How FDR Appeased Stalin and Sowed the Seeds of the Cold War

On the evening of November 29, 1943, American president Franklin D. Roosevelt, British prime minister Winston Churchill and Soviet premier Joseph Stalin dined together in Tehran, Iran to celebrate the first wartime meeting between the three leaders. The festive atmosphere turned suddenly grim when Stalin happily suggested that the Allies agree to execute 50,000 German officers at the end of the war. To Churchill, plotting “the cold blooded execution of soldiers who fought for their country” was unconscionable. “I would rather be taken out into the garden here and now and be shot myself,” Churchill fumed, “than sully my own and my country’s honor by such infamy.”

Churchill stormed from the room, returning only after Stalin assured him it had all been a joke. But Churchill knew that this was dark comedy. In April 1943, the world had learned of mass graves in the Katyn Forest in eastern Poland, a region that had been occupied by the Russians earlier in the war. In the graves were more than 20,000 bodies, nearly 10,000 of whom were Polish military officers who had surrendered to the Russians in 1940. Investigations conducted by British and American officials in the summer of 1943 laid the blame for the massacre squarely at the Russians’ feet. One report, wrote historian Thomas Fleming, contained “vivid descriptions of how the Russians marched the Poles into the forest, shot them in the back of the head, and shoved them into the huge gravesite.” Clearly, Churchill had reason to suspect that Stalin’s joke about murdering German officers was not entirely facetious.

Roosevelt had seen this evidence of Russian guilt, but refused to believe it and instead blamed the massacre on the Nazis. When diplomat George Earle presented Roosevelt with evidence he had personally collected, Roosevelt shrugged it off, saying “George, this is entirely German propaganda… I am absolutely convinced that the Russians did not do this.” Earle left the White House befuddled over Roosevelt’s “love, respect, and belief in the Russians…[that] was simply unbelievable.”

As Roosevelt watched Stalin’s joke land with thud among the British delegation at Tehran, he sensed an opportunity to ingratiate himself to Stalin and offered a compromise: rather than executing 50,000 Germans, the Allies should only shoot 49,000. As the Americans and Russians laughed, the British sat in stone-faced disgust.

The Katyn Massacre and the Tehran dinner revealed two impulses that Roosevelt repeatedly indulged during World War II: the refusal to recognize the danger posed by Stalin’s Russia and the desire to do everything within his power to become Stalin’s friend. Both tendencies would plague American diplomacy throughout the war.

Seeds of Appeasement

In truth, Roosevelt exercised such control over negotiations and involved the State Department so little that “American diplomacy” during the war was more accurately termed “Roosevelt’s diplomacy.” Military analyst Hanson Baldwin wrote that Roosevelt “liked to transact business…on a man-to-man basis [and] depended heavily upon personal emissaries…and upon his own judgment…” This confidence led Roosevelt to suggest to Churchill that he lead negotiations with Stalin, writing, “I think I can handle Stalin better than your Foreign Office or my State Department.” But Roosevelt’s confidence was misplaced. Sociologist Robert Nisbet wrote that before Tehran “Roosevelt had never met Stalin and knew almost nothing about Soviet affairs except what he had been told by his ambassadors to Russia.” And even this information was compromised by his tendency to dismiss ambassadors who were too critical of the Soviets.

One adviser Roosevelt did trust was Harry Hopkins, who had been a close aide since the president’s first term. Hopkins, wrote diplomat William Bullitt, “in his infinite ignorance of foreign affairs, considered Stalin appeasable” even before the United States entered the war. But, Bullitt continued, “There was no basis whatsoever in fact for this conclusion. It was sheer ostrich infantilism.” As America drew near to war, Roosevelt and Hopkins devised a plan to aid and appease Stalin in the hopes of convincing him to adopt Western ideas of freedom and democracy. Bullitt, whose initially high opinion of the Soviets had come crashing down during his tenure as America’s first ambassador to Russia, tried to convince Roosevelt to abandon the strategy, arguing that Stalin was an incorrigible tyrant bent on expansion. Roosevelt responded,

Bill, I don’t dispute your facts, they are accurate. …I just have a hunch that Stalin is not that kind of a man. Harry says he’s not and that he doesn’t want anything but security for his country, and I think if I give him everything I possibly can and ask for nothing from him in return, noblesse oblige, he won’t try to annex anything and will work with me for a world of democracy and peace.

This opinion would not only be contradicted by future events, it was contradicted by recent history. Stalin had not only joined Hitler in attacking Poland in September 1939, he had attacked Finland later that year and occupied Estonia, Latvia and parts of Romania in 1940. These were actions that Roosevelt himself had condemned, making his newfound belief in Stalin as an agent of peace an impressive feat of mental gymnastics.


