Academic Susan Butler’s Roosevelt and Stalin: Portrait of a Partnership is dense, covering a lot of historical background on how the Allies worked togAcademic Susan Butler’s Roosevelt and Stalin: Portrait of a Partnership is dense, covering a lot of historical background on how the Allies worked together and prevailed in WWII, the groundwork laid for the United Nations, and the origins of the Cold War and how it possibly could have been avoided had FDR lived another year or longer. But it’s also a compelling read – I often had trouble putting it down and often found myself wanting to quickly pick it back up to find out what came next.
The overriding theme of the book is Roosevelt’s deliberate and painstaking efforts to win Stalin’s trust in order to not only achieve victory in the war but to implement his vision of a post-war world order in which the UN would mediate international conflicts to prevent war and eventually facilitate disarmament.
Roosevelt was under no illusions that Stalin or the Soviet Union would become the U.S.’s friends, but that the world’s other emerging superpower needed incentive to cooperate with his post-war vision in which all nations could be reined in.
In order to achieve his goals, however, FDR would have to navigate a potential minefield of distrust between Britain and Russia as historic imperial rivals, as well as the personal dislike between their leaders. FDR was confident in his ability to serve as a mediator between the two and his confidence turned out to be well-placed.
According to observers, FDR was by turns charming, audacious and used subterfuge in order to gain Stalin’s trust and keep Churchill at bay:
“FDR was a master manipulator of people. He instinctively knew how to keep Stalin and Churchill working together…Roosevelt was brilliant at sizing people up. He could intuit other people’s views of reality and appeal to them. He could lay out a path that made sense from where other people stood; in the process of understanding, he could lead them forward to accept his goals as theirs.” (p. 324)
I don’t know what the President is doing, but whatever it is he’d better be right. Khrushchev isn’t going to sit around forever and watch those planesI don’t know what the President is doing, but whatever it is he’d better be right. Khrushchev isn’t going to sit around forever and watch those planes move in on Moscow. The whole thing rests on the President’s ability to persuade Khrushchev it was an accident. If he doesn’t, then we’re going to have all-out, 100 per cent, slam-bang, hell-bent war. That’s right, isn’t it, General?
-Congressman Raskob, “Fail-Safe,” page 206
For those who are familiar with the story of Fail-Safe due to the 1964 film directed by the legendary Sidney Lumet and starring Henry Fonda in an unforgettable performance as a U.S. president who finds himself in a nuclear crisis with the Soviet Union, the book is much like the film but delves deeper into the central themes as well as some of the main characters’ psyches and background.
The story explores not only the ideological foundation of the Cold War conflict of 1945 – 1989 and its contribution to creating the immediate crisis but also the related political, psychological and technological foundations. On the political level, the question is implied throughout: why do ideological differences in how to organize one’s society have to mean confrontation that puts all of humanity at risk as opposed to a “live and let live” approach? As the US president and Soviet premier (openly referred to as Khrushchev) attempt to deal with the crisis, it is clear that a psychological spiral of long-standing mutual distrust and perceived escalations have made the situation worse, creating circumstances that compound the crisis as it is learned that an understandably suspicious Soviet military leadership has already jammed radio communications on the US nuclear bombers that are on their way to attack Moscow as the result of a mistaken “go” order. The jamming has prevented the US leadership from communicating the error and an abort mission order to the pilots.
This poisoned atmosphere of distrust leads directly to the horrendous decisions made to resolve the crisis later on.