided to break with precedent and run for a third term. The Republicans nominated a corporate attorney from Indiana, Wendell Willkie, a political moderate who supported much of the New Deal legislation and advocated military aid to Great Britain. The fact that Wilkie, a recent convert to the Republican Party, had garnered the nomination angered party diehards like former Senator James Watson, who commented, "If a whore repented and wanted join the church, I'd personally welcome her and lead up the isle to a pew. But, by the Eternal, I'd not ask her to lead the choir the first night."
Roosevelt gave serious thought to choosing a running mate. The stakes were high. The nation might soon be at war. He weighed his options and chose his Secretary of Agriculture: Henry A. Wallace. He knew there would be strong opposition to Wallace, who came from a line of prominent line Iowa Republicans. His grandfather had founded Wallaces' Farmer, a leading farm journal dedicated to scientific agriculture. His father served as secretary of agriculture under Harding and Coolidge until his death in 1924. Although he supported Smith in 1928 and Roosevelt in 1932, Wallace didn't officially switch parties until 1936, leading some party officials to question his loyalty, much as Republicans were questioning Willkie's.
Roosevelt had no such doubts. He knew where Wallace stood on the issues. Wallace had been a stalwart as secretary of agriculture, overseeing an extraordinary return to agricultural prosperity. Farmers, who still constituted a quarter of the population in 1933, were in miserable shape when Wallace became secretary. Production of farm commodities had flooded the markets, driving down prices. The problem, which persisted throughout the 1920s, reached crisis proportions after 1929. Total farm income in 1932 stood at one-third of what it had been in 1929. By 1933, desperation stalked rural America. Roosevelt understood that the overall success of the New Deal depended on the restoration of farm prosperity. Wallace's solution proved extremely controversial. He proposed paying farmers to reduce agricultural production on the assumption that lowered supply would increase demand and thereby raise prices. But in 1933, he was forced to take even more drastic action. The price of cotton had dropped to 5 cents per pound. Warehouses were bursting. Export markets had evaporated. And another large crop was sprouting. Wallace decided to pay farmers to destroy 25 percent of the crop that was then in the ground. For Wallace, who had spent years perfecting a strain of hybrid corn and who believed that abundant food supplies were essential for a peaceful world, the thought was almost inconceivable. "To have to destroy a growing crop," he lamented, "is a shocking commentary on our civilization." That August, more than 10 million acres of cotton were plowed under.
But what come next was even more difficult. Wallace still had to deal with an abundance of hogs. On the advice of hog farmers, Wallace supported a program of slaughtering 6 million baby pigs weighing under one hundred pounds, approximately half of the normal two-hundred-pound market weight of adults. Critics lambasted Wallace's "pig infanticide" and "pig birth control." Wallace retorted, "Doubtless it is jus as inhumane to kill a big hog as a little one. ... To hear them talk, you would have thought that pigs are raised for pets." Wallace made sure that some good came of this program. He distributed one hundred million pounds of ports, lard, and soap to needy Americans. "Not many people realized how radical it was," he reflected, "this idea of having the Government buy from those who had too much, in order to give to those who had too little."
Wallace's much-maligned policies produced the desired effect. The price of cotton doubled. Farm income jumped by 30 percent in one year. Still, Wallace regretted the unfortunate message such policies sent: "The plowing under of 10 million acres of cotton in August 1933, the slaughter of 6 million little pigs in September 1933, were not acts of idealism in any sane society. They were emergency acts made necessary by the almost insane lack of world statesmanship during the period of 1920 to 1932." Wallace's clarifications notwithstanding, the seemingly wonton destruction of crops and livestock in the midst of hunger and poverty turned people's empty stomachs and saddled the New Deal with an image of callousness and a reputation of espousing a philosophy of recovery through scarcity. Overall, as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr,. later wrote,
"Wallace was a great secretary of agriculture. ... In time he widened his concern beyond commercial farming to subsistence farming and rural poverty. For the urban poor, he provide food stamps and school lunches. He instituted programs for land-use planning, soil conservation and erosion control. And always he promoted research to combat plant and animal diseases, to locate drought-resistant crops and to develop hybrid seeds in order increase productivity."
During his eight years as secretary of agriculture, Wallace not only solidified his reputation as one of the New Deal visionaries on domestic policy, he carved credentials as an outspoken antifascist. In 1939, he lent his support to the American Committee for Democracy and Intellectual Freedom (ACDIF). The ACDIF had been organized by Franz Boas, America's leading anthropologies, and like-minded left-leaning scientists earlier that year. In late 1938, Boas released his Manifesto on Freedom of Science. Singed by 1,284 scientists, it condemned Nazi racism and treatment of scientists and teachers and urged a vigorous defence of democracy and intellectual freedom in the United States. Scientists held Wallace in high regard, considering him the most scientifically literate member of the Roosevelt administration and the scientific community's best ally. The invited him to participate in an October 1939 ACDIF panel discussion on "How the Scientist Can Help Combat Racism" at the New York World's Fair. Wallace defined "racism" as "the attempts of individuals in certain groups to dominate others through the building up of false racial theories in support of their claims." Drawing on his background in plant genetics, he focused on "the role that scientists can play in combating such false theories and preventing the use of these theories for the destruction of human liberty." He appealed to scientists to lead the fight:
For the combating of "racism" before it sinks its poisonous fangs deep in our body politic, the scientist has both a special motive and a special responsibility. His motive comes from the fact that when personal liberty disappears scientific liberty also disappears. His responsibility comes from the fact that only he can give the people the truth. Only he can learn out the falsities in our colleges, our high schools and our public prints. Only he can show how groundless are the claims that one race, one nation, or one class has any God-given right to rule.
Now, with European democracy on life support, Roosevelt demanded a champion of freedom and democracy as his running mate. But party bosses and party conservatives opposed Wallace for the very reasons Roosevelt wanted him. They feared his radical views. They mistrusted his devotion to principles over politics. It looked as though the Wallace nomination would go up in flames. Roosevelt, angry and frustrated, wrote a remarkable letter to the assembled delegates, a letter of which contemporary Democrats would be wise to take heed, in which he flatly turned down the presidential nomination. He explained:
the Democratic Party [must] champion…progressive and liberal policies and principles. … The party has failed…when…it has fallen into the control of those [who] think in terms of dollars instead of…human values. … Until the Democratic Party…shakes off all the shackles of control fastened upon it by the forces of conservatism, reaction and appeasement,…it will not continue its march to victory…the Democratic Party…cannot face in both directions at the same time. [Therefore, I] declin[e] the honor of the nomination for the Presidency.
Eleanor Roosevelt saved the day. The first wife of a nominee ever to address a convention, she told disgruntled delegates that “we face now a grave and serious situation” and reminded them that this was “no ordinary time.” Under intense pressure, the party bosses, who dominated the nominating process, and the convention delegates buckled and put Wallace onto the ticket. They would, however, later seek an opportunity to exact revenge.
In November, Roosevelt and Wallace handily defeated Wendell Willkie and Charles McNary, winning 55 percent of the vote. Before the vote, Roosevelt promised that he would keep the United States out of the war. He told an overflow crowd in Boston Garden, “I have said this before but I shall say it again. Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.” But the United States was indeed inching closer to the conflict and was already supplying Great Britain with much of its military needs, including artillery, tanks, machine guns, rifles, and thousands of planes.
In early January 1941, Roosevelt upped the ante further by proposing lend-lease aid to Great Britain in a bill patriotically numbered H.R. 1776. This would give him enormous discretion in providing assistance short of war to the increasingly desperate British without worrying about the “silly, foolish dollar sign.” The response to Roosevelt’s message showed the challenge he faced in convincing the country that war was in the United States’ best interest. At a press conference the next day, Eleanor Roosevelt said she was “astonished and saddened” by the cold Republican response to the president’s message.
Republican critics were indeed more incensed that ever. Thomas Dewey, who would later run for president, warned that the bill “would bring an end to free government in the United States and would abolish the Congress for all practical purposes.” Alf Landon called it “the first step toward dictatorship by Mr. Roosevelt.” Landon saw the handwriting on the wall: “Step by step, he is working us into war,” he charged. Gerald Nye contended that if lend-lease passed, “war is almost inevitable.”
Critics feared that loans and other ties to Great Britain would again draw the United States into war as they had in 1917. A heated debate erupted in Congress. Democratic Senator Burton Wheeler of Montana dismissed the thought that Hitler would ever declare war on the United States and charged that the lend-lease-give program was “the New Deal’s Triple A foreign policy – plow under fourth American boy.” Roosevelt shot back, saying that Wheeler’s comment was “the most untruthful…the most dastardly, unpatriotic…the rottenest thing that has been said in public in my generation.”
Roosevelt’s defenders agreed that aiding Great Britain was the United States’ best chance to avoid being drawn into the war. Senator Joshua Lee of Oklahoma came to the president’s defense: “Hitler is a madman standing at the switch of the most powerful and destructive machine that the human brain has ever devised. The charred ruins of an entire continent stand as grim proof that he does not hesitate to throw that switch. … America has only one chance to escape total war and that chance is England. England is the only barrier between America and a baptism of blood.”
Lend-lease passed Congress in early March with an amendment banning the U.S. Navy from providing protection for the convoys carrying the goods. Congress appropriated the first $7 billion out of what would eventually total $50 billion to fund the shipments. Senator Arthur Vandenberg vented, “We have torn up 150 years of traditional American foreign policy. We have tossed Washington’s Farewell Address in the discard. We have thrown ourselves squarely into the power politics and power wars of Europe, Asia, and Africa. We have taken the first step upon a course from which we can never hereafter retreat.”
