Big Man to Uncle Joe

Max Hastings

  • The Kremlin Letters: Stalin’s Wartime Correspondence with Churchill and Roosevelt edited by David Reynolds and Vladimir Pechatnov
    Yale, 660 pp, £25.00, October 2018, ISBN 978 0 300 22682 9

Winston Churchill was the dominant personality on the allied side in the Second World War: not the leader of the most important belligerent, nor even the most influential warlord in the Grand Alliance, but the most significant human being. His prodigious literary skills afterwards enabled him, thanks to the writing, publication and long-lasting celebrity of his war memoirs, immensely to distort the conflict’s historiography. He presented an image of the Western powers fighting shoulder to shoulder that was at odds with the reality of two nations with widely differing war aims: the British sought to sustain themselves as an imperial power, while the United States was indifferent to the drastic shrinkage of Britain’s wealth, and sought an end to all European empires, confident in the durability of its own. Churchill’s account also understated the Soviet Union’s contribution to Hitler’s defeat, and misrepresented the British relationship with Moscow.

It is ironic that it should have been the Russians, in a project personally initiated by Stalin, who in 1957 published the full text of Stalin’s wartime exchanges with Churchill and Roosevelt, with the intention of countering the old prime minister’s selective use of extracts in his memoirs. The editors of this new edition of the war leaders’ 682 messages argue in their introduction that this early revelation ‘does not fit Western Cold War stereotypes about the secret, manipulative Soviets’. The new collaborative version of the correspondence corrects even errors in contemporary translations, some of which led to misunderstandings and embarrassments. For instance, in an October 1943 Churchillian message the English word ‘diversion’ was rendered by Stalin’s linguists as diversiya, Russian for ‘subversion’ or ‘sabotage’.

David Reynolds is the author of distinguished works of modern American history, and a master in the art of overcoming wilful or accidental distortions of wartime events and communications. In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War (2004) brilliantly illuminates the chasm between events and the Greatest Englishman’s published account of them. Vladimir Pechatnov has written extensively about the Cold War, and holds the chair of European and American Studies at the State Institute of International Relations in Moscow.

One of the most important military facts about the Second World War, unsurprisingly never acknowledged by Churchill, was that the two Western allies found it convenient to leave the tyranny of Stalin to do the overwhelming bulk of the killing and dying necessary to destroy the tyranny of Hitler. The Grand Alliance, magisterially depicted by the prime minister both then and afterwards, was inescapably compromised by its inclusion of Stalin, who in June 1941, at the time Germany invaded the Soviet Union, was responsible for the killing of far more innocents than was Hitler. Moreover, the relationship between the leaders of Britain and America was dogged by tensions neatly characterised by John Grigg when he wrote that Churchill became jealous of Roosevelt’s power, while Roosevelt was envious of Churchill’s genius. Grigg took the view that the prime minister ‘resented his enforced subordination to a man whom he secretly judged his inferior’, and I agree.

It was by no means inevitable that two of the three principal nations fighting Hitler should have forged an intimate partnership, alongside a grudgingly sustained working arrangement with the Soviets. The British ruling class despised Americans. Before the war, Chamberlain had snubbed Roosevelt. No other leading British figure recognised with Churchill’s clear-sightedness that only American assistance would enable his country to survive, never mind to emerge from the war on the winning side. He accorded to the pursuit and maintenance of American friendship a priority that enabled him to bear slights, ignore disappointments, overcome dismay at brutal US financial treatment of his country, and suppress inconvenient truths both then and afterwards.

In the same fashion this Victorian who loathed Bolsheviks with a passion, and who in 1918-19 had promoted a grotesque military adventure in an attempt to reverse their 1917 ascent to power, displayed the wisdom in June 1941 to embrace Stalin’s nation. By contrast, many of his generals and Conservative colleagues wished to have nothing to do with them. John Moore-Brabazon, minister of aircraft production, was rash enough publicly to state his hope that the Russians and Germans would exterminate each other. Many Americans felt the same way. The isolationist Chicago Tribune asked why the US should offer assistance to ‘an Asiatic butcher and his godless crew’. As late as August 1941, the New York Times mused: ‘Stalin is on our side today. Where will he be tomorrow?’

