The US Republican party presidential contender, Donald Trump, has promised to initiate a conversation with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, to establish a new cooperative relationship between the United States of America and Russia. This brings to mind Susan Butler's recent book - trawled with due diligence in American and Russian archives - entitled Roosevelt and Stalin: Portrait of a Partnership.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt or FDR, president of the US from 1933 to 1945, stands tall as consummate politician and global visionary. His iconic New Deal put the US on the road to recovery after the calamitous effects of the Great Depression. He was elected four times to the White House, a feat unequalled in American annals. Born into wealth and privilege, educated at Groton School followed by Harvard, well travelled in Europe in his younger days before being stricken with polio and confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life, fluent in French and German, and blooded early in politics and government, FDR brought to the table a charismatic charm, well-honed social skills, an intuitive understanding of power and of how best to harness it to his goals. His relationship with Joseph Stalin, cobbler's son and Bolshevik revolutionary, was built on a platform of resolution tempered by conciliation. Of the four freedoms FDR enunciated to the world, the fourth, surely, was the glittering sequin, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."
Within a year of assuming office, Roosevelt recognized the Soviet Union, perceived as a pariah state for 17 years by previous administrations. A realist to the core, he saw the Soviet Union and its crash-course industrialization as a potential market for American goods and services. For Stalin, the Soviet leader, the US was potentially an indispensable source of capital and engineering skills - necessary catalysts in the transformation of a backward agrarian society into a modern industrial state with military muscle to match.
Reading the runes of Hitler's rise, FDR put in place a discreet rearmament programme, enabling him to devise and deploy ingeniously Lend-Lease military supplies to Britain when war broke out in September, 1939, without infringing the letter of American neutrality legislation so dear to the country's backwoodsmen isolationists. This proved critical to Britain's survival as it stood alone in June, 1940, after the Wehrmacht had rolled westward, forced the putative Maginot Line, before blitzing Belgium, Holland and France into submission.
On June 22, 1941, the Nazi juggernaut marched east, advancing rapidly towards Moscow. The Red Army was dismissed by the good and great of Britain and the US, with collapse predicted within a matter of weeks. Roosevelt dispatched his closest confidante, Harry Hopkins, to the Soviet capital to meet Stalin and assess the situation directly. It was a notable meeting stretching over hours - the full text of the encounter is related graphically, in the envoy's words, in Robert Sherwood's Roosevelt and Hopkins: An Intimate History, from which Butler quotes a telling paragraph. Hopkins's rebuttal of the jeremiad convinced Roosevelt of the durability of the Soviet regime. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, such hurdles destroyed themselves with the Grand Alliance of the US, United Kingdom and the Soviet Union.
Having perused the list of Stalin's military requirements, FDR extended the Lend-Lease to the USSR, overriding the opposition of his anti-Communist bureaucracy. A superb communicator, FDR carried the American public with him in his weekly fireside chats on radio. He told the Canadian prime minister, Mackenzie King, an old and trusted friend from their Harvard days, that Russia would be a very powerful country after the war, hence he was determined to build ties of trust with Stalin; and, however difficult, the obstacles would be surmounted.
The Soviet dictator being as great a realist as himself, FDR offered the tactful advice that a proclamation of religious freedom in the Soviet Union would ameliorate the widespread American hostility to an atheistic regime, paving the way for deeper co-operation between the countries. FDR's appeal, the pressure applied gently in acutely troubled times, did the trick. The desired proclamation duly followed; churches of every denomination, synagogues and mosques filled with worshippers, were incorporated patriotically into Mother Russia's seamless narrative of resistance to the hateful Nazi German invader.
To his other great ally, Winston Churchill, Roosevelt indicated that the days of European empires in the Orient were numbered, that the new order that the US wished to construct had no place for such anachronisms. He also gave Churchill to understand that the Grand Alliance was not an exclusive Anglo-Saxon club to which the Soviet Union had gained admittance as an associate member. Churchill's suggestion to FDR that they meet for a private lunch before the plenary session of the Tehran conference of the Big Three was politely declined in favour of his first one-to-one encounter with Stalin.