Prime Minister Churchill thanked the Americans profusely. He telegrammed the president, “Our blessings from the whole of the British Empire go out to you.” The British soon realized, however, that there were limits to Roosevelt’s largesse and his support for the perpetuation of Churchill’s empire. Roosevelt included provisions in the Lend-Lease Act that would allow the United States to penetrate the British Empire’s closed trading sphere and prevent its reestablishment after the war. The British were less than thrilled at the prospect or at the forced sale of British assets. Churchill complained, “we are not only to be skinned, but flayed to the bone.” But he understood that, much as Roosevelt’s critics feared, the United States was on the path to war. “I would like to get them hooked a little firmer,” he confessed, “but they are pretty on now.”
The American people, as it turned out, were increasingly willing to hook themselves. Their sympathies lay entirely with the Allies. A Gallup Poll released in October 1939 found that 84 percent wanted Great Britain and France to win the war. Only 2 percent were rooting for Germany. Still, at that point, 95 percent wanted the United States to stay out of the war.
Ironically, it was Hitler who helped end Great Britain’s isolation, as history took another dramatic turn on June 22, 1941. Breaking its 1939 treaty with the USSR, Germany launched Operation Barbarossa – a full-scale invasion of the Soviet Union. Stalin, who had earlier purged much of his general staff, ignored repeated warnings that an attack was imminent. His forces were caught completely off guard as 3.2 million German troops attacked along a two-thousand-mile front. Germany quickly pushed deep into the Soviet Union. The Luftwaffe destroyed Soviet air units and the Wehrmacht encircled Soviet forces, inflicting terrible losses. The Nazis advanced toward Leningrad, Smolensk, and Kiev. The crippling blow dealt to the Red Army by the Nazi blitzkrieg sparked fears in London and Washington that Stalin would conclude a separate peace with Hitler as Lenin had done with Germany in 1918.
The Soviet Union certainly felt little allegiance toward Great Britain, France, and the United States, each of which had, in its own way, tried to undermine the Russian Revolution. Beginning in 1925 with the publication of Mein Kampf, Hitler had repeatedly expressed his enmity toward the Soviet Union. As his expansive intentions became clear in the mid-1930s, Stalin’s appeals to England and France for a military alliance against Germany proved fruitless. When the Soviet aided the republican forces in Spain, who were locked in bitter combat with the German- and Italian-backed army of General Francisco Franco, British conservatives, including Winston Churchill, sympathized with Franco’s Fascist rebels. The Soviets also deplored the Allies’ craven performance at Munich, which effectively gave the Germans free rein to destroy the Soviet Union.
Few people believed that the Soviets could withstand the Nazi onslaught. The U.S. Army calculated that they could hold on for no more than three months and might even fold in four weeks. Roosevelt and Churchill desperately sought to keep the Soviets in the war, knowing that Great Britain’s survival might depend on it. Swallowing his long-standing hatred of communism, Churchill pledged support for the Soviet Union and urged his allies to do the same. He promised “to destroy Hitler and every vestige of the Nazi regime.” Acting Secretary of State Sumner Welles issued a statement on behalf of the president indicating that material assistance to the Soviet Union might be forthcoming but left the question of lend-lease up in the air for the time being. Some tried to nip this idea in the bud. Missouri Senator Harry Truman fanned the flames of mistrust toward the Soviet Union, recommending, “If we see that Germany is winning we ought to help Russia, and if Russian is winning we ought to help Germany, that way let them kill as many as possible.”
Ignoring Truman’s advice, Roosevelt asked the Soviet ambassador to compile a list of items the United States might provide. In July, Roosevelt sent Harry Hopkins to Moscow to take the Soviets’ pulse and assess their staying power. He instructed Stalin to treat Hopkins “with the same identical confidence you would feel if you were talking to me.” Stalin acknowledged the German military superiority but said that the Soviets would take advantage of the winter lull to be ready to fight by spring: “Give us anti-aircraft guns and the aluminum [for planes and] we can fight on for three or four years.” Hopkins believed him. By August, Roosevelt ordered the delivery of the first hundred fighter planes. More supplies were on the way.
U.S. military leaders, intent upon building up U.S. defenses, impeded Roosevelt’s efforts. The British also objected to diversion of their supplies. Seeing the bigger picture, Roosevelt ordered Secretary of War Henry Stimson and other cabinet members to speed delivery to the Soviet Union. His announcement that W. Averill Harriman would be leading a U.S. delegation to Moscow to confer on providing more military aid drew an outraged response from Robert McCormick’s right-wing Chicago Tribune:
A national emergency does not require that an American mission go to the bloody Kremlin to consider the needs of the greatest barbarian of modern times. We are not required by our national interests or our national dangers to join hands with a system of government which professes undying contempt for everything we regard as necessary in our way of living and plans unremitting and unrelenting warfare against such people as constitute the American nation.
Given the depth of anti-Soviet sentiment in the United States, Roosevelt felt he had to move gingerly in providing tangible assistance to the Soviet government. A Gallup Poll found that only 35 percent of the respondents favored aiding the Soviets on the same basis as that offered to Great Britain three months earlier. On November 7, 1941, the twenty-fourth anniversary of the Russian Revolution, Roosevelt announced that the United States would extend lend-lease aid to the Soviet Union. The president offered a billion-dollar interest-free credit to be repaid starting five years after the end of the war.
But when promised U.S. aid failed to arrive, Soviet elation turned bitter. The New York Times reported that U.S. shipments in October and November had fallen “far, far short of “the specified tonnage of materials of war” the United States had committed. In fact, the United States had delivered less than half of what it had offered. Arthur Krock attributed this to special circumstances but failed to mention deliberate foot-dragging by some who disapproved the entire enterprise. The failure to deliver the promised equipment dealt a crushing blow to Soviet prospects, with Moscow and Leningrad under siege, Ukraine occupied, and the Red Army suffering debilitating losses, and did little to convince the Soviets of U.S. goodwill.
Roosevelt wanted the United States in the war and, like Wilson before him, maneuvered quietly to make that happen. He believed that Hitler was intent on world domination and must be stopped. In early 1941, U.S. and British military officers met to devise a strategy for first defeating Germany and then engaging Japan that they would implement upon the U.S. entry into the war. In the meantime, Germany’s U-boat campaign was undermining U.S. efforts to supply Great Britain, sinking an inordinate number of British ships. In April, Roosevelt began allowing U.S. ships to provide vital intelligence to the British about the presence of enemy ships and planes and soon authorized transporting supplies to British soldiers in North Africa, precipitating direct confrontations with German U-boats. After one incident, a German communique charged Roosevelt with “endeavoring with all the means at his disposal to provoke incidents for the purpose of baiting the American people into the war.” In September, after one of these allegedly unprovoked attacks, Roosevelt announced a “shoot on sight” policy toward German and Italian ships in U.S. waters.
In August 1941, Roosevelt met secretly with Churchill in Newfoundland. The two leaders drew up the Atlantic Charter, which, much like Wilson’s Fourteen Points, articulated a democratic and progressive set of war aims. It would remain to be seen if the United States could deliver better this time around. The charter disavowed territorial aggrandizement and territorial changes without the consent of the governed. It proclaimed self-government, equal access to trade and resources for victors and vanquished alike, a peace allowing “freedom from fear and want,” freedom of the seas, disarmament, and a permanent system of general security. Fearing that Roosevelt’s proposed wording threatened Great Britain’s colonial sphere, Churchill added a clause stipulating that equal access to international wealth would be guaranteed only “with due respect for…existing obligations.”
Roosevelt turned down Churchill’s request to have the United States join the war immediately. But Churchill’s account of the talks captures Roosevelt’s true intensions: Roosevelt, he told his cabinet, “said he would wage war, but not declare it, and that he would become more and more provocative. If the Germans did not like it, they could attack American forces. Everything was to be done to force and ‘incident’ that could lead to war.” Though some people might excuse Roosevelt’s deceptive behavior in the lead-up to the war as a necessary manipulation of public opinion in a righteous cause, future presidents would also take it upon themselves to play fast and loose with the truth in manipulating the nation into wars, as Woodrow Wilson had done a quarter century earlier. Such a policy in the hands of less scrupulous and less far-sighted presidents, much like Roosevelt’s wartime abuse of civil liberties, would pose a grave threat to the nation and its republican system of governance.
The president ultimately got his wish, but it was not triggered by an incident in Europe, as most were anticipating. On December 7, 1941, the day President Roosevelt said would “live in infamy,” the Japanese navy attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, leaving almost 2,500 dead and sinking or disabling much of the U.S. fleet. The Americans were caught literally sleeping on a Sunday morning. They knew an attack from Japan was coming, but they didn’t anticipate that it would be in Hawaii. It was an intelligence failure on a colossal scale. Given the abundance of warning signs and the degree of ineptitude involved, much as the attacks on September 11, 2001, many believed then and now that Roosevelt must have abetted the attack in order to draw the United States into the war. The evidence, however, does not support that charge.
The next day, Great Britain and the United States declared war on Japan. Three days later, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States. The bloodletting and chaos would soon engulf the globe.
The United States had stood in the way of Japan’s plans for conquest. Japanese leaders had been eying the rich French and Dutch colonies that the German subjugation of continental Europe had made ripe for the plucking. Though some army officers argued that Japan should join Germany and first knock out its old Russian antagonist to the north, other strategists prevailed. As a result, Japan invaded French Indochina to the south in July 1941, seeking the resources and bases needed to fortify its position in the region. The United States responded by completely embargoing petroleum exports to Japan. Its supplies dwindling, Japan’s leaders decided to secure oil from the Dutch East Indies, but they feared that the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor could interfere with their efforts.
