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Western Front1st January 1942

President Roosevelt and his Allies

President Roosevelt
President Roosevelt

Just a few days after Pearl Harbour, Churchill was planning his first wartime visit to Washington to see Roosevelt, when a cautious member of his staff remarked that he felt it was important to still treat the Americans with caution. ‘Oh!’ replied Churchill famously, ‘that is the way we talked to her while we were wooing her; now that she is in the harem we talk to her quite differently!’i

It’s a nice story. But Churchill must have known that it did not reflect the practical reality. The industrial power of America dwarfed that of Britain, and by the time that industrial power was transferred into military power, it would be obvious to everyone who was the dominant partner in this ‘special relationship’ and Roosevelt – one of the most astute politicians who has ever lived – was acutely aware of this imbalance from the very start.

Significantly, for example, it was always Churchill who went to visit Roosevelt – for the man of real power understands that it is the supplicant who pays house calls. This was something that Stalin realized very well, and it is also hugely significant that Roosevelt, despite his disability and the consequent problems in traveling, was forced by Stalin to make two arduous journeys later in the war to see the Soviet leader, first at Tehran and then in the Crimea. There were lengthy negotiations about just where these meetings should be held, but Stalin always refused to budge. Either Roosevelt came to see him on his terms, or the meetings didn’t happen.

Churchill, of course, never had any of the bargaining power that Stalin eventually came to possess. However, in 1942, Stalin didn’t seem to have that much bargaining power either. In May 1942, Stalin was sufficiently desperate to send Vyacheslav Molotov, his foreign minister, to Washington for talks with Roosevelt (Key Moment: Molotov visits Washington). What Stalin wanted, more than anything else, was a commitment from the Western Allies that they would launch a ‘Second Front’ – by which the Soviets meant a D-Day style invasion of France – in order to take pressure off the Red Army fighting in the East.

Roosevelt’s response to this request, in many ways, sums up both how he worked his politics and his fundamental character. Typically, he first sounded out Molotov through Harry Hopkins his trusted intermediary. Hopkins paid a late night call to Molotov’s bedroom in the East Wing of the White House. (It’s worth noting that we only know what was said in this secret meeting because of a Russian record that was discovered recently. Hopkins, in papers in the FDR Library at Hyde Park, mentioned only that he spoke with Molotov, but never details exactly what was said.)

Essentially, Hopkins told Molotov that Roosevelt was a ‘very strong supporter’ of a Second Front in 1942 but the ‘American Generals don’t see the real necessity.’ii Thus Hopkins portrayed Roosevelt as somehow on the side of the Soviets, but thwarted by his own people. Hopkins then advised Molotov to ‘paint a harrowing picture’ of the problems the Soviets faced, so that the American Generals realised the ‘seriousness’ of what was happening on the Eastern Front.

It was a classic Roosevelt tactic. In a totally deniable way, the American President could thus appear to support the Soviets, whilst also sounding them out. And this conversation, bear in mind, took place – almost certainly – without the knowledge of the US State department, the very people charged with dealing directly with the Soviet Union.

The second way in which Roosevelt sought to work his politics on Molotov – and through him on Stalin – was in his direct response to the Soviet request for the Second Front. He subsequently told Molotov that he should tell Stalin that ‘we expect the formation of a Second Front this year’ (i.e. 1942). But this bald statement, when it was repeated in the communiqué at the end of Molotov’s visit – seemingly committing the Americans to a Second Front in 1942 – was made against the direct wishes of General Marshall, the Chief of Staff of the US Army. He asked that any reference to 1942 be excluded, but Roosevelt insisted it remain. 

‘Roosevelt is never beyond saying what he feels he needs to say in order to achieve whatever benefit he sees,’ says Professor Robert Dallek. ‘And it’s demonstrated also by the way in which they dealt with Stalin in 1942 when they promised that there would be a Second Front before the end of the year. Roosevelt knew full well he couldn’t do that, but he wanted to bolster their support… Roosevelt is always measuring these things… So what Roosevelt would weigh was, will he create too much distrust if he makes a commitment, a promise to Stalin that he can’t then fulfil? Or will this short term promise be beneficial or exceed in benefit what the long term distrust will produce? And that was the judgment he made in 1942.’

It was brutal politics – although ‘lying’ would be another simpler way of putting it. And certainly Roosevelt’s tactics did not help Churchill, who had been careful to explain to Molotov, just before the Soviet Foreign Minister left for Washington, that the British most certainly could not guarantee a Second Front in 1942.

As a consequence of Roosevelt’s ‘promise’, the issue of the Second Front – or lack of it – dominated Churchill’s subsequent visit to Moscow in August 1942, and it was to be the British Prime Minister who directly suffered the full force of Stalin’s anger. (Key Moment: Churchill meets Stalin in Moscow)

Roosevelt, seemingly the most open and sunniest of characters, is thus revealed as an extremely closed and secretive politician. ‘Harold Ickes, his Secretary of the Interior, once said to him,’ says Professor Dallek, ‘Mr President, you are the hardest man in the world to work for. And Roosevelt said, ‘Why, because I’m so tough?’ And Ickes said, ‘No, because you play your cards so close to your vest, so nobody can read you and we don’t know what you’re really thinking or saying or intending.’’

