FDR’s Costly Enchantment with Stalin
In 20th century history, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presence looms large. Forever cast in the lead role as the New Deal’s man of the people, Roosevelt’s policies have long been credited with pulling Americans out of the Great Depression. His fabled fireside chats and comforting rhetoric during the darkest days of war united a nation and inspired a generation. Alongside his British and Russian counterparts, Roosevelt is hailed as having masterminded the defeat of Hitler and the ruthless German Nazi war machine. Indeed, FDR’s persona borders on the mythical, yet critical flaws mar even this giant of history. Case in point: Roosevelt’s blind enchantment with Russian dictator Josef Stalin.
Roosevelt believed he had a special rapport with Stalin, despite the obvious disparity in fundamental ideologies between the two. Roosevelt was under the dangerous illusion that he knew how to handle Stalin, when in fact it was Stalin who knew how to play Roosevelt. In the dynamics of the Big Three -- Roosevelt, Stalin and Winston Churchill -- it is Roosevelt who emerges as what some would describe as a Soviet sympathizer. Roosevelt, along with trusted advisors such as Harry Hopkins and Henry Dexter White, was downright charmed by Stalin, whom he affectionately called “Uncle Joe.” Roosevelt was of the firm belief that, in time, he could transform the tyrant into a “Christian gentlemen.” Toward that end and before critical discussions at Yalta about postwar world order commenced, Roosevelt wedged Churchill out of the conversation so that he might meet with Stalin alone. The result: though Roosevelt persistently voiced great distaste for the British Empire, his unabashed attraction to Stalin enabled the rise of a new and dangerous Soviet empire.
For those supporters -- mainly on the left -- keen on preserving the myth that FDR had the upper hand in his dealings with Stalin, you’re in luck. After more than seven decades, conventional wisdom continues to turn a blind eye toward the true nature of the relationship between the two leaders, focusing instead on trivialities such as Churchill’s “naughty document,” credited by many as providing the mechanism for carving up postwar geopolitical boundaries.
To many, Roosevelt’s alleged enchantment with the dictator remains a clever ruse, a public display of master stagecraft. After all, he once told Orson Welles that they were the “two greatest” actors in the world. But 70 years of history hence, we can recognize that FDR’s fond words for Josef Stalin go well beyond politics or war. As historian Paul Kengor astutely writes in Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century:
“The President very often used words of eye opening personal affection. Only three months after Pearl Harbor, for example, FDR wrote a note to Winston Churchill in anticipation of his first meeting with Stalin. ‘I think I can personally handle Stalin better than your Foreign Office or my State Department,’ FDR boasted to Churchill on March 18, 1942. ‘Stalin hates the guts of all your people. He thinks he likes me better.’”
Some aim to protect the FDR myth -- that Roosevelt genuinely believed in his ability to shape and influence Stalin’s thinking -- by suggesting that failing health and exhaustion from the war, may have clouded his judgment, causing him to develop a myopic view of the Russian tyrant. Few would argue that fatigue would not have contributed to the state of Roosevelt’s mind, though Churchill also suffered from fatigue, but without the same lack of judgment. Yet Roosevelt also rejected the warnings from some of his closest advisors.
As far back as 1941, Roosevelt’s former Soviet Ambassador William Bullitt, Jr., who had his own “Bolshevik romance” but later came to his senses, tried to warn Roosevelt that “Communists in the United States are just as dangerous enemies as ever,” and that his policies were “wishful thinking.” In return for his candor, Bullitt received this wishful reply from the president: “I just have a hunch that Stalin is not that kind of man…I think that if I give him everything I possibly can and ask nothing in return, noblesse oblige, he won’t try to annex anything and will work with me for a world of democracy and peace.”