Although Roosevelt and Churchill condemned Soviet aggression from 1939 to 1941, Hitler’s Germany was always their primary enemy. So when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Stalin’s prior sins were immediately forgiven and Russia was converted from foe to friend.

Roosevelt’s top priority immediately became getting Stalin as much aid as possible under America’s Lend-Lease program. Soon after the Nazi invasion, wrote historian Anthony Kubek, “Russian funds within the United States were unfrozen” and in July 1941 Roosevelt ordered that “immediate and substantial shipments of assistance” be made to Stalin. Roosevelt made it clear that he would accept no delay in getting aid to Russia, with Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau reporting that the president “didn’t want to hear what was on order; he…wanted to hear what was on the water.”

In order to facilitate the delivery of goods to Stalin, Roosevelt dispatched Hopkins to Moscow, where he met with Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov. After their meeting, Molotov reported that “Mr. Hopkins will demand no concessions whatever. His desire is to ask nothing and give everything.” American general John Deane later wrote that Hopkins administered Lend-Lease aid to Russia “with a zeal which approached fanaticism.”

Back in the United States, many questioned the wisdom of lavishing unqualified aid on Stalin. Roosevelt, they said, should at least demand that Stalin give up his territorial gains in return for American aid. In July 1941, former president Herbert Hoover advised Secretary of War Henry Stimson that “we should make agreements with [Stalin] now to restore the independence of these many despoiled peoples as a condition of our assistance. Such agreements may be…enforceable if we make continuance of Lend-Lease conditional upon stipulated performance in specific periods. In any event, they would establish standards of conduct for all the world to see.” Representatives from the conquered nations of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland all made similar requests to Roosevelt.

But Roosevelt refused. Nisbet wrote,

Not once did Churchill and Roosevelt make it clear that although the two Allies were, in the common interest of the war, entirely willing to provide such help as they could, they were not acquiescing in or subscribing to the territorial gains the Soviets had made in the pact with Hitler. …There was not so much as a condition laid down, not a warning that in return for the lend-lease aid about to be so generously distributed to the Soviets, Stalin would be held to stiff accounting after the war with respect to his territorial gains under the Pact [with Hitler].

To make matters worse, aid to Russia came at the expense of readying American forces for war. As Roosevelt diverted American war materiel to Russia, the America military, wrote Nisbet, was “woefully undernourished in almost every department. There was an alarming shortage of almost every conceivable type of military equipment – from ammunition all the way to tanks and planes.” General Albert Wedemeyer concurred, writing that “From the outset General [George] Marshall…realized that the Lend-Lease program…hampered, if it did not positively stymie, all U.S. military planning. …those of us working in the War Plans Division, realized that American interests were being jeopardized by President Roosevelt’s policy of extending all possible aid to [Russia].”

By war’s end, the value of American aid to Russia neared $12 billion worth trucks, jeeps, tanks, ships, airplanes, anti-aircraft guns, trains, telephones, tires, oil products, food and clothing. What little the United States was able to negotiate in return, often nothing more than Russian promises to cooperate at some point in the future, was often either late in coming or never delivered. General Deane, who coordinated American aid to Russia, later wrote that “There were many times when I had the greatest desire to recommend that our flow of supplies to Russia be shut off until the Soviet Union showed some more tangible evidence of the co-operation it had promised.” But the spigot of aid flowed freely through the end of the war.

The Tehran Conference

Although Stalin had switched sides, he made it clear to his new allies that he expected to retain the loot from his alliance with Hitler, demanding during a December 1941 meeting with the British that they validate his claims on Eastern Europe. In 1939, then-prime minister Neville Chamberlain had rebuffed similar demands, causing Stalin to ally with Hitler, who was happy to meet the terms. Churchill had criticized Chamberlain at the time and was clearly not going to object now that the war was raging. Roosevelt, for his part, hoped to kick the can down the road and avoid discussing territorial claims until after the war was over.

Other governments were not so nonchalant. The Government of the Republic of Poland in exile, based in London, worked to persuade the British and Americans to remain firm with the Stalin. Both Churchill and Roosevelt offered assurances that the Polish people, who had resisted the invasions of both the Nazis and the Soviets in 1939, could rely on Allied support. In July 1943, Churchill told the government-in-exile’s prime minister, Stanislaw Mikolajczyk, “I will fight for a strong and independent Poland…” That same month, Roosevelt told the prime minister that “The Polish people may be certain that their sufferings and unceasing contribution to our common cause will not be forgotten…”

But these assurances rang hollow to Mikolajczyk, who noted that, despite the promises, “appeasement of Russia grew by the hour both in London and in Washington.” As the date of the first meeting between Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin neared, the Poles’ sense of urgency to bolster British and American resolve grew. Mikolajczyk asked to see Roosevelt once more before the meeting, but was told that he would have to wait. But Roosevelt also told Mikolajczyk that he could “rest assured that he had made an extensive study of the Polish situation and was fully prepared to present [the Poles’] case at the meeting with Stalin.”

