The atrocities and wholesale destruction visited upon the nation of Ukraine beginning February 24, 2022, and the annexation of Crimea in 2014 by Vladimir Putin’s Red Army is as much due to the megalomania of a madman as it is to the fecklessness of democracies who have failed to stand together to confront such evil. Tragically, we have seen this movie before.
One can argue that it all started with the 32nd president of the United States. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt always had a soft heart for the Russians and especially Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin relishing the privilege of calling the ruthless dictator “Uncle Joe.” The President actually believed that “If I give Stalin everything I can, and ask for nothing in return, noblesse oblige, he won’t try to annex anything and will work with me for a world of peace and democracy.” Peace and democracy?
This appraisal of Stalin as historian Paul Kengor has noted “… was one of the most naïve assessments of any major foreign leader in the history of the United States.”
The President believed, until it was much too late, that he could “play” Stalin; that he could make a “Christian gentleman” out of the dictator. The President went so far as to say that the Soviet freedom of religion was much like the American freedom of religion. Contrast that sentiment with President Ronald Reagan’s view that “They [the Soviets] don’t subscribe to our sense of morality. They don’t believe in an afterlife, they don’t believe in a God or a religion.”
According to historian Timothy Snyder, during the period 1930 to 1933 approximately five million people died as a result of Stalin’s famines with Ukrainian peasants bearing the brunt of the savagery. And, that between 1936 and 1938 in what was called the Great Purge approximately one million of his own people were executed for failing to toe the Stalinist line. More terror was to come. On September 17, 1939 the Soviets invaded Poland from the east only days after Germany invaded the nation from the west in keeping with the diabolical Hitler-Stalin pact. More emblematic, however, of the apparent hypnotic influence Stalin had over President Roosevelt was the President’s refusal to accept the fact that the Soviets had murdered nearly 22,000 POW Polish military officers on March 5, 1940 in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk, Russia. President Roosevelt was adamant in his disbelief that the Soviets had been responsible – despite overwhelming and indisputable evidence – claiming that the Germans had “rigged things up.” Further, on November 30, 1939, the Red Army sent nearly 500,000 troops into Finland to annex Finnish territory strafing and bombing civilian targets as they went along.
In sum, President Roosevelt’s behavior was shameless as he played “nice” with Stalin knowing full well that he was dealing with a murderous tyrant long before he had reason to interact with the dictator about how to defeat the Nazis. And, it was clearly the President who was played with great virtuosity to the detriment of millions who ultimately felt the wrath, rape, and plunder of Uncle Joe.
Clearly, President Roosevelt was lulled by his genuine belief that the Soviets were hostile because they felt threatened by external forces (to call the President’s belief profoundly naive is charitable at best). These days, Vladimir Putin sings a common refrain: Russia feels threatened by the West and especially the NATO alliance. The buffer state that once was, so the argument goes, has been lost to Russia from the time Ukraine declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
The Russian argument, echoed by some prominent American commentators, is a red-herring. If Ukraine were part of present-day Russia, it would still be cheek to jowl with NATO countries Latvia, Estonia, Romania, Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia. So much for the close proximity argument. What drove Putin to invade Ukraine and the small nation of Georgia in 2008 is that since the dismemberment of the Soviet Union he has sought to cobble back together the former Soviet empire.
HOW DID WE GET HERE?
At President Roosevelt’s insistence, Berlin was ceded not to the Western Allies but to the Soviets at war’s end. Time and again, the President ignored the advice of Winston Churchill who felt that allied forces should “meet the Red Army as far east as possible”. He also ignored the advice of General George S. Patton who pleaded that “we had better take Berlin, and quick.” In fact, the Ninth Army led by General William Simpson was all of forty-eight hours from Berlin. No matter. General Patton was told to stand down.
What was the consequence of Roosevelt’s fondness for Stalin? After the fall of Berlin, the carnage under Stalin continued apace, and the stage was set for the eventual nuclear confrontation between the Soviets and the United States: the capture of Berlin allowed the Soviets to get their hands on several tons of uranium oxide used as fuel in nuclear reactors, and to seize Germany’s leading scientific minds most significantly those who had worked on Hitler’s nuclear projects.
Scores of German scientists were forced – some apparently were happy to volunteer – to work on the Soviet A-bomb. Luminaries such as Manfred von Ardenne, Gustav Hertz, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics with James Franck, Max Volmer, Max Steenbeck and Nikolaus Riehl all worked hard and were able to deliver to Stalin a nuclear bomb by 1949 a scant four years after the takeover of Berlin. President Roosevelt’s “gift” of Berlin to Stalin as a way to ingratiate himself to the dictator failed miserably. At the Yalta Conference, February, 1945, President Roosevelt assured Winston Churchill that “…Stalin was not an imperialist.” Geopolitical savvy was never President Roosevelt’s strong suit. Not long after the conference, Stalin put in place the Communist Bloc of nations which enslaved millions of people for decades to come.
