- Historic Sites
"We Can’t Do Business With Stalin"
August 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 5
Warsaw’s agony was to last sixty-two days. While the Home Army fought a doomed battle in the streets against heavily reinforced German divisions, Stalin refused any help. Marshal Rokossovsky, who had outrun his supply lines, needed more time to attempt a crossing of the Vistula. Roosevelt and Churchill appealed repeatedly for Soviet cooperation with the Allied air forces in dropping arms and supplies to the Warsaw street fighters—to no avail. On August 16, Andrei Vishinsky, Stalin’s deputy foreign minister, rejected one more plea from the British and American ambassadors. The Soviet government, Vishinsky said, “does not wish to associate itself, directly or indirectly, with the adventure in Warsaw.”
Not until September 9 did Stalin agree to go along with the Allied plan for air drops of supplies by allowing U.S. and British bombers to land and refuel at American bases in the Ukraine. By that time the battle of Warsaw was all but lost. The defense perimeter had been broken by German tanks. Most of the arms and supplies fell beyond reach of the Polish insurgents. When the exhausted remnant of the Home Army at last laid down its arms on October 2, nearly a quarter million Poles were dead. Stalin’s indifference was bound to shock his western allies and to persuade millions round the world that it suited his purpose to see anti-Communist Poles slaughtered by the Germans. They would not be around after the war to challenge the rule of his chosen instrument, the Lublin Committee.
Roosevelt was no less affected by the tragedy of Warsaw than was his embassy in Moscow. His belief in the good intentions of Stalin had been damaged. In a discussion with the visiting ambassador to the Soviet Union on November 10, Roosevelt listened gravely to an account of Stalin’s plan to join the war against Japan by attacking Manchuria and driving into northern China. The question in his mind, the President said, was “If the Russians go in, will they ever go out?” It was a question he had not raised in the case of eastern Europe, perhaps because he knew the answer. Through the autumn and winter of 1944-45, however, Roosevelt clung to his policy of postponing territorial settlements until the war was over. When the London Poles asked for American guarantees of the new frontiers they were being pressed by Churchill and Stalin to accept, the President declined.
On November 24, Mikolajczyk resigned. America’s refusal to endorse his claims, together with Churchill’s unceasing pressure and the adamant refusal of the London Polish Cabinet to consider any change of Poland’s prewar boundaries, left him no decent alternative.
The fate of Poland, in short, had been pretty much decided before Roosevelt and Churchill went to Yalta in February, 1945. Events were in the saddle with Stalin’s troops in full control of the country, although they did not enter Warsaw until three months after the uprising had been crushed. The Lublin Committee, now transformed into the Provisional Government, was issuing decrees and seeing them carried out. Its legitimacy continued to be questioned in London and Washington. But it would have taken a great deal more leverage than Roosevelt and Churchill possessed, or could reasonably be expected to apply, in order to alter the fundamental situation. The Russians had the double advantage of proximity and power.
Stalin preferred weak neighbors. He wanted to make certain that they would never again serve as a pathway for German aggression. It is less clear that he intended to communize them, at least in the beginning. The fact that the Red Army was not welcomed as a liberating force when it entered Poland or Rumania must have shocked him. The bulk of the populations remained sullen and antagonistic, as many are to this day. Stalin had agreed to free elections at Yalta, but he soon discovered that he dared not risk a free choice at the ballot box. In time he came to believe that the only way to assure himself of reasonably friendly neighboring governments in eastern Europe was to promote the establishment of Communist-dominated regimes beholden to Russia.
In Rumania, the detailed story was different but the outcome much the same. Here King Michael had courageously dismissed the pro-German government of Marshal Ion Antonescu in the summer of 1944 and offered to join forces with the Soviet Union. An Allied Control Commission, clearly subordinate to the Soviet high command, was set up in Bucharest to supervise the armistice. The U.S. representative, Brigadier General Cortland T. Van Rennselaer Schuyler, found himself free to observe, to complain, and to report back to his government in Washington. But his complaints were iernored bv the Soviet representative.
The first postwar government in Bucharest, headed by General Nicolae Radescu, had been a coalition of noncommunist and communist parties. In a prophetic telegram dated February 20, 1945, General Schuyler warned that the Russians were determined to disintegrate the country’s historic noncommunist parties by creating a situation in which only a government of the Left could maintain order. Four days later the National Democratic Front, organized and led by the Communists, staged a mass demonstration in Bucharest. When police fired a burst over the heads of the crowd, the Communists accused Radescu’s coalition of creating a “massacre.” They demanded Radescu’s dismissal. When King Michael hesitated, Vishinsky flew in from Moscow to serve an ultimatum. The king, he said, had “just two hours and five minutes to inform the public that General Radescu has been dismissed.”