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Negotiations between Joseph Stalin and Franklin Roosevelt

Negotiations between Joseph Stalin and Franklin Roosevelt during World War II

The years of 1939 – 1945 are kept in the consciousness of humanity as the time when the Nazi threat has gone away and the victorious nations of the anti-Hitler coalition for the first time have found hope for real peace and global security. The defeat of the fascist militarist power was the most important but not the only result of those years. The war brought about the sunset and isolation of the Soviet Union and, at the same time, ensured the transformation of the United States into one of the dominant centers of power. The nuclear weapons testing in 1945 finally drew a line under the process of the constitution of a new world order configuration, and actually made a revolution in military strategy, as well as in the methods of international communication (Gray 224).

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The U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the premier Joseph Stalin are certainly among the figures, whose contribution to the history of the world in those years was the greatest. The political will, intellect, insight, outstanding organizational skills, sense of time, and understanding of their role in the history making made them the unconditional leaders of Western and Eastern civilizations in the critical years of their development. They stood at the head of the anti-Hitler coalition together with Winston Churchill, and won the World War II.

Several generations of historians studied their negotiations, paying attention to the smallest nuances of their personal relationships, analyzing the origins of the joint initiatives and the nature of their differences. However, this large and complex topic is far from being exhausted. The correspondence between Stalin and Roosevelt shows that their negotiations experienced a serious transformation during the World War II.

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Preconditions for the Establishment of the American-Russian Dialogue

In the second half of the 1930s, there was a sharp increase in the attention of Americans to the area of international relations and the nature of the U.S. administration’s foreign policy (Casey 19). The development of the September crisis of 1938 and the Munich agreement were the subject of a heated discussion on the pages of American newspapers and magazines, as well as in the political and historical literature (Casey 23). Public opinion, as well as the position of professional politicians, was divided into two parties, namely the isolationists and the interventionists. The isolationists kept the traditional U.S. line, insisting on the non-interference in European internal affairs. The interventionists argued for the need to support the anti-fascist struggle of European democracies. It should be noted that the isolationists and their opponents represented a very heterogeneous socio-political groups (Casey 25-26).

At the end of 1938, social parameters of both groups in the U.S. Congress became more clearly visible after the inter-sessional elections and aggravation of the situation (Casey 41). The representatives of the monopolies related with Germany through economic interests, as well as the leaders of the pro-fascist and racist organizations dominated the isolationists. Most isolationists were members of the Republican Party (Casey 78). They used an open anti-Sovietism in their party political purposes to deal with the foreign policy administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


At the hearings in Congress in 1939, the isolationists raised the issue of violation of the Roosevelt-Litvinov agreement by the representatives of the presidential administration, blaming Roosevelt in sympathizing the Soviets (Nolan 51-52). Along the way, the question was raised about the debts of the USSR to American citizens. In general, the campaign was openly provocative and defamatory (Nolan 54).

The interventionists in Congress were members of the Democratic Party supporting Roosevelt, who had an extremely cautious approach oriented towards the support of the European democracies. The interventionists have recognized the need for separate agreements with the Soviet Union in light of the development of the fascist aggression. After the outbreak of the World War II, the communist’s threat seemed to them ephemeral in comparison to the fascism spread (Kern 104). Eventually, the logic of anti-fascist struggle and the growth of sympathy towards the Soviet Union as the victim of the Nazis aggression led to the development of allied relations with the USSR (Kern 109).

Roosevelt and his entourage were worried mostly about the internal problems if one analyzes the content of his appeals to the people. Since September 1939, Roosevelt’s speeches included such exclusively internal topics:

  1. National defense (“On National Defense,” May 26, 1940);
  2. Assistance to the Great Britain (“On the Arsenal of Democracy,” December 29, 1940);
  3. The tragedy of Pearl Harbor (“On the War with Japan,” December 9, 1941);
  4. Prevention of defeatist moods in the country and the issue of the Lend-Lease (“On the Progress of the War,” February 23, 1942);
  5. Mobilization of the national economy (“On Sacrifice,” April 28, 1942; “On the Home Front,” October 12, 1942; “On the Coal Crisis,” May 2, 1943; and “On the Armistice in Italy,” September 8, 1943) (Roosevelt, The Fireside Chats).

An analysis of the military situation prevailing in Russia came into sight in the Roosevelt addresses to the nation and his correspondence with Churchill. After Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, Roosevelt started closely following the situation in the Soviet Russia. He was concerned about the retreat of the Red Army. The White House even discussed a potential Roosevelt’s speech on the Russian question in Congress. Subsequently, the U.S. President reversed his decision because of the military experts’ reports about the hopelessness of the Red Army situation (Kern 127). Suffice it to recall the memorandum of Henry L. Stimson, the Secretary of War, who predicted the defeat of the Red Army by the Nazis during the first three months after the outbreak of the war (Sareshwala and Costello 10).

