Stalin’s War: A New History of World War II by Sean McMeekin
Basic Books, April 20th, 2021
World War II is still largely considered a great moral crusade by Western peoples and portrayed this way in most historical works I’ve read. While the Great War is generally (and rightly) considered a pointless waste of life; the Second Great War is widely believed to have had a definite moral purpose in destroying two totalitarian and aggressive upstart empires in both Europe and Asia. The righteousness of this war is the founding myth of the world order since and as the reality and legitimacy of this current order continues to be called into question, so to does the story behind it. To be sure, the myths of World War II were questioned early; particularly discussing the morality of the use of nuclear weapons and there have long been dissident historians. But it was rare to see any historical revision in the mainstream until fairly recently.
The last book I reviewed on World War II was The Phony Victory by Peter Hitchens which paraphrasing from the synopsis, “destroys the myth that World War II was a moral war.” If Hitchens did this then Sean McMeekin’s Stalin’s War stomps on any remaining belief that World War II was a moral crusade against totalitarianism. Hitchens’ book was more narrowly focused on the war from Great Britain’s perspective. One might first assume from the title that this work is focused on the Soviet Union but this focus isn’t limited to the Eastern Front and also covers the US government, British government and the Pacific Theatre too. This will be something of a review but I am mostly just sharing and commenting on the books contents. I absolutely recommend anyone interested go and read it for themselves.
Towards the end of the book after a legion of shocking and infuriating revelations about US support for the Soviet war effort, McMeekin writes, “Reading through the minutes of Harry Hopkin’s Soviet protocol committee from 1943, it is hard to escape the impression that Soviet agents of influence had taken over the White House.” Though the examples and evidence he has presented would call for a more confident conclusion, this is as far as he goes though the otherwise inexplicable revelations within speak for themselves. Hopkins, for example, was a close advisor of Roosevelt and even lived in the White House for much of the war. His name comes up again and again in the book as do the names of other Soviet agents and sympathisers.
Unlike McMeekin, I think it is not hard to escape but entirely clear that the American government leading up to and during World War II was under the control of Communists or fellow travellers and I don’t see how you could form any other conclusion after reading this. In stating this, I am not saying every congressmen, senator and governor was a Soviet agent but certainly many of those pulling the strings in the Roosevelt administration and the state department were. I am guessing (though I don’t know his mind), that McMeekin is reluctant to be more strident because he’ll be accused of “McCarthyism” or other slurs if he does. Though I see he has been accused of being “right-wing” and such though he only expresses strong distaste for totalitarianism of any stripe or colour when his own opinions come out at all in the work.
The mainstream narrative of National Socialist Germany’s increasingly aggressive territorial claims and invasions of sovereign nations in the 1930s are always given as reasons that led to World War II. As I mentioned in my review of Peter Hitchens book linked above, I’ve never been given a good reason why the Soviet Union wasn’t considered equally culpable for the invasion of Poland with National Socialist Germany at the same time. Something learned in this book is that this absurdity was not lost on decision makers at the time. In Britain they were forced to the twisted logic that,
“the Agreement [guaranteeing Polish independence] provided for action to be taken by His Majesty’s Government only if Poland suffered aggression from a European power.” In their grasping for legal straws to avoid entanglement with Stalin, Halifax and Corbin had adopted the view of Slavophile intellectuals that Russia was not really a European country. Realizing how absurd this sounded, Halifax informed the war cabinet that, whatever the text of the agreement may have said, there was an unwritten “understanding between the two governments: of Britain and France “that the European power in question was Germany.”
Even “anti-Communist Churchill,
“defended the USSR’s invasion of eastern Poland “in the interests of its own safety” and pointed out that the forward Soviet position there posed a roadblock to German expansion.”
But it actually gets much worse when McMeekin points out that after the Molotov-Ribbentrop (non-aggression) pact was signed between Germany and Russia:
“Stalin was wringing every last drop of nectar out of his honeyed partnership with Hitler while still, somehow, escaping the hostility of Hitler’s opponents. Britain, in what Churchill called the country’s “finest hour,” now stood alone against Nazi Germany. For some reason, though, Britain had not declared war on Berlin’s alliance partner, despite Stalin having invaded the same number of sovereign countries since August 1939 as Hitler had (seven).”
And in a footnote at the bottom of the page we get a list:
“Hitler’s seven consisted of Poland, Denmark, Norway, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. Stalin had invaded Japanese (or Chinese) Manchuria, Poland, Finland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Romania.”
