Book Review: Stalin’s War by Sean McMeekin
The history of World War II is a well-worn path. Historians and journalists have been writing about it for about 75 years. You would not think much could be added to “the story”. If that is what you think, then you would be wrong.
This new book is a required addition to your bookshelf. Be assured, you will never look at the war the same way.
Professor Sean McMeekin teaches at Bard College in New York and is the author of several other important books on Russian history. Published by Basic Books, it currently is Editor’s Pick, Best Book of 2021 on Amazon.
This particular book breaks new ground based on newly found material from Soviet archives. In particular, you will learn about Stalin’s intentions before the war, his arms buildup before the war, the abuse of lend-lease, and the incredible Communist penetration of the US and British governments, and who really won the war.
What is the standard story? In a nutshell, evil people came to power in Germany because of depression and their feeling of being maltreated by the Treaty of Versailles. A charismatic figure rises in the form of Adolf Hitler pushing German nationalism and Nordic mythology. Looking to punish those who “knifed Germany in the back”, he climbs to power, hating Jews, Communists, and yearns for Lebensraum or living space for Germany.
He builds up his forces, intimidates the West, and the West appeases the aggression. Hitler starts the war by invading Poland thinking the West will not act. France and England surprise and go to war to protect the territorial integrity of Poland. France is lost and England hangs by a thread.
Germany’s blitzkrieg conquers all of Western Europe. England stands alone for several years, surviving with modest help from the US, which remains neutral. Roosevelt feels the US must soon enter the war and wisely skirts the law of the neutrality acts.
Then, because of his hatred of Communism and Slavic people, Hitler suddenly strikes the Soviet Union. The Soviets are completely surprised and lose terribly. Stalin goes into hiding for more than a month as he tortures himself because he was blindsided by Hitler. Stalin later redeems himself with the great victories at Stalingrad.
Russia does the bulk of the fighting and the dying, and also kills most of the Germans. The U.S. becomes the arsenal of democracy and is brought into the war when attacked by Germany’s ally Japan, and then Hitler inexplicably declares war on the U.S. making it easy to go after him.
Hitler loses the war because of the mistake of creating a two-front war. England loses her power and empire through economic exhaustion. America is triumphant lead by the indomitable FDR and Truman and goes about creating new international institutions to keep the peace and wisely helps old enemies recover.
That’s the “story” I learned, and that is pretty much how I taught it when I was a teaching assistant. It is what you get mostly in TV documentaries on the subject and Hollywood productions.
It is largely true as far as it goes but it is not complete. It largely leaves out the role of Russia and its dictator, Josef Stalin.
In telling this new story, many myths and previous assumptions start to fall. There are many examples, but here are just a few:
Hitler did not want a two-front war at all and was aware of its perils. In fact, relying heavily on Soviet oil, grain, and metals, he increasingly was becoming dependent on Stalin. Germany needed Romanian oil and Stalin wanted to take Romania. Stalin in fact started squeezing Hitler.
The attack on Russia thus was not a surprise. One thing Stalin had throughout the war, was superior intelligence.
The situation was more like two gangsters fighting over turf. Gang members killing each other is not a surprise. But, turning one of the gang members into some kind of historic hero is.
Stalin never went into hiding over the shock of the German invasion. He knew they were coming.
By the end of the war, Soviet power is now so great, that the U.S. and the West must seemingly concede all of Eastern Europe and China, and a 70-year Cold War begins.
While scholars had access to U.S., French, and British archives, little was known about the role of the Russians before the war started, her aims and motives, and the extent to which she was helped by the Western allies once Germany had attacked Russia.
With the collapse of Soviet Communism, Russian archives were opened for a while, and a more nuanced story of the war has emerged.
Both Russian and Western historians got new input, and in some cases, were allowed to connect dots that heretofore were left incomplete. This is particularly so with the so-called Venona decrypts. This refers to the U.S. intelligence monitoring of Soviet messages, which could only be fully understood once both sides of the conversation could be pieced together.
In the best tradition of the von Ranke historical method, Shaun McMeekin goes back to original documents in Russian rather than just rehashing the opinions of other historians. In this process, he connects many dots that previously were either misunderstood or not known at all.
The result is a bit unnerving. The “story” we are so used to is not just incomplete, it is, in fact, wrong in some important aspects.
So, why should you read an 800-page book on the subject?
Well, first it is best to get the story right as best you can, simply because the truth is important. We are supposed to learn from history, right? If you have the wrong history, you learn the wrong lessons.
Secondly, one has a greater understanding of the massive and complex conflict called the Cold War and its origins, which occupied so much of our energy, wealth, and at times, the lives of Americans. What would life have been like without a huge permanent U.S. military establishment, without the Korean and Vietnam wars? How much wealthier would we have been as a nation and how much pain, misery, and death could have been avoided if Russia had left the war in the weak condition of England instead of a superpower?
