When you set out to write a very detailed book on a subject you’ve been avidly following since you were 11 years old (that’s over 60 years ago), and when that book is about war, you can get very inured to lesser-of-evils compromises. We talk about “transactional” relationships a lot these days, but nothing is more brutally transactional than war.
Recently, a woman who didn’t know the nitty gritty of W.W. II approached me with something she’d long remembered: “I met a Yugoslavian woman in Greece years ago. She raged at me, ’You’re from America? Your Roosevelt sold us to Stalin!’ So …” she asked me, knowing the title of my forthcoming book, Saving Stalin, “Why did we ‘save’ that awful man?” I answered: “Stalin was as evil as Hitler but Hitler was more catastrophically ambitious. And Stalin’s troops ended up suffering eight times more deaths in that war than did ours and the British combined (and almost twice as many as Hitler’s troops). The Russians, under Stalin, gave immensely more.” The truth was as simple as it is unattractive: “In war, if you don’t make deals with bad guys, you’ll be dead in ten minutes.”
But a funny thing happened on the way from giving that answer to re-reading my book during a time when transactionalism is so extreme and the morality of one person, and his party, so low: I appreciated, anew, those moments of poignance and elegance sprinkled between the dark shenanigans and dysfunctional relationships that marked the four years that followed the summer of 1941. It was during that summer that Harry Hopkins, F. D. R.’s trusted advisor, came to Moscow after Russia was surprise-attacked by Hitler. Hopkins’s mission was to decide whether we should send aid to Stalin’s Russia, just as we had sent material and financial aid to Churchill’s Britain. Yes, deciding to help Stalin—who had starved, purged, and routed to death six million Ukrainians in the 1930s—was a highly imperfect choice. But, at that fraught time, it was a necessary one.
W.W. II and Today
I wrote Saving Stalin: Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin, and the Cost of Allied Victory in Europe, my second book on W. W. II, during the first two years of Trump’s presidency, when things were bad but the worst was yet to come. I had the emotional luxury of digging into and describing the repugnance—Goebbels and his wife poisoning all their children rather than lettingthem live in a non-Nazi Europe, for example —without needing to remind myself of the obvious valor and bravery that coexisted. But re-reading the book during a time when American leadership has shown disgraceful cowardice and unparalleled selfishness and cruelty made me seize those reminders.
Three incidents—one for each of the principals of the triad: Churchill, the Russian troops, and Roosevelt—have particularly stayed with me. And I’ve used them to reassure myself that, in case anti-democratic ugliness breaks out with a Biden win in a less than slam-dunk election, there is a history of decency and eloquence in deeply troubled times upon which to draw.
The first moment was in August 1941. We hadn’t entered the war yet and Churchill and Roosevelt, away from the throngs of soldiers and leaders in their respective countries, were having a private lunch at the Atlantic Conference, which took place off the coast of Nova Scotia. As the atmosphere around the table warmed, the conversation grew more personal and intimate. The two men discussed their correspondence, their transatlantic telephone conversations, their health, and their worries. They eased into calling each other by their first names.
This was the warm-up—the prime minister had not come almost 3,000 miles to make small talk with the president of the United States. That evening, at a dinner party aboard the ship Augusta, Churchill’s earlier talk with Roosevelt morphed into a passionate appeal. As Roosevelt’s son Elliott recalled, the prime minister’s “hands slashed the air … his eyes flashed,” and “he told of battle after battle lost.” Then he expressed his desperation—touching and rare for this man who had “slewed his cigar … at a jaunty angle and hunched his shoulders like a bull.” Churchill bluntly told Roosevelt, “You’ve got to come in beside us. If you don’t declare war … [and instead you] wait for them to strike first, they’ll strike [you] after we’ve gone under and their first blow will be their last.”
Elliott Roosevelt was struck by how “Father … usually dominated every gathering, but not that night.” Churchill’s desperation and his begging of Roosevelt were notable. And it was effective: the U.S. entered the war three months later.
I appreciated, anew, moments of poignance and elegance sprinkled between the dark shenanigans and dysfunctional relationships.
The second thing that re-gripped me was the extraordinary valor and commitment—the sacrifice—of the Russian soldiers. This was shown time and again in my study of the battles. I learned that Soviet troops would throw themselves heedlessly on the advancing enemy and die in the hundreds or thousands, depending on the scale of the attack. And, Russia being a culture as illustrious in literature as in battle, that sacrifice was most eloquently displayed in a poem, Smolensk Roads, by the war correspondent and poet Kiril Mikhailovich Simonov. Such poets, on or near the front lines, risked almost the same dangers as the soldiers did. They wrote notes for their poems in the midst of the fighting, and they helped keep their armed countrymen stoked up and appreciated in real time. The passionate Smolensk Roads bears witness to the sorrow, suffering, and resolve that was built into the Russian soul for generations. It vivifies the weary helpmeets of the soldiers—“The women, exhausted, who brought milk in pitchers, / And clasped them like babies at breast, from the rain”—and exudes weathered pride.
“Alyosha,” Simonov writes, invoking a character in Doestoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, “till now we’ve been spared by the bullets. / But when (for the third time) my life seemed to end, / I yet still felt proud of the dearest of countries, / The great bitter land I was born to defend.”
The third incident that moved me took place on Armistice Day— November 11, 1943. The president, already very physically compromised, was recovering from a disturbingly high fever. But there was no way—with thousands of young Americans dying on battlefields around the globe—that he was going to skip paying his respects at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Roosevelt’s car stopped in front of the tomb, where the dead of the Great War awaited him on the 25th anniversary of the war that was supposed to end all wars. A soldier holding a wreath of chrysanthemums stepped forward; an army band struck up “The Star-Spangled Banner”; Vice Admiral Wilson Brown, the president’s naval aide, placed a wreath on the grave; the somber ruffle of drums followed; and the cold November air filled with the lonely sound of a single bugle playing taps.
What an elegant and forlorn act of respect that was. Seventy-seven years later, on another early November day not long from now, will there be the same respect, dignity, and insistent hewing to tradition?
We can only hope.
John Kelly’s Saving Stalin: Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin, and the Cost of Allied Victory in Europe will be published by Hachette on October 6