Three titanic egos guided the destinies of the world on the Allied side in World War II. Winston Groom, the author of Forrest Gump and an acclaimed historian, has written a fascinating study about the diverse lives and backgrounds of the architects of Allied victory. Churchill was a Victorian soldier, journalist and historian who would lead Britain during her finest hour. Churchill's impassioned speeches would give a roar to the British lion. Roosevelt was an eloquent and formidable politician from a patrician family in New York who, in spite of being crippled by polio, managed to be elected an unparalleled four terms as president and to guide America through the Depression and the Second World War. Stalin, the vaunted "Man of Steel", remains the most mysterious of this triumvirate. He was Georgian who was abused by an alcoholic father, became a Marxist at age sixteen and robbed banks to help finance the Bolshevik Revolution led by Lenin. Stalin was a ruthless leader (far more so than Putin) who slaughtered the Kulak farmers, had thousands Polish officers butchered in the Katyn massacre and bears responsibility as prime author of World War II on account of the Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement which allowed Hitler to invade Poland in 1939. In spite of his blindness to coming Nazi threat (he ignored many warnings from Churchill among others), Stalin ultimately proved to be a highly capable leader of the vast Red Army.
These three men believed in different ideologies. Churchill was an unapologetic Imperialist. Roosevelt was an Atlanticist with a Groton/Harvard background, a pragmatic liberal who hired many Republicans to help win the war (Knox, Stimson, MacArthur, Donovan, etc.). Stalin's education in the school of Revolution left him paranoid and brutal.
Each of thee men had their weaknesses. Churchill could be swept away by the flow of his own formidable rhetoric. Roosevelt was self-confident to the point of arrogance -- in one message to Churchill, FDR declares "I can handle Stalin" though the two had never met at the time. Stalin was cold-blooded not only with his people but even with his own family. He refused, for example, to bargain after his son Yakov was captured by the Germans. Yakov was shot while trying to escape.
The Kremlin Letters reveals that all three men could be vain, arrogant and, frequently, deceitful in their correspondence. Stalin blustered when confronted by the facts of Katyn massacre. FDR was not always candid with Churchill despite their special relationship. And so forth.
But these points miss the really central insight of The Kremlin Letters -- The Allies won the war in large part because they did communicate and coordinate their strategy. The timing of Operation Bagration, a massive Soviet offensive of 1944 was set to coincide with the D-Day landings. This made it impossible for the Nazis to effectively respond to the crises erupting on their Eastern and Western fronts simultaneously.
No Axis version of The Kremlin Letters will be forthcoming. Neither Hitler nor Mussolini ever met Hirohito face to face. There were no Axis wartime conferences such as the Allies held in Tehran and Yalta. The Pearl Harbor attack of December 1941 was as great a surprise to the Germans and Italians as it was to the Americans. The Axis dictators never really trusted each other. Mussolini invaded Greece in October 1940 without having consulted in advance with Hitler's Reich. Nor did Hitler coordinate his September 1939 invasion of Poland with his Italian and Japanese allies. All of the Axis leaders functioned essentially as lone wolves revealing the essence of dictatorship.
All successful alliances, whether they are marriages, business partnerships or military alliances require frequent communication. During WW2 the Allies principle mode of communication was the telegraph. Stalin was afraid to fly. Face to face gatherings of the Big Three were rare.
FDR, recognizing the importance of face to face communication and lacking full mobility due to his affliction, made use of trusted representatives such as Harry Hopkins to act as surrogates. In 1942 Roosevelt even tapped Wendell Willkie (the losing 1940 Republican presidential nominee) as a representative to Stalin's Moscow. The contrast with our own poisoned political atmosphere is startling. It would be unthinkable today to imagine Trump appointing Hillary Clinton to a diplomatic role or vice versa.
It remains difficult for us in the West to appreciate the staggering scale of suffering which the Soviet Union endured in World War II. Over 27 million Soviet soldiers and civilians were killed in the conflict that became known as the Great Patriotic War. Moreover, four out of five German soldiers were killed on the Eastern front in the war. It is no wonder that Stalin was constantly howling for a second front to be opened in Europe. Western leaders of democratic and representative governments would have been politically unable to absorb these horrendous casualty figures. Churchill was right to delay D-Day for as long as possible sparing thousands of Allied lives that would have been lost in a 1942 or 1942 invasion of France. In spite of the massive Soviet bloodletting, a sitting American president has never attended the annual May Day victory commemorations in Moscow americanconservativeinlondon.blogspot.com/2012/03/moscows-65th-anniversary-victory-day.html).
Groom's work, (though slightly marred by poor editing as on page 267 where he means to discuss the Spanish "Blue" division which fought in Russia instead of Spanish Communist fighters) is a worthwhile introduction to the collaboration of these three wartime titans. The Kremlin Letters is a wonderful resource for those who wish to go deeper and explore the correspondence of these men who shaped the war and our world.
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