Defaming the Cold Warriors

by Conrad Black
West, Bukovsky, and Stroilov are wrong about FDR — and about the American century.

It is a painful but implacable duty to return to the dismaying subject of Diana West’s book, American Betrayal, about which she has written, in the last few days, “The war of words is over.” Her authority for this triumphalist expression of relief is that Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky and his co-commentator Pavel Stroilov have described Mrs. West’s book as “huge and brilliant.” Part of their review of her book, and much of the debate, has been a fierce firefight including a considerable, though often somewhat entertaining, volume of recriminations that asperse the rigor, motivations, ideological orientation, integrity, and sanity of the two sides. I do not fit any of the stereotypes erected and riddled with high-explosive projectiles by both sides, and am merely a non-American biographer of Roosevelt and strategic historian (as well as other occupations), of impeccable conservative credentials, who has uttered no personal critique of the protagonists (I have enjoyed the previous work of Mrs. West that I have seen). And I am generally outside the circular firing squad that has been debating these issues, and so have not had to repair to the field hospital or even the dressing station, and am unafflicted in wind and limb by the tremendous exchange of ordnance this debate, if it can be so described, has provoked.

I will try to illuminate the battlefield without injuring anyone unnecessarily, since I am usually in some sympathy with all the combatants. Vladimir Bukovsky, after twelve years in Soviet labor camps and psychiatric hospitals, commands respect as a man, but his article with Mr. Stroilov is, to say the least, unrigorous, and certainly does not end the war of words. It merely escalates it, though I will not reply with greater violence. Let us consider what he wrote, in defense of Mrs. West’s assertions that the United States was betrayed by its governments, opposite Soviet Communism, from the 1930s through the 1980s, and then let us return, very succinctly, to the indisputable facts.

I agree with the spirit and object of Bukovsky and Stroilov’s question of how could “this great civilization of ours have [been -- it is a transitive verb] degraded into such a hypocritical nonsense as political correctness.” In this, all the warriors who have raised their faces above the parapets are on the same side. Bukovsky and Stroilov begin with another good thrashing of the useful idiots of the Western intelligentsia and media who whitewashed Stalin’s pre-war crimes. No argument here, and all of them, from Bernard Shaw and Nancy Astor to Walter Duranty, should never go more than a few months without being exhumed and dragged back to the woodshed. Where it all starts to go horribly wrong is in the sudden metamorphosis of Duranty into Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who, Bukovsky has learned, presumably from whatever unimaginable emanations possessed him in his decades of brave resistance to Communism and in his apparently incomplete convalescence since, sought a “convergence” of Stalinist socialism with American constitutional government. This was a process that “had already begun, as the Roosevelt administration was full of Soviet agents of influence, including Alger Hiss, Harry Dexter White, and crucially, Harry Hopkins — FDR’s alter ego, his ‘personal foreign secretary,’ and the most powerful man in the White House” (presumably not excluding the president himself). These, we read, are “proven facts” of “the glorious FDR administration.”

Bukovsky and Stroilov write that the Western democracies entered the war to “defend the freedom of Poland,” and “ended it by surrendering Poland and a dozen other nations to a totalitarian empire worse than Hitler’s. Was this really a victory?” Yes, it was, though if Soviet dissidents were expecting the Anglo-Americans to sweep away the Soviet Union while they were at the preparatory task of defeating Nazism in the West and the Japanese imperialists in the Pacific, they were bound to be disappointed. When Roosevelt was inaugurated in 1933, the banking and stock- and commodities-exchange systems had collapsed and were closed sine die; unemployment was 33 percent and there was no direct federal relief for the victims of it. Roosevelt was a capitalist and he saved capitalism. He made mistakes, as he said he would, but he salvaged 95 percent of the system, maintained the moral integrity of the country, and focused the rage and frustration of the era on the country’s true enemies — foreign imperialists. The charge of aspiring to a blended system with Stalinist Communism, with its liquidations and gulags, is unfounded and disgusting. FDR considered it an equivalent evil to Nazism and publicly said so during the Russo-Finnish war, and privately many times, including in his correspondence with Pius XII.