The invasion of Finland in particular was completely unprovoked and unjustified as Poland (as Hitchens also points out) had not been a completely innocent victim of aggression and had made small grabs for territory itself. Finland and these smaller Eastern European nations listed however had been subject to gangster-style threats from Stalin and Molotov. What made the Finns more admirable is that they fought the Soviets to an embarrassing stand-still in their resistance. While (particularly with regard to Finland), there was some outcry from the Allies; even Churchill had advocated that “the Baltic become a Soviet sphere of influence” at one time though he later changed his mind when it had come true and it was too late for anything to be done.
The book really comes into its stride with the German invasion of the USSR. When I first heard about this book, I assumed it was going to be similar to Viktor Suvorov’s Icebreaker which argues the Soviet Union was preparing to conquer Europe and Hitler’s invasion preempted this. I have not read the actual work but I am familiar with it. McMeekin shows some evidence backing this up but doesn’t make the claim. Suvorov is listed in the bibliography so he would be familiar with it. There are also interesting details supporting this like the build up of airfields and tanks designed for use on roads which would make them ideal for pushing into Germany and useless in the more rugged terrain of Russia at the time.
McMeekin argues that Stalin was not “asleep at the wheel” at the beginning of Operation Barbarossa and concludes that the,
“myth of Stalin’s emotional breakdown, although less than flattering to Stalin himself, fits perfectly with the Soviet pose of innocent victimhood in 1941, of an utterly unprovoked and unexpected German attack, which is an essential component of the Russian national story to this day. It is not hard to see why it endures.”
Reading the details of the German invasion and the destruction of Soviet arms, mass surrenders of troops and the incredibly rapid progress of the Wehrmacht, it is hard to believe that Germany eventually lost. That they did, it is revealed owes a lot more to American arms and technology than is generally acknowledged. At the time of Operation Barbarossa the United States was not officially involved in the war and indeed, the public was overwhelmingly against joining the war. Roosevelt and his government, despite claims to the contrary, were involved. Hitchens had detailed how US support was not given to Britain in friendship but had to be paid for with loans and quite literally by shipping gold from Britain to the United States. The support given to the USSR though was far more generous, extensive and without many of the strings that were attached to aid to the mother country. This was done through the Lend-Lease program and the Soviet Union was being supported before Pearl Harbor.
Although focusing on Stalin and the Soviet Union, there are plenty of interesting details on the Pacific war. One is that it could likely have been prevented altogether and that this was sabotaged by Soviet agents. The Japanese were apparently willing to reduce their territorial ambitions until,
“Soviet agents learned that a high-level envoy from Tokyo, Saburo Kurusu, had arrived in Washington on November 15, with instructions to make one final push for a truce. Tojo had provided Kurusu with two genuine offers, known as “proposal A” and “proposal B.” Under proposal A, Japan would subtly distance itself From Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany, acting “in accordance with Japan’s own interpretation “would promise, on the conclusion of a peace treaty with Chiang Kai-shek, to withdraw from Indochina and to remove “all Japanese troops in China” within two years, “except for garrison in North China, on the Mongolian border regions [that is facing the USSR] and on the Island of Hainan.”
“Proposal B” was
“a temporary truce under which Japan would propose an immediate withdrawal from Indochina, pursuant to negotiations envisaging “the restoration of general peace between Japan and China.”
Both of these would have ended the threat of war in the Pacific however ,
“When he got wind that a modus vivendi between Tokyo and Washington might be in sight, Stalin’s man at the Treasury, Harry Dexter White, was apoplectic. White promptly wrote up a memorandum to Roosevelt in Morgenthau’s name, warning him that acceding to a “Far Eastern Munich” would “sell China to her enemies for . . . thirty blood-stained coins of gold.”
Even Wikipedia editors allow that Harry Dexter White was involved in espionage and he was in fact a Soviet agent. This lead to what is known as the “Hull note” which simply demanded,
“Japan will withdraw all military, naval, air and police forces from China and from Indo-China.”
And led Tojo to conclude,
“that Japan’s claims cannot be attained through diplomatic means.” The cabinet agreed, voting unanimously for war. One week later, Japanese dive-bombers launched a furious assault on the US fleet anchored at Pearl Harbor.”
As with National Socialist Germany, McMeekin is no friend of Imperial Japan but the hypocrisy of demands and sanctions placed on them when the United States was actively giving the Soviet Union both diplomatic and material support defies reasonable explanation. The Soviet Union had been a repressive and violent regime since 1917 and the purges and persecutions would have been well-known to politicians and diplomats; if not among the public. Japan’s imperial expansion in Asia was certainly ruthless but it was not so different from what European powers and even the United States had been doing for the previous century. I am not one for moral equivalence but these were double standards at the very least. And this information will be more important towards the end of the war when Stalin was allowed to occupy much of the same territory Japan invaded.