The first meeting of the Big Three commenced on November 27, 1943, in Tehran. While much of the negotiations centered on military topics, most importantly when and where the western Allies would launch an invasion of Europe, discussion inevitably turned to Poland. In his pact with Hitler in 1939, Stalin had been given all Poland east of the Curzon Line, an area that represented nearly half of Poland’s prewar territory. Stalin intended to keep this plunder, an idea to which neither Churchill nor Roosevelt raised serious objections. Churchill and Roosevelt suggested that, to accommodate Stalin, Poland’s eastern border should be shifted 160 miles west from its prewar boundary to the Curzon Line, and that Poland should be compensated by being granted a chunk of German territory on its western border, suggesting the Oder River as a new western boundary for Poland. The fate of the millions of Poles and Germans living in these ares seemed not to concern Roosevelt or Churchill, who had just two years earlier drafted the Atlantic Charter’s commitment to “no territorial changes that do not accord with the freely expressed wishes of the peoples concerned.”

Roosevelt and Stalin met privately three times at Tehran, allowing Roosevelt to test his ability to “handle Stalin.” The president, who had assured Mikolajczk that he would present Poland’s case to Stalin, could reasonably have been expected to apply the Atlantic Charter’s principles to Stalin’s Eastern European demands. But in his discussions with Stalin, the Charter and Roosevelt’s assurances were nowhere to be found. Roosevelt, according to his interpreter Charles Bohlen, told Stalin that “he personally agreed with the views of Marshal Stalin” regarding Poland, but “for political reasons….he could not publicly take part in any such arrangement in the present time.” Roosevelt told Stalin that there were millions of Polish-Americans in the United States and, with the 1944 presidential election looming, “he did not wish to lose their vote.” But Roosevelt wasn’t finished. Bohlen wrote, “The president went on to say that there were a number of persons of Lithuanian, Latvian, and Estonian origin…in the United States,” and while Roosevelt couldn’t publicly agree to Stalin’s annexation of these territories, “he added jokingly that when the Soviet armies re-occupied these areas, he did not intend to go to war with the Soviet Union on this point.”

“Behind his stony exterior,” surmised Nisbet, “Stalin must have been a veritable geyser of geopolitical joys. For here in less than an hour the President had given him what he wanted in Poland and the Baltic States. All Roosevelt asked in return was that Stalin be sensitive to the needs of Roosevelt’s reelection campaign.”

The implications of the decisions at Tehran were staggering. Not only were the Baltic nations abandoned to the communists, but million of eastern Poles were to be transferred to the Soviet Union. And while the Polish nation would survive in name, diplomat George Kennan wrote that “a Poland with borders so artificial, ones which involved so staggering a dislocation of population, would inevitably depend for its security on Soviet protection. To put Poland in such borders was to make it perforce a Russian protectorate, whether its own government was Communist or not.” Despite his assurances, wrote historian Thomas Fleming, “Roosevelt seemed utterly indifferent to Poland’s contribution to the war effort.”

After returning to the United States, Roosevelt reported to Americans that he found Stalin to be “a man who combines a tremendous, relentless determination with a stalwart good humor.” He predicted, “we are going to get along very well with him and the Russian people- very well indeed.” Roosevelt failed to mention that the cost of this friendship was a betrayal of the very principles he had laid out at the start of the war. On the contrary, Roosevelt told the American people that “No political arrangements were made and none was attempted.”

Fallout from Tehran

The arrival of 1944 brought clues about the fate of Eastern Europe in the wake of the Tehran Conference. As Germany was pushed back through Eastern Europe by the Red Army, wrote Nisbet, “The Soviets began methodically…to subjugate governments of bordering states…” In Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, nearly 200,000 people were deported to Russia or killed. Meanwhile, other countries – including Romania, Czechoslovakia, Albania, Hungary, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia – were either annexed by the Soviet Union or were put under communist puppet governments. Stalin prepared to do the same in Poland, organizing a communist-dominated group, later called the Lublin Committee, to be installed as the government of Poland once the Germans retreated.

Meanwhile, the Polish government-in-exile was still pushing Roosevelt and Churchill to stand up to Stalin. When he learned what had been discussed at Tehran, Mikolajczyk protested to Churchill that Stalin was “asking for an intolerable concession.” He asked Churchill, “Don’t you see…that the Soviet Union’s aim is not only to take the eastern half of our country but to take all of Poland – all of Europe?” He informed the British prime minister that “since the Red Army entered Poland it has been disarming and arresting the very members of the Polish underground who helped the Russians capture each point.” But, having set down the path of appeasement, the British and Americans were not willing to turn back. In June 1944, Roosevelt told Mikolajczyk, “you Poles must find an understanding with Russia. On your own, you’d have no chance to beat Russia, and let me tell you now, the British and Americans have no intention of fighting Russia.”

