Churchill, Roosevelt, and the
Stalin Enigma, 1941–1945
As the Second World War progressed, the Anglo-American couple became part of a m´enage aà trois. But the Soviet Union proved a difficult and unpredictable bedfellow. In a radio broadcast on 1 October 1939, Churchill described Russian foreign policy as 'a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma'. In September 1944, the American diplomat George F. Kennan felt no wiser, writing that 'Russia remains today, more than ever, an enigma for the western world'.1 In the early twenty-first century, such puzzlement may seem surprising. The rise of the superpowers seems inevitable, their ideological enmity axiomatic, and the brutality of Stalinism all too clear. Yet we need to recall the uncertainties about Russia that bedevilled the wartime alliance. At the heart of the enigma was the personality of Stalin himself.
During the Cold War, Roosevelt and Churchill attracted frequent criticism in the West for their handling of Stalin. The Yalta conference, February 1945, became the wartime analogue of Munich, September 1938, as a synonym for appeasement.2 However, the pass had already been sold by early 1945, because a Soviet presence in Eastern Europe was the result not of diplomacy (an AngloAmerican sellout) but of strategy (the delayed second front). The war of attrition that Churchill persuaded Roosevelt to wage in 1942–3 plus the unanticipated delays in taking North Africa and then Italy meant that the land war in Europe was largely decided on the Eastern Front. Between June 1941 and June 1944 (from Barbarossa to D-Day), 93 per cent of the German armed forces' combat losses were inflicted by the Soviets. In cold figures that meant 4.2 million dead,
This chapter was originally presented to a conference on 'Stalin and the Cold War' at Yale
University in September 1999, held under the aegis of the Cold War International History Project.
For a fuller study of British assumptions, published after this essay was written, see Martin
H. Folly, Churchill, Whitehall and the Soviet Union, 1940–45 (London, 2000).
1 Winston S. Churchill, Into Battle (London, 1941), 131; George F. Kennan, memo, 'Russia—
Seven Years Later', Sept. 1944, in FRUS, 1944, iv. 911.
2 On the American side, the classic study is Athan G. Theoharis, The Yalta Myths, 1945–1955:
An Issue in U.S. Politics, 1945–1955 (Columbia, Mo., 1970).