Strength through cooperation:
Soviet-American Relations during World War II
Your Excellency Mr. Ambassador, dear friends and colleagues!
I am very grateful to IRC for its invitation and a chance to address this audience in such a distinguished company of speakers.
Thinking about different periods in the history of the Russian/Soviet-American relations, it occurred to me that “strength” and “cooperation”, two words which figure in the title of our symposium, are not mutually exclusive. Strength can be achieved and maintained through cooperation.
For the Soviet Union the period of the Great Patriotic War, as WWII is usually called in Russia, was the crucial time when the international status of the Russian state was radically transformed – from the rouge of the Versailles system to one of the leading Great Powers of the world, the super-power along with the United States. But the price of access to the new status was extremely high. President John F. Kennedy in his famous American University speech of 1963 (nineteen sixty three) here on this ground put it very clearly: “…no nation in the history of battle ever suffered more than the Soviet Union in the Second World War. At least 20 million lost their lives. Countless millions of homes and families were burned or sacked. A third of the nation’s territory, including two thirds of its industrial base, was turned into a wasteland – a loss equivalent to the destruction of this country east of Chicago”. The total amount of causalities from all related causes which is estimated at 26 (twenty six) million and 600 (six hundred thousand) people is hard even to imagine.
The symbols of these sacrifices and heroic victories which were based on them are numerous: the battle of Moscow of 1941 (nineteen forty one) when the German armies in Europe were stopped and beaten for the first time since the beginning of the war; the blockade of Leningrad (today Saint-Petersburg) of 1941 – 1944 (nineteen forty one – nineteen forty four) (more than 640 (six hundred and forty) thousand people died only from the starvation); the battle of Stalingrad (today Volgograd) of 1942 – 1943 (nineteen forty two – nineteen forty three) – the “turning point” of the war; the battle of Kursk of 1943 (nineteen forty three), after which wehrmacht finally lost the strategic initiative in the war; last but not least, the battles of liberation of Belorussia of 1944 (nineteen forty four) (operation “Bagration”) – the masterpiece of the Soviet military command, decisive thrust opening the way to the liberation of Poland and the victorious operations of 1945 (nineteen forty five) on the territory of Germany itself.
During the war even those Western officials, who often were skeptical about Soviet system or policy, acknowledged the immense scale of the sacrifices of the Soviet people. One of them, U.S. Ambassador in Moscow William Standley, after his trip to Stalingrad in August 1943 (nineteen forty three) cabled to Washington: “I was deeply impressed at what I saw in heroic city which in my mind will always remain as a testimonial of courage and unflinching tenacity in face of terrible sufferings and hardships of the Russian Army and people in their war against German invaders”.
The victory of the Soviet Union was based primarily on sacrifices and heroic will of its own people, on the resources of the country which were skillfully mobilized for the war. But in the same time the victory over Germany and its allies was the result of the common efforts of the “Grand Alliance”, the Soviet Union, the United States and the Great Britain. It was the victory achieved in the coalition war, the main theater of which was the Soviet-German front. This cooperation included not just the lend-lease program but also massive military operations. The history of the operation “Bagration”, which took place in 1944 (nineteen forty four) – the peak of the inter-allied cooperation – is especially indicative. Already at Tehran conference of 1943 (nineteen forty three) Stalin had promised to Roosevelt and Churchill to start the massive offensive on the Soviet-German front to support the Allied landing on the North of France – the famous “Overlord”. As revealed by recent Russian scholarship, the Soviet planning of “Bagration” including a final decision about its launching date were closely linked to the information about the date of beginning of the “Overlord”, which the Western Allies sent to Moscow.
The Soviet readiness to support the Anglo-American action in France was deeply appreciated by the Western Allies. As Roosevelt wrote to Stalin on the 22 (twenty second of) June 1944 (nineteen forty four), “Your good action (the word “good” was inserted by Roosevelt himself) together with our efforts on the Western Front should quickly put the Nazis in a very difficult position”. You can see the image of this message and Roosevelt’s handwritten insertion on the screen.
