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"We Can’t Do Business With Stalin"
August 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 5
Nothing more, in fact, came of the Italian surrender talks. When General Wolff, after a mystifying delay, asked for various assurances that went beyond the simple unconditional surrender formula, the Allied commander in Italy, Field Marshal Sir Harold Alexander, flatly refused.
President Roosevelt, however, was deeply affected by the incident. He had never been so grossly insulted throughout his long correspondence over the war years with Stalin. His progressive disenchantment had been tempered by an inexhaustible optimism that the new postwar world would be a cleaner, better place thanks to his brain child, the United Nations. Now, in the final weeks of his life, Roosevelt had been jarred into a painful recognition that in the years to come the world might be a far more difficult, dangerous place than he had allowed himself to believe till then. “We must be firm,” he wrote to Churchill on April 12, from Warm Springs. On the same day, he cabled the ambassador in Moscow: “… it is my desire to consider the Berne misunderstanding a minor incident.”
Even if Roosevelt had not died that day, the imminent collapse of Hitler’s war machine was bound to alter the political calculus within the alliance. As the Nazi threat diminished, so did the need for Allied cooperation. Russia fought no longer for survival but for long-term security and great power recognition. A free hand in eastern Europe was, by Stalin’s reckoning, no less than his due. Once before, in 1941, he had offered the British a sphere-of-influence agreement: Britain would formally recognize Soviet absorption of the Baltic states, part of Finland, eastern Poland, and Bessarabia, in exchange for Russian support of British bases and security arrangements in western Europe. Mindful that Roosevelt and Hull would reject such a deal, Churchill had said no.
Three years later, however, the prime minister, while in Moscow, offered Stalin a more ambitious sphere-of-influence arrangement. Russia could have “ninety per cent preponderance” in Rumania, a 75-25 split in Bulgaria, plus a fifty-fifty split in Yugoslavia and Hungary in exchange for Britain’s “ninety per cent of the say” in Greece. Stalin penciled a blue check on the sheet of paper that Churchill had pushed across the table to him. But both men were fully aware that Roosevelt would frown on such arrangements. The President had sent Stalin a message on October 4, 1944, making clear that he would not be bound by any bilateral bargains struck in his absence:
“I am sure you understand that in this global war there is literally no question, military or political, in which the United States is not interested. I am firmly convinced that the three of us, and only the three of us, can find the solution of the questions still unresolved.”
Roosevelt expanded on his misgivings in a message the same day to his ambassador:
“Quite frankly, I can tell you, but only for you and not to be communicated under any circumstances to the British or the Russians, that I would have preferred very much to have the next conference between the three of us for the very reasons stated to Marshal Stalin.… Therefore you should bear in mind that there are no subjects of discussion that I can anticipate between Marshal Stalin and the Prime Minister in which I will not be greatly interested. Consequently it is of importance that Mr. Hull and I have complete freedom of action when this conference is over.”
The ambassador followed his instructions faithfully. When Churchill on October 12 showed him the draft of a letter to Stalin setting down for the record the British interpretation of the percentages arrangement so casually agreed to three days earlier, the ambassador warned that Roosevelt and Hull would certainly repudiate it. Churchill decided against delivering his letter to Stalin and the matter was never again raised among the Big Three. In short, the episode offers the historian little more than “an authentic account” of Churchill’s thoughts at the time, as the prime minister himself described it in his war memoirs.
Too much can be made of such scraps of paper. Mr. Mee does just that in his treatment of the Potsdam Conference session on August 1, 1945. Seizing upon what purports to be a Soviet transcript of that meeting, he reproduces an exchange among Stalin, Truman, and Clement Attlee, the new British prime minister, with their respective foreign ministers, on the question of reparations to be paid by Germany in defeat. This exchange, dealing specifically with German assets and how they were to be divided among the Allies, has been wrenched from its context and made to bear more weight than it can possibly sustain. It was not, in fact, a discussion of spheres of interest or any kind of deal to carve up the map of Europe. It needs to be seen for no more than what it is—a discussion of German assets in foreign countries and how they were to be disposed of, all this within the wider context of an Allied agreement on the reparations to be exacted from Germany.
Mr. Mee goes on to express astonishment that Germany should somehow have emerged as the “very center and source” of the Cold War as a result of the Potsdam negotiations. Surely the stubborn facts of history and geography had established Germany’s central position in European policy calculations long before Potsdam. Here was the most powerful, energetic nation in the very heart of Europe brought low by the combined forces of Russia, Britain, and the United States. One can quarrel with certain of the Potsdam decisions for dealing with Germany after the war. But it is hard to see how the centrality of Germany in the European landscape could have been waved away by an alternative set of decisions.