Okay, folks, this week it’s another book that I got from work. (FOR FREE. THEY LET ME HAVE BOOKS FOR FREE.) By now, the lovely librarian (I WORK SOMEWHERE WITH A LIBRARY) knows me, because she dropped the book at my desk and said she thought it might be right up my lane. And boy, was she right.
The Kremlin Letters are the story of the wartime correspondence between Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin. I’ve never given it too much thought before – but of course those three allies would have spoken with each other. But the depth and details of the hundreds of telegrams astonished me. They talked about everything – from the details of the D Day landings to birthday greetings. And they are all public.
You might be surprised to hear that these telegrams were first published not by the Western Powers, but by the Soviet Union, back in the 60s. The Americans and English then did the same, giving the public this treasure trove.
And this book makes such a fascinating read out of them – it’s a great additional layer to the history of the Second World War. You learn how the people in power saw the war developments, and how they managed the relationship between them. It was all a very careful dance, and there were serious missteps along the way. (Mostly Churchill stepping on everyone’s toes, to be honest.) All three collaborated and coordinated their individual war efforts to beat a common foe – this is the difference to the German – Japanese Alliance, which mostly lived on paper.
Clausewitz famously said that ‘war is a continuation of politics by other means’, and this book shows the political aspect of the war. For example, Russia was bearing the majority of losses in the war – it was the Russians that repelled the Germans, and suffered heavily from it. Stalin brought this up again and again and, as early as 1941, tried to convince Roosevelt and Churchill to open a second front in the West. This would take pressure off the Russian front, whilst simultaneously forcing the Germans into a two-front war. Both Roosevelt and Churchill were aware that their contribution to the war – at least until the D-Day landings – paled in comparison to Russia’s, and therefore were very mindful of it during their correspondence with Stalin.
But most of all, this book helped to humanize the three leaders. Their individuality shines through, and it becomes clear just how different they were. Churchill, the son of Dukes, representing the British Empire, not quite realizing that this would be the last big battle the empire fought. Roosevelt, the patrician, ever so much conscious of the limits that the Constitution put on him, and mindful of the public opinion. Stalin, who was at an disadvantage when faced with the close Anglo-US alliance, but managed to play his cards very successfully. They all put their differences aside to beat a common foe. And let’s not forget that none of this was obvious or inevitable – the close coordination was the result of a conscious choice, and needed careful management and commitment from all sides.
Also, let’s not forget that there were plenty of issues on which the three never managed to find common ground. Two big ones stand out – Poland and the post-world order. For starters, Poland was a hobby horse of Churchill’s – after all, it was the failure of Attlee’s appeasement policy that brought him to power. Ever forth, Churchill wanted an independent Polish state – which of course Stalin didn’t want at all. He saw Poland as integral part of the Soviet Union. There was a huge fallout over Poland and its post-war status between the allies.
The second problem was undoubtedly the bigger one. How would the world look like once Germany was defeated? For a while, Churchill was honestly worried that the Russians would be in Berlin before the D-Day landings would give England (and the US) a foot in the door. So there was this ambiguity – Churchill wanted Russia to advance west, of course he did, but he was also very conscious that they shouldn’t advance too fast – lest Stalin would make facts on the ground.
This book is a really interesting read if you want to freshen up on your WW2 knowledge – with the additional benefit of letting you get to know the characters of the most powerful men in the conflict.
Sometimes, it even helps to humanize them.
Like when Churchill and Stalin met in Moskov. One thing I learnt from this book is that Churchill was always flying around the world, visiting the front (he was in Normandy two days after D-Day, much to the chagrin to the army, the king, and his cabinet). In fact, he was so known for it that when, at the Tehran conference, someone referred to Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill as the Holy Trinity, Stalin replied ‘if so, Churchill is the holy spirit, because he flies around so much.”
Anyway. So Churchill met Stalin, and they went on a boozer. Like, a proper late-night drinking spree. At some point, Churchill toasted to Stalin’s health, and Stalin told Churchill how much he admired them. I’m sure all of us have been in a similar situation – you’re out, you drank too much, and you become emotional and tell your friends how much you love them. See. World leaders. Just like us.
Another thing that cracked me up was Stalins go-to excuse whenever he didn’t want to talk to Churchill and / or Roosevelt. So he gets a telegram, and tells his staff to tell his allies that … he’s not there. Yup. Stalin totally ghosted Roosevelt and Churchill several times, sometimes for weeks on end. All FDR and Churchill heard was that ‘Stalin was at the front’. So next time you feel bad about not picking up the phone when it rings, don’t. Stalin did the same.
And one final ‘oh my God they are just like us’ – before their first meeting (to be held in Tehran), there was a big discussion on who would stay where. Obviously, the meeting was a prime target for German attempts to decapitate all of their adversaries at once. So security was a big concern. But Roosevelt took this one step further – he didn’t really want to stay with Churchill, so he kinda … dropped some hints that he wouldn’t necessarily say no if Stalin invited him to stay over. Yup. The American President totally invited himself over to the Soviet embassy. (Not sure if they ended up drinking until the early morning hours, but I doubt it.)
It’s always interesting to have this glimpse behind the scenes. This book really fleshes out the main characters that we have been reading about for decades – what you do with the knowledge that Churchill was a relentless self-promoter is entirely up to you, of course.