Working in close partnership with this secretiveness was Roosevelt’s supreme confidence in his ability to manipulate people – as long as he could meet them face to face, where he felt he could work his personal magic. Roosevelt was often saying how he felt he could ‘handle’ people, according to George Elsey, a US Naval Intelligence officer who worked in the White House during the war and observed the President at close quarters. And, in this respect, Roosevelt grew increasingly frustrated that he hadn’t so far been able to meet Stalin face to face. Because it was clear by the end of 1942 that the relationship with Stalin was deteriorating fast. Stalin had made it plain in a speech to the Congress of Soviet Deputies in November 1942 that the ‘absence of a second front against fascist Germany may end badly for all freedom loving countries, including the allies themselves.’iii The following month, December, Stalin wrote to Roosevelt almost pleading for the Second Front in spring 1943 – something which he reiteratated he believed had been the subject of a ‘promise’ by both Churchill and Roosevelt.

But, following the Casablanca Conference in January 1943 at which Roosevelt and Churchill discussed the course of the war (but without Stalin who had refused to go), Churchill was given the unenviable task of letting Stalin down once again. He wrote to Stalin saying there would be no D-Day, no massive ‘second front’ invasion of France in the spring of 1943.

These were stressful times for the Alliance. Indeed, the same month as the Casablanca Conference – January 1943 – the British ambassador to Moscow, Sir Archibald Clark Kerr, even remarked that ‘Stalin may make a separate peace if we do not help him.’iv The atmosphere then grew still worse with the discovery by the Germans in April 1943 of several thousand bodies in a mass grave near Smolensk in western Russia in the forest of Katyn. These were bodies of murdered Polish officers, and other members of the Polish elite, who had been missing since the spring of 1940. The evidence overwhelmingly pointed to the truth – that they had been murdered in 1940 by the Soviet secret police and buried here. But Stalin, not surprisingly, denied the crime and blamed the Germans. When the Poles didn’t immediately go along wholeheartedly with this explanation, Stalin cut off relations with the Polish government-in-exile, based in London, thus precipitating another political crisis. Roosevelt’s response to all this was typical. He said nothing about Katyn to Stalin. Roosevelt had a track record of dealing with unpleasant realities by ignoring them if he could.

But it was clearly politically dangerous for Roosevelt to disregard the substantive problem of the relationship with Stalin. So, once again, Roosevelt acted true to form and sent a personal emissary to Moscow – someone who had nothing to do with the US State department. Joseph Davies, a rich lawyer and friend of the President’s, was the chosen man. He had previously served as ambassador to Moscow in the 1930s and had been impressed with Stalin.

In May 1943 Davies traveled to the Soviet capital in order to deliver a personal letter from the American President to Stalin. The ‘official’ US ambassador to Moscow, William Standley, was not allowed into the meeting between Davies and Stalin, nor allowed to know the contents of the secret letter. He was not impressed. ‘I don’t know anything about what was in the letter,’ he wrote to his wife, ‘or what went on in the Kremlin. I lay awake half the night wondering what I should do; that’s why I’m disgusted, more so than usual’.v

The letter Davies delivered to Stalin related ‘solely to one subject’ – and that was a subject dear to the American President’s heart.vi Roosevelt wrote that he wanted to meet Stalin face to face as soon as possible. And, crucially, it was clear that Roosevelt did not want Churchill to be invited to this intimate gathering. After the letter had been read to Stalin, the Soviet leader wanted to know why Churchill was to be excluded. Davies replied that though Roosevelt and Churchill were ‘strong and loyal allies’ they ‘did not always see eye to eye.’

When, the following month, Churchill found out that he was to be excluded from the meeting, he was clearly deeply affected by the news. He wrote to Roosevelt saying that such a meeting without him would cause uproar. ‘It would be serious and vexatious, and many would be bewildered and alarmed thereby.’vii

Roosevelt’s reply to Churchill is a deeply revealing document.viii Because it demonstrates that the American President was prepared to tell a bare faced lie to his colleague in the famed ‘special relationship’. Roosevelt said that it had been Stalin who had suggested that the two of them meet without Churchill – when the truth was, of course, that this idea of excluding Churchill had been central to Roosevelt’s secret approach to Stalin from the beginning.

Ultimately, Roosevelt’s desire to exclude Churchill from his first meeting with Stalin came to nothing. Shortly after Davies had delivered Roosevelt’s secret message to Stalin, the Soviets received the news that the long hoped for Second Front would not be mounted even in the autumn of 1943. Stalin was – predictably – furious. So there was no possibility of the Soviet leader acceding to Roosevelt’s request for an immediate intimate political encounter between the two of them.

But the three leaders would eventually meet – for the first time – in November 1943, at Tehran. And it was this conference that was to be the most important political meeting of the war, and one at which Roosevelt revealed still more of his complex personality.


i Robert Dallek, Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy 1932-1945, OUP, 1981, p. 318
ii Laurence Rees, World War Two: Behind Closed Doors, BBC Books, 2009, pp. 131-135
iii Quoted ibid. p. 175
iv Harold Nicolson, Diaries and Letters: 1939-1945, Collins, 1967, p. 277
v William H. Standley, Admiral Ambassador to Russia, Chicago, 1955,
p. 368
vi Quoted in Rees, World War Two: Behind Closed Doors, p. 194
vii Churchill to Roosevelt, 25 June 1943, C 328 in Warren F. Kimbell (ed.), Churchill & Roosevelt: The Complete Correspondence, vol. II, Alliance Forged November 1942 – February 1944, Collins, 1984
viii Ibid., Roosevelt to Churchill, 28 June 1943, R 297