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William Bullitt, Page 2By late 1936 storm clouds were gathering in Europe. France and Great Britain, despite the shrill warnings of Winston Churchill, were well advanced on their course of appeasing the German dictator. The Soviet Union, meanwhile, was, as Bullitt had predicted, encouraging France to take a tougher stance toward Germany, while keeping open the possibility of reaching an understanding herself with Germany.

Bullitt initially sought to encourage French leaders to reach an accommodation with Germany. He repeatedly warned his hosts that the United States was not going to send American boys to fight on France’s side in another European war. In confidential letters to FDR, Bullitt recommended that the United States stay out of a future European war. To his State Department colleague and friend, Judge R. Walton Moore, Bullitt wrote that, “We can do France no worse disservice today than to allow her to base her security on an illusion of American support.”39

Bullitt had no illusions about Hitler or Germany. “Czechoslovakia, clearly, is the next item on Hitler’s menu,” he told FDR on November 24, 1936. “If Hitler should send forces into Czechoslovakia, the position of France, as well as Czechoslovakia, would become tragic.”40 After Germany occupied all of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, Bullitt warned the president that, “unless some nation in Europe stands up to Germany quickly, France and England may face defeat, and such defeat would mean the French and British fleets in the hands of the Germans and the Italians. We should then have the Japs in the Pacific and an overwhelming fleet against us in the Atlantic.”41

Bullitt perceived a greater danger lurking to the east. He believed that if France and Germany fought against each other again in a war that would be even more destructive than that of 1914-1918, the Soviet Union would be in a position to dominate the continent. The European powers, he told FDR, may end up “destroying themselves completely and handing Europe over to the Bolsheviks.”42 In another letter to the president in December 1936, Bullitt predicted that, “war will mean such horrible suffering that it will end in general revolution, and…the only winners will be Stalin and Company.”43 As late as May 20, 1938, Bullitt was still warning FDR that a general European war would result in “the complete destruction of western Europe and Bolshevism from one end of the Continent to the other.”44 That is why Bullitt worked so hard initially to encourage a Franco-German détente.

Gradually, Bullitt came to the realization that a permanent accommodation between France and Germany was a chimera. Hitler was determined to dominate the continent, and France needed U.S. material support to resist German aggression. The diplomatic surrender by Britain and France at Munich did much to convince Bullitt that war was unavoidable and that the United States had to assist the democracies in the coming struggle with Hitler. Referring to the perceived German lead in air power vis-à-vis France and Britain and its impact on the negotiations with Hitler, Bullitt remarked to FDR: “If you have enough airplanes, you don’t have to go to Berchtesgaden.”45 He stopped short, however, of recommending that U.S. forces be sent to fight in Europe. “I remain as convinced as ever,” he had written to the president in June 1938, “that we should not permit ourselves to be drawn in.”46 Yet, in September 1938 at a ceremony commemorating the landing of American troops in Bordeaux during the First World War, Bullitt stated that, “If war breaks out in Europe, no one can say or predict whether the United States would be drawn into such a war.”47

In a remarkably prescient letter to FDR dated June 13, 1938, Bullitt sensed the coming of war. “I feel like a participant in the last days of Pompeii,” he told the president. He suggested that Poland might be attacked by Germany from the west, and by Soviet Russia from the east,48 which is precisely what happened in September 1939. The world had been shocked when on August 23, 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression pact. Poland’s fate was sealed. The two dictators had secretly agreed to divide-up Poland and other areas of Eastern and Central Europe.

In January 1939, Bullitt visited the Polish Ambassador in Paris who reported that Bullitt remarked that if war broke out, the United States would ultimately become a belligerent. In March 1939, German troops occupied all of Czechoslovakia in blatant violation of the Munich agreement. Bullitt now became a forceful advocate of U.S. military assistance to France, and with French approval he floated the idea of exchanging U.S. war planes for French island possessions in a variant of what would become lend-lease with Great Britain. Bullitt also advised FDR that the American military must be strengthened and made “ready for action.”50

During the early morning hours of September 1, 1939, President Roosevelt was awakened by a phone call from his Ambassador to France. Bullitt called to inform the president that German troops had crossed the Polish border. Two days later, France and Great Britain honored their commitments to Poland by declaring war on Germany. The Second World War had begun. Bullitt now pressed more than ever for U.S. military assistance to France and Britain. He realized that if Germany defeated France and Great Britain, the United States would have to fight. “I am entirely certain,” he wrote to Cordell Hull on September 19, 1939, “that if France and England should be unable to defeat Hitler in Europe American soldiers will have to fight his forces in the Americas.”51

