The conversation that started the Cold War
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 25 July 2015)

We know little about the people we hear the most about, especially politicians. The media tells us that Hillary Clinton hopes voters will call her a woman of the people and Stephen Harper likes hockey. But most of us have no idea how political leaders reveal themselves in private.

What about the more interesting questions? Are they sycophantic, generous, paranoid? Are they bullies? Are they quick to anger? Are they naive? Only the patient among us will ever know, and only if we wait till the truth trickles out through the accounts of their associates deposited in libraries.

History is the return of the repressed, to adapt a phrase Freud used. Archives are the guilty memory of the powerful. Everyone who gets close to powerful individuals can write letters or keep a diary. Many do.

Eventually, to learn what words were spoken, we have to consult books like Six Months in 1945: FDR , Stalin, Churchill and Truman -- from World War to Cold War (Random House). The author, Michael Dobbs, doesn't neglect the issues but pays special attention to words uttered in unguarded moments.

"Stalin?" said Franklin Roosevelt. "I can handle that old buzzard."

Few ever called FDR naive, but he saw nothing devious in Joseph Stalin, who ruled the Soviet Union by lying, cheating and murdering. Roosevelt believed Stalin "could not be so very different from other people." This quote comes from FDR's closest assistant, Harry Hopkins. When Roosevelt went to the Yalta conference in Crimea to argue with Stalin and Churchill, he was visibly ill, just two months away from death. Still, he believed his powers of persuasion would carry him through. Winston Churchill was as naive as Roosevelt. After his first meeting with Stalin he said, "I like him the more I see him." He felt that if he could only dine with Stalin once a week, there would be no trouble.

Churchill's opinion of Roosevelt had a romantic quality. He told his aides: "I love that man." After the war he said that, "no lover ever studied every whim of his mistress as I did those of President Roosevelt." He suspected FDR of being too attentive to Stalin. He felt jilted, Dobbs says, when Americans and Russians dealt with each other directly, leaving him out.

When Roosevelt went to Yalta, he wanted to bring Russia into the war against Japan. He hoped to persuade Stalin to help organize the United Nations and to allow independence to Poland and the other countries the Red Army had occupied while fighting the Germans.

Amazingly, Stalin agreed (after friendly arguments) to everything. Back home, Yalta was treated as a great success for American policy: "a landmark in human history," said William Shirer, the famous broadcaster.

By the time Roosevelt died, on April 12, he knew that Stalin was not the friendly partner he had imagined. For the moment, however, Yalta looked to the world like a success.

The Truman era was different. For reasons unknown, Roosevelt had never prepared Vice President Harry Truman for the problems he inherited when he was sworn in as president. He did not know the atom bomb existed and he knew little about Yalta. No one had shown him the correspondence between Roosevelt and Stalin. He wasn't cleared to enter the secret Map Room.

In his first few days on the job, he learned that Stalin was not allowing free elections in Poland. Instead, he was building an empire. Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet Union's deputy premier, came to Washington 10 days after Truman became president. Truman thought the Yalta agreements were turning into "a one-way street." He decided that if the Russians wouldn't co-operate, they could go to hell.

When Molotov arrived, Truman told him the Yalta agreements were still part of American policy. He also said it only remained for Marshal Stalin to carry them out "in accordance with his word."

Then Truman stood up. "That will be all, Mr. Molotov," he said. "I would appreciate it if you would transmit my views to Marshal Stalin."

Molotov later complained about Truman's imperious tone: "I have never been talked to like that in my life." Truman boasted to his staff, "I gave it to him straight. It was a straight one-two to the jaw."

That was the first day of the Cold War, which would last 44 years. At the time no one knew about the crucial conversation. We had to wait for the archives to yield the truth.

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