The Outbreak of the Second World War: Design or Blunder?

By John L. Snell | Go to book overview

COLD WAR ERA REVISION: STALIN'S
"BLANK CHECK" OF 1939

WILLIAM L. LANGER AND S. EVERETT GLEASON

The Nuremberg judgment blamed no nation but Nazi Germany for the outbreak of World War II. Western appeasement before 1939 was not on trial, nor was the U.S.S.R. rebuked for its obvious appeasement in the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 23, 1939. The authors of the following reading criticized both, but found the U.S.S.R. largely responsible for the failure to stop Hitler by East-West diplomatic agreements in August, 1939. William L. Langer, distinguished Harvard historian, published several impressive studies of pre-1914 diplomacy before serving with the O.S.S. (Office of Strategic Services) in World War II. A specialist before the war in medieval history at Harvard and Amherst, S. Everett Gleason also served with the O.S.S. in the Second World War. The joint study from which the following reading is taken was the product of several years of research, sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. This reading offers a detailed account of both the French- British-Soviet and the Nazi-Soviet negotiations of 1939. A successful outcome of the former might well have prevented Hitler from launching World War II; the conclusion of the latter virtually guaranteed that he would start it. If the outcome of these negotiations was primarily the fault of the Western powers, they bear a major responsibility for the outbreak of the war. If the outcome was the fault of the Soviet leaders, their responsibility for the war is second only to that of Hitler himself, and perhaps even greater than his; for Hitler viewed the Nazi-Soviet Pact as a "blank check" for his war against Poland. To get it, he betrayed his own anti-Communist principles and agreed to the first expansion of the U.S.S.R. since 1921, to the movement of Soviet forces westward into Central-Eastern Europe. In 1945 it would be impossible for Roosevelt and Churchill to deprive Stalin of what Hitler had given him in 1939.

ON May 3, 1939, the Kremlin announced that Maxim Litvinov, for many years Commissar for Foreign Affairs, had been relieved of his duties and that Vyacheslav Molotov would take over his position. Throughout the world this item of news created a sensation. It seemed obviously important, though utterly baffling. In diplomatic circles there was little inclination to accept Soviet statements that the change implied no shift in policy. Neither was it thought that Litvinov's reputed illhealth supplied an adequate explanation. What seemed most significant was that Litvinov was a Jew, that he was notoriously anti-German, and that for years he had been the vociferous champion of a system of collective security. The least that could be expected was that his dismissal presaged the abandonment of the policy or tactics theretofore supported by the Soviet leaders. The question of the hour was, then, what

____________________
From the Challenge to Isolation, 1937-1940 ( New York, 1952), by William L. Langer and S. Everett Gleason , pp. 105, 109-111, 113-121, 170-174, 176-183. Copyright 1952 by The Council on Foreign Relations. Reprinted by permission of Harper & Brothers.

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