With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Churchill, Stalin and the Legacy of the Grand Alliance: An Interview with Professor Geoffrey Roberts

Geoffrey Roberts, Martin Folly and Oleg Rzheshevsky have recently published Churchill and Stalin: Comrades-in-Arms During the Second World War (Pen & Sword, South Yorkshire: UK, 2019). The book offers an overview —based on material, including never before released documents, from the Russian archives — of the relationship between the two leaders in the period surrounding the Grand Alliance of the US, UK and USSR, which defeated Nazi Germany. Aaron Leonard recently exchanged emails with Professor Roberts about his research.

‘Common knowledge’ —in the West anyway —holds that Joseph Stalin was among the most evil persons of the twentieth century, yet your book presents a picture of him as a key figure, working hand in hand with the Western icon, Winston Churchill, in the successful defeat of Hitler. How does one reconcile such a seeming paradox?

There is no paradox. They united to defeat a common foe who threatened the very existence of their states and societies. Churchill saw Stalin as by far the lesser or two evils compared to Hitler, while for Stalin a common interest in the defeat of fascism prevailed over his hostility to British capitalism and imperialism. While Churchill had been one of the main organisers of the capitalist coalition that tried to overthrow Bolshevik Soviet Russia after the First World War, in the 1930s he opposed Anglo-French appeasement of Nazi Germany and campaigned for a grand alliance of Britain, France and the Soviet Union to oppose Hitler. When negotiations for an Anglo-Soviet-French pact failed, Churchill did not like the ensuing Nazi-Soviet pact, but he understood Stalin’s reasons for doing a deal with Hitler in August 1939 and believed that sooner or later Britain and the Soviet Union would be fighting alongside each other. During the period of the Nazi-Soviet pact, from August 1939-June 1941, Stalin was wary of being prematurely dragged into the war on Britain’s side but he admired Churchill’s refusal to capitulate to Hitler after the fall of France in 1940.

You describe the relationship between Churchill and Stalin as one —in Churchill’s view anyway — of ‘warlord to warlord.’ This struck me as a very particular word, and not one that immediately springs to mind. Could you explain why you think it Churchill felt it captured their relationship?

By the time Churchill first met Stalin – in Moscow in August 1942 – the Soviet Union had survived the initial German onslaught, though not without the Red Army suffering millions of casualties. Like Churchill in 1940, Stalin had shown his mettle by remaining in Moscow in November 1941 when the Wehrmacht was at the gates of the Soviet capital. Stalin’s counterpart to Churchill’s ‘Finest Hour’ speech of June 1940 was his patriotic appeal to troops parading through Red Square on their way to the front on 7 November 1941. It was also clear from the two men’s correspondence with each other that they were both deeply involved in directing the British and Soviet war efforts. Both men had personal experience of war - Churchill in British imperial wars in Africa and World War One, Stalin during the Russian civil war. They were both steeped in military history, strategy and doctrine and had a penchant for military-style clothing. While Stalin described Roosevelt as a great man in both peace and war he called Churchill his comrade-in-arms.

What about Stalin’s relationship with Roosevelt,  the other prong in the troika. How did it compare with that of Churchill’s? Put another way, among which pair were the relationships strongest?

You have to remember that Stalin viewed personal relationships through a political prism. To him Roosevelt was a representative of the American progressive bourgeoisie and a potential ally against Fascism, Nazism and war-mongering capitalists and imperialists. Roosevelt’s New Deal wasn’t socialist but it leaned left and FDR was seen by American communists as a part of an embryonic popular front – a perspective that became even more pronounced during the Second World War when the CPUSA dissolved into a Communist Political Association that sought affiliation with the Democratic Party. 

