The Deep Roots of America’s Fear and Distrust of Russia

Most historians agree that World War II would have been lost had it not been for the overwhelming sacrifices of the USSR, but placating Stalin meant betraying smaller nations like Poland.

Joseph Stalin, FDR and Winston Churchill during the Yalta Conference

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Our distrust of Soviet Russia began years before the Cold War, when we were still allies fighting the Nazis. As a heartbroken American diplomat wrote about Poland’s treatment at the hands of the Soviets: “No one can stop Russia from doing the taking if she is determined to go through with it. No one can force Russia to do the giving if she is determined not to go through with it. … We should bow our heads in silence before the tragedy of a people … whom we have saved from our enemies and whom we cannot save from our friends.”

 

On a warm July morning in 1944, a few weeks after D-Day, British General Bernard “Monty” Montgomery was standing on a road in the Norman countryside when a staff car pulled up next to him and a powerfully built Polish officer emerged and introduced himself. Stanisław Ma­czek, commander of the 1st (Polish) Armored Division, had been fighting from the first hour of the first day of the war. In September 1939, he defended his native Poland against the Germans and the Russians; in 1940, he fought alongside the British and French in the Battle of France; and in 1942, he convinced the British government to create what would become the 1st Armored Division. He and Montgomery exchanged small talk for a few minutes over the rumble of the artillery fire farther up the road. Then Monty, whose many virtues did not include charm, said, “Tell me, General, in Warsaw these days do people speak Russian or German?”

No doubt Montgomery would have been outraged if Ma­czek had turned the question around and asked what language was spoken in London these days: French or English? But therein lay the difference between what Churchill called “giant countries” and “pygmy countries.” As a “giant country,” even in crisis Britain received assistance and respect. As a long-standing “pygmy country,” Poland was partitioned whenever the whim struck one of its larger neighbors. At various times in the 18th century, Poland was ruled by Russia, Austria, and Prussia — sometimes in a kind of condominium, other times individually. In the 19th century and early 20th century there were four more partitions: 1815, 1832, 1836, and 1939 — and, again, the main players were Russia and what had been Prussia but was now Germany.

During 1940 and 1941, thousands of Polish soldiers like General Maczek made their way across Europe and began the fighting to reclaim their homeland from an army base in the British midlands or an aerodrome in Scotland. Initially the pressures of war drew the two nations together. The Poles had a far larger stake in the European War than the Indians and the Burmese did — or, for that matter, than the Canadians and Australians. And the closeness was evident at every level of the alliance: diplomatic, political, and military.

The point at which things began to change is difficult to say with certainty, but the summer of 1941 is a good guess. In various forms, Russia had been tormenting Poland for the better part of three centuries, and in April and May 1940 Stalin murdered some 22,000 Polish officers and civilians in Russia’s Katyn Forest. But, with the Germans approaching Smolensk and the Poles eager to liberate the remaining Polish soldiers sitting in Soviet prison camps, in the summer of 1941 the Poles put aside their grievances and signed a series of treaties with the Soviets.

Churchill found 
the Poles exasperating yet felt that, as Britain’s first ally, they were owed a certain level of support and respect as long as they did not overreach. Roosevelt’s affection for the Poles was more limited.

In initial talks, the Soviet delegates had strongly suggested that at the conclusion of the war Poland’s prewar borders would be restored. But when the border issue arose during talks later that summer, the Soviet delegates refused to make any commitments about Poland’s postwar status. That probably didn’t surprise the Polish delegates, but those delegates were likely surprised when the British foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, told Parliament that His Majesty’s government had made no guarantees to Poland about its postwar borders.

America’s entrance into the war also had an effect on Poland’s standing in what became the Grand Alliance. From a psychological point of view, notes historian Norman Davies, America’s entry changed the emotional climate in the alliance. The Americans wanted to present the war as a moral crusade, the victory of good over evil — and to a degree it worked. By 1943, even the ironworker in Pittsburgh had the occasional good word to say about “Uncle Joe” Stalin, while in working-class Britain, Stalin enjoyed something like movie star status.

It’s often overlooked or forgotten, but most historians agree that World War II would have been lost had it not been for the overwhelming sacrifices of the USSR. Stalin knew full well how important his nation’s fight against Hitler was, and he was determined that the Western countries would never forget this and that Russia would be rewarded for all its blood that was spilt once the war was over. FDR’s aide Harry Hopkins spelled this out to Roosevelt and Churchill at the Quebec Conference in 1943 in a report that he said was drawn from a recent “very high level” U.S. military strategic assessment.