Franklin Roosevelt most likely agreed with Bulitt’s analysis, but he was not yet ready to get ahead of American opinion, which at that time was decidedly against U.S. participation in another European war. There was no widespread sentiment in the country for abandoning the Neutrality Act (though FDR sought its repeal in late 1939), and 1940 was an election year in which the president would run for an unprecedented third term. FDR had repeatedly promised, and would do so again during the 1940 presidential campaign, that he would not send American boys overseas to fight in a war. The president, instead, would slowly prod public opinion to support giving assistance to the democracies in their struggle against Hitler.

Throughout early 1940, Bullitt continued to assess the war situation in letters and cables to Washington. He greatly overestimated the fighting spirit of the French people and army. Washington and much of the world were stunned at how quickly the Germans defeated France in May-June 1940. As German troops neared Paris, Bullitt advised the president that he intended to remain at the Embassy: “No American Ambassador in Paris has ever run away from anything, and that I think is the best tradition that we have in the American diplomatic service….” In a personal note to Roosevelt, he said, “In case I should get blown up before I see you again, I want you to know that it has been marvelous to work for you.”52

Bullitt was ordered to leave Paris and to maintain contact with the new French government that had fled before the Germans arrived. In July 1940, he interviewed several officials (including Petain and Darlan) who would become leaders in the new Vichy regime in “unoccupied” France, and informed Washington of their defeatist attitudes in a report that George F. Kennan later called “one of [Bullitt’s] most informative and historically important dispatches”:53

The impression which emerges [he wrote]…is the extraordinary one that the French leaders desire to cut loose from all that France has represented during the past two generations, that their physical and moral defeat has been so absolute that they have accepted completely for France the fate of becoming a province of Nazi Germany. Moreover, in order that they may have as many companions in misery as possible they hope that England will be rapidly and completely defeated by Germany….Their hope is that France may become Germany’s favorite province….The truth is that the French are so completely crushed and so without hope for the future that they are likely to say or do almost anything….The simple people of the country are as fine as they have ever been. The upper classes have failed completely.54

The famed war correspondent and chronicler of both Hitler’s rise to power and the fallen French Republic, William L. Shirer, called this report “the most enlightening diplomatic dispatch [Bullitt] ever wrote.” The report, Shirer wrote, “gives better than any contemporary record I have seen the state of mind and heart and soul of the tattered men who controlled the French government at this hour of adversity and trial.”55

Bullitt traveled from southern France to Spain to Portugal from where he left Europe for the United States on July 15, 1940. When he returned home, Bullitt briefed the secretary of state and FDR on his view of the European situation. He was invited by Roosevelt to Hyde Park where he and the president discussed the war and Bullitt’s future role in the government. Bullitt wanted to be in Roosevelt’s cabinet as either secretary of war or secretary of the navy, but he was not offered either position. Instead, FDR, perhaps sensing the need to build bipartisan support for future U. S. involvement in the war, appointed two prominent Republicans, Frank Knox at the navy department and Henry Stimson at the war department. Moreover, Bullitt was soon eased out of his ambassadorship; FDR appointed the former chief of naval operations, William Leahy, to be the U.S. ambassador to the Vichy French government.56

Bullitt, at Roosevelt’s request, delivered an address in Philadelphia in August 1940 to the American Philosophical Society. He used this opportunity to warn the American people about the geopolitical threat of Nazi domination of Europe. “America is in danger,” he told the audience of four thousand in Independence Square. “The United States is in as great peril today as was France a year ago,” he continued. “[U]nless we act now, decisively, to meet the threat, we shall be too late.” The Atlantic Ocean, Bullitt explained, “is an obstacle [to an attack on the United States] only so long as the European exits to the Atlantic are controlled by a nation which is genuinely friendly to us.” The survival of an independent and friendly Britain was a vital interest of the United States, because “[w]ithout the British Navy, the Atlantic would give us no more protection than the Maginot Line gave France after German troops had marched through Belgium.” The only thing standing between the United States and the dictators of Europe, Bullitt emphasized, was “the British fleet and the courage of the British people.”57