With the United States and its allies focused on the European theater, the Japanese conquest proceeded largely unimpeded: Thailand, Malaya, Java, Borneo, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Burma, Singapore. Citizens of those countries often greeted the Japanese as liberators from European colonial oppressors. President Roosevelt said privately, “Don’t think for a minute that Americans would be dying the Pacific…if it hadn’t been for the short-sighted greed of the French and the British and the Dutch.” Subjugated peoples’ embrace of the Japanese “liberators” would prove short-lived.
Japan failed to deliver the knockout blow at Pearl Harbor that it desperately sought. The Allies began a counteroffensive led by General Douglas MacArthur and Admiral Chester Nimitz. In June 1942, U.S. forces defeated the Japanese navy at Midway and initiated their island hopping strategy.
In some ways, this war would change the world even more dramatically than the First World War. Anticipating the creation of a new world order, influential Americans began offering their visions of what might emerge and the role the United States could play to make that happen. One of the most compelling visons was outline in early 1941 by publishing magnate Henry Luce in an editorial in Life magazine. Luce, who also published Time and Fortune, had apparently recovered from his earlier infatuation with Mussolini and now anointed the twentieth century the “American Century.” He wrote, “We must accept whole-heartedly our duty and our opportunity as the most powerful and vital nation in the world and in consequence to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit.”
Some applauded this statement as an affirmation of democratic values within an evolving international capitalist market. Former New Deal administrator Raymond Moley knew getter and urged Americans to disavow this “temptation to drift into empire.”
Vice President Henry Wallace deplored all empires – whether British, French, German, or American. In May 1942, Wallace repudiated Luce’s nationalistic and, arguably, imperial vision and proposed a progressive, internationalist alternative:
Some have spoken of the “American Century.” I say…the century…which will come of this war – can and must be the century of the common man. … No nation will have the God-given right to exploit other nations…there must be neither military nor economic imperialism. … International cartels that serve American greed and the German will to power must go. … The march of freedom of the past 150 years has been a…great revolution of the people, there were the American Revolution of 1775, the French Revolution of 1792, The Latin American revolutions of the Bolivian era, the German Revolution of 1848, and the Russian Revolution of 1917. Each spoke for the common man. … Some went to excess. Bu…people groped their way to the light. … Modern science, which is a by-product and an essential part of the people’s revolution, has made it…possible to see that all of the people of the world get enough to eat. … We shall not rest until the victims under the Nazi yoke are freed. … The people’s revolution is on the march.
When the bloodiest war in human history finally drew to a close three years later, Americans would choose between these diametrically opposed visions: Luce’s American Century versus Wallace’s Century of the Common Man. The United States’ entry into the war following the attack at Pearl Harbor only complicated the fight over scarce resources. Meeting the United States’ own defense requirements made it that much more difficult for it to fulfill its commitments to the Soviet Union. In late December, Averill Harriman estimated that the United States had shipped only a quarter of the tonnage of supplies promised and much of what had been sent was defective. In late February, Lend-Lease Administrator Edward Stettinius wrote to Assistant Secretary of War Joh McCloy, “As you are aware, the relations between this Government and the Soviet Government have been constantly disturbed by the failure of this Government to meet its commitments.” Roosevelt understood the terrible position the U.S. failure to deliver was putting the Soviet Union in and what it might mean for future relations. In March, he admitted his apprehensions about a “Russian collapse” because of U.S. negligence” “I do not want to be in the same position as the English[, who] promised the Russians two divisions. They failed. They promised them help in the Caucasus. They failed. Every promise the English have made to the Russians, they have fallen down on.”
In May 1942, Roosevelt told General MacArthur, “I find it difficult…to get away from the simple fact that the Russian armies are killing more Axis personnel and destroying more Axis materiel than all the other twenty-five United Nations put together. Therefore, it has seemed wholly logical to support the great Russian effort in 1942 by seeking to get all munitions to them that we possibly can.” Roosevelt knew that delays in delivering the promised military equipment had cost him an opportunity to win Stalin’s trust. But other opportunities would present themselves. Stalin made two additional requests of his allies. Perhaps delivering on these would allow the United States to regain the initiative.
Stalin sought territorial concessions. He wanted to retain the gains the Red Army had seized after his 1939 pact with Hitler: the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, eastern Poland, and parts of Romania and Finland. The British were inclined to go along but felt caught in a difficult bind, pulled between U.S. and Soviet interests, needing Soviet help to survive the war and U.S. assistance to preserve their empire after the war. Churchill pressed Roosevelt to allow him to offer Stalin the territorial concessions he desired. He warned Roosevelt that a break with the Soviets would bring down his government, which would be replaced by a “Communist, pro-Moscow” government. The Americans refused to budge and instructed British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden to make no postwar commitments during his trip to Moscow in late December 1941. Stalin responded angrily to Eden’s rebuff of his demands, leading Churchill to appeal to Roosevelt again. “The Atlantic Charter,” he insisted, “ought not to be construed so as to deny to Russia the frontiers which she occupied when Germany attacked.”
Having failed to receive either the promised aid or territorial gains, Stalin pressed even harder for his third and most significant demand: rapid establishment of a second front in Europe to alleviate pressure on his beleaguered military. He urged the British to invade northern France. In September 1941, he pressed them to send twenty-five or thirty divisions to the Soviet Union. Questioning the sincerity of Great Britain’s commitment, he said, “By her passive attitude Britain is helping the Nazis. Do the British understand this? I think they do. What is it then they want? It seems they want us to be weakened.”
The lack of outside support may have left the Soviets weak, but they refused to collapse. Despite suffering catastrophic losses in the early months of the war, the Red Army defeated Germany in the Battle of Moscow in the fall and winter of 1941-42. For the first time, the mighty German war machine had been stopped.
To Roosevelt, territorial concessions smacked of the secret treaties that had tied Wilson’s hands during the First World War. They contradicted the spirit of the Atlantic Charter. He preferred to launch an invasion of Western Europe at the earliest possible date. In early 1942, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, working for Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall, drew up plans for an invasion of Europe by spring 1943 at the latest and by September 1942 if necessary to stave off Soviet defeat, which was still a possibility. As Eisenhower stated emphatically in July 1942, “We should not forget that the prize we seek is to keep 8,000,000 Russians in the war.” Eisenhower, Marshall, and Stimson all saw this as the only way to defeat Germany. Roosevelt agreed. He sent Harry Hopkins and General Marshall to convince Churchill to go along. He wrote to Churchill, “Your people and mine demand the establishment of a front to draw off pressure on the Russians, and those people are wise enough to see that the Russians are killing more Germans and destroying more equipment than you and I put together.” Churchill understood how important this plan was to Roosevelt and his advisors. He cabled the president, “I am in entire agreement in principle with all you propose, and so are the Chiefs of Staff.”
Convinced that he had British support, Roosevelt asked Stalin to send Minister of Foreign Affairs Vyacheslav Molotov and a trusted general to Washington to discuss a proposal that would ease the pressure on the eastern front. On the way, Molotov stopped in London, where Churchill was anything but reassuring about the second front. Molotov arrived the U.S. capital in late May 1942. He asked Roosevelt bluntly if the United States indeed planned to open up another front that coming summer. Roosevelt turned to Marshall, who assured him that the United States was prepared to do so. The two sides issued a joint public communique stating that “in the course of the conversations full understanding was reached with regard to the urgent tasks of creating a second front in Europe in 1942.” Roosevelt also laid out a breathtaking vision for postwar collaboration. The victors, he explained, would “keep their armaments” and form “an international police force.” The “four policemen” – the United States, United Kingdom, USSR, and China – would disarm the Germans and their allies and “preserve peace by force.” Stalin was delighted by the plans but far less pleased by Roosevelt’s insistence that preparing the second front would necessitate cutting aid to the Soviet Union to 60 percent of what he had originally promised. Still, the second front was the Soviet Union’s main priority, and Roosevelt planned to deliver. He notified Churchill, “I have a very strong feeling that the Russian position is precarious and may grow steadily worse during the coming weeks. Therefore, I am more than ever anxious that BOLERO [the first phase of the operation] proceed to definite action beginning in 1942.”
The Soviet people were elated by the news. The New York Herald Tribune reported that they had been gathering around their radio every morning hoping for news that the invasion had begun, only to have their hearts sink when they discovered it hadn’t. Pulitzer Prize-winning Moscow correspondent Leland Stowe reported that if the front were postponed, the “disillusionment of the great mass of Russian people would be almost immeasurable. The present steadily mounting and invaluable cooperation between the Soviet, British and American governments and leaders would suffer such a setback as to constitute, diplomatically, materially and psychologically, a major disaster for the Allied cause.” The U.S. ambassador in Moscow similarly warned that postponement would make the Russian people doubt U.S. sincerity and do “inestimable harm.”
Despite reaching a similar agreement with Molotov regarding the second front, the British had no intention of going along with the plans. Arguing that they lacked sufficient troops due to the crisis in the Middle East – 33,000 British troops had just humiliatingly surrendered to an enemy force half that size at Tobruk in Libya – and that they could not muster enough ships to transport invading forces across the English Channel, Churchill convinced Roosevelt to postpone the promised invasion and instead mount an invasion of Vichy-occupied North Africa, which was the key to the oil-rich Middle East, where the British had important colonial interests that were being threatened by Hitler’s forces. The Soviet leaders were furious about this reversal, which many considered part of a conscious strategy of allowing the Soviet Union to be bled dry fighting the Nazis while its capitalist allies secured their global interests and then marched in to set the peace terms at the end of the war. To make matters worse from the Soviet standpoint, during his stop in London, Molotov, in gratitude for the pledged second front, had not pressed his territorial demands. The Soviets now felt as if all three of their major demands had been denied. Relations among the Soviets, Americans, and British hit rock bottom in the fall of 1942 with the Nazi onslaught against Stalingrad. Symptomatic of the Soviets’ acute mistrust of their Western allies was the fact that Molotov, when traveling in the West, always slept with a gun under his pillow.
