Winston Churchill once said that the only thing worse than having allies is not having them. It was an apt description of the tensions that existed between Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States during World War II.
The glue that held the Anglo-American-Soviet alliance together during the war was the determination to defeat Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, and Japan’s military government reaching for control of east Asia. The Axis powers had provoked a conflict that would eventually take upward of 50 million lives and change the face of Europe and Asia for decades. At the same time, however, as Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt , and Joseph Stalin pulled together to win the war, they held discreet aims for their respective countries that were in conflict with each other. Their skillful military and political leadership allowed the alliance to survive by temporarily muting their differences.
For Churchill and Great Britain, the goal was not only to defeat the Nazis but also to assure arrangements in postwar Europe that prevented Germany from attacking its neighbors again and provoking continental havoc as had occurred twice in the previous forty years. Churchill also believed it essential to reestablish Britain’s worldwide empire, which had allowed the United Kingdom to prosper and stand as one of the world’s handful of great powers.
For Stalin, the principal objective of the war was to eliminate German dominance of the continent and its capacity to invade Russia, as it had twice since 1914. German defeat promised to end the greatest threat to the Communist government Vladimir Lenin and Stalin had imposed on Russia and its various appendages from the Ukraine to Siberia. To achieve his goals, Stalin aimed to establish socialist satellite governments across eastern Europe, especially in Poland, which had been a corridor through which German armies had invaded czarist Russia and then the Soviet Union. For Stalin, domination of the European continent was a possible prelude to creating Communist governments around the globe–across the Middle East and throughout Asia beginning with a socialist revolution and regime in China.
For the United States, the highest possible good that could result from the second Great War of the twentieth century was the destruction of totalitarian regimes in Germany, Italy, and Japan and the rise of democracy everywhere, as President Woodrow Wilson had promised during World War I. To Roosevelt, the United States’ conversion from traditional isolationism–the impulse to close itself off from political and military involvements abroad–to internationalism–a commitment to assure that American power would remain actively involved in keeping the peace in Europe and Asia, was just as important for the future.
The Allies various postwar national aims were incompatible. Churchill and Roosevelt opposed Stalin’s plans for Soviet-controlled Communist regimes in eastern Europe, where they believed the defeat of Nazi Germany should bring self-determination . Churchill and Roosevelt also had their own differences: they were at odds over the resurrection or continuation of Britain’s colonial empire after the war. In addition, Roosevelt, reflecting American public opinion, was far more enthusiastic about establishing a new world peacekeeping organization (the United Nations ) than either Churchill or Stalin.
How, then, did Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin keep their differences under wraps until the end of the war? The clash of interests and temporary repression of tensions can be clearly seen through the events that occurred at the principal wartime Allied summits.
An early example of how Churchill and Roosevelt managed to finesse their conflicting interests was displayed at the Atlantic Conference in August 1941 before Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor made the United States a belligerent . During shipboard meetings in the North Atlantic, Churchill urged the president to bring the United States into the fighting. But Roosevelt, mindful of divided American opinion about joining the conflict, deflected the prime minister’s pressure by explaining that it would take an “incident” to produce the desired result. In the meantime, Roosevelt encouraged British hopes for a military alliance by issuing a joint declaration of war aims called the Atlantic Charter .
Japan’s December 7, 1941 attack on the U.S. fleet in Hawaii allowed America’s forces to join those of Great Britain. The considerable speculation that Roosevelt and his principal civilian and military advisers turned a blind eye to the likely Japanese attack as a way to unify Americans is unproven and unconvincing. Roosevelt, the assistant secretary of the Navy under Woodrow Wilson and an advocate of sea power, never would have allowed so much of the American fleet at Pearl Harbor to have been destroyed if he had known that an attack was coming. As Roberta Wohlstetter argued in her brilliant 1963 book, Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision: A National Failure to Anticipate, Americans at all levels of the government simply did not foresee the attack. They believed the fleet at Pearl Harbor was a deterrent to Japanese aggression in the Pacific rather than a target.
In the winter of 1941-1942, at the first Churchill-Roosevelt meeting after Pearl Harbor, the two men agreed on a Europe or Atlantic first strategy. Roosevelt was under considerable pressure to focus America’s initial military effort against Japan. But he and Churchill understood that a reasonably quick victory in the war depended on defeating Germany first: not only because Nazi Germany impressed them as a greater power than Japan but also because it would be the best way to keep the Soviet Union, which had been attacked by Hitler in June 1941, in the war. To encourage the Soviets, who had been badly mauled by Hitler’s armies in the initial battles, Churchill and Roosevelt told Stalin that they planned a cross-Channel attack on German forces in France before the end of 1942.
Unfortunately, the lack of trained forces and adequate equipment made such an assault reckless, if not impossible, before the end of the year. When it became clear that no successful invasion of Europe could occur in the fall of 1942, Churchill traveled to Moscow to report that U.S. forces would strike instead at Hitler’s armies in North Africa in November. Churchill said that he went to the Soviet capital feeling as if he were “carrying a large lump of ice to the North Pole.” Although Stalin initially showed himself “bleak and somber” at the news, he cheered up when Churchill described the bombing campaign the Allies were conducting against Germany and the plans for the invasion of North Africa.
Churchill’s message fanned the flames of Stalin’s suspicions that his allies wanted the Red Army to do the bulk of the fighting against Germany as a way to weaken the Soviet Union in preparation for postwar efforts to defeat Communism. Nevertheless, in order to assure the greatest possible coordinated assaults on German forces, he hid his doubts about Anglo-American intentions.