Stalin’s reaction to the long-awaited opening of the “second front” on the 6 (sixth of) June 1944 (nineteen forty four) was also warm and friendly. He didn’t limit himself to expressing confidence in the success of the “Overlord” in the personal messages to Roosevelt and Churchill but decided to add some personal touch. He sent to Roosevelt his silver-framed photo in uniform with all decorations, inscribed as follows: “To President Franklin D. Roosevelt in memory of the day of the invasion of Northern France by the Allied American and British liberating armies. From his friend Joseph V. Stalin. June 6, 1944 (nineteen forty four)”. All words in this inscription were significant: adjective “Allied” before the “American and British”, the definition of their armies as “liberating” and certainly the word “friend” in the bottom. The vast scale of human and especially technical resources used during the “Overlord” (about 7 thousand of ships, 13 (thirteen) thousand of planes and so on) impressed Stalin. “History of wars doesn’t know another such enterprise characterized by such breadth of conception, vastness of scale and mastery of implementation” – he said in the interview to newspaper “Pravda” on the 14 (fourteenth of) June.
The experience of the Soviet-American relations clearly shows that to acquire strength is not enough, it is necessary to maintain and develop it in the international environment where other states have interests of their own. Diplomacy is the key non-lethal instrument by which power of state is implemented in decisions which correspond to its interests. The idea that coalition victory in the Second World War should lead to the post-war order based on the continuing cooperation between the United Nations was especially dear to President Roosevelt. But it was important to Stalin as well. For him good personal relations with Roosevelt were the vital element of his own grand strategy aimed at victory over Germany and securing new expanded zone of influence in Europe and the Far East. The economic and financial power of the United States was also taken into account: the Soviet Union, devastated during the war, was deeply interested in the American post-war aid and trade. The personality of Roosevelt was also important: his initiative in establishing the diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union in 1933 (nineteen thirty three), progressive social and economic policy (“New Deal”), personal reputation in pushing forward lend-lease and restraining anti-Soviet attitudes of some American officials – all these facts were well known and highly appreciated in Moscow. At the same time thanks to the efficiency of Soviet intelligence Moscow knew about the other side of Roosevelt’s diplomacy – keeping Anglo-American atomic project in secret from the Soviet ally.
Allied relations are often difficult. As Churchill used to say: “There is only one thing worse than fighting together with Allies – and that is fighting without them”. The “Grand Alliance” was no exception and contained serious contradictions. But the willingness and ability to settle them is perhaps more interesting and revealing than the mere fact of their existence.
The difficulties between Soviet Union and the Western Allies had different roots. Strategic realities mattered. Soviet insistence on the opening of the “second front” – the constant feature of the inter-allied diplomacy during 1941 – 1944 (nineteen forty one – nineteen forty four) – was dictated, especially before the decisive turn of 1943 (nineteen forty three), by the vital military necessity to divert enough German divisions from the Soviet-German front to relieve the Red Army. The Allies’ dragging feet on the “second front” was perceived not only as selfish but as the deliberate weakening of the Soviet ally. Maxim Litvinov, the Soviet Ambassador to the Unites States, who was viewed as a westerner among the Soviet diplomats, in June 1943 (nineteen forty three) analyzed the American and British policy in the following way: “There is no doubt that military calculations of both states are based on the intention to exhaust the Soviet Union as much as possible in order to reduce its role in solution of post-war problems”. Litvinov’s report was attentively read by Foreign Minister Viacheslav Molotov: the words “intention to exhaust the Soviet Union as much as possible” were underlined by his pencil, as you can see on the screen.
The objective difference of the situation in which Soviet Union, the United States and the Great Britain found themselves during the war was also a factor of contradictions, sometimes aggravated by subjective difficulties of mutual misunderstanding. Stalin represented the country which was heavily attacked by the mighty enemy, who occupied the substantial and the most developed part of its territory. The very existence of the country and its people were at stake up to the “decisive turn” of 1943 (nineteen forty three). To survive in this “total war” struggle was possible only by extreme efforts and full mobilization of national resources and will. There was simply no other choice and everything was subordinated to the ultimate aim of victory. You can see on the screen the draft of Stalin’s message to Churchill written in October 1942 (nineteen forty two) during the crucial days of the Stalingrad battle when it seemed that city could be captured by Germans. The extreme pressure of the military situation is reflected even in its form – hasty pencil handwritten sentences on small notebook sheets. It was an appeal to the Allies to accelerate supplies of the much needed aircrafts – ‘Spitfires’ and ‘Aeracobras’.
The strategic situation of the Western Allies was not so grave. For the Great Britain the real menace of the Nazi invasion had passed with the formation of the Soviet-German front which absorbed the bulk of German military forces. The price of the British contribution to the victory and degree of its influence in the post-war world – that was at stake for London. The United States’ position was even more advantageous. Invulnerable to direct German assault, having huge economic capacity and another precious resource– time for its gradual mobilization, America could afford to conduct the war in a rather orderly, life saving way. In this sense the war which was ‘total’ for one side, was not so total for the other.
