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Western Front1st January 1944

FDR and the reshaping of Europe

The Allies at Yalta
The Allies at Yalta

At quarter past three on Sunday 28 November 1943, Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin finally met, face to face, for the first time. It was a meeting that Roosevelt had been anxious to have for more than a year. But Stalin had played hard to get. Even after agreeing in principle that the three major leaders in the Alliance – Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin – should come together for a conference, Stalin had procrastinated on both the date and the location.

Roosevelt had suggested the three men meet in Cairo, but Stalin had rejected the idea, eventually insisting on the conference taking place in Tehran. Roosevelt had said this was simply too far away from Washington for him to come when Congress was in session. Stalin had then demonstrated his understanding – once again – of how real power works by insisting that if the meeting wasn’t held in Tehran then he wouldn’t attend. And so he forced Roosevelt to change his mind.

But on the plane on the way to Tehran it seemed that Roosevelt remained supremely confident in his ability to work his personal magic on the Soviet leader – once he was allowed into a room with him. As Lord Moran, Churchill’s doctor, recorded in his diary after a conversation with Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt’s close advisor, ‘…the President is convinced that even if he cannot convert Stalin into a good democrat he will be able to come to a working agreement with him. After all, he had spent his life managing men. And Stalin at bottom could not be so very different from other people.’i

And so, on 28 November 1943, Roosevelt attempted to ‘manage’ Stalin. He did so by first ensuring that Churchill was excluded from the meeting. This enabled Roosevelt to try and curry favour with Stalin by emphasizing how the question of India was Churchill’s ‘sore spot’ and, later, by making the extraordinary remark that India should be reshaped ‘somewhat on the Soviet line’.

It was the first exchange in what was to be a complex relationship between the two men – who had, perhaps, more in common in personal terms than people might suspect. ‘I think Stalin had a very suspicious nature,’ says Professor Robert Service, ‘and he was very manipulative and he would say anything to anyone if he thought he could get the political result that he wanted. And when he met Roosevelt he found someone who had those skills as well. Roosevelt could say casually that he would do things that he couldn’t easily do. This annoyed Stalin, but it was exactly what Stalin was like himself, and actually Stalin was like that to an even greater extent. So Stalin was tough. He could bark at people for letting him down, and he did, but then he could get on with the difficulties that resulted. He wasn’t a whinger, no one would call Stalin a whinger.’

But if Stalin wasn’t whinging in the early encounters at Tehran – particularly during the first plenary session of the conference, which involved Churchill as well – then he was certainly complaining. Because, once again, he demanded the Second Front be opened as soon as possible, and was openly frustrated that his allies had not helped out more than they had. Stalin believed that Churchill was the main stumbling block to a Second Front, and even the British Prime Minister’s appeasement of Stalin over the future of Poland at Tehran – by agreeing the Soviets could keep the territory in Eastern Poland after the war that they had gained as a result of the Nazi/Soviet pact – did not assuage Stalin’s anger at the British.

Roosevelt’s role in the dramatic scenes at a subsequent dinner at the conference, where Stalin finally demonstrated his full bitterness at Churchill, is hugely significant. Stalin accused Churchill of having a ‘secret affection’ for Germany, and announced that 50,000 German commanders should be simply ‘shot’ at the end of the war.ii Churchill was outraged. But Roosevelt did not attempt to support the British Prime Minister, merely joking that only ‘49,000’ Germans should be shot. In response to this brutal teasing, Churchill stormed out of the room.

Churchill was all too well aware of the political consequences of what he had just witnessed. As Lord Moran put it in his diary: ‘Now he [Churchill] sees he cannot rely on the President’s support. What matters more, he realizes that the Russians see this too… The PM is appalled by his own impotence.’iii

And subsequent events at Tehran demonstrated still further how much Roosevelt was prepared to distance himself publicly from Churchill, in order to develop a personal relationship with Stalin. On 1 December 1943, the fourth day of the conference, Roosevelt confessed that he was ‘pretty discouraged’ because he felt he had not yet made the all important ‘personal connection with Stalin.’ So he decided to try and rectify this state of affairs by launching a stream of insults about Churchill in front of Stalin, ‘about his Britishness, about John Bull, about his cigars, about his habits.’iv

