Politics & Policy

FDR, Truman, and Ike: Not Communists, Just Naifs

Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin at the Yalta Conference, February 1945
The post–WWII presidents made mistakes, but they were not pro-Soviet.

Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the architect of what was once called “the vital center” — a movement that eschewed the Right but also, most importantly, the Communist Left — once said he knew he was doing his job properly because he was being attacked by both sides. Whatever Schlesinger’s blemishes — and they included his knee-jerk defense of and sucking up to liberal Democratic presidents — he was on to something.

When the extremes of Left and Right (which in my libertarian view meet in a circle) both attack you, it can be affirming: proof that you are, at the very least, being responsible. In the past, when I dared to suggest — as is backed now by considerable declassified evidence — that Alger Hiss and Julius Rosenberg were indeed Soviet spies, the Old Left, which championed their innocence for so long, attacked me in predictable fashion as a “fascist” and “McCarthyite.” Being conservative with libertarian leanings, or vice versa, I took that as par for the course.

But now I am being attacked by the Right — or, to be exact, an updated version of an older, conspiratorial Right. The impetus is my attacks on Diana West and her latest book, American Betrayal. On her March 29 blog, she claims that I have not read the book, and points out that my early view of it, written when (as I admitted) I hadn’t read it yet, was conditioned by what Ron Radosh, a careful and sober historian if there ever was one, wrote about it. I have read it now, and I reviewed it months back in the academic journal American Communist History. But before proceeding to once again examine her thesis, I think some background is in order, to examine what has given birth to or propelled out of the closet this updated version of an Old Right.

In 1996, spearheaded by the late liberal anti-Communist Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the National Security Agency released declassified documents from a World War II–era program known as the Venona Project. In one of the most heavily guarded secrets of the Cold War (until project leaders discovered a Soviet mole within the staff), the U.S. Army Signal Intelligence Service, thanks to obtaining a Soviet codebook in 1944, was able to decipher secret cables between American moles and their Soviet handlers as far back as 1941.

With this, they were able to discover the Cambridge spy ring and the Soviet penetrations of the Manhattan Project. Worse, from the standpoint of the Old Left, were cables that described in detail the background and duties of Soviet spies Alger Hiss and Julius Rosenberg, codenamed by Soviet intelligence “Lawyer” and “Liberal.”

Examination of this information on Hiss and the Rosenbergs, coming from an ideologically impeccable source (the Soviet Union), convinced many holdouts on the Left that they were indeed spies. But this was not all. The outing of several other agents by the cables raised serious questions about the direction of policy under FDR during World War II. Not only was the Treasury Department penetrated — courtesy of Harry Dexter White, the department’s number-two man — along with the Office of Strategic Services (the forerunner of the CIA), which housed between 15 and 20 spies, but Lauchlin Currie, a personal assistant to FDR himself, was revealed to be a Soviet mole.

Many on the Right now considered that Senator Joseph McCarthy might have been on to something. By far the most convincing and responsible of these figures was M. Stanton Evans, with his book Blacklisted by History. Drawing on the Venona telegrams, secret congressional testimony, and declassified FBI files, Evans made the case for McCarthy that Whittaker Chambers, the chief witness against Hiss, had declared the senator “unwilling or unable to make for himself.” Reviewers, with the exception of the ecstatic conservative firebrand Ann Coulter, who called it the “most important book since the Bible,” considered with reservations that portions of it were convincing (myself included). Coulter herself followed up with a thinner volume, in which she reacted as if Hiss and Rosenberg’s guilt were a new thing.

But say what you will about the late senator’s recklessness, he never charged FDR, Truman, or Eisenhower with pro-Soviet leanings. With FDR, he asserted that the president, months away from his death, was in no shape to go head-to-head with a more robust Stalin at Yalta (according to the American delegation, FDR would often fade out), and that he therefore relied on the advice of Soviet spies like Alger Hiss. Regarding Truman, he found him to be merely a drunkard who was also influenced by Soviet moles, while the more sober Eisenhower was naïve about the continuing presence of Communists in the government.