“But, don’t worry.” Roosevelt said, “Stalin doesn’t intend to take freedom from Poland. He wouldn’t dare do that because he knows that the United States government stands solidly behind you.” Why Roosevelt, who had personally assured Stalin that America would not fight over Eastern Europe, thought this would matter to the Soviets is unclear. To a disconcerted Mikolajczyk, Roosevelt promised, “I will see to it that Poland does not come out of this war injured.” But Stalin was preparing to inflict a mortal wound on the Poles.

The Warsaw Uprising

On July 29, 1944, a Russian broadcast called for the 40,000 members of the Polish Home Army in Warsaw, Poland to rise up against the Germans. The message intimated that the Red Army, just across the Vistula River, would join the revolt and drive the German invaders out. The Warsaw Uprising began on August 1, with the Home Army quickly securing much of the city and expecting to be reinforced by the Russians. But no reinforcements came. Stalin, who Nisbet said “hated the Polish Home Army because it was loyal to the Polish government-in-exile,” suddenly claimed that the uprising was the work of anti-Soviet elements, and refused to send the in the Red Army. Mikolajczyk, in Russia on Roosevelt’s advice, pleaded with Stalin to help the resistance. “You must realize this,” Stalin replied, “…nothing can be done for Poland if you do not recognize the Curzon Line.” Stalin’s meaning was clear: submit to Russian claims on Poland, or watch the Home Army be annihilated.

For two months, the Home Army battled the Germans with no support and little in the way of aid. Churchill tried to resupply the Poles by air, but British planes suffered heavy losses at the hands of the German Luftwaffe while Russian fighter escorts remained grounded. Pleas by American Ambassador to Russia, Averell Harriman, to launch American supply missions from a Russian air base were denied until mid-September, by which time the Home Army was close to defeat. By October 1, the uprising was crushed. The result, wrote Fleming, was that “Most of Warsaw was in ruins [and over] 250,000 civilians had died along with the freedom fighters.”

The failed uprising significantly strengthened Stalin’s position in Poland. American Ambassador to Poland, Arthur Bliss Lane, wrote that the two effects of the uprising were that “The Polish Government in London had been discredited [and] the Polish Home Army had been broken.”  Stalin, wrote Fleming, “was now ready to resume the Red Army’s advance, certain there would be no armed Polish resistance to his rule.” Roosevelt, Fleming continued, “never said a word about Stalin’s betrayal of Warsaw. Instead, he did everything in his power to conceal it.”

The Election of 1944

As the Polish Home Army was being exterminated in Warsaw, the attitude of Polish voters in America loomed over Roosevelt’s campaign for a fourth term. Twice during October, the president met with leaders of the Polish-American community, who asked that he protect Poland from Stalin. To this, Roosevelt offered the same kind of non-specific assurance as he had to Mikolajczyk, saying simply that “Poland must be reconstituted as a great nation.” After meeting with the president, Charles Rozmarek of the Polish-American Congress, affirmed his support for Roosevelt, saying that he “has given sufficient proof and assurance…that he will adequately protect the integrity and the rights of Poland.”

In November, Roosevelt was re-elected, beating New York governor Thomas Dewey by 3.6 million votes while garnering the lowest electoral and popular vote percentages of his career. The Polish-American vote had helped carry Roosevelt to victory, with Herbert Hoover noting that he “had carried the districts of large Polish descent.” But any hopes for Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe were quickly dashed when, four months after the election, Roosevelt again met with Stalin. Had this meeting been held before the election, wrote Ambassador Lane, “Mr. Rooosevelt would not have been re-elected, because of the votes of Americans linked by blood to those nations” which were about to be “sold down the river.”

The Yalta Conference and the Declaration of Liberated Europe

In February 1945, the Big Three again convened, this time in the Russian coastal city of Yalta. By this point the military outcome of the war was a foregone conclusion – the British and Americans had invaded Europe in June 1944 and had pushed the Germans back towards home while the Russians did the same from the east. The Allied task in Europe was now to plan for the impending German defeat and administer governments in the countries liberated from Nazi rule.

As a statement of principle, the Americans, British and Russians announced the Declaration of Liberated Europe, stating “we reaffirm our faith in the principles of the Atlantic Charter…and our determination to build in cooperation with other peace-loving nations a world under law, dedicated to peace, security, freedom, and the general well-being of all mankind.” The declaration said that the Allies would help nations liberated from Nazi rule to, among other things, establish interim governments representative of the people and, as quickly as possible, hold free elections to establish permanent representative governments.