When Roosevelt became President in 1933 the Soviet Union and the United States established diplomatic relations and resolved financial disputes arising from the Bolshevik takeover in Russia in 1917. Roosevelt was a bit player in events leading to the outbreak of war in 1939 but he came to fore as an exponent of the United States as the ‘arsenal of democracy’. Stalin was impressed by Roosevelt’s rapid decision to extend Lend-Lease to the USSR when the Germans attacked the Soviet Union – even though the United States had yet to enter the war - and he knew from his sources within the US government that Roosevelt battled to overcome bureaucratic and political obstacles to shipping as much aid as possible to the Soviets. Roosevelt was fortunate to have at his disposal two special envoys – Harry Hopkins and Averell Harriman (US ambassador in Moscow from 1943-1945) who got on well with Stalin and had the Soviet leader’s confidence.

Stalin was also a great respecter of the power that Roosevelt represented and he aspired to emulate US industrial and military might through a combination of American mass production methods and socialist economic planning. “Had I been born and brought up in America,” Stalin told the head of the American Chamber of Commerce in June 1944, “I would probably have been a businessman.” 

Stalin had a great deal of personal affection for FDR, which started at the Tehran summit in 1943 – a conference that entailed a long and arduous journey for the wheelchair-bound Roosevelt. The ailing US President undertook another gruelling journey when he met Churchill and Stalin at Yalta in 1945. Stalin was genuinely upset by Roosevelt’s unexpected death in April 1945 and apprehensive about the future of Soviet-American relations. Stalin was well aware of pressures in Washington for a more hard-line approach to relations with the USSR but was reassured by reports that Roosevelt’s successor, Harry S. Truman, was committed to continuing co-operation with the Soviets. In a piece for the History News Network a few years ago called Why Roosevelt was Right about Stalin I concluded that “Stalin was sincere in his commitment to collaborate with Roosevelt during the war and was sorely disappointed when that cooperation did not continue under Truman.”

It seems to me that while he was emotionally closer to Stalin, Churchill’s relationship with Roosevelt – for class, political and life-history reasons – was stronger. The same was true of Stalin’s relations with Churchill and Roosevelt. He was emotionally intimate and bonded with Churchill but trusted Roosevelt more.When the Republican politician Harold Stassen met him in April, 1947 Stalin told him “I am not a propagandist, I am a man of business,” and pointed out that he and Roosevelt had never indulged in the name-calling game of “totalitarians” v. “monopoly capitalists.” Stalin was referencing not just Truman’s recent speech to Congress calling for a Free World-struggle against totalitarianism but also Churchill’s "Iron Curtain" speech at Fulton, Missouri in March 1946, a clarion call for a harder line against the Soviet Union which had disappointed but not surprised Stalin.

In reading your account what comes through is that both Churchill and Stalin attempted to maneuver and leverage their respective positions in the alliance with charm and personality. How critical were such things when weighted against the larger historical forces shaping their decisions? 

The answer to that question depends on how you view the role of individuals in history. Generally speaking, historians think that individuals matter, and the more important and powerful the individual the more they matter. In The Hero in History (1943) Sydney Hook distinguished between what he called "eventful" individuals and "event-making" individuals. Eventful individuals are important because of their role in events, while event-making individuals shape and change the course of events. Hook’s key case-study of an event-making individual was Lenin’s role in 1917 when he transformed the character of the Russian Revolution and changed the course of world history. Had he published his book after World War Two Hook could have added case-studies of Churchill and Stalin.  Churchill’s role in keeping Britain fighting in 1940 was both eventful and event-making. Had he taken Britain out of the war Hitler’s domination of Europe would have been secured and provided an even stronger springboard for his attack on the USSR in 1941, which, with Britain neutral, might well have succeeded.

Churchill’s immediate declaration of solidarity with the Soviet people when the Germans invaded the USSR in June 1941 was the first critical step in the formation of grand alliance of Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States – one of the most effective war-fighting coalitions in history. Some would argue that British interests dictated an alliance with the Soviets against Hitler. That’s true, but clear only in retrospect. At the time there were those in Britain arguing for a more equivocal response to the Nazi invasion of the USSR, while others welcomed the prospect of Hitler crushing the Soviet communists. Large quantities of western military aid did not flow to the Soviet Union until 1943 but the Eastern Front was on a knife-edge in 1941-42 and every little bit helped. Important, too, in those early months of the Soviet-German war, was the positive impact on Soviet morale of the alliance with Britain, a psychological plus that was further strengthened by the US entry into the war in December 1941.

