The Strange Alliance

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

The war-time alliance between the Soviet Union, Great Britain and the United States, dubbed “Grand” by Winston Churchill, was beginning to wear thin by 1943. To be sure, the western allies remained committed to assisting the Soviet Union in its resistance to the Nazi onslaught. In October 1941, even before the United States entered the war, the US Congress had approved the Lend-Lease bill that provided the Soviet Union with one billion dollars worth of supplies to be repaid, without interest, over a ten-year period after the war. Soon thereafter, American and British convoys of merchant ships began delivering Studebaker trucks, foodstuffs and other supplies to the White Sea port of Murmansk. But for Stalin, this was inadequate. Again and again, he emphasized that the most effective way of assisting the Soviet war effort was for the western allies to open a “second front,” an invasion of Nazi-occupied France. He also sought, but did not receive, allied recognition of the territorial gains made by the Soviet Union in 1939.

Instead of a land invasion in France, the western allies opted in 1942 for the North African campaign as part of a Mediterranean strategy that would take them up the spine of Italy. This was bad enough from the Soviet standpoint, but more disappointment was to come. In May 1942, Roosevelt informed the Soviet foreign minister, Molotov, that Lend-Lease shipments would have to be reduced from 4.1 to 2.5 million tons in the coming year. As the Red Army advanced westwards in the course of 1943, western concerns about Soviet intentions with respect to the post-war configuration of Europe came to the fore. Both Washington and London interpreted the dissolution of the Comintern in May as a good-will gesture on the part of Stalin, but the Soviet decision to break off relations with the London-based Polish government-in-exile suggested that the USSR already had designs on its neighbor to the west.

Still, at least on the level of popular culture, the Soviet Union had never enjoyed such a positive image. Mission to Moscow, a film commissioned by the White House and starring Walter Huston and Cyd Charisse, typified Hollywood’s efforts to portray “Uncle Joe” and the good-natured Russians as worthy allies. So did huge rallies organized by the Soviet-American Friendship Society in New York and other cities. Leonid Utesov’s big band performances of “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” and “Bombadiers” (an adaptation of the American hit, “Comin’ in on a Wing and a Prayer”) represented the Soviet equivalent of these efforts to inculcate friendship among the war-time allies.

By autumn of 1943, the allies appeared to have overcome at least some of their mutual suspicions. In October, the three foreign ministers (Cordell Hull, Anthony Eden, and Molotov) met in Moscow where they agreed to pursue Germany’s “unconditional surrender” and thereafter to cooperate in the creation of a new international organization, the United Nations. At this meeting, the Soviets were informed that the cross-channel invasion, that is, the opening of the second front, would begin in May 1944. In late November and early December, the Big Three (Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill) met for the first time at Teheran. Here, they agreed on the outlines of a postwar Europe which included a jointly occupied Germany, the Soviet Union’s control of the Baltic states and altered boundaries for Poland. Other issues, including respective “spheres of influence” in the rest of eastern and central Europe, the date of the Soviet Union’s entry into the war in the Pacific, and the sharing of information about the US atomic bomb project, were still in the future. Although the Grand Alliance survived the stresses and strains associated with these and other military and political questions, the Cold War that was to replace it not long after victory in Europe and Asia already was in the offing in 1943.

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