Despite these high-minded sentiments, the declaration had one gaping hole: the administration of liberated countries would be the responsibility of the power that liberated it. The original draft, wrote Fleming, “had an unmistakable call for free elections, supervised by a European Commission to which each of the Great Powers would send a representative.” But Roosevelt, on Hopkins’ advice, vetoed the Commission, leaving the definition of phrases like “free elections” up to the occupying country. For the people of Eastern Europe who had been “liberated” by the Soviets and either annexed by Russia or put under communist puppet governments, this meant that show elections with predetermined outcomes would validate the rule of their communist overlords.

The Allies further undermined the Atlantic Charter by subtly changing its language. They now said that they were committed to “the restoration of sovereign rights and self-government to those peoples who have been forcibly deprived of them by the aggressor nations.” Under this distinction, Russia – not an aggressor nation by virtue of its alliance with Britain and the United States – could annex liberated countries and still claim devotion to the Atlantic Charter.

Nisbet observed that, as a result of the declaration, “not only did power over the Baltic and Balkan peoples pass to Stalin; these peoples had to watch what democracy and freedom they had known before the war disappear.” When Roosevelt’s Chief of Staff, Admiral William Leahy, objected that Stalin would interpret the declaration so as to give himself a free hand in Eastern Europe, Roosevelt replied that it was the best agreement he could get. “On the basis of his record at [Tehran] and after,” wrote Nisbet, “it was also pretty much all that he cared to get.”

The Death of Poland

Shortly before the Yalta Conference, Polish ambassador to the United States, Jan Ciechanowski, asked to meet with Roosevelt, but was rebuffed. The ambassador, wrote Hoover, then turned over to the State Department information that the Lublin Committee, which had been established by the Soviets in Poland, was conducting “in collaboration with the Red Army a systematic liquidation of the democratic leaders of the underground…by shooting, summary execution and deportation.” At the same time a Catholic Bishop in Poland wrote a letter to American Catholics, pleading “In the name of God, the Lord, in the name of Justice and humanity, I implore you to appeal to all Catholics and to your Government authorities… Christianity is being utterly and cynically exterminated by the Bolshevists.”

If Roosevelt knew or cared about what was happening in Poland, he didn’t show it at Yalta. The president reassured Stalin that “the United States will never lend its support in any way to any provisional government in Poland that would be inimical to your interests.” The message, wrote Nisbet, “told Stalin all he needed to know. There would be no further serious objection from the Anglo-American group about the Lublin government.” The Polish government in London, which had fought tirelessly for the Polish people since the start of the war, was abandoned.

Also at Yalta, the Curzon Line was cemented as Poland’s new eastern border, with Russia annexing all of the former Polish land east of the line. But not to worry, said the Allies, because they recognized “that Poland must receive substantial accessions of [German] territory in the North and West” Fleming observed that “Eleven million Poles became Russians in this transfer, without anyone asking if they wanted to change their citizenship” and the German territories given to the Poles “would turn 8 or 10 million Germans into refugees from land they had inhabited for six hundred years.”

The Allies further agreed that the communist puppet government in western Poland should be “reorganized on a broader democratic basis” and that “free and unfettered elections” should be held. But any statement about free elections was farcical. Ambassador Lane later wondered, “how could elections be free as long as Red Army forces and the NKVD [Russian secret police] remained to enforce the will of the Kremlin?” The Polish government-in-exile objected that any elections in Poland would be a sham and that the language about free elections “can only legalize Soviet interference in Polish internal affairs.” The government-in-exile objected that “decisions of the three-Power conference were prepared and taken not only without participation and authorization of the Polish Government, but without their knowledge.”

Surveying the decisions at Yalta, Fleming wrote,

…the Russians negotiated the British and Americans down to something very close to zero. Instead of their ambassadors and embassy staffs in Warsaw making sure future elections were free, they would simply keep their governments ‘informed about the situation in Poland.’ Instead of the Lublin Committee being only a third of the provisional government, they would be an overwhelming majority, with ‘other’ unnamed democratic leaders added to the Communist sandwich.

“In the end,” wrote Bullitt, “Stalin installed in Warsaw a Soviet puppet government which was completely under his control and, when it had difficulty in subduing Polish patriots, he established 17 Russian general headquarters throughout Poland with adequate troops to hunt down the remaining Poles who refused to admit that Poland must live in slavery.” An American Army report said in 1946 that,

The liberation of Poland by Russian Armies brought with it pillage, loot, rape, mass arrests, executions and deportations. …There is no self-rule anywhere, even in villages and small towns. All officials are appointed by the government, who regardless of political party affiliation must take oath of loyalty to the government and to Russia.