In the end, “the courtship of Stalin during World War ii failed abysmally” according to Robert Nisbet in his groundbreaking book, Roosevelt and Stalin: The Failed Courtship.
PRESIDENT ROOSEVELT ROLLS OUT THE RED CARPET FOR STALIN’S STOOGES
President Roosevelt was especially keen to host members of a Soviet delegation preferably those who had seen action against the Nazis. Lyudmila Pavlichenko was one of three people sent by the Soviet Union to the United States in late 1942 to participate in an international student assembly sponsored by Washington that would tour the country and speak out against Fascism at various colleges and universities. Delegates to the assembly were to include representatives from the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and China.
Red Army sniper Mrs. Pavlichenko known to have had 309 confirmed enemy kills – that is, kills verified by another party – and possibly many more that went unrecorded, was the darling of the Soviet delegation that met with President Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in both Washington D.C. and the President’s ancestral home in Hyde Park, New York. The First Lady literally fawned over Mrs. Pavlichenko. She went so far as to cut to size and sew a pair of her own silk pajamas for Mrs. Pavlichenko’s use. In addition to Mrs. Pavlichenko, a second member of the Soviet delegation was also a sniper with 100 enemy kills to his credit, and the third was secretary for propaganda of the Young Communist League’s Moscow district. So much for “student” representatives.
In sharp contrast, President Roosevelt did not have the common decency to invite American Olympians, including quadruple gold-medalist Jesse Owens, to the White House upon their return from the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin – this, after having ignored the advice of many in his administration to boycott the Olympics in order to protest Hitler’s racist policies. Sadly, as Jesse Owens subsequently lamented, “the president didn’t even send me a telegram.”
PRESIDENT ROOSEVELT’S DOMESTIC LEGACY
If it can be safely said that President Roosevelt was an ineffective wartime president especially in his relations with the Soviets. What did his administration actually accomplish for the common man? Most shamefully, on February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which gave the government the right to displace, relocate, and intern citizens of Japanese ancestry. Approximately 70,000 American citizens were forcibly displaced under the President’s executive order. When plaintiff Fred Korematsu took his case to the United States Supreme Court, the court handed down a 6-3 decision against Mr. Korematsu. The majority opinion was written by Justice Hugo Black, President Roosevelt’s first nominee to the court. Justice Black, a former member of the Ku Klux Klan from Alabama and a supporter of President Roosevelt’s plan to pack the court ruled internment to be constitutional as a matter of “military urgency.”
On the economics front, President Roosevelt was puzzled about what to do about the Great Depression; except that through his senseless meddling in the economy (“experimentation” the President called it) he made the Depression great. In 1937, four years after President Roosevelt had taken office, the United States economy snapped back to its 1932 levels. It took a world war and not government intervention to finally put a nail in the coffin of the Depression.
As to the President’s New Deal, it was meant to supplant private enterprise initiatives with public sector policies and programs that would, in the end, affect Americans from all walks of life. Most corrosively, the New Deal helped launch a welfare state from which there is now no return. The President, as well as a number of his closest advisers, were very comfortable with the collectivist policies of the Soviet Union as well as those of the Fascist regime of Italy’s dictator Benito Mussolini.
That he had a soft heart for communist ideals was clear from his statement that “They [the Soviets] all seem really to want to do what is good for their society instead of wanting to do for themselves. We take care of ourselves and think about the welfare of society afterward.” A “mystical devotion” rhapsodized President Roosevelt.
Unfortunately, that sentiment was grievously misguided. There is little one can point to of Stalin’s actions that were good for Soviet society. That he took a backward, illiterate, and agrarian nation and transformed it into an industrial power, as some would have it, is a specious argument. Leaving aside for the moment the enormous price in human lives that afforded such a transformation the reality is that the fruits of such industrialization were kept in the hands of the party’s apparatchiks. The average Soviet citizen was hardly the beneficiary of such inhuman sacrifices. More broadly, Stalin promoted Marxism-Leninism across the world to the point that it became the least democratic, least successful, and thus most reviled form of government on the face of the earth.
As French historian Stephane Courtois states in his book, The Black Book of Communism, “Communist regimes turned mass crime into a full-blown system of government.” Tragically, feckless American leadership, with President Roosevelt at the helm, failed to act as a bulwark to forestall the communist tyranny that was to cost the lives of millions of the world’s citizens.