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Walter C Uhler » American History, Military History, Russian History » The 60th Anniversary of VE Day, Bush’s Visit to Russia and America’s Hypocrisy about “Spheres of Influence”

The 60th Anniversary of VE Day, Bush’s Visit to Russia and America’s Hypocrisy about “Spheres of Influence”

As President Bush prepares to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the May 8–9, 1945 surrender of Nazi Germany to American, British and Soviet forces, Americans might well use the occasion to finally acknowledge the preponderant role played by the Soviet Union’s Red Army in ensuring Germany’s defeat. It may have saved Western civilization. As historian Robert Service acknowledges in his recent biography of Joseph Stalin, were it not for the Soviet victory in World War II, “perhaps Germany would permanently have bestridden the back of the European continent.”1

True, Stalin’s overtures to Hitler and the consequent signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop nonaggression pact on 24 August 1939 facilitated Hitler’s invasion of Poland, which precipitated World War II. But Stalin turned to Hitler only after it became clear that France and Great Britain saw little value in the anti-Hitler alliance sought by the Soviet Union.

And precisely because Stalin had few illusions about Hitler’s long-term plans to transform Untermenschen Slavs into slaves serving Germans, he viewed the pact as a means to gain time to prepare the Soviet military for war. The pact also contained secret provisions that allowed the Soviet Union to gobble up eastern Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Finland and Bessarabia. But to Stalin, such territorial expansion was primarily a means to establish a Soviet-controlled buffer between Germany and the Soviet Union.

But, while Stalin schemed to delay war, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was courting war. Thus, “six months before Pearl Harbor, lacking a declaration of war and without the knowledge of Congress or the American people, the Commander in Chief gave the Atlantic Fleet approval to change from defensive to offensive operations”2 against German and Italian warships. Moreover, one month before Pearl Harbor, FDR “polled his cabinet about ‘whether the people would back us up in case we struck at Japan down there.”3 One week later, General George Marshall told a group of bureau chiefs and news correspondents: “We are preparing an offensive war against Japan, whereas the Japs believe we are preparing only to defend the Phillipines [sic].”4

In June 1940, Roosevelt had told military planners that he imagined America at war, “but with naval and air forces only.”5 He wished “to use the nation’s economic and technological resources rather than ground forces” and hoped to “have allies bear the brunt of any fighting;”6 a hope that seemed quite plausible after Soviet forces joined the war in June 1941.

Consequently, FDR was quite willing to overrule State Department officials who opposed unconditional aid to the Soviet Union. And overrule them he did, as soon as he became convinced (notwithstanding contrary advice from his military attaché in Moscow) that such aid would not be wasted on an ally incapable of withstanding the German onslaught.

Thus, he was in complete agreement with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, when the latter asserted (one week before Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union): “Should this new war break out we shall of course give all encouragement and any help we can spare to the Russians, following the principle that Hitler is the foe we have to beat.”7

By late 1941, with the realization “that Congress was not likely to approve the creation of a land army of the size deemed necessary to defeat Germany,” it was becoming clear that “the best—perhaps only—way to defeat Germany would be to maintain the Soviet front.”8 Thus, on 7 November 1941, FDR placed aid to the Soviet Union under the Lend-Lease program.

But, according to a noted historian, David M. Glantz, “Lend-Lease aid did not arrive in sufficient quantities to make a difference between defeat and victory in 1941-1942.”9 Instead, credit for the Soviet Union’s survival during that period must go to the waves of Red Army soldiers mobilized for battle.

Nevertheless, as the war continued, Lend-Lease food, clothing and raw materials helped countless Soviet citizens while easing the burden on the Soviet economy. More significantly, “without Lend-Lease trucks, rail engines, and railroad cars, every Soviet offensive would have stalled at an earlier stage, outrunning its logistical tail in a matter of days.”10

Yet, Lend-Lease was far from decisive. According to Glantz, had Stalin and his commanders been left to their own devices, it “might have taken 12 to 18 months longer to finish off the Wehrmacht,” but “the ultimate result would probably have been the same, except that Soviet soldiers could have waded at France’s Atlantic beaches.”11

The Red Army’s liquidation of Germany’s Sixth Army (147,000 dead, 91,000 prisoners) at Stalingrad in February 1943 destroyed the myth of German invincibility and marked the beginning of the end of World War II in Europe. But that idea did not register around the world until Soviet forces gave Germany’s Blitzkrieg its worst defeat at Kursk, in July 1943.

