Why FDR Loved Uncle Joe
Roosevelt and Stalin: The Failed Courtship, by Robert Nisbet, Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway, 115 pages, $14.95
The advent of glasnost in the Soviet Union is bringing some welcome surprises; prominent among these is the boldness with which some are beginning to speak of the magnitude of Joseph Stalin's crimes. There has even been talk of erecting a memorial to "the millions of victims" of Stalinism (around 25 million, according to scholarly estimates). The Washington Post reports from Moscow on a dawning appreciation that "the crimes of the Stalin era are the moral equal of those committed by the German Third Reich." That realization, the Post observes, is a painful one for many in the Soviet Union.
It will be painful as well for many in the United States, who will be forced to come to terms with what it meant to have Stalin as our ally in "the last good war." And sooner or later the legion of votaries of the Roosevelt myth will have to face the question: What verdict should be passed on a president of the United States who, as Robert Nisbet reminds us in this interesting and timely study, was an ardent admirer of Stalin and craved to have him as a friend?
Roosevelt has enjoyed a remarkably favorable press in recent years, with even top Republican politicians falling over themselves to praise his wisdom and strong leadership. But what did FDR actually accomplish? Failing, as Nisbet points out, to cure the Great Depression (the war did that), he succeeded in founding the American welfare state, which may yet turn out to be the true gravedigger of capitalism. The second main component of Roosevelt's legacy is globalism; FDR carried the banner of Woodrow Wilson's uninformed international meddling to previously unscaled heights. It was America's destiny, duty, and high privilege to make, and to the end of time keep, the whole world safe for democracy. A crucial underpinning of the new world order was to be close collaboration with Stalin's Russia.
Today, Roosevelt's attitude towards Stalin appears, in Nisbet's apt phrase, almost hallucinatory. He was fond of Stalin, childishly cherishing the privilege the Soviet dictator granted him, of calling him "Uncle Joe." As far as his policy is concerned, it was equally puerile: FDR seems actually to have believed what Stalin said: "If I give (Stalin) everything I possibly can, and ask nothing from him in return, noblesse oblige, he won't try to annex anything and will work with me for a world of peace and democracy." Accordingly, from June 1941, when the Nazis invaded Russia, almost to the end of his life, the president engaged in, as Nisbet puts it, an "unbroken, relentless series of acts of favor to Stalin," from the unconditional provision of vast quantities of supplies to the sanctioning of Communist domination of a third of Europe. How was all this possible?
In wartime America, there were few with the mental clarity of Robert Taft and Herbert Hoover, who pointed out the moral equivalence of Hitler and Stalin and the dangers of a Communist victory. A pro-Soviet disposition permeated much of the American media and intellectual class, extending to the White House and including Mrs. Roosevelt and, above all, Roosevelt's intimate advisor, Harry Hopkins.
Roosevelt, too, sensed a spiritual kinship between the ultimate aims of the Communist regime and his own New Deal. Of the Soviets, he stated, with his inimitable sophistication: "They all seem really to want to do what is good for their society instead of wanting to do for themselves. We take care of ourselves and think about the welfare of society afterward." There was another likely source for the president's infatuation, as Nisbet shrewdly surmises. Roosevelt "loved personal power, perhaps more than any other American President." For FDR, the kind of power wielded by Stalin had something intriguingly awesome about it.
Throughout Roosevelt and Stalin, Nisbet counterposes to Roosevelt's fatuousness the alleged firmness and far-sightedness of Winston Churchill, while acknowledging that even Churchill on occasion could be "slightly nauseating" in lauding Stalin. That is an understatement. Churchill's effusive public endorsements of Stalin are at least a match for FDR's: at the Teheran conference in 1943, for instance, the prime minister went so far as to present Marshal Stalin with a Christian crusader's sword. Conservatives anxious to define obscenity might ponder that act.
More importantly, it is not the case that Churchill had a long-range strategy that could have blocked Soviet expansion in Europe. Nisbet makes much of the British plan to attack Hitler's Fortress Europe by way of its "soft underbelly," Italy and the Balkans, thwarting Soviet westward penetration. But the idea was intrinsically dubious: there was, after all, the problem of the Alps.
The American military opposed the plan not, as Nisbet suggests, out of perversity or blindness to the dangers of Soviet expansion but simply because it could not work. As General Albert C. Wedemeyer wrote: "The proposal to save the Balkans from communism could never have been made good by a 'soft underbelly' invasion, for Churchill himself had already cleared the way for the success of Tito…[who] had been firmly ensconced in Yugoslavia with British aid long before Italy itself was conquered. True, if we had invaded the Balkans through the Ljubljana Gap, we might theoretically have beaten the Russians to Vienna and Budapest. But logistics would have been against us there: it would have been next to impossible to supply more than two divisions through Adriatic ports."
Nisbet tries to minimize Churchill's acquiescence in two of Roosevelt's nastier brainstorms. One was the policy first enunciated in 1943 of insisting on unconditional surrender. By offering no alternative peace plan, this bound the German army and people even more tightly to the Hitler regime. The other was the Morgenthau Plan to reduce the postwar Germans to an agricultural pastoral nation, as genocidal a concept as what Hitler had in mind for the Russians and Poles.
There is much more that could be said about Churchill. But basically, as British military expert Major-General J.F.C. Fuller concluded: "Unfortunately for his own country and the world in general, far-sightedness was not Mr. Churchill's outstanding quality." When, in early 1943, Franco wrote to him, expressing anxiety over the Russian advance into Europe, Churchill scoffed at his fears: he felt confident that at the war's end "England's influence will be stronger in Europe than it has ever been before since the days of the fall of Napoleon."
Until it was far too late, Churchill had a single aim: to crush Hitler and "Prussian militarism." Hence, the policy of terror-bombing and annihilating the cities of Germany, continued up to the last moment; hence, the contempt shown to the valiant German officers of the anti-Nazi resistance. Hence, too, Churchill's agreement to the expulsion of millions from Germany's eastern provinces and the Sudetenland and to the delivery to Stalin of hundreds of thousands of Soviet subjects who had fought against Communism in the war.
After the war was over, Churchill reflected gloomily: "What will lie between the white snows of Russia and the white cliffs of Dover?" If statesmanship means anything, that was a question the brilliant writer but poor strategist should have posed to himself much earlier. There was precious little statesmanship on the part of either of the leaders of the two great democracies in the Second World War, and there is little to be gained by replacing the Roosevelt myth with the Churchill legend.
Ralph Raico is professor of history at the State University of New York College at Buffalo, senior fellow of the Institute for Humane Studies, and Fellow in Social Thought of the Cato Institute.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Why FDR Loved Uncle Joe".