Bullitt’s address was a geopolitical analysis worthy of the likes of Sir Halford Mackinder, the British geographer who in 1904 and again in 1919 had warned the democracies about the danger of a great Eurasian land power gaining control of coastal areas and using the continent’s vast resources to challenge the sea powers in their own element. According to Will Brownell and Richard Billings in their excellent biography of Bullitt, two million copies of Bullitt’s speech were printed for distribution. It was widely noted in the press, and furiously denounced by isolationists in the United States.58

FDR was elected president for the third time by another Electoral College landslide in November 1940. Bullitt met with the president after the election to determine what, if any, role he would play in FDR’s government. He was still technically ambassador to France, but was looking to serve in a high position at home. The president had nothing definite to offer him (having promised or filled some key cabinet offices with prominent Republicans), so Bullitt asked that his resignation as ambassador be accepted. On January 7, 1941, FDR, with the usual "great reluctance,” accepted Bullitt’s resignation.59

Though out of government, Bullitt continued to speak out on the world crisis. In January, February and April of 1941, he delivered two speeches and wrote an article in Life that warned about the threat posed to the United States by Nazi Germany. The world, he argued, had grown smaller. “The war machines of Europe,” he explained, “can reach the Western Hemisphere in a few hours.” Bullitt realized that the British Navy was the United States’ first line of defense against Hitler. “If the British Navy should be eliminated,” he wrote, “we would be left with a one-ocean navy for the defense of the coastlines of two oceans.” The United States had to enter the war, Bullitt advised. “There is no easy way by which we can escape from war with Hitler. We cannot get off this planet.”60

On June 22, 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Bullitt, like many others in the United States and Britain, thought that Stalin had fatally weakened the Soviet military during the purges in the mid-to-late 1930s. He greatly feared, he wrote Roosevelt, that Germany would be able swiftly to defeat Soviet Russia and use its vast resources to attack England and the United States.61 Two months later, Bullitt opined, in a speech to the Altoona, Pennsylvania American Legion convention, that the United States would soon be at war with Hitler.62 In October 1941, he told the Union League of Philadelphia that if the America did not enter the war, Hitler would conquer the world.63

Bullitt still expressed his fear of the communists, too. In a July 1, 1941 letter to FDR, Bullitt said that the “Communists in the United States are just as dangerous enemies as ever, and should not be allowed to crawl into our productive mechanism in order later to wreck it when they get new orders from somewhere abroad.”64 He was among the few Americans at that time that understood that American communists essentially followed the lead of their masters in Moscow.

In November 1941, FDR sent Bullitt to Africa and the Middle East. “Reposing special faith and confidence in you,” he wrote to Bullitt, “I am asking you to proceed at your earliest convenience to the Near Eastern area, there to act as my personal representative with the rank of Ambassador.”65 Roosevelt cabled British Prime Minister Winston Churchill that he was sending his “old friend Bill Bullitt” to visit the area and asked Churchill to ensure that Bullitt received appropriate briefings from British civilian and military officials.66 In that capacity, Bullitt traveled to Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Baghdad, Cairo, Damascus and Lebanon. While Bullitt was en route to the Middle East, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

On December 27, 1941, Bullitt wrote to FDR about the military situation in North Africa, and suggested the possibility of sending an American expeditionary force to Casablanca to help the British and to persuade the French in North Africa to join the Allied war effort.67 In a joint telegram dated December 31, 1941, intended for consideration by Roosevelt and Churchill, Bullitt and the British minister of state for the Middle East, Oliver Lyttelton, proposed that the United States “should immediately start preparations for Casablanca expedition.”68 At that time, the British leadership preferred a U.S. invasion of North Africa to the proposed cross-channel invasion of Europe favored by FDR’s military advisors. In the event, in early November 1942 the United States invaded North Africa. The proposed cross-channel invasion was postponed until, at the earliest, 1943.

Bullitt’s mission to the Near East and Africa had produced important political and military intelligence that helped shape FDR’s decision to invade North Africa. Bullitt recorded that in April 1942, the president told him that he (Bullitt) had “made him feel as if he had seen the entire area with his own eyes.”69 Bullitt, however, resisted FDR’s urgings to continue his roving ambassadorship in the Near East and Africa. He still wanted a Cabinet position. None was offered.

