Yes, you read that correctly. No, it isn’t breaking news; this news is 70 years old. It has nothing to do with Putin and the Ukraine; it refers to Stalin and half of Europe.
But the events from each time offer an interesting story. Take a moment (and for a rational mind, it won’t take even a moment) to understand the differences between Putin and Stalin….
The desired narrative: Putin is a crazed madman, hell-bent on re-establishing the Soviet Empire. Uncle Joe, however, merely wanted to bring his version of democracy to all of Europe.
The reality: Putin has, what, a relative handful of deaths on his hands? Stalin? Tens of millions. Putin gets kicked out of the G-8. Stalin receives FDR’s blessing as the first American president to officially recognize the Soviet Union. Putin receives the scorn of the current regime in Washington. Stalin? Well, let’s allow Robert Nisbet tell the story, from his book “Roosevelt and Stalin: The Failed Courtship.”
Roosevelt, of course, made many concessions to Stalin during the war; I will not focus on the early years, but begin with Yalta – in February, 1945. By this point, the war in Europe was nearing an end and Americans were moving successfully across the Pacific toward Japan. Certainly, the worst attributes of Stalin and the Soviets were clear to Roosevelt and the administration.
In other words, by this point there was no need (as if there ever was one) for further favors to be passed the Soviets’ way; there was no excuse (as if there ever was one) for claiming ignorance of the unfathomable murder that coursed through Stalin’s veins.
Yalta did not hand Eastern Europe to Stalin – he already occupied or would soon occupy much of this, as privately agreed with Roosevelt in Tehran in November 1943. This private agreement was given concrete form by Roosevelt’s continuing insistence that the Allies not proceed into Central Europe via the Mediterranean to head off the Soviets (as Churchill would have preferred). Stalin wanted only an assault from the west against the Germans; Roosevelt ensured this would be the focus.
Yalta offered something to Stalin that he could never achieve on his own:
I have just stressed that Yalta is not the source of the Soviet possessions in eastern Europe; that Teheran is. But Yalta performed a service to the Soviets that was almost as important to Stalin as the occupied areas themselves. This was the invaluable service of giving moral legitimation to what Stalin had acquired by sheer force. (P. 70)
As Chester Wilmot wrote in his The Struggle for Europe, “the real issue was not what Stalin would or could have taken but what he was given the right to do.” (P. 71)
That Roosevelt did not agree to send the Allied military into central Europe through the Mediterranean and stop Stalin from taking even more territory is one thing; to legitimize the dark night over Eastern Europe is quite another.
…not only did power over the Baltic and Balkan peoples pass to Stalin; these people had to watch what democracy and freedom they had known before the war disappear, and then suffer the added humiliation of seeing such words as “free elections,” “sovereignty,” “democracy,” “independence,” and “liberation” deliberately corrupted, debased, made duplicitous…. (P. 71)
Kind of like the elections in Crimea.
After one of the plenary sessions at Yalta, Roosevelt wrote privately to Stalin regarding the Polish government-in-exile in London:
“The United States will never lend its support in any way to any provisional government in Poland that would be inimical to your interests.” (P. 72)
Yalta removed the post-war possibility of the Americans stating to Stalin “Get out.” Imagine: the United States government legitimized a massive land-grab by one of the two worst murderers of the 20th century.
Roosevelt further agreed to every request Stalin had in the Far East as a condition to join the battle against the Japanese – much of the territory belonging (or rightly reverting) to the Chinese, but handed to Stalin without consulting Chiang Kai-shek.
Back to Yalta: what happened immediately after the summit?
On March 6 messages reached Churchill…about mass arrests taking place in Cracow… As many as 6,000 former Home Army officers were put in a camp…. (P. 78)
Churchill notified Roosevelt; Roosevelt did not protest to Stalin.
On March 21, Averill Harriman carried a note personally to Roosevelt:
“We must come to clearly realize that the Soviet program is the establishment of totalitarianism, ending personal liberty and democracy as we know it.” (P. 81)
As if this was not known in 1933.
