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American Diplomacy
Commentary and Analysis

January 1998

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A U.S. diplomat with long experience in Soviet affairs takes a look back at two occasions during World War II when the exercise of diplomacy proved all important

For faster downloading, Mr. Stefan's article is divided into the following linked sections:

Part I - Getting Together
 ·  FDR's Stance toward Stalin
 ·  Background to Tehran

Part II - Summit Conferences
 ·  Tehran
 ·  Yalta

Part III - Criticism & Reaction
 ·  Yalta Actions
 ·  Yalta to Warm Springs
 ·  Broader Themes

[Roosevelt and Stalin]
"I am glad to see you.
I have tried for a long time to bring this about."
-- FDR to Stalin at their first private meeting in Tehran, November 28, 1943.

and the Wartime Summit Conferences with

A Retrospective View by
Charles G. Stefan
The purpose of this article is to trace the evolution of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's stance toward Joseph Stalin in the period between the outbreak of World War II and FDR's death, with special attention to his approach to the Soviet leader at the two wartime summits held at Tehran and Yalta. Even Stalin made mistakes at the 1945 Yalta Conference (for example, in subscribing to a Declaration on Liberated Europe) , and Roosevelt was to come under severe criticism for what was viewed as excessive leniency or naïveté in his dealings with the Soviet leader.

I conclude that FDR had no illusions about the nature of Stalin's régime. Recognizing the vital role played by the USSR in the war against Germany, however, he sought to develop personal contacts with the Soviet leader comparable to the close relations he had already established with Churchill. His objective was twofold: using persuasion, to ensure Soviet entry into the war against Japan and to enlist Soviet backing for the establishment of a United Nations along the lines proposed by the United States. At Yalta he achieved considerable success in achieving those basic goals.

Roosevelt's initial remarks to Premier Stalin, quoted above, thus were apt. Nevertheless, while the wartime relations between the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union were highlighted by their face-to-face meetings at Tehran and Yalta, there was a series of important events leading up to their first meeting in late 1943. It is to this important pre-Tehran background that we first turn.

Background to Tehran

From mid-1941 on, FDR confronted the challenge of ensuring that Soviet forces not only continued to fight against the formidable armed strength of Nazi Germany, but also were amply equipped in certain key areas. He had as his objective bringing about, in conjunction with their Western allies, the defeat of the Third Reich and thereafter of Japan. The strategy and tactics that FDR employed in realizing this vital objective are essential in any discussion of their meetings at Tehran and then at Yalta over a year later.

It seems clear that prior to the Nazi invasion of the USSR in mid-1941, FDR had no illusions about the nature of Stalin's régime in that vast country. In a speech in February 1940 to representatives of the American Youth Congress, he asserted: "The Soviet Union, as everybody who has the courage to face the facts knows, is run by a dictatorship as absolute as any other dictatorship in the world. It has allied itself with another dictatorship [i.e., with Hitler's Germany], and it has invaded a neighbor. . .infinitesimally small" [i.e. Finland]. Earlier, at the time of Stalin's invasion of Finland at the end of November 1939, FDR had privately expressed dismay and remarked: "No human being can tell what the Russians are going to do next.''1

However, once Stalin had been forced into conflict with Hitler, following the latter's invasion of the USSR, Roosevelt followed Prime Minister Winston Churchill in recognizing the vital role of the USSR in the truly herculean task of defeating Nazi Germany, which by then had access to the resources of Europe. It is probable that his initial caution in public after June 22 reflected the fact that many Americans, including members of Congress were then inclined, as was Senator Harry Truman, to wish a plague on both the Nazi and the Soviet houses. This caution was reinforced by the belief, which survived after June 22 among responsible military circles on both sides of the Atlantic, that the Wehrmacht would reach Moscow in a few weeks, after a blitzkrieg comparable to its campaign in western Europe in 1940. Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, in a memo to FDR on June 23, opined that "the Germans would be thoroughly occupied in beating the Soviet Union for a minimum of one month and a possible maximum of three months." Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox was even more pessimistic about the Soviets' chances. In a similar memo to FDR on the same day, Knox wrote that "The best opinion I can get is that it will take anywhere from six weeks to two months for Hitler to clean up on Russia."