What if Communism had not risen in China, our new great and difficult threat? What if Communist apparatchiks had not taken Russia over after the fall of the wall? Would we have had a Putin?
And largely forgotten, is the miserable life millions lived under Communism. For them, the war did not end with sailors kissing nurses in New York City in 1945. In fact, for them, the war did not end at all.
For the hapless Russian soldier, they would either be shot in the front by Germans, shot in the back by Communist commissars, or die in a prisoner of war camp. If they were fortunate to survive the war in German captivity, being tainted by the West, they would wind up in Siberia.
How did Communist Russia gain such power and strategic advantage? Could our leaders have done a better job of handling the end of the war and then setting up the post-war peace?
These are reasonable questions to ask and they can’t be answered by only examining our side of the story. One has to understand Stalin and how he went about the business of statecraft.
The title of the book itself is suggestive. It was Stalin’s war as much as it was Hitler’s. In many ways, it was Stalin who started it and benefited the most from it. Gee, that is not normally part of the “story”, is it?
McMeekin uncovers numerous speeches to Party Congresses, to military academies, and diplomatic instructions, that clearly indicate Stalin wanted the “capitalist powers” to go to war with each other years before the war started. He would exploit the weakness surely to come from their mutual destruction. He starting building up his military aggressively well before the war. And, as McMeekin shows, he did a lot to provoke the war.
Usually, the “story” concentrates on Hitler without pointing out that large-scale German maneuvers were taking place in the Soviet Union, in the run-up to the war. It was in Russia under Stalin that Germany developed Blitzkrieg, that is the close coordination of armor and tactical airpower, all coordinated by radio. Forgotten is that Russia supplied much material to Hitler as well as acting like his training base. They were political, commercial, and military ties between Russia and Germany going back before even Hitler came to power.
In return, Russia got technology and training. Much of the Russian officer corps, was trained in Germany.
McMeekin suggests it is not an exaggeration to say that Hitler conquered France and the low countries on Russian gasoline. Blitzkrieg on Russian supplies? Who knew?
As Hitler invaded Poland, so did Stalin. While Hitler attacked France, Stalin gobbled up six other countries. Many of the hapless citizens in those countries were badly mistreated, many were executed, while many others were sent to the Gulag. Yes, “Uncle Joe” as FDR called him, became our ally, but he was Hitler’s ally first.
Stalin also signed a peace treaty with Japan, which allowed him to free up resources in the East. He wanted Japan to attack the U.S. and knew all about the coming attack on the U.S. military and British assets. He also wanted to keep Japan from attacking Mao and his communist forces in China.
So scrupulous did Stalin honor his treaty with Japan, he never helped the U.S. in its desperate struggle in the Pacific and even imprisoned U.S. flyers, including three of the Doolittle raiders, that crashed in his territory. He broke his treaty with Japan only in the last few days of the war, allowing him to cynically grab much of Asia.
Among the most disturbing parts of the book is the scandal called “lend-lease”, and the extent to which Stalin’s agents had penetrated both American and British political leadership.
Harry Hopkins was a special assistant to FDR and lived full time in the Lincoln bedroom. FDR tasked him with lend-lease and allowed to manage much of our relationship with Stalin. Hopkins we now know was a Soviet asset.
The Soviets were basically given the store. U.S. requisitioning policy allowed them to have superior claims to vital war material to our own military! They were allowed to tour defense plants and invited to commit wholesale industrial espionage. They were allowed to see the Norden bombsight, allowed to take whole U.S. factories home, and even provided three shipments of enriched uranium!
Hopkins saw to it that only pliable pro-Soviet diplomats were selected and even changed the U.S. military attaché in Moscow, to a man we now know was also a Soviet agent.
Harry Dexter White in the Treasury Department is largely responsible for the economic ultimatums and diplomatic pressure put on Japan, which gave them little choice but war. But White too was a Soviet agent, and provoking the Japanese to attack America relieved pressure on Stalin’s Eastern flank. White goes on with six other key Soviet agents in the Treasury Department to change the course of the war through the Morgenthau Plan (basically the complete destruction of Germany), and the undermining of pro-American forces in China.
That is another sidebar story that was quite new. That is the extent to which the Treasury Department was influencing foreign policy and even writing up manuals for the War Department.
To add a final insult to grievous injury, White goes on to influence the post-war economic structure through the founding of the International Monetary Fund, while other Soviet agents like Alger Hiss go on to shape the United Nations.