The real authority in Poland, the report said, “is the Soviet ambassador sitting in Warsaw.” Unsurprisingly, when the “free” elections were finally held in January 1947, the communists cruised to crushing victories.

The betrayal of Poland begun at Tehran had been cemented at Yalta. Paul Super, an American living in Poland, wrote that “the fate of Poland today marks the twilight of Christianity in Eastern Europe. In all those lands its sun is setting; the night will be very dark; and who knows how far the darkness will extend?” Nearly a century later, that question remains unanswered.

Getting Stalin into the Pacific War

Russia’s gargantuan size presented Roosevelt the opportunity to appease Stalin on two continents. Early in the war the president had decided that he wanted Russia to enter the war against Japan. But Roosevelt believed that Stalin, who had signed a non-aggression pact with Japan in 1941, would demand concessions in Asia as compensation for joining the war. From the czars to the Bolsheviks, Russia had long cast an imperialist eye towards Asia, warring with Japan over interests in Manchuria and Korea in the early 20th century and fomenting communist insurrections in Manchuria during the 1920s.

By the time of the Tehran Conference, Stalin had stated that he would enter the war against Japan on at least three different occasions, stipulating only that he would have to wait until after Germany was defeated. He repeated this promise at Tehran. What he didn’t say was what he would expect in return. When the topic came up, wrote Kubek, “Stalin remarked that of course the Russians had their desires, but that it would perhaps be better to await the time when the Russians would be taking an active part in the Far East war.” Roosevelt and Churchill proactively suggested that Russia should have access to a warm water port, with Roosevelt mentioning the port of Dairen on the Chinese Liaodong Peninsula as a possibility. While the meeting closed without a definite agreement, it was clear that Stalin would be rewarded for his involvement in the war.

The Far Eastern Agreement

Four months before the Big Three met again at Yalta, Stalin began to clarify his expectations. In October 1944 General Deane reported from Moscow that “the Soviet Union would take the offensive against Japan three months after Germany’s defeat, provided the United States would assist in building up the necessary reserve supplies and provided the political aspects of Russia’s participation would be clarified.” When Ambassador Harriman, pressed Stalin on what “political aspects” meant, Stalin said that he wanted control of the Kurile and Sakhalin islands, territories that Russia and Japan had disputed for over a century, and repeated his desire for access to a warm water port on the Asian continent. To these demands, he added the preservation of Outer Mongolia as an independent nation and a lease on railways which ran across Manchuria and linked the Soviet port of Vladivostok with Siberia. Harriman cautioned that “with control of the railroad operations and with the probability of Russian troops to protect the railroad, Soviet influence will be great.”

When the Big Three met at Yalta, they adopted Stalin’s proposals almost without reservation, stating only that the Chinese-Eastern and South-Manchurian railroads would be “jointly operated by the establishment of a joint Soviet-Chinese Company.” The Allies further stated that these arrangements “will require concurrence of [Chinese leader] Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek.” But Chiang wasn’t made aware of the agreements that concerned his national sovereignty until mid-June 1945, less than two months before Russia was to enter the war. American General Albert Wedemeyer, in China as the Supreme Allied Commander of the South East Asia Command, reported that Chiang was “terribly disappointed” that the agreement had been made “concerning his territory without consultation with either himself or his representatives.”

At a meeting with Chinese representatives in July, the Soviets indicated that they would interpret the Yalta agreement so as to maximize Russia’s influence in Asia. This caused substantial concern within the Chinese government, which had been fighting a civil war against Chinese communists for nearly two decades. But Chiang, reported American Ambassador to China, Patrick Hurley, “made the fullest contributions to peace and cooperation by accepting the Soviet version of the Agreement” in August 1945. Chiang felt, continued Hurley, “that his repeated concessions were deserving of some appreciation from the American Government, and he hoped that he might be able to invoke the aid of America against further Soviet encroachment.” Wedemeyer wrote that Chiang “expected that we would at least give him the necessary backing to [ensure] that Moscow would honor its pledge in this treaty.”

The effect of the agreement was a tremendous enlargement of Soviet influence in Asia. First, noted Hoover, “The treaty conveyed over 600,000 square miles of Outer Mongolia for outright annexation to Russia” while the concessions in Manchuria “allowed the Russian camel’s head in the tent [and] the whole camel quickly followed.” The railroad agreement gave Russia a 50 percent interest in the two Manchurian railways, which were to be jointly managed. But, Hoover observed, “the managing director was to be Russian, who was to appoint all important officials…” The agreement also called for a joint Chinese-Russian naval base at Port Arthur which would be, according to Hoover, “under a commission of three Russians and two Chinese with a Russian chairman.” The Soviets gained similar influence in the port of Dairen.

