Roosevelt eager to open 2nd front, but Churchill resisted, fearing defeat – WWII historian
As the world marks Victory Day, when decades ago the threat of Nazi Germany – the threat to the progress of all mankind – was defeated by the allied forces of the West and the Soviet Union, the question of how the three leaders, Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill, so different in their views and agendas, were able to overcome their differences and unite together to crush the great enemy, still stands. Today, when the world again needs nations to put aside their squabbles and fight against global terror, one should wonder how the great alliance against Nazism was forged – and what role the personalities of the three leaders played in that cooperation. Was it just necessity that drove the Soviet Union, the US and Britain together, or would the united front against Hitler have been impossible if not for the three men who found common ground between each other – and steered the world toward peace and the end of war? We ask a professor of modern history at University College Cork, in Ireland, a renowned World War II historian, and author of numerous books on the Soviet role in the war. Geoffrey Roberts is on Sophie&Co today.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Professor Geoffrey Roberts, professor of modern history at the University College Cork, Ireland, renowned World War II historian, author of numerous books on the Soviet role in the war - welcome to the program, it's great to have you here on RT one more time. So, professor, it was really that big grand alliance that won the WWII: the USSR, USA, Great Britain, united against the Nazi threat. This alliance was built in no small part upon the personal rapport of the three leaders: Stalin, Roosevelt, Churchill. What sort of personal traits define the success of their personal relationship? I mean, we know that Stalin wasn't the most pleasant man in the world and that Churchill could be very stubborn. What was it in the three leaders that really made them get along so well?
Geoffrey Roberts: Look, the Grand Alliance was one of the most successful political and military alliances in the history, and as you say, a large part of its success was due to the personal rapport between the three leaders. Now, Stalin, Churchill, Roosevelt had very different backgrounds, experiences, very different outlooks - but they did share some very important things in common. For start, they were all highly experienced politicians, who laid great value on the role of personal relationships in politics. Secondly, all three of them shared the burden of warlordship, of being war leaders. So, that was the basis for mutual respect of the three leaders. Thirdly, what was perhaps the most important, what they shared in common is what you might call "a common conceipt" - that's to say, each of them saw themselves as being a great man of history, who had under his control the destinies not just of their own countries, but of the whole world - but there's a crucial point about it: they didn't let their egos get in the way of their political relationships. They didn't let their egos to stop them from talking to each other, from making deals, agreements, compromises, from finding the common ground.
SS: As opposed to Hitler, because he also saw himself as a man of history, a man who would make history?
GR: Yeah. Well, Hitler was a megalomaniac, and there was only one room for one ego - that was his. That wasn't the case with Stalin, Roosevelt or Churchill. Had they been like Hitler, then they wouldn't been able to work together in the way which they did.
SS: Let's take it back a little. Were Churchill and Roosevelt sceptical about the Soviet chances of winning the war at first? Hesitant about going all in with the help? I mean, what made them change their mind?
GR: I think it was more their advisors rather than Roosevelt and Churchill themselves, who were sceptical about the Soviet Union surviving the initial German invasion. But, Churchill and Roosevelt were very immediate in their support for the Soviet Union: you know, Roosevelt, in fact, authorised aid to the Soviet Union even before the U.S. entered the war. The first Anglo-Soviet-American agreement on supplies to the Soviet Union was signed in September 1941, so only a couple of months after the war began. Of course, what changed everyone's attitude was what happened on the battlefield, it was the Soviet Union's survival and, indeed, the great turning point of the battle of Moscow in November-December 1941, after the battle of Moscow it was clear that the Soviet Union was going to continue to fight the war for a long time to come, and in that context, the British and Americans began to pour huge aid into the Soviet Union.
SS: Stalin met one on one with both Churchill and Roosevelt in the course of their first joint conference in Tehran - it was in 1943. Now, in those separate meetings, each Western leader was a little disparaging about the other. Did they too had genuine rifts with each other, or were they just playing games with Stalin, trying to soften him up?
GR: I think, all three leaders played some games with each other - I don't think that was the main theme of their relationship. Churchill and Roosevelt were very competitive in terms of their relationship with Stalin. Stalin certainly tried to play Churchill off against Roosevelt, but mostly, they were trying to harmonize their relations, rather than trying to divide each other, because the harmony in their relations was the important thing.