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However, as history shows, the common sense prevailed at the most crucial moment. Roosevelt changed his mind and decided to listen to not Stimson, but the arguments of Joseph E. Davies, the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union. Davies was the one who prepared a memorandum about the prospects of military, economic and political cooperation between the USSR and the United States during the war. Davies insisted that the United States should negotiate with the Soviets with regards to their cooperation despite the fact that the Soviet Union suffered heavy losses on all fronts (Kern 133-134). Also, he assured Roosevelt that Soviet Russia is well positioned to confront the onslaught of Nazi Germany to the East and is able to change the situation.

Roosevelt and his adviser Harry Hopkins accepted the strong arguments of Davis’ memorandum. Moreover, Hopkins visited the Soviet Union in spite of his pure health and met with Stalin early in the war, at the end of July 1941 (Kershaw). During this visit, Adviser to the President became aware of the high morale and military valor of the Soviet Army. Upon his return to Washington, Hopkins assured his boss that the strength of the Soviet Army was significantly undervalued by the military intelligence of most countries (Kershaw). He pointed that the United States should take into account this fact and position itself closer to a powerful ally, namely the Soviet Union (Kershaw). As a result, the problem of the military cooperation between the U.S. and the Soviets was resolved positively under the influence of those objective facts.

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In the beginning of World War II, the course of the relationship between the American President and the USSR as well as its leadership was developing in the most positive way at that time. This fact was promoted by the special sympathy that took place between Stalin and Roosevelt and understanding of the strategic interests of each other (Kershaw). For example, in late October 1941, when it was clear that Hitler’s blitzkrieg failed, Roosevelt informed Stalin about the decision of the American side to provide an interest-free loan to the Soviet Union to the amount of one billion dollars (Butler and Schlesinger 49). On this occasion, the U.S. president openly declared that he considered the assistance to the Soviet Union his main task. Stalin thanked the U.S. president for his proposal in his reply message. Since then, Roosevelt began to show attention and respect to the Soviet people in his appeals to the nation.

The Negotiations between Stalin and Roosevelt

The negotiations between Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill – or the Big Three – was unique in many aspects. Perhaps, there is no analog in the history of diplomacy that can be compared to it in significance, size, or the historical role of the correspondents themselves. Correspondence became their main communication channel, facilitating a direct personal contact in the crucial times for the fate of the world. In the course of it, the leaders not only kept each other informed but also coordinated their positions and defended the interests of their countries (Kershaw).

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The peculiarities of such a “triangle” was stemming from the fact that it was not an isosceles one because Roosevelt and Churchill were in a much closer relationship with each other than with Stalin. Their two-way correspondence with each other was more than two times of a greater amplitude than their respective correspondence with the Soviet leader, not to mention the British and American solidarity in most issues of the allied diplomacy (Kershaw). The level of awareness inside the Big Three about the actions of partners was also unequal. While Roosevelt and Churchill constantly kept each other informed of their correspondence with the Kremlin, then Stalin could only guess or rely in this regard on the work of the intelligence department about the content of the communication between them. This asymmetry put him at a disadvantage as compared to his partners.

The Soviet side took the first place by the degree of closeness and inside personalization of correspondence. The content of messages was entirely determined by the tandem of Stalin and Molotov. Stalin rarely brought the issues of the negotiations to the attention of certain senior members of the Politburo (Fitzpatrick 172). American procedure was very similar to the Soviet one with the only difference that far more people participated in drafting of the letters. The military and personal aides to the president, primarily Harry Hopkins, dominated them. The messages were usually transmitted through the embassies in the original language and using special cipher telegrams.

Stalin treated Roosevelt with great esteem. Many objective and subjective factors determined this attitude. They include superior military and economic power of the United States at the time; a positive image of America in comparison to the old enemy of tsarist and Soviet Russia – Britain; lower conflict potential of the Soviet-American relations in compared to the British-Soviet ones (Kershaw). In addition, Roosevelt’s personal reputation was very high since he helped the Soviet Union in providing the Lend-Lease and was the initiator of the diplomatic recognition of the USSR. Stalin was much more cautious and polite in conversations with Roosevelt than with Churchill. He agreed with him more often than with Churchill, and all the objections were restrained (Sareshwala and Costello 27). Stalin never allowed himself to express rude jokes or caustic remarks that befell the British Prime Minister. Probably, there is no coincidence that the nicknames for both leaders in the reports of Soviet intelligence were so different: President Roosevelt was nicknamed The Capitan, and the nickname of Churchill was The Wild Roar (Kern 80).

