From the beginning of their friendship, Franklin D. Roosevelt could not see Joseph Stalin as anything other than an ally, an anti-imperialist and proto-democrat, representing all that was modern and rational and equalitarian. Robert Nisbet concludes that Roosevelt’s arrogant blindness was the key to Soviet mischief.
World War II—especially the European theatre—intrigued Robert A. Nisbet (1913-1996) throughout his life. A staff sergeant in the Pacific Theatre during the Second World War, 1943-1945, he desired to understand the Cold War and how it had come about. After writing an article for a conservative academic journal, Modern Age, in 1986, on the friendship of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Josef Stalin, he decided to write a book exploring the topic. The result, Roosevelt and Stalin: The Failed Courtship, offered a penetrating examination of a dark period in world history. For Nisbet, America went from isolationist to accommodationist almost entirely because of Roosevelt’s wrong-headedness and misunderstanding. Though he never accuses Roosevelt of homosexual feelings for Stalin, he does accuse him of treating the Soviet dictator as a lover and himself, at times, as the spurned lover. Certainly, from the beginning of their friendship, Roosevelt could not see Stalin as anything other than an ally, an anti-imperialist and proto-democrat. The two men, in terms of upbringing, were opposites.
The very idea of the courtship is arresting: Roosevelt, patrician, born with a silver spoon, Groton- and Harvard-educated, aristocrat in American politics, deeply devoted to his national heritage; Stalin, low-born, bandit and revolutionist from his early years, successor by sheer ruthlessness to Lenin as absolute ruler of Russia, liquidator of millions of Ukrainians, cruel purger of his own party in the Moscow Trials of the mid-1930s, executioner of untold numbers of Spanish socialists during the Civil War in which he was purportedly their ally, eager participant with Hitler in the dismemberment of Poland and the Baltic States, in 1939, and totalitarian to the core.
Yet, as Nisbet noted, the two men did share one thing in common. They each loved and craved power. For Roosevelt, believing as many progressives did and do, Stalin represented all that was modern and rational and equalitarian—the future—while Churchill represented only the imperialist and dead and hierarchical past. When Roosevelt thought of Stalin, he did not think totalitarian, but rather, in his Wilsonian understanding of the world, progressive. “For Roosevelt, the real struggle democracy must wage is against, not totalitarianism, but imperialism,” Nisbet explained.
Never, it seems, did Roosevelt lose his faith in his arrogant belief that he could “handle” Stalin. Time and again, Stalin betrayed every principle of decency and humanity, and yet Roosevelt continued to have faith in him. Churchill, rather diplomatically, cautioned Roosevelt, but the United States president merely reacted to the Prime Minister in contempt. Stalin was, to Roosevelt, “Uncle Joe.” Many of Roosevelt’s men tried to warn the president as well. He always ignored them, dismissing their concerns as reactionary and unrealistic. And, not just men, but events should have warned Roosevelt as well.
On March 6, messages reached Churchill from his ambassador in Moscow about the mass arrests taking place in Cracow, with whole trainloads of Polish intellectuals, priests, professors, and labor union leaders being taken to a huge prison-work camp in Voroshilovgrad. As many as 6,000 former Home Army officers were put in a camp near Lublin, overseen and directed by Soviet officials indifferent to the publicity. The news from other parts of Europe, including the Baltic States and Rumania, was no better. All the rhetoric of democracy and liberty and representation notwithstanding, the process of sovietization was under way. The bitterness of the fruit of Yalta and the Declaration on Liberated Europe was beginning to be plain to the world.
Nothing, it seems, even after Churchill complained of this to Roosevelt, could have broken the president’s faith in Stalin, even the evidence of a massacre.
For Nisbet, Churchill and Britain should have held the respect of Roosevelt. After all, both believed in human dignity, the rule of law, and order and justice in the world. Stalin, being a totalitarian, had far more in common with Hitler—the two men being the two sides of the same coin—purging his friends and enemies, perpetrating crimes against innocent nations, and turning the world into a bloodbath. Tellingly, for Nisbet, Stalin insisted, over and over again during the Second World War that he was due everything that Hitler had promised him in the Soviet-Nazi Pact, and Roosevelt, through action and inaction, encouraged Stalin in this.
Not long after the Soviets were dragged into the war by the German invasion, and the U.S. had become perforce an ally of both Russia and Britain, Stalin let Churchill know that he expected full approval for the Soviets’ retention of all the territorial gains effected in his pact with Hitler. He wanted the large piece of Poland, the Baltic States, and everything else the pact had conferred on Russia.
Even Berlin, seemingly, was a gift to Stalin from Roosevelt. “We can’t be sure in such tenuous and controverted matters as Berlin, but it hardly taxes the imagination to suppose that this city was simply one more gift from the President, through high channels, to Stalin.” Playing with the lives of millions, Roosevelt “may well have thought to himself: with this final war gift, I will surely be able to handle Stalin in the postwar world.”
The Cold War began, then, not with Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech in Fulton, Missouri, but rather during the Teheran Conference of 1943. Yalta, according to Nisbet, was merely a ratification and affirmation of Teheran. “The Cold War began at the Teheran Conference at the end of November 1943,” Nisbet claimed. “It began with Stalin’s unmistakable and unavoidable perception of a fatal flaw in the American-British alliance, the flaw being chiefly President Roosevelt’s ineradicable hatred of all imperialism and particularly British imperialism.” To drive his point home, Nisbet compared Roosevelt’s actions at both conferences to Chamberlain’s at Munich.
In this last vital respect, Teheran can be compared with Munich in 1938. That was when Hitler realized how paper thin the alliance was between Britain and France and, with that realization, made plans immediately for war the following year. At Teheran, Stalin really began the Cold War, and did so on the basis of perceptions identical with those of Hitler at Munich. What would take place at the later Yalta summit meeting would be little more than a formalizing, a moralizing, to cover what had essentially been decided between Roosevelt and Stalin at Teheran.
Roosevelt’s arrogant weakness was the key to Soviet mischief, Nisbet concluded, leading the world into one of the greatest darknesses, 1943-1989, it had yet experienced.
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 Nisbet, Roosevelt and Stalin: The Failed Courtship (London, ENG: Simon and Schuster, 1989), 3.
 Ibid., 109.
 Ibid., 95.
 Ibid., 78.
 Ibid., 96.
 Ibid., 90.
 Ibid., 102.
 Ibid., 49.
The featured image is a photograph of Joseph Stalin and Franklin Delano Roosevelt at the Tehran Conference (1943) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.