“The whole transaction,” said Hoover, “was a violation of the Cairo Declaration” of November 1943, in which Chiang, Roosevelt and Churchill agreed that the Allies were “fighting this war to restrain and punish the aggression of Japan” while coveting “no gain for themselves” and holding “no thought of territorial expansion.” The agreement at Cairo had committed the Allies the territorial integrity of China and Korea, and could reasonably have been expected to apply to Russia as well. Not only had the Allies’ agreement with Stalin violated their promise to China, it was to Hoover “an abandonment of the justification for our quarrel with Japan. After the burial of a multitude of American boys and vast treasure, instead of restoring Manchuria to China we, in fact, gave it to Russia.” Wedemeyer agreed, writing, “Chinese sovereignty over Manchuria had been solemnly recognized at Cairo and subsequently reconfirmed at other world conferences. But at Yalta, Roosevelt and Churchill had secretly promised Stalin such far-reaching concessions in Manchuria that Russia would be enabled to step into Japan’s shoes and dominate the area.”

One War Ends, Another Begins

“On August 9, 1945,” wrote Fleming, “The Soviet Far East army, magnificently equipped thanks to American generosity, rumbled into Manchuria at midnight.” The war lasted just five days more, but the Soviets were by then already well-positioned to exert their influence in the region. After the surrender, wrote Wedemeyer, the Russians “not only [denied] the Chinese Nationalist forces access to Manchuria, but it had also supplied the Chinese Communist Party with surrendered Japanese arms and equipment…” The Chinese communists would capitalize on Soviet support, ultimately gaining control of China in 1949.

The effects of the Yalta agreement weren’t confined to China. Just before the Japanese surrender, Russian forces invaded Japanese-held Korea from the north while the Americans invaded from the south, with the two armies dividing the country at the 38th parallel. The Russians, as they had repeatedly done in Eastern Europe, installed a communist puppet government which was unsurprisingly confirmed when “free” elections were held in 1946. Nine million Koreans, ostensibly freed by the Japanese surrender, instead found themselves at the mercy of communist tyrants. Five years after the war, a high-ranking member of the Korean communists named Kim Il-sung assumed control over the country, creating a dictatorial lineage that remains to this day.

The American people, including the soldiers who fought the war, were kept in the dark about what had been agreed upon at Yalta until a year following the conference. Rooosevelt had, upon his return to the United States from Yalta, blatantly lied, claiming that the conference had “concerned itself only with the European war and with the political problems of Europe, and not with the Pacific War.” When the agreement was announced in 1946, The New York World called it a “sordid deal” which not only proved Roosevelt a liar, but violated the Atlantic Charter. The paper concluded, “The whole deal was dishonest, because it gave to Russia territory and privileges which the United States and Britain did not possess and over which they had no sole disposal authority.” Roosevelt’s idea of noblesse oblige, of giving to those less fortunate, was remarkably similar to his domestic New Deal: he took what was not his and gave it to whom it did not belong.

The rise of communism in Asia, especially in China and Korea, was due in no small part to Roosevelt’s diplomacy with Stalin. The Yalta agreement, said Ambassador Hurley, was “immoral and cowardly” and “wrote the blueprint for the Communist conquest of China.” The United States, said Wedemeyer, had “facilitated the Soviet program in the Far East.” The United States would spend the next three decades trying to curtail the communist forces it had helped set loose in Asia.

Was Appeasing Stalin Necessary?

A routine rebuttal to all of the foregoing is that the Americans and British were not in a position to stop Stalin from his territorial expansion or that such appeasement was necessary to defeat the Germans and the Japanese. But there are good reasons to doubt that both of these points are true, or at least that they are completely true.

The claim that Stalin was going to come out of the war with territorial gains ignores to a large degree the fact that Russia was heavily dependent on American aid to sustain its war effort. But not only did Roosevelt and Churchill place no contingencies on aid to Stalin, Roosevelt persisted in sending aid to Russia at the expense of more loyal allies like the Chinese. That Stalin’s subjugation of Eastern Europe and northern China was accomplished with American supplies is a devastating commentary on Roosevelt’s diplomacy.

Bullitt explained, “In order to survive, Stalin needed all the aid we could give him. And in the summer of 1941 we could have laid down terms on which we were prepared to give aid to the Soviet Union, and Stalin would have been obliged to accept our terms.” Roosevelt, said Bullitt, blew another opportunity to restrain Soviet expansion two and a half years later at Tehran, writing.

President Roosevelt could have faced up to Stalin’s demands at [Tehran]. Hitler’s armies were still on Soviet soil, and Stalin needed the full flood of our Lend-Lease supplies to regain even the frontiers he had held when he made his pact with Hitler in August 1939. The President, therefore, could safely have stood up to Stalin at [Tehran]. But nothing was further from his thoughts. He was engaged in charming Stalin.

