Cracks in the grand alliance

War and Diplomacy
November 22, 1996

Documentary collections, least of all diplomatic documents, seldom make for lively reading and are rarely designed to stir the blood, though in this instance the cachet "from Stalin's archives" cannot fail to command particular attention. Oleg Rzheshevsky has drawn on Stalin's personal files deposited in the archives of the president of the Russian Federation, together with Molotov's official diary, supplemented by material from Feliks Chuev's Sto sorok besed s Molotovym, that protracted tete-a-tete with Molotov substituting for formal memoirs. The substance of War and Diplomacy consists of 130 documents, more than half of them (68 to be precise) drawn from cypher telegram traffic, which we are invited to regard as the full complement of Stalin's personal files dealing with the formative stages of the "grand alliance". The volume is divided into four parts; the first two cover the Sisyphean labours to conclude a treaty between the USSR and Great Britain, the third deals with Molotov's visit to Washington and what is called "the Roosevelt riddle" and the fourth part is devoted to "Churchill's camouflage", the ambiguities and qualifications relating to the second front.

While the claim that the documents contain "many revelations" is open to question, they undoubtedly illuminate what is often implied by "full and frank discussions". At the very least this collection augments the discreet, even anodyne documentation assembled in volume one of an earlier Soviet documentary publication on Anglo-Soviet wartime relations, Sovetsko-angliiskie otnosheniya vo vremya Velikoi Otechestvennoi voiny 1941-45 (Moscow, Politizdat 1983). The record from Stalin's files of Anthony Eden's visit to Moscow in December 1941 to discuss and sign a treaty of co-operation and mutual assistance does not differ in essentials from what Eden himself recorded. He found the Soviet attitude "deplorable" and Stalin's ideas about frontiers "starkly definite", which was, in fact, what they eventually proved to be. In his foreword, Alan Bullock argues that on this occasion Stalin "overplayed his hand", that he was in no position to take a "long-term view". Nevertheless if Stalin overrated his position strategically, as he was wont to do throughout the entire war, arguably he scored tactically in inclining Eden towards recognition of the 1941 frontiers. The result was to leave Eden straddled uncomfortably between that proposition and support for the principles of the Atlantic Charter.

Rzheshevsky shifts the scene in part two to Molotov in London in May 1942 and the response to a new British draft treaty, introduced to break a protracted deadlock. Predictably it was not at all to Molotov's liking, bereft as it was of detail on frontiers and the postwar territorial settlement, hence "unacceptable ... an empty declaration which the USSR does not need". Molotov quite literally had his lines crossed. His reservations expressed by telegram to Stalin on May 25 had already been overtaken by Stalin's own telegram sent a day earlier (Document 38). In a dramatic reversal of his previous position Stalin ordered immediate acceptance of Eden's draft treaty, proclaiming it "an important document". Security of frontiers was absent but "this is not bad perhaps, for it gives us a free hand. The questions of frontiers, or to be more exact, of guarantees for the security of our frontiers ... will be decided by force." Molotov was instructed to sign forthwith and depart for America.

The situation on the Soviet-German front was deteriorating. Stalin's objective was the opening of a second front, even at the cost of a diminution of war supplies. Half a treaty was better than none if it promised one step nearer a second front. According to Rzheshevsky's notes, even the redoubtable Molotov could not uncover the source of his "miscalculation" over the treaty. Though purporting to illuminate "the mechanism of decision-making within the Soviet government", particularly by publishing the Stalin-Molotov cypher telegrams, in 1942, as on so many other occasions, Stalin decided tout court, redirecting his priorities to "the urgent task of creating a second front in Europe in 1942".

The section on Molotov's visit to Washington does require a fuller explanation involving earlier Anglo-American exchanges over the terms of a possible Anglo-Soviet treaty, Roosevelt's views on "Soviet frontiers" and Anglo-American discussions over a second front in 1942. The prime minister had already advised President Roosevelt on May 28 of "the difficulties of 1942" before Molotov began his talks. It is difficult to discern what is meant here by the "Roosevelt Riddle". According to Document 77, when asked by Molotov about the second front, Roosevelt gave an unambiguous answer, that the "US Government was striving and hoping to create a second front in 1942" but equally "he (Roosevelt) alone could not decide the opening of the second front. It was necessary to consult with Britain ...".

"Instance" (code for Stalin) was gravely dissatisfied with the "terseness and reticence" of Molotov's reports. He now demanded two communiques, British and American, on the talks, dealing specifically with the opening of a second front and affirming that "a full understanding has been reached in this matter". However, "the work left unfinished", a second front in 1942, of which Stalin reminded the prime minister in his signal of May 28, remained unfinished. "Full understanding" on opening the second front in 1942 fell victim to what Rzheshevsky chooses to call "Churchill's camouflage", the recital of British "reasonable reservations". Returning to Moscow Molotov personally carried the official British intimation that "only a partial operation is possible in 1942". The denouement came swiftly, all camouflage thrust aside, when the Churchill faced Stalin in Moscow in August 1942.

Save for closer glimpses of a cloistered Stalin and an embattled Molotov, the insights provided by this volume are not entirely "unprecedented". What emerges and has long been acknowledged is that the very reshaping of the "grand alliance" provided many of the grounds on which it first faltered and finally failed: a temporary compromise over frontiers, a smothered Polish question, failure to launch the second front in 1942 (or 1943), divergences of strategies and interests. As Martin Kitchen put it with respect to the Anglo-Soviet treaty, the "fund of goodwill was soon exhausted". These documents, for all the singularity of their provenance, add no lustre to the "grand alliance". They merely confirm that initiating wartime collaboration was a more turbid affair than any retrospect of sentimentality might try to suggest.

John Erickson is director, Centre for Defence Studies, University of Edinburgh.

War and Diplomacy: The Making of the Grand Alliance

Author - Oleg A. Rzheshevsky
ISBN - 3 7186 5790 2
Publisher - Harwood Academic
Price - £37.00
Pages - 325

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