Skip to main content

"We Can’t Do Business With Stalin"

July 2024
17min read

Even at this late date it is far from clear that the Cold War in Europe could have been avoided, once the certainty of Hitler’s defeat had robbed the wartime alliance of its compelling necessity. The revisionist notion that Harry Truman, beguiled by the wrong set of advisers and emboldened by the success of the atomic bomb, started the Cold War by setting out to reverse Franklin Roosevelt’s policies of wartime cooperation with the Soviet Union has been all too widely accepted. No one can say with assurance how Roosevelt would have dealt with the postwar challenge had he lived to serve out his fourth term. But there is persuasive evidence that in the last weeks of his life, after his return from the Yalta Conference, Roosevelt had substantially lost confidence in Stalin’s word. He said as much to Anna Rosenberg (Huffman) on March 23, 1945, less than three weeks before his death at Warm Springs. “We can’t do business with Stalin,” the President exclaimed. “He has broken every one of the promises he made at Yalta.” To Anne O’Hare McCormick, another old friend, Roosevelt said that he now realized Stalin was not a man of his word; either that or he was no longer in control of the Soviet government.

The record of Roosevelt’s messages to Stalin and Churchill in the final weeks of his life traces a rising curve of disappointment and frustration, together with the first sign of a new readiness to consider harder policies toward the Soviet Union.

From the perspective of Spaso House, Ambassador Harriman’s residence in Moscow, a definite change of atmosphere could be felt many months before Roosevelt’s death, indeed before Yalta. The war had been going well in the summer of 1944. General Eisenhower’s forces made good their landing in Normandy. The Red Army was driving the German invaders from Soviet soil. There could be no question that final victory would be ours in a matter of months. On June 10, four days after D-Day in France, Stalin at last acknowledged the tremendous achievement of American and British arms in crossing the English Channel to attack Hitler’s European Fortress from the west. Stalin’s bitter reproaches of 1942 and 1943 (“The British are too cowardly to fight”) were forgotten. “The history of war,” he said to the American ambassador, “has never witnessed such a grandiose operation. Napoleon himself never attempted it. Hitler envisaged it but he was a fool for never having attempted it.”

Six weeks later, as the Red Army rolled westward into Poland, fighting for the first time on foreign territory, Stalin broke a promise to Roosevelt. Acting without consultation or warning to his allies, he assigned “full responsibility in matters of civil government” on Polish territory to a newly formed Polish Committee for National Liberation (soon to be known as the Lublin Committee). The Polish government, which had taken refuge in London after the German invasion in 1939, abruptly found itself confronted with a rival regime, one already installed on Polish soil and enjoying the powerful support of the Soviet Union. The American embassy in Moscow had long since warned Roosevelt and his Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, against just such a fait accompli . As early as March 3,1944, Stalin had shown his hand in a conversation with the American ambassador. “While the Red Army is liberating Poland,” he said, “[Stanislaw] Mikolajczyk [premier of the Polish government in exile] will go on repeating his platitudes. By the time Poland is liberated, Mikolajczyk’s Government will have changed, or another government will have emerged in Poland.”

Poland had become the touchstone of Soviet behavior after the war was won, the first test of Stalin’s attitude toward his weaker neighbors to the west. From Spaso House, all the brave talk about a free, independent Poland emerging from the war came to sound more and more improbable. Cordell Hull was not disposed to listen when the ambassador urged upon him the supreme importance of pressing the London Poles to come to terms with the Kremlin before the Red Army took matters into its hands. Roosevelt preferred to leave the prickly Polish problem to the British. He faced a tough campaign for re-election. The last thing he wanted was to involve himself in the delicate questions of Poland’s postwar boundaries or the reconstruction of the London exile government to make it more palatable to the Russians. He feared the wrath of Polish-American voters in Buffalo, Hamtramck, and Chicago.

