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The Road To Yalta
A dozen arduous years lay between our recognition of the Soviets and the conference in Crimea; then the friendship so briefly rekindled flickered out again
June 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 4
The President had a particular fondness for the Navy and its proven leaders—and William H. Standley had served him outstandingly as Chief of Naval Operations. A square-jawed, sharp-spoken quarter-deck disciplinarian with forty-five years in the service, Standley had no experience of Russia except for a brief ceremonial visit to Vladivostok in 1896 as a midshipman. But upon retirement he had become one of Roosevelt’s staunchest supporters in the long domestic battle for aid to the Allies before Pearl Harbor; such a man might serve with insight and muscle.
His first reaction to Stalin differed noticeably from that of Davies. Standley found the Soviet dictator “a cocky, healthy-looking individual, with swarthy complexion and an Oriental cast of countenance …” A man of stalwart build himself, Standley carried chips on both broad shoulders: he was easily offended when Stalin kept him waiting or when Washington failed to brief him fully or when visiting firemen from home intruded. He wanted to run his Embassy as a “taut ship” in perilous waters with himself in sole command —a logical aspiration, but quixotic in view of the Rooseveltian way of conducting wartime affairs abroad. Messages passed directly between Roosevelt and Stalin, “leapfrogging over my tophatted head,” Standley complained; summit conferences were arranged and second-front commitments entered into without his being the wiser; and Hopkins’ and Harriman’s lend-lease man on the spot, Colonel (later Brigadier General) Faymonville, pursued his own quite independent course. The old admiral finally exploded when two further visiting emissaries, Wendell Willkie and the familiar Joe Davies, arrived on the scene with powers to go over his head to the Kremlin.
Willkie, the President’s 1940 electoral opponent who had subsequently been enlisted into the bipartisan war effort, touched down in Moscow during his globe-girdling “One World” tour in the fall of 1942. He delivered himself of statements declaring America’s unqualified friendship for Soviet Russia, and after closeting himself alone with Stalin went so far as to remark to Standley that some of the things he had learned there were too secret for even the ambassador to know. As if this were not galling enough, Willkie made a point of telling the world that Soviet Russia had been misrepresented in the United States and that he wished to “put over a more favorable picture” of it. “Many among the democracies fear and mistrust Soviet Russia …” he wrote. “Such fear is weakness …” He issued in Moscow a call, echoing Stalin’s, for the early opening of a second front.
“Mr. Willkie, I have been very patient,” Standley finally exploded. “Now I feel it my duty to remind you that there is only one United States representative in the Soviet Union, and I, the American Ambassador, am that representative.”
But Standley’s patience was to be tried even more by the brief return engagement of Davies, who arrived the following spring on a io,ooo-mile round trip from Washington—in a special plane, with a crew of nine plus his personal staff and physician—simply to deliver a letter from Roosevelt to Stalin proposing a top-level meeting. It was a message that conceivably could have been delivered to the Kremlin by Standley himself from his office four blocks away. Welcomed at the airport by Soviet dignitaries as a returning hero, Davies insisted on delivering his letter alone. He had also brought along an advance print of the Warner Brothers movie made from his Mission to Moscow (Stalin was flatteringly portrayed by Manart Kippen, Davies by Walter Huston), which he prevailed upon the dictator to show after dinner in the Kremlin projection room. Stalin was visibly bored by it, and diplomatic guests went up in arms over its obvious distortions of the history of the purge trials and acceptance of the Soviet line on them. Next, Davies met the American press corps, and on hearing its complaints that the Soviets were failing to show appreciation for American aid, tongue-lashed the correspondents and accused them of “non-co-operation.” “His lack of knowledge regarding Russia,” wrote Quentin Reynolds, “shocked us all.”
The reason behind the Willkie-Davies visits was that the President had lost confidence in his newest ambassador, while Standley had taken to grumbling about the President. Standley felt himself alone in a hostile environment and at odds with Washington, which he felt was playing the game on Stalin’s terms. Our policy, he snorted, was only “Do not antagonize the Russians, give them everything they want, for, after all, they are killing Germans …”
Increasingly suspicious, Standley fell out particularly with General Faymonville, the gifted, Russianspeaking Regular Army officer who was managing lend-lease from an office down the corridor, and whose predictions as to the staying power of the Red Army when others had given up hope in it had been amply borne out. Feeling that Faymonville was working too closely and enthusiastically with the Russians, Standley made direct representations to Roosevelt and Hopkins that the general be placed under Standley’s orders. He got him reduced in size and then banished—though at the cost of any remaining White House good will toward himself.∗