In June 1942, FDR appointed Bullitt as special assistant to the secretary of the navy. During the summer of 1942 in separate meetings, Bullitt discussed the progress of the war with Churchill, de Gaulle and General Eisenhower.70 Bullitt was acting, in effect, as a special envoy for the president. On November 19, 1942, the president asked that Bullitt provide him with “your personal views on the machinery of preparation for civil administration in occupied territories.”71 It was in response to that request that Bullitt wrote three memos on the need for the United States to conduct the war with a view to the political structure of the postwar world. In these memos, George F. Kennan later wrote, Bullitt “predicted with startling accuracy the situation to which the war would lead if existing policies continued to be pursued.” Bullitt’s prophetic memos to FDR, wrote Kennan, “had no counterpart…as a warning of that date to the American President of the effective division of Europe which would ensue if the war continued to be pursued on the basis of the concepts then prevailing.”72

The “concepts then prevailing” that Kennan referred to included the policy of “unconditional surrender” that Roosevelt announced at the Casablanca conference and FDR’s attempted “courtship” of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. These aspects of the president’s wartime diplomacy have been thoroughly analyzed by, among others, Robert Nisbet in Roosevelt and Stalin: The Failed Courtship,73 Thomas Fleming in The New Dealers’ War74 and Michael Beschloss in his new book, The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler’s Germany, 1941-1945.75 “Unconditional surrender” made it unlikely that Germany could be defeated without its destruction and occupation by Allied forces. FDR’s courtship of Stalin made it inevitable that at war’s end Soviet power would extend into Eastern and Central Europe. As Winston Churchill noted in his brilliant history of the Second World War, the peril of Nazi domination of the world was replaced by the even more formidable peril of Soviet domination of the world.76

Had the president followed the advice offered by William Bullitt in 1943 things could have turned out differently.

Bullitt’s first memo to FDR was written on January 29, 1943. It was, Bullitt told the president, “as serious a document as any I have ever sent you.” He began by acknowledging that many observers in the United States believed that Stalin shared the president’s post-war vision expressed in the Atlantic Charter and the Four Freedoms. Bullitt countered that no “factual evidence” existed to support the view that Stalin was a changed man. “We find no evidence,” he wrote, “but we find in all democratic countries an intense wish to believe that Stalin has changed….” This view of a changed Stalin, therefore, was “a product of the fatal vice in foreign affairs—the vice of wishful thinking.” U.S. and British admiration for the valor demonstrated by the Russian people in the defense of their homeland was causing policymakers to overlook “both basic Russian Nationalist policy and Soviet Communist policy.”

“The reality,” Bullitt explained,

is that the Soviet Union, up to the present time, has been a totalitarian dictatorship in which there has been no freedom of speech, no freedom of the press, and a travesty of freedom of religion; in which there has been universal fear of the O.G.P.U. [secret police] and Freedom from Want has been subordinated always to the policy of guns instead of butter.

Stalin controls “in each country of the world,” Bullit further explained, “a 5th column” composed of “public or underground Communist Parties.” Stalin uses this Fifth Column for “espionage, propaganda, character assassination of opponents, and political influence….”

“[T]here is no evidence,” Bullitt emphasized, “that [Stalin] has abandoned either the policy of extending communism or the policy of controlling all foreign communist parties.” The Soviet Union “moves where opposition is weak, [but] stops where opposition is strong.” The United States must, advised Bullitt,

demonstrate to Stalin—and mean it—that while we genuinely want to cooperate with the Soviet Union, we will not permit our war to prevent Nazi domination of Europe to be turned into a war to establish Soviet domination of Europe. We have to back democracy in Europe to the limit, and prove to Stalin that, while we have intense admiration for the Russian people and will collaborate fully with a pacific Soviet State, we will resist a predatory Soviet State just as fiercely as we are now resisting a predatory Nazi State.

Bullitt provided FDR with a brief history lesson to show that Russia had always been an expansionist power. “Since the time of Peter the Great,” he wrote, “the Russians have extended their rule ruthlessly over one people after another….No race on earth, not even the Germans, has shown such burgeoning energy as the Russian during the past hundred years. They have conquered one sixth of the earth’s surface. They are still bursting with expansive energy.” Therefore, Bullitt opined, “[e]ven if Stalin had become a mere Russian nationalist—which he has not—that would be no guarantee of pacific behavior; indeed, it would be a guarantee of aggressive imperialism.”