But events inside Poland would not wait. On July 23, the Red Army captured Lublin. Brest-Litovsk fell on July 26. Three days later the right flank of Marshal Rokossovsky’s First White Russian Front reached theeast bank of the river Vistula, opposite Warsaw. When the reluctant Mikolajczyk at last Hew to Moscow and saw Stalin on August 3, the city had” risen up in arms against the Germans. “Warsaw will be free any day,” Mikolajczyk said. “God grant that it be so,” Stalin responded. But when the Polish leader asked for Soviet help to the embattled city, Stalin sneered at the weakness of the so-called Home Army: “What kind of army is it—without artillery, tanks, air force? They do not even have enough hand weapons. In modern war this is nothing.…” Stalin added that he would supply no arms to the uprising. “For this reason,” he said, tightening the screw on the London Poles, “you have to reach an understanding with the Lublin Committee.…We cannot tolerate two [Polish] governments.”

Warsaw’s agony was to last sixty-two days. While the Home Army fought a doomed battle in the streets against heavily reinforced German divisions, Stalin refused any help. Marshal Rokossovsky, who had outrun his supply lines, needed more time to attempt a crossing of the Vistula. Roosevelt and Churchill appealed repeatedly for Soviet cooperation with the Allied air forces in dropping arms and supplies to the Warsaw street fighters—to no avail. On August 16, Andrei Vishinsky, Stalin’s deputy foreign minister, rejected one more plea from the British and American ambassadors. The Soviet government, Vishinsky said, “does not wish to associate itself, directly or indirectly, with the adventure in Warsaw.”

Not until September 9 did Stalin agree to go along with the Allied plan for air drops of supplies by allowing U.S. and British bombers to land and refuel at American bases in the Ukraine. By that time the battle of Warsaw was all but lost. The defense perimeter had been broken by German tanks. Most of the arms and supplies fell beyond reach of the Polish insurgents. When the exhausted remnant of the Home Army at last laid down its arms on October 2, nearly a quarter million Poles were dead. Stalin’s indifference was bound to shock his western allies and to persuade millions round the world that it suited his purpose to see anti-Communist Poles slaughtered by the Germans. They would not be around after the war to challenge the rule of his chosen instrument, the Lublin Committee.

Roosevelt was no less affected by the tragedy of Warsaw than was his embassy in Moscow. His belief in the good intentions of Stalin had been damaged. In a discussion with the visiting ambassador to the Soviet Union on November 10, Roosevelt listened gravely to an account of Stalin’s plan to join the war against Japan by attacking Manchuria and driving into northern China. The question in his mind, the President said, was “If the Russians go in, will they ever go out?” It was a question he had not raised in the case of eastern Europe, perhaps because he knew the answer. Through the autumn and winter of 1944-45, however, Roosevelt clung to his policy of postponing territorial settlements until the war was over. When the London Poles asked for American guarantees of the new frontiers they were being pressed by Churchill and Stalin to accept, the President declined.

On November 24, Mikolajczyk resigned. America’s refusal to endorse his claims, together with Churchill’s unceasing pressure and the adamant refusal of the London Polish Cabinet to consider any change of Poland’s prewar boundaries, left him no decent alternative.

The fate of Poland, in short, had been pretty much decided before Roosevelt and Churchill went to Yalta in February, 1945. Events were in the saddle with Stalin’s troops in full control of the country, although they did not enter Warsaw until three months after the uprising had been crushed. The Lublin Committee, now transformed into the Provisional Government, was issuing decrees and seeing them carried out. Its legitimacy continued to be questioned in London and Washington. But it would have taken a great deal more leverage than Roosevelt and Churchill possessed, or could reasonably be expected to apply, in order to alter the fundamental situation. The Russians had the double advantage of proximity and power.

Stalin preferred weak neighbors. He wanted to make certain that they would never again serve as a pathway for German aggression. It is less clear that he intended to communize them, at least in the beginning. The fact that the Red Army was not welcomed as a liberating force when it entered Poland or Rumania must have shocked him. The bulk of the populations remained sullen and antagonistic, as many are to this day. Stalin had agreed to free elections at Yalta, but he soon discovered that he dared not risk a free choice at the ballot box. In time he came to believe that the only way to assure himself of reasonably friendly neighboring governments in eastern Europe was to promote the establishment of Communist-dominated regimes beholden to Russia.

