When I think of special relationships I think about family, close friends, good business acquaintances, etc. In the murderous art of statecraft (as it is practiced today), we are told that the United States has a special relationship with Great Britain and Israel (I have no idea how they will all fit in my dining room next Thanksgiving).
There was another special relationship, of a sort, between Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin. I have written about this relationship once before, in one of my many posts while reviewing the book “Freedom Betrayed,” by Herbert Hoover (I highly recommend the book if you have not read it).
I will revisit this special relationship via a book written by Robert Nisbet, “Roosevelt and Stalin: The Failed Courtship.” This book was recommended to me by one of the most knowledgeable men I know – a real expert in several fields including history. When someone like this suggests that I read a book, well…it would be pretty stupid to ignore the advice.
It is interesting that, simultaneously, there were significant increases in the totalitarian nature of governments throughout the world – this, especially true in the 1930s. Call them socialists, communists, fascists, whatever. The United States under FDR, Germany under Hitler, Italy under Mussolini, the USSR under Stalin. One can also point to such leanings in Japan and France; even Spain went through a civil war fought (basically) between supporters of two different totalitarian ideologies.
Was it coincidence? A result of the Great War? The depression? Far beyond the scope of this post to explore. However, suffice it to say, it was. Viewed in this light, one might consider Roosevelt no different than the rest. Garet Garrett certainly saw this.
There are certain aspects of the book that stretch me outside of the narrative that I am developing in my own mind about Roosevelt, Stalin, Churchill, and the general events preceding and through this time. I will address these as they arise throughout my reviews (I don’t know how many posts I will write on this, certainly more than one), however, to summarize:
· Roosevelt is presented as idealistic toward Stalin, not purposeful. I tend to see in Roosevelt both – more purposeful, perhaps.
· Churchill is presented as an unwilling accomplice (due to Churchill’s desires to save Britain) in his favorable treatment of Stalin, always seeing clearly Stalin’s larger goals. Yet, if Churchill could see this (and be concerned by it), why not Roosevelt?
Let’s see how this plays out.
Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins recalls a conversation she had with FDR in which he was plainly impressed by the Russians. Perkins mentioned this view that the Russian people “desire to do the Holy Will.”
To which the president replied: “You know, there may be something in that. It would explain there almost mystical devotion to this idea which they have developed of the Communist society. They all seem really to want to do what is good for their society instead of wanting to do for themselves. We take care of ourselves and think about the welfare of society afterward.” (P. 4)
This conversation between Perkins and Roosevelt is attributed to a time “just after his [FDR’s] return from a meeting with the Soviet leaders.” Roosevelt’s first meeting with Stalin was at Teheran at the end of 1943. There is no prior listing of a meeting between Roosevelt and any other Soviet leader.
By 1943, what had Stalin done to deserve such praise from Roosevelt – the model of altruistic (and even “Holy”) society, it would seem? There was the Great Purge, various population transfers and deportations, the collectivization of agriculture – contributing to the great famine and the Ukrainian Genocide. Just during the 1930s, estimates range from 8.5 million to 20 million deaths under Stalin in the Soviet Union. These are all before the cover of war.
Is it possible that Roosevelt was not aware of any of this? Is this the “good for their society” that was deserving of praise? Perhaps Roosevelt was only considering the dreams of communism and not the realities – if only Stalin could be persuaded to take a more compassionate approach to achieve his communist ends.
According to George Kennan:
I also have in mind FDR’s evident conviction that Stalin, while perhaps a somewhat difficult customer, was only, after all, a person like any other person…if only he could be exposed to the persuasive charms of someone like FDR himself…. For these assumptions there were no grounds whatsoever; and they were unworthy of a statesman of FDR’s stature. (P. 5)
William Bullitt recalled a similar statement from Roosevelt, after Bullitt urged him to be less liberal with Stalin:
“I think if I give him everything I possibly can, and ask nothing from him in return, noblesse oblige, he won’t try to annex anything and will work with me for a world of peace and democracy.”
Within eight months of taking office, Roosevelt took steps to recognize the government of the Soviet Union – something refused by every prior president since the communist revolution. While ordering the FBI to give the closest scrutiny to “comical” (according to Nisbet) German-American Bund in New York, Roosevelt ignored the myriad communists within his own administration.