SS: So when the leaders of the Big Three met for the third and last time in Potsdam after the war was won, Churchill and Stalin clashed over the right post-war strategy, but during the Tehran conference, two years prior, when the fighting was in full swing, Churchill was warm, respectful and polite - which meeting was more sincere? Was there even room for any kind of sincerity in this relationship?
GR: I think all the meetings that Stalin and Churchill had together were sincere. If anything, the sharper clash between Stalin and Churchill took place at the Tehran conference in 1943 - because there was a big issue between Stalin and Churchill about the launch of the Second Front, you know, an Allied invasion of Northern France, to take the pressure of the Red Army, on the Soviet-German front. So, there was quite a lot of tension between Stalin and Churchill at Tehran until the issue was resolved and it was agreed definitevely that Britain and the U.S. would invade France in the summer of 1944. Potsdam, I don't think there were any great clashes between Stalin and Churchill, the two mingled on very well. Stalin was very complimentary, as far as Churchill was concerned, Stalin was convinced that Churchill was going to win the British general election and was going to have an 80 seat majority, because what happened was much to everyone's surprise - not least Churchill's: the British labor party won that election and Churchill was replaced at the Potsdam conference by the new labor leader Clement Attlee.
SS: Now, in the early years of the Grand Alliance in the war, Stalin was frustrated with the scale of Western aid in the fighting and the absence of the Second Front. Roosevelt promised to do so in 1942, but he and Churchill later had to back away from those plans - do you believe Stalin even felt betrayed at some point? Was he right to feel that way?
GR: I think he did feel betrayed, with some justice. You know, in 1942 the Germans have re-launched their invasion in the Soviet Union, they were heading towards Stalingrad. The fate of the whole war was at stake, and Stalin felt that the British and Americans should take some risks and should invade France and attack Germany from the West. In fact, the Americans, Roosevelt, were actually keen to announce such an operation, but Churchill was sceptical, the British were sceptical - they thought that a premature invasion of France would fail and would actually push back the struggle against Nazi Germany. So, there were reasons for British resistance to the Second Front, but Stalin at that time wasn't very understanding of that resistance. Of course, the delaying of the Second Front, it didn't happen in 1943, when it was expected to happen, only happened in 1944 - but once the Second Front was opened, Stalin was very supportive of the Western allies, he was actually very complimentary. There was a great deal of cooperation between Western and Soviet military campaigns and operations in the period after the Normandy landings in June 1944.
SS: Was there a bond of friendship - I mean, as far as friendship is possible between world leaders? Any humor or light-heartedness between the three?
GR: Oh, lots of fun. There was a lot of socializing that went on during the three summits - Tehran, Yalta and Potsdam, lots of lunches, dinners, parties, other celebrations, lots of joking around.
SS: Can you tell us precise examples of some jokes and humorous exchanges?
GR: Churchill and Roosevelt used to like to tease Stalin by calling him "Uncle Joe". Stalin, for his part, was always joking that he was no longer a Bolshevik and that he was now a Conservative, and indeed, he was a businessman. So, there was lots of light-hearted humour like that, not just on social occasions, but also during the plenary sessions when politics were discussed.
SS: How did the leaders resolve their mutual suspicions arising among each other - I mean, they all had spies at each other. Did anyone ever call the others out on, for example, spying on each other?
GR: No, I'm sure, everyone was aware that everyone was spying on everyone else. Of course, the Soviet spying operation was much more efficient than the British and American operation. They have overcome mutual distrust and suspicion with two ways - firstly by frank and open conversations - all the cards were on the table, most of the time. Secondly, in practice, the three leaders learnt to trust each other, learnt to rely on the agreements that were made. It was the practical success of the Grand Alliance that made it such a great and successful alliance more than anything else.
SS: Now, during the war, Churchill came to Moscow on several occasions to meet with Stalin tet-a-tete. In one of those meetings, the spheres of influence on Balkans were agreed with the British Prime Minister just scribbling some figures on the piece on paper during the dinner, getting Stalin's approval on what is now called a "percentages deal". So, were a lot of decisions of the Big Three fateful to whole countries, reached in such an informal and personal manner?
