Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt: the big three’s war of words

Winston Churchill, Josef Stalin and Franklin Roosevelt exchanged almost 700 messages during the Second World War. David Reynolds – who has co-authored a new book on this correspondence – reveals what six of these letters can tell us about relations between the three leading figures in the epic struggle against Nazism

Winston Churchill, Josef Stalin and Franklin Roosevelt exchanged almost 700 messages during the Second World War. (Illustration by Hugh Cowling for BBC History Magazine)

This article was first published in the December 2018 issue of BBC History Magazine

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A cry for help: As German troops surge into Russia, Stalin pleads for Churchill’s assistance

3 September 1941

August 1941 was a bleak month for Josef Stalin. On 22 June, German forces had invaded the USSR, and soon Hitler’s Wehrmacht was advancing rapidly, capturing several million Soviet troops. Stalin was desperate for allies, and his British counterpart, Winston Churchill, was prepared to help any enemy of Nazism.

As Soviet losses mounted, Stalin’s pleas for help grew shriller. But Churchill had little to offer: the British Army was locked in battle with the Germans and Italians in north Africa. In any case, it was far from clear whether the Soviet Union would survive.

By the end of August, Stalin was furious with what he called Britain’s “passive wait-and-see policy”. Ivan Maisky, his ambassador in London, advised a direct appeal to Churchill himself. There was no time for a Foreign Ministry draft: Stalin’s secretary took down the boss’s dictation on sheets of paper (one of which is pictured above) torn from a little notebook. The telegram was then typed up, encrypted and sent in just 90 minutes. In it, the Soviet leader said that the only thing that could help was for Britain to “establish already this year a second front somewhere in the Balkans or France, which would be able to divert from the eastern front some 30 to 40 German divisions”.

Churchill was incredulous. He didn’t have sufficient combat units in the whole of the British Army to engage that many German divisions. But his advisors insisted that his draft reply was too negative: “This is a historic telegram, perhaps the most important you have ever sent to a foreign head of state.” So Churchill promised to send 200 planes and 250 tanks each month, expressing the hope that this would be matched by the USA.


Churchill eats his words: In a letter to Stalin, the British PM does the unthinkable: he lauds the Red Army

23 February 1942

Despite his offer to help Stalin, Churchill was an inveterate anti-communist – both at home and abroad. After the Bolshevik revolution, he had been the leading cabinet advocate of aid to the anti-Bolshevik ‘Whites’ during Russia’s brutal civil war (1917–22), denouncing the “foul baboonery” of Bolshevism.

But by 1942, with Soviet troops bearing the brunt of the war against Hitler, and demands for a second front mounting at home, Churchill had to change his tune. He decided to congratulate Stalin on the anniversary of the Red Army, his bête noire when created in 1918, and spent some time improving the Foreign Office draft of the letter.

In the message (shown below) he praised the Red Army on “a campaign which has reflected the greatest glory on its officers and men and has enshrined its deeds in history for all time”, expressing the “admiration and gratitude” of the whole British empire and “our confidence in the victorious end of the struggle we are waging together against the common foe”.

Churchill even attended a reception for Red Army Day hosted by Ivan Maisky at the Soviet embassy.


America swaggers into the fray: Roosevelt invites his Soviet counterpart to a face-to-face meeting – and keeps Churchill out of the loop

11 April 1942

Although American president Franklin D Roosevelt provided increasing material aid to Britain and then the USSR during 1941, the USA remained officially neutral until December. Then Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and Hitler’s declaration of war catapulted America into a global conflict for which the country was ill-prepared. It was not until the spring of 1942 that the president began to take the initiative in diplomatic relations with the Kremlin.

Roosevelt had no intention of playing junior partner to Churchill, however warm their personal relationship – as he made clear in a chatty letter to the prime minister on 18 March. “I know you will not mind my being brutally frank when I tell you that I think I can personally handle Stalin better than either your Foreign Office or my State Department. Stalin hates the guts of all your top people. He thinks he likes me better, and I hope he will continue to do so.”

Considering that Roosevelt had never met Stalin and they had exchanged little more than a dozen messages, this was pretty rich – but the breezy tone and brash self-confidence were typically Rooseveltian. The belief that he could handle Stalin became the president’s mantra until the day he died.

Roosevelt was much less of a letter writer than Churchill. And many of the messages came from his aides or bureaucrats, with FDR adding occasional personal touches. The president’s real aim was to deal with the Soviet leader face-to-face – thereby, he hoped, getting the measure of the reclusive dictator and winning his trust. On 11 April 1942 he made it clear to Stalin that he wanted the earliest possible meeting of the two of them, without Churchill – whom he saw as a reactionary Victorian, out of touch with a world that was moving to the left and out of the age of empire.

“Perhaps if things go as well as we hope, you and I could spend a few days together next summer near our common border off Alaska,” read his letter to Stalin (an early draft of which is pictured above right). In the meantime, he asked the Soviet leader to send Vyacheslav Molotov – his foreign minister and right-hand man – to discuss “a very important military proposal involving the utilisation of our armed forces in a manner to relieve your critical western front.”


Churchill plays the global card: The PM attempts to quell Stalin’s fury at the lack of an Allied assault on northern France

11 March 1943

Despite Molotov’s shuttle diplomacy between Moscow, London and Washington, Stalin didn’t get the second front he so craved. In November 1942 the British and Americans landed not in northern France but on the coast of French north Africa (which, to Stalin, was a sideshow). With the USA still mobilising and its troops mostly engaged in the Pacific, Churchill called the shots on strategy. Mindful of Dunkirk, and haunted by the carnage of the Somme, he would not risk a Channel crossing until this could be mounted in overwhelming strength.