A member of the Soviet military delegation to London gave a bitterly resentful account of its first 1941 visit to David Margesson, the secretary of state for war: ‘Margesson did not shake our hands. Didn’t offer us a seat … Listened distractedly … We realised that we were dealing with a staunch opponent of co-operation … he did not see any point at all in an Anglo-Soviet military alliance.’ Churchill’s effusive early messages of support for the Soviet Union, and for the Red Army’s defence of the Motherland (‘the grand resistance of the Russian armies in the defence of their soil unites us all’), were composed while his military advisers were assuring him that the Russians were doomed. ‘Moscow is a gone coon,’ he observed gloomily on the afternoon of 11 October 1941, as he stomped away from a meeting with his generals for his afternoon nap. Throughout the first year and a half of the Russo-German war he was obliged to overcome bitter opposition in order to dispatch tanks and planes to Stalin: Britain’s generals, admirals and air marshals wanted the materiel for themselves, and considered anything shipped to Russia destined for futile destruction. Only Beaverbrook, the Labour Party and Britain’s trade unions wholeheartedly supported military aid to the Soviet Union.

Stalin, in his turn, juxtaposed formal messages of goodwill and gratitude with complaints, not in themselves unjustified, about the poor quality of many of the weapons sent – reconditioned Hurricanes instead of Spitfires, anti-tank guns known to be incapable of countering German armour. In Russia’s most desperate hours, he advanced wildly unrealistic proposals, such as a request on 18 July 1941 for an immediate Second Front: ‘This is the most propitious moment for the opening of such a front, because now Hitler’s forces are diverted to the east … It is still easier to open a front in the north.’

When the British for a time suspended convoys to Russia following the July 1942 near annihilation of convoy PQ 17, Stalin was openly contemptuous of British pusillanimity. What were a few merchantmen and escorts, some hundreds of seamen’s lives, in the balance against Russians dying by the hundreds of thousands? He repeatedly sought a commitment of British troops to reinforce the Russian front, for instance messaging on 13 September 1941: ‘It seems to me that Great Britain could without any risk land in Archangel 25-30 divisions or transport them across Iran to the southern regions of the USSR.’ Churchill for a time indulged this fantasy, until deflected by his military advisers.

The foremost bone of contention, and indeed of a Russian resentment that endures to this day, was the Second Front. From the summer of 1941 through 1943, Stalin relentlessly pressed Britain and America to mount a landing in France, thus creating the only strategic diversion that he considered of real value to his own war effort, by forcing the Germans to shift forces westward. Anglo-American relations were also soured by this debate, since from 1942 onwards George Marshall too favoured such an operation, as did Roosevelt. There was a cheerful American acknowledgment that a continental landing would inevitably result in the sacrifice of almost every soldier committed – who, at that date, could only be British.

At the White House on 29 May 1942 Roosevelt told Molotov that he wanted to ‘take the risk’ of mounting an operation on the continent with six to ten divisions: ‘It is necessary to make sacrifices to help the USSR in 1942. It is possible that we shall have to live through another Dunkirk and lose 100,000 to 120,000 men.’ The president’s willingness to impose a new disaster on Britain when it had already suffered so many costly defeats and humiliations, merely in order to make a gesture to please ‘Uncle Joe’, disgusted Churchill. Meanwhile the Russian foreign minister was unimpressed by the paltry scale of the proposed operation at a time when hundreds of divisions were locked in mortal combat on the Eastern Front. Churchill earned no more plaudits for raising the possibility of an allied landing in Norway, a perennial enthusiasm of his that appalled the chiefs of staff.

Where Stalin had a point – a strategic if not a moral one – was in asserting that, by delaying D-Day in the West until 1944, when the Western allies were able to invade the continent on overwhelmingly favourable terms, they waged war at a pace that suited their own interests, conserving countless British and American lives, while the Russians poured forth blood every hour of every day from 1941 to the end. Two-thirds of Churchill’s army remained idle in Britain, training or awaiting weapons and equipment, between 1940 and 1944. The Americans enjoyed the extraordinary luxury of preparing to fight in Europe without any threat of physical injury to their homeland, enjoying bountiful food and comforts, building an army under easy conditions, while some of the citizens of besieged Leningrad were eating one another.