Perhaps the very pointed assessment by John Erickson said it best: “The portents of the outcome at Kursk were enormous. Demonstrably the Red Army could strike for Berlin ‘with no outside assistance,’ setting off alarm bells in the West. The ‘Second Front’ was finally agreed in November 1943.”12

Recently, Russian historian Valentin Falin made the assertion that, as a consequence of the Wehrmacht’s strategic defeat at Kursk, “American and British chiefs of staff, as well as Churchill and Roosevelt held a meeting in Quebec on August 20. They discussed whether the United States and Britain should withdraw from the anti-Hitler coalition and unite with Nazi generals for a joint war against the Soviet Union.”13

This author has found no evidence in the secondary literature to support Falin’s allegation. And, in fact, a second front against Hitler was established on D-Day and the ensuing Battle of Normandy. But what Americans need to realize is, notwithstanding films like “Saving Private Ryan” and the histories written by Stephen Ambrose, historian Norman Davies probably was correct when he claimed that “the D-Day landings would be the sole operation fought by western armies that might scrape into the war’s top 10 battles.”14

Davies adds: “In one single operation in 1944, when demolishing the Army Group Mitte in Byelorussia, Marshall Rokossovsky destroyed a collection of Wehrmacht divisions equivalent to the entire German deployment on the western front.”15 And he quotes German sources that “state unequivocally that 75–80% of Germany’s losses were incurred on the eastern front.”16

World War II claimed the lives of some 27 million Soviet citizens. It claimed the lives of some 13 million Red Army soldiers. As Robert Service notes, “Stalin was not innocent of blame: his policies of imprisonment and deportation had added to the total.”17 Moreover, countless Soviet citizens died due to Stalin’s poor preparation for war. Yet, “no fewer than 1,710 Soviet towns had been obliterated by the Germans along with around seventy thousand [70,000] villages. Even where the Wehrmacht failed to set fire to entire townships, it succeeded in burning down hospitals, radio stations and libraries.”18

It’s in light of such suffering and devastation that it’s safe to say that American war deaths numbered a “mere” 400,000. But it’s also safe to conclude that, thanks to the heroics of the Red Army, Roosevelt got the type of war he wanted in Europe.

Professor Davies knows full well that when FDR met with Stalin at Teheran in November/December 1943, Roosevelt secured Stalin’s agreement to join the war against Japan and to participate in a post-war international organization, based upon FDR’s concept of the “four policemen.”19 But, in exchange—as Mary Glantz notes in her recent book, FDR and the Soviet Union—”Roosevelt acquiesced to Stalin’s demands for territorial acquisition and the creation of a Soviet sphere of influence in eastern Europe.”20

Ms. Glantz makes two additional relevant points about spheres on influence: (1) It was “abundantly clear” to FDR and Churchill “that the Red Army would liberate large chunks of eastern and central Europe with or without Allied assistance. First and foremost, this included Poland and much of the Balkans.”21 (2) “When Roosevelt and Churchill accepted the surrender of the Italian government in September 1943 and welcomed Charles de Gaulle as the leader of the French, they also accepted the principle that liberating countries would retain the dominant influence in the countries they liberated.”22

Davies also knows that Churchill met with Stalin in Moscow in October 1944 to broker post-war spheres of influence in the Balkans. For example Churchill offered Stalin 90% control over Rumania in return for his agreement to permit Great Britain 90% control over Greece. Churchill offered differing percentages for Yugoslavia, Hungary and Bulgaria. Davies also knows that FDR approved of that “naughty document.”23

Yet, because Stalin had been “habitually given to mass murder”24 Davies cannot reconcile himself to the Soviet Union’s “liberation” of Eastern Europe (known to most of us as resubjugation). He cannot reconcile himself with the sad observation of Thucydides’ Athenians: “For we both alike know that into the discussion of human affairs the question of justice enters only where the pressure of necessity is equal, and that the powerful exact what they can and the weak grant what they must.”25

But, Davies might ask himself whether the two Polish, two Bulgarian and three Romanian armies that accompanied the Red Army into Eastern Europe to ensure “regime change” in those countries differed so much from President Bush’s “coalition of the willing,” which conducted an illegal, immoral invasion to bring about “regime change” in Iraq.

First, Davies would have to concede that Stalin had more legitimate security reasons for his “liberation” than did Bush. Second, although America’s imperialism normally is enforced by periodic interventions, rather than the heavy-handed occupation that the Soviet Union inflicted on Eastern Europe, the Bush administration is building fourteen permanent U.S. military bases in Iraq. And like the Soviet presence in Eastern Europe, it is a safe bet that American soldiers will be occupying those bases fifty years from now.

Anyone who doubts that Iraq is in America’s sphere of influence simply needs to recall that, soon after the invasion, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz issued a memorandum that restricted the bidding on contracts to rebuild Iraq to “companies from the U.S., Iraq, coalition partners and force contributing nations.”