Bullitt then listed Stalin’s “avowed” aims, which included the annexation of Bukovina, eastern Poland, Besserabia, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, and parts of Finland, and his secret goals, which included establishing communist governments in Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Poland and northern Iran, and expanding the influence communist parties in France and Germany. Bullit feared that a Soviet Union victorious in Europe would try to take geopolitical advantage of the fact that the United States and Great Britain still had to contend with Japan in the Far East. In such circumstances, Bullit wrote, “[t]here will be no single power or coalition in Europe to counterbalance the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union will be in a position to devote all its strength to overrunning Europe….” He sketched the following scenario:

While the United States and Great Britain are engaged in defeating Japan, the Red Army, accompanied by a mob of fraternizing common soldiers from the German and all other Axis armies, and a swarm of propagandists, now ready in Moscow, will sweep through Europe from east to west, being welcomed by the Soviet 5th columns already organized in every European country. Then will follow the familiar comedy. There will be no talk of “annexation by the Soviet Union.” There will be a “freely chosen form of government” (Soviet); “free expression of the people’s will” (under occupation by the Red Army); and out will be trotted again all the obscene lies that accompanied the “freely expressed desire of the Baltic Republics, to be received into the Soviet Union.”

To prevent Soviet domination of Europe after the war, Bullitt counseled, the United States must establish in “occupied or liberated countries in Europe democratic administrations which, working together, will be strong enough to provide the requisite defense against invasion by the Soviet Union.” He compared Soviet expansion to the “flow of [a] Red amoeba,” and opined that “[n]o single state in Eastern Europe can be made strong enough to resist the flow of the Soviet Union without the support of other states.” “A combination of feeble states,” he wrote, “will be inadequate. An agglomeration of weakness is not strength.” The United States, he advised Roosevelt, must “lay the ground work for a combination of democratic governments in Europe strong enough to preserve democracy in Europe and keep the Bolsheviks from replacing the Nazis as masters of Europe.”

The United States, argued Bullitt, should not rely on agreements with the Soviet Union to preserve peace and the balance of power in Europe and the world. “The onward flow of the Soviet Union,” he explained, “has never been impeded by any written agreement….Soviet invasion finds barriers in armed strength, not in Soviet promises.” That armed strength, according to Bullitt, should consist of an integrated, democratic and armed Europe backed by Great Britain and the United States.

Bullitt made it clear that the Europe he was referring to was the pre-1938 Europe. Only Bessarabia, he wrote, should be conceded to the Soviets. The only way to achieve an integrated pre-1938 Europe was to ensure that American and British military forces arrived in Eastern Europe before the Soviet army. This meant, advised Bullitt, that the Allies should attack the Axis “not by way of France and Italy but by way of Salonika and Constantinople.” In other words, Bullitt was advising FDR to marry military strategy to political ends. “[T]he strategic plan that promises political success,” wrote Bullitt, “is to be preferred to the strategic plan that promises political disaster.”77

Four months later, on May 12, 1943, Bullitt wrote a short follow-up memo to the president. He urged FDR to get commitments from the Soviet Union and Britain to help us in our war against Japan, and repeated his call for a military invasion of the Balkans to liberate Eastern and Central Europe before Soviet forces occupied the region. U.S. power was at its zenith, according to Bullitt, so it was essential that we translate that power to achieve our political goals.78

On August 10, 1943, Bullitt wrote a final letter to the president on this subject. Echoing the great theorist of war, Karl von Clausewitz, Bullitt emphasized to Roosevelt that “[w]ar is an attempt to achieve political objectives by fighting; and political objectives must be kept in mind in planning operations.” The political objectives of the United States, he explained, “require the establishment of British and American forces in the Balkans and eastern and central Europe. Their first objective should be the defeat of Germany, their second, the barring to the Red Army of the way into Europe….”

A Soviet dominated Europe would be as great a threat to the United States and Britain as a German dominated Europe, wrote Bullitt. The dilemma of U.S. policy was to find a way to “prevent the domination of Europe by the Moscow dictatorship without losing the participation of the Red Army in the war against the Nazi dictatorship.” The most important elements of such a policy were, he wrote, the “creation of a British-American line in Eastern Europe,” and the establishment of “democratic governments behind” that line.79



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