I’ve been on a WWII and Winston Churchill binge lately, which, God willing, should continue. I have another Churchill biography to read and a lecture series on the British Empire and Commonwealth 1901-present. What a wonderful life I lead! Here are a couple of things that have become clear to me:
1) Churchill, while being quite extraordinary, and while I relate to him quite a bit, was also obnoxiously imperialistic. Bear in mind, a huge reason for his unpopularity in the decade preceding WWII was his condemnation of Ghandhi and his desire to hang on to India as an imperial possession no matter what. Thus, Churchill’s goal in WWII was to a) win the war and b) preserve the British Empire and imperial power. This annoyed FDR, and allowed FDR to kinda lump him in with Hitler and Stalin. In FDR’s mind, they were all obnoxiously old school in just wanting to take other countries over–an impulsive old world tendency.
2) FDR, however, totally screwed up in judging Stalin, and Churchill more or less read Stalin right. For instance, Churchill was very aware of Stalin’s post war ambitions of controlling half of Europe. This is why Churchill wanted to come up through the Greece, the Balkans, and Italy, and attack the soft underbelly of the Germans, instead of landing on the well defended beaches of Normandy. This different tack would have served two purposes: it would open up the second front that the Russians badly needed, and it would stop the Russians from making an enormous land grab in Eastern Europe. This makes sense to me. If I could, I would want to help the Russians defeat Germany, but not help them conquer other nations. Obviously, Stalin wanted the Normandy invasion. This is how things stood at the beginning of the Tehran Conference, the first time all three men would meet together. FDR, who seems to have possessed the power to swing the decision either way, chose to give everything to Stalin, in the hopes that such extravagance would woo him over. Not only would America and Great Britain commit primarily to Operation Overlord (the Normandy invasion), they would also pull troops away from the wonderfully successful campaign in Italy, troops that could have peeled north and east from Trieste, as one American 3-star general wanted, and how Churchill wished. Instead, these troops from the Italian campaign would concurrently invade southern France (the Riviera). In this way, and in many others, FDR acquiesced to Stalin in hopes of wooing him. The only time that I know of that FDR stands up to Stalin with some harsh words is when, during the final stages of the war as both armies were squeezing Hitler, one German general sent feelers to the British and American armies as a precursur to surrender. Stalin actually accused the British and Americans of looking to sign an immediate peace treaty so that the Germans could turn, halt, and reverse the Soviet advance. In retrospect, maybe that was not a bad idea : ) but yeah…that was not the case at all.
3) What makes FDR’s read on Stalin all the more unacceptable is that Stalin could have just as easily come into the war on the side of Germany than against it. Thank God Hitler made an enormous tactical error and invaded in June 1941. Before that invasion, Hitler and Stalin had been carving up Europe. First, they split Poland. Then Russia attacks Finland unprovoked (BTW, this campaign went awfully for the Soviets. They only took a little territory, killed 70,000 while losing 330,000 of their own. Also, Stalin got so mad he killed all the Generals involved. Hitler later commented to an aide that it is wonderful to fight an enemy who kills his own generals for you. It reminds me when Athens, in the last stages of the Peloponnesian War, had 10 of its admirals executed for not burying the dead quickly enough, and they had even won the battle!) Then Stalin took Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, and two provinces in northern Romania. The point is this: Stalin was just as ruthless, merciless, imperialistic, and aggressive as Hitler was. FDR was dumb to give stuff away to him.
4) Sometimes we forget this, but only six months after the Germans invaded the Russians, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. I think this highlights the point that Great Britain was quite alone for a long time and deserve, in my mind at least, most of the credit for stopping Hitler from taking over the world. They entered the war after giving the Germans an ultimatum after their expansion into Poland. In other words, they chose to fight because they thought it was the right thing to do. America, along with Russia, fought because they were attacked first. Also, thank goodness Japan attacked Pearl Harbor! Of course, the event was horrible, but it did finally push America into a war that it would have had to fight, sooner or later, and they got in while it was still winnable.
5) Having said all that, I do kinda wish that FDR would have lived for the post-war reconstruction and international realignment. Even if he did not understand Stalin, he seemed to realize he was wrong towards the end, and FDR was brilliant. In some ways, it feels like when we lost Lincoln after the War of Northern Aggression (yup! I said it). However, though I need to study it further, I think Truman would have been more up to the job than FDR, even if FDR was healthy. But that, as opposed to everything that I say above, is just conjecture.
Thanks for reading! Next time I will have some thoughts on Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond. That is a fantastic book.