Dennis J. Dunn. Caught Between Roosevelt & Stalin: America's Ambassadors to Moscow. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1998. xii + 349 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8131-2023-2.
Reviewed by Marc J. Selverstone (Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia)
Published on H-Diplo (November, 2001)
Hearing, Seeing, and Confronting One Evil
Hearing, Seeing, and Confronting One Evil
The practice of allying with states or groups of dubious merit to achieve salutary ends has a rich and sordid past. For politicians steeped in the art of realpolitik--primarily those European leaders who forged alliances with potential enemies to counter more immediate threats--such diplomacy has offered a logical way to balance a power differential or to skew it more favorably toward one's own nation. American statesmen have long practiced this art with equal zeal, having done so repeatedly--and explicitly--during the course of the twentieth century. Doing so, however, came with a price. During the Cold War, for example, U.S. leaders enlisted the support of Afghani mujahideen against the Soviet Union, only to find themselves at war with their former ally at the dawn of the twenty-first century. The Soviets, of course, were themselves one-time partners of the United States, having joined forces in 1941 to stanch the immediate threat posed by Nazi Germany. Both of these situations offer grist for commentators leery of using "the enemy of my enemy" in such an opportunistic fashion. Of the two, it is the former alliance--the one struck by Franklin D. Roosevelt and Josef Stalin--that holds a peculiar fascination for historians, especially for those concerned with the origins of the Cold War.
One of the most recent attempts to analyze the U.S.-Soviet wartime relationship comes from Dennis Dunn, professor of history and director of international studies at Southwest Texas State University. Dunn seeks to revisit that partnership through the eyes of America's first ambassadors to the U.S.S.R. Using material from the archives of the former Soviet Union, Dunn retraces the steps of those American diplomats who inaugurated formal ties between the two countries and sustained those contacts through the Second World War. The picture he paints is a vivid one replete with heroes and villains, with no one more deserving of that latter title than the president himself; for Dunn is less concerned with those ambassadors per se than with comparing their analyses of Moscow--which were almost uniformly negative--with Roosevelt's much more sanguine view of Soviet affairs. According to Dunn, Roosevelt's benign appraisal of the Kremlin tarnished the war effort and cheapened the subsequent peace, paving the way for the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and the superpower conflict that followed.
For the most part, America's ambassadors to Moscow came to their posts with their minds not quite made up on the Soviet Union. William C. Bullitt, Joseph E. Davies, Laurence A. Steinhardt, William H. Standley, and W. Averell Harriman--each began their service prepared to work with the Kremlin leadership. In time, however, all but Davies would sour on their hosts. Their appraisals, which were almost uniformly harsh, unflattering, and highly dubious of Soviet intentions, seemed lost on Roosevelt. According to Dunn, neither the president nor some of his closest advisors were prepared to hear such arguments, for they had adopted what Dunn terms a "Rooseveltian" world view, "a remarkable amalgam of idealism, Machiavellianism, and social convergence" which guided the administration in its dealings with Soviet Russia (pp. 2-3). Of those beliefs, the most influential was that of "convergence," a theory which held that the United States and the Soviet Union were modifying their socio-political systems to such an extent that they might one day "converge," with the United States abandoning laissez-faire capitalism for welfare state socialism, and the Soviet Union shedding the cruder aspects of its political and economic life in favor of a more benevolent social democracy. Adherents to this theory, whom Dunn terms the "Rooseveltians," included FDR and like-minded allies such as Davies, presidential aide Harry Hopkins, and Lend-Lease administrator Col. Philip Faymonville. Each appears in Dunn's writing as a pie-in-the-sky idealist. Convinced that Moscow was in the process of adopting the pluralistic measures of American democracy, these individuals were willing to overlook the many brutalities of Soviet life, interpreting the purges, expulsions, and expropriations--among other horrors--as the inevitable growing pains of a society in transition.
According to Dunn, such thinking obscured the dictates of "objective morality" and proved harmful to American interests. By ignoring the "Judeo-Christian view of man's proclivity for self-destruction and hubris," an act which Dunn regards as the "defining difference" between the Rooseveltians and their antagonists, the president and his cohorts sinned against the precepts of enlightened policymaking (p. 4). Nevertheless, that disregard for well-worn truths served a darker, more cynical calculus: by injecting "an enervating moral relativism" into America's relationship with the U.S.S.R., the Rooseveltians created a "double standard" which allowed the president "to mislead public opinion and circumvent the foreign policy professionals for much of the relationship with Stalin" (p. 6). Their actions thus rendered mute any opposition to Soviet policy.
Dunn argues these points in chapters devoted to each of Roosevelt's five ambassadors to Moscow. He traces the evolution of those officials from the time of their appointments to the conclusion of their service, exploring their dealings with the Soviet leadership and their exchanges with the president. Evaluating them according to a binary relationship of "reciprocity" and "conciliation," Dunn praises those ambassadors who demanded Soviet compliance with American requests and chides those who acceded to Soviet demands. Aside from critiquing the substance of U.S. policy, Dunn takes on the process of U.S. diplomacy as well, criticizing FDR's use of personal envoys to Moscow. He treats the various missions undertaken by Hopkins, Wendell Willkie, and--prior to his appointment as ambassador--Harriman, as tactical, bureaucratic maneuvers that allowed Roosevelt to bypass the sitting ambassador-in-residence, undercutting whatever leverage and authority that official might have possessed.