Another example in relation to Churchill is the impact of his personal opposition to opening a Second Front in France in order to relieve German pressure on the Red Army. The Soviets survived the absence of this second front in 1942 but it was a close-run thing. A second front in 1943 would have altered the military course of the war and might have had vast geopolitical consequences. Churchill had his reasons – in the book you can read for yourself the arguments between him and Stalin about this issue - and some people still think that delaying the second front until 1944 was necessary to avoid a costly failure that would have set back the allied cause. But there is no doubt about Churchill’s personal influence in being able to prevent an early second front.

Stalin as both an eventful and event-making individual during the war presents a paradox. On the one hand, he was a leader who both brought his country to the brink of disaster by his handling of plans and preparations for war, notably by restraining mobilization in the face of the imminent German attack. While this was not Stalin’s sole responsibility, he alone had the power to change the course of events on the Soviet side. On the other hand, he was the leader who then saved his country by holding its war effort together, albeit by brutal and costly methods.

You describe how the preeminent capitalist powers of Britain and the US were able to collaborate with the preeminent socialist one, the Soviet Union — another paradox. What was the basis for this and to what degree did each entity need to compromise to make it work?

As a Marxist Stalin believed that the material interests of Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union constitute a solid and durable basis for the anti-Hitler coalition. He also believed that the common interest in containing a resurgence of the German (and Japanese) threat meant the alliance could continue after the war. The ideological struggle between communism and capitalism would continue but in the context of peaceful coexistence and collaboration to maintain postwar security for all states. Stalin also thought that the growing popularity of communism in Europe and the global swing to the left would also facilitate a peacetime grand alliance.

Churchill and Roosevelt had a more individualistic view of the foundations of the grand alliance – they had faith in Stalin as a moderate leader. At the same time, they perceived changes in the Soviet internal regime – a degree of convergence with western systems – which meant that a cooperative USSR would become more open to western influence.

The perceptions and beliefs of all three leaders were reinforced by their experience of the grand alliance, which was a history of successful negotiation and compromise. So successful that by the end of the war the Big Three, as they came to be called, were convinced it would continue into the foreseeable future. That didn’t happen but it wasn’t for want of trying, at least on Stalin’s part. Churchill lost office in July 1945 but when he returned to power in Britain in 1951 he was an advocate of renewed negotiations with the USSR, notwithstanding his reputation as an early-adopter cold warrior. And who knows what would have happened if Roosevelt had lived a little longer. Maybe he would have been able to restrain the advocates of a tough line with Russia, as he had done during the war.

Looking 75 years on, what is the legacy of the ‘Grand Alliance’ today?

The immediate legacy on the Grand Alliance was mixed. On the one hand, it had defeated Hitler’s grab for world power and his attempt to establish a Nazi racist empire in Europe. A Europe of independent sovereign states was re-established after the war. The allied coalition, including the Soviet Union, had also fought the war under the banner of democracy and the allied victory did indeed reverse the trend towards authoritarianism which had gathered momentum following the world economic crisis of the late 1920s and early 1930s. On the other hand, this war for democracy had largely been won by another authoritarian state – the Soviet Union – and, with the outbreak of the cold war, Stalin was quick to establish a tightly controlled communist bloc in central and eastern Europe. The postwar failure of the Grand Alliance resulted in the cold war and decades of crisis, confrontation and conflict, not just in Europe but across the globe. That cold war is over but we are still grappling with its consequences.

Historical memory of the Grand Alliance, and of the popular anti-fascist unity that underpinned it, remains strong, particularly in Russia where there is yearning for a return to great power politics based on negotiation, compromise, mutual respect and trust.