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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 think that the declarations at Yalta and the arrangements at Potsdam only confirmed Stalin’s view that while the Americans might not say so openly, what was happening in reality was a division of Europe. Perhaps America’s great omission was not so much an absence of toughness with the Russians as the old American tendency to not consider geography seriously enough. That the Russians would be the dominant power in Eastern Europe was unavoidable. But that the actual limits of their dominion should be established in accord with the Allies, and as soon as possible, was not the American policy (though it was Churchill’s), that, for example, Bulgaria or Romania or pre-war eastern Poland were one thing, while Hungary, Austria, and Czechoslovakia were another—that, alas, was not considered.
You question whether FDR and the Joint Chiefs of Staff were not fully justified in concluding that anything less than a virtual political alliance with the Soviet Union would seriously jeopardize the Western military effort.
My answer would be no.
That we would have to give the Russians such military support as we could for their efforts to resist the German attack was clear. But I saw no need for us to conceal the very serious differences in our political purposes. Our attitude toward the Soviet leaders, as I saw it, should have been: “We know that you did not enter this war of your own volition. Neither did we. We have no reason to believe that your long-term aims are similar to, or even compatible with, our own; and we cannot, in the absence of searching political discussions with you, commit ourselves to the public approval of whatever uses you are likely to make of your military victory. We are prepared to put aside the long-term conflicts of our interests in present circumstances and to give you such support as we can in the liberating of your own territory from German control and in the ultimate frustration and defeat of the German war effort. All this being understood, let us deal with each other in a correct and businesslike way, and may the relationship be characterized by mutual respect, as befits association in a common military task. But please do not expect us to pretend that your long-term aims are anything other than what we have known them to be. And do not expect us to mislead our population or the rest of the world by creating the impression that you and we are genuine long-term allies, fighting for similar ultimate political ideals.”
Even Truman was affected by the old assumption that success in influencing the Soviets depended on whether Stalin liked you.
I suspect that the Russians would have seen the logic of this and would have respected the nature of the relationship thus described. And the same, I think, would have been the case with regard to our own people, had the matter been frankly explained to them.
You ask whether Stalin did not interpret the discussions and results of the Yalta and Potsdam conferences as evidence that we Americans, whatever we might say publicly, were really prepared to recognize and give tacit acceptance to a division of Europe and Germany along the high-water marks of the Soviet and Western military advances into the continent. You may indeed be right about this. My own position, consistent with the view put forward above, was of course that since we were not in a position to challenge the Soviet occupation of that portion of Europe that had fallen to Moscow’s authority by virtue of these advances, we should regard these advances for the moment as a fait accompli and should concentrate on the internal strengthening of the remainder of Europe but that at the same time, we should avoid giving any political or moral endorsement to the uses the Soviets were likely to make of the pre-eminence they had now acquired in the Eastern and Central European regions and particularly to the treatment they were obviously already giving to the subordinate populations. Our position should have been: “Under present circumstances we will avoid taking public positions on these matters. But don’t ask us to assume any responsibility, moral or political, for the manner in which you are facing the responsibilities you are incurring in the territories you have overrun.”
Now let me turn, once more, to the misunderstanding on the part of Franklin Roosevelt and much of his entourage on the question of Soviet aims for Poland and the remainder of Eastern Europe. Nothing, to my mind, served more to create confusion on this point than the credence given in both Britain and the United States to the thesis put out so insistently, as the war approached its end, by Soviet agents and Western fellow travelers, that all Moscow really wanted from the postwar Eastern Europe were “friendly governments.” Coupled with this thesis was the allegation that regimes dominant throughout most of this region before the war had been not only “anti-Soviet” but fascistic, and that it was thus necessary that they now be replaced by ones that, in Moscow’s view, could be considered “friendly.”