Friday, April 17, 2009

American illusions destroyed in Poland after WWII

I heard it said not so very long ago that Roosevelt was a great friend of the Soviet Union and that it was only after his death that America perfidiously and without cause turned against Stalin and the Soviet Union. Martin Walker in The Cold War presents a different perspective.

On page 17 he writes, “The next victims of Yalta were American illusions. Within days it became clear that Stalin’s promise of democracy and independence in Poland did not include any serious political role for the Polish government-in-exile which had spent the war in London. ‘We began to realize that Stalin’s language was somewhat different from ours: “Friendly neighbors” had an entirely different connotation to him,’ Harriman recalled. ‘I am outraged,’ he cabled back to the White House in March, when the Russians refused to let American medical teams into Poland to treat and evacuate American prisoners of war. On 3 April, Harriman reported that the Polish talks had degenerated to breaking point, and asked to come home. Harriman planned to take with him an eight-page memorandum drafted on 21 March, which could not have been more bluntly phrased: ‘Unless we wish to accept the 20th century barbarian invasion of Europe, with repercussions extending further and further in the East as well, we must find ways to arrest the Soviet domineering policy . . . If we don’t face these issues squarely now, history will record the period of the next generation as the Soviet age.’

“In the final days of his life, Roosevelt seemed to agree. At Warm Springs, receiving one of Harriman’s angry telegrams after lunch, Anna Hoffman reported that the dying President slammed his fists on his wheelchair and declared, ‘Averell is right. We can’t do business with Stalin.’ But Roosevelt’s last reply to the Moscow Embassy on 12 April called for more conciliation, and he died that day. His policy, however, of refusing finally to believe the worst of his Soviet comrade-in-arms would outlive him for some time.”


Most if not all of the major political representatives of the American government during World War II and immediately after were pragmatists. Yes, everyone was familiar with the theories, rumors, and arguments about “Communism,” but World War II involved people doing things, not just theory, and the Soviet Union was on the same side as America and Britain. Surely that overrode the negative things written by right-wing and fascist intellectuals.

It is an ancient dictum in war that you hope for the best but prepare for the worst, that is you “prepare for the worst” if you are sensible, something the U.S. and Britain could not lay claim to prior to World War II, but what about after the war? Despite Roosevelt’s well-known hoping-for-the-best from Stalin, was America preparing for the worst? Not exactly, but it really didn’t matter.

Tony Judt writes on page 104 of Postwar: A history of Europe since 1945, “Thanks to German aggression the United States was now, for the first time, a power in Europe. That the US had overwhelming strength was self-evident, even to those mesmerized by the achievements of the Red Army. US GNP had doubled in the course of the war, and by the spring of 1945 America accounted for half the world’s manufacturing capacity, most of its food surpluses and virtually all international financial reserves. The United States had put 12 million men under arms to fight Germany and its allies, and by the time Japan surrendered the American fleet was larger than all other fleets in the world combined. What would the US do with is power?” Judt asks.

Well, one thing it would not do is feel intimidated by the USSR, and so the Cold War began. I will probably have to read elsewhere to find out if the US was ever allowed by the Soviet Union to give medical aid to American prisoners of war, or to evacuate them back to America.

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