To get at the type of thinking that declared the above figures to be consciously pro-Soviet, you have to go forward a few years from the early 1950s to the days of the John Birch Society in the late ’50s. It was this group — or, to be more specific, their leader, Robert Welch — that charged FDR with deliberately partnering with Joe Stalin against Hitler to advance the Soviet empire; who believed Truman and his secretary of state Dean Acheson had deliberately led U.S. soldiers into a deathtrap in Korea, thus again aiding the Soviet Union by depleting U.S. manpower; and who accused Eisenhower, based on his attempts to negotiate with Khrushchev and his refusal to put ground troops into Vietnam, of being a Soviet agent. In short, they did what the Left accused McCarthy of doing — finding pro-Soviets behind the Oval Office desk.

While dealing with McCarthy only peripherally, Diana West’s American Betrayal dusts off this view of FDR as a traitor. West portrays his conduct during World War II, and that of Truman and Eisenhower during the Cold War, as proof of, in effect, a Soviet “Occupy the White House” movement. Like those on the Right who saw a Communist under every bed and seated behind the Oval Office desk, West sees America’s entry into World War II, and the ensuing D-Day invasion, as means to advance Soviet imperialism.

Before dealing with her main thesis, I would like to present the arguments for FDR’s alleged softness on Communism at its strongest points:

(1) FDR and Truman ignored evidence of Soviet agents in their administrations and allowed them to stay or promoted them to important positions. When informed about Hiss’s treachery in 1939 by his aide Adolf Berle, who had recently interviewed Whittaker Chambers, FDR laughed it off. As a result, Hiss was able to advance up the State Department ladder to become the aide to Secretary of State Edward Stettinius at Yalta. Stettinius, who had been in the job for only two months and was a neophyte at foreign policy, relied on Hiss for policy information. In this way Hiss was able, in accordance with his brief from Stalin, to weaken and misdirect America’s foreign policy, particularly with regard to Washington’s doomed policies toward China.

(2) FDR implemented policies favorable to Stalin.

At Yalta, FDR informed his aides that he was “prepared to give Stalin everything he wants and ask for nothing in return.” This desire to please included not only ceding Eastern Europe to the Soviets (though, in the president’s defense, he could do nothing to save these countries, which were militarily occupied by the Soviets), but supporting Operation Keelhaul, in which 2 million Russian POWs who had been held by the Nazis were forcibly returned to the Soviet Union. Amid Stalin’s mass purges of Russians who had had contact with foreigners, these men faced certain doom upon their return home.

From these facts, however, Diana West moves beyond merely defending McCarthy or portraying Roosevelt as naïve to asserting a conscious treachery on the president’s part. West says she has relied on Venona to make these assertions, but her imagination has also taken over. She has simplified Roosevelt by hammering him into a pro-Soviet mold. FDR was a much more complicated and contradictory figure than is seen in this portrayal.

The real Roosevelt exhibited, at times, a conservative streak. Had he been the Communist portrayed by West, he would have taken the golden opportunity to do what Republican congressmen had begged for by nationalizing the banks in 1933. Instead he left the nation’s financial structure intact. With this decision, he did, despite West’s arguments to the contrary, save and not destroy capitalism. West makes great hay of the fact that FDR diplomatically recognized the Soviet Union. But she neglects to mention that businessmen, eager for trade, had pressured FDR to do so. The same businessmen wanted FDR to provide a stable financial environment via government action.

Roosevelt had an anti-Communist side running parallel with his supposed “pro-Communist sympathies.” Had he been the Bolshevik that West portrays him as, then he would presumably have supported the Hitler-Stalin Non-Aggression Pact in 1939. A secret military partnership disguised as a “peace treaty,” the pact was vociferously defended by the American Communist party.