The United States was attacked by Japan and was chiefly concerned with defeating Germany and Japan; Poland was the subject, but not the real cause, of the declarations of war of the United Kingdom, France, and Canada. Roosevelt and Churchill secured from Stalin a guarantee of the democracy and independence of Poland and all of liberated Europe at Yalta. They surrendered nothing (apart from Churchill’s unfortunate spheres-of-influence agreement in Moscow in October 1944, which Roosevelt opposed). The Yalta agreement was a success for the West, which is why Stalin violated every clause of it, and Roosevelt and Truman declined to advance a cent of the $6 billion of assistance that had been promised to the USSR, and Eisenhower rearmed West Germany and opened the Geneva Summit Conference of 1955 with the demand that the Soviets honor their Yalta commitments. Hopkins was a relief, workfare, and lend-lease administrator; he had no influence on Roosevelt’s foreign policy, though he was sent on a couple of foreign missions, and moved out of the White House when he remarried, before Roosevelt had any dealings with Stalin (surely leaving the president as the undisputedly most influential person in the building). Alger Hiss had no influence, ceased his incompetent efforts at espionage in the mid Thirties, and did not exchange a word with Roosevelt at Yalta; his only contribution was to recommend, unsuccessfully, that the USSR not have three votes in the United Nations general assembly. The purported quotes from FDR and General Marshall are so far out of context, as cited, that they are false.

According to Bukovsky and Stroilov, Mrs. West “persuasively demonstrates” that Roosevelt abandoned “the Italian front to concentrate forces for the invasion of Normandy . . . because Stalin demanded [it],” as “the pro-Soviet FDR administration rejected such sensible alternatives as advancing from Italy to [the] Balkans and eastern Europe, which might have limited the Red Army’s advance to the West.” A very little knowledge is a very dangerous thing. Churchill and his advisers, veterans of the hecatomb on the Western Front of World War I, feared direct confrontation with Germany and had the military habits of a great maritime power; they were convinced that Stalin supported the French alternative because he believed, as they (Churchill and Brooke, the chief of the general staff) did, that the Germans would throw the Western Allies into the sea, as they had at Dunkirk, Greece, Crete, and Dieppe. Roosevelt knew what they thought, but believed the Allies would succeed, that the war would be won by whoever took most of Germany, and that the only route to the conquest of Germany from the West was through France. Italy was a defending army’s paradise: It took almost two years to clear, compared with six months for France. And the whole idea of landing near Trieste and advancing on a narrow front through the “Ljubljana Gap,” which Eisenhower said did not really exist, toward Vienna, was mad. The Germans would have bottled it up more easily than they did the Italian front, and the Russians would have taken all Germany and, with their local Communist parties, France and northern Italy. 

Even Churchill and Brooke acknowledged, after the success of the Normandy and Dragoon (southern France) landings, that Roosevelt and Marshall (whom Bukovsky and Stroilov praise, in surprising and refreshing contrast to what Senator Joseph R. McCarthy said about him) were correct. This is why Roosevelt stayed in the Soviet embassy at Tehran, although he knew his rooms were bugged, to ensure that Stalin decided the Normandy-Adriatic argument in his favor (and to Stalin’s own despite, as Roosevelt foresaw). It was a mighty act of diplomatic and strategic genius, on a par with Franklin’s mission to France in 1778 — not, as is claimed by West and Bukovsky, an act of treason by Roosevelt.