Whether or not Japan was goaded into the attack, they still did attack the United States. Roosevelt conveniently used this to focus on Europe and often at the expense of the war in the Pacific which was the only one the United States had any real reason to be involved in. McMeekin provides some statements by politicians at the time who saw this:
“American mothers will not willingly sacrifice their sons to make the world safe for Communism.”
Hamilton Fish III
This unfortunately turned out to be totally wrong. Roosevelt himself paid lip service to sentiments like this while doing the very opposite.
“Stalin had not simply collaborated with Hitler in carving up Eastern Europe, but had supplied and fueled Hitler’s armies as they invaded Poland, France, and the Low Countries. Stalin had likewise literally fueled the Luftwaffe when it bombed London.”
Not only this but Stalin had a pact with the Japanese and openly hampered the Pacific war effort and,
“the Vozhd [Stalin] had all five US crew members of a B-25 bomber that had participated in the famous Doolittle Raid over Tokyo on April 18, 1942, arrested and interned for an entire year.”
I didn’t know until reading this that Stalin, like Hitler, was referred to as “the Leader”. Stalin played the same game he had with Hitler in maintaining neutrality with Japan.
McMeekin notes that Hitler’s declaration of war on the United States was one of the most foolish decisions made during the war. There was no reason for him to do it though he was probably motivated to because of the support the US was already giving both Britain and the Soviet Union. This declaration only benefited Stalin and Roosevelt, the latter who now had clear legitimacy to continue what he was already doing. Even so, the decision to focus on defeating Germany first still made little sense from the American perspective.
It was interesting to learn that Stalin pushed hard for Operation Overlord (D-Day Landings) and even berated Churchill and Roosevelt though the the United States had been taking great risks to give him material support by sending their shipping through dangerous waters. The Allies had also been engaging the Wehrmacht in North Africa and successfully landed in Italy so they could hardly have been said to be doing nothing. There was even potential for the Italian front to push through into Germany which Churchill supported. Stalin didn’t want this as from there it would cut off gains he could (and later did) make into Eastern Europe. We learn that in preparation for Operation Overlord,
“General Mark Clarke [the General in command in Italy], was informed that he would have to surrender his sixty-eight landing craft by January 15, 1944, to ensure a long enough lead time for Overlord. Stalin would also be given his share of the Italian Navy and merchant marine.”
Later we learn that,
“[Operation Overlord] was just two days after the US Fifth Army, commanded by General Mark Clark, entered Rome—the first Axis capital to fall. Clark had disobeyed orders to ensure that he could conquer Rome before D-Day.”
In other words, it seems likely that the Italian front could have been instrumental in ending the war earlier despite the difficulties of the terrain in the north. There are a number of other examples in the work of deliberately squandered opportunities.
As mentioned, McMeekin doesn’t argue that the US was literally “controlled by the Soviet Union” as hostile critics could be expected to exaggerate, he just shows that there were plenty of people in areas of influence that sympathised with or were active Communists. Roosevelt was one or the other though it would probably take a book on its own to get to the bottom of his character. By the end of the book, I wasn’t sure if he was a dupe, a true believer or just an invalid effectively controlled by his advisors. All three are possible. There was opposition by other politicians and within his administration to supplying the Soviet Union though they were either sidelined or ignored. Roosevelt also eventually got around this by tying all war aid to Lend Lease so that,
“If anyone wished to vote against continuing to supply Stalin’s no-longer-as-desperate armies at US taxpayer expense, they would have to vote against military aid for Britain and China too, along with Free France, Belgium, Greece, Yugoslavia, and other Nazi-occupied nations in Europe.”
What amazed me is not only what aid was being given but how much. This went way beyond tanks, trucks, aircraft, rifles and ammunition. I will quote a series of examples below.
“American civilians were forced to tighten their belts to provide Russians with foodstuff at a time of strict wartime rationing back home. There were eight thousand rationing boards in the United States during the war, restricting consumption of everything from grain, milk, butter, bacon, and sugar to fuel, rubber, tires, fabrics and shoes. . . . what few of them suspected was that the things they missed were being rerouted to the other side of the world to nourish Russian soldiers who were never told (even if many of them suspected) that they were being fed on the commodity surpluses of American capitalism.”
The butter was particularly interesting because the domestic market was given margarine as a substitute.
Intellectual property, industrial technology, machine tools:
“Stalin’s agents requisitioned $6,689,742.25 worth of intellectual property from firms including the Petrolite Corporation, Ltd., the International Catalytic Oil Processes Corporation, the Houdry Process Corporation, Universal Oil Products Corp., Texaco Development Corporation, and the Max B. Miller Company.”
Ever wonder how the Soviets developed nuclear technology so soon after the United States?