Furious with this British-imposed change of plans, Marshall lobbied unsuccessfully against the invasion of North Africa, which he dismissed as “periphery pecking.” The United States had delayed major operations in the Pacific in order to expedite victory in Europe. Now those plans had been abandoned in an apparent attempt to secure British “imperial” interests in the Middle East, South Asia, and southern Europe. Marshall was so angry that he proposed reversing course and taking on the Japanese before confronting the Germans. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Ernest King enthusiastically agreed. The British would never invade Europe, he sneered, “except behind a Scotch bagpipe band.” Marshall’s disgust reverberated down the ranks. General Albert Wedemeyer told Marshall that the British war plans had “been designed to maintain the integrity of the British Empire.” General Henry “Hap” Arnold, chief commander of the Army Air Forces, suggested to Marshall that perhaps the Americans should start dealing with the British the same way that the Germans treated the Italians. U.S. military leaders believed that the British, unlike the Soviets, were afraid to take on the Germans. As Secretary of War Stimson mused the next year, “The shadows of Passchendale [sic] and Dunkerque still hang too heavily over the imagination of [Churchill’s] government.”
Eisenhower, Stimson, Hopkins, and the military chiefs continued to push forcefully for a second front, but to no avail. In June 1942, the U.S. chiefs of staff reluctantly agreed to the TORCH campaign in North Africa under Eisenhower’s command. Although a case could indeed have been made that the Allies lacked the landing craft, air cover, and a sufficient number of troops to pull off a second front in late 1942 or early 1943, such arguments were not convincing to the Soviets or, at the time, to U.S. military leaders. Eisenhower predicted that the day they decided to proceed with TORCH would go down as the “blackest day in history.”
But whether deterred by fear or not, the British never had any intention of directly engaging the powerful Wehrmacht and had instead designed a strategy based on sea power and attacking Hitler’s vulnerable southern flank, which was protected by weaker Italian forces. Great Britain decided to secure North Africa, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East, in order to hold on to Persian and Iraqi oil reserves and maintain its access to India and the rest of the empire through the Suez Canal and Gibraltar. The discovery of enormous oil reserves shortly before the war in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar further drove home the importance of this region, where much of the early fighting between British, German, and Italian forces had occurred. Great Britain was so intent upon keeping the Axis powers out of the Middle East that it diverted troops and tanks there even though they were desperately needed to defend the homeland against an imminent German attack.
During these months, the American people’s attitude toward the Soviet Union was undergoing a profound shift. For many Americans, the Nazi-Soviet Pact had confirmed their worst suspicions about Soviet communism, causing an outpouring of anti-Soviet feeling between 1939 and 1941. But much of that disappeared as the Soviets’ courageous resistance against the Nazis captured Americans’ imagination and sympathy. The resulting outpouring of goodwill toward the Soviet Union would lay the basis, many hoped, for friendship and collaboration in the war’s aftermath as well.
Within days of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Soviet diplomat Maxim Litvinov visited the State Department. Secretary of State Cordell Hull used the occasion to applaud the Soviet Union’s “heroic struggle” against the Nazis. Before long, the notion of Soviet “heroism” was ubiquitous. In April 1942, New York Times correspondent Ralph Parker commended “how rapidly and how completely the Russian people” had adapted themselves to war condition.” He applauded their willingness to sacrifice and their extraordinary work ethic. “The whole people are caught up with an enthusiastic passion to be doing something constructive for the common task.” He proclaimed, “It would need a Tolstoy to describe the heroic endurance of the men and women who have made these things possible.” In June 1942, the month marking the first anniversary of Soviet resistance to the German invaders, Orville Prescott, the New York Times’ principal daily book reviewer, was already crediting the Red Army with winning the war and saving humanity. “The vast armaments, the fighting skill and magnificent courage of the Red Army may prove to have been the decisive factors in the salvation of the human race from Nazi slavery,” Prescott gushed. “Our debt of gratitude to the millions of Russian soldiers who have fought and died in this war and who will continue to do so is beyond estimation or expression.” General MacArthur credited the Red Army with “one of the greatest military feats in history.”
Hollywood pitched in too. Though it had once scrupulously avoided making films about the Soviet Union, in July 1942, at least nine movies about the Soviet Union were in production or under consideration by such major studios as MGM, Columbia, United Artists, Twentieth Century-Fox, and Paramount. Five significant motion pictures eventually appeared: Mission to Moscow, North Star, Song of Russia, Three Russian Girls, and Days of Glory.
A consensus was building that without the second front the war could not be won. After acknowledging that “the Russians have done most of the fighting and most of the dying,” the Atlanta Constitution contended that though a second front would bring tragedy to many American homes, it “must…be done if the war is to be won.” Leland Stowe reminded readers that the Soviet Union could not hold out alone forever: “In 13 months the Russians have suffered more than 4,500,000 in killed, wounded, and prisoners…probably six or seven times Great Britain’s losses in nearly three years of war…20 times the total American casualties in the first World War.” He stressed that “Soviet Russia is the one great power which is indispensable as an ally of the United States – if we are going to win the war. … If Russia’s fighting millions were suddenly removed from the scene, they alone would be irreplaceable.”
With the steady barrage of pro-Soviet and pro-second front coverage, the American public rallied to the cause. In July 1942, Gallup reported that 48 percent of Americans wanted to wait until the Allies were stronger. Americans pasted bumper stickers reading “Second Front Now” on their cards. Readers flooded newspaper with letters calling for an immediate attack on Hitler’s forces in Europe. Among the many published by the Washington Post, one, inspired by the “spectacle of a courageous ally who alone has withstood and forced back the Nazi hordes,” demanded that Great Britain and the United States “divide the forces of Hitler by opening a western front and together with our Russian ally crush this menace to world freedom and civilization.”
Support was building in all directions. Thirty-eight leaders of the CIO told Roosevelt that “only immediate land invasion of the Western Europe will guarantee winning the war.” Five days later the organization hosted a pro-second front rally in New York City’s Madison Square Park. Several AFL affiliates lent their support. Elected officials jumped on the bandwagon, including Senators James Mead of New York and Claude Pepper of Florida, and New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, and New York State Representative Vito Marcantonio. In September, author Dashiell Hammett released the names of five hundred writers who, under the banner of the League of American Writes, declared themselves “enthusiastically behind President Roosevelt for the immediate opening of a second front now.” Twenty-five thousand people rallied in New York’s Union Square as Representative Marcantonio and Communist Party head Earl Browder addressed the crowd. The 1940 Republican Party presidential candidate added his endorsement following a meeting in Moscow with Stalin.
But despite the public demand for a second front in Europe, U.S. and British troops headed off to North Africa. Left to its own devices, the resurgent Red Army reversed the course of the war, vanquishing the Nazis at Stalingrad. More than a million soldiers were engaged on each side. The Germans, under General Friedrich Paulus, were pushing to take control of the Soviet Union’s rich oil fields in the Caucasus. The Soviets, under Marshall Georgi Zhukov, were determined to stop them at all costs. The six-month battle was fierce, the human toll horrific. Casualties exceeded three-quarters of a million on each side, and civilian deaths totaled over 40,000. After that colossal defeat, the German army began a full-scale retreat from the eastern front. Hitler, stunned by the surrender of twenty-three generals and the Sixth Army’s 91,000 troops, lamented, “The God of War has gone over to the other side.”
By the time Roosevelt and Churchill met in Casablanca in January 1943, the momentum had shifted. The Red Army was on the offensive and moving west. Roosevelt’s strategy of resisting Soviet territorial demands by substituting massive aid and an early second front had foundered. The Americans and the British would henceforth be on the defensive in trying to deny Stalin’s gains. To make matters worse, Roosevelt and Churchill decided to land in Sicily, again postponing the second front and relegating their nations to further irrelevance in determining the outcome of the war.
The Red Army continued its advance, but at an enormous cost. In November 1943, Stalin commemorated the anniversary of the Russian Revolution with a speech celebrating the survival and future resurgence of the Soviet state. He decried the Nazis’ murder and pillage and promised revenge against the German invaders: “In the districts they seized, the Germans have exterminated hundreds of thousands of our citizens. Like the Medieval barbarians of Attila’s hordes, the German fiends trample the fields, burn down villages and towns, and demolish industrial enterprises and cultural institutions. … Our people will not forgive the German fiends for these crimes.”