Roosevelt was often warned:
Three ambassadors, William Bullitt, Admiral Standley, and Averill Harriman tried to warn him; so did such Russian experts as George Kennan, Loy Henderson, and Charles Bohlen. To no avail. (P. 12)
…on one point, these men were agreed: The Soviet Union was not a fit ally for the United States and was America’s most dangerous enemy in the postwar world. (P. 13)
Roosevelt didn’t like the counsel of experts; instead he turned to “amateurs,” as Nisbet describes them:
Harry Hopkins, Joseph Davies, Admiral Leahy, General Marshall, [and] his Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins…. (P. 13)
Davies was named Ambassador to the Soviet Union in 1937. Within weeks of his arrival, the entire professional diplomatic staff considered a group resignation in protest of Davies’ “invincible ignorance of Soviet history and Soviet barbarism.”
Within months of Davies’ arrival, he ordered the breakup of the Russian division and the scattering of its most complete library on Soviet history and life in the Soviet Union. (P. 16)
Upon Davies’ return to the United States, he published his book “Mission to Moscow,” impolitely referred to by some as “Submission to Moscow.” The book was immediately made into a movie for the American audience. (P. 16)
Mission to Moscow is a book by the former U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union Joseph E. Davies and a film based on it directed by Michael Curtiz in 1943. The 1941 book sold 700,000 copies.
The movie chronicles the experiences of the naive second American ambassador to the Soviet Union and was made in response to a request by Franklin D. Roosevelt. According to its own producer the film was "an expedient lie for political purposes". It was later scrutinized by the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
Do you think Roosevelt didn’t realize he had a know-nothing ambassador to Moscow?
In 1941, as a result of a meeting between Harry Hopkins – perhaps Roosevelt’s closest confidant during this time – and Joseph Stalin, in which the two discussed Stalin’s needs for material in light of the German invasion, Roosevelt took his cabinet to task for failing to work more aggressively in delivering the ordered goods:
On August 1, before Hopkins had even returned, simply on the basis of the brief cable, Roosevelt called a Cabinet meeting in which, according to Harold Ickes’s notes, the President “started in by giving the State Department and the War Department one of the most complete dressings-down that I have witnessed.” Henry Morganthau wrote in his diary that the President “went to town in a way I have never heard him go to town before. He was terrific. He said he didn’t want to hear what was on order; he said he wanted to hear only what was on the water.” (P. 23)
In a press conference in November 1941, Roosevelt, as part of his continuing efforts to move the American public favorably toward the Soviets, suggested that the Soviet constitution guaranteed freedom of religion. (P. 25) Then there is the reality:
Stalin's role in the fortunes of the Russian Orthodox Church is complex. Continuous persecution in the 1930s resulted in its near-extinction as a public institution: by 1939, active parishes numbered in the low hundreds (down from 54,000 in 1917), many churches had been leveled, and tens of thousands of priests, monks and nuns were persecuted and killed. Over 100,000 were shot during the purges of 1937–1938.
I am reminded of a line from George Victor (a supporter of Roosevelt’s the-ends-justify-the-means actions) in his book “The Pearl Harbor Myth: Rethinking the Unthinkable”:
Events are poorly explained by making assumptions that crucial acts by competent, conscientious leaders were capricious, careless, or negligent. And U.S. leaders who figured in the Pearl Harbor disaster were highly competent and conscientious.
Roosevelt, of course, was one of those “U.S. leaders” behind the events at Pearl Harbor.
Nisbet seems to believe otherwise:
…to impute to Roosevelt as some did during the McCarthy era, disloyalty or lack of patriotism, is absurd. (P. 12)
…no worse misjudgment of Stalin’s nature could have been made by the President. (P. 27)
I’m with Victor on this; while I do not believe political leaders are gods, able to control every event and outcome, I do believe that directions taken are taken consciously – not by accident, not from ignorance of realities. So, these assumptions may have been “unworthy of a statesman of FDR’s stature,” they were not, I believe, a “misjudgment.”
Roosevelt wanted Stalin to be his BFF. This wasn’t because Stalin was a good guy. This courtship began well before the Nazis were any kind of threat.
In 1938, Garrett was onto something.