The Yalta Illusions – some thoughts on the wartime presidency of FDR


By Dr. Georgy Gounev,

Below is the epilogue to my first book published in English the title of which is “Fighting Evil with the Help of the Devil.”

Keywords: WW2, Stalin, FDR, Churchill, Georgy Gounev

One of the main reasons why the Yalta Conference of February 1945 qualifies as the most fitting epilogue to this book is its unique ability to demonstrate the mistakes of any extreme interpretation of the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The sixtieth anniversary of the famous event, (February of 2005), produced an enormous body of articles and broadcasts devoted to its outcome. There is no chance of calming the storm of conflicting opinions, most of which condemned Roosevelt and Churchill for the “ sell-out” that allegedly had taken place at Yalta. Even the President of the United States took part in the discussion adding political weight to those accusations. As a matter of fact, it is time to put an end to the wrong perception which hurts the analysis and the interpretation of Yalta related events. Before anything else we have to start this line of analysis with the critically important time factor.

In February of 1945 Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, parts of Austria and Czechoslovakia, and the eastern part of Germany were already occupied by the Soviet Army. The eastern part of Germany, and Czechoslovakia were about to be occupied by Red Army as well, because the American based crowd of Soviet spies had already reported to Joseph Stalin that Churchill’s idea “to shake the hands of the Russians as far East as possible”, has been rejected by Roosevelt.

Another decision of the Big Three at Yalta was the forcible repatriation of all residents of the Soviet Union who did not want to live again under Stalin’s rule, back to their masters and torturers. With this action of theirs Churchill and Roosevelt had increased the already countless number of Stalin’s victims with two million more human beings.

In all fairness to both Western guests of Joseph Stalin, their signatures sending to suffering and death such a large number of people was preceded by a pretty rough blackmail on the part of Joseph Stalin. The dictator’s message was plain and simple: ”… give me back my people, or I won’t give you yours”. What Stalin meant was that some American and British prisoners of war, who had been sent to POW camps in the eastern areas of Germany, were liberated by the Soviet Army. At Yalta those few hundred individuals were the main chip in Joseph Stalin’s strategy to get back millions of his former slaves.

As far as President Roosevelt’s performance at Yalta was concerned, there could be a little doubt that it has been heavily influenced by his poor health. From the rather mild testimony of FDR’s interpreter, Charles Bohlen according to whom: “The President was ill at Yalta”, through the delicate formula used by Winston Churchill in describing FDR’s condition: “The President had a slender contact with life”, to the devastating professional assessment of Lord Moran, the personal doctor of Winston Churchill, who saw FDR: “looking straight ahead with his mouth open as if he were not taking things in. To a doctor’s eye, the President appears very ill. I give him no more than a few months to live”. (3)

There are people who tend to look at those testimonies as a way to justify their concept that everything would have gone fine in Yalta, had FDR being a bit healthier. The concept, however, does not fit the reality. FDR was in much better health in 1943 when he gave the most important signals to Joseph Stalin involving the future of Eastern Europe. At Yalta he was just following the pattern of the strategy he had outlined much earlier. Regardless of his diminished capacity to grasp the details, FDR achieved one of his main purposes in Yalta involving a formal Soviet agreement to intervene in the war against Japan. As far as the tragedy of the millions of human beings forcibly returned to their torturer and murderer, this issue was of no concern to Roosevelt, or to Churchill.
So much about Yalta…

What was very often missed in the analyses of the wartime strategy of President Roosevelt ,would be the fact that his main challenger was not Adolph Hitler, but Joseph Stalin. With Hitler everything was clear, he was the enemy who had to be defeated- there were no complications whatsoever.

With Joseph Stalin everything was different. As a dictator, Stalin was much more murderous than Adolph Hitler in the pre- Holocaust period of his rule. If we accept the premise that the most essential dimension of the totalitarian system is the complete absorption of the civil society by the state dominated by one single party , then, undoubtedly, the regime created by Joseph Stalin and his cronies, was far more tyrannical than the one established by Adolph Hitler.

The other difference was that, unlike Hitler, during the period 1941-1945, Joseph Stalin was not the enemy but an ally of the Western Democracies. He was, also, in complete possession of the seemingly limitless human, military, and economic potential of his country.

