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The letters that won the war

In their correspondence, Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin displayed the combination of realpolitik, illusion and hubris that is essential for really creative diplomacy. 

So what exactly did Donald Trump say to Vladimir Putin in Helsinki in July 2018? No, not what Trump said he said when tweeting the tweet fantastic or in one of his fake-news conferences. What he actually said.

There’s no official record, maybe no formal transcript. Was the US state department interpreter Marina Gross allowed to keep her notes, or were they destroyed? She has kept quiet. “I think at the end of the day,” said Aaron David Miller, a fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington, “the sad reality is we will never know with a degree of precision… what happened in that meeting.”

It may seem ironic that, in today’s electronic age, what leaders really said to each other may be harder to discover than in the prehistoric days of pen and paper, typewriters and hard copies. Archiving their texts, tweets and emails, their mobile phone conversations and video conferences is an enormous challenge – not least because the advanced technology of 2018 will itself be prehistoric 20 years from now. Paper archives, properly conserved, constitute a record for all seasons.

That’s why we can still learn a lot from the diplomatic documents of the past, especially when we ask new questions of them. During the Second World War Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt met for two extended summits – at Tehran in November 1943 and Yalta in February 1945. Churchill also paid two solo visits to the Kremlin – in August 1942 and October 1944. We have full transcripts of all of these meetings from all sides.

In addition, the three leaders exchanged some 680 messages, for which we also have the drafts, and many accounts of discussions of what should be said or left out. The archives in Russia, Britain and America also contain numerous telegrams by the ambassadorial delivery boys about how the messages were received by each of the Big Three. Their extended conversation through correspondence, which Vladimir Pechatnov and I are publishing as The Kremlin Letters, has left a uniquely rich paper trail about what leaders at the very top really say to each other. It also shows that the surreal world of Trumputin is not quite as odd as we might think.

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Of the trio, Stalin is the most fascinating. An ex-terrorist and a practising mass murderer, he had for nearly two years been Hitler’s collaborator – allowed to carve off eastern Poland and the Baltic states and providing Germany with a steady flow of oil, grain and raw materials right up to the morning of the German invasion on 22 June 1941. Whereupon the Soviet leader pirouetted, almost without missing a step, into a new dance with the prima donnas of international capitalism.

As if the Nazi-Soviet pact had never happened, Stalin promptly suggested that Britain should open a second front against Hitler. He even specified a landing in either France or the Balkans sufficient to draw off 30 or 40 German divisions from the Eastern Front. Churchill had no intention of embarking on such a suicide mission – and anyway he didn’t have 30 operative combat divisions in the whole of the British Army – so he sent a polite but firm reply, offering planes and tanks instead. But the demands kept coming from the Kremlin. By late November, with the Wehrmacht closing in on Moscow itself, Stalin’s nerves were at breaking point. He sent a carping telegram to Churchill with a long list of complaints about British policy, and rounded off by brazenly telling the PM that some of the tanks he’d sent had arrived “inefficiently packed”.

Churchill hit the roof. The British ambassador to the USSR, Stafford Cripps, urged him not to take umbrage at Stalin’s “frank and blunt” manner, because this was a man who had never previously had “any real contact with Western ways and diplomatic usages”. Likewise, Cripps’s Soviet counterpart in London, Ivan Maisky, kept reminding the British of the strain that Stalin was under, but Churchill was not mollified. The Soviet leader never apologised but, with Maisky making clear the offence that had been caused, he managed something almost as remarkable.

“Warmly congratulate you on your birthday,” read the cable from the Kremlin on 30 November. “From the bottom of my heart wish you strength and health which are so necessary for the victory over the enemy of mankind – Hitlerism. Accept my best wishes.” Stalin wasn’t in the habit of sending birthday greetings, certainly not to a capitalist imperialist who had tried to strangle Bolshevism in its cradle, but he had been persuaded – perhaps by Maisky – of the need for a reset. The two leaders went on to exchange birthday greetings for the rest of the war. Stalin may not have been a natural diplomatist, but he proved a quick learner.

Successful diplomacy demands a creative mix of predictability and surprise: instilling confidence in your opposite number but also throwing a few curve balls so he doesn’t take you for granted. Trump is so congenitally Mr Erratic that no one would ever dream of relying on him, whereas Stalin was able to manage that creative mix – building up Churchill’s confidence as an assiduous pen pal while never losing the ability to knock him off balance.