The ‘Band of Brothers’ who became the famous US 101st Airborne Division never heard a shot fired in anger from the moment most of its soldiers joined the army in 1942 until D-Day. This was gall and wormwood to Stalin, who chose to forget that he had been Hitler’s ally until June 1941, and that the Luftwaffe planes which bombed Britain through the Blitz had used fuel supplied by the Soviet Union.

Pervading the entire Stalin correspondence with the Western leaders was his outraged sense that their nations were not displaying anything like the commitment to total war demanded of the Russian people, because serviceable seas isolated their homelands from Hitler’s hosts. Suffusing Churchill’s messages was sincere admiration for Russian fortitude, together with a respect for Stalin’s steely strength of will that his colleagues and subordinates considered overdone. Also omnipresent, though never expressed, was a recognition that the historic objectives of Britain and the Soviet Union could never mesh; that Russian cruelty and paranoia made it impossible to view them as comrades in any activity beyond the defeat of Nazi Germany.

Churchill wrote into an early draft of his memoirs an anecdote, deleted before publication but quoted here, about the May 1942 visit to Chequers by the Soviet foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov. At 2 a.m. the housekeeper, Grace Lamont, felt obliged to call on the visitor, to reproach him for leaving a curtain open in breach of the strict blackout. Finding his door ajar, she pushed it open, to be confronted by Molotov brandishing an automatic pistol. The prime minister wrote gleefully that since Miss Lamont was ‘a Scottish lady in her prime and of placid temperament’, she was ‘not at all taken aback’, and merely explained the problem. The Russian thereupon closed the offending curtain and locked his door. His host observed that the episode ‘reveals one aspect of the gulf between the Soviet way of life and that of the Western powers’.

The British could have assembled the means to launch ramshackle diversionary operations on the continent in 1942-43, to relieve German pressure on the Russians. The cost would have been terrible, however, and the attempts would most probably have ended in failure. Such sacrifices could only have been justified by some hope of Soviet gratitude, amity and postwar co-operation, which the British government knew could never be forthcoming. Thus Churchill deferred major operations on the continent such as the US was impatient to undertake. His enlightened stubbornness merits our historic gratitude, and indeed that of the Americans, but understandably receives none from Russians. Churchill had moments of believing that he had achieved a meeting of minds with Stalin, but these were often brutally dispelled. ‘Although I have tried in every way to put myself in sympathy with these communist leaders, I cannot feel the slightest trust or confidence in them,’ he wrote wearily to Eden in April 1944. ‘Force and facts are their only realities.’

Meanwhile Roosevelt nursed a wholly unjustified confidence that he could achieve a bilateral understanding with Stalin, which he thought could best be advanced by his being seen by the Soviet leader to circumvent, mock, overrule and sometimes snub Churchill, who in turn was much grieved that the US president was unwilling to visit Britain, while being prepared to endure extraordinary hardships, given his physical debility, to meet Russia’s leader at wildly inconvenient rendezvous including Tehran and Yalta. The editors here write that the US president saw it as his ‘special task’ to manage Stalin:

In the president’s opinion, the root issue was the Soviets’ sense of insecurity and the consequent need to bring them in from the cold. Hence his efforts to avoid any impression of an Anglo-American bloc – especially before and during the Tehran conference … His underlying assumption, shared with many Americans to the left of the political centre, was that they were witnessing a gradual convergence between the Soviet Union and the West.

As late as December 1943, Roosevelt’s tone towards Stalin occasionally verged on the obsequious; he expressed gratitude to the Russians for housing him in their Tehran embassy compound for the summit, adding: ‘I feel sure that it was a historic event in the assurance not only of our ability to wage war together but also to work for the peace to come in utmost harmony.’ From time to time Russian people were fed news titbits about the Western contribution to their war effort, to raise spirits through the long, grim period in 1941 and 1942 when defeat seemed to beckon. For the most part, however, the scale of material assistance was concealed from them. Few Russians ever knew that most of their planes were built with American aluminum; that the Red Army marched to Berlin in American boots, and was heavily dependent on American-built vehicles and even Spam.