“Perhaps the most shocking lend-lease requisition of all was the one placed on February 1, 1943, for enriched uranium, which helped kick-start the Soviet atomic bomb program. By war’s end, the United States had shipped to Stalin, in at least three known installments, three-quarters of a ton of uranium 235, 1,100 grams of deuterium oxide (heavy water, 835,000 pounds of cadmium metal (used to control the intensity of an atomic pile), 25,000 pounds of thorium, and 13.8 million pounds of refined aluminum tubes of the kind used to cook uranium into plutonium.”
The Soviet Union was characteristically ungrateful for all of this and unsurprisingly kept it hidden from their subjects. Something else I haven’t mentioned is the Soviets gave the Allies almost nothing in return. They seldom allowed them on Soviet territory and when they did, under strict watch. There was no sharing of technology and they didn’t even allow aircraft conducting operations against Germany to land or refuel at Soviet airfields. This all while Soviet agents were at almost complete liberty in American factories and copying documents, manuals and all manner of equipment for their own purposes. McMeekin puts all this support in perspective as the war turned against Germany:
“It would not be long before the Red Army would roll into central Poland in American Studebakers and jeeps mounting Ford and Firestone tires, guided by ground-strafing Airacobras, while hundreds of Boston bombers rained down lead hail on German positions in Poland and East Prussia.”
I hadn’t heard of Airacobras so I looked them up and Australia was loaned them while the Soviet Union was given them. This was our great ally that Australia’s then Prime Minister John Curtin turned to for support during the war.
As the Soviets pushed the Germans back they began
occupying re-occupying Polish territory and the reality of “liberation” by the Soviet Union wasn’t lost on the Polish. This is a quote from the government in-exile that was published in The Times of London after the failed Warsaw uprising:
“Five years have passed since the day when, encouraged by the British government and its guarantee, Poland stood up to its lonely struggle with German might. For the last month, the soldiers of the Home Army and the people of Warsaw have again been abandoned in another bloody and lonely fight. This is a tragic and repeated puzzle which we Poles cannot decipher. . . . We hear arguments about gains and losses. But we remember that in the Battle of Britain Polish pilots suffered over 40 per cent casualties, while the loss of planes and aircrews in the flights to Poland [from Italy] is 15 per cent. If the population of our capital is to be condemned to perish in mass slaughter under the rubble of their homes through [Britain’s] calculated passivity and indifference, the conscience of the world will be burdened by this terrible and unparalleled sin.”
A bit later in the book we learn:
“[Mikolajczyk the Polish premier in exile] was also counting, erroneously, on Roosevelt’s support, owing to the US president’s warm talk about Poland in the lection campaign, and in fact that he had been told on a visit to Washington in June 1944, that the US government had not unlike Britain and the USSR, agreed to the Curzon Line. Mikolajzcyk was disabused of this notion by Molotov in the Kremlin on October 13, when Molotov read back to him the minutes from Tehran where Roosevelt had sold out Poland.”
“The idea that his country had been betrayed by both the United States and Britain, and that Roosevelt had lied to his face in order not to alienate American Poles in an election year, was too much for this proud Polish patriot to bear. In any case, Mikolajczyk wanted to go down swinging. After begging the US president one last time after returning to London, in a wire to Washington on October 27, to “throw the weight of your decisive influence and authority” behind Poland’s territorial claims, only to be denied yet again, Mikolajczyk resigned his office.”
Another ignored outrage was earlier in the war when the Soviets had massacred a large group of Polish officers and the mass graves were discovered by invading Germans during Operation Barbarossa. The Soviets prevented (with Allied help), the Red Cross from investigating this. Once again, even “anti-Communist” Churchill sold out the Poles on this issue.
Only recently through E. Michael Jones did I learn about the Morgenthau Plan to starve millions of Germans at the end of the war. I doubted this could be true as I couldn’t imagine the US could ever adopt such a ruthless policy. However it was and McMeekin spends quite a bit of time going through some of the details. Once again, I will quote some key passages below.
“Why shooting Germans was US Treasury business was not obvious. Nonetheless, that this was considered Treasury business by summer 1944 is clear in the historical record. Somehow, in the aftermath of the Allie landings at Normandy, which brought the prospect of Germany’s final defeat in sight, a long-running policy discussion in the Treasury on how to administer the German economy after the war morphed into an open-ended revenge fantasy. During the same meeting at which he and White spoke of death quotas for captured Germans, Morgenthau also proposed “the complete shut-down of the Ruhr [industrial area]” in terms clearly designed to inflict maximum human suffering: “Just strip it. I don’t care what happens to the population. . . . . I would take every mine, every mill and factory and wreck it . . . steel, coal, everything. Just close it down. I am for destroying it first and we will worry about the population second. . . . Why should I worry about what happens to [the German] people?”