The U.S. president and the Soviet premier met for the first time in Tehran in November 1943. Roosevelt had told Churchill in March 1942, “I can personally handle Stalin better than either your Foreign Office or my State Department. Stalin hates the guts of all your top people. He thinks he likes me better and I hope he will continue to do so.” After trying unsuccessfully to exclude Churchill from the meeting Roosevelt accepted Stalin’s offer to stay in the Soviet Embassy. Roosevelt had indicated informally beforehand that he was open to establishing the Curzon Line as Poland’s eastern border. Despite these gestures, he found Stalin cold and aloof during the first three days of meetings and feared he would not succeed in developing the rapport he hoped for. He decided to try to reach Stalin on a more human level, employing the kind of charm and humor that would allow him to create a personal bond – the trademark of Rooseveltian diplomacy. He explained to Labor Secretary Francis Perkins:
I thought it over all night and made up my mind I had to do something desperate. … I had a feeling that the Russians did not feel right about seeing [Winston and me] conferring together in a language which we understood and they didn’t. On my way to the conference room that morning we caught up with Winston and I just a moment to say to him, “Winston, I hope you won’t be sore at me for what I am going to do.” Winston just shifted his cigar and grunted. … I began almost as soon as we got into the conference room. I talked privately with Stalin. I didn’t say anything that I hadn’t said before, but it appeared quite chummy and confidential, enough so that the other Russians joined us to listen. Still no smile. Then I said, lifting my hand up to cover a whisper (which of course had to be interpreted) “Winston is cranky this morning, he got up on the wrong side of the bed.” A vague smile passed over Stalin’s eyes, and I decided I was on the right track. As soon as I sat down at the conference table, I began to tease Churchill about his Britishness, about John Bull, about his cigars, about his habits. It began to register with Stalin. Winston got red and scowled, and the more he did so, the more Stalin smiled. Finally, Stalin broke out into a deep, hearty guffaw, and for the first time in three days I saw light. I kept it up until Stalin was laughing with me, and it was then that I called him “Uncle Joe.” He would have thought me fresh the day before, but that day he laughed and came over and shook my hand. From that time on our relations were personal, and Stalin himself indulged in the occasional witticism. The ice was broken and we talked like men and brothers.
Roosevelt made important headway at Tehran. The United States and Great Britain promised to open the long-delayed second front the following spring. Stalin agreed to enter the war against Japan once Germany had been crushed. Roosevelt acceded to the Soviet-desired territorial changes in Eastern Europe, requesting that Stalin implement them judiciously and not offend world opinion. He also proposed that the Soviets hold plebiscites in the Baltic states, but Stalin rejected that request. Roosevelt indicated that he would allow the Soviets considerable latitude in shaping those countries’ future. He came away from the conference encouraged that the trust he had established with Stalin would moderate the Soviet leader’s demand and convince him to hold free elections in Eastern Europe that would produce governments friendly to the USSR.
The Red Army advanced into Poland in January 1944. That month, Stimson discussed Poland’s future with Secretary Hull, who thought it essential to establish the principal of “no acquisition by force.” Stimson recounted, “I thought we had to consider other things more realistic than that, such as the feelings which would actuate Russia: (a) that she had saved us from losing the war; (b) that she prior to 1914 had owned the whole of Poland including Warsaw and running as far as Germany and that she was not asking for restitution of that.”
The Soviet Union quickly set up a friendly government in Lublin, Poland, that excluded representatives of the exile government in London. Later that year, the Red Army moved into Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary. When the United States and Great Britain complained that they were only allowed a token role in the occupation, Stalin replied that the Soviet Union had been given only a token role in the occupation of Italy.
Finally, on June 6, 1944, the long-awaited second front was opened, one a half years later than promised. Over 100,000 Allied troops and 30,000 vehicles landed on the beach at Normandy, France. Nine thousand died during the landing. By that point, the Soviets, despite having suffered catastrophic casualties, were occupying much of Central Europe. Now the Allied forces would approach Germany from both the east and the west. Victory would soon be at hand.
Up to that point, the Soviet Union had almost singlehandedly battled the German military. Until the invasion of Normandy, the Red Army was regularly engaging more than two hundred enemy divisions while together the Americans and the British rarely confronted more than ten. Churchill admitted that it was “the Russian Army that tore the guts out of the German military machine.” Germany lost over 6 million men on the eastern front and approximately 1 million on the western front and in the Mediterranean.
As the fighting intensified on the battlefield, the pace of planning picked up in the boardrooms. The United States invited friendly governments to Bretton Woods in New Hampshire to design the postwar capitalist economic order. Conferees approved U.S. plans to establish two major economic institutions: the development-minded World Bank, with initial funding of $7.6 billion, and the finance-minded International Monetary Fund, with $7.3 billion. The United States, which controlled two-thirds of the world’s gold, insisted that the Bretton Woods system rest on both gold and the U.S. dollar, ensuring that U.S. economic hegemony would continue for the foreseeable future and the United States would be banker to the world. Soviet representatives attended the conference but later declined to ratify the final agreements, charging that the institutions they had created were “branches of Wall Street.” A Soviet official commented that “at first sight,” the Bretton Woods institutions “looked like a tasty mushroom, but on examination they turned out to be a poisonous toadstool.” The British understood that the new order would further erode their special sphere. Although Churchill had fulminated in late 1942, “I have not become the King’s First Minister to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire,” the balance of power had irrevocably shifted.
Some people have questioned the sincerity of Roosevelt’s anticolonial efforts during the war, and although he was certainly never the passionate crusader against colonialism that Vice President Wallace was, he did repeatedly express outrage at the colonizers’ unjust and inhumane treatment of subject populations. Elliot Roosevelt reported his father’s stern words to an “apoplectic” Churchill in 1941. “I can’t believe,” he said, “that we can fight a war against fascist slavery, and at the same time not work to free people all over the world from a backward colonial policy.” He pressed Churchill to end Britain’s rule in India and beyond. During a press conference in February 1944, Roosevelt publicly excoriated British colonial rule in Gambia in West Africa, which he had visited the previous year. “It’s the most horrible thing I have ever seen in my life,” he declared. “The natives are five thousand years back of us. … The British have been there for two hundred years – for every dollar that the British have put into Gambia, they have taken out ten. It’s just plain exploitation of those people.”
Roosevelt spoke repeatedly about a postwar trusteeship system that would prepare the colonies for independence. One of the initial beneficiaries would be Indochina, which he insisted not be given back to the French after the war, and Churchill and Charles de Gaulle demanded it be. “Indo-China should not go back to France,” he told Secretary of State Cordell Hull in October 1944. “France has had the country – thirty million inhabitants – for nearly one hundred years, and the people are worse off than they were at the beginning. … The people of Indo-China are entitled to something better than that.” Churchill feared that Roosevelt would use Indo-China as a wedge to force full-scale decolonization. Churchill made it clear that he would not contemplate such a possibility. He told Eden in late 1944, “There must be no question of our being hustled or seduced into declarations affecting British sovereignty in any of the Dominions or Colonies. … ‘Hands off the British Empire’ is our maxim, and it must not be weakened or smirched to please sob-stuff merchants at home or foreigners of any hue.” Despite having Stalin’s support for his decolonization efforts, Roosevelt backed off from aggressively pressing the point out of fear of rupturing the wartime alliance with Great Britain. With even less justification and more tragic consequences in the long run, he even backed off from decisively pressing the point on Indo-China. However, in what turned out to be his last press conference, on April 5 in Warm Springs, Georgia, exactly one week before his death, Roosevelt, accompanied by Philippine President Sergio Osmena, promised that once Japanese troops had been ousted from the Philippines, the United States would grant the Filipinos “immediate” independence. Churchill did withstand U.S. pressure to grant India its independence after the war, but even that victory would prove ephemeral as the Indian people took matters into their own hands.
Although the world of formal empires and closed trading spheres would not vanish overnight, the U.S. economic juggernaut would brook no rivals from among the war-shattered economies of Europe and Asia. And undergirding the newly strengthened dollar would be the enormous power of the U.S. military. Roosevelt allowed his military advisors to play a central role in policy making. In early 1942, he created the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In July, he appointed Admiral William Leahy to be his personal chief of staff and liaison to the Joint Chiefs. He also leaned heavily on Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall for advice.
The War Department required an imposing new home that would come symbolize its new role and the United States’ vast military power. In the summer of 1941, the War Department’s 24,000 civilian and military employees were operating out of seventeen different buildings. Brigadier General Brehon Burke Somervell informed Stimson that having everyone under the same roof would increase efficiency by 25 to 40 percent. Construction on a new headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, began on September 11, 1941. The builders kept the five-sided shape that had been chose to fit the original site even though the location had been switched. The first occupants began moving in April 1942, although construction wasn’t completed until January of the following year. The man in charge of this massive construction project – Colonel Leslie Groves – would later make an even greater mark on the war effort. When finished, the largely windowless Pentagon was the biggest office building in the country, covering 29 acres and containing 17.5 miles of corridors. Visitors routinely got lost, and deliverymen were rumored to have wandered the halls for three days before being rescued.
Halfway around the globe, Churchill and Stalin met in Moscow in October 1944. The meeting was code-named Tolstoy. Churchill hoped to resolve the impasse over Poland. U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union Averill Harriman tagged along as an “observer” but was not present when the two leaders conducted the most important business. Sitting in front of a fireplace in the Kremlin, Churchill cracked some of his favorite Polish jokes. The two leaders then set about defining British and Soviet spheres of influence in the Balkans and laying the groundwork for Western recognition of Soviet interests in Poland. On the back of a scrap of paper, Churchill proposed the share of influence each nation would exert: the Soviet Union would get 90 percent in Romania and 75 percent in Hungary and Bulgaria; Great Britain would get 90 percent in Greece. Yugoslavia would be split fifty-fifty. Stalin took the paper, paused, and made a large check with a blue pencil before handing it back to Churchill, who commented, “Might it not be thought rather cynical if it seemed we had disposed of these issues, so fateful to millions of people, in such an offhand manner? Let us burn the paper.” But Stalin urged Churchill to hold on to the historic scrap of paper, which Churchill called a “naughty document.”
It was exactly the kind of deal that Roosevelt had set out to prevent. Hull protested the establishment of “spheres of interest.” Churchill decried U.S. hypocrisy: “Is having a navy twice as strong as any other power ‘power politics’? … Is having all the gold in the world buried in a cavern ‘power politics’? If not, what is ‘power politics’?
Stalin quickly delivered on his part of the bargain. He stood aside in December 1944 as British troops brutally repressed a left-wing uprising in Greece, where the Communists, who had led the underground resistance to the Nazis, were battling for power with reactionary forces who wanted to restore the monarchy. Great Britain supported the monarchists. Stalin refused to support the leftists, despite the fact that they had the backing of much of the Greek population. The U.S. public was shocked by Great Britain’s behavior.
Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill met for a second time at Yalta on the Black Sea in early February 1945. Though the Battle of the Bulge was still raging in Belgium and fighting had intensified in the Pacific, the war had clearly turned in the Allies’ favor. The time had come to finalize postwar plans. The Soviet Union was in a commanding position. The Red Army occupied Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia and was approaching Berlin. Deep rifts had appeared among the Allies, reflecting fundamentally different geopolitical and strategic views. The Soviet Union was preoccupied with security. Great Britain sought to preserve its empire. The United States wanted Soviet assistance in ending the Pacific war, fashioning a world economy that would be open to U.S. trade and investment, and establishing a United States to preserve the peace.
The USSR had paid an enormous price in repulsing the German invasion. Many millions of its soldiers and citizens lay dead, and much of the nation was in ruins. The United States and Great Britain had helped the Soviets defeat Germany, but their efforts and resulting losses paled beside those of their Soviet ally. The United States had, in fact, come out of the war economically and militarily stronger than ever. But its diplomatic leverage was compromised by its failure to deliver the relief and assistance it had promised Stalin during the darkest hours of the war. The United States still had one major card to play: the promise of postwar economic assistance to help the Soviets rebuild their shattered nation. The once powerful British were in the weakest position, no longer able to press their claims independently. Great Britain now depended on U.S. goodwill and largesse to retain its status as a major power in the postwar world. The conflicts that surfaced at Yalta would eventually tear the alliance apart. But those tensions would not be apparent in the public display of unity or in the exuberant response by citizens around the world desperate for good news after many long years of war.
These differences played out in the debate over Poland, which was the focus of seven of Yalta’s eight plenary sessions. Stalin declared, “the question of Poland is not only a question of honor but also a question of security. Throughout history, Poland has been the corridor through which the enemy has passed into Russia.” It was a matter “of life and death for the Soviet Union.”
Stalin demanded recognition of the Communist-led government operating out of the eastern city of Lublin that was provisionally ruling Poland. Its crackdown on internal opposition had sparked the beginning of a civil war. Roosevelt and Churchill backed the London-based government in exile, most of whose members were virulent anti-Communists. Stalin accused them of being terrorists. It was to weaken the London Poles that Stalin committed the dual atrocities of killing thousands of Polish army officers in the Katyn Forest in 1940 and having the Red Army stop on the banks of the Vistula in 1944 while the Germans put down the Warsaw Uprising.
The three leaders compromised on setting up a Polish Provisional Government of National Unity. The agreement stated, “The Provisional Government which is now functioning in Poland should therefore be reorganized on a broader democratic basis with the inclusion of democratic leaders from Poland itself and from Poles abroad.” Then the British, U.S., and Soviet ambassadors were to consult with the Polish leaders, and free elections, open to all “democratic and anti-Nazi parties,” were to be held. The three leaders agreed on the Curzon Line as the eastern border, despite the objections of the London Poles, but disagreed on Poland’s western boundary, which was left for future resolution. The agreements were admittedly vague. Admiral Leahy, a veteran of the Spanish-American and First World Wars, who had spent time in the Philippines, China, Panama, and Nicaragua before returning from retirement to serve as Roosevelt’s chief of staff, warned Roosevelt, “this is so elastic that the Russians can stretch it all the way from Yalta to Washington without technically breaking it.” Roosevelt agreed, “I know, Bill – I know it. But it’s the best I can do for Poland at this time.”
At Tehran, Roosevelt had written Stalin a personal note promising that “the United States will never lend its support in any way to any provisional government in Poland that would be inimical to your interests.” Yet the London Poles, being hard-line anti-Communists, were clearly inimical to Stalin’s perception of Soviet interests.
Roosevelt understood that he had little leverage at Yalta. He was more excited about getting Stalin to agree to the “Declaration on Liberated Europe,” which promised to establish representative governments through free elections.
Though they didn’t see eye to eye on Germany, the Big Three agreed to divide the soon-to-be-conquered nation into four military zones, which one controlled by France. Unable to reach an accord on postwar German reparations, they decided to establish a reparations commission, which could base discussions on a figure of $20 billion, with half going to the Soviet Union. Stalin agreed to come into the war against Japan three months after the end of the war in Europe. In return, the United States promised territorial and economic concessions in East Asia that largely restored what Russia had lost to Japan in the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War.
The news of Yalta ignited a kind of optimism that hadn’t been seen for decades. Former President Herbert Hoover called the conference a “great hope to the world.” CBS war correspondent William Shirer, who later authored the renowned best seller The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, declared it a “landmark in human history.” Roosevelt addressed the Congress upon his return, concluding:
The conference in the Crimea was a turning point, I hope, in our history, and therefore in the history of the world. … We shall have to take the responsibility for world collaboration, or we shall have to bear the responsibility for another world conflict. … And I am confident that the Congress and the American people will accept the results of this conference as the beginning of a permanent structure of peace upon which we can begin to build, under God, that better world in which our children and grandchildren, yours and mine, the children and grandchildren of the whole world, must live and can live. And that, my friends, is the only message I can give you, for I feel very deeply, and I know that all of you are feeling it today and we are going to feel it in the future.
Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt’s advisor and confidant, shared the post-Yalta enthusiasm:
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 – and by “we,” I mean all of us, the whole civilized human race. [The Soviets had proved] reasonable and farseeing and there wasn’t any doubt in the minds of the President or any of us that we could live with them and get along with them peacefully as far into the future as any of us could imagine. But I have to make one amendment to that – I think we all had in our minds the reservation that we could not foretell what the results would be if anything should happen to Stalin. We felt sure that we could count on him to be reasonable and sensible and understanding – but we never could be sure who or what might be in back of him there at the Kremlin.
The Soviets shared in the post-Yalta ebullience but could not be sure about the man next in line behind Roosevelt. Observers of Roosevelt’s speech to Congress noticed how rapidly the president’s health was failing. Exhausted from his trip, for the first time in his presidency he addressed the Congress sitting, not standing. Over the next weeks, disagreements with the Soviets surfaced over Poland and other issues, raising vexing questions for the president about the future of the relationship. But he never lost hope that the three nations would continue to work together in peace and friendship. In his last cable to Churchill, Roosevelt wrote, “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.”
On April 12, 1945, Harry Truman, who had succeeded Wallace as vice president after the 1944 elections, went to House Speaker Sam Rayburn’s office in the Capital to play poker and make a dent in his latest shipment of whisky. Upon arrival, he was instructed to call Steve Early at the White House immediately. Early told him to rush right over. At the White House, Eleanor Roosevelt informed Truman that the president had died. After regaining his bearings, Truman expressed his regrets and asked if there anything he could do. Mrs. Roosevelt replied, “Is there anything we can do for you? For you are the one in trouble now.”
Truman was shockingly unprepared for that moment. He had met with Roosevelt only twice during his eighty-two days as vice president, and they had not spoken about any of the substantive issues facing the nation. In fact, most astoundingly, neither Roosevelt nor any of the other top officials had even informed Truman that the nation was building an atomic bomb. On his first day in office, the new president ran into a group of reporters outside the Capitol. One asked how his first day on the job was going, to which Truman replied, “Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now. I don’t know whether you fellows ever had a load of hay fall on you, but whey they told me yesterday what had happened, I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me. I’ve got the most terribly responsible job a man ever had.” When a reporter yelled out, “Good luck, Mr. President,” Truman responded, “I wish you didn’t have to call me that.” It was not false humility on Truman’s part. He sincerely felt he was in way over his head and told everyone he met with that it was all a mistake and he was not qualified to be president.
Stimson, Wallace, and others were afraid that Truman, given his own inclinations and lack of preparation, would be putty in the hands of some of the hardliners. Stimson anticipated that the greatest pressure would come from Churchill and warned Marshall that they “ought to be alert now for a new man at the helm in the Presidency to see that he was advised as to the background of the past differences between Britain and America on these matters.”
Roosevelt had spelled out perhaps the most crucial difference at his March 16 cabinet meeting. Forrestal missed the meeting but had Assistant Secretary H. Struve Hensel attend and take notes, which Forrestal included in his diary: The President indicated considerable difficulty with British relations. In a semi-jocular manner of speaking, he stated that the British were perfectly willing for the United States to have a war with Russian at any time and that, in his opinion, to follow the British program would be to proceed toward that end.”
The first to see him, on April 13, was Secretary of State Edward Stettinius. The former land-lead administrator jumped at Truman’s request to be educated about what was going on in the world. Stettinius had had little influence with Roosevelt. In fact, many considered him a complete lightweight. A friend of Roosevelt complained, “A Secretary of State should be able to read and write and talk. He may not be able to do all of these, but Stettinius can’t do any of them.” Stettinius painted a picture for Truman of Soviet deception and perfidy. Since Yalta, he explained in a memo later that day, the Soviets have “taken a firm and uncompromising position on nearly every major question.” He charged them with acting unilaterally in liberated areas and said that Churchill felt even more strongly than he did on these matters. Churchill wasted little time confirming that view both in cables and in a hurried visit to Washington by Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden. The British Ambassador to the United States, Lord Halifax, sized Truman up and decided that the new president was “an honest and diligent mediocrity…a bungling if well-meaning amateur” surrounded by “Missouri County court-house calibre” friends.
