Roosevelt Was Hardly Naive About Stalin

Roosevelt and Stalin met only twice – in Tehran in November 1943 and in Yalta in February 1945. They met each time with the third of the Big Three, Winston Churchill. By the time they met at Yalta, all three were old and tired. Churchill, who had spent the 1930s in constant frustration, was seventy-one. Stalin at sixty-six had governed his country for seventeen draining years. Roosevelt, who had turned sixty-three the week before the Yalta meeting, had led his country through the worst economic depression and the worst foreign war in its history. Now they were together to lay the foundation for the peace to come. Roosevelt and Stalin had been corresponding since Hitler's surprise attack on the Soviet Union in 1941, an exchange that ran to more than 300 letters. It is a curiosity of scholarship that the full correspondence was never published during the Cold War.

 

Was FDR too sick at Yalta to put up a strong case for the United States? His health was poor and his energy level was low; but I do not gather from conversations with persons who were with him at Yalta that his defences were down. Charles E. Bohlen, a State Department Soviet expert who served as Roosevelt's interpreter with Stalin, summed up the general testimony: “While his physical state was certainly not up to normal, his mental and psychological state was certainly not affected. He was lethargic but when important moments arose, he was mentally sharp. Our leader was ill at Yalta . . . but he was effective”. I interviewed Sir Frank Roberts, later British Ambassador to Moscow. “The hand of death was on him,” Roberts said, “but it didn't impede his role at Yalta. He was in charge and achieved everything he had come to do. No problem at Yalta derived from Roosevelt's illness.” As for the Soviet side, I asked Valentin Berezhkov, Stalin's interpreter, who replied in a letter to me that Roosevelt's health “was certainly worse than in Tehran, but everybody who watched him said that in spite of his frail appearance his mental potential was high. Before he got tired, he was alert, with quick reactions and forceful arguments”.

 

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