That meeting was in Tehran where Stalin stated (quite seriously) that they should kill 50,000 German officers at the end of the war. This was too much for Churchill and Roosevelt (apparently jokingly) suggested 49,000. I remember hearing this anecdote on a history documentary once too. However, Stalin and Morgenthau certainly weren’t joking. Morgenthau said:
“We have go to be tough with Germany and I mean the German people not just the Nazis. We either have to castrate the German people or you have got to treat them in such a manner so they can’t go on reproducing people who want to continue the way they have in the past.”
McMeekin treads very careful ground when it comes to the Jews and is naturally loathe to draw any conclusions that seem obvious to me. But it shouldn’t be very surprising to learn just how many of the people guiding US policy were Jews:
“It was in this spirit of outdoing Stalin in vindictive bloodlust that Morgenthau and his Treasury aides formulated one of the most significant policy doctrines of the Second World War. Morgenthau’s own blood was clearly up, at least in part out of genuine conviction. The secretary was Jewish, which gave him a personal stake in holding Hitler and the Germans responsible for the ongoing mass murder of European Jewry. . . . Morgenthau had sincere personal reasons for advocating the policy line that he did, even if it did dovetail neatly with Soviet foreign policy objectives.”
And of course there were more:
“The genesis of the Morgenthau Plan was not entirely innocent however . . . as many as seven Soviet agents answering to Moscow had a a hand in drafting this document, including White, Solomon Adler (who had gone to Cairo in 1943 to sabotage Chiang Kai-shek and who would move to Communist China after Mao was in power), Frank Coe ( . . . who would, like Adler, end his career working for Mao), and four others.”
Earlier in the book McMeekin also points out that the political officers in the Soviet ranks were themselves disproportionately Jewish. Though it is possible to read too much into this. Stalin himself had a complicated relationship with Jews and generally distrusted them. And Harry Hopkins, one of the most loathsome characters in all of this, was not Jewish though he was at one stage married to one.
Many senior officials were as flabbergasted with some of these decisions:
“The policy memorandum was met with bewilderment when it was first circulated around Washington, Philip Mosley, a State Department adviser who worked closely with the US ambassador in London on postwar planning, thought the Morgenthau Plan “fantastic, childish, and imbecilic.” When Francis Penrose, another American diplomat long resident in London, asked Morgenthau what he proposed to do with people uprooted from the Ruhr, the secretary responded that Germany’s “surplus population should be dumped in North Africa.” Henry Stimson, the secretary of war, expressed “grave reservations” about Morgenthau’s desire for “mass vengeance” against “the entire German people without regard to individual guilt.”
Morgenthau contemptuously dismissed Stimson’s reservations saying he is, “is opposed to making Germany a barren farm country” out of misplaced “kindness and Christianity.”
As we know from history, the Morgenthau plan wasn’t carried out but well may have been if Roosevelt hadn’t died:
“I do not want them [Germans] to starve to death, but . . . the German people as a whole must have it driven home to them that the whole nation has been engaged in a lawless conspiracy against the decencies of modern civilization.”
This was the same man enthusiastically supporting Josef Stalin. Roosevelt was also unmoved by resistance within Germany:
“Despite recent news from Germany where Hitler had nearly been assassinated on July 20 in Operation Valkyrie, a conspiracy involving thousands of Germans who would pay with their lives, Roosevelt would still brook no discussion of any German resistance, of any Germans untainted by collective guilt in the crimes of Nazism.
Churchill was not initially supportive:
“The Morgenthau Plan, Churchill objected, was “unnatural, unchristian and unnecessary. . . . I’m all for disarming Germany, but we ought not to prevent her living decently.”
But once again,
“Morgenthau threatened to withhold lend-lease funds for Britain . . . unless Churchill signed on to his plan.”
Keep in mind that Stalin was never threatened like this over Lend-Lease support — even when he was desperate during Operation Barbarossa and the Allies could have placed all sorts of conditions on their support. And Churchill caved revealingly saying, “when I have to choose between my people and the German people, I am going to choose my people.” Churchill comes out of this book somewhat like the figure of Pontius Pilate. A man knowingly allowing great evil for what he hopes is the greater good.
If the plan had gone through we are told:
“The humanitarian consequences of the Morgenthau Plan, if taken literally and seriously applied, would have been horrifying. Cordell Hull told Roosevelt to his face that the Treasury program “to wipe out everything in Germany except land” meant that, as “only 60 percent of the German people could support themselves on German land,” “the other 40 percent would die” —as many as thirty million people.”