Dunn concludes his survey by painting FDR as a man with unlimited options, hemmed in by neither domestic nor international constraints. He argues that Roosevelt could have secured a broader postwar settlement, more consonant with American interests and values, but only if the president and his ambassadors had pressed their case upon Stalin. Dunn argues that such an attitude would have found favor with the American people. Roosevelt's failure to paint a darker picture of Russia thus doomed the American war effort, robbing it of "inspiration and vision" (p. 269). Had Roosevelt used his legendary powers of persuasion, Dunn argues, he would have faced few problems in his effort to inform the American public about the true nature of Stalin's Russia and the reality of the U.S.-Soviet alliance.
While this is a useful treatment of America's envoys to Moscow during the 1930s and 1940s, it suffers from a variety of problems, not the least of which involve its discussion of FDR as public educator. Certainly, Franklin D. Roosevelt was a master of the bully pulpit. But it is far from clear whether Roosevelt could have depicted Stalin as the monster he was and have continued to aid the Soviets in ways that would have minimized American bloodshed. Indeed, scholars and statesmen of the day--individuals such as Nicholas Spykman, Hans Morgenthau, and George Kennan--thought the American public congenitally unable to act according to such a sophisticated, "realist" view of diplomacy. Dunn offers absolutely no evidence to suggest otherwise. He even goes so far as to state that FDR should have committed the United States to the abolition of both Nazism and Stalinism and that the war should have been about "ridding the world of all undemocratic and inhuman ideologies" (p. 271). This is a curious argument, to say the least, coming from someone so critical of Wilsonian, idealistic visions.
This lack of internal consistency shows up elsewhere in Dunn's account. On the one hand, he scores FDR repeatedly for operating in "an ideological vacuum," yet he also describes Roosevelt as an "ideologue" committed unreservedly to the precepts of convergence theory. Which is it? Was FDR an ideologue or not? Was he an ideologue without an ideology? Or was he an ideologue who adhered to a contrived ideology consisting of untested beliefs? This treatment of ideology, in fact, reveals a larger, theoretical problem of the book. For Dunn simply repeats the charge that FDR and various associates were adherents to the "convergence" school without offering any hard evidence to that effect. His argument rests solely on the veracity and persuasive power of three sources: an interview he conducted with Harriman in 1981, citations from Harriman's memoirs, and an occasional comment from Kennan. These are thin reeds on which to support an entire theoretical framework (pp. 137-39, fn 6, p. 279, fn 17, p. 281).
Likewise, Dunn runs into problems with his veneration of "objective morality." Aside from the problems inherent in governing according to some absolute moral code (and what leader could possibly maintain such a consistent posture?) not even Dunn's heroes pass muster on this score. Was William C. Bullitt, one of the more outspoken critics of the Soviet Union, acting in an "objectively moral" manner when he counseled non-resistance to Hitler? Dunn is silent on this point. What about the Rooseveltians--were they operating on an even higher moral plane than Bullitt when, by Dunn's own admission, they paid homage to "objective morality" in their resistance to the Nazis? Could it be that Roosevelt and his aides were simply responding to what they perceived as the more dire and immediate threat?
Clearly, Dunn is on to something in reminding us that, for most of the war, FDR held a decidedly rosy view of the Soviet Union. His evidence certainly points to a president much more sure of himself and his own opinions than those of his advisors, though Roosevelt hardly confined that sense of confidence to his dealings with Russia; it was an attitude which informed his handling of domestic as well as foreign policy. Nonetheless, this portrait of FDR is not a flattering one, and aspects of Roosevelt's behavior, as well as that of his aides--Faymonville in particular--are indeed disturbing. The failure to confront Moscow on various matters, such as logistical support in the Eastern Theater or Soviet actions during the Warsaw uprising, suggests a president perhaps too willing to placate an embattled, suspicious, and troublesome ally, and too reticent about demanding legitimate concessions.
Yet it is not at all clear that harsher rhetoric and sterner actions would have modified Soviet behavior. Remonstrations of that sort surely would have magnified Stalin's suspicions of American motives--not that Stalin would have been any less suspicious in their absence--at a time when the spilling of Soviet blood was absolutely vital to the American war effort. FDR was eager to maintain Stalin's commitment to the allied cause and was loathe to give Stalin further incentive to cut a deal with Hitler, which American officials had reason to fear from the summer of 1943 onward.
At the very least, more demanding language from Roosevelt would have given historians pause before attributing subsequent developments to either outright treachery or utter ineptitude. Holding FDR uniquely responsible for the imprisonment of Eastern Europe and the strengthening of Stalinism, as Dunn does, is simply an unsupportable position, especially given the evidence Dunn marshals on its behalf. Likewise, it is hard to believe that Roosevelt was "unwilling or unable to understand war as an extension of politics," as Dunn argues (p. 196). A consummate politician, whose seemingly every move reeked with political content, Roosevelt practiced the "art of the possible", with an eye toward London no less than toward Moscow, on numerous occasions throughout the war. That he did so in less than stellar fashion has become increasingly apparent with time. Dunn's account, aside from its particular biases, certainly reveals the extent of FDR's shortcomings; Roosevelt's appreciation of the war's complexities, as well as an inflated sense of his own persuasive power, led him to indulge the Soviets more than he otherwise might have. Nevertheless, given Roosevelt's myriad constraints, it is hard to envision how his handling of Stalin and the peace in Europe--the "artistry" of his diplomacy--could have produced anything close to a pretty picture.
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Marc J. Selverstone. Review of Dunn, Dennis J., Caught Between Roosevelt & Stalin: America's Ambassadors to Moscow.
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