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Dear Obama and Putin, Read this Book

Roosevelt, Stalin and the unlikely friendship that won the Second World War.

By Crawford Kilian 6 Jul 2015 |

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

On a sunny April day in 1945, my mother picked me up from daycare. I asked why she was crying.

"Roosevelt died," she said.

According to Susan Butler's new book, so did Roosevelt's hopes for a long peace after the horrors of two world wars. Instead we would see a long Cold War -- one that survived even the fall of the Soviet Union.

The book is an intensively documented history of the remarkable alliance Franklin D. Roosevelt built with Joseph Stalin, an alliance that arguably won the war in Europe. It's also surprisingly revisionist, with interpretations of people and events that we've rarely if ever seen in the countless Western histories of the Second World War.

But the book is primarily a character study of Franklin D. Roosevelt: his motives, his goals and his ability to understand, manipulate, and guide both events and people. A patrician "traitor to his class," he could nonetheless size up a paranoid old bank robber like Stalin and steer him into an unlikely partnership.

But why would he have bothered? Ever since the Russian Revolution, America -- especially its media and ruling class -- had been bitterly hostile to the Communists in general and Stalin in particular. J. Edgar Hoover first made a name for himself by deporting immigrant radicals in the Palmer Raids of 1919. Magazines and newspapers were uniformly hostile to the Soviets. The Depression only intensified anti-communism, precisely because it billed itself as the replacement for capitalism, and a lot of American workers and intellectuals seemed to agree.

Roosevelt was certainly no Red, but he was very much his own man. As a senior public servant under Woodrow Wilson, he had seen Wilson's failed attempt to create a postwar peace through a League of Nations. But American isolationists in Congress kept the U.S. out of the League, leaving it nothing more than a talking shop. Wilson's high-minded idealism had failed where pragmatic politicking could have succeeded.

An education in wheeling and dealing

Returning to politics after polio left him a paraplegic, Roosevelt served a term as governor of New York and then easily won the presidency in 1932. Fighting the Depression kept him busy with domestic politics. It also gave him years of experience in wheeling and dealing with the countless power centres of American government: the Senate, the House, the Supreme Court, the states, corporations and trade unions and a rapidly growing civil service. He understood his country better than most presidents before or since.

One of Roosevelt's early moves as president was to recognize the Soviet Union in 1933. The Soviets had been international pariahs until then, though they were eager to establish foreign trade ties. Many of his own advisers and foreign-service experts were scandalized. Wilson's moralistic foreign policy had reflected a deep current in American culture: as the exceptional nation, the land of the free and the home of the brave, recognition of a communist dictatorship gave undeserved status to that dictatorship.

As a pragmatic realist, however, Roosevelt saw only trouble in moralizing about the U.S.S.R. as an outlaw nation. He wanted them locked into the international system.

He had no illusions about the Soviets, warning the first U.S. ambassador to Moscow to expect constant spying and difficulties. As a guest in the Soviet Embassy during the Tehran summit, he baffled his hosts by seeming to speak freely to his staff -- even though the Soviets knew he was aware of their countless hidden microphones. Roosevelt treated the bugs as an amusing game.

Cautious respect from Stalin

Diplomatic recognition won him some cautious respect from Stalin. Butler argues that good relations with the U.S. had been a major Soviet goal even in the early days of the revolution. Even by 1920, American industrial and military power impressed and frightened the powers of Europe and Asia, and the Soviets were eager to buy whatever American expertise they could (and steal what they could as well).

Stick-handling his way politically through the late 1930s and early 1940s, Roosevelt realized war with the Nazis was inevitable, regardless of the isolationists in Congress. Lend-lease gave the British access to American weapons without violating American neutrality. After Hitler invaded the U.S.S.R. in 1941, lend-lease was extended to the Soviets and helped to keep them in the war. After Pearl Harbor Roosevelt could pull out all the stops and send enormous quantities of war materiel to help Stalin: guns, tanks, trucks, airplanes.