GR: The percentage agreement was actually quite an exceptional episode. It has got a lot of attention because Churchill kind of overdramatized the episode in his memoirs after the war. Actually, the percentages agreement didn't mean very much. The only thing that really mattered in practice was the Stalin agreed not to interfere with the British in Greece, but then, Soviets already decided that Greece was part of the British sphere of influence anyway and so they weren't going to interfere. That wasn't much of a concession. Now, almost all of the decisions of the Grand Alliance were reached after very serious and often quite prolonged discussion.
SS: So, professor, the second meeting after the Tehran between the Big Three was planned for months, and it was difficult to agree on the location. The coastal city of Yalta in the Soviet Union was finally chosen - so, why Yalta? It is said that Stalin didn't want to leave the Soviet Union - is that true? And if so, why not?
GR: Originally, they were talking about having the meeting in Scotland, but the meeting was delayed and then Stalin suggested Yalta. Stalin wanted the meeting to take place on Soviet soil, on Soviet territory, as a kind of symbol of the immense contribution that the Soviet Union was making to the outcome of the war.
SS: Some of the American critics of the Yalta conference say Roosevelt was "too sick" to deal with Stalin back then and that he was duped by him. Do you think Roosevelt was too soft?
GR: No, I don't think so. If you read the conference transcripts, you won't find any real evidence that Roosevelt was sick or ill or ailing. I don't doubt that he was a bit sick, but that didn't really impact on his performance in the conference. In fact, people observing him at the conference mostly were very laudatory about his performance. He certainly wasn't "duped" by Stalin. What happened at Yalta was that agreements were made, all sides made compromises, efforts were made to deal with everyone's interests and to find common ground and common interests. If anyone lost at Yalta, by the way, it wasn't Roosevelt - it was Stalin. One of the things that Stalin wanted to do at Yalta, he wanted to get firm agreement to the dismemberment of Germany after the war. Stalin's view was that there was an ongoing threat of the revival of German power. The way to deal with that was by breaking up country and keeping Germany weak, but Churchill and Roosevelt resisted that. During the war, they agreed with Stalin about dismembering Germany, but in 1945 they changed their mind and then adopted a different position. So, failure to get a firm commitment on dismemberment was a big setback for Stalin at Yalta, although, having said that, after Yalta Stalin himself abandoned the policy of dismemberment.
SS: Which one of the two Western leaders had a better relationship with Stalin - I mean, Churchill had more face time with him, but, for instance, the definite decision to open a Second Front against the Nazis - one of the most crucial decisions of the whole war - was made by Stalin and Roosevelt before Churchill agreed to them.
GR: The short answer is that Stalin was more intimate with Churchill, but he was friendlier with Roosevelt. Stalin and Churchill - unlike Roosevelt - were both warriors. Both took a very active part in the direction of their country's' war efforts, in a very direct way, in a military way. They were military leaders as well as political leaders. That kind of common experience and common burden created a comradeship between Stalin and Churchill. As far as Roosevelt was concerned, Stalin was very impressed by the American power, and he was a great admirer of how Roosevelt deployed that power during the war to help the Soviet Union in their struggle with the Nazis, despite the fact that throughout the war, Roosevelt was under pressures from hardliners in his administration and in Congress to stop playing politics with the Soviets about the American aid during the war, but he steadfastly refused to do that. So Stalin greatly admired Roosevelt's political position, and there was a number of other ways in which, actually, Roosevelt and Stalin were much closer politically than Stalin and Churchill. For example, booth Roosevelt and Stalin were anti-imperialist and very anti-colonialist, whereas Churchill was very much concerned to keep the British Empire going after the war.
SS: Stalin was not a man known for his love of any of his colleagues in particular, but witnesses say he was actually affected by Roosevelt's death. Was it a personal blow for him, or was he upset he lost a trusted ally?
GR: Stalin actually could be very sentimental about some things. He was very sentimental about children and he was very sentimental about people that have died. His grief when Roosevelt died was a genuine one. He was upset as were a lot of other Soviet leaders - Molotov, for example, was very upset. There was a lot of fuzz in Moscow when Roosevelt died, which actually impressed the Americans in Moscow at a time. Now, on Roosevelt's death, there were certain apprehensions on Stalin's part about what was going to happen in the future and what the new American President, Harry Truman, would be like, but Stalin was re-assured by reports from the Soviet Embassy in Washington DC that Truman was a Rooseveltian, that Truman supported continuation of Roosevelt's policy of cooperation with the Soviet Union.
