Russian Spies in the Age of Covid: Plus Ça Change

Jordan Michael Smith
November 8, 2012
Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom allege that Russia has tried to steal information and intellectual property from researchers working on a Covid-19 vaccine. Jordan Michael Smith writes that at the Yalta Conference, Franklin Roosevelt’s belief in the universality of liberal democracy caused him to underestimate the cynicism and ruthlessness of his Russian counterpart.

Russian Spies in the Age of Covid: Plus Ça Change

Jordan Michael Smith
November 8, 2012
Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom allege that Russia has tried to steal information and intellectual property from researchers working on a Covid-19 vaccine. Jordan Michael Smith writes that at the Yalta Conference, Franklin Roosevelt’s belief in the universality of liberal democracy caused him to underestimate the cynicism and ruthlessness of his Russian counterpart.
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Six Months in 1945: From World War to Cold War
By Michael Dobbs
Knopf, 418 pages, $32.00

Reviewed by Jordan Michael Smith

During the wartime conference in Yalta in the then Soviet Union in February 1945, where Franklin Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill met to map out the postwar world, the Soviet dictator was reported to have shown a rare private display of empathy for another human being. According to the Soviet ambassador to the United States, Andrei Gromyko, Stalin lamented FDR’s polio: “Why did nature have to punish him so?” Stalin asked, after meeting with Roosevelt. “Is he worse than other people?” Gromyko was shocked, he later wrote, because the dictator “rarely bestowed his sympathy on anyone from another social system.” Gromyko should have cut himself after the word ‘sympathy,’ but it was a sign of Stalin’s affection for FDR that he even uttered such a sentence.

Gromyko’s anecdote has been taken by some historians as evidence that had FDR lived past 1945, the Cold War would never have occurred. The University of Connecticut historian Frank Costigliola made this argument most recently, in his 2011 book, Roosevelt’s Lost Alliances. We’ll never know the correctness of that opinion, of course, because FDR died on April 12th 1945, with some recent medical specialists speculating that his stroke was caused by cancer.

Former Washington Post reporter Michael Dobbs avoids including Gromyko’s oft-repeated episode in his new book, Six Months in 1945—From World War to Cold War. Rather than accepting the naïve notion that Stalin would have forfeited Soviet expansionism because of the strong personal relationship between Roosevelt and Stalin, Dobbs, who has written two terrific books on the Cold War now completes the trilogy with Six Months in 1945. Dobbs correctly sees that worldwide competition between the two superpowers left standing after World War II was inevitable. “By placing the politicians at the heart of their story, diplomatic historians assume that larger-than-life individuals determine the course of events,” writes Dobbs. “Sometimes history has a mind of its own, riding roughshod over the decisions of the most charismatic personalities and moving in directions contrary to their desires.”

Communism and liberal democracy were divergent universal ideologies championed by nations intent on increasing their power. It was impossible that they would not conflict. Writes Dobbs: “The belief in the universality of liberal democracy was deeply rooted in the American national psyche but was unacceptable to Stalin because it struck at the very source of his power.” One might add that it also struck at the very source of his ideology, which campaigned for the destruction of liberal democratic capitalism.

Part of what makes Dobbs’ lines quoted above noteworthy is they are atypical of most of the contents of Six Months in 1945. The book mostly chronicles Stalin’s dissembling about his intents to honor the Yalta Agreements, which mandated freedoms and elections in Eastern Europe.

The Soviet leader was, rather understandably, determined to prevent the tolls the first half of the 20th century enacted from recurring. The 1905 Russo-Japanese War was deeply humiliating to Russia; it was the first time in modern history an Asian country had bested a European nation. Later, the First World War led to the collapse of the Tsarist regime that had been intact for centuries. The First World War’s sequel took a toll on Russia that was more severe than that suffered by its allies. True, Stalin’s purges had stripped the military of its best commanders, partly the reason the Soviets were so unprepared for the Nazi invasion. Even so, Russia would have shouldered most of the burden of defeating Germany. As Churchill wrote, It was the Russian army who tore the guts out of the German war machine.”

In his prize-winning book Postwar, the late historian Tony Judt estimated that the country’s death total in the Second World War was nearly 25 million. Other scholars approximate the number at more than 35 million. Those figures, of course, do not include the seriously wounded and the unimaginable damage wreaked on cities like Stalingrad. Dobbs describes how Stalin and his lieutenants insisted that American official see firsthand the catastrophic effects of the German invasion on the Russian homeland. In Stalingrad, only a single building was left standing. Even Stalin’s son was killed in the battle there, where some two million Russians were said to have died.        

Roosevelt’s rare case of Stalin-induced naïveté

Americans were indeed naïve about the prospects for cooperating with postwar Soviet Union. Roosevelt seems to have believed his charm, shrewdness and bond with Stalin would combine to solidify the wartime alliance between the two countries. The late historian Arthur Schlesinger wrote that “I do not gather from conversations with persons who were with him at Yalta that his defences were down.” These apologetics should be discarded. As have other scholars, Dobbs provides ample evidence that Stalin seems to be the one human being Roosevelt was naïve about. For one thing, the New Deal icon believed that his attempts to conspicuously ingratiate himself with Stalin while simultaneously alienating Churchill would be effective in swaying the Georgian-born dictator.