That afternoon Truman met with his old Senate mentor James F. “Jimmy” Byrnes. Admitting his abject ignorance, Truman implored Byrnes to tell him everything “from Tehran to Yalta” and “everything under the sun.” Because Byrnes had been part of the U.S. delegation at Yalta, Truman assumed he had accurate knowledge about what transpired. It would be many months before Truman discovered that that was not the case. In this and subsequent meetings, Byrnes reinforced Stettinius’s message that the Soviets were breaking the Yalta Agreement and that Truman needed to be resolute and uncompromising with them. He also gave Truman his first real briefing about the atomic bomb, which, he conjectured, “might well put us in a position to dictate our own terms at the end of the war.” He did not specify exactly to whom the United States would be dictating terms. Truman so trusted Byrnes that he made clear his intention to appoint him secretary of state as soon as Stettinius had gotten the United Nations off the ground. Truman’s close friend and appointments secretary Matthew Connelly later wrote, “Mr. Byrnes came from South Carolina and talked to Mr. Truman and immediately decided that he would take over. Mr. Truman to Mr. Byrnes, I’m afraid, was a nonentity, as Mr. Byrnes thought he had superior intelligence.” Superior intelligence, perhaps, but, between this unlikely pair, who would do so much to shape the postwar world, Truman had more formal education, having at least graduated from high school, whereas Byrnes had dropped out at age fourteen.
Ambassador Harriman paid a call on Stalin at the Kremlin and found the Soviet leader profoundly saddened by Roosevelt’s death. Stalin held Harriman’s hand as he bemoaned humanity’s loss in Roosevelt’s passing and asked Harriman to convey his deepest condolences to Mrs. Roosevelt and the Roosevelt children. Harriman tried to assure Stalin that he would develop an equally strong relationship with President Truman, whom Harriman described as “a man of action and not of words.” Stalin responded, “Roosevelt has died but his cause must live on. We will support President Truman with all our forces and all our will.” The usually skeptical Harriman was moved by the depth of Stalin’s emotion.
Molotov stopped off in Washington before heading to San Francisco for the opening of the United Nations. He was eager to speak directly with the new president. Harriman rushed to Washington too, intent upon reaching Truman prior to his meeting with the Soviet foreign minister. Arriving in time, he warned Truman that the United States was facing a “barbarian invasion of Europe” and urged him to stand firm and tell Molotov that “we would not stand for any pushing around on the Polish question.” Harriman reinforced the advice that Truman had been receiving from Churchill and Eden. As soon as the Soviet Union extended control over a country and imposed its system, he declared, the secret police moved in and wiped out free speech. He felt certain that the Soviets wouldn’t risk with the United States because they desperately sought the postwar reconstruction aid that Roosevelt had dangled before them. Stettinius and Secretary of the Navy concurred with that assessment. All three encouraged a tough stand over Poland.
On April 23, Truman gathered his foreign policy advisors for a final meeting before sitting down with Molotov. Stimson, Marshall, and Leahy offered a different point of view. Leahy again noted the opaque elasticity of the Yalta Agreement and the difficulty of alleging bad faith on that basis. In fact, he said, after the understanding at Yalta, he would have been surprised had the Soviets behaved differently than they had. The esteemed Marshall, whom Time magazine had named Man of the Year for 1943, contended that a break with the Soviet Union would be disastrous, given U.S. dependence on it to help defeat the Japanese. Stimson showed the clearest understanding of the Soviet predicament and urged greater circumspection on the part of the inexperienced president. He explained that the Soviet Union had been a trustworthy ally, often delivering even more than had been promised, especially in important matters. He reminded the president of Poland’s importance to the Soviets and said that “the Russians perhaps were being more realistic than we were in regard to their own security.” He added that outside the United States and Great Britain, including countries under U.S. influence, very few countries shared the United States’ understanding of free elections. Truman, true to form, tried to mask his limited understanding of the issues with bluster and bravado. He promised to stand up to Molotov and demand that the Soviets stop breaking the Yalta Agreement. As far as the United Nations was concerned, the United States would “go on with plans for the San Francisco conference and if the Russians did not wish to join us they could go to hell.” He acknowledged to Harriman that he didn’t expect to get 100 percent of what he wanted from the Soviets, but he did expect to get 85 percent.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the most vociferous critics of the Soviet Union shared a similar class background that inclined them to mistrust the Soviets’ motives and intensions. Harriman, the son of a railroad millionaire, had founded Brown Brothers Harriman. Forrestal had made a fortune on Wall Street. And Stettinius had been chairman of the board of U.S. Steel, the nation’s largest corporation. They would join with other wealthy international bankers, Wall Street and Washington lawyers, and corporate executives, who had also inherited or made their fortunes during the interwar years, to shape postwar U.S. policy. These men included Dean Acheson of Covington and Burling; Robert Lovett of Brown Brothers Harriman; John McCloy of Cravath, Swain and Moore; Allen and John Foster Dulles of Sullivan and Cromwell; oil and banking magnate Nelson Rockefeller; Paul Nitze of Dillon, Read; Ferdinand Eberstadt of Dillon, Read and F. Eberstadt and Co.; and General Motors President Charles E. Wilson, who, in 1944, told the Army Ordnance Board that in order to prevent a return to the Depression, the United States needed “a permanent war economy.” Although these people also served in the Roosevelt administration, they had exerted much less influence on him, as he acted largely as his own secretary of state.
In his meeting with Molotov later that day, Truman put on his tough-guy act and wasted little time accusing the Soviets of having broken the Yalta Agreement, particularly in Poland. When Molotov tried to explain that Poland, being on the Soviet Union’s border, was a vital security issue for the Soviets and that the agreement called for including friendly Poles, not the London group that was virulently hostile to the Lublin government, Truman rudely dismissed his clarifications. When Molotov tried to raise other issues, Truman snapped, “That will be all, Mr. Molotov. I would appreciate it if you would transmit my view to Marshal Stalin.” Molotov replied, “I’ve never been talked to like that in my life.” Truman fired back, “Carry out your agreements and you won’t get talked to like that.” Molotov, indignant at such treatment, stormed out of the room. Years later, Molotov remembered Truman’s “imperious tone” and “rather stupid” effort to show “who was boss.”
Truman soon thereafter boasted to Joseph Davies, the former ambassador to the Soviet Union, “I gave it to him straight. I let him have it. It was the straight one-two to the jaw.”
Stalin wasted no time in responding to Truman’s undiplomatic dressing down of Molotov. Having been invaded by Germany twice in twenty-five years through Poland and Eastern Europe, he insisted on having governments to his west and especially on his border. He cabled Truman the following day, outlining what had actually occurred at Yalta. He contended that Roosevelt had agreed that the Lublin government would form the kernel of the new Polish government. Because “Poland borders on the Soviet Union,” the Soviets had the right to a friendly government there. He said he didn’t if the governments of Belgium or Greece were really democratic, but he wouldn’t make a stink because they were vital to British security. He wrote, “I am ready to fulfill your request and do everything possible to reach a harmonious solution. But you demand too much of me…you demand that I renounce the interests of the security of the Soviet Union, but I cannot turn against my country.”
Stalin believed that he and Roosevelt had reached an understanding about Poland that respected the Soviet Union’s security needs. In fact, when Harriman wanted to make an issue of Poland at the Foreign Ministers Conference in Moscow in October 1943, Secretary of State Hull rebuked him and reminded him of the United States’ real priorities, commenting, “I don’t want to deal with these piddling little things. We must deal with the main issues.” But under Truman the anti-Soviet hard-liners were driving policy. Stalin felt betrayed.
The opening of the United Nations in San Francisco on April 25 should have been an occasion to celebrate a new era in international peace and reconciliation. Instead, the early sessions were marred by tension between the principle wartime allies. On the opening day, Harriman met with members of the U.S. delegation to make sure, he said, that “everyone understands that the Soviets…were not going to live up to their postwar agreements.” They would, he insisted, use any devious means at their disposal to dominate Eastern Europe. When Harriman repeated the charges in off-the-record press conferences, several reporters walked out and accused him of being a “warmonger.” The U.S. delegates showed no such skepticism. Molotov’s request to have the Lublin government seated to represent Poland was rejected. But the United States rallied Latin American representatives to support seating the Argentine government despite its Nazi sympathies.
Realizing that his get-tough tactics with the Soviet Union had not produced the desired results, Truman met twice with Joseph Davies to seek his counsel. As ambassador to the Soviet Union, Davies, a conservative corporate attorney, had surprised liberal critics by sympathizing with the Soviet experiment. Truman confessed to Davies that after his tirade, Molotov “was visibly shaken, blanched and went pale.” He concluded that “the tough method” clearly worked because the Soviets backed down at San Francisco and didn’t demand recognition of the Lublin government. But after that, relations had deteriorated rapidly. “What do you think? Did I do right?”
Davies explained that Molotov had come to see him before his April 23 meeting with Truman and asked if Truman knew all the facts about Yalta. He said that Roosevelt’s death had been “a great tragedy” to them because “Stalin and Roosevelt understood each other.” Davies explained to Truman that the Soviets had always been “sticklers for reciprocity…between allies.” So they accepted British-imposed governments in Africa, Italy, and Greece, even though they didn’t represent the anti-fascist forces in those countries, because they understood that they were “vital interests” to the United States and Great Britain. They expected similar consideration for their vital security interests in Poland. Davies reminded Truman that while the United States and Great Britain were planning global strategy, the Soviet Union was doing all the fighting. Truman was surprised to learn that the Soviets had even agreed not to press their territorial claims with Churchill “out of consideration for Roosevelt.” Truman promised he would “clean out” the people in the State Department who were so anti-Soviet that they’d been misleading him. Davies noted how fundamentally the relationship had changed in the last six weeks, with the British acting as instigators.