To a beleaguered Britain, the party jeered that “the Yanks aren’t coming.” Roosevelt didn’t agree, and he sent economic and military aid to Britain during the duration of the pact. If he had at this point been the pro-Communist that West portrays, then someone didn’t inform the American Communist party, which attacked FDR as a fascist dictator. Communists in the CIO were so disgusted with Roosevelt during the 1940 election that they threw their support to his Republican challenger, Wendell Willkie.

West uses FDR’s decision to ignore Chambers’s allegations as evidence of the Communist orientation of the administration. But she doesn’t mention that the meeting where FDR heard these charges was arranged out of the administration’s fears that the Soviets were sharing intelligence information with the Nazis — certainly not the actions of a Soviet-loving president. A year later, the administration prosecuted and jailed CPUSA head Earl Browder, who was a leading opponent of Lend-Lease to Britain, for passport fraud.

During the Pact period, Roosevelt denounced the Soviet Union as “run by a dictatorship as absolute as any other dictatorship in the world.” He castigated the Soviets for invading Finland in 1940. While the Communist-party line was that Finland was fascist, FDR saw otherwise. For him, it was a “liberal, forward-looking democracy.”

It is certainly true that Roosevelt could change his policy in a hurry. Once Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, he went from his stated dislike of how Russia had banished religion to declaring that there was religious freedom in the country because it was in their constitution. But Roosevelt was not alone in rehabilitating Stalin from dictator to democratic ally. So too did such “pro-Communists” as the stalwart Republican publisher Henry Luce, who referred to Stalin in print as “Uncle Joe.” Other rock-ribbed types such as Colonel Eddie Rickenbacker and Senator Robert Taft saluted the gallant Russian army.

In West’s retelling, it is difficult to realize that the U.S. was at war with Nazi Germany, the most powerful military machine the world had yet seen. Hitler was in complete control of Western Europe and nearly conquered the Soviets. And Hitler, although he shared totalitarian features with Stalin, was a different bag of goods from the Russian. Stalin’s strategy was to outlast the West, to patiently wait for weaknesses to exploit. Hitler was in a hurry. He asserted that only he could carry out his goals, and thus his intent to take over the world had to be done in his lifetime. If he couldn’t, then he was willing to take the world down with him (he did this with his own countrymen, sacrificing them in great numbers toward the end).

Like it or not, the Soviets were shouldering the main burdens of the war against this fanatic. By the time of the D-Day invasion, they had lost 25 million people. It was simply good strategy on America’s part to help Stalin while minimizing American casualties. And the way to do this was D-Day. But there were other motivations as well. As Conrad Black has shown, FDR was alarmed that Stalin might be once again forming a “peace pact” with Hitler in 1943.

If D-Day was a plot to extend the Soviet empire, it had very diminishing returns. As historian Stephen Ambrose has pointed out, had the D-Day invasion failed, then the U.S. during the Cold War might have been facing a Soviet Western Europe.

West doesn’t consider the implications of her view that D-Day was a communist plot. She should consider the bipartisan nature of D-Day support. Not only was her traitor Roosevelt supportive, as were the American Communist party, Hiss, Currie, and White, along with such decided anticommunists as Whittaker Chambers and George Orwell. The last two were under no illusions about Stalin (Orwell detected earlier than most that Stalin’s purge trials were a frame-up). By West’s lights, these two could have been saps, tools, or — dare I say it — conscious traitors.

She also doesn’t consider that Roosevelt might not have been pro-Soviet as much as simply naïve about Stalin — a notion that even such an FDR partisan as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. has accepted. There is also the possibility that Roosevelt thought he could use his fabled charm on Stalin. Whatever the reasons, she doesn’t mention that Roosevelt was becoming wiser at the end about Stalin’s real intentions in Poland. On the day of his death, he was in the process of sending a strongly worded cable condemning Russian behavior there.