Roosevelt believed that these attacks on Churchill would allow him to form a bond with Stalin. But, as it would turn out, Roosevelt had profoundly misjudged the Soviet leader. Stalin was not looking for political friendship, merely to pursue his own interests. Roosevelt, like Churchill before him, was – in the words of Lord Alanbrooke, looking for ‘sentiments in Stalin which I do not think exist there.’v

But such was Roosevelt’s supreme confidence in his own ability to ‘manage men’ that there is little evidence – at this stage of the relationship – that the American President would have accepted Alanbrooke’s analysis. Roosevelt was resolutely pursuing his own agenda with Stalin – just as the Soviet leader was pursuing his own agenda with the American President. Roosevelt wanted to convince Stalin to break the Soviet neutrality pact with Japan after the defeat of Germany and come into the war in the Pacific, and he wanted Stalin to commit to supporting the new United Nations. Other matters – like the exact boundaries of Eastern European countries – were much lower down Roosevelt’s list of priorities. So much so that Roosevelt said privately to Stalin at Tehran that he would support the Soviets receiving eastern Poland at the end of the war, but – politically astute as ever – he said that he could not publicly endorse the plan now because it would damage his chances in the Presidential election to be held the following year, since it would alienate the Polish/American vote.

For most of 1944, at least until the election in November, Roosevelt was careful to avoid discord with Stalin. It was an attitude captured in microcosm by his meeting with George Earle in the White House in May 1944. Earle had been a close friend of the President’s and, as his special emissary to the Balkans, had come to the conclusion (the right conclusion as it turned out) that the Soviets had been responsible for the Kaytn massacre. He presented the evidence to Roosevelt who dismissed it, saying ‘the Germans could have rigged things up.'vi Roosevelt then attempted to reassure Earle about the Soviet threat.

Similarly, at the time of the Warsaw Uprising in August 1944, Roosevelt was – unlike Churchill – reluctant to be drawn into trenchant criticism of Stalin for refusing to offer practical assistance to the freedom fighters inside the Polish capital.

It thus seemed clear, in the light both of these political decisions and of Roosevelt’s attitude at Tehran, that the American President had decided that the future lay in a strong and positive relationship with the Soviet Union. Moreover, Roosevelt  was not prepared to let, as he saw it, the relatively minor matter of practical difficulties in Eastern Europe cloud the key objective of an ongoing understanding with Stalin.

And just what Roosevelt thought of the British role in this post-war world can be gleaned from the proceedings of the Quebec Conference in the autumn of 1944. On the evening of 13 September, Churchill was appalled to hear the plans of Henry Morgenthau, the American Treasury Secretary, for post-war Germany. In essence, Morgenthau wanted to turn Germany into an agricultural state and destroy the industrial infrastructure of the country. Churchill, according to Morgenthau, reacted to this plan with ‘rhetoric, sarcasm and violence’ saying that he looked on this vindictive scheme as the equivalent of ‘chaining himself to a dead German.’vii

But, then, later in the conference, Churchill made a dramatic about face and supported the bulk of the Morgenthau Plan. Why this change of mind? Well, it could hardly have been a coincidence that just before Churchill’s change of heart, the Americans had made a commitment to continue the Lend Lease agreement, guaranteeing the British $6.5 billion. And though Roosevelt was later pressurized by American public opinion into dropping the worst excesses of the Morgenthau Plan, the substantive point was clear. The British were minor, dependent partners of the Americans. As Joseph Davies had remarked to Stalin during their secret meeting in the Kremlin in May 1943, the Americans believed that ‘Britain after the war will be financially ‘through’ for a long time.’viii

This was the background to the last significant political conference of Roosevelt’s life – at Yalta in the Crimea in February 1945 (Key Moments: 'Big Three' meet at Yalta). And it’s a background that is often omitted by those who seek to see the decisions which were taken at Yalta as something new in the politics of the Alliance. Because – in essence – all Yalta did was to confirm the key policy decisions taken at Tehran: Poland was, without the consent of the Poles, to be deprived of territory in the East – at Stalin’s request – and then compensated with territory snatched from Germany in the West; Germany would be divided into zones of occupation at the end of the war; Stalin made a series of ‘promises’ about elections in Eastern Europe, but the Western Allies did not insist on having measures in place to ensure this democratization ever took place; and, crucially for Roosevelt, the Soviets promised to come into the war against Japan after the defeat of Germany and to cooperate in the formation of the United Nations.