A most interesting development regarded the direct communication between Eisenhower and the Soviets. This was discussed between Roosevelt and Stalin at Yalta:
“The President said he felt that the armies were getting close enough to have contact between them and he hoped General Eisenhower would communicate directly with the Soviet Staff rather than through the Chiefs of Staff in London and in Washington.” (P. 84)
Stalin readily agreed. Stalin was even more pleased when he received a telegram from Eisenhower on March 28. In it, Eisenhower outlined his military strategy in the coming weeks, making no mention of Berlin – despite Berlin being included in the Combined Chief’s strategy that was unanimously approved at the beginning of February. (P. 84)
Stalin’s joy must have been intense…. The Soviet capture of Berlin, courtesy of General Eisenhower, would be a crowning completion to a larger Soviet plan to assume hegemony in all of central Europe…. (P. 84)
Nisbet suggests that Eisenhower would never send such a telegram on his own authority – Ike had the endorsement of Marshall, and it is highly doubtful that Marshall’s endorsement came without Roosevelt’s approval, if not at Roosevelt’s direction.
“What difference did this make?” you ask. “The Soviets would have captured Berlin with or without Eisenhower’s permission.”
Not so fast.
The 9th U.S. Army under the command of Lt. General William Simpson, which was then part of Montgomery’s larger army group, reached the Elbe River on April 11. (P. 84)
With Berlin practically in sight, Simpson’s army was transferred from the British Montgomery to the American Bradley – who immediately ordered Simpson to stop at the Elbe. Bradley said the order came from Eisenhower (who did nothing without clearance from Marshall). (P. 84)
Churchill protested to Roosevelt – why not continue the strategy agreed by the Combined Chiefs? Roosevelt’s reply was “a model of the blandly evasive….”
In 1972, General Simpson gave a detailed interview on this matter; after detailing both the strength of his army and supply, as well as the logistics support, Simpson concluded:
“So I think we could have ploughed across there [the Elbe] within twenty-four hours and been in Berlin in twenty-four to forty-eight hours easily.” (P. 87)
Simpson stressed that the area between the Elbe and Berlin was lightly defended – with the heavy German concentrations instead facing the Soviets. (P. 87)
According to Simpson, he could have reached Berlin by the 13th or 14th. Stalin began his final push on the 16th:
The final chapter in the destruction of Hitler's Third Reich began on April 16, 1945 when Stalin unleashed the brutal power of 20 armies, 6,300 tanks and 8,500 aircraft with the objective of crushing German resistance and capturing Berlin. …By April 24 the Soviet army surrounded the city slowly tightening its stranglehold on the remaining Nazi defenders. Fighting street-to-street and house-to-house, Russian troops blasted their way towards Hitler's chancellery in the city's center.
Stalin did not break through the final significant German defenses outside of Berlin until the 19th.
I don’t know enough to say if Simpson would have reached Berlin first. It seems significant that he didn’t get to try. Perhaps it was merely another example of leaving the heavy lifting and dying to the Soviets. Perhaps it was done to ensure the Allied armies would not end up fighting each other.
But why make this unilateral change to the previously agreed-upon strategy? Why would the British be opposed to this? Why would Eisenhower be authorized to circumvent command?
Perhaps it was merely another favor from FDR to Uncle Joe.
Consider the post-war map of Europe, and how much territory Stalin’s Soviets incorporated with Roosevelt’s blessing. Now, consider today’s Crimea – and if you want to stretch it, portions of eastern Ukraine; consider that today’s relatively insignificant breech by Russia, if it even is one, is raising the heat significantly between two nuclear-armed powers.
Consider the labels placed on Putin – whether deserved or not – for actions within a few miles of current Russian borders. Consider the actions taken by the west to confront Putin’s supposed aggressions.
And contrast this with Roosevelt’s support to ensure Stalin received maximum territory in Europe at the conclusion of the war. Consider Roosevelt’s exclamation at Yalta regarding Stalin:
“Of one thing I am sure, Stalin is not an imperialist.” (P. 96)
It is an interesting contrast: the United States government considered the Soviet Union as a friend when the Soviets were bent on co-opting as much of Europe as possible after the war – Stalin’s design from the beginning in driving Germany to war; conversely, the Russians today are a pariah state for, at worst, stepping a few feet out of bounds.
Perhaps Obama can take a lesson from his hero, FDR; if Roosevelt could appease and even encourage Stalin’s territorial designs for all of the wrong reasons, perhaps Obama could cut Putin a little slack while waiting for the right reasons – you know, like getting at the truth?