This would have almost as bad if not worse than the total war dead in the European theatre. Roosevelt’s only objection was related to political calculation:
“It seems clear that the president disavowed the Morgenthau Plan—to Stimson, at least—once he realized that he would pay a political price for it in the final weeks of an election campaign. Roosevelt’s wife, Eleanor, later disavowed her husband’s disavowal, recalling that “I never heard my husband say that he had changed his attitude on the [Morgenthau] plan. I think the repercussions brought about by the press stories made him feel it was wise to abandon it at that time.”
Even though the plan wasn’t carried out, it may have extended the length of the war as the Germans found out about it and the regime naturally used it for propaganda purposes. It certainly made the Germans fight harder:
“Once confident of receiving better treatment if they surrendered to the civilized Western Allies, many Germans now saw Roosevelt as no better than Stalin.”
And as a result:
“The ultimate price in blood for the Morgenthau Plan was paid by those Americans and Britons who would soon face a devastating, and almost wholly unexpected, German counterattack in the Ardennes Forest [The Battle of the Bulge].”
Something that has more modern relevance is the health of Roosevelt when he was seeking a fourth term in 1944. As a quick aside for those not aware, George Washington set the tradition that presidents only sit two terms though there was no Constitutional limit until it was added after FDR. This was observed by every previous president though Theodore Roosevelt sought a third and God only knows what Lincoln would have done had he lived. In FDR’s case, he was seriously ill:
“The president’s health had become a key campaign issue in the final months of the 1944 election, with rumors rampant that Roosevelt, who was seen being accompanied everywhere by his doctor, naval cardiologist Howard Bruenn, had been diagnosed with heart disease. We now know those rumors were true: the president had been subjected to a battery of tests in March and May 1944 and found to be suffering from “severe hypertension and the early stages of congestive heart failure.”
They lied about it at the time but it was true. One wonders what will be revealed with regard to both Hilary Clinton and Joe Biden in the decades to come.
Though sick and dying, he still took the flight to Yalta to meet his best friend Stalin:
“And so it was that, to make things as easy as possible for the Soviet dictator, Roosevelt, a sick and dying man, agreed to undergo a 14,000-mile round trip to the Crimea in high winter, the last 1,400 miles of which involved a perilous flight from Malta over the Adriatic and Aegean Seas, accompanied by a large fighter escort to fend off possible Luftwaffe attacks.”
At Yalta, he conceded even more to Stalin. This was made all the more absurd because Stalin had maintained strict neutrality with Japan and left the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand to do all the fighting. As mentioned above, he was even imprisoning American airmen who landed in Soviet territory. This all while supposedly being an “ally”. It would seem absurd that Stalin make any demands for territory in the Pacific given all of this but at Yalta:
“[Roosevelt] did not object to Stalin’s demand for a “Soviet sphere of influence in northeastern China.” This included not just Outer Mongolia but all of Manchuria—the area the Chinese nationalists had been seeking to liberate from Japan since 1931—and Roosevelt’s acquiescence to this demand sat oddly with the president’s supposed devotion to China.”
What the president had done, in effect, was reassign Chinese territories the Japanese had invaded and fought since 1931—an act of aggression against which all US policy on Japan had been premised for fourteen years—to the Russians, who weren’t even helping the United States and China fight Japan.
Remember that the US cut off oil supplies to Japan because of their invasions and they were now simply allowing the Soviet Union to dominate these regions for no reason at all. This is where any defender of the mainstream World War II narrative would really have explaining to do. Unless the information above is completely inaccurate, what exactly was Roosevelt (and Churchill’s) reason for even considering this?
The president’s very own Wormtongue was also present:
“Harry Hopkins also played his by-now-familiar role as a pro-Soviet whisperer in Roosevelt’s ear at Yalta, passing the president a note at one point during a discussion of reparations to be demanded of the defeated Germans, in which he wrote that “the Russians have given in so much at this conference that I don’t think we should let them down.” Hopkins also told Stalin, speaking for the president on another occasion at Yalta, that “The United States would desire a Poland friendly to the Soviet Union”—that is, Sovietized Poland.”
Also discussed at Yalta was the men, women and children the Allies agreed to sent to be imprisoned or executed by Stalin. I first remember hearing of this in the James Bond film GoldenEye and didn’t know until some years later that it was actually true:
“More than thirty thousand Cossacks, including women and children, were rounded up in Austria amid heart-wrenching scenes marked by beatings, deaths, and suicide attempts, a story first chronicled by Nikolai Tolstoy in Victims of Yalta (1976).”
Many other nationalities would suffer the same fate:
“Stalin openly boasted that the Soviets now had 1.7 million German war prisoners working in Soviet forced-labor camps, along with 800,000 Hungarians and Romanians and Italians.”
The Japanese would join them when Stalin became briefly involved in the Pacific war.