Roosevelt at Yalta was a sick man, but the decisions that emerged from the conference in the Crimea were consistent with the political policies which he had been championing for years.

‘I think that Yalta has become a completely false symbol,’ says Sir Max Hastings. ‘In one sense Yalta made explicit all manner of things that actually had been implicit in the way that the Allies had conducted strategy all the way along. Nobody on the western side had any grounds to be proud of what was done at Yalta. Roosevelt, there’s no doubt, still hoped in a pretty naïve fashion that he could do business with Stalin and that it would be easier to do business with Stalin if he distanced himself from Churchill. Roosevelt also displayed a pretty cynical indifference to the fate of Eastern Europe, that Eastern Europe was to be liberated from one tyranny in ordered to be surrendered to another. Churchill was also naïve. Churchill worked himself up into an almost emotional fever in his distress about, especially, the sacrifice of Poland and, especially, the fact that Polish freedom, for which Britain had gone into the Second World War, was to be sacrificed to the Russians. But Churchill refused to recognise the logic of his own position, that if the Western Allies had been serious about wanting to see that Eastern Europe was free, they would have had to have got into the war on a very big scale and they would have had to have had D-Day in 1943.’

That was, indeed, the harsh political reality of Yalta. But whilst America in particular had not, arguably, ‘got into the war on a very big scale’ before 1944, Roosevelt had skillfully managed the national interests of his country whilst simultaneously confronting Japan and Germany. So skillfully, that by the end of the war America lost around 400,000 dead – the Soviet Union, 27 million. And instead of a post-war legacy of an America devastated by the struggle, Roosevelt had overseen a massive economic recovery during the war. ‘Of course, the consequence of becoming the arsenal of democracy,’ says Professor David Reynolds, ‘meant that the United States pulled itself out of its depression in such a spectacular way that the war time draft is the biggest of all the New Deal work relief programmes. You put all these men out of unemployment and into the armed forces and you generate all this hardware which is the basis for America’s industry in the post-Cold War period. You know it’s the development of California, the whole West Coast, all the military industrial complex stuff out there. Does Roosevelt work all that out? No, not really, I don’t think, but he’s the man who, in a sense, was lucky enough to preside over the whole thing.’

And, argues Professor Reynolds, Roosevelt’s death, in April 1945, meant that he exited the political scene before the worst excesses of Soviet actions in Eastern Europe had yet to be truly realized: ‘Of course, also what Roosevelt benefits from on the whole is that he dies at the right moment. You know, if Roosevelt had had to deal with Stalin in 1945-47 he would have been in an awful mess, because he would not have been able to sit on the fence that much longer, he would have had to have come down one side or the other… As he dies at the moment of victory and there is, therefore, a rupture, and a new President fumbles his way into a Cold War leaving Roosevelt, apart from the inconvenience of the Yalta myths, the leader of victory rather than the man who had somehow bungled America into a Cold War.’

And, perhaps fittingly for a man whose character had been such a mix of shrewdness, charm and outright deception, Roosevelt died, on 12 April 1945, at the health resort of Warm Springs in Georgia, in the presence of his former mistress Lucy Mercer. His wife, Eleanor, hadn’t a clue that her rival was back on the scene at all. Roosevelt had played his cards close to his chest until his last breath. 


i Entry for 28th November 1943 in Lord Moran, Winston Churchill: The Struggle for Survival, 1940-1965, Heron Books, 1966
ii Laurence Rees, World War Two: Behind Closed Doors, BBC Books, 2009, p. 230
iii  Entry for 28th November 1943 in Moran, Winston Churchill
iv Francis Perkins, The Roosevelt I Knew, Harper and Collins, 1965, 
pp. 83-85
v Entry for 13th August 1942 in Alex Danchev and Daniel Todman (eds.), Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke, War Diaries 1939-1945, Phoenix, 2002
vi Rees, World War Two, pp. 248-249, from George Earle’s testimony to the Senate Katyn hearings
Henry Morgenthau Jr., 'Our Policy Toward Germany', New York Post, 28 November 1947, p. 18
viii Entry for 20th May 1943 in 'Joseph E. Davies Diary', Joseph E Davies papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington D.C.