Roosevelt’s irrational beliefs about Stalin’s true intentions and his own negotiating prowess led him to repeatedly conduct the war without regard for the people of Eastern and Central Europe. Churchill, while as guilty of appeasement as Roosevelt, at least understood the dangers of communism and recommended that the Allies pursue what he called his “soft underbelly” strategy – an Allied army push up through Italy – that would get Allied troops into Central Europe more quickly and contain Russian gains. Some American officers, no less concerned about the dangers of communism than Churchill, disagreed with this strategy and instead advocated an invasion of France in 1943, with the same goal of reaching Central Europe before the Red Army did. Roosevelt could have chosen either of these strategies in an attempt to curb Russian expansion, but that would have required an acknowledgment that Russia was a threat to these countries. What Roosevelt did instead was vacillate between the options, ultimately vetoing the soft underbelly strategy while the cross-channel invasion was delayed until 1944. The failure to get as far into Europe as quickly as possible was compounded in the closing weeks of the war when the American army stopped within range of Berlin in order to let the Soviets take the city.

The case for concessions to Stalin in Asia is even weaker. By the time of the Yalta agreement, Japan, while still a formidable foe, had the look of a beaten enemy, creating doubt that Russian effort was needed to bring about final Allied victory. Kubek wrote that “From about 1944, and increasingly as the months went by, the Colonels [a group of army intelligence officers] felt that Japan was beaten…” These officers issued a report in April 1945, stating that “Many military experts believe that the United States and Great Britain without further help possess the power to force unconditional surrender upon Japan” and that “the United States Army is by no means united in believing it wise to encourage the Soviet Union into the Asiatic war.” Nor was the Navy. Admiral Ernest King, America’s Chief of Naval Operations, said that the Russians “were not indispensable” to the war effort and that he “did not think we should go so far as to beg them to come in.”

Nor were the Russians so powerful in Asia that they were guaranteed territorial gains there in the absence of the Yalta agreement. Stalin himself admitted this when he demanded American supplies for his army that would invade Manchuria in August 1945. Kubek recounted that Vice Admiral Oscar Badger testified in 1951 “that as far back as [Tehran]…Russia was ‘so weak logistically in the Far East’ as to be almost completely dependent for supplies coming from American ports.”

Perhaps the worst aspect of Roosevelt’s appeasement of Stalin was that it offered moral legitimacy to Stalin’s claims. Even if every bit of Stalin’s gains were inevitable, Roosevelt could still have opposed them on moral grounds. In fact, since Roosevelt had made World War II a moral war – one for freedom, democracy and the principles of the Atlantic Charter – he should have openly opposed the territorial designs of the Soviet dictator. But he didn’t. Stalin, wrote Wedemeyer, “never had to lift a finger to make things come out his own way.” Hurley agreed, writing that “We cowardly surrendered everything to him.”

That Roosevelt never opposed Stalin betrayed not only his delusions, but also his myopia when it came to the war. So focused was he on defeating the Germans and Japanese that he never considered, in spite of repeated warnings from all around him, what would happen after the war if Stalin were appeased. Roosevelt’s war to defeat his evil enemies caused him to ignore the wickedness of his ally.

In 1942, Yale University professor Nicholas Spykman published a book titled America’s Strategy in World Politics. In it, Spykman wrote that “If the foreign policy of a state is to be practical, it should be designed not in terms of some dream world, but in terms of the realities of international relations.” Fighting the war without regard to such realities, Spykman warned, would destroy the balance of power in both  Europe and Asia, creating a void that would almost certainly be filled by Soviet Russia. Spykman’s prescience on this point is a painful reminder that there were alternatives, perhaps imperfect, that might have offered more beneficial outcomes from the war. Was destroying Germany and Japan as regional powers necessary to end the evil regimes of Hitler and the Japanese militarists? Might an anti-Hitler faction have been able to overthrow the Nazis with support from the Allies? Might the Japanese have agreed to peace on terms other than unconditional surrender? It is impossible to say with certainty.

What we do know is that communism reigned in Eastern Europe for nearly half a century, and its effects plague Asia to this day. Tens of millions of individuals perished under its tyranny, and hundreds of millions more lived lives of oppression. On the basis of the ostensible reasons for the war – the Allied commitment to the sovereignty of Poland and China –  the war was a failure. Poland was saved from Germany, only to be put under the Soviets’ thumb. China was freed from Japan, but then succumbed to  Soviet-supported revolutionaries. Whatever alternatives that may have been available were not investigated, much less pursued.

Franklin D. Roosevelt died in April 1945, before he could see the full effects of his attitude towards Joseph Stalin, with whom Roosevelt got along very well indeed.

Note: This article is part of a series on World War II. Click here for the complete series and here for a selected bibliography

(Cover photo courtesy of Time Magazine)