New College of the Humanities

The Big Three: Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin in Peace and War

Max Beloff | Published in History Today

The Big Three: Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin in Peace and War
By Robin Edmonds - Hamish Hamilton, 1991 - 608 pp. - £22.50

Our idea of the wartime 'Big Three' may be derived from their photographs together at Teheran in 1943 and at Yalta in 1945; it is well to be reminded that these were the only occasions at which they met as a group. On the other hand, Churchill and Roosevelt met together on eleven occasions (including the Atlantic Conference before the US entered the war) and Churchill and Stalin on three occasions. Roosevelt and Stalin never met except on the margins of the two trilateral meetings. In so far as a triumvirate existed, it was a matter of communications through messages or intermediaries. Room for misunderstanding was always present. How could this not be the case since their countries, their personal philosophies and national objectives were so different? What united them was the determination between June 1941, when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, and the end of the European war (by which time Roosevelt was dead) that Hitler's Reich should suffer total defeat and Nazism be extirpated. Everything else was problematic and contingent.

To tell the story of the war in terms of the actions of the Big Three presents a major technical challenge which Robin Edmonds, professional diplomat turned historian, has triumphantly surmounted. The task for a British writer is particularly difficult since Churchill devoted his time in opposition after his electoral defeat in 1945 to making sure that the war would be seen at least in Britain through his own eyes. In historiography as in war it pays 'to get in firstest with the mostest'.

Roosevelt did not live to tell his own story and though most of his collaborators presented their's, none had an overall view, largely as a result of Roosevelt's highly idiosyncratic methods of doing business. So the tale was left to the historians, some of whom saw Roosevelt as a Machiavellian conspirator against the hest interests and traditions of the United States, while others accepted rather uncritically the Rooseveltian view of the world which had many deplorable gaps. As for the Russians, their prime concern was the propagation of myths to enhance the infallibility of Stalin who survived in power during the crucial post-war years and to debar access to documents which might call into question the received version. Mr Edmonds' treatment of Stalin is thus the most novel aspect of the book since he has been able to make use of materials released by the Russians as a result of glasnost and of recent if incomplete Soviet historical revisionism. Mr Edmonds' comment on these sources are not the least important part of this scholarly work. Mr Edmonds has clearly found Stalin the most interesting of his three subjects and with the lapse of time to help him can do justice to the fact that it was Stalin who in the end got more of what he wanted than anyone else; it is only now that the full cost of his victories is becoming apparent.

In order to cope with his theme, Mr Edmonds has extended its time-span, at the beginning by dealing with the very different ways in which Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin came to be their countries' leaders in the war, and at the end by including the Potsdam Conference from which Roosevelt (through death) and Churchill (because of the ingratitude of his countrymen) were absent. To neither Truman nor Attlee could the adjective 'big' be applied, though Truman was to grow in stature in the face of subsequent challenges.

What Mr Edmonds leaves out deliberately is an account of how the war itself actually came about – arguing not incorrectly that it would be hard to better Donald Cameron Watt's account in his How War Came. Otherwise the reader is carried along effortlessly from Churchill at Omdurman and Stalin at the seminary and Roosevelt at Harvard to their apotheosis at Teheran and Yalta. It could be argued that Mr Edmonds' narrative skills might more often have been supplemented by a closer analysis of particular episodes and problems whether in the military or diplomatic field. Where does one now take one's stand on the 'second front' or on the Greek campaign or on Churchill's espousal of Tito? Was Crete lost so as to preserve the secrecy of 'Ultra'?

Mr Edmonds does not deny that his interests extend beyond his narrative to the legacy of these years and in particular to what the 'Big Three' failed to do. He sees two main weaknesses which contribute to the assessment of their achievements and in the British and American con- text of that of their successors. The most important for him is the failure to appreciate the change in the conditions of world politics brought about by the advent of nuclear weapons. The second was the failure to come to a proper solution of the problems of Central Europe, a solution which is only now in the ~process of negotiation. On that issue, it is harder to fault the Western powers, since given the ideological preconceptions that Stalin imbibed from Lenin and that still haunt the Soviet Union today, grounds for agreement hardly existed. As always the relationships of power settled what happened, and Churchill's wooing of both Roosevelt and Stalin became less efficacious as Britain's relative power decline.

It seems to me that there is one other legacy of the war year which still affects international relations today and to our detriment. I think that Mr Edmonds underplays Roosevelt's essential weakness of perception and the gaps in his knowledge, even more significant than Churchill's blindness over the Japanese threat. Roosevelt made one great decision for which we must be eternally thankful, to give and retain the priority of defeating Germany. On the other hand, his anti-colonialist prejudice made him too easy a prey to the vain belief that he and Stalin were always on the same wavelength with the imperialist British as a disturbing factor. In the event that did not matter. What did matter was Roosevelt's consistent bias not merely against de Gaulle and in favour of Vichy, but against France itself. The extraordinary idea that France could be treated after its liberation as a conquered country subject to external control is something to which Mr Edmonds devotes little attention. But does not the persistent pull of France against an Atlantic solution to the problems of European security derive precisely from de Gaulle's experience at Roosevelt's hands?

Churchill and Roosevelt were obviously much closer to each other personally than Churchill and Stalin. Yet Churchill and Stalin had this in common. For both of them war and diplomacy went hand in hand; in Roosevelt's mind as in that of other American presidents past and future, war was something outside the daily run, to be fought, won and left behind.

Mr Edmonds is better placed than anyone to examine this paradox; perhaps one day he will. Meanwhile what a treat he has given us in this eloquent and absorbing book.

MAX BELOFF is the author of Dream of Commonwealth 1921-42 Volume 2 of Imperial Sunset (Macmillan, 1989).

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