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New International, February 1949


Duncan Farley

Books in Review

Through Hopkins’ Eyes


From The New International, Vol. XV No. 2, February 1949, pp. 63–64.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Roosevelt and Hopkins: An Intimate History
by Robert E. Sherwood
Harper & Brothers, Neva York, 1948, 979 pp.

Sherwood’s intimate history of Roosevelt and Hopkins is an interesting and valuable book, one well worth reading. It is really three books in onea biography of Hopkins, the story of the unusual friendship and working relationship between Roosevelt and Hopkins, and an inside story of the war as seen from the White House. It unquestionably will be a widely used source book for future historians.

If there were any doubt that Hopkins played the role of assistant president and secretary of state during the war, Sherwood’s documentation should dispel it. On May 10, 1940 the frail social worker, who had bossed WPA and who was undergoing a treatment of “respectability” as secretary of commerce, was invited to the White House for dinner and stayed for three and a half years. During that time he served as Roosevelt’s alter ego, whipping the Democratic national convention of 1940 into line, establishing lend-lease, visiting Churchill and Stalin, and trouble-shooting on every front of the war.

Anyone who wanted to get to Roosevelt cultivated Hopkins. The great and near-great parade through these pages like page boys in the Waldorf-Astoria. As the author puts it, Hopkins was “the supreme office boy of them all”an office boy having been previously defined by Hopkins as the “real Big Shot” who could put the caller through to the one man who could help.

Four aspects of the book are especially worth noticing in this review.

(1) Pearl Harbor:

Such was Roosevelt’s fear of the strength of the isolationists that he was waiting to be “pushed” into the war. There is no doubt that Roosevelt considered war against Hitler inevitable, but he was obviously chafing at the bit because of his inability to get the country into direct military action. Pearl Harbor was clearly a godsend. As Hopkins put it in notes on December 7, 1941:

“... all of us believed that in the last analysis the enemy was Hitler and that he could never be defeated without force of arms; that sooner or later we were bound to be in the war and that Japan had given us an opportunity.”

(2) Stalingrad:

Churchill compared the victories at Stalingrad and in Tunisia to Gettysburg.

Those who like to speculate on the might-have-beens of history may learn with surprise that prior to Stalingrad, Stalin had not only agreed to permit an American army on the Russian front but was particularly anxious to have an Anglo-American air forces stationed in the Caucasus. On October 7, 1942 Stalin sent a rather desperate cable to Roosevelt, detailing the superiority of the Nazis and requesting aid. Roosevelt replied, according to Sherwood, “that arrangements for the Allied air force in the Caucasus were being expedited.”

On October 24, Sherwood continues:

“Churchill cabled Roosevelt that he was baffled and perplexed by the correspondence from Moscow or, rather, the almost total lack of it. Two weeks previously he and the president had sent long, parallel messages to Stalin detailing the proposals for supplies and for the air force in the Caucasus. The only reply that Churchill had received consisted of two words, ‘Thank you.’”

Roosevelt answered Churchill:

“Having come to the conclusion that the Russians do not use speech for the same purposes that we do, I am not unduly disturbed about the responses or lack of them that we have received from Moscow.”

As Sherwood puts it:

“The mysterious silence out of Moscow at that time ... was the direct result of the historic circumstance of improvement in the situation at Stalingrad. The need for immediate help became less desperate day by day and the Russians never did agree to the project for a British-American air force in the Caucasus.”

(3) Roosevelt’s Super-Ambassador:

At virtually every critical juncture in the war, Hopkins (usually from a sick bed) flew to London or Moscow to bring about the “meeting of the minds” that was so dear to the heart of Roosevelt. On these occasions he was much more than Roosevelt’s amanuensis. He was Roosevelt’s super-ambassador and was treated as such by Churchill and Stalin.

The most interesting of these trips occurred in July 1941 during Hopkins’ second visit to London. While preparing the Atlantic Conference with Churchill, Hopkins conceived the idea of a quick trip to Moscow to obtain from Stalin the answer to the question how long the Russians could hold out. There is no evidence that Roosevelt or Churchill suggested this hazardous mission via Archangel.

Hopkins’ own cable to Roosevelt states:

“I am wondering whether you would think it important and useful for me to go to Moscow. Air transportation good and can reach there in twenty-four hours. I have a feeling that everything possible should be done to make certain the Russians maintain a permanent front even though they may be defeated in this immediate battle. If Stalin should in any way be influenced at a critical time I think it would be worth doing by a direct communication from you through a personal envoy. I think the stakes are so great that it should be done. Stalin would then know in an unmistakable way that we mean business on a long-term supply job.”

Roosevelt welcomed the suggestion and Hopkins spent virtually two full days in conference with Stalin, obtaining a first-hand picture of the actual military situation and Russian supply needs, as well as some insight into the workings of dictatorship. In proposing a conference among Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin, Hopkins’ report to Roosevelt emphasizes the fact that:

“There is literally no one in the whole government who is willing to give any important information other than Mr. Stalin himself. Therefore, it is essential that such a conference be held with Mr. Stalin personally.”