The authors began by noting that Russia would emerge from the war as the dominant power in Europe. With Germany crushed, no other nation on the continent would be strong enough to oppose her tremendous military forces. It was true, the report continued, that Great Britain was currently holding up a position in the Mediterranean, but the authors doubted she would be able to oppose Russia unless otherwise supported. “The conclusions from the foregoing are obvious,” they noted. “Since Russia is the decisive factor in the war, she must be given every assistance, and every effort must be made to win her friendship. Likewise, since without question she will dominate Europe on the defeat of the Axis, it is even more essential to develop and maintain the most friendly relations with Russia.”

As Russia’s standing rose, the Poles fell into the background, though they remained an important militarily asset. In various iterations, the Poles fought in North Africa and, a year after the Katyn massacre, in Monte Cassino, where the 2nd Polish Corps did what the American, British, French, New Zealand, and Indian troops had been unable to do: capture the abbey, from where the Germans were blocking the Allied liberation of Italy. Within the alliance, though, Poland continued to be viewed as a second-tier ally — a Norway or a Holland — but with a bigger punch.

Viewed from a thousand feet, Roosevelt’s and Churchill’s perspectives on the Polish question were similar. Viewed from 50 feet, however, differences emerged. Churchill found the Poles exasperating yet felt that, as Britain’s first ally, they were owed a certain level of support and respect as long as they did not overreach. Roosevelt’s affection for the Poles was more limited. In the new world order he envisioned, there was little space and not much empathy for a small nation that seemed full of big grievances. A few weeks before the 1943 Tehran Conference, significant for being the first meeting of the “big three” — Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin — the president told a young English friend of his wife, “I am sick and tired of these people [the London Poles]. The Polish ambassador came to me some time ago” asking for help. “I told him: Do you think they [the ­Russians] will just stop to please you, or us for that matter? Do you expect us and Great Britain to declare war on Joe Stalin if they [the Russians] cross your precious frontiers?”

Stalin’s position on Poland was blunt. To avoid a repeat of Hitler’s surprise invasion of 1941, he wanted to expand the Soviet Union’s border well to the west of its current position, a change that would require the Poles to renounce their prewar borders and accept new ones. At Tehran, Churchill proposed a compromise that also included a threat. He said the Russians’ offer was a good one, and if the Poles rejected it, then the British government would not be prepared to argue against the Soviets at the postwar conference. After Churchill finished, Anthony Eden asked Stalin if his goal was to re-create the old 1939 Soviet-German border. “Call it what you will,” Stalin replied. Roosevelt and Stalin also discussed the Polish issue on the final day of the Tehran Conference. Roosevelt said there were between six and seven million Polish-American voters and that while he personally agreed with Premier Stalin on the Polish border issue, with the 1944 election less than a year away, he could not participate in any arrangements or public discussions on the subject.

 

On July 31, 1944, Soviet tanks broke into the German defenses on the eastern side of the Vistula River, opposite Warsaw. During the early afternoon of August l, 1944, Polish Home Army men and women took up positions around the capital. The attack would not proceed until 5:00 p.m., which gave the insurgents a long summer afternoon to consider two unknowns. The first was time. How long could the lightly armed Home Army hold out unaided? The second was the German response. Given the heavy losses the Wehr­macht had sustained in Normandy after D-Day and on the Eastern Front, it seemed unlikely that they would make a stand in Warsaw. That illusion was shattered a little after the time of the attack when a collection of prewar cavalrymen and raw recruits poured out of a tenement on a street corner and rushed the complex of bunkers guarding the SS and Gestapo headquarters. When the German machine guns stopped firing, only the commander and six men from of the battalion were still alive.

That evening, a German squad returned to the same street and killed every resident. Any lingering doubts about Germany’s intentions were brought to an end the following day when a column of Tiger tanks from the Hermann Göring Division, supported by engineers whose job it was to burn the city, came close to obliterating five companies of the Battalion Parasol, one of the Home Army’s most elite units. On August 3, a Red Army force fought its way to within 12 miles of Warsaw, but, aware that every kilometer counted now, the Germans threw them back with a furious counterattack. The next day, August 4, Churchill cabled Stalin:

“At urgent request of Polish underground army we are dropping, subject to weather, about 60 tons of equipment and ammunition into the southwest quarter of Warsaw where it is said the Polish revolt against the Germans is in fierce struggle. They also say they have appealed for Russian aid.”