Another now more widely known detail was the trail of rape and murder the invading Soviet armies left in Germany. The Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who fought in the war observed that,
“soldiers have turned into avid beasts. In the fields lie hundreds of shot cattle, on the roads pigs and chickens with their heads chopped off. Houses have been looted and are on fire. What cannot be taken away is being broken and destroyed.”
The younger Pope Paul the VI also saw something of this:
“Numerous eyewitness reports backed up this claim, with the Vatican representative in Germany, Monsignor G. B. Montini, adding that elderly nuns were raped in the middle of Berlin “wearing their religious habits.” As another Berliner recalled, Almost no evening went by, no night, in which we did not hear the pitiful cries for help from women who were attacked on the streets or in the always open houses.” One Red tank gunner boasted, citing a figure close to current historians’ estimates on the number of Germans raped by Soviet troops after the war, that “2 million of our children were born in Germany.” As Solzhenitsyn later recalled, “All of us knew very well that if the girls were German they could be raped and then shot. This was almost a combat distinction.”
The general narrative presented about World War II is that this was an unfortunate and shameful event that was unavoidable. With what McMeekin presents, it seems that much of this could have been prevented had the Allies simply taken a harder line with the Soviets.
After Roosevelt’s death and the collapse of Germany Stalin somehow still needed war materials and supplies:
“two days after VE Day—Truman had signed a presidential directive curtailing Soviet aid shipments sent to Europe, on the impeccable logic that the war in Europe was over. Two days later, the directive was adopted by the Lend-Lease Administration, with orders sent out to officials in Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico ports to cease loading supplies for the USSR and recall ships at sea heading for Russia. After furious Soviet protests, lend-lease officials sent a not of apology to the Soviet embassy and new orders were issued allowing ships already loaded, or at sea, to resume their prior course for Russia.”
. . .
“four million tons of war materiel the United States was sending Stalin that year, at the material and logistical expense of its own Pacific fleet, merchant marine, and army.”
Once again, this really needs more explanation than realpolitik excuses.
Stalin than moved his attention to the Pacific and hoped to see the Americans and Japanese continue to bleed as long as possible before coming in for a share of treasure and territory:
“The Vozhd was game enough to admit that a “conditional surrender” might offer “immediate advantages” to Britain and the United States, but added that “he personally favored unconditional surrender.” Hopkins then threw him another softball, asking whether the Vozhd “though the Japanese would surrender unconditionally before they were utterly destroyed,” to which Stalin “replied in the negative.” And so Hopkins reported to Truman on May 30, 1945, that “the Soviet Union prefers to go through with unconditional surrender and destroy once and for all the military might and forces of Japan,” adding, with no editorial comment, that “the Marshal expects that Russia will share in the actual occupation of Japan.”
This was actually what Stalin was doing in Europe prior to Operation Barbarossa, saying,
“war is on between two groups of capitalist countries. We see nothing wrong in their having a good fight and weakening each other. We can manoeuvre, pit one side against the other to set them fighting each other as fiercely as possible.”
He wanted the Allies and Axis to exhaust themselves fighting each other before taking on a weakened foe.
Another myth of the war that I have discussed is whether it was necessary to use nuclear weapons to end the war. It wasn’t and Stalin’s War gives more evidence that this was so. As quoted above, the idea of “unconditional surrender” is an absurd demand to make to any enemy as it gives them no incentive to stop fighting. According to the book, this was largely Roosevelt’s idea and one he was quite insistent upon. As we know, despite the use of nuclear weapons, the Japanese surrender was not unconditional in the end. But we can also confirm that,
“Japan’s Emperor Hirohito in June and July 1945 to Soviet diplomats in Tokyo all came to nothing.”
And that when the end of the war became a possibility despite efforts to prolong it:
“The Soviet Far Eastern armies were now in a race against the clock, trying to seize as much territory and booty as they could before Japan surrendered and before, American, Chinese, or British troops beat them to it.”
This interestingly also had a hand in the Korean War that followed in the 1950s:
“It was no accident that Hokkaido and the thirty-eight parallel in Korea marked the boundaries of Stalin’s new Asian empire. Giving the lie to Roosevelt’s defenders who claim that there was little the British and Americans could have done to stop the spread of Communism, whether in Europe or Asia, because of the all-conquering Red Army, Stalin ordered his commanders to stop where they did because President Truman and his military advisers had drawn lines and said the Russians must not cross them.”
And China of course was made ripe for Communism as,
“the proxy conflict in China was wholly one-sided, with Stalin providing Mao with whatever he needed, including new Soviet tanks and artillery, and the United States leaving Chiang to his own devices and forbidding him to use American arms against Mao’s Communists. In view of the US cutoff of Chungking in 1946 and Mao’s ever-increasing arms intake from the Soviet Union by way of Communized Manchuria, the mystery is not that Mao won the Chinese Civil War, but that it took him three more years to do so.”