In Rumania, the detailed story was different but the outcome much the same. Here King Michael had courageously dismissed the pro-German government of Marshal Ion Antonescu in the summer of 1944 and offered to join forces with the Soviet Union. An Allied Control Commission, clearly subordinate to the Soviet high command, was set up in Bucharest to supervise the armistice. The U.S. representative, Brigadier General Cortland T. Van Rennselaer Schuyler, found himself free to observe, to complain, and to report back to his government in Washington. But his complaints were iernored bv the Soviet representative.

The first postwar government in Bucharest, headed by General Nicolae Radescu, had been a coalition of noncommunist and communist parties. In a prophetic telegram dated February 20, 1945, General Schuyler warned that the Russians were determined to disintegrate the country’s historic noncommunist parties by creating a situation in which only a government of the Left could maintain order. Four days later the National Democratic Front, organized and led by the Communists, staged a mass demonstration in Bucharest. When police fired a burst over the heads of the crowd, the Communists accused Radescu’s coalition of creating a “massacre.” They demanded Radescu’s dismissal. When King Michael hesitated, Vishinsky flew in from Moscow to serve an ultimatum. The king, he said, had “just two hours and five minutes to inform the public that General Radescu has been dismissed.”

The United States and Britain protested, reminding the Russians of their obligations under the Atlantic Charter, the Yalta agreements, and the Rumanian armistice agreement to consult their allies and to maintain a broadly representative government, pending the promised free election. But by nightfall of March 6, the king saw no alternative other than submission. He dismissed Radescu and named Petru Groza, the Soviet choice, as premier of a new Coalition Cabinet, one thoroughly obedient to the will of the Russians. Here again Soviet proximity and power had prevailed.

Debarred from more forceful action, Washington and London refused to recognize the Groza regime. Roosevelt was fully aware that the overwhelming power at his command did not reach to Bucharest. On March 11, he wrote to Churchill:


“I am fully determined, as I know you are, not to let the good decisions we reached at the Crimea slip through our hands and will certainly do everything I can to hold Stalin to their honest fulfillment. In regard to the Rumanian situation, Averell [Harriman] has taken up and is taking up again the whole question with Molotov, invoking the [Yalta] Declaration on Liberated Europe, and has proposed tripartite discussions to carry out these responsibilities. It is obvious that the Russians have installed a minority government of their own choosing, but… Rumania is not a good place for a test case. The Russians have been in undisputed control from the beginning and with Rumania lying athwart the Russian lines of communications it is more difficult to contest the plea of military necessity and security which they are using to justify their action. We shall certainly do everything we can, however, and of course will count on your support.”

It seems pointless, therefore, to blame Roosevelt for entering into agreements that “gave Stalin almost complete control of the internal affairs of the ex-Nazi satellites in eastern Europe.” The gift was not his to make.

Imminent victory had other corrosive effects upon the wartime alliance. No single incident of the dozens that could be cited makes this point more eloquently than the falling out between Roosevelt and Stalin over the unfulfilled possibility of a German surrender to the Western Allies in northern Italy. Karl Wolff, the ranking S.S. officer in Italy, had approached Alien W. Dulles, then the Berne chief of the Office of Strategic Services, to explore terms for ending German resistance on that front. Dulles told Wolff there could be no negotiation over terms; the Allies would insist on unconditional surrender. When the American ambassador notified the Soviet government of this development on March 12,1945, Molotov raised no objection. He asked only that Soviet officers be allowed to take part in the talks. Since the Russians had no diplomatic relations with neutral Switzerland, he hoped the United States would intercede to make possible their participation in any future talks on Swiss soil.

The Combined Chiefs of Staff in Washington objected that the only purpose of the Berne contacts was to arrange for the appearance of German representatives at Allied headquarters in Caserta, Italy, where the Soviets could participate with no difficulty. Molotov furiously insisted that the contacts at Berne be broken off at once. There could be no surrender talks, he insisted, without Soviet participation.