W. Averell Harriman, ambassador to Russia and longtime analyst of the Soviet Union, was concerned that FDR overestimated his powers of persuasion. He noted in his diary that the president “has no conception of the determination to settle matters in which they consider have a vital interest in their own manner, on their own terms. They will never leave them to the President or anyone else to arbitrate. The President still feels that he can persuade Stalin to alter his point of view on many matters that, I am satisfied, Stalin will never agree to.”

FDR’s close aide Harry Hopkins said that the president had “spent his life managing men, and Stalin at bottom could not be so very different from other people.” But of course Stalin was a far more ruthless individual than the Republicans that FDR had outwitted for over a decade. Writes Dobbs: “Tried and ill, he remained confident that he could achieve what other, more workaday, politicians assumed was impossible. His greatest gift—demonstrated in election after election—was getting people to like and trust him. That is what he planned to do with Stalin.” FDR moderated his hopes as time proved that Stalin was indeed “the man of steel” he was nicknamed.

FDR was not alone in his illusions. Churchill also trusted the Soviets on occasion, albeit for a shorter duration and with less certainty. “Poor Neville Chamberlain believed he could trust Hitler. He was wrong. But I don’t think I’m wrong about Stalin,” Churchill said.

Stalin’s Eastern European advantage: Troops on the ground

For all those mistakes, however, it is unlikely that a more realistic assessment of Soviet intentions would have changed matters. The reason Stalin did not keep up to his Yalta commitments was that he did not have to: the Soviet army controlled most of the country, as well as all European land to Poland’s east, and some to its west, as well. The American politicians were not about to start a Third World War. Dobbs writes rightly of FDR: “He knew that Stalin was in a position to dictate terms, as his troops occupied most of the country.” The American president’s long hope was to “make a personal appeal to the Russian dictator urging him to compromise.”

That was not going to happen. “Stalin thought of Poland in the manner of the tsars, as a country that was perpetually scheming against Russia. In addition to being a corridor for foreign invasions, Poland was also a conduit for undesirable western influence…he would not budge on the core principle of political control,” writes Dobbs.

In fact, some of Stalin’s advisors thought he had been too generous at Yalta, where he agreed to vague wording about recognizing the principle of self-determination. Stalin responded to them: “Don’t worry, work it out. We can deal with it in our own way later. The point is the correlation of forces.” As with the British and the Americans Stalin wanted to just get a deal, and knew that he would ignore whatever he wanted to in it.

Despite these unfortunate realities, Yalta became to be seen in the United States and parts of Eastern Europe as a terrible form of betrayal. As the historian Serhii Plokhy puts it in his definitive book, Yalta: Price of Peace, “In the mainstream discourse of the era, ‘Yalta’ became a synonym for betrayal of freedom and the appeasement of world communism.” The question of ‘Who Lost Yalta’ became a prominent one for three reasons: a refusal to recognize reality, anti-Communist hysteria, and political exploitation of anti-Communist hysteria. Time Magazine headlined it as a “Lost Peace,” an unintentionally ironic characterization, since opposing the Yalta agreement would have meant a hot war instead of the cold one we got.

What gave some plausibility to sell-out charges was that the Soviet spy Alger Hiss was among those advising Roosevelt during the conference. Dobbs ignores this controversy, perhaps since most of the drama came after the period on which his book concentrates, but Plokhy’s findings should finally euthanize the matter: the man was virtually unknown to his Soviet masters.

His is not the only oversight in Six Months in 1945. Roosevelt has been alleged to have been wary of Truman, for instance, a historical dispute unmentioned in the book. Indeed, Dobbs focuses nearly all of his energy on the Soviet Union’s machinations to secure what it saw as its unqualified sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. The United States is portrayed as a mostly flexible innocent.

There may be a slight thimble of truth in that assessment, but Dobbs’s overstates it. America would never have conceded its domination of the Western Hemisphere, and so the Soviets were understandably furious at the double-standard. Of course, the United States never occupied and brutalized South and Central America the way the Soviets treated Eastern Europe, but Dobbs seems mostly unaware that the North American colossus could be as cynical and self-interested as its Russian counterpart.

Mostly though, Michael Dobbs’s new book has reliable judgment. The real disappointment lies in its lack of new revelations, very unlike his previous books. The Cuban Missile Crisis, among the most rigorously studied events in world history, had some of its few remaining mysteries solved in Dobbs’ Minutes to Midnight. Previously unpublished reconnaissance photographs of nuclear bunkers, the locations of those bunkers and the movements of the Russian Cruise Missile Envoy are among the pieces of new information the book offered. Six Months in 1945 offers nothing of the kind. The gradual process of hardening of attitudes on both the Western and Eastern sides of the conflict is familiar to the point of banality. The portraits of Churchill, Lincoln and Stalin are unoriginal.  

So, why bother reading Dobbs’ new book? Those who want to understand the genesis of the Cold War can consult works that offer detailed overviews of lengthier periods of time, from 1942 onwards. An edited essay collection called The Origins of the Cold War is the place to start. Those looking for a continuous narrative should consult Melvyn Leffler’s A Preponderance of Power and John Lewis Gaddis’ The United States and the Origins of the Cold War (which remains superior to his subsequent works). Six Months of 1945 doesn’t reach the quality of those books, readable as it is.   


Jordan Michael Smith is a Toronto-born writer living in Washington, D.C. He is a contributing writer at Salon and the Christian Science Monitor.

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