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Of course, Stalin did not completely trust Roosevelt because he clearly saw the double play of the U.S. President, especially with the development of atomic weapons and delay of the second front opening. Nevertheless, the American president was his main and most convenient partner, which could be used as a counterweight to Churchill by playing on British and American disagreements. It is better to get a closer look at the most important issues raised in the correspondence of Roosevelt and Stalin.

One of the most significant struggles was the question of opening the second front. Although Roosevelt and Churchill carried out the double play in the matter of the second front jointly, the U.K. Prime Minister was its main inspirer (Sareshwala and Costello 51). The American president, on his behalf, tried to soften the painful reaction of Moscow in this game through a more active involvement of the Soviet military command to the British and American strategic planning, as well as the invitation to hold a trilateral conference. On December 2, 1942, Roosevelt offered Stalin to make such a conference in the near future for the first time (Butler and Schlesinger 101). The Soviet leader was in no hurry with the agreement, seeking to come to the conference with new military victories that can predetermine its success and even the venue. This Stalin’s intractability annoyed Roosevelt very much, as Churchill confidentially told to Maisky, the Soviet Ambassador to the United Kingdom:

Roosevelt asked me what was the genuine reason for Stalin not attending the conference. I responded to Roosevelt’s question as follows: Stalin is a realist. You can’t catch him with words. Had Stalin come to Casablanca, the first thing he would have asked you and me would have been: “How many German did you kill in 1942? And how many do you intend to kill in 1943?” And what would the two of us have been able to say? We ourselves are not sure what we are going to do in 1943. This was clear to Stalin from the very beginning (Gorodetsky 482-483).


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Indeed, there was nothing to be replied to such questions, especially since the opening of the promised second front was delayed yet another time.

A much more severe crisis in the allied relations erupted in June 1943 when Roosevelt informed Stalin about another postponement of the second front. This time it was made in a Roosevelt’s letter dated June 4, to which Stalin replied harshly, but with restraint, emphasizing that “this decision creates exceptional difficulties for the Soviet Union” (Butler and Schlesinger 139). The tone of the letter said that Stalin was very disappointed and his trust in allies was quite disturbed.

Stalin had a conversation on the issue of the conference with special attention. His dislike for long journeys and the obsession with the prestige of the Soviet Union led to the persistent refusal to meet with Roosevelt away from the Soviet territory. In late August, Stalin agreed to hold a meeting of the Big Three foreign ministers as the run-up to the conference of the leaders. In his letter to Roosevelt on August 8, 1943, Stalin proposed to arrange such a meeting “either in Astrakhan or in Archangelsk” (Butler and Schlesinger 151). In turn, Roosevelt suggested organizing a conference in Casablanca or Tunis. On September 8, 1943, Stalin wrote a key phrase in his reply to Roosevelt on this subject, “…and I propose as the place of the meeting — Moscow” (Butler and Schlesinger 162). Despite Roosevelt’s subsequent attempts to change a meeting place, Stalin was insisting on his own vision. Thus was born the Moscow Conference of foreign ministers of the three allied powers; it became the prolog of The Tehran Conference of the Big Three.

The Tehran conference, which finally resolved the issue of the second front, caused an obvious warming of relations between the leaders of the Big Three. Stalin even wrote “Greetings” at the end of his first message after Tehran to Roosevelt and Churchill on December 10 (Butler and Schlesinger 194). The tone of his treatment most notably warmed towards Roosevelt. Summing up the conference in his letter to the President dated December 6, Stalin wrote, “Now there is confidence that our people will harmoniously act together during the present time as well as after this war is over. I wish the best successes to you and your armed forces in the coming important military operations” (Butler and Schlesinger 194).

On December 7, the Soviet headquarters received Roosevelt’s message on the appointment of General Eisenhower as the commander of the Cross-Channel operation (codenamed “Overlord”). In Tehran, Stalin insisted on the earliest possible appointment of the invasion commander. The fact that such an authoritative person as Eisenhower became the commander especially delighted Stalin, since it was a confirmation of the seriousness of the allies. In addition, Stalin received a separate message from Roosevelt on the same day concerning additional measures to expand the scope of the operation. On December 10, he responded to Roosevelt in a short message, “I have received your message regarding the appointment of General Eisenhower. I welcome the appointment of General Eisenhower. I wish him success in the task of preparation and carrying out the coming decisive operations” (Butler and Schlesinger 194).