But, if America often demands its spheres of influence (note especially the Monroe Doctrine), when FDR died and his successor, President Harry Truman, found himself in sole possession of the atomic bomb, the new president saw no need to recognize the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence in Eastern Europe.

It was Truman, in the wake of Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, who asserted: “If we see that Germany is winning we ought to help the Russians and if Russia is winning we ought to help Germany and that way let them kill as many as possible, although I don’t want to see Hitler victorious under any circumstances.”26 Thus, not only was Truman out of step with FDR’s decision to bet on the Red Army, such rhetoric fueled Stalin’s suspicions about why the Allies delayed so long in establishing a second front.

According to Mary Glantz, soon after FDR’s death, his ambassador to the Soviet Union, Averell Harriman, returned to Washington specifically to warn Truman “the Soviet Union was violating the Yalta agreements, especially with regard to Poland. He advised the president that the United States had to take a more forceful stance toward the Kremlin. In short, Harriman persuaded the president to adopt the very course that Roosevelt had been struggling against throughout the war.”27

Thus, whereas FDR was not willing “to risk postwar cooperation with the Soviet Union over the Polish issue,28 Truman was. Not only did Truman make Poland a bigger issue, on 12 March 1947 he appeared before a joint session of Congress to request $400 million in assistance to Greece and Turkey. In what came to be called the Truman Doctrine, the president declared his determination to resist aggressive communism. According to Melvyn P. Leffler, “the president dramatized the situation to transform public attitudes and win support for a new initiative.”29

Truman’s speech had the effect of “framing” the Cold War. “By defining the enemy as inveterately hostile, it eliminated the prospect for compromise and accommodation.”30 Moreover, by framing perceptions of the Kremlin, officials were relieved “of the need to try to reconcile their diverse geopolitical and economic goals abroad with their desire to get along with the Kremlin. Policymakers need not agonize over the problems of accommodating legitimate Soviet interests; the Soviets had none. Policymakers need not scrutinize avenues for compromise; it was futile. Having identified the Kremlin as a totalitarian foe akin to Nazi Germany, they could adopt a strategy to thwart the growth of Soviet power in peacetime or defeat it in wartime.”31

But the Cold War began in earnest with the 5 June 1947 announcement of the Marshall Plan. Not only would it solidify a “Western block against the Soviet Union,” but Marshall also “intended to undermine Soviet hegemony over the countries of eastern Europe by providing them with American financial help.”32 According to Robert Service, “moderation in Soviet foreign policy came to a halt. Thus began the Cold War.”33

And thus commenced some fifty years of ideologically inspired amnesia in the West, especially America, about the heroics of the Red Army during World War II.

On May 9, 2005, President Bush will be presented with a golden opportunity to give proper credit to the Red Army’s heroics, even if he fails to mention FDR’s willingness to trade U.S. technology and machinery—and recognition of the Soviet Union’s legitimate post-war sphere of influence in Eastern Europe.

But don’t bet on it. After all, an important member of his cabinet, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been associated with the most egregious of policies advocated by America’s right-wing extremists (and surreptitiously practiced by the Truman administration) during the early years of the Cold War—rolling back the Iron Curtain.34

In late September or early October of 2002, while serving as Bush’s national security advisor, Ms Rice attempted to persuade members of the House of Representatives of the necessity of the September 2002 National Security Strategy, which she played the major role in writing.

The new strategy emphasized preemptive attacks, rather than allowing dangerous threats to gather. In reality the strategy was advocating preventive war, which is illegal under international law, except in three specific instances.35 Yet, as Ms. Rice attempted to make her case for waging war against a country that had not first attacked the United States, a Democrat asked her whether America should have invaded the Soviet Union in 1948 to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons. According to Time magazines account of this conversation, Ms. Rice responded: “In light of 50 years of bondage of Eastern Europe, that was probably a reasonable thing to do.”36

Although such right-wing revisionism seems astounding when coming from a person who actually specialized in the study of Russia, and although U.S. representatives quickly assured the Russian Foreign Ministry that Ms. Rice made no such statement, Rice’s statement rings true. Not only because the Bush administration dishonestly seizes on anything that will justify current policies, but also because so many Americans, including Americans who should know better, have forgotten the Red Army’s World War II heroics and FDR’s willingness to tolerate a Soviet sphere of interest in the joint pursuit of world peace.


A slightly revised and updated version of this article will be presented at the 14th Annual Russian-American Seminar (of which RAISA is a co-sponsor) to be held at St. Petersburg University during May 17-24, 2005. Endnotes to this article will be provided upon request.

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