On the contentious issue of the Second Front, Churchill advocated an alternative Mediterranean strategy, which Roosevelt and his military advisers suspected was a ploy in defence of Britain's Indian Empire. It was thus rejected for the Allied landings in northern France en route to an assault on the German heartland. The undertaking conveyed to Stalin at Tehran was received with satisfaction. Operation Overlord under General Eisenhower as Supreme Allied Commander commenced on June 6, 1944. It was complemented by the Soviet Union's Operation Bagration - the devastating land offensive launched on June 23, which demolished Hitler's prized Panzer formations, prizing open the route to Berlin and the G?tterd?mmerung of the Third Reich.
Having witnessed the collapse of the League of Nations, Roosevelt was determined that the United Nations Organization, which he had conceived with Soviet co-operation and Congressional support at home, would be the cornerstone of his envisioned world-order; on a parallel track, conferences at Bretton Woods and Dumbarton Oaks, in which the USSR played a pivotal role, led to the creation of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
The Big Three met for the last time at Yalta in the Crimea in February 1945, by which time Germany's defeat was a foregone conclusion. The US appeal for Soviet intervention against Japan met with a positive response. South Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands, lost to Japan in the war of 1904-05, would be restored to Russia, with Outer Mongolia released from its enforced de jure status of a Chinese province into becoming a fully sovereign state.
Roosevelt, recognizing Soviet losses, responded sympathetically to Stalin's demand for German reparations and to his request for American loans for post-war Soviet reconstruction. The president of the US Chamber of Commerce Eric Johnston, and the US treasury secretary, Henry Morgenthau, believed this to be in the national interests of the US and Russia. Issues concerning the borders of Eastern Europe and its future regimes, especially those of Poland, were more difficult to resolve in an ideologically divided continent.
The spirit of the Yalta Summit, with its close bonding of the Big Three, found apt expression in the dinner hosted by Stalin for his British and American guests, including family and senior delegates. The US ambassador, W. Averell Harriman, said that he'd never seen Stalin so buoyant. Harriman's daughter, Kathleen, thought so too: "He enjoyed himself, was a splendid host and his speeches meant something more than the usual
banalities... he just sat back and smiled like a benign old man, something I'd never thought possible."
Stalin toasted Churchill for his exceptional leadership when Britain had stood alone against Nazi Germany; he complimented Roosevelt for cementing the Grand Alliance. But, with second sight, Stalin warned, "History has recorded many meetings of statesmen following a war. When the guns fall silent, the war seems to have made these leaders wise... But then after a little while, despite their mutual assurances, another war breaks out. Why is this? It is because some of them change their attitudes... We must try to see that doesn't happen to us in future." Roosevelt replied, "I agree with you entirely. The nations can only be grateful to you for your words. Nations only want peace" - the dream withered on the vine. Stalin's trust in Roosevelt's good faith was wantonly squandered by the vice president, Harry Truman. Catapulted into the White House by FDR's sudden death on April 12, three weeks prior to Germany's capitulation, the late president's Soviet policies were reversed: lend lease abruptly suspended, reparations aborted, loans denied, suggested nuclear co-operation with Russia by US scientists withheld. Foolhardily, Truman brandished the atomic bomb, with Churchill's enthusiastic endorsement, before Stalin - a miscalculation that pitch-forked humankind into the abyss of nuclear annihilation.
Anthony Eden, Britain's wartime foreign secretary, was to reflect, "Had Roosevelt lived and retained his health he would never have permitted the present situation to develop. His death, therefore, was a calamity of immeasurable proportions." Stalin, in abiding respect for FDR, would pronounce later, "Roosevelt was a great statesman, a clever, educated, far-sighted and liberal leader who prolonged the life of capitalism."
Premen Addy is the author of ' Tibet on the Imperial Chessboard: The Making of British Policy towards Lhasa, 1899-1925'