There are a great many other fantastic claims in the Bukovsky-Stroilov article, such as that Soviet agents in Washington thwarted anti-Nazi plots in Germany; that “the U.S. simply went along with the Sovietization of Eastern Europe in breach of the Yalta Agreement” (my italics; it is elsewhere in the article represented as a sellout to Stalin); that the Cold War “was never much of a war on the Western side,” which raises the question of how we won it; and that “‘détente’ was . . . developed . . . secretly, treacherously, through KGB channels, as a means to achieve that ‘convergence’” (yes, the same convergence that was the socioeconomic goal of Roosevelt). Apparently, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon, and Kissinger were all a part of the same betrayal and conspiracy to disserve America and deliver the world to the masters in the Kremlin. Even George Bush the elder was part of it, though Reagan may have been a chronological island of patriotism in this chain of evil that somehow, despite its fiendish traitorousness, caused the Soviet Union to disintegrate, before the West self-degraded to the fatuous imbecilities of political correctness.

“That treacherous establishment is still there,” write Bukovsky and Stroilov. I wish it were: I wish anyone now visible in a position of influence in Washington had a fraction of the competence or patriotic and democratic and capitalist conviction of those distinguished statesmen whom Mrs. West and Messrs. Bukovsky and Stroilov have so violently and unjustly assailed.

Most of the rest of the Bukovsky-Stroilov piece is an intra-academic-and-commentariat series of acerbic reflections. But it flares up again with a lot of bunk about how poor old Harry Hopkins was a Soviet agent and that American supplies to the USSR that helped prevent the German occupation of St. Petersburg and Moscow in 1941 contributed to “such major catastrophes of World War II as the defeat on [the] Philippines and the fall of Singapore.” This is a complete fantasy: Admiral Mahan and Theodore Roosevelt had agreed when the U.S. took over the Philippines that it couldn’t defend the islands from the Japanese, and MacArthur did well to hang on for five months. Singapore was an all-British disaster, of little military consequence.

Bukovsky and Stroilov charge that the “consensus about the Cold War,” i.e. that it was carried out seriously with the objective of containing and defeating Soviet Communism without a general war, was “false and corrupt”: “It is a product of the great cover-up. It was the same consensus who first denied the facts about the Soviet crimes and Western complicity . . . that there was no famine in the Soviet Union . . . that Mr. and Mrs. Rosenberg were innocent.”

No, Mrs. West and gentlemen, it is not. On other days and other subjects, I am sure that Mrs. West and Mr. Bukovsky, and probably Mr. Stroilov, will write sensibly, but they haven’t done so here. The war of words probably is over, but not as Mrs. West would hope, and not for the reasons she implies. I surmise that almost all the participants in this war of words espouse similar political objectives. But I commend to the other side the facts that in 1940, Germany, France, Japan, and Italy, as well as the Soviet Union, were in the hands of dictators hostile to Anglo-American democracy. Soon after the end of World War II, after the USSR had absorbed over 90 percent of the casualties the three principal allies (the U.S., the USSR, and the U.K. and Commonwealth) had suffered in subduing Nazi Germany, France, Italy, Japan, and most of Germany were all flourishing and democratic allies of the British and Americans; and about 45 years later, the Soviet Union had disintegrated, China was a capitalist country, and Eastern Europe was largely free, without the horrors of a war between the Great Powers. This was a stunning sequence of achievements, of the statesmen who are, apart from President Reagan, smeared by Mrs. West, and Messrs. Bukovsky and Stroilov.

We all sympathize with and admire Mr. Bukovsky’s endurance of his ordeal. I do so as one who was also unjustly imprisoned, though for only three years and in the vastly gentler regime of the United States. (It was no day at the beach. And it has not destroyed my regard for the U.S., but it has not made me a compulsive American-flag-waver either.) Whatever injustices any of us may have suffered, they do not entitle us to defame the justly honored dead, invent and deform history, or impugn the righteousness of our civilization, flawed and tainted and often riddled with hypocrisy though it is, but the best the world has had.

— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, A Matter of Principle, and the recently published Flight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies That Brought America from Colonial Dependence to World Leadership. He can be reached at [email protected].