Consequently, in the beginning of the alliance into which Churchill and Roosevelt pushed the dangerously lonely in the late June and early July of 1941, Joseph Stalin, President Roosevelt decided to win the friendship of the seemingly confused dictator. There were three important factors that led FDR to the deeply wrong belief that he was endowed with the incredible gift which would allow him to accomplish this impossible task.

The first one, undoubtedly, was his complete ignorance of the personality of the Soviet dictator and the nature of the political system he had created. The second factor was the Hopkins report from early August 1941 that convinced his boss that no matter what, Joseph Stalin was a leader one could count on, and that he happened to have a great respect for President Roosevelt as well. The third was the sincere conviction of the President that in some way, regardless of all negative features of the system he represented, Joseph Stalin belonged to the modern world of the great social experiments and ideas in a way, say, his sincere and faithful ally ,Winston Churchill, did not. “The pleasant, old Tory”, as Roosevelt used to call Churchill, was in FDR’s eyes a living symbol of such old fashioned relics, as the British Empire and British Colonialism.

With the first serious German defeats, it became abundantly clear to the President that the advancement of the Soviet military forces inevitably would include the entire Eastern part of the European continent within the perimeter of Joseph Stalin’s territorial possessions. Facing this challenge FDR decided that the achievement of the most important goals of the United States in WWII would be far more important than the fate of a region which never belonged to the American sphere of interests.

The ideological or political post-mortem enemies of President Roosevelt who accused him of “selling out” Eastern Europe at Yalta were never able to produce the answer to a simple question: what would have been the alternative to what President Roosevelt had done?

The argumentation of FDR’s sympathizers was seemingly quite strong. According to them the United States was in no position to influence the developments in Eastern Europe simply because America never had a military presence in the area. Aside from that , there was no other viable alternative, rather than to break the anti- Nazi alliance with all catastrophic consequences from such a step, and even then there was no guarantee that the United States would have been in a position to help the Eastern Europeans to avoid the Soviet occupation.

There are however, some almost unused counter- arguments to this thesis. Had Franklin Roosevelt possessed more integrity and more knowledge about totalitarianism, it could be reasonably argued that he could have and would have handled Joseph Stalin in a completely different way.

The brilliant performance of the Soviet dictator in front of Harry Hopkins marked the first step towards his gradual development of a strategy designed to push the American- Soviet relations into the most advantageous direction for him. It could be argued that the first components of the American strategy of Joseph Stalin had emerged in July of 1941 between the comeback from his complete breakdown in the aftermath of the Nazi invasion and the preparation of the spectacle he organized for Hopkins. At this point all the dictator wanted from Great Britain and the United States was the Western recognition of the borders Adolph Hitler and himself had agreed upon, and as much weaponry, machinery, planes and trucks he would be able to extract from the rich Americans.

This period was extremely important, because it was the time when , ideally, President Roosevelt had the perfect opportunity to make Joseph Stalin familiar with his views on the post – war world, and to demonstrate his firm decision to support those views with action. In order to do that, however, FDR had to have a clear cut and well developed Soviet strategy, based on a sound advice on how to execute every step of it, and a lot of integrity while defending the moral components of the American cause in WWII.

The President’s actions did not fit either of those requirements. He did not order or organize the development of any effective strategy designed to deal with the Soviet challenge. Even worse, Franklin Roosevelt formed his wartime views on Joseph Stalin and the country ruled by him under the influence of Harry Hopkins, who was completely ignorant of the Soviet Union in general and its dictator in particular. At the same time, FDR ignored the advice of such outstanding expert on the Soviet Union as the former Ambassador William Bullitt.

The seeds of the Yalta crop that was an ultimate expression of the total diplomatic failure of the United States and Great Britain with regard to the Soviet Union, were planted by FDR and Harry Hopkins as early as 1941. It was this failure that produced the dubious legacy of the outcome of WWII, which, could be regarded as a global conflict in which the right wing totalitarianism was destroyed, primarily by the military muscle of the left wing version of the same system, which was quick in establishing its complete domination over Eastern Europe.