FDR comes off as basically groveling in front of Stalin. If the British needed old destroyers, we asked for military bases. Multiple times he threatened cuts in “lend-lease” aid to bully allies like Britain and China, but remarkably he asked nothing…nothing from Stalin in return. Stalin was awash in US trucks, tanks, munitions, airplanes, food, fuel, uniforms, and specialty metals and machine tools. For all that we got paid, McMeekin estimates, about 2 cents on the dollar.
Even as Soviet intentions became much clearer, their behavior demonstrably barbaric, and their political goals visibly undemocratic, more and more aid was provided to them. Huge amounts of aid were shipped to Stalin even after Germany had surrendered.
The result was the loss of Eastern Europe, much of Asia, and 70 years of Cold War tensions and high defense budgets, which included some real shooting wars in Korea and Vietnam. Millions of people in Eastern Europe were lost to the Gulag and Soviet oppression. Millions would go on to die in Asia and live under a brutal government.
FDR is not a great war leader at all, but a serious failure. His tragic mistakes carry all the way through to today, as we now face remnants of Communist leadership in Russia and an emboldened Communist government in China. Essentially troublesome North Korea was FDR’s creation as well.
Historians have known of FDR’s weakness for Stalin, his arrogance that he could “handle” Stalin, and his pressure on Winston Churchill, who surprisingly does not come out as well as frequently portrayed. He too seemed to grovel before Stalin. Just not as bad as FDR, and in his defense, Churchill had to please FDR.
But historians did not appreciate FDR’s strategic misunderstandings and the incredible abuse of aid that paraded under the innocuous title of lend-lease. Much of the operations of this program were kept secret from both the public and Congress and its full extent was not known until rather recently.
The Roosevelt Administration was not just staffed just by romantic professors and journalists (which it was) that had traveled to Russia and came back “having seen the future”, it was riddled with active Soviet agents.
Quite the contrary, we previously were told that post-war reactions were “a Red Scare”, unjustified and provoked by Republican demagogues. Many New Left historians contend even today that the U.S. started the Cold War by mistreating Russia.
Why after Russia reversed the course of the war after Stalingrad, did the U.S. not scale back the help and make it conditional? And then, as the German military began to float the idea of a truce, FDR announced the policy of “unconditional surrender.” This and the idea of the Morgenthau Plan actually kept the war going when it might well have ended earlier. It made the Germans fight even harder, costing American and other lives.
The monster Soviet military the U.S. faced after the defeat of Germany, which was able to conquer all of Eastern Europe, was largely built up by the US. In describing this outcome, irony does not seem to be a strong enough concept.
Recall that the war started with Britain attempting to defend Poland. For the U.S., our ultimatums to Japan were because of their war in China that had been raging since 1931.
So, who won the war? Who got the most treasure and territory? Stalin got Poland and all of Eastern Europe, and shortly thereafter, China. From the standpoint of achieving geopolitical aims, Stalin is the clear winner.
The West went to war to save Poland and China from foreign invasions by dictators and in the end, due to Roosevelt’s bungling, gave the two away to simply a different dictator, one arguably even more dangerous. After all the blood and treasure spent during WWII, and the Cold War subsequent to that, this was a catastrophe of the highest order.
Why historians and journalists have been so eager to forgive and forget the results of Roosevelt’s and Democrat Party leadership on this matter is a separate issue. But that FDR’s Administration is largely culpable for such a tragic outcome, is undeniable. Its origins were a complete lack of understanding of Communism and Stalin himself.
Without Stalin, it is likely Germany would not have been able to start the war when they did. It is lost to the historical memory, that Russia attacked Poland as well, and the two lions split the buffalo. As Germany ravaged Western Europe, Stalin ravaged six additional countries in Eastern Europe.
If Stalin had helped us with Japan, the war could have ended sooner.
Historians love to play the game of “what if”, and this book provides plenty of new toys with which to play the game.
But in the end, it was not a game. Clearly, what if FDR had not been so naïve about Stalin?
Many historians give Roosevelt a pass for his handling of Stalin. After all, Russians were dying in the millions and that helped save American lives, or so it is alleged. Besides, FDR’s health was failing.
However, FDR was the man in charge. If his administration was shot through with Communist agents, that is his fault. He was the boss.
If he misread Stalin’s motives, or put in positions of authority aids that misread Stalin’s motives, or were actually working for Stalin, it all still falls on the shoulders of FDR.
His mishandling of lend-lease and various diplomatic meetings set up Eastern Europe and much of Asia for years of blood-soaked tyranny. For the West, it meant a costly and bloody Cold War that would dominate our lives even today.
One leaves the book with an uncomfortable thought. Progressive Democrats have had a real issue understanding the nature and intentions of Communism for a long time, and it has done immense damage to the U.S. and to the world.
It continues today.
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