Churchill was especially dismayed by a 1944 report in Pravda that Britain had opened secret unilateral peace talks with the Nazis. ‘Even the best friends of Soviet Russia in England have been bewildered,’ he messaged Stalin on 24 January. ‘What makes it so injurious is that we cannot understand it.’ Unsurprisingly, Pravda published no retraction. Indeed, on 29 January, Stalin dispatched one of his most shameless communications to London: ‘There is no ground to contest the right of a newspaper to publish reports of rumours received from trustworthy newspaper correspondents. We ourselves at least never laid claim to that kind of interference in the affairs of the British press.’

Not many months afterwards, much more serious divisions emerged over Poland. For a time Churchill hoped to satisfy the Russians by endorsing a dramatic shift of frontiers westward, conceding a substantial portion of eastern Poland to the Soviets, and recompensing the Poles with east German lands. It slowly dawned on the embittered prime minister, however, and became wholly apparent after Yalta in February 1945, not merely that the Russians proposed to incorporate Poland in their new empire and to liquidate all non-communist opposition, but that the Americans would give Britain little support in attempting to frustrate such an outcome. Until his death in April, Roosevelt sought to evade a showdown with Moscow, in furtherance of his grand purpose of a postwar working relationship with the Soviets.


Not all virtue in this correspondence was on the Western side. Many British and American promises of material aid made in 1941-42 went unfulfilled, or were subject to large shortfalls. The spring of 1944 witnessed a series of acrimonious exchanges between London and Moscow about the leakage to the Times and the New York Herald Tribune of portions of their correspondence. Replying to Stalin, Churchill laid the blame explicitly on Gusev, the Soviet ambassador in London, whom he intensely disliked. The Foreign Office then discovered that the leak was elsewhere. The prime minister never admitted as much, however, and sterile exchanges of abuse on the issue persisted for six months. As Roosevelt’s health deteriorated, some of his own messages became incoherent and even, in the view of the editors, ‘crass’. In a message of 23 May 1944 he proposed an appeal to the German people, to avert further bloodshed by recognising its futility and surrendering: ‘This is the time to abandon the teachings of evil.’ ‘Little wonder that the idea got short shrift from both his allies,’ the editors observe.

The Soviet leader was customarily far more civil to Roosevelt, whom he thought a man of his word, than to Churchill, whom he trusted not at all. Once the prime minister, in a flash of sentimentality, asked Stalin if he forgave him for his past hostile acts towards the Bolsheviks. ‘It is not for me to forgive,’ Stalin replied, ‘it is for God to forgive.’ This has been interpreted by wishful thinkers as assent. Russians, however, emphasise that the words meant ‘I shall never forgive.’ Most of Stalin’s messages were drafted by Molotov, but he himself provided many of the words for Moscow’s 26 May 1944 response to the White House suggestion of an appeal to the Germans. Stalin asserted that such an appeal would be premature when the Westerners had not even begun to fight on the continent – he thought nothing of the Italian campaign. An opportunity might come only if there were signs of ‘serious successes as a result of the landing of Anglo-American troops’ – who, until then, had in Russian eyes made no significant contribution to the ground war. This view was supported by the fact that on D-Day Germany deployed fewer than eighty divisions in the West, while nearly two hundred Axis formations were committed on the Eastern Front.

The last months of war were characterised by ever deepening divisions about the shape of the peace. Both Stalin and Churchill believed in the concept of spheres of influence, which Roosevelt found repugnant. Nonetheless the Americans joined the British in making protests when the Russians declined to allow allied aircraft to land on their territory, while dropping arms to the Polish Home Army engaged in the Warsaw Rising. On 16 August, Stalin informed Churchill that ‘the Soviet Command [had] come to the conclusion that it must dissociate itself from the Warsaw adventure.’ A week later, he described the Poles as ‘a group of criminals, who have embarked on the Warsaw adventure to seize power’.