Sherwood summarizes the importance of this first Stalin-Hopkins conference as follows:

“In two days he had gained far more information about Russia’s strength and prospects than had ever been vouchsafed to any outsider. Stalin had certainly taken Roosevelt’s request to heart and had reposed complete confidence in Hopkins, and Hopkins for his part left the Kremlin with the profound conviction that Stalin was not talking through his or anyone else’s hat. This was indeed the turning point in the wartime relations of Britain and the United States with the Soviet Union. No longer would all Anglo-American calculations be based on the probability of early Russian collapse after this, the whole approach to the problem was changed.”

(4) Naiveté in Power:

If any impression stands out concerning the Wartime relations between Russia and the Allies, it is one of colossal naiveté on the part of the English-speaking world. To be sure, Churchill possessed a much better understanding of the Stalinist animal than did Roosevelt. Perhaps that was a tribute to British intelligence: It is clear, at any rate, that Churchill’s opposition to the second front was based not so much on military consideration, but on his desire to get into the Balkans ahead of Stalin.

Hopkins’ own evaluation of Yalta clearly expresses Roosevelt’s point of view and the thinking of the American government.

“We really believed in our hearts that this was the dawn of the new day we had all been praying for and talking about for so many years. We were absolutely certain that we had won the first great victory of the peaceand by ‘we’ I mean all of us, the whole civilized human race. The Russians had proved that they could be reasonable and far-seeing and there wasn’t any doubt in the minds of the President or any of us that we could live with them and get along with them peacefully for as far into the future as any of us could imagine. But I have to make one amendment to thatI think we all had in our minds the reservation that we could not foretell what the results would be if anything should happen to Stalin. We felt sure that we could count on him to be reasonable and sensible and understandingbut we never could be sure who or what might be in back of him there in the Kremlin.”

This type of thinking may or may not be the source of the current talk about the split in the Politbureau, but it certainly made it easy for Stalinist imperialism to score impressive gains in the immediate post-war period. All that was necessary was to promise that certain meaningless guarantees about democracy and free elections would be adhered to.

Among the more dramatic of Hopkins’ exploits was his last trip to Moscow, undertaken in May 1945 at the request of President Truman when the United Nations’ conference in San Francisco had bogged down. While many subjects were discussed during the six meetings Hopkins held with Stalin, the crucial question was the Polish one. Hopkins’ cables and notes are extremely revealing, especially those of a private conversation with only an interpreter present. After summarizing the American position about the formation of a new provisional government of Poland and the release of fourteen Poles arrested by the Russians, Hopkins noted:

“I made it clear again to Stalin that Poland was only a symbol, that the United States had equal interests in all countries in this part of the world and that if we were going to act or maintain our interests on a tripartite basis, it was hopeless to do so without a strong American public opinion ...

“Stalin then said that he was unwilling to order those Poles released who were charged only with use of illegal radio sets. He stated that he had information in regard to these prisoners which was not available to us and inferred that all of them were engaged in what he called diversionist activities. He stated that he believed that Churchill had misled the United States in regard to the facts and had made the American Government believe that the statement of the Polish London Government was accurate. Just the opposite was the case.

“Marshal Stalin stated that he did not intend to have the British manage the affairs of Poland and that is exactly what they want to do. Nevertheless, he stated that he believed me when I told him it was having an unfavorable effect on public opinion in America and he assumed the same was true in Great Britain, and therefore he was inclined to do everything he could to make it easy for Churchill to get out of a bad situation because if and when all the evidence is published it would look very bad for the British and he does not want to make the situation worse than it is ... He said that we must take into consideration Russian opinion as well as American opinion; that it was the Russian forces that had liberated Poland and said that if they had not gained the victory in Poland, with such a great loss of Russian life, nobody would be talking about a new Poland.”

Thus, in the course of saving the San Francisco conference, which involved getting Stalin to live up to the voting formula he had agreed to at Yalta, Poland was delivered to Stalin’s tender mercies through the formula expressed by Hopkins:

“That we would accept any government in Poland which was desired by the Polish people and was at the same time friendly to the Soviet Government.”

It is interesting to note that this was the first time during the entire war that Hopkins reported through official State Department channels. With Roosevelt, this was not only unnecessary but was considered dangerous in view of the fact that both the military and the White House felt the State Department to be unreliable, as it was known their code had been broken. In the light of the Hiss-Chambers case, the by-passing of the State Department assumes added significance.

Whether Churchill’s memoirs of this period will throw additional light on the material presented by Sherwood remains to be seen. One thing is certain, however: already during the war it was clear that only two great powers remained on this globe – the U.S. and Russia. It is equally clear that the leaders of these two powers have had, and will continue to have, a far greater influence on the course of history than has ever been true since the rise of capitalism to power. It may not be very comforting to realize that the fate of hundreds of millions of people depends on Stalin and Truman, but that assuredly is the state of the world so long as the masses of humanity develop no true spokesman for their real interests.

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