A very viable argument that could be presented by the defenders of FDR’s actions and politics to the effect that President Roosevelt was able to achieve his main goals- the defeat of Germany and Japan. And this is the only result that counts- nothing else does. An essential component of the same argument could be that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the President of the United States, not a Leader of the entire world. The same people are arguing as well that FDR had accomplished his mission with flying colors by not allowing Hitler to defeat the Soviet Union and by extracting Joseph Stalin’s promise to join the war against Japan in the aftermath of the Adolph Hitler’s defeat.

Without expanding on the meaning of how the Soviet Union quickly and successfully replaced Nazi Germany as the main danger for the democratic West so soon after the victory over Hitler, it would be better to change the direction of our analysis. It would be worthwhile to take a look at what President Roosevelt COULD HAVE DONE in order to help the emergence of world of peace and freedom that lived in his dreams.

In principle, the zone called “what if” is a forbidden area for any historian. No one is able to predict what would have happened if the events from the past had taken a different course. The other side of the coin , however, is that many historians were trying to justify even the most absurd situations that have emerged due to the mistake of some statesman , by presenting them as the only logical, reasonable and even inevitable developments.

One of the best examples in this respect was the division of Germany. Before the destruction of the Berlin Wall the general assumption was that the monstrous and absurd edifice would last for ever. When President Reagan called Gorbachov to “tear this wall down”, the Soviet and Eastern European press, supported by so many totalitarian- friendly Western voices, accused him of being a warmonger.

Every German politician, who in the recent past had dared to say that the division of Germany should not last for ever, had been immediately blamed as an open or secret admirer of Adolph Hitler, and with this assumption in mind, very few of them dared to say such a terrible thing.

So, out of respect for the existing stereotypes, instead of exploring “what if” in the attitude and actions of President Roosevelt with regard to Joseph Stalin, it would be better to commit a smaller crime by pointing out some neglected historical facts and some opportunities open to FDR to shape the events in a direction much more favorable to the United States, Eastern Europe and, as a matter of fact, to the rest of the world, as well.

The logical starting point for such investigation would be the immediate aftermath of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. The summer of 1941 was the only period in the life of Joseph Stalin when he was confused and vulnerable. His attempt to make a new deal with Hitler at the end of June- early July 1941, by giving Nazi Germany the entire western part of his country, did not materialize. The dictator was so shocked by Hitler’s rejection of his more than generous offer, that he did not take any action to break the complete international isolation of his country after his only ally unexpectedly attacked him .It was Harry Hopkins, who had offered Joseph Stalin the limitless American assistance for free.

The fact that FDR never asked the Soviet dictator for anything in return constitutes the first mistake committed by the President of the United States with regard to his future relationship with Joseph Stalin. Are we correct to assume that the fate of Eastern Europe would have been very different if President Roosevelt had sent to Stalin William Bullitt, instead of Harry Hopkins?

The never written presidential letter brought by William Bullitt to Joseph Stalin could have a very different text:“ The United States and Great Britain do not expect any territorial acquisitions from this war. Our only purpose is to defeat Hitler and to help create a free and peaceful post- war world. It is our understanding that the people must have the right to select the country they would like to live, and the political system that would rule them. Consequently, we are not ready to promise you any territorial changes in favor of the Soviet Union unless they are approved by the free will of the people whose life would be affected by those changes. We would like to make a very important point abundantly clear. If you join us in our firm decision to reach the above mentioned goals, we would help any way we could during the war , and we vow to help you restoring your devastated country after its end In addition to that, we would offer you our cooperation in establishing a Swiss style complete and permanent neutralization of Eastern Europe as a guarantee that no one will ever attack you .

In case you choose to reject this offer, unfortunately, we would have separate wars against the common enemy- a fact that obviously would increase our losses and will postpone our victory. Aside from that, a possible refusal on your part to join us, or any attempt of yours to conclude a separate peace with Adolph Hitler would intensify our efforts to support the effort of the German dictator’s internal enemies to achieve the removal of the Nazi regime.”