Roosevelt promptly sent a message to Stalin, carefully explaining how the German overture was being handled and assuring the Russians that no deal would be concluded behind their backs. Stalin countered with a bitter accusation that the Germans were “opening their front to the Anglo-American troops in Italy” for an evil purpose—so they could shift troops to the east and concentrate their fire on the Red Army.

With scrupulous forebearance, Roosevelt replied that no surrender negotiations had been entered into; the Berne meeting had been solely for the purpose of arranging contact with competent German officers, and it had been fruitless; Soviet representatives could take part in future negotiations at Caserta, if any; and there could be no question of allowing the Germans to shift troops to the Eastern Front.

Stalin brusquely rejected Roosevelt’s careful explanation:

“You insist that there have been no negotiations yet.

“It may be assumed that you have not been fully informed. As regards my military colleagues, they, on the basis of data which they have on hand, do not have any doubts that the negotiations have taken place and that they have ended in an agreement with the Germans, on the basis of which the German commander on the western front, Marshal Kesselring, has agreed to open the front and permit the Anglo-American troops to advance to the east and the Anglo-Americans have promised in return to ease for the Germans the peace terms.

“I think that my colleagues are close to the truth.…”

Roosevelt was thunderstruck by this accusation. He had trusted Stalin; he expected to be trusted in return. Instead, he was now accused of betraying an ally, of being in league with the Nazis, and of being a liar or dupe as well. For the first time, in reply, he allowed his feelings to show:

“…It would be one of the great tragedies of history if at the very moment of the victory, now within our grasp, such distrust, such lack of faith, should prejudice the entire undertaking after the colossal losses of life, material and treasure involved.

“Frankly I cannot avoid a feeling of bitter resentment toward your informers, whoever they are, for such vile misrepresentations of my actions or those of my trusted subordinates.”

Nothing more, in fact, came of the Italian surrender talks. When General Wolff, after a mystifying delay, asked for various assurances that went beyond the simple unconditional surrender formula, the Allied commander in Italy, Field Marshal Sir Harold Alexander, flatly refused.

President Roosevelt, however, was deeply affected by the incident. He had never been so grossly insulted throughout his long correspondence over the war years with Stalin. His progressive disenchantment had been tempered by an inexhaustible optimism that the new postwar world would be a cleaner, better place thanks to his brain child, the United Nations. Now, in the final weeks of his life, Roosevelt had been jarred into a painful recognition that in the years to come the world might be a far more difficult, dangerous place than he had allowed himself to believe till then. “We must be firm,” he wrote to Churchill on April 12, from Warm Springs. On the same day, he cabled the ambassador in Moscow: “… it is my desire to consider the Berne misunderstanding a minor incident.”


Even if Roosevelt had not died that day, the imminent collapse of Hitler’s war machine was bound to alter the political calculus within the alliance. As the Nazi threat diminished, so did the need for Allied cooperation. Russia fought no longer for survival but for long-term security and great power recognition. A free hand in eastern Europe was, by Stalin’s reckoning, no less than his due. Once before, in 1941, he had offered the British a sphere-of-influence agreement: Britain would formally recognize Soviet absorption of the Baltic states, part of Finland, eastern Poland, and Bessarabia, in exchange for Russian support of British bases and security arrangements in western Europe. Mindful that Roosevelt and Hull would reject such a deal, Churchill had said no.

Three years later, however, the prime minister, while in Moscow, offered Stalin a more ambitious sphere-of-influence arrangement. Russia could have “ninety per cent preponderance” in Rumania, a 75-25 split in Bulgaria, plus a fifty-fifty split in Yugoslavia and Hungary in exchange for Britain’s “ninety per cent of the say” in Greece. Stalin penciled a blue check on the sheet of paper that Churchill had pushed across the table to him. But both men were fully aware that Roosevelt would frown on such arrangements. The President had sent Stalin a message on October 4, 1944, making clear that he would not be bound by any bilateral bargains struck in his absence:

“I am sure you understand that in this global war there is literally no question, military or political, in which the United States is not interested. I am firmly convinced that the three of us, and only the three of us, can find the solution of the questions still unresolved.”

