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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
You warned in your June 1941 letter to Loy Henderson against “anything which might identify us politically or ideologically with the Russian war effort.” But are “politically” and “ideologically” the same matters? We know something that we did not know in 1941, and that is the somber realization that for all their might, the British and the American empires would not have been able to subdue the Third Reich without the enormous contribution of the Russian armies. That that contribution did not occur for the purposes of world democracy is obvious. But this was a fact that you yourself had once mentioned: that as early as 1939 the game was up, since the British and the French could not hope to defeat Germany without Russia (and America) in the field. And therefore, even with all the subsequent shortcomings of their view of Russia in mind, the President’s and the Joint Chiefs’ conclusion of Rainbow 5 in the spring of 1941 was not only correct but decisive: that in the event of a two-front war, Atlantic and Pacific, the subduing of Germany would have to come before that of Japan. What of course is interesting and significant is what you just wrote about American popular sentiment (I write “popular sentiment” rather than “public opinion"), with which I of course agree: Unlike the priorities of Rainbow 5, the war against Japan was more popular among the American people than the war against Germany. And again, you yourself wrote that Roosevelt’s reasons were “not unserious” when he opposed any possible confrontation with Stalin, since that would weaken the Allied military effort.
I would go further: not only “weaken” but “endanger” seriously. After all, Hitler was not a madman. Ever since November 1941 he knew that he could not win his war. But that did not mean that he would accept defeat. From that time on (and his model in this respect was Frederick the Great from 1757 to 1761) his policy was to fight so tough that at least one of his enemies would realize the hopelessness of subduing him, whereupon that unnatural coalition of capitalists and communists would break up. (And break up it did, but too late for him.) So while I agree with you that the dangerous eventuality of a new German-Russian accommodation may have been exaggerated, it could not be ignored; consequently an American policy that would have suggested, openly or tacitly, an unwillingness to agree to what was de facto a political alliance with the Soviet Union during the war could have been very dangerous.
But then, I agree, September 1944 should have been a kind of turning point. For two reasons at least. One, after the success of the Normandy invasion and with the massive presence and advance of American-British armies in Western Europe Stalin could no longer argue that Russia was bearing the overwhelming brunt of the war. Two, by that time, especially in Poland (but also in the Balkans), the nature of his postwar ambitions had become starkly evident. And that was, by and large, ignored by the President and by the military and government leaders. They were unwilling to face that prospect (or even think about it—and the President’s illness and his habitual tendency to procrastinate mightily contributed to that), while public opinion was unprepared for it ideologically. That was partly, but only partly, the fault of the government. Because—and this is one of the deepest problems before historians of the democratic age—the propagation and the formation and the momentum of ideological currents is one of the most difficult things to reconstruct, in part because its evidences are fragmentary, complicated, and yet enormous in their extensiveness.
That is why I must expatiate on what you write about Roosevelt’s tendency to demonstrably disassociate himself from Churchill and the British. What was at work there, I think, were not only Roosevelt’s political calculations but his ideological elements. In his ideological—and, in a way, historical—view (and in this he was entirely in accord with much of public opinion and with Washington) he saw the United States “in the middle”—by which he meant in advance of both the admirable but nevertheless antiquated and still largely Tory Britain, as represented by Churchill, and the rough, pioneer, and socialist “democracy” of the Soviet Union, perhaps a representative of some kind of a future—and that world democracy would eventually lead to some kind of a convergence. He was unable to see that the Soviet Union represented something entirely different (and also backward). I think that what was at work here was not only the customary unwillingness but an obvious inability to think and see correctly. In this Roosevelt was not alone. There was, for example, Eisenhower, the politician-general par excellence, who in 1944 and 1945 was suspicious of Churchill for being unduly worried about the Russians, if not altogether anti-Russian, the same Eisenhower who a decade later dismissed Churchill as insufficiently worried about the Russians, if not altogether pro-Russian.