This letter, of course, was never written, and Stalin started pressing Churchill for a Second Front as early as July of 1941, which was just part of his arrogance and ignorance about the realities. Maybe the launching of a large scale landing operation on the French coastline was impossible in 1942, as well. In the summer of 1943, however, according to an exhaustive British research throughout Sixties and Seventies, it would have been perfectly possible for the American and British military forces to launch the Normandy invasion. (See for instance, the quoted work of the British historian John Grigg).

There would have been very important positive consequences from the speed-up of this operation. It would have shortened the war and would have saved a huge number of human lives, including hundred of thousands of Jewish lives, because a conveniently forgotten fact is that 1944 was the bloodiest year of the Holocaust.

An earlier launching of the cross- channel invasion would have removed the bitterness of the population of the Soviet Union, sharing the opinion of its rulers that the Western Allies were dragging their feet while the country was bleeding white.

Under different circumstances, instead of indiscriminate carpet bombing over civilian population of Germany and its allies, the USAF and RAF could have been deployed over the battle field on the territory of France and over the enemy’s supply routes. A different American strategy with regard to Germany based on support of Hitler’s enemies could have produced an earlier and more successful variation of the events that took place on July 20, 1944.

FDR’s belief that because of its geographical location Eastern Europe inevitably would be occupied by the Soviet Army was also false. Another unused option by Roosevelt administration was its unwillingness to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the governments of Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria.

There was plenty of evidence in the American and particularly in British diplomatic documents, that by 1943 the governments of Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria were desperately trying to establish contacts with Washington and London in order to discuss the best way to break their relations with Nazi Germany, and the options to prevent the Soviet occupation. Particularly important opportunity for an alternative strategy could have been the Romanian offer to renounce immediately its alliance with Germany at the moment when even symbolic American or British military presence was established on Romanian soil.

It would have been perfectly possible for the President to handle in a different way the Katyn Affair, and the drama of the Warsaw Uprising. Stalin would not have dared to break the Soviet diplomatic relations with the Polish Government in Exile had he sensed that President Roosevelt’s attitude was one of a firm support for the London Poles. If this support was a reality, the dictator would not have dared to prevent the Western support for the heroic insurgents.

Those are not ”what if“ judgments – FDR expressed an American support for Finland and as a result, Joseph Stalin crossed out the Fins from the list of his potential slaves.

To be sure, some aspects of the wartime challenges even when confronted with integrity and competence would have been extremely difficult to be handled to the liking of all concerned parties. There would have been no easy solution of the issues, like the status of the formerly independent Baltic countries, the mutually satisfactory shape of the Soviet- Polish border, and the future of some German populated areas, just to name the few.

Speaking of the Soviet dictator, he had the incredible and unique chance to be saved by a strange mixture of factors that included his enemies and the allies he also considered enemies. In June of 1941 Stalin was nothing more than a pathological murderer, intensely hated by a large number of his own people. In addition to that, it was he, who had made himself a fool in front of the entire world by trusting his evidently more skilful former ally, Adolph Hitler.

At the same time, undoubtedly, Stalin had demonstrated an incredible strength of character and willpower by successfully tackling the initial complete hopelessness brought about by his own mistakes. It would be interesting to know, though, did the dictator ever realize how much he owed the Nazi Fuehrer, who provided him with a just cause shared by his people? The second benefactor of Joseph Stalin, undoubtedly, was the President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It was the unconditional American support that made it possible for the dictator to create an Empire exceeding his wildest dreams.

It was FDR’s clairvoyance, allowing him to see so early and so well the danger exemplified by Adolph Hitler, that added so much strength into the Alliance that buried the ambitions of the Nazi leader. The massive American assistance helped the Soviet military effort on the gigantic Eastern Front which broke the backbone of the Nazi military machine. Most of the credit for this victory, beyond any doubt, goes to the peoples of the former Soviet Union who paid a terrifying price for its achievement – the lives of at least 25 million of theirs sons and daughters.

At the same time, the staggering blindness of President Roosevelt for the nature, the strategy and the goals of Stalin and Stalinism created the necessary conditions for the emergence of some of the deadliest mistakes of the hot war , which enabled the outbreak of the Cold War that tormented the world for decades.

Email Dr. Gounev at “georgygounev@yahoo.com”

BUY THIS BOOK
Fighting Evil with the Help of Satan: President Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin, 1939-1945
By Georgy Gounev

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