The British premier was the most natural letter-writer of the three leaders. He made his living as an author and was convinced that “words are the only things that live forever”. Although many of his messages drew on official drafts, he spent much time polishing the language and strengthening the argument. Yet Churchill also knew when to lighten the mood. For instance, in a Christmas 1944 message complimenting Stalin on the movie Kutuzov – the film-maker Vladimir Petrov’s classic about the war of 1812 – the PM got in a dig at the Free French leader Charles de Gaulle, who had recently visited Moscow to sign a friendship treaty. “I like to think we were together in that deadly struggle” (against Napoleon), he told Stalin, “as in this 30 years’ war” (against Germany since 1914). But, he added, “I do not suppose you showed the Kutuzov film to de Gaulle, any more than I shall show him Lady Hamilton when he comes over here” – an allusion to Churchill’s favourite film, about Nelson and Trafalgar. Stalin enjoyed that one.

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Churchill understood that diplomatic relationships require time and trouble. “No lover ever studied the whims of his mistress as I did those of President Roosevelt,” he once told his private secretary Jock Colville. The prime minister had no such affection for Stalin – this was, for him, an alliance of necessity, not a natural “special relationship” – but Churchill knew that the USSR would bulk large in the post-Hitler world and laboured hard and long over his Kremlin letters. He comprehended, in a way that Trump does not – witness his on-off affair with Kim Jong-un of North Korea – that although summits can shift the mood music, durable international change depends on sustained work behind the scenes.

Yet Stalin retained that ability to wrong-foot his allies. On 13 April 1943, Berlin announced the discovery of more than 4,400 bodies in Katyn Forest, near Smolensk, and attributed the shootings to the USSR in 1940. Three days later, the Polish government-in-exile in London stated that when it began forming an army in Russia in 1941 from released POWs, some 15,000 officers and men could not be accounted for. It asked for Berlin’s claims to be investigated by the International Red Cross (IRC), even though this would have to be arranged with the Wehrmacht, which controlled the area around Smolensk. The Germans quickly supported the request for an IRC investigation.

In 1988-92, research by a joint Polish–Russian commission of archivists and historians confirmed that the mass executions had been formally approved on 5 March 1940 by Stalin and his inner circle – guilt that in 1943 was already widely suspected in London and Washington. But on 21 April 1943 Stalin came out fighting in a ferocious message to Churchill and Roosevelt. He denounced the “slanderous campaign” by Berlin as a “vile fascist calumny” against Moscow and attacked the London Poles for their readiness to engage in a “comedy of ‘investigation’”. The Poles’ evident “contact and understanding” with Berlin in “this hostile campaign” left the Kremlin no choice but to sever diplomatic relations with the “treacherous” Poles in London. This, of course, would allow Stalin in due course to create a rival government-in-exile loyal to Moscow – which indeed became his Polish policy in 1944-45.

The telegram has a distinctly contemporary ring. The Soviet leader had been caught almost red-handed but he hit back with a double whammy about fake news and collusion that enabled him to take the moral high ground. This was a high-risk strategy but it paid off. Churchill proved philosophical about the Polish officers – “If they are dead, they could not be resurrected,” he told Maisky – and the cabinet and Foreign Office shared his opinion that relations with the USSR were more important than solidarity with their Polish allies. Only Owen O’Malley, British ambassador to the Polish government-in-exile, protested privately: “We have in fact perforce used the good name of England like the murderers used the little conifers to cover up a massacre.” Remarkably, successive British governments felt it politic to maintain the “not proven” line until suddenly embarrassed by the Gorbachev-Yeltsin era “glasnost” about what really happened at Katyn.

Try as he might, Churchill never really fathomed Stalin. On 15 March 1943 – a month before the Katyn story broke – the prime minister received two contrasting telegrams from the Soviet leader. The first criticised the slowness of the Allied advance in Tunisia and also chided the PM about his persistent failure to open a second front in France: “You admitted the possibility of such a front already in 1942 and in any case not later than the spring of 1943.” With the Red Army now gearing up to face the third German summer offensive in three years, Stalin solemnly declared: “I deem it my duty to warn you in the strongest possible manner how dangerous would be, from the viewpoint of our common cause, further delay in the opening of the second front in France.”

This stern missive, bristling with suspicion, was followed on the same day by a cordial telegram thanking Churchill for his recent cables about bombing raids on Germany: “From the bottom of my heart I welcome the British aviation striking hard against the German industrial centres.” Stalin also promised that the film Churchill had sent him about the Eighth Army’s victory at Alamein would be “shown widely to our army and population. I fully realise how important it will be for the cause of our fighting friendship.” He finished: “Let me send you personally our Soviet film ‘Stalingrad’ .