Understanding the difficulties of the other side was not easy. As our analysis of the personal correspondence between Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill has clearly proved, they represented two different socio-cultural traditions: Anglo-American and Soviet-Russian. Stalin’s suspiciousness can be explained not only by his Marxist frame of analysis (socialist Soviet Union versus capitalist states) but also by the deep-rooted Russian perception of the West as “cunning” and ‘perfidious’. Stalin, the contemporary of the First World War, was anxious not to allow the West to use Russians as cannon fodder. He was determined to obtain such results of the post-war settlement that corresponded to the Soviet contribution to the victory over the common enemy. As he said to the U.S. ambassador Averell Harriman in March 1944 (nineteen forty four), “all think that the Russians are work-hands. The Russians ought to liberate Poland, and the Poles want to obtain Lvov. All think that the Russians are fools”. Not to be deceived – this motive was deeply seated in Stalin’s mind.
Above mentioned factors affected not only actions of the three leaders but also their perceptions of situation and estimates of actions by the others. It was difficult for Stalin to understand the slowness of the Western Allies in aiding the Soviet Union. Roosevelt and especially Churchill underestimated how critical the situation on the Soviet-German front was in 1941 – 1942 (nineteen forty one – nineteen forty two), they criticized Stalin for little attention he paid to the difficulties of the United States and the Great Britain in war with Germany and Japan on the other battle fronts.
Roosevelt, however, was more empathic than Churchill. In a number of cases the President showed ability to put himself into Stalin’s shoes, to demonstrate tact and respect – this indispensable quality in any relations. His message to Churchill of 29 (twenty ninth of) July 1942 (nineteen forty two) during the heavy wehrmacht assault on the Soviet-German front deserves the quotation: “We have got always to bear in mind the personality of our Ally and the very difficult and dangerous situation that confronts him. No one can be expected to approach the war from a world point of view whose country has been invaded. I think we should try to put ourselves in his place”.
Given all these complicating factors, the common achievements of the “Grand Alliance” were very significant and not guaranteed. Despite mutual suspicions and differences, the three leaders and their countries managed to cooperate and achieve the victory over Axis powers. These days, 70 years after the epic event, it is easy to forget what kind of evil was represented by that combination and what was at stake for the whole world in that great battle. In fact, some of your students, as we hear from American history teachers, have problems understanding why on earth Americans were fighting Germans in WWII. For the war generation on both sides of the Atlantic there was no such question. Back then it was crystal clear what the war was about. “Time” magazine in its first editorial after V-Day put it well: “This war was a revolution against the moral basis of civilization. It was conceived by Nazis in conscious contempt for the life, dignity and freedom of individual man and deliberately prosecuted by means of slavery, starvation and the mass destruction of noncombatants’ lives. It was a revolution against the human soul”. There was also no doubt then about who contributed the most to destruction of this hellish evil. “Russians have deserved eternal gratitude for having been willing to shed more blood to crush it than any other nation, – “Time” went on. – For people who after centuries of suppression had barely tasted or even realized the blessings of civilized life it was especially great a contribution”.
The experience of Soviet-American cooperation during WWII is certainly significant for our days as shown by continued interest of scholars and society in its history. In commemoration of the 70 years anniversary of the victory in the war many new publications are coming out in Russia. I would like to draw your attention to two of them. First, the documentary research concerning the correspondence between Stalin, Roosevelt / Truman, Churchill / Attlee during the Second World War. This two-volume study was conducted at MGIMO University by Professor Vladimir Pechatnov and myself as a junior co-author. Based on multi-archival research in all three countries, it represents a new look on the main channel of personal communication between the ‘Big Three’ and their personal relations. The Russian edition is due by early May and there are plans for its English-language version. So, I hope that many of you will have the opportunity to read it.
Another and most ambitious research project was conducted under the auspices of the Russian Ministry of Defense. It is a twelve-volume collective undertaking under the title “The Great Patriotic War 1941 – 1945 (nineteen forty one – nineteen forty five)”. It is a new comprehensive analysis covering all main aspects of war history from its origins and conduct (policy, economy, military strategy, diplomacy, intelligence, home front, etc.) to its results and lessons. Professor Pechatnov and myself were among its many authors. There is a special volume on the Allies which in my view is very balanced and respectful of their contribution. I would like to present the electronic edition of this fundamental work to the American University with hope that it will find its readers. Thank you very much for your attention.