McMeekin concludes the work commenting on Winston Churchill’s too little, too late “Iron Curtain” speech. He observes that:
“The time to confront Soviet aggression in Eastern Europe was in 1939-1940, when Stalin was Hitler’s odious partner in crime and the Red Army was weak enough that Stalin did not dare invade Poland until the Polish Army was already defeated. To be sure, Britain and France would have been hard pressed to save Poland then, but in truth they had not even tried. Taking a stand in Finland would have given moral point to the European war, possibly drawing the United States and other powers, including pro-Axis Hungary and Fascist Italy, into a broad international coalition against totalitarian aggression.”
And regarding the Pacific:
“If the Pacific conflict was about anything, it was about Manchuria and north China—Japan’s successive invasions of which, in 1931 and 1937, resulted in the withdrawal of the country from the League of Nations, the imposition of sanctions, and so on. And yet the result of Roosevelt’s wartime agreements with Stalin was to assign Manchuria and north China to the USSR. The United States then approved, funded, and armed the Soviet invasion that led North Korea, Manchuria and ultimately all of China (except Taiwan) to come under Communist rule. This was a perverse outcome of a war fought to free these areas from oppression.”
“Two militaristic empires and would-be regional hegemons were defeated and turned into democracies (or one and a half, if we discount Sovietized East Germany). But another militaristic empire, after gorging on lend-lease aid and the war booty won with it, was transformed into a superpower with far greater global reach and influence than Germany or Japan had ever enjoyed. At home, the price Americans paid for this victory was the erosion of their own civil liberties, with an ever-expanding security state contrary to the country’s founding principles and stated ideals, which bears increasing resemblance to the Soviet version they struggled against.”
So pretty intense stuff, right? This can’t all be true, can it? I would say, that if half of this wrong, the narrative about WWII would still need a big revision on what is generally taught. I went looking for some criticism and began with the always helpful “one star” Amazon reviews. As I assumed, the ones that weren’t complaining about the book being damaged in shipping generally just dismissed the thesis with unsupported assertions. There was at least one I read that tried the odious “realpolitik” excuse for supporting Stalin but this doesn’t explain the level of support and allowances particularly on behalf of the United States government. Some called it “right-wing history” even with the very careful tip-toeing around delicate issues McMeekin makes and the understated conclusions he draws from the evidence presented.
To continue briefly on the realpolitik excuses for supporting Stalin during the war. If we’re to accept this then it would have been much more sensible and logical at the time for both Britain and the United States to form an alliance with Germany. I’d not have advocated this but that would have been the pragmatic path to take and the same goes for the war in the Pacific. The United States had no business troubling Japan about their activities in their “sphere of influence”. These sort of critics are really arguing “realpolitik from hindsight” and not with regard to the situation at the time. At the time, the political class already knew that the Soviet Union was a murderous gangster state and they had since shortly after 1917.
When a work has significant holes in it, it is usually easy to pick apart — even in a book review. So I had a look at some professional critics as well. One was Geoffrey Roberts a professor whose body of work would generally argue the opposite of what McMeekin has in this book. From this review we get an extra bit of a quote of Stalin’s that is on the whole irrelevant. He also admits the detailed examples of Stalin’s atrocities as “fair enough” before handwaving them away. His review makes no mention of Soviet agents in the US or the absurdly generous Lend-Lease policy which were I think the most revealing aspects of the book. He also concludes that the “book will certainly enhance Prof McMeekin’s reputation as an ideologically-driven conservative historian.” Which from experience tells me that Roberts is projecting and is in fact an ideologically-driven leftist historian.
There is also a critical review from Lawrence Freedman (who is Jewish), which I can’t read because it is paywalled. Lastly, one by Nina L. Khrushcheva the grand daughter of Stalin’s successor. This was more a pejorative-ridden dismissal than a review but it did have what I thought was a good criticism of the overall thesis. This is that McMeekin gives the impression that Stalin rather than being an opportunist, was omniscient which at times (and with what I’ve shown), can seem to be the case. However, I think McMeekin would agree that he was just an opportunist that was given lots of opportunities for reasons that would be inexplicable if the US state department wasn’t under the influence of Soviet agents. As Professor Roberts might say, “fair enough”? Again, nothing is really explained about the US governments generous support of the Soviet Union and the significantly less generous support for their ostensible allies and ethnic cousins.
These reviews of the reviews might sound dismissive but I simply adopted the same language and brevity they did in reviewing the book. Once again, I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in World War II. Especially if like me, you’ve had a number of unanswered questions about it. This may have been a long post but there is a lot more material in the book that I haven’t even mentioned.