- - Tuesday, April 28, 2015



By Susan Butler

Knopf, $35, 594 pages

Should I feign surprise? Decades after communism collapsed into rubble, the blame-America crowd — ah, those “intellectuals” — remains determined to blame the Cold War on President Harry S. Truman and British Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill.

Such is the thesis lamely touted by Susan Butler in a book slated for fireplace duty once cold weather returns. Ignoring history, she maintains that virtually every postwar decision the United States and Britain made concerning the Soviet Union was wrong. Fortunately for history, unlike President Roosevelt, determined to give Stalin the benefit of the doubt on contested issues, Truman and Churchill had a better historical perspective on the dictator’s record.

That he caused the deaths of millions of fellow countrymen during the 1920s and 1930s and worked to overthrow other nations is of no import to Ms. Butler. What alarmed Truman and Churchill was Stalin’s blatant breach of a host of agreements, including permitting Poland to elect its own government. Not only did the Communists install a dictated government, they imprisoned opposition Poles who had resisted the Germans from exile in London.

Her book’s framework is the weeklong Yalta Conference in the Soviet Crimea in December 1945, to discuss the imminent unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany, the organization of postwar Europe, the Soviet entry into the war against Japan and the founding of FDR’s dream, the United Nations. Much of the book is lifted directly from the State Department’s Yalta volume in the decades-old “Foreign Relations of the United States” series. There is considerable irrelevant padding — for instance, ad infinitum listings of persons with whom FDR shared meals, and the (astounding?) fact that he read his mail.

Ms. Butler’s foreword claims access to previously secret Soviet archives. Perhaps. Her chapter notes make frequent reference to her earlier book of correspondence between the two leaders, “Roosevelt and Stalin: Portrait of a Partnership.” But the book at hand lists only 33 references to Soviet documents in 594 pages.

Further, in at least one instance, she gives a grossly misleading summary of what she found. Prior to the conference, the Soviets compiled psychological profiles of American participants. She writes that Alger Hiss of the State Department was identified as “highly sympathetic to the interests of the Soviet Union and a strong supporter of postwar collaboration between American and Soviet institutions.” She adds, rather smugly, that Hiss “was not described as an agent” (She italicizes “not” for emphasis).

Her omission here is ghastly. To be sure, the Soviets were inept at such things as collective agriculture, but their espionage tradecraft was of A-plus quality. I cannot imagine a Soviet spymaster mentioning control of a deep-cover agent such as Hiss in a paper written for broad circulation. Ms. Butler also skips past an intercepted Soviet intelligence cable that agent “Ales” — Hiss’ code name — traveled to Moscow after Yalta to brief his masters.

To be sure, Roosevelt had ample reason to keep on good terms with Stalin at Yalta. The defeat of Germany was nigh-certain, but Japan loomed large. Should an invasion of Japan prove necessary, American casualties were estimated near a million. Hence, FDR walked cautiously, and Stalin gave the desired pledge of full intervention.

Ms. Butler makes a strong case that many Roosevelt advisers wanted to share atomic secrets with the Soviets, even before the bomb was deployed. FDR made no decision. The “sharing” issue passed to Truman, who by no means shared Roosevelt’s trust in Stalin’s word. He opted to listen to those who argued for international safeguards of atomic secrets before they were shared with the world.

Lamentably, Truman was forced to start from scratch on nuclear affairs. The very existence of the nuclear bomb was not even revealed to him until he became vice president. Stalin’s spies, meanwhile, had kept him apprised of progress since at least 1942. At Yalta, Secretary of State Edward Stettinius told the president “that the Soviet Union had 125 spies on the job” — i.e., the development of the bomb.

Stalin also complained at Yalta that the United States would not write him a blank check for postwar assistance. Again, the decision passed to Truman, and, again, he took the opposite tack from what Ms. Butler insists would have been done by Roosevelt.

The United States indeed did propose a massive European aid program, the Marshall Plan, in 1947 when, the Cold War was at its most frigid. Stalin refused any aid, he ordered Communist-controlled governments throughout Europe to follow suit.

One final outrageous howler: that Churchill’s cruelty toward India equaled that of Stalin’s brutality. Need more be said? As noted earlier, this is a book for the fireplace, not the bookshelves.

Joseph Goulden is the author of 18 nonfiction books.

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