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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
In major problems of foreign affairs, particularly those that related closely to the war effort, there were in 1944-45 two overwhelmingly important centers of authority in Washington. One was the White House, and the other was the body known as the Joint Chiefs of Staff. (The State Department had at that time long ceased to play any significant part in matters of wartime policy and least of all of policy toward the Soviet Union.)
Until the final days of his life, Franklin Roosevelt seems to have clung to a concept of Stalin’s personality, and of the ways in which the latter might be influenced, that was far below the general quality of the President’s statesmanship and reflected poorly on the information he had been receiving about Soviet affairs. He seems to have seen in Stalin a man whose difficult qualities—his aloofness, suspiciousness, wariness, and disinclination for collaboration with others—were consequences of the way he had been personally treated by the leaders of the great European powers. FDR concluded that if Stalin could only be exposed to the warmth and persuasiveness of the President’s personality, if, in other words, Stalin could be made to feel that he had been “admitted to the club” (as the phrase then went)—admitted, that is, to the respectable company of the leaders of the other countries allied against Germany—his edginess and suspiciousness could be overcome, and he could be induced to take a collaborative part in the creation of a new postwar Europe.
I do not need to dwell upon the deficiencies of this concept of Stalin’s personality. There were others who, if they had been consulted, could have told FDR that Stalin was a man whose professed friendship could ultimately be as dangerous as his hostility. One of the worst features of these unreal assumptions on Roosevelt’s part was that they were coupled with an evident belief that his efforts to tame Stalin and to make him into “one of the club” could be successful only if they were unilaterally undertaken and were kept separate from any similar efforts on the part of the British, including Churchill. This caused FDR not only to reject all efforts on Churchill’s part to achieve a joint Anglo-American approach to Stalin but even to place his own one-on-one encounters with Stalin ahead, in timing and in importance, of his comparable relations with Churchill. That these inclinations on FDR’s part could only have been deeply hurtful to Churchill is obvious. Worse still, they could hardly have failed to appear to Stalin as welcome opportunities for the employment of his favored tactical device, which was to place his opponents at odds with each other and thus encourage them to employ in the resulting conflicts among them the energies that might otherwise have been employed against him. Altogether, these efforts, not only by FDR but by others on the American side as well, to achieve a special relationship to Stalin, even at the cost of demeaning the prestige and authority of the President’s own Western allies, and Churchill in particular, stand as one of the saddest manifestations of the almost childish failure on FDR’s part to understand the personality of Stalin himself and the nature of his regime.
So much for the White House and the civilian side of the American establishment of 1945. How, then, about the military establishment?
It is perhaps not too much to say that senior American commanders who came into contact with their Soviet opposite numbers in the course of our wartime association found their personal relations with their senior opposite numbers in the Soviet armed forces to be less troubled than their comparable relations with their British counterparts. Of particular importance were of course the relations between Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and his Soviet counterpart Marshal G. K. Zhukov. But similar reactions were experienced by the senior figures in the other great arms of American military effort: the Navy and the Army Air Force. And senior American commanders continued to the very end of the war in Europe to be strongly affected by their admiration for the dimensions and power of the Soviet ground-force effort in Europe and by the fear that it might be terminated by some sort of a separate Soviet peace with Hitler if political differences between the Soviet leadership and the Western Allies came to be aired before the hostilities were over.
Most of those officers who were sent to the Soviet Union were required to deal with the Soviet military and civilian bureaucracies on the spot gained quite different and far less reassuring impressions of the Soviet military establishment than those then current among their superiors in Washington. But the influence they exercised was not comparable to that of the major commanders, and it seemed to us, as civilian officials stationed in Moscow, that by and large the senior American military commanders, as assembled in the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were animated by a measure of confidence in their senior Soviet opposite numbers that departed from what we would have considered the requirements of strict realism. I have memories of being taken severely to task in a private meeting with Gen. Lucius Clay in Berlin in 1945 for what the general then viewed as the excessively anti-Soviet attitudes of the State Department. The military, I was given to understand, would have known far better than the diplomats how to create a collaborative relationship with the Russians. (Further experiences, I gather, changed the general’s views on such questions.)