Churchill struggled to understand the contrast between these two messages of 15 March. They reinforced his growing feeling “that there are two forces to be reckoned with in Russia: (a) Stalin himself, personally cordial to me, (b) Stalin in council, a grim thing behind him, which we and he have to reckon”. This “two Stalins” idea became an article of faith for Churchill.

We now know from the Moscow archives that the Soviet leader did try to make the second message more personal: the italicised sections in the telegrams were his additions to a Foreign Ministry draft. But the idea that he was somehow beholden to shadowy forces in the Politburo was a total fantasy. Stalin worked with a team, but none of them had any doubt who was boss. Churchill, an emotionally affective person, easily swayed by the mood of the moment, found it hard to imagine the psychological complexity of Stalin – cold-blooded, yet a consummate actor who could put on a variety of guises in quick succession.

Churchill knew the power of words, but Stalin also understood the value of silence. In June 1943, after it finally became clear that there would be no second front that year, he told Churchill and Roosevelt that this damaged his “confidence” in his allies and recalled the Soviet ambassadors in London and Washington for “consultation”. He then ignored all their messages, prompting the PM to worry for a while that the Soviets might be considering a negotiated peace with Germany – in other words a reversion to 1939-41. Stalin did not send a message for six weeks from 24 June to 8 August 1943, leaving Churchill to stew in the juice of his own anxieties.


Turning tide: the Eighth Army fight in the desert during their decisive victory at El Alamein, 1942. Credit: AFP/.Getty Images

Roosevelt, like Churchill, had his own distinctive take on Stalin. On 18 March 1942 he informed the premier, “I know you will not mind my being brutally frank when I tell you that I think I can personally handle Stalin better than either your Foreign Office or my State Department. Stalin hates the guts of all your top people. He thinks he likes me better, and I hope he will continue to do so.” Considering that FDR had never met Stalin, and had thus far exchanged little more than a dozen messages, this was pretty rich – but the breezy self-confidence was typically Rooseveltian. Indeed, it could almost have come from Trump – except that it was five characters over the 280.

FDR didn’t treat the correspondence with the same seriousness as Churchill. He spent far less time trying to discern deep meanings in the Kremlin letters. His correspondence with Stalin is about half the size of Churchill’s and many of the messages were drafted by officials and only tweaked by FDR. For Roosevelt, the correspondence was a means to an end. He wanted to get up close and personal with the Soviet dictator and he tried on several occasions in 1942-43 to arrange a meeting between the two of them, without Churchill.

Roosevelt often used VIPs as message-boys – men whom he trusted (unlike most of the “striped pants set” from the state department) and of sufficient stature that Stalin had to give them time. These included Harry Hopkins, his closest aide, Wendell Willkie, his rival in the presidential election of 1940, and the former ambassador to Moscow Joseph E Davies. On their return to Washington, the president then pumped each one for all the information he could glean on the Kremlin recluse.

For his part, Stalin became rather tired of the practice – “Roosevelt calls everyone whom he sends to the USSR his special representatives,” he once complained – but the “wheelchair president” needed others to act as his eyes and ears because he travelled with great difficulty. Stalin, though physically mobile, was petrified of flying, so Churchill became the go-between. Hearing once that the Big Three had been likened to the Holy Trinity, the Soviet leader (an ex-seminarian) quipped that Churchill must be the Holy Ghost “because he flies around so much”.

Roosevelt was convinced that the USSR had to be drawn in from the cold into the “family circle” of international politics and that he was the man to do so. He considered Churchill doubly tainted: by his anti-Bolshevik past and by his passionate dedication to the British empire. FDR, like many American New Dealers, saw the Soviet Union as a country gradually moving away from its revolutionary past towards a social democratic future and he believed that the wartime alliance could accelerate that process. The big obstacle, he felt, was ingrained Soviet suspicion of the West.

When the president finally got to meet Stalin, in Tehran at the end of November 1943, he did not ignore Churchill but his priority was wooing Stalin. It is now clear from the Russian archives that the president went out of his way to solicit an invitation to stay with Stalin in the Soviet embassy in Tehran. This was intended as a deliberate expression of trust and solidarity. He knew perfectly well that the rooms would be bugged (Stalin got up early each morning to pore over the transcripts) but saw that as an opportunity to say things he wanted the Soviet leader to hear.

