All Commentary
Sunday, October 1, 1989

Book Review: Roosevelt and Stalin: The Failed Courtship by Robert Nisbet Regnery

Gateway, 1130 17th Street NW, Washington, DC 20036 • 1988 • 120 pages • $14.95 cloth

Once at a press conference in the 1930s, a reporter asked President Franklin Roosevelt what his political philosophy was—was he a communist, a fascist, a liberal? Roosevelt seemed bewildered by the question, and after hesitating for a few moments replied, “Why, I am a Christian and a Democrat.” Roosevelt’s bewilderment seems never to have left him. He just did not think in terms of ideologies. For Roosevelt, Hitler and Mussolini were merely “gangsters,” and the law-abiding nations of the world were using their police to take them off the streets.

The same naivete hovered over Roosevelt’s relationship with Joseph Stalin. World politics seemed to be nothing more to Roosevelt than local ward politics writ large—a matter of alliances, horse-trading, personalities, and power. Personal loyalties and relationships were the heart of politics for the President. The same methods that got things done in Albany or Washington would work with Stalin at Teheran and Yalta, Roosevelt believed. The absurdity of Roosevelt’s view of how to deal with the Soviets, and the disastrous results that followed, are the themes of this book.

While the personal relationship of ward politics was to be Roosevelt’s means of dealing with Stalin, what were the ends he wished to attain? Nisbet explains that the President viewed himself as fulfilling the mission Woodrow Wilson began in World War I: to take upon himself the moral leadership of making the world safe for democracy, of molding the world in his own image of American freedom. Having given the nation a New Deal at home, Roosevelt wanted to give the entire world a New Deal. But the attainment of this goal was going to require the leadership and prodding of the two great powers, the United States and the Soviet Union.

What made Roosevelt see the Soviets as the natural partner for this task? In Nisbet’s words, “Somehow in Roosevelt’s vision all the ugly [of Soviet brutality] was squeezed out and what was left was a system in Russia not extremely different from his own New Deal . . . . the Soviet Union, with all warts conceded in advance, was still constitutionally pledged to its people to provide jobs, medical care, and welfare very much on the order of his own New Deal . . . . There was also the constitutional pledge to build a classless society . . . . the Soviet Union was forward-looking, progressive in thrust.” Stalin and the Soviets, in other words, were just like us, only a bit more uncouth.

In Roosevelt’s mind, the enemy of peace and order in the postwar era wouldn’t be Soviet Communism, but the imperialism and colonialism of the European empires, particularly Great Britain’s. This was the threat to a future of Soviet-American “democracy.”

But Stalin was suspicious of the capitalist West, Roosevelt argued. He had to be coaxed into trusting the West and working for the worldwide “New Deal.” This was the motive behind Roosevelt’s infamous remark that “I think if I give [Stalin] everything I possibly can, and ask nothing from him in return, noblesse oblige, he won’t try to annex anything and will work with me for a world of peace and democracy.” (Roosevelt’s dreams were reinforced by leftist intellectuals and government employees—a handful of whom later were found to be Soviet agents—who surrounded the President during the New Deal days and the war years.)

Stalin didn’t have to worry about pushing his own postwar demands. At the November 1943 Teheran Conference, where Roosevelt and Stalin met for the first time, the President held informal, secret meetings with the Soviet dictator. Roosevelt himself suggested that the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and the eastern portion of Poland that Stalin had seized as part of his 1939-1941 nonaggression pact with Hitler, should remain under Soviet rule. All he asked of Stalin was that he remain quiet about it so Roosevelt could get the Polish vote in the 1944 election. Roosevelt also accepted the idea of postwar eastern European governments that would be “friendly” to the Soviet Union. And Stalin was promised vast territorial gains in the Far East, if he would agree to join in the war against Japan once Hitler had been defeated. All Roosevelt asked in return was Stalin’s participation in the President’s dream of a peace-keeping United Nations in the postwar era.

As Nisbet demonstrates, the Yalta Conference of February 1945 only formalized what Roosevelt had promised at Teheran. The importance of this later conference, Nisbet explains, was that “Yalta performed a service to the Soviets that was almost as important to Stalin as the occupied areas themselves. This was the invaluable service of giving moral legitimation to what Stalin had acquired by sheer force.” Yalta legitimized and justified the Soviet domination of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, East Germany, and Mongolia. It gave moral standing to the Soviet Empire.

At the Yalta Conference, Roosevelt felt morally bound to legitimize Stalin’s claims. As the President’s confidant, Harry Hopkins, wrote Roosevelt at the conference, “The Russians have given us so much at this conference that I don’t think we should let them down.” What had Stalin given? He agreed that in the new United Nations, the Soviet Union would have only three votes—one for the U.S.S.R., one for the Soviet Ukraine, and one for Soviet White Russia—instead of 16 votes, one for each of the Soviet Republics.

And what did Stalin think of his own Yalta promises to work for a new Rooseveltian world order, and to guarantee free elections in the eastern European nations that the Red Army had conquered on its way to Berlin? In early April 1945, less than two months after the signing of the Yalta agreements, a Yugoslav Communist delegation led by Tito was in Moscow. At a late-night banquet in their honor, Stalin ruminated on the postwar era. In his book, Conversations with Stalin, Milovan Djilas recounts that Stalin at one point explained, “This war is not as in the past; whoever occupies a territory also imposes on it his own social system.” And as for the future, Stalin assured his guests, “The war shall soon be over. We shall recover in fifteen or twenty years, and then we’ll have another go at it.”

Here was the true Stalin, the real “Uncle Joe,” as Roosevelt and Churchill affectionately used to call him. And was his own postwar vision limited to eastern Europe? At the Potsdam Conference in July-August 1945, President Truman went up to Stalin and congratulated him on the successes of the Red Army, successes that had brought Soviet power to Berlin in the heart of Europe. Stalin glumly replied, “Czar Alexander reached Paris” during the war against Napoleon in the 19th century. It appears that Stalin had dreams, too.
Professor Ebeling holds the Ludwig von Mises Chair in Economics at Hillsdale College.

  • Richard M. Ebeling is BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina. He was president of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) from 2003 to 2008.