SS: Also, after Roosevelt's death, Stalin said that "Roosevelt's cause must live on" - what exactly did he mean? Was he referring to the creation and longevity of the UN, that the Big Three created, policing the post-war world?
GR: I think he was referring to the cause of the continued collaboration between the Soviet Union and the U.S., the cause of peace-time Grand Alliance. Now, Stalin also supported Roosevelt's vision of the UN which would be a great power concert which would provide a framework for Soviet Union, Great Britain and the U.S. to organize the post-war world and secure peace and prosperity for all. In fact, in many ways, Stalin pushed Roosevelt's projects to its limits - when they were establishing the United Nations, deciding on how it's going to function, Stalin was very insistent that the basic principle of the function of the UN had to be great power unity and great power unanimity and this is why we get veto system in the UNSC. In fact, without the veto system the UN would have collapsed during the Cold War. So, yeah, there was a very significant meeting of minds between Stalin and Roosevelt on the question of the projected role of the UN in the post-war period. Now, of course, that perspective was disappointed, because after the war, what happened is that the Grand Alliance collapsed and you got the Cold War.
SS: Now, Stalin's British war partner, Churchill, was also out of the picture, like you've said, by the time the war was won. The pair had an intimate relationship, like you've mentioned - but what changed after the war? Only a year after the common victory in Europe, Churchill gave his anti-Soviet "Iron Curtain" speech in Fulton. What happened?
GR: Well, that's true, but also in that same speech, by the way, Churchill also called for continued cooperation with the Soviet Union, so it wasn't a completely anti-Soviet speech, although it subsequently has been interpreted in that way. Stalin was, certainly, very upset about Churchill's Fulton speech and they had a very public spat about it, and Stalin denounced Churchill as a "warmonger" and as organizer of anti-Soviet forces in the West. But that didn't stop two men from continuing to exchange quite friendly messages. In fact, when Churchill comes back to power in Britain, in 1951, he kind of re-invents himself as no longer a warmonger but as actually being a peacemaker and Churchill was calling for a summit with Stalin, a new Soviet-Western summit, and indeed, when Stalin becomes ill and then dies in March 1953, Churchill is very concerned about what's happened. It is said that one of the things that Churchill said when Stalin died was that "Stalin found Russia with a wooden plow and left her with atomic powers". Now, I don't think that Churchill actually did say that, I think it's an apocryphal story, but it does sum up the kind of respect that Churchill had for Stalin, notwithstanding the point you make about his "Iron Curtain" speech.
SS: As the war drew to close, the Big Three came to an end - Roosevelt died, Churchill was voted out of the office, and that left only Stalin remaining, and the Grand Alliance crumbled. Was it impossible to maintain it without these leaders? Does that mean it was actually a personal alliance and not just an alliance of great powers?
GR: Well, the first Big Three crumbled - Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt - but that Big Three was replaced by Stalin, Truman and Attlee, and actually, at the Potsdam conference, that Big Three, the second Big Three, functioned quite well, it was quite successful. Also, the Grand Alliance didn't collapse immediately after the war, the Cold War wasn't coming immediately after the WWII. There's a gap, the Cold War doesn't come until 1947. The Grand Alliance continues for a year or two, and actually, in that period, it's quite successful. So, it's not true to say that the Big Three collapsed as soon as the end of the WWII. Now, having said that, very important part of the personal dynamic, the personal chemistry of the Big Three was the role that was played by Roosevelt, and so Roosevelt's death, I think, was a big blow not just to the Big Three, but for the whole future of the Soviet-Western relations after the WWII. So, it just shows how important personal politics and personal relationships were, and indeed, still are.
SS: Professor Roberts, thank you very much for this wonderful insight. We were talking to professor Geoffrey Roberts, University College Cork in Ireland, a fellow of British Royal Historical Society, author of numerous works on the Soviet role in WWII, discussing the power of personalities of war time leaders and the way their personal relationship shaped world history for decades to come. That's it for this edition of Sophie&Co, I will see you next time.