The PM was, however, deeply conscious of Stalin’s anger. After two years of brutal warfare, the Red Army had turned the tables on the Wehrmacht with a crushing victory at Stalingrad at the beginning of February 1943.

In one of his longest messages, on 11 March 1943, Churchill tried to make Stalin aware of the logistical challenges of global war – not easily grasped by the leader of an essentially land power and one that had remained neutral against Japan. So the PM explained in detail British deployments to defend the empire, noting that “by far the larger part of the British Army is in north Africa, in the Middle East and in India”. He also drew attention to the global supply lines on which his island nation depended. “You must remember that our total population is 46 millions and that the first charge upon it is the Royal Navy and Mercantile Marine, without which we could not live.” Thus, he concluded: “The entire manhood and womanhood of the country is, and has been, for some time, fully absorbed.”

This message was Churchill’s fullest attempt to convey the problems Britain faced in mounting a second front. But it’s unlikely that the Kremlin leader was convinced. Previously untapped material in the Stalin archive reveals that, against the words “fully absorbed”, there is a large question mark.


“An achievement of the highest order”: Stalin congratulates Churchill on the “masterly execution” of D-Day

11 June 1944

On 6 June 1944, British, American, Canadian and other Allied forces finally landed along 50 miles of Normandy beaches, backed by a formidable array of warships and airpower. Casualties were lighter than feared and the beachhead was soon secure. For nearly three years, Stalin had scoffed at the challenge of crossing the Channel, sometimes accusing the Allies of cowardice. But on 11 June he sent Churchill a remarkable message of praise.

“My colleagues and I cannot but admit that the history of warfare knows no other like undertaking from the point of view of its scale, its vast conception and its masterly execution. As is well known, Napoleon in his time failed ignominiously in his plan to force the Channel. The hysterical Hitler, who boasted for two years that he would effect a forcing of the Channel, was unable to make up his mind even to hint at attempting to carry out his threat. Only our Allies have succeeded in realising with honour the grandiose plan of the forcing of the Channel. History will record this deed as an achievement of the highest order.”

June 1944 was, in fact, the high-water mark of the Grand Alliance. Stalin timed his major offensive on the eastern front, Operation Bagration, to start a couple of weeks after the Overlord landings in Normandy. By coincidence, the start date was 22 June – three years to the day after Hitler invaded the USSR. Over the next month, the Soviets destroyed Hitler’s Army Group Centre and drove 400 miles west to the edge of Warsaw. With the Reich now facing war on two fronts, it is no accident that the most serious plot against Hitler’s life was mounted on 20 July. The end was in sight.


The relationship goes cold: As the war approaches its endgame, Roosevelt takes an increasingly hostile Stalin to task

4 April 1945

Both Roosevelt and Churchill were pleased by their second Big Three summit at Yalta in February 1945. But the atmosphere deteriorated sharply in March and April. President joined prime minister in protests over the imposition of a communist-led government on Poland, and the ever-suspicious Stalin sent a bitter denunciation of the Allies for – as he saw it – trying to arrange the surrender of the German armies in Italy behind his back through secret talks in the Swiss capital, Bern. Roosevelt’s denials of this claim were batted back on 3 April with a scarcely veiled insinuation that the president was lying: “You insist that there have been no negotiations yet. It may be assumed that you have not been fully informed.”

The ailing president was now in Warm Springs, Georgia, trying to build up his strength for a major speech in San Francisco later in the month when he was to inaugurate the founding conference of the United Nations. This, he hoped, would cement the Grand Alliance into the postwar era. Most of his messages were now drafted by Admiral William Leahy, the White House chief of staff, but the president checked what was written, and Leahy knew his mind well.

On 4 April – in his angriest message – Roosevelt told Stalin: “I cannot avoid a feeling of bitter resentment toward your informers, whoever they are, for such vile misrepresentations of my actions or those of my trusted subordinates.” Stalin backed off, asserting: “I never doubted your honesty and dependability,” and Roosevelt decided to draw a line under the issue – focusing as usual on what he considered the bigger picture of Big Three cooperation. In a message sent on 11 April he wrote: “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. There must not, in any event, be mutual distrust, and minor misunderstandings of this character should not arise in the future.”

And Roosevelt, in a message he himself drafted, also told Churchill the same day to “minimise the general Soviet problem” because points of friction “seem to arise every day as in the case of the Bern meeting. We must be firm, however, and our course thus far is correct.”

The cable to Stalin was sent via the US embassy in Moscow where Ambassador Averill Harriman – who now favoured a hard line against the Soviets over issues such as Poland – queried whether Bern was indeed a “minor” misunderstanding. Leahy, with FDR’s approval, replied on 12 April that the president did regard it in this way.

By the time the White House had encrypted and sent the message, Roosevelt was dead, following a cerebral haemorrhage. Historians continue to argue about whether his death made any fundamental difference in the transition from World War to Cold War. But one thing’s for sure: in these final messages to his two wartime allies, the president showed again his belief that he alone could “handle” Stalin in war and in peace.

David Reynolds is professor of international history at Cambridge University. His previous books include From World War to Cold War: Churchill, Roosevelt, and the International History of the 1940s (OUP, 2006)

Book: The Kremlin Letters: Stalin’s Wartime Correspondence with Churchill and Roosevelt by David Reynolds and Vladimir Pechatnov (Yale, 2018)

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