Davies warned Truman that if the Soviets decided that the United States and Great Britain were “ganging up on them,” they would respond by out-toughing the West, as they had in concluding the pact with Hitler when it became clear that the West would not help them stop the Nazis. But he assured Truman that “when approached with generosity and friendliness, the Soviets respond with even greater generosity. The ‘tough’ approach induces a quick and sharp rejoinder that ‘out toughs’ anyone they consider hostile.” Davies agreed to set up a meeting between Truman and Stalin. Truman admitted that he was in over his head and had mishandled things. Davies recorded Truman’s self-deprecating comments in his diary: “It’s no wonder that I’m concerned over this matter. It is a terrible responsibility and I am the last man fitted to handle it and it happened to me. But I’ll do my best.” “Here lies Joe Williams, he did his best./Man can do no more./But he was too slow on the draw,” Truman quipped revealingly.
Another former ambassador to the Soviet Union, Admiral William H. Standley, who had served in 1942 and 1943, spoke out publicly to counter those who believed Stalin was up to no good. Writing in Collier’s, Standley insisted that Stalin genuinely desired to cooperate with the United States to establish a durable world peace. The Soviet Union not only “desperately” needed a stable peace, he believed, “but I am certain that [Stalin] desires it sincerely and fervently.” “The world,” he added, “simply cannot stand another war.”
Things had been going well on the battlefield in Europe. On April 26, U.S. and Soviet soldiers met on the Elbe River near Torgau, 4,500 miles from the shores of the United States and 1,400 bloody miles from the ruins of Stalingrad. The occasion was joyous. Food abounded, and liquor flowed – champagne, vodka, cognac, wine, beer, scotch. Private First Class Leo Kasinsky called it “the best time I ever had in my life. … [The Soviets] gave us a wonderful meal and we had about sixty toasts.” “Boy,” he added, “they don’t even drink like that in Brooklyn.” The New York Times reported “toasts and songs and expressions of hope for the future in which American, Russia and Britain would stand together for enduring peace.”
On May 7, 1945, Germany surrendered. Hitler and Eva Braun had committed suicide in their bunker a week earlier. A U.S. diplomat wrote that the Soviet people’s joy was “indescribable.” Crowds gathered in front of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and shouted, “Hurrah for Roosevelt!” Stalin addressed 2 to 3 million people in Red Square.
Americans returned that feeling of goodwill toward the Soviets, acknowledging the immensity of their sacrifice and suffering. In June, C. L. Sulzberger wrote in the New York Times that their losses strained the imagination: “In terms of misery and suffering, of malady and disaster, of wasted man hours in a land where work is glorified, the loss is incalculable. It cannot be gauged by the scarcely touched peoples of America. It cannot be measured by the sadly battered people of England. It perhaps cannot be fully realized even by the masses of Russian people themselves.” Sulzberger understood that such devastation would have enduring consequences: “this terrible suffering and unprecedented destruction” will “leave its marks not only upon the people and lands of the USSR, but also upon future decisions and policies as well as psychological attitudes.” This meant that the Soviets would demand “allies of the surest sort” in Eastern Europe, the permanent debilitation of German military power, and the forging of friendly relations with the nations of Central Asia and the Far East that bordered the Soviet Union. He predicted that Soviet citizens, despite the fact that they were eager for “the better things of life,” would patiently sacrifice material comforts for a return to the sense of security that had been shattered by the war years.
Charitable efforts to ease Soviet deprivation proliferated throughout the year. On New Year’s Day, the editors of the Washington Post urged Americans to remember Russian children as they celebrated their holiday and “send them a tithe of our good fortune,” commemorating “the sense of community we have come to feel toward the Russian people.” Even First Lady Bess Truman lent a hand. In July, she became the honorary chairman of the English Classics Collection of Books for Russian War Relief, which commenced a nationwide drive to collect a million books to replace those destroyed by the Nazis. Each donated volume would bear the flags of the two nations along with a frontispiece inscription, reading “To the heroic people of the Soviet Union from the people of America.”
Numerous stories circulated about the bravery and generosity of Soviet soldiers and average citizens. The Washington Post detailed the story of Captain Ernest M. Gruenberg, a paratroop surgeon, on D-Day. Upon escaping from a POW camp, Gruenberg and two other U.S. soldiers made the journey to Moscow in just fourteen days. Gruenberg recounted, “We hardly ever walked. Always there was a truck or train to haul us and no one ever asked for money or tickets. We were Americans and nothing, apparently, was too good for us. Everywhere people took us in. We rode in trucks and box cars but we made a grand entry into Moscow in the car reserved for Russian officers – free, of course.” The Soviets and Poles were so willing to share their meager food supplies that Gruenberg believed he gained back the twenty-five pounds he had lost in prison.
The comradely feelings toward the Soviet people translated into optimism about postwar comity between the two nations. A March Gallup Poll revealed that 55 percent of Americans believed that the Soviet Union could be trusted to cooperate with the United States after the war.
Although many of Truman’s advisors assumed that Stalin would set up Communist regimes throughout the territories occupied by the Red Army, Stalin was in no rush to institute revolutionary change. He recognized that the Communists represented a minority element in most of these nations, though they had often played a leading role in anti-Nazi resistance movements. He had once remarked that communism fit Poland like a saddle fit a cow.
And Soviet soldiers did little to ingratiate themselves with the German people. Seeking revenge for the havoc, devastation, and humiliation that German soldiers had wreaked on the Soviet Union, they behaved brutally toward the vanquished Germans. German women paid an especially high price for Germany’s crimes – in just a few weeks, over 100,000 sought medical care for rape.
Although such behavior was unconscionable and inexcusable, it can be understood as more than simply the “barbarian invasion” alleged by Harriman. Soviet troops had not only witnessed German atrocities inside the Soviet Union; their rage was fueled by what they had seen while liberating the concentration camps, including Majdanek, Sobibor, Treblinka, and Auschwitz, en route to Berlin. As the war correspondent Alexander Werth described it, “As the Red Army advanced to the west, it heard these daily stories of terror, and humiliation and deportation; it saw the destroyed cities, it saw the mass-graves of Russian war prisoners, murdered or starved to death…in the Russian soldiers’ mind, the real truth on Nazi Germany, with its Hitler and Himmler and its Untermensch philosophy and its unspeakable sadism became hideously tangible.” Soldiers described the horrors they had witnessed. V. Letnikov wrote to his wife in 1945:
Yesterday we examined a death camp for 120,000 prisoners. Posts two meters high with electric fencing enclosed the camp. In addition, the Germans mined everything. Watchtowers for armed guards and machineguns stand fifty meters apart. Not far away from the death barracks is the crematorium. Can you image how many people the Germans have burned there? Next to this exploded crematorium, there are bones, bones, and piles of shoes several meters high. Total horror, impossible to describe.
Soviet newspapers, including those read by the soldiers, went out of their way to publish grisly accounts of the atrocities. By the time they reached German soil, Soviet troops’ anger could barely be contained. Stalin, neither condoning nor condemning such behavior, did nothing to stop it.
Far from initially imposing Communist regimes, Stalin tried to restrain those seeking revolutionary change in both Western and Eastern Europe, urging them to establish broader democratic coalitions. More of a nationalist than an international revolutionary, he thought first about what was in the interests of the Soviet Union. He expected the United States’ support for postwar reconstruction, and needed the Allies’ cooperation to guarantee against the restoration of German power, which he still saw as the primary threat to the Soviet Union. He told his Communist allies not to follow the Bolshevik model but to move toward socialism under other “political systems – for example by democracy, a parliamentary republic and even by a constitutional monarchy.” He wanted nothing to disrupt his alliance with the United States and Britain. Hence, the governments he set up in Soviet-liberated Eastern and Central Europe were friendly to the Soviet Union but not Communist-dominated.
Truman was also feeling more conciliatory. After his meetings with Davies and conversations with Harry Hopkins and Secretary of Commerce Henry Wallace, he made an effort to improve relations with the Soviets. He and his military leaders resisted Churchill’s pressure to maintain troops in their advanced positions until they had wrested concessions from the Soviets. Truman gradually discovered that Stalin’s interpretation of the Yalta Agreement conformed more closely to the truth than his own. Byrnes admitted that he had left Yalta before the final agreement was concluded and that he had not participated in many of the critical meetings. Truman also learned that Roosevelt had indeed acceded to a Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and that there were no grounds for demanding a new government in Poland. He sent Harry Hopkins to meet with Stalin in late May, and they worked out an agreement on Poland that was similar to the formula established for Yugoslavia. The reorganized cabinet would include former Prime Minister Stanislaw Mikolajczyk as deputy prime minister and three other non-Communists, along with the seventeen posts accorded to the Communists and their allies. Truman told journalists that this represented a “very pleasant yielding” on the part of Stalin, which augured well for future cooperation between the United States and the Soviet Union.
As Truman left for Potsdam in July, there was a much greater basis for optimism regarding the postwar alliance than there had been only two months earlier. But some raised a cautionary note. Life magazine in the July 1945 – just two years after it put Stalin on the cover as a hero – cautioned that “Russia is the No. 1 problem for American because it is the only country in the world with the dynamic power to challenge our own conceptions of truth, justice and the good life.”
"Because the United States has developed an entirely new weapon of such force and nature, we do not need the Russians - or any other nation."
The Potsdam meeting, though amicable on the surface, would prove a setback to long-term cooperation. News of the successful atomic bomb test convinced Truman that the United States could get along just fine without catering to Soviet concerns, and his behavior toward Stalin conveyed that message. On his way back from Potsdam on the USS Augusta, he told a group of officers that it didn’t matter if the Soviets were obstinate “because the United States now had developed an entirely new weapon of such force and nature that we did not need the Russians – or any other nation.”
Next, Chapter 4 - THE BOMB: The Tragedy of a Small Man