The journey to Tehran exhausted Roosevelt – his fragile health never recovered – but he had no doubt that the meeting had been worthwhile. And in 1944, especially after the success of the D-Day landings in June, he was anxious to arrange another summit. In the event, his re-election campaign made that impossible and Churchill travelled to Moscow on his own in October 1944 – though with Averell Harriman, Roosevelt’s special envoy, watching over his shoulder – in an attempt to stitch up a territorial understanding over eastern Europe before Soviet control became a fait accompli.

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The proposal for a “percentages” deal that Churchill pushed across the Kremlin table late at night on 9 October has become notorious. Ninety per cent for the Russians in Romania; 90 per cent for the British in Greece; going 50-50 in Yugoslavia, and so on. But the true story might easily have been concealed from posterity if British bureaucrats had been left to their own devices. Ian Jacob, Churchill’s military secretary, rewrote some passages of the official minutes that seemed to him “most inappropriate for a record of this importance” and “would give the impression to historians that these very important discussions were conducted in a most unfitting manner”. Despite Jacob’s rather prissy attempt to sanitise history, we know of the “naughty document” thanks to preservation of the interpreter’s notes and to Churchill’s vivid account of the evening in his war memoirs. (President Trump’s “autobiography” is unlikely to be as forthcoming about July 2018.)

Officially the US government deplored the creation of “spheres of influence” but, when Roosevelt engaged with Stalin at the second Big Three summit in Yalta in February 1945, that was effectively his goal. The Red Army was now firmly in control of Poland: FDR told US senators before he left for the Crimea that all he could do was to try to “ameliorate” the situation. Both he and Churchill returned home upbeat about the understandings reached with Stalin – not only on Poland but also Germany, the new United Nations organisation and Soviet entry into the war against Japan.

To face down critics, they talked up what had been achieved. Roosevelt presented agreement on a new international organisation to keep the peace as a “turning point in American history”, indeed “in the history of the world”. Churchill even told his ministers: “Poor Neville Chamberlain believed he could trust Hitler. He was wrong, but I don’t think I’m wrong about Stalin.”

Churchill’s view of Soviet policy soon became much bleaker, but he blamed the growing problems on those dark forces in the Kremlin that were now his idée fixe. Indeed, he insisted to the end of his life in 1965 that Stalin “never broke his personal word to me”. Roosevelt, of course, died in April 1945, on the eve of victory, so he was not obliged to reflect on the deepening Cold War and decide whether and when to change his policy.

In any case Stalin, for all his skill in wartime diplomacy, had an even greater capacity for self-deception. He entered into the Nazi-Soviet pact in the hope of gaining time for Soviet rearmament and of turning Germany west into another long war with France and Britain, akin to 1914-18. Instead, Hitler rolled over the French in five weeks in 1940 and was then free to turn east against Soviet communism years earlier than expected. Yet right up to 22 June 1941, Stalin refused to mobilise for fear this might provoke Hitler. What the Great Patriotic War myth still commemorates as Germany’s “surprise attack” was a surprise only to Stalin.

He also misjudged his new allies. Imbued with Marxist-Leninist theory, he was convinced that – once they were no longer united against Nazi Germany – Britain and America would resume their capitalist, imperialist rivalries. Disputes over trade and empire were indeed an undercurrent of the wartime “special relationship” and America’s relations with Britain definitely cooled in 1945-46. But Stalin’s attempts to consolidate his hold over eastern Europe, expand his influence in the Mediterranean and especially block the recovery of Germany all served to revive the alliance he deemed ideologically impossible. The North Atlantic Treaty of 1949 has remained the bedrock for the foreign policies of the US, Britain and western Europe until the present day. For how much longer remains to be seen in the era of Brexit and Trumputin.

Yet the positives of the wartime alliance should be remembered more than the negatives. Each of these three leaders displayed the combination of realpolitik, illusion and hubris that is essential for really creative diplomacy. From 1941 they created and sustained an improbable triumvirate that, for all its faults, failings and duplicities, was able in 1944-45 to converge with overwhelming strength from east and west on the poisoned heart of the Third Reich. On the other side, Hitler never tried to draw the Japanese warlords into a strategic partnership: his racism made that almost inconceivable. The Kremlin Letters reveals some of the inner workings of an alliance that, for all its flaws, made a difference to world history. 

“The Kremlin Letters” by David Reynolds and Vladimir Pechatnov is published by Yale University Press

This article first appeared in the 05 December 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special