"We Can’t Do Business With Stalin"

PrintPrintEmailEmailEven at this late date it is far from clear that the Cold War in Europe could have been avoided, once the certainty of Hitler’s defeat had robbed the wartime alliance of its compelling necessity. The revisionist notion that Harry Truman, beguiled by the wrong set of advisers and emboldened by the success of the atomic bomb, started the Cold War by setting out to reverse Franklin Roosevelt’s policies of wartime cooperation with the Soviet Union has been all too widely accepted. No one can say with assurance how Roosevelt would have dealt with the postwar challenge had he lived to serve out his fourth term. But there is persuasive evidence that in the last weeks of his life, after his return from the Yalta Conference, Roosevelt had substantially lost confidence in Stalin’s word. He said as much to Anna Rosenberg (Huffman) on March 23, 1945, less than three weeks before his death at Warm Springs. “We can’t do business with Stalin,” the President exclaimed. “He has broken every one of the promises he made at Yalta.” To Anne O’Hare McCormick, another old friend, Roosevelt said that he now realized Stalin was not a man of his word; either that or he was no longer in control of the Soviet government.

The record of Roosevelt’s messages to Stalin and Churchill in the final weeks of his life traces a rising curve of disappointment and frustration, together with the first sign of a new readiness to consider harder policies toward the Soviet Union.

From the perspective of Spaso House, Ambassador Harriman’s residence in Moscow, a definite change of atmosphere could be felt many months before Roosevelt’s death, indeed before Yalta. The war had been going well in the summer of 1944. General Eisenhower’s forces made good their landing in Normandy. The Red Army was driving the German invaders from Soviet soil. There could be no question that final victory would be ours in a matter of months. On June 10, four days after D-Day in France, Stalin at last acknowledged the tremendous achievement of American and British arms in crossing the English Channel to attack Hitler’s European Fortress from the west. Stalin’s bitter reproaches of 1942 and 1943 (“The British are too cowardly to fight”) were forgotten. “The history of war,” he said to the American ambassador, “has never witnessed such a grandiose operation. Napoleon himself never attempted it. Hitler envisaged it but he was a fool for never having attempted it.”

Six weeks later, as the Red Army rolled westward into Poland, fighting for the first time on foreign territory, Stalin broke a promise to Roosevelt. Acting without consultation or warning to his allies, he assigned “full responsibility in matters of civil government” on Polish territory to a newly formed Polish Committee for National Liberation (soon to be known as the Lublin Committee). The Polish government, which had taken refuge in London after the German invasion in 1939, abruptly found itself confronted with a rival regime, one already installed on Polish soil and enjoying the powerful support of the Soviet Union. The American embassy in Moscow had long since warned Roosevelt and his Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, against just such a fait accompli . As early as March 3,1944, Stalin had shown his hand in a conversation with the American ambassador. “While the Red Army is liberating Poland,” he said, “[Stanislaw] Mikolajczyk [premier of the Polish government in exile] will go on repeating his platitudes. By the time Poland is liberated, Mikolajczyk’s Government will have changed, or another government will have emerged in Poland.”

Poland had become the touchstone of Soviet behavior after the war was won, the first test of Stalin’s attitude toward his weaker neighbors to the west. From Spaso House, all the brave talk about a free, independent Poland emerging from the war came to sound more and more improbable. Cordell Hull was not disposed to listen when the ambassador urged upon him the supreme importance of pressing the London Poles to come to terms with the Kremlin before the Red Army took matters into its hands. Roosevelt preferred to leave the prickly Polish problem to the British. He faced a tough campaign for re-election. The last thing he wanted was to involve himself in the delicate questions of Poland’s postwar boundaries or the reconstruction of the London exile government to make it more palatable to the Russians. He feared the wrath of Polish-American voters in Buffalo, Hamtramck, and Chicago.

But events inside Poland would not wait. On July 23, the Red Army captured Lublin. Brest-Litovsk fell on July 26. Three days later the right flank of Marshal Rokossovsky’s First White Russian Front reached theeast bank of the river Vistula, opposite Warsaw. When the reluctant Mikolajczyk at last Hew to Moscow and saw Stalin on August 3, the city had” risen up in arms against the Germans. “Warsaw will be free any day,” Mikolajczyk said. “God grant that it be so,” Stalin responded. But when the Polish leader asked for Soviet help to the embattled city, Stalin sneered at the weakness of the so-called Home Army: “What kind of army is it—without artillery, tanks, air force? They do not even have enough hand weapons. In modern war this is nothing.…” Stalin added that he would supply no arms to the uprising. “For this reason,” he said, tightening the screw on the London Poles, “you have to reach an understanding with the Lublin Committee.…We cannot tolerate two [Polish] governments.”