Russia’s Life-Saver: Lend-Lease Aid to the U.S.S.R. in World War II (Book Review)

6/12/2006 • Book Reviews, Franklin Roosevelt

Reviewed by Michael Parrish
By Albert L. Weeks
Lexington Books, New York, 2004

A wartime cartoon in The New Yorker shows the docks of Murmansk covered with off-loaded containers and a Soviet official having trouble finding the word "spam" in the dictionary. Spam was one of the many food items sent to the former Soviet Union by the United States under the Lend-Lease Program first suggested by Winston Churchill, to which the United States contributed the major portion. The subject has been previously covered by such books as Hubert van Tuyll’s Feeding the Bear (1989), but the present well-written text has the advantage of access to Russian sources, which were put to good use by Albert Weeks. The author makes a clear case that the program was a major factor in the survival of the Soviet Union and the victory over Nazism.

In two particular areas the help was indispensable. With major agricultural regions of the Soviet Union under enemy occupation, and the unsatisfactory system of distribution and transportation, to say nothing of mismanagement, the Soviet state had more than a nodding acquaintance with famine. Without Western aid, during the war the Soviet population would have been in danger of sharing the fate of those trapped in Leningrad and the earlier victims of collectivization. Even with the American aid, many Russians died from lack of food. Equally important was Lend-Lease’s contribution to transportation. It would have been impossible for the Red Army to move the masses of troops and supplies on the primitive roads to the front lines without American Studebaker trucks, which also served as the launching pads for the dreaded Soviet rocket artillery. The trucks were also used for more sinister activities, including the deportation of the North Caucasus Muslims. Less satisfactory for combat were the Western tanks, inferior to the German machines and particularly disadvantaged in the open terrain of the Eastern Front. The memoirs of General Dmitri Loza, published in English in 1996, give us a vivid picture of how these tanks were employed by the Russians. American aircraft, flown by Russian ferry pilots across the vast expanse of Siberia, were put to good use by the Soviet air forces even with planes that were less than popular with Western pilots. A case in point was the Bell P-39 Airacobra, used both as a low-altitude fighter and as ground support. Its odd shape gave Soviet censors fits because it was difficult to conceal that it was the favorite mount of their second-highest-ranking ace, the future marshal of aviation, Aleksandar I. Pokryshkin.

Besides weaponry and food, Lend-Lease provided the Soviet Union with other resources, ranging from clothing to metals. With the start of the Cold War, Lend-Lease became a forgotten chapter in Soviet history and was only revived after glasnost. Now, thanks to Russian researchers and this excellent study, the West will have access to the real story. Lend-Lease provided vital help for the Soviet Union when the country was in desperate straits and made a significant contribution to the final victory. It also strengthened Josef Stalin, a fact that did not bother its chief architect, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who saw beyond the Allied victory and looked at Stalin as a counterbalance to the European colonial powers.

The victory over Nazi Germany was achieved through the economic power of the United States and the lives of millions of Soviets, who for reasons that defy logic made the ultimate sacrifice to keep in power a regime as brutal as their Nazi enemy. What the Soviet Union needed after the war was a peacetime version of Lend-Lease, in this case the Marshall Plan, which Stalin rejected. Misled by the victory, the Soviet Union under Stalin and his successors embarked on an imperial policy that would have put the tsars to shame, and one the USSR could hardly afford. Resources were deployed on military and space programs and every Third World thug, including those who had jailed the local Communists or became Soviet clients. To the USSR’s eternal shame, anti-Semitism became national policy.

The "Empire of Evil" indeed had feet of clay, and its demise, unpredicted by all savants, was inevitable. The United States, on the other hand, hardly damaged by the war, managed to supplant the exhausted British, French and Dutch colonials and kept its rendezvous with destiny. The roots of the Soviet collapse, and the United States’ recent attempts to make Iraq the next Switzerland, lie in the events of 1945.

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