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From World War To Cold War
In an exchange of letters, a man who had an immeasurable impact on how the great struggle of our times was waged looks back on how it began
December 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 8
I was of course aware of the high degree of dependence of our war effort on the great contribution the Soviet armed forces were then making to the defeat of Hitler and of the necessity of giving them such small but effective military support as we could. But I had, after all, when serving in the Berlin Embassy earlier in the war, written a personal letter, two days after the launching of the German attack on Russia in June 1941, to the deputy chief of the European division in the State Department, my friend Loy Henderson, warning about mistaking the significance of this great event. If we were “to welcome Russia as an associate in the defense of democracy . . . I do not see,” I wrote, “how we could help but identify ourselves with the Russian destruction of the Baltic states, with the attack against Finnish independence, with the partitioning of Poland . . ., with the crushing of religion throughout Eastern Europe, and with the domestic policy of a regime which is widely feared and detested throughout this part of the world and the methods of which are far from democratic.”
I continued: “The Russian involvement in this struggle is not the result of any concern for the principles underlying the Allied cause. . . . Russia has tried unsuccessfully to purchase security by compromising with Germany and by encouraging the direction of the German war effort toward the west. . . . It has thus no claim on Western sympathies; and there is no reason apparent to me why its present plight should not be viewed realistically at home as that of one who has played a lone hand in a dangerous game and must now alone take the moral consequences. Such a view would not preclude the extension of material aid wherever called for by our own self-interest. It would, however, preclude anything which might identify us politically or ideologically with the Russian war effort.”
What I found upon arrival in Moscow in 1944 was that this warning had been totally ignored. We were doing precisely the things I had urged that we not do.
My return to Moscow in 1944 coincided closely with the Normandy landings, the success of which disposed of the painful issue of a second front. But it did little to relieve our leaders of the fear that the Soviet leadership might decide to make another deal with Hitler and withdraw from the war. Even though I thought this turn of events to be highly unlikely, I still did not dispute the necessity of continuing to give the Soviet armed forces such outright military support as we could. But I saw no reason for coupling this with such elaborate courting of Soviet favor as was then going on, or for encouraging our public to look with such high hopes for successful collaboration with the Soviet regime after the war.
Franklin Roosevelt had always opposed any attempt to air problems with the Soviets in advance of the complete defeat of Germany.
The issue, it seemed to me, came to a head with the behavior of the Soviet regime during the Warsaw Uprising of August 1944. Mr. Harriman was obliged at that time to call at once upon Stalin and Molotov and to solicit their agreement to the use of the military airfields we then maintained in the Ukraine for operations in support of the Polish fighters. The rejection of this approach by the two Soviet statesmen was cast in such arrogant terms that it struck me as nothing short of insulting. One has to bear in mind the situation that then existed. We had, after all, created the second front. Our troops were fighting, successfully, though not without heavy losses, on the European front in the war against Germany. The Russians had already liberated the entirety of their own territory that had been overrun by the Germans. What was now at stake was not the further repulse of a German attack on Russia but the question of what would be the political outcome of further advances of the Red Army into the remainder of Europe. The Warsaw Uprising was, I thought, the point at which, if we had never done so before, we should have insisted on a thoroughgoing exploration of Soviet intentions with regard to the future of the remainder of Europe.
Franklin Roosevelt had always opposed any attempt to air such problems in advance of the complete defeat of Germany, fearing that to do so might create political conflicts between the Russians and the Western European and American allies and thus weaken the Allied military effort. The reasons offered for this position were not unserious. But it seemed to me that the situation that had now come into being was such that a clarification of the Soviet political aims with regard to postwar Europe could no longer be delayed. If Soviet behavior in the light of the tragic effort of the Poles to free Warsaw from the Germans was any indication of what we might expect from the Soviet leadership after Germany’s defeat, then it was a question in my mind (and I think it was beginning to be a question in Mr. Harriman’s as well) whether we could afford to wait before having a real and intimate exploration of the postwar designs of the Soviet government.
In the light of this background, the changes that came over American official and public opinion in the immediate aftermath of Roosevelt’s death and the ending of the war in Europe not only held no terrors for me but appeared in large part a belated vindication of views I had long entertained. But the American government was at that time, as it is today, a wide and far-flung institution, and it is worth the effort to inquire just where the distortions in the governmental approaches to Russia had their origins and how they came to be adopted.