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One of the last dramatic episodes of Stalin and Roosevelt negotiations is associated with the “Bern Incident” – the secret U.S. intelligence contacts with Nazi representatives in Bern in March 1945 that Stalin considered to be separate negotiations on the surrender of German forces in Northern Italy. The first detailed message to Roosevelt on the subject was prepared by March 29. The response message contained Roosevelt’s such explanations as “no negotiations for surrender have been entered into”, “the meeting in Bern was for the single purpose of arranging a contact with competent German military officers”, and “your information … is in error” (Butler and Schlesinger 307-308). However, Roosevelt was unable to answer the main question: why the Allies refused to invite the Soviet representatives in Bern if they had nothing to hide? Starting from these reference points, Stalin retorted the U.S. President’s justifications point by point in a letter dated April 3. Before the final approval of the text, Stalin decided to maximally sharp an already angry document:

It is understandable that such a situation can in no way serve the cause of preservation of the strengthening of trust between our countries… I personally and my colleagues would never have made such a risky step, being aware that a momentary advantage, no matter what it would be, is fading before the principle advantage on the preservation and strengthening of trust among the Allies (Butler and Schlesinger 313).

Ultimately, the harsh response of Stalin had its effect. The incident was soon exhausted, and Roosevelt decided to finish the explanation on the conciliatory note. On April 12, a few hours before his death, he wrote to Stalin, “Thank you for your frank explanation of the Soviet point of view of the Bern incident, which now appears to have faded into the past without having accomplished any useful purpose” (Butler and Schlesinger 321).

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Roosevelt’s death removed the last obstacle standing in the way of growing anti-Sovietism of Churchill. The last weeks of the war and the victorious May marked by a series of his open and secret steps to limit the Soviet’s influence in Europe. They included the attempts to involve the Americans in the battle for Berlin, as well as the development of the plan for the war against the Soviet Union, also known as the Operation “Unthinkable” (Walker). Meanwhile, Stalin was well informed about the mood and the machinations of the prime minister, including the “Unthinkable,” as well as the preservation of the German captured weapons and military units for the possible use against the Soviet Union. All this only strengthened Stalin in his disgust with regards to Churchill as the chief and incorrigible potential enemy who is useless in conducting a strategic dialogue. Harry S. Truman, the successor of Roosevelt, did not inspire much hope since he began to move away from the policy of his predecessor (Anslover 59). Further correspondence with foreign partners became increasingly dry and purely formal. The negotiations of the allies came to an end as did the alliance.


The negotiations between Stalin and Roosevelt experienced a serious transformation in the course of the World War II. It evolved from the cautious first steps on both sides to the start of direct communication, as well as the emergence of a certain understanding and trust between the leaders of the two states. This evolution was parallel with the general development of Soviet-American relations. The mutual alienation of the pre-war years was replaced by the cooperation on the basis of the U.S. aid to the war effort of the USSR in a struggle against Germany. The intermediaries, mainly from the U.S. side, played an important role in the Stalin’s and Roosevelt’s communication processes. Roosevelt used the services of his personal representatives, namely Hopkins and Harriman, in dialogue with Stalin, since he was mistrustful to the traditional channels of diplomatic correspondence. Particular emphasis was placed on the secrecy in the preparation of messages and terms of accessing them. The Soviets were the most secret and personalized in this respect. However, it is worth mentioning that serious privacy measures were taken in the United States as well.


A great role for the successful functioning of the Stalin-Roosevelt relationships belonged to the formation of acceptable communication standards for both parties. The exchange of letters between Stalin and Roosevelt produced the greatest results in cases where the interests of the two countries coincided. However, the results of those communication lines were inefficient with respect to those issues where the interests of the Soviet Union and the United States were different, e.g. the entry of the USSR into the war against Japan.

The features of the dialogue of the Big Three leaders manifested themselves throughout the World War II. The channel of communication between Stalin and Roosevelt was closely linked to the other two parties of the epistolary triangle, namely Roosevelt and Churchill, and Stalin and Churchill. This aspect created a kind of competition in the British and American relations. It was not easy for Roosevelt and Churchill to combine a close relationship within their tandem with the desire to outdo each other in personal contacts with Stalin and establish a trustful relationship with the Soviet leader. Stalin used this competition to his advantage. However, he also experienced difficulties in dealing with a cohesive tandem, whose members were much more aware of each other’s correspondence with Stalin than the latter was aware of their correspondence with each other. Thus, correspondence of the Big Three of the war years has a serious psychological dimension that requires a performing a detailed study as well.


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