On 29 May 1942, the Soviet Foreign Minister, Vyacheslav Molotov arrived in Washington. It was a moment of great significance – a leading Communist emissary was about to sit down in the White House with the leader of the capitalist world.
The incongruity of the encounter was symbolized within moments of Molotov’s arrival. The White House valets discovered ‘a large chunk of black bread, a roll of sausage and a pistol’ when they unpacked the Soviet Foreign Minister’s bags. These were clearly the essential traveling requisites not of an ordinary politician, but a revolutionary. ‘The Secret Servicemen did not like visitors with pistols,’ recalled Eleanor Roosevelt, ‘but on this occasion nothing was said. Mr Molotov evidently thought he might have to defend himself and also he might be hungry.’i
Molotov had made the trip from Moscow to Washington for largely one reason. He wanted to convince President Roosevelt to launch a ‘second front’ – a large scale invasion of France – that same year, 1942. The Soviets craved this action because the situation on the Eastern Front was grim. Despite the Red Army’s successful counter attack in front of Moscow four months before, the Germans had since crushed the Soviet offensive at Kharkov and were clearly in a position to mount a major attack themselves. A ‘second front’ in France would draw German troops away from the Soviet Union and give the Red Army much needed respite.
Molotov had stopped over in London on his way to Washington and pleaded the case for a second front to Churchill. But the British Prime Minister had made it clear, in a series of meetings that began on 21 May, that such an offensive was scarcely possible for 1942 but could certainly be contemplated for 1943 (eventually, of course, the ‘second front’ was launched via D-Day in June 1944). But at a meeting in the White House on 30 May, President Roosevelt was a good deal more accommodating to the Soviet request. According to the American minutes of the meeting, Roosevelt ‘authorized Mr Molotov to inform Mr Stalin that we expect the formation of a second front this year.’ii
The disquiet of General Marshall, the Chief of Staff of the American Army, at this express commitment was plain to see. When he saw a draft of the communiqué to be issued at the end of Molotov’s visit, which made explicit reference to a second front in 1942, he asked that this specific date be withdrawn. But Roosevelt insisted that it be included. Thus Molotov returned to Moscow with a document that clearly said: ‘In the course of the conversations [in Washington] full understanding was reached with regard to the urgent tasks of creating a second front in Europe in 1942.’iii
It was an extraordinary conclusion to Molotov’s visit. Both the British government, and the leadership of the American military, believed that to open a second front in 1942 would be virtually impossible. Yet Roosevelt appeared, on his own initiative, to have made just this commitment. Most likely the American President acted this way because he simply balanced the advantage to be gained by keeping the Soviets happy against the problems that would be caused later on by not delivering on his promise.
Roosevelt, by this verdict, is cast as a supremely cynical politician. Delicately weighing the benefits of telling a lie. And in this respect, says Professor Robert Service, he was little different from his Soviet counterpart: ‘I think Stalin had a very suspicious nature 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… I think that Stalin probably genuinely thought that the British and the Americans were dragging out the D-Day invasion of France. At the same time what did he do when he got into Poland and when he was within sight of Warsaw and the uprising took place? The great uprising of the Poles took place in Warsaw and Stalin refused to aid them. So he was a cynic himself and he was judgmental about his allies. There was nothing he could do about it though. If they didn’t start the second front he couldn’t send a bomber over the top of the House of Commons to threaten Churchill, there was nothing he could do about it, so he just had to get on with it.’
Stalin certainly, as Professor Service says, ‘got on’ with the business of winning the war despite the failure of the Western Allies to open a second front until 1944. But he never forgot the ‘promise’ that Roosevelt had made to Molotov in May 1942. After the war he would tell a French delegation to Moscow that he knew the ‘game’ the British and Americans had been playing with him. They had kept promising the second front but had never intended to ‘open it’ until the Red Army looked like it would not only reach Berlin, but possibly reach Paris as well. D-Day, in Stalin’s view, occurred in 1944 only because it served the narrow political interests of the Western Allies to launch the second front at that precise moment.
Whilst this wildly cynical interpretation of affairs would have been categorically denied by Western leaders at the time, it’s important, as Professor Service reminds us, to remember that ‘…these were very, very, calculating men, Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt. They thought in terms of their national interests before they thought in terms of any other interests. I’m not trying to compare Roosevelt and Churchill with Stalin on any other plane of analysis, but we shouldn’t idealise the thinking of Roosevelt and Churchill who were both content that it was Russian soldiers who were dying rather than American or British ones.’
i Eleanor Roosevelt, This I Remember, Greenwood Press, 1975, p. 199
ii S.H. Cross’s minutes from the meeting on 30th May 1942 at 11am, Book 5: Molotov Visit #5, FDR Library, Hyde Park NY
iii Memorandum by Hopkins dated 3rd June 1942, Book 5: Molotov Visit #8, FDR Library, Hyde Park NY
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