Roosevelt expanded on his misgivings in a message the same day to his ambassador:

“Quite frankly, I can tell you, but only for you and not to be communicated under any circumstances to the British or the Russians, that I would have preferred very much to have the next conference between the three of us for the very reasons stated to Marshal Stalin.… Therefore you should bear in mind that there are no subjects of discussion that I can anticipate between Marshal Stalin and the Prime Minister in which I will not be greatly interested. Consequently it is of importance that Mr. Hull and I have complete freedom of action when this conference is over.”

The ambassador followed his instructions faithfully. When Churchill on October 12 showed him the draft of a letter to Stalin setting down for the record the British interpretation of the percentages arrangement so casually agreed to three days earlier, the ambassador warned that Roosevelt and Hull would certainly repudiate it. Churchill decided against delivering his letter to Stalin and the matter was never again raised among the Big Three. In short, the episode offers the historian little more than “an authentic account” of Churchill’s thoughts at the time, as the prime minister himself described it in his war memoirs.

Too much can be made of such scraps of paper. Mr. Mee does just that in his treatment of the Potsdam Conference session on August 1, 1945. Seizing upon what purports to be a Soviet transcript of that meeting, he reproduces an exchange among Stalin, Truman, and Clement Attlee, the new British prime minister, with their respective foreign ministers, on the question of reparations to be paid by Germany in defeat. This exchange, dealing specifically with German assets and how they were to be divided among the Allies, has been wrenched from its context and made to bear more weight than it can possibly sustain. It was not, in fact, a discussion of spheres of interest or any kind of deal to carve up the map of Europe. It needs to be seen for no more than what it is—a discussion of German assets in foreign countries and how they were to be disposed of, all this within the wider context of an Allied agreement on the reparations to be exacted from Germany.


Mr. Mee goes on to express astonishment that Germany should somehow have emerged as the “very center and source” of the Cold War as a result of the Potsdam negotiations. Surely the stubborn facts of history and geography had established Germany’s central position in European policy calculations long before Potsdam. Here was the most powerful, energetic nation in the very heart of Europe brought low by the combined forces of Russia, Britain, and the United States. One can quarrel with certain of the Potsdam decisions for dealing with Germany after the war. But it is hard to see how the centrality of Germany in the European landscape could have been waved away by an alternative set of decisions.

Mr. Mee has made his own sketchy revision of standard revisionist doctrine. He parts company with the first generation of revisionist writers by spreading the Cold War guilt around, instead of fastening on President Truman as the archvillain. The Cold War, he now argues, served everybody’s purpose. Stalin “needed the Cold War… to discipline his restless people at home.” Churchill needed it because the only hope he saw of preserving some measure of British influence in world affairs was to set—and to keep—America and Russia at one another’s throats. But Truman still gets the worst of the argument. He is accused of “institutionalizing” the Cold War in order to maintain prosperity at home. Truman needed an excuse for deficit spending, so the Mee theory goes, because without it he could not have kept the American economy busy and productive. Thus he waged a Cold War, after the hot war was won, to justify continued deficit spending. “Eventually,” as Mee would have it, “with the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan, the encouragement of American multinational companies, and a set of defense treaties that came finally to encompass the world, he institutionalized it.”

An ugly accusation, this, which stands certain durable facts on their heads. There is the fact, for example, that Truman demobilized the Army and Navy with extraordinary speed as soon as World War II was won. From a combined strength of twelve million in 1945, he cut back the armed services to fewer than 1,600,000 men in 1947. By 1949 the Army was down to ten divisions. Between 1947 and 1950 he kept the national defense budget to an average of $13 billion a year. These are hardly the actions of a President determined to throw his weight around and to maintain prosperity through forced deficit spending.