Unlike the president, Prime Minister Churchill held his nose and dealt with Stalin only when necessary and with grave reservation. He did not relish his dealings with “the devil,” nor did he welcome any personal challenge to find “Uncle Joe’s” good graces. He was under no illusions that he (or anyone else) could change Stalin’s nature. Churchill, to his abundant credit, wanted the Allies to capture Berlin, to defend Prague and the rest of Eastern Europe, and he urged Allied forces to “meet the Red Army as far east as possible,” which meant capturing the key capitals. Churchill understood that the wholesale offering of Berlin -- the crown jewel of Europe -- would give Stalin the upper hand in postwar power. Yet Roosevelt defended Stalin’s honor and called for Eisenhower to avoid any contact with Russians, handing over Berlin as merely a symbolic gesture. Thus did Eisenhower and his generals turn a blind eye to what would become the rape and slaughter of more than 11 million people at the hands of the “liberating” Soviets.
Relinquishing Berlin to the Russians was not only a grave error, demonstrating Roosevelt’s alarming lack of history, geography, and common sense, it was, as British historian Antony Beevor notes, clearly “unthinkable that the Western Allies simply could not hope to push back the Red Army,” to their original borders. Failing to do so emboldened the Russians to not only snatch the “crown jewel” as a strategic target, but also positioned them to topple other Eastern European governments. Likewise, as a result of Roosevelt’s policies that were passed down the line of command through Marshall and Eisenhower on the battlefield, the Soviets found, outside Berlin, the resources needed to begin amassing the nuclear arsenal that would figure prominently in the coming Cold War with the U.S.
Still, despite warnings from William Bullitt, Winston Churchill, and even General George S. Patton, Roosevelt maintained there was nothing he could not do with the misguided Russian tyrant.
While the myth prior to the end of WWII might have held truths that reflected the facts about Roosevelt’s presidency and his efforts to hold a country together through difficult times, there is no excuse for his naiveté (or perhaps hubris) in dealing with Stalin, which resulted in the devastating betrayal of the people of Berlin, Eastern Europe and even the U.S. Roosevelt’s uplifting rhetoric helped American’s endure a treacherous moment in our collective history as we sacrificed the lives of hundreds of thousands of American soldiers for what most believed to be the true cause of freedom. Yet Roosevelt’s myth of Stalin as a trustworthy partner in postwar Europe was born of illusion, or a delusion, and here are the facts. Stalin broke every agreement he had made, he slaughtered the lives of tens of millions of people in his scourge of German, Polish, and Ukrainian citizenry in the newly occupied lands, not to mention the utter horrors that occurred back in his own gulags where millions more were taken prisoner, including twenty thousand Allied POWs.
We do not need a slanted storyteller to make the case for Roosevelt’s self-deception. Roosevelt himself recognized his mistake -- albeit too late -- as noted by former U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union Averell Harriman: “On March 23, 1945, Roosevelt confided to Anna Rosenberg, a well known businesswoman and public official during the war, ‘Averell is right. We can’t do business with Stalin. He has broken every one of the promises he made at Yalta.’”
But where was the surprise? How else could Roosevelt have imagined the outcome, trusting a man who had already killed tens of millions of his own people to establish his coming empire? What good were Roosevelt’s words when his basic judgment would allow a monster like Stalin to feed on the millions of innocents in Eastern Europe and enable the Cold War?
As historian Kengor concludes, “[FDR’s] appraisal of Stalin was one of the most naïve assessments of any major foreign leader in the history of the American presidency.” When the facts so undermine this narrative or myth, it is rightfully time for that myth to be replaced for a more precise explanation, as will be the case with Roosevelt.
Myths are not lies. And they are not created to deceive, but rather to communicate a higher truth. This does not mean they are factually accurate or meant to last forever, a point missed by many ideologues even in academia. And while academia, tries to limit itself to the empirical evidence (what can be known) or to know how to interpret facts, these facts require a context, or in the case of story, a real-world narrative.
As we revisit the triumphs and blunders of the 20th century, Roosevelt’s naïve relationship with Stalin and the horrific Cold War legacy that resulted are evidence of a very costly enchantment.
Robert Orlando is the writer and director of Silence Patton