Churchill described the behavior of the Soviet Union as “at variance with the spirit of Allied cooperation to which you and we attach so much importance both for the present 
and the future.”

Stalin replied to Churchill immediately: “I think the information that has been communicated to you by the Poles is greatly exaggerated and does not inspire confidence.” Stalin denied the request.

By mid-August the fighting had become savage, and the Warsaw sewer system became the lifeblood through which flowed food, water, the wounded, and the dying. It was where the wounded Polish Jews sheltered and where reinforcements from other parts of the city were sent into the boiling summer streets. The sewer system also housed an ever-expanding rodent population, which feasted on the dying and the remains of the dead.

When Stanisław Mikołajczyk, prime minister of the exiled Polish government in London, had arrived in Moscow in late July, Stalin told him, “We will try to do everything possible to help Warsaw.” But, some days later, when Allied officials requested landing rights for British and American planes ferrying food and weapons to the Home Army, they were told that “the uprising was a reckless adventure … and the Soviet Command had decided to openly disclaim any responsibility for the Warsaw adventure.” After reading Stalin’s note, Churchill’s first impulse was to ignore its provocative tone and send another flight of planes to Warsaw with supplies; yet when he approached Roosevelt about issuing a joint statement on the Polish agony, the president balked. “I do not consider it would prove advantageous to the long-range general war prospect for me to join you in the proposed message to Stalin.”

Exiled Polish prime minister Stanisław Mikołajczyk
Rebuffed by Stalin: Stanisław Mikołajczyk, prime minister of the exiled Polish government, made a futile plea for Russia to help defend against the German destruction of Warsaw. (National Portrait Gallery)

On September 4, Churchill made a final appeal to Stalin and Roosevelt. In the cable to Stalin, he described the behavior of the Soviet Union as “at variance with the spirit of Allied cooperation to which you and we attach so much importance both for the present and the future.” His appeal to Roosevelt was more emotional: “Warsaw is in ruins. The Germans are killing the wounded in hospitals. They are making women and children march in front of them in order to protect their tanks. There is no exaggeration in reports of children fighting and destroying tanks with bottles of petrol.” Roosevelt too was appalled by the German atrocities, but he shared the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s concern that if pressed on Poland, Stalin might think twice about honoring his pledge to join the Pacific war on Germany’s fall and about giving the U.S. rights to attack Japan from air bases in Siberia.

The most insightful description of the Polish tragedy was written by George Kennan, the wartime chargé d’affaires at the U.S. embassy in Moscow. After the war, two of Kennan’s works — the “Long Telegram,” written in 1946, and a 1947 Foreign Affairs article written under the pseudonym X — would shape American thinking about the Soviet Union for more than a generation. But both articles had their genesis in “Russia — Seven Years Later,” an essay Kennan wrote shortly after the Polish uprising:

American concepts of collective security can only seem unreal in Moscow. Russian leaders pay lip service to the principles of the U.S. and Britain, but with the second front in place they no longer need to observe excessive delicacy. Their priorities are ascendant now, and they all amount to one thing, power. The form it takes and the methods by which it is achieved are secondary. Moscow doesn’t care whether a given area was Communistic or not. The main thing is that it should be subject to Moscow’s control. The USSR is thus committed to becoming the dominant power in Eastern and Central Europe and only then to cooperate with their Anglo-American allies. The first of these programs implies taking. The second implies giving.

No one can stop Russia from doing the taking if she is determined to go through with it. No one can force Russia to do the giving if she is determined not to go through with it. … We should bow our heads in silence before the tragedy of a people who have been our allies, whom we have saved from our enemies and whom we cannot save from our friends.

John Kelly is the author of The Great Mortality, about the Black Death, and The Graves Are Walking, about the Irish famine, among other books. He has written extensively about medicine, history, and psychology.

From the book Saving Stalin by John Kelly. Copyright © 2020 by John Kelly. Reprinted by permission of Hachette Books, New York, NY. All rights reserved

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Featured image: Uneasy allies: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Josef Stalin, and Winston Churchill at the Tehran Conference in 1943. Roosevelt and Churchill understood perfectly that maintaining the fragile partnership would require concessions to Stalin. (Library of Congress)

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