[Hopkins and Stalin] It was shortly thereafter that Harry Hopkins, FDR's trusted aide, then in London, decided that he ought to proceed to Moscow to find out more about the Soviets' prospects and needs. The President promptly authorized Hopkins to proceed to Moscow, where at the end of July he had two long meetings with Stalin. During these meetings Stalin told Hopkins that he would welcome American troops on any part of the Russian front, and under the command of the American Army -- an extraordinary comment, reflecting the Soviet dictator's conviction that it was going to be extremely difficult for the USSR to resist successfully the mighty German military machine.

Hopkins came away from these talks convinced that the Soviets would fight on with, as he reported to FDR on August 1, an "unbounded determination to win." His visit marked, as one distinguished American historian subsequently concluded, the point of no return in US-Soviet wartime relations.

A few months after Hopkins's pivotal visit to Moscow, Pearl Harbor and Hitler's and Mussolini's declarations of war on the United States precipitated all out American involvement in the war. Now, for FDR, it was more important than ever to do all that he could to ensure a strengthening of the Soviet effort in the war against Hitler and, after the defeat of Germany, against Japan as well. Both FDR and Churchill were keenly aware of the importance of this effort.

It is against this background that FDR's untiring efforts to develop a relationship with Stalin comparable to the one he had already established with Churchill should be viewed.

FDR clearly possessed remarkable self-confidence.
4 He believed that if he could establish close personal relations with Stalin, he could exert a positive influence on the Soviet leader. FDR expressed this belief directly to Churchill in a message on March 18, 1942:

I know you will not mind my being brutally frank when I tell you I think I can personally handle Stalin better than your Foreign Office or my State Department. Stalin hates the guts of all your top people. He thinks he likes me better, and I hope he will continue to do so.5
(Hopkins's report on his July 30- 31, 1941 meeting with Stalin is perhaps one of the reasons for this element in FDR's thinking.)

Given this belief, it was predictable that FDR would seek to meet à deux with Stalin; despite his efforts to do so, Stalin declined to meet with him until the Tehran Summit late in 1943. By that time, Stalin had apparently become convinced that there was no possibility of an acceptable compromise peace with Germany, or he may have concluded that he had played out the usefulness of the German card with the Western leaders. In either case, by early September of 1943, he agreed to meet with FDR and to coordinate operations designed to bring about the total defeat of the Third Reich.
6 It should be noted, however, that Stalin also insisted that a preliminary meeting of the three Foreign Secretaries be held in Moscow; there he could probe Western positions before meeting with FDR and Churchill.

Continue reading Stefan (Part II)


1. Frank Freidel, Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Rendezvous with Destiny.(Boston: Little, Brown, 1990), 324-325. For an earlier public repudiation of Communism by FDR, see William E. Leuchtenburg, The FDR Years: On Roosevelt and His Legacy. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), 137.

2. Herbert Feis, Churchill-Roosevelt-Stalin: The War They Waged and the Peace They Sought. (Princeton University Press: 1957), 10. For a recent summary of FDR's key role in awakening the American people to the menace of fascism, see Carol Gelderman, All The Presidents' Words: The Bully Pulpit and the Creation of the Virtual Presidency. (New York: Walker, 1997), 11-35.

3. For a detailed account of the crucial conversations between Stalin and Hopkins, see Robert E. Sherwood, Roosevelt and Hopkins: An Intimate History. (New York: Harpers, 1948), 317-348. See also James MacGregor Burns, Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom 1940-1945. (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970), 113-115. For the citation by the distinguished American historian, see Feis, op. cit., 11-13.

4. Keith Eubank, Summit At Tehran: The Untold Story. (New York: William Morrow, 1985), 237; and Gary Will's essay on FDR and his wife in Will's book entitled Certain Trumpet: The Call of Leaders. (New York: Simon Schuster, 1994), 23-35, 53-66.

5. Warren F. Kimball, ed., Churchill and Roosevelt: The Complete Correspondence.Vol I, (Princeton University Press, 1984), 421. It should be noted, however, that as the war progressed, FDR told his son, James, that "Uncle Joe is smarter and tougher than I thought he was." James Roosevelt (with Bill Libby), My Parents: A Differing View (Chicago: Playboy Press, 1976), 203. But James Roosevelt has also written that FDR "never gave up the conviction he could convince old Joe to go our way". Ibid., 167.

6. Eubank, Summit at Tehran, 100-107; and Trumbull Higgins, Hitler and Russia: The Third Reich In A Two-Front War 1937-1943. (New York: Macmillan, 1966), 270-271. See also Note No. 8.

Continue reading Stefan (Part II)
 © Copyright 1997 by Charles Stefan

[Charles Stefan photo] Charles G. Stefan
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