There were still formal offers of congratulation following each leader’s birthday, Roosevelt’s 1944 electoral success and significant victories in the east or west. (Stalin to Churchill, 1941: ‘Warmly congratulate you on your birthday. From the bottom of my heart wish you strength and health which are so necessary for the victory over the enemy of mankind – Hitlerism.’) Stalin commended the RAF’s belated sinking of the Tirpitz in November 1944 – he had harboured suspicions that the British were deliberately holding back in the hope of capturing the battleship intact. Sometimes professions of goodwill were stretched to the limit. On 17 February 1945, Churchill wrote to thank Stalin for the arrangements at Yalta ‘which enabled the conference to meet in such agreeable and convenient surroundings, and we all take back with us most happy recollections’. In truth, the allied delegations had found the Crimean rendezvous a nightmare, not least for its variety of bugs – electronic as well as the insect kind. Meanwhile posterity believes, as many British conservatives did at the time, that at Yalta Roosevelt and Churchill granted Stalin licence to create his East European empire, to recover for execution hundreds of thousands of his citizens captured on Western territory, and to crush Poland in exchange merely for Soviet agreement to participate in the war against the Japanese – which Stalin was anyway determined to do.

It has often been observed of the dealings between the three wartime leaders that while Roosevelt and Churchill sometimes got what they wanted, Stalin always did. Especially from 1943 onwards, when the threat to his own polity had passed and his armies were on the offensive, he displayed a clear-sightedness about Soviet objectives and ambitions – and even about their limitations – that the other two lacked. When he faced fierce criticism for his treatment of occupied or ‘liberated’ territories, he responded that, since the British and Americans governed their zones as they chose, he reserved the right to do the same. Moreover, he sometimes kept his word – for instance, in promising Churchill that he would leave the British to control Greece, and ordering his own forces to provide no active assistance to the ferocious Greek communists.


While The Kremlin Letters contributes to the authoritative documentation of the war, I retain a significant reservation about its collaborative character. The editors pay tribute to the merit of a British scholar working together with his Russian peers to produce the volume. Yet morbid Russian sensitivity about the narrative of the Great Patriotic War makes it inevitable that the commentaries are less trenchant than one would normally expect of David Reynolds. ‘The Kremlin Letters,’ the editors conclude, ‘opens a window into the minds of three men at the top, as they made history: engaging with each other in a world war that none had anticipated and winning a victory that – for good or ill – changed the course of the 20th century.’ In truth, the correspondence opens no more ‘windows’ than most exchanges between national leaders. It merely provides a record – a very useful record – of what the participants considered it appropriate to say to one another at a critical period of modern history. Even the relationship between Roosevelt and Churchill was always a friendship of state, not a real intimacy. How could it have been otherwise? If any of these three men had said what they really thought, the Grand Alliance would barely have functioned for five minutes, whereas it somehow sustained a semblance of coherence, and of real Anglo-American – though never Anglo-Soviet – operational partnership, for four years. It is patently untrue that none of the three men anticipated the war. Churchill had long expected it. Stalin was the only one to be taken wholly by surprise: he was providing such valuable commodities to Hitler that he could not bring himself to believe that they could be dispensed with. His dismissal of repeated warnings from the British – as well as from his own excellent agent network in Germany – about the imminence of Barbarossa, has been well known in the West for decades. Only in modern Russia has the pretence of the country’s victim status in World War Two been preserved, accompanied by a deafening silence about Stalin’s role in the dismemberment of Poland, his cruelties and ethnic cleansings in the Soviet Union, together with the Red Army’s systemically barbaric revenge on the German people in 1945. The fact that many realities about the war, as Western historians see them, are by law denied a hearing in Putin’s Russia imposes limitations on the explicitness of a scholarly co-operation such as this one.

There is cause for historic gratitude that the two Western leaders kept talking to Stalin, despite squalls and storms, barrages of untruths and obfuscations from Moscow. If many of the messages and mutual expressions of goodwill seem banal now, they reflected the fact that dialogue was sustained. The editors are correct to assert that ‘at a basic level, the Big Three’s anti-Hitler coalition worked.’ It nonetheless seems almost impossible to support the book’s argument that ‘theirs was indeed one of the closest working alliances in history.’ Given that from start to finish the Russians denied the Western Powers all but the most basic information about their operations, and that the Russians and Anglo-Americans were persistently unwilling to exchange technological data, it could never be said that there was mutual trust. Roosevelt’s and Churchill’s generals learned more about the Eastern Front from intercepted German signal traffic than they did from their liaison officers in Moscow. Even so it is welcome that this book has been produced. The authoritative version of the message texts makes a significant contribution to the scholarship of the period. But it would be hard to claim that anything in these pages significantly alters our picture of the conflict, or of the relationship between the principals. Like most alliances, this one was driven by necessity.