Tag Archives: Soviet Union

Churchill, Stalin, and FDR

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.

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My Last (and longest) Post on the Middle East

I just finished Professor Yaqub’s 24 lectures on the history of the Middle East 1915-9/11.  I found it very interesting, and remarkably depressing.  Alicia is going through the same thing right now as she is studying the history of development practice.  It feels like a history of dashed hopes.  This, I think, is true of all history, but this type of history especially.

At the end of the lecture series, Yaqub categorized what amounts to two camps, with most people falling somewhere in between, with responses to the question of why Middle Eastern-US relations are so bad.  One camp points to specific modern day grievances, such as American support of Israeli oppression, the iraqi sanctions that led to roughly 500,000 iraqi deaths, and the presence of American infidel troops on holy Islamic soil on the Arabian peninsula.  Another camp points to specific ancient cultural and civilizational differences that make bad relations in many ways inevitable no matter what happens.  He mentions Bernard Lewis and Huntington as the big names in this second camp.

A few weeks ago, I finished Bernard Lewis’ “What went Wrong: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East.”  I had just gotten the book from the library, having no idea that it was an important work in the field, and by an important thinker, who was often invited by GWB to the White House to advise on Middle East policy. (Lewis was also the guy who said that Middle Easterners respect power and a firm-hand.  “Staying the course” was then the wisest strategy in nearly any tussle with them.)

Lewis’s basic idea is fairly straightforward: what went wrong? Christianity was initially the political and religious rival of an emerging Islam.  But, for years and years, this rivalry was not taken seriously because it was painfully obvious to anyone who travelled to medieval Europe and medieval Arabia that the Arab world was way way WAY ahead of them in virtually everything: the arts, human rights, literature, mathematics, architecture….every standard of civilizational progress.  (Interesting fact: for centuries, oppressed peoples fled Europe for shelter in the more tolerant and peaceful Arab world.)  Eventual domination of Christianity and the west by Islam and the Arabs seemed inevitable.

As we all know, however, the moors were kicked out of Spain.  The Ottomans were stopped twice at Vienna.  And the tide slowly started to turn.  For years, middle easterners had not even been looking at the west, assuming that they were barbarians and generally pathetic.  Suddenly, they were being forced to adopt western ways of doing things just to keep up, especially ways of conducting warfare, but also things like clocks and standard measurements of weights.  Not only was it necessary to adopt western ways of fighting, they had to have westerners come and teach them how to create effective armies, a huge blow to civilizational pride.  The knock out punch, if you could call it that, was Napoleon’s escapade in Egypt, in which a relatively small force of 30,000 Europeans captured what I believe was the most populous Muslim state at the time.  Lewis thinks that this “clash of civilizations,” a phrase he coined, led to  an underlying resentment and hatred which permeates and undermines western-middle eastern relations today.

While I was initially compelled by this theory, I have come to believe that it is not very relevant.  America was widely liked at the beginning of the 20th century.  A benign power not yet tested, most American interest in the region was philanthropic, and middle easterner greatly preferred America to France or England.

I think two factors did more to erode the American position in the Middle East than anything else: our willingness to do almost anything to contain the Soviets and our continual support for Israel.

Why does American values stop so quickly at the water’s edge?  Anyone who knows me knows that I very selfishly desire meaning over money.  In the same way, I wish America was a little more philanthropic in its foreign policy; we would all feel better about ourselves.

Will Airhart, in a comment to an earlier post, mentioned that when we have intervened, it  has not worked out.  I want it to be clear that I am not advocating interventionism at this time.  I am simply advocating not helping governments suppress it citizens.  In the Middle East, we have generally acted as if we were France in 1780, but instead of coming to aid America, we provided arms to England in order to suppress the American revolution.

This sort of thing we keep doing, even now that the Soviet Union is gone.

I love the Kurds.  The Kurds in Turkey and Iraq have been oppressed for years.  The reason why they have not been allowed to form their own country seems to be that Turkey is an ally of the US, a NATO member.  This pushes the US to not allow the Kurds in Iraq to form their own state either, because empowered Turkish Kurds might threaten the territorial integrity of Turkey.

I love America for the Marshall Plan, for our overall restraint post WWII, for our continual  evolving government, for our constitution, for many things.  But I hate America for how its treated the people of the Middle East.

Ok.  I want to talk about more fun things now.  My next book is Jesus of Nazareth by Pope Benedict the XVI.


We Missed Our Chance!

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, I think we missed our chance.  Up til that point, nearly all of our foreign policy objectives had been subsumed by the main objective: containing the Soviets.  Fostering democracy and human rights took a back seat.  In numerous countries especially in the middle east (“especially” only because I happen to be studying the middle east right now), we supported vicious tyrannical regimes against revolutionary forces simply because they had potential to go communist (though of course, sometimes there were already communist).  We kept military bases around the world.  We supported bad guys because we needed air bases.  We supported bad guys because we needed oil.  We embraced the status quo because we were trying to stop change for the worse.   We made selfish trade decisions, because we needed to keep ourselves strong to deter the Soviet threat to the whole world.

Regardless of what one might think of the Soviet Union, and whether or not it was worth deterring (I think it was), when we look at our foreign policy history, containing that threat was our main reason for pretty much everything we did, good or bad.  You would think that the Soviet collapse should have changed more than it did.

Our policies should have changed internally as well.  Reagan’s enormous defense spending spree was based on the Soviet threat.  In 1991, we should have gotten our house in order, and Clinton did balance the budget in fact, and we should not have allowed something as relatively insignificant as Islamic fundamentalism (compared to the Cold War and WWII) to balloon the debt and the culture of fear.

Instead, I wish Clinton, not because he was a democrat, but just because he was President at that time, would have made a speech in which he would have apologized to the world, even to specific countries, for how we had meddled in their affairs and how we had not stood for democracy, human rights, and economic fairness.  He should have promised to revisit our approach to every single country and region based on human rights, economic equity, and democratic ideals.  And he should have asked forgiveness by explaining how what we did we did out of a fear of the Soviet Union.

His speech could have ended,

“As the world’s only remaining superpower, we will not make it our goal to remain on top.  All great powers eventually fall and we will too.  When our time is up, when we slide below others in measurements of literacy, GDP, life expectancy, population, land controlled, and military capabilities, we want to have done so without making enemies and without creating more war-inspiring hatred and prejudice.  In other words, our greatness will not be determined by how strong we were for how long, but how much better the world became while we were strong.  Only this better world can ensure America’s long term security

‘In this world, tyrannical regimes are not welcome.  In fact, totalitarian regimes, you should know now, we will treat with you, we will accept your diplomats, but we will not respect them as legitimate representatives of your country if your country’s government is not a legitimate representative of your people.  We must get away from having policies for individual dictators or kings.  Instead, we are on the side of the people.  We may not always know what that means, but we will make the assumption that the people want, at least, these four things: 1) a say in how their government is run 2) the ability to make a decent living 3) the freedom to choose their own religion 4) the desire for their government to deal peacefully with disagreement both domestic and foreign.

‘Creating this new world will not be easy, but it is the only way to ensure our collective and long term security and prosperity.  Thank you.”

We missed our chance and it makes me sad.

(I have been listening to a lecture course by Dr. Salim Yaqub, University of Chicago called “The United States and the Middle East 1914-9/11.”  Professor Yaqub got his PhD at Yale and he currently teaches at UC Santa Barbara where he heads the Center for Cold War Studies and International History.  I find the lecture series fascinating, but I think he tends to denigrate the United States a little bit and leans left generally.)