In the process he built up a mutually respectful relationship with Stalin, first through messages and intermediaries and then through face-to-face summits in Teheran and Yalta.

Strikingly, Butler shows Winston Churchill as the odd man out in this relationship. Churchill had been a lifelong reactionary, who in the 1920s had argued for using poison gas on annoying Iraqi tribesmen. Now he hoped to get Britain through this new war with its empire intact -- as if he'd failed to notice the collapse of four empires in the last war.

Roosevelt, by contrast, was typically American in his distrust of the Brits (and the French) and their colonialist arrogance. He shared the general American dislike of corrupt, feckless Europe. The British had dreaded the arrival of the Americans in the First World War precisely because they knew it would mean the end of their supremacy, but Churchill by 1939 was desperate for American involvement in the new war.

Roosevelt handled Churchill as smoothly as he did Stalin, soothing his anxieties and sometimes, at summit meetings, letting Churchill's tantrums about saving the Empire go on until the prime minister had discredited himself.

A presidential improv act

The president's astonishing ability to understand people, and to manipulate them, was one part of his political genius. He was a kind of improv artist, riffing on the mood around him and changing it to suit himself. Churchill and Stalin, two of the most powerful and arrogant men the world has ever seen, deferred to him -- not just because he controlled access to the war materiel they needed to survive, but because he seemed to be always in harmony with their own goals.

What's even more surprising is that Roosevelt used this quick-witted, improvisational charm in service of a breathtakingly long-range goal: the creation of a postwar United Nations that would both create the conditions for a long peace but provide the police to enforce it.

The police force would be the U.S., the U.S.S.R., Britain, France and China. France had lost the war, but could help Britain keep the peace in Europe. Free of the racial prejudice of his time, Roosevelt wanted China among the Big Five because he knew whites could no longer dominate the world -- and the Chinese would also give the Soviets another force to reckon with.

Roosevelt came tantalizingly close to realizing his vision; in the spring of 1945 he was planning to travel to the founding conference of the UN in San Francisco, and he may have been thinking about resigning the presidency when the war was won and perhaps becoming the first UN Secretary General.

Instead, he died suddenly -- not of a stroke, as I had always thought, but of a brain aneurysm that just happened to burst in April 1945. It could as easily have burst in April 1940, in which case the outcome of the Second World War would have been far different.

With him went the future he had envisioned. As a Missouri senator in 1941, the new president Harry Truman had said the U.S. should support whichever side seemed to be losing in the German-Soviet war -- to ensure that both sides lost as many people as possible. The Soviets never forgot that.

So in the closing weeks of the European war, incidents arose that caused friction between the Americans and Soviets. Roosevelt had ignored Truman as vice-president, so the new president was unaware of the long-range plan for the UN -- and of the atomic bomb. Once the bomb was successfully tested, Roosevelt planned to inform Stalin and offer him the scientific knowledge behind its construction.

But he died too soon, and Truman sided with those who wanted an American monopoly on nuclear weapons. He did mention the bomb to Stalin at the Potsdam Conference, but offered no details. Stalin knew very well about the bomb, but it was the failure to share the scientific information that told him he wasn't dealing with a friendly America any more. He ordered his own nuclear program into high gear, and the Cold War was on.

Franklin Roosevelt knew better than anyone that postwar life with the Soviets would be difficult. But with Stalin inside the tent, dependent on American help to rebuild his country, he might not have sunk quite so far into senile paranoia before he died in 1953. His successors might have hitched the Soviet wagon to American funding and technology, as the Chinese did after Mao died, and our iPhones might now be made in some high-tech suburb of Moscow.

Instead we got the U.S. military-industrial complex, Korea, Vietnam and the Cuban missile crisis -- not to mention the Afghan wars and 9/11. The postwar Red scare flourished until the fall of the Berlin Wall and then resumed as the terrorist scare, presided over by the surveillance state.

Because an aneurysm burst in one man's brain, the lives of billions of others were brutally changed if not ended altogether. We live in the world that Roosevelt was trying to prevent.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Media

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