The muted strains in relations carried over into 1943. When Churchill and Roosevelt decided to meet at Casablanca in North Africa in January to map strategy for the coming year, they tried to persuade Stalin to join them. But with the battle of Stalingrad in progress–the turning point against the Nazis on the eastern front–and concern that face-to-face discussions with his allies would put him under pressure to support a delay in invading France, Stalin declined to attend.
Because the British and Americans continued to see the impediments to a cross-Channel attack as too great in 1943, they, as Stalin anticipated, postponed the invasion until 1944. To soften the news, Roosevelt talked Churchill into issuing an unconditional surrender demand on the Axis powers. This demand was meant to assure Stalin that a delayed invasion was not a prelude to a peace arrangement with Adolf Hitler that would bar the Soviets from any advance into central Europe. Fearful that such an announcement would make the Germans fight harder and extend the war, Churchill reluctantly agreed. Roosevelt’s success in winning British support amounted to a clever balancing act between his two allies–providing reassurance to Stalin, on the one hand, and convincing Churchill of the wisdom of demanding unconditional surrender, on the other.
At Teheran, Stalin’s principal goal was to assure a commitment to the invasion of France in the spring of 1944. Although Hitler’s armies were now in retreat across the Soviet Union, Stalin did not relish the additional sacrifices his Red Army would have to sustain to defeat the Nazis without an attack on the western front that could reduce German forces in the East. Since he was determined to push Soviet power as far west as possible, he would have been content to keep Anglo-American armies off the continent for as long as possible. But the continuing toll on Soviet manpower and matériel made him keen to relieve his armies as soon as possible.
Churchill, whose memories of British losses during World War I at Gallipoli in Turkey made him resistant to an amphibious attack on France, preferred what he called the soft underbelly strategy of attacking German power through Italy and the Balkans. But because Britain had become the least powerful of the Allies as America’s role in the fighting expanded and Britain’s shrank, he had to give in to Roosevelt and Stalin’s pressure for the 1944 D-Day invasion of France.
Churchill demonstrated Britain’s diminished power by traveling to Moscow in October 1944 to make a sphere-of-influence agreement with Stalin about their degrees of control in postwar eastern and southeastern Europe. At the meeting, Churchill and Stalin made the “percentage’s agreement” describing how much say each of them would have over Romania (90 percent Soviet, 10 percent British); Bulgaria (75 percent Soviet, 25 percent British); Yugoslavia (50 percent each); and Greece (90 percent Britain and the United States). “Might it not be thought rather cynical if it seemed we had disposed of these issues, so fateful to millions of people, in such an offhand manner?” Churchill asked Stalin. “Let us burn the paper,” Churchill proposed. “No,” replied Stalin, who was eager to have a record of Churchill’s readiness to concede Soviet control over so much of Europe. “You keep it.”
For Roosevelt at Teheran, who sided so warmly with Stalin on the cross-Channel invasion, the price he extracted from the Soviet dictator was an agreement to support a United Nations world organization as the international peacekeeping force rather than regional committees, which Stalin had previously favored. Of more immediate consequence, Stalin promised to declare war on Japan within three months of Germany’s defeat. Fearful that an invasion of Japan’s home islands might cost the United States tens and possibly hundreds of thousands of casualties–the U.S. had lost less than 200,000 troops at that point in the war–Roosevelt believed that Soviet armies tying down Japanese troops in Manchuria could speed the success of any invasion. Also, of course, Roosevelt had no assurances that an atomic bomb , which U.S. scientists were working to develop, would be ready for use on Japan before an invasion occurred.
By the time of the Yalta meeting, Stalin had the upper hand. His armies were on the verge of capturing Poland and were already in control of parts of eastern Germany. Aware through Soviet spies that the United States was nearing the acquisition of an atomic bomb and careful not to provoke his allies before the final defeat of Hitler, Stalin agreed to sign a declaration of freedom for liberated Europe as a concession to Roosevelt. He also confirmed his intention to declare war on Japan and to join a United Nations organization. In an effort not to offend the American public on questions about national self-determination , the Allies left final questions about Poland and Germany, especially Poland’s borders, to a future peace conference, though Roosevelt and Churchill largely conceded to Soviet demands to annex parts of eastern Poland.
In return for Soviet agreement to join the war against Japan, Roosevelt agreed to territorial concessions for Russia in Japan and China. These were kept secret, but their revelation after the war heightened conservative attacks on Roosevelt for having appeased Stalin by supposedly allowing him to fasten his hold on eastern Europe and opening the way for the collapse of Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist government and the victory of Mao Tse-tung’s Chinese Communists.
Roosevelt’s critics blamed the Cold War on feckless wartime policies that failed to limit Soviet power in Europe and Asia. The criticism has been greatly overdrawn. As George Kennan, the great U.S. diplomat and Soviet specialist said, “the price we paid for Soviet defeat of Hitler’s armies in the war was Moscow’s domination of east-central Europe.” It is unrealistic to believe that the United States could have kept the Soviets confined to their pre-war territories. The Cold War that ensued over postwar Soviet-American disputes was the inevitable result of fundamental ideological differences between the Soviet Union and the United States.
The World War II leadership of Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin is the story of three exceptional men whose realistic assessments of the dangers to their respective countries from Hitler’s Nazi Germany assured the survival of their nations and systems of governance. The tensions that erupted after 1945 were the natural result of the fundamental differences that time and circumstance had pushed aside. All in all, it seems fair to say that the Big Three , as journalists dubbed them, acted wisely in a period of grave peril.