Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.: FDR at Yalta

Roundup: Talking About History

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., in the Times Literary Supplement (5-25-05):

[This is an edited version of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr’s foreword to My Dear Mr Stalin: The complete correspondence of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph V. Stalin, edited by Susan Butler, to be published by Yale University Press in December.]

Roosevelt and Stalin met only twice – in Tehran in November 1943 and in Yalta in February 1945. They met each time with the third of the Big Three, Winston Churchill. By the time they met at Yalta, all three were old and tired. Churchill, who had spent the 1930s in constant frustration, was seventy-one. Stalin at sixty-six had governed his country for seventeen draining years. Roosevelt, who had turned sixty-three the week before the Yalta meeting, had led his country through the worst economic depression and the worst foreign war in its history. Now they were together to lay the foundation for the peace to come. Roosevelt and Stalin had been corresponding since Hitler’s surprise attack on the Soviet Union in 1941, an exchange that ran to more than 300 letters. It is a curiosity of scholarship that the full correspondence was never published during the Cold War.

Was FDR too sick at Yalta to put up a strong case for the United States? His health was poor and his energy level was low; but I do not gather from conversations with persons who were with him at Yalta that his defences were down. Charles E. Bohlen, a State Department Soviet expert who served as Roosevelt’s interpreter with Stalin, summed up the general testimony: “While his physical state was certainly not up to normal, his mental and psychological state was certainly not affected. He was lethargic but when important moments arose, he was mentally sharp. Our leader was ill at Yalta . . . but he was effective”. I interviewed Sir Frank Roberts, later British Ambassador to Moscow. “The hand of death was on him,” Roberts said, “but it didn’t impede his role at Yalta. He was in charge and achieved everything he had come to do. No problem at Yalta derived from Roosevelt’s illness.” As for the Soviet side, I asked Valentin Berezhkov, Stalin’s interpreter, who replied in a letter to me that Roosevelt’s health “was certainly worse than in Tehran, but everybody who watched him said that in spite of his frail appearance his mental potential was high. Before he got tired, he was alert, with quick reactions and forceful arguments”.

“Stalin treated Roosevelt with great esteem,” Berezhkov added, “and as far as I know did not make any comment on FDR’s condition. He certainly could have, in private with his closest colleagues, but none of them ever mentioned it.” Roberts thought that “Roosevelt and Churchill were susceptible to Stalin because he did not fit the dictator stereotype of the time. He was not a demagogue; he did not strut in flamboyant uniforms. He was soft-spoken, well organized, not without humour, knew his brief – an agreeable façade concealing unknown horrors”.

Roosevelt had no illusions about Stalin’s Russia. “The Soviet Union, as everybody who has the courage to face the fact knows,” he told the American Youth Congress in February 1940, “is run by a dictatorship as absolute as any other dictatorship in the world.” But FDR, and Churchill too, knew how much the democracies owed the Red Army for the prospective defeat of Adolf Hitler. D-Day would never have succeeded if Stalin had not detained most of the Nazi Army on Germany’s Eastern Front. By the time the Big Three gathered at Yalta, the Red Army was forty-four miles from Berlin.

Much has been made of Roosevelt’s alleged naivety about the Soviet Union and his alleged conviction that he could charm Stalin into postwar harmony. Certainly FDR had no expert understanding of Leninist ideology or of the terrible internal nature of Stalinist society. He responded to what he saw of Soviet behaviour in the world, and he never saw very far into the Soviet Union. Always an optimist, he hoped that the wartime alliance would bridge the ideological chasm and create a new reality for the peace. Even with the benefit of hindsight, this still seems a hope worth testing. It had to be tested in any case before the peoples of the democracies could be persuaded that their vital allies were in fact mortal foes.

Did Roosevelt really believe that he could charm Stalin out of the tree? As Walter Lippmann suggested, he was too cynical for that: “He distrusted everybody. What he thought he could do was outwit Stalin, which is quite a different thing”. Perhaps the American President was not so hopelessly naive after all. For Stalin was not the helpless prisoner of Leninist ideology. The Soviet dictator saw himself less the disciple of Marx and Lenin than their fellow prophet. Roosevelt was surely right in regarding Stalin as the only lever available to the democracies against the rigidities of Leninism. Only Stalin had the power to rewrite Communist doctrine, as he had already re-written Russian history and Russian science. Roosevelt’s determination to court Stalin,
to work on and through Stalin, was, I believe, based on the astute reflexes of a master politician. Changing Stalin’s mind was the only chance the West had to keep the peace. ...

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