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Book review

‘Roosevelt and Stalin’ by Susan Butler

Stalin (left) and President Roosevelt (center) knew that Churchill’s Britain would not have the same post-war influence as Russia and the United States.
Stalin (left) and President Roosevelt (center) knew that Churchill’s Britain would not have the same post-war influence as Russia and the United States.AP FILE PHOTO/Associated Press

One was a member of the Dutch aristocracy, a comfortable Hyde Park noble with a gentle touch and a sense of gentility. The other was the child of a Georgian cobbler whose life was warped by alcohol and who saw no need for his son to be educated. One was elected popularly, the other acquired power ruthlessly. One experienced great opposition in his own land, the other crushed dissent, often by killing rivals and opponents.

So what drew Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin together? The short answer is Adolf Hitler, but, as Susan Butler explains in “Roosevelt and Stalin,’’ an ambitious new portrait of the partnership that saved the world from Nazi tyranny, there was far more to this unusual alliance than a common foe.

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Roosevelt was the American president who conferred diplomatic recognition on the Soviet Union, no small matter in the eyes of either man. Roosevelt was a progressive DEMOCRAT — not a closet Communist, as his many opponents on the right suggested — and, from the Soviet perspective, he was a refreshing change from the string of three conservative Republican presidents who preceded him. And it was Roosevelt who warned Stalin of the futility of an alliance with Germany and the inevitability of Hitler’s betrayal. He was right about both matters.

“[F]rom Stalin’s point of view, Roosevelt was the dream American president,’’ Butler writes. “What Stalin saw was that he was offering the Soviet Union a partnership.’’ He was doing one thing more. He was conferring upon Stalin both prestige and power.

Lenin had considered the United States “the principal force in the world,’’ and Stalin agreed. He and FDR shared a recognition of the basic shape of the postwar world, and they both knew, intuitively, that the Great Britain of Winston Churchill — the British prime minister was the third member of this indispensable alliance of giants — might have moral force but WOULD never have real force again. And Britain’s moral power, both Stalin and Roosevelt knew, was undercut by its colonial past and by Churchill’s determination to ensure the survival of the British Empire.

It was Stalin and FDR’s opposition to colonialism, and their vision of a world whose tensions would be ameliorated by a new United Nations, that kept the two men together through tensions LARGE (the timing of the second front in Europe) AND LARGER (the future of Poland). Roosevelt told William Lyon Mackenzie King, the prime minister of Canada, that Stalin had “a good deal of humor’’ and was ‘’very direct.’’ Stalin considered Roosevelt an honest broker.

But it was more than that. Sumner Welles, Under Secretary of State in the FDR years, observed that Roosevelt after polio was a different man, that it was “as if all trivialities in life had been burned [out] in him’’ and that a “steel had entered his soul.’’ The choice of the word “steel” is instructive. THE NAME Stalin, meaning “man of steel,’’ was one the leader invented for himself, and it was the steel in the two men’s outlooks, and in their backbones, that provided the glue that kept them together.

None of this is to say that this was an easy, natural, or even rational alliance, which is why Butler’s book is so compelling. An intimate connection with a country that believed neither in capitalism nor religion was unsettling to business and church leaders. FDR understood this. “Russia is not our kind of country,’’ he once said, an understatement for the ages.

Even so, in this forced love triangle of allies, Churchill distrusted Stalin (thinking the Soviet leader might once again join up with Hitler and make a postwar land grab), a distrust Stalin returned (thinking the British leader might make a separate peace with Hitler). But both more or less trusted Roosevelt, Stalin especially.

Butler outlines these relationships in all of their complexity and sensitivity, especially the question of whether American advances in nuclear technology should be shared with the Soviets. (American researchers and political figures argued they should, while Churchill steadfastly argued that they should not.) This question — to share or not with Stalin — haunted FDR until his death and offers great insights into Roosevelt’s view of the relationship.

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“Holding a club over Stalin’s head, which was what withholding information on the bomb amounted to, would have been just the action he was trying to avoid,’’ Butler writes. “It would put Russia in an inferior position, which was Churchill’s aim, not his.’’

Stalin’s view of Roosevelt was evident at the latter’s death, when Soviet newspapers were bordered in black and when Stalin’s letter of condolence to Eleanor Roosevelt was on the front page of Izvestia. In that letter Stalin called FDR “the great organizer of the struggle of freedom-loving nations against the common enemy and . . . the leader in the cause of ensuring security world over.’’

It was a relationship that won the war. There may have been stranger bedfellows in the long run of history, but not many, and almost certainly none with that amount of combined power. It is that power that makes Butler’s volume a powerful book, and an irresistible read.


David M. Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He can be reached at dshribman@post-gazette.com.