But to me, the strongest evidence that Roosevelt was not as much a commie sap as West makes him out to be was that he did not share any atomic information with the Soviets, though he did share it with Great Britain. Indeed, it was FDR’s refusal to share that prompted atomic spies like Julius Rosenberg to act.

Even more preposterous is her claim that Truman was pro-Communist. It is true that at Potsdam Truman said he liked Stalin and felt he could do business with him. But he, too, soon wised up, although there had always been an anti-Communist strain in him: Recall his response to the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, in which he advised letting them fight it out to the death and then taking on the survivor. Within a year of becoming president, horrified by Soviet moves toward Iran and Turkey, he began implementing the containment policies crafted by George Kennan that would ultimately bear fruit when the Soviet Union imploded in 1989. How Truman’s formation of NATO, a Western mutual-security alliance under which, if one Western country was attacked, all would fight for it, was a Communist plot, I don’t have the agility to understand.

Also dubious is West’s argument, shared by right-wingers at the time, that the U.S. effort in Korea was a death trap orchestrated by Communists in the government. As revealed by his diaries, Truman involved the U.S. because he rightly concluded that the Soviets were behind the North’s invasion of South Korea. His prism was 1938, when appeasement of totalitarian behavior encouraged more of it.

Perhaps she should consider how real Communist agents regarded Truman’s actions. If she’s looking for a politician who was controlled by Soviet spies, she could find no better example than Truman’s third-party challenger in the 1948 presidential election, Henry Wallace. It was he who parroted the Soviet line, with guidance from several KGB moles on his campaign staff. These moles knew who their real enemy in the U.S. was, and they castigated Truman as a fascist.

Eisenhower is also suspect, in West’s view. She points to his summits with Khrushchev as proof of some type of Communist-directed plot, along with Ike’s refusal to put troops into Vietnam. But General Douglas MacArthur, the last person anyone would suspect of being a Communist, was against putting troops in Vietnam too.

William F. Buckley Jr., certainly no friend of Roosevelt or Truman or Eisenhower, once faulted Joseph McCarthy for finding conspiracies in Cold War defeats on the American side. He said the senator ignored the fact that politicians often are not treasonous, merely stupid. Certainly follies were committed by all the presidents named above. FDR was probably naïve about Stalin, and he laughed off accusations about Hiss. Truman attempted to derail the Hiss investigation. Eisenhower refused to aid the Hungarians in their uprisings against the Soviets. John F. Kennedy betrayed the anti-Castro Cubans at the Bay of Pigs. Taking all these episodes together, and without further explanation, one could detect skullduggery at work. But by examining the whole of the record, it becomes apparent that it was hardly the stuff of Birch-like history telling.

Roosevelt probably thought he could charm Stalin, as he did American politicians. In his Harvard-trained mind, he probably thought it impossible that the Harvard graduate Hiss could belong to a group of grubby spies. Truman’s actions against HUAC’s investigations of Hiss were the result of stupid partisanship. Later, when shown the proof, Truman accepted that the “son of a bitch” Hiss was guilty; still, he kept it to himself rather than publicly admit that the “do-nothing Congress” was right. Eisenhower refused aid to the Hungarians because militarily there was little he could do. He did, however, provide covert aid, which was really the only option open to him, and toppled pro-Soviet governments in Guatemala and Iran. Kennedy based his decision not to authorize a second air strike because the assassination attempt on Castro, a needed component for the invasion’s success, had failed. The failure of the Bay of Pigs accelerated more assassination attempts on Castro’s life.

Conspiracy, meant to unsettle, is often comforting as well. With it we are spared the feeling of living in an atmosphere that is often chaotic and beyond our control. West avoids such grown-up views, and is in effect the mirror image of Oliver Stone. Whereas Stone cannot accept that a hillbilly Marxist like Lee Harvey Oswald could kill the most powerful man on earth, West cannot accept that politicians are stupid — a conservative notion if there ever was one.

— Ron Capshaw is a writer in Midlothian, Va.

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