It is not clear from Mee’s narrative what part, if any, the encouragement of American multinational companies could have played in this development. Precious few American companies were doing business in Europe thirty years ago. Precious little business of any kind was being transacted in the wasteland of broken stone and brick to which many of the great metropolitan centers of Europe had been reduced. Transportation and power grids were shattered; coal and industrial raw materials were in short supply; black markets flourished everywhere; food commanded a king’s ransom in the wildly inflated currencies of postwar Europe. Would Mr. Mee have refused to assist in restoring and rebuilding Europe for the sake of a balanced budget? It is not an unfair question. Obviously there were other, more honorable, motives at work than a presidential preference for deficit spending.

As for the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan—and NATO—these were beyond question Truman’s accomplishments. Not, however, the “set of defense treaties that came finally to encompass the world.” The major responsibility for Seato, the Baghdad Pact, and the rest properly belongs to John Foster Dulles.

Having disposed of eastern Europe and Germany, Mr. Mee then turns to the atomic bomb. Here again Truman is portrayed as the villain of the peace. “In obstinate defiance of all other opinion,” we are told, Truman insisted that dropping the bomb on Japan was militarily necessary.

The few opinions Mee cites against the argument of military necessity are for the most part regrettably retrospective: the Strategic Bombing Survey, for example, which concluded after the war that Japan would have surrendered even if the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs had not been dropped. That Japan would have surrendered eventually is not disputed here. The unanswered question was when that might happen—and how many months longer the war in the Pacific might drag on if the bomb was not dropped. We know today that Japanese counsels were divided on whether or not to end the fighting. Even after Hiroshima, the Japanese military chiefs vetoed an effort by influential civilians to accept the Potsdam Proclamation calling for unconditional surrender. Even after the second bomb had fallen, on Nagasaki, the military persisted in their refusal to surrender. It took the personal intervention of Emperor Hirohito to overcome that entrenched opposition.


The plain fact, however, is that Truman had no knowledge of these goings-on. A month before the Alamogordo test, he had received from General Marshall and approved a military plan for the invasion of the Japanese home islands. The American Sixth Army was to land on Kyushu about November 1. Four months later there would be a second invasion, the Eighth and Tenth armies going ashore on Honshu. Marshall expected fierce resistance with the loss of a half-million Americans. He speculated that the Japanese would not be brought to their knees until late autumn, 1946.

After Alamogordo, with Truman and his Joint Chiefs still at Potsdam, the decision was made to drop the bomb in the belief that its use would rule out the need to invade Japan—and would save the lives of hundreds of thousands of GI’s. Right or wrong, there is no persuasive evidence that the decision was challenged or questioned at the time. Churchill recalls in his memoirs: “The historic fact remains, and must be judged in the after-time, that the decision whether or not to use the atomic bomb to compel the surrender of Japan was never even an issue. There was unanimous, automatic, unquestioned agreement around our table; nor did I ever hear the slightest suggestion that we should do otherwise.” Even Stalin, when Truman informed him of the Alamogordo test on July 24 at Potsdam, expressed the hope that the United States would “make good use” of the new weapon against Japan. It would appear that Mr. Mee has left out of his account several opinions that do not fit his thesis.

It is not the purpose of the authors to defend Roosevelt and Truman against all findings of faulty judgment. The elusive truth will not be pinned down, however, by substantially ignoring the context in which many of the difficult wartime decisions were necessarily taken. In simple justice to President Truman, it is worth noting that as late as 1948, when Stalin closed off Allied access to Berlin, the President never threatened the Russians with atomic bombs, although the American monopoly was still intact. Instead he chose the least provocative response—an airlift of essential supplies to the beleaguered city.

Roosevelt or Truman, Stalin, Churchill or Attlee—all labored under a common handicap when compared with contemporary historians: they lacked the benefits of hindsight. Mee contends that they also shared a vested interest in maintaining international tension. He imputes to them the deliberate choice of increasing tension, even at the risk of a third world war, because that course promised various benefits to the peoples of their respective countries. To believe that is to deny these men their humanity.


Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.