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WWII Book Review: My Dear Mr. Stalin

By Mary Glantz
8/22/2018 • World War II Magazine

My Dear Mr. Stalin: The Complete Correspondence of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph V. Stalin

 edited by Susan Butler (foreword by Arthur Schlesinger Jr.), Yale University Press, New Haven, Conn., 2006, $35

In My Dear Mr. Stalin, Susan Butler has collected all of the correspondence be- tween U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin during World War II. This collection updates an earlier one the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs published in 1957, which was missing several of Roosevelt’s messages, included only paraphrases of others, and dated the messages by when they were received in the Kremlin, not by when Roosevelt sent them. The correspondence in this volume covers a variety of subjects, including the conduct of the war, the provision of supplies and armaments to the Soviet Union, the opening of a second front in Europe, Soviet participation in the war against Japan, the creation of a United Nations organization and the terms of surrender of the Axis armies. The book begins with Roosevelt’s first message to Stalin in July 1941 and concludes with the last message Roosevelt sent before he died suddenly in April 1945.

Butler’s book differs from its Soviet predecessor not just in the content and format of the correspondence. While the earlier collection contained only the cables and letters, My Dear Mr. Stalin begins with an introduction that concisely summarizes the background, nature and development of the Soviet-American relationship during WWII. This introduction provides valuable information on Roosevelt’s foreign policy-making process. Butler explains the workings of the Map Room and how it reflected Roosevelt’s global vision. She clearly yet comprehensively describes Roosevelt’s relationship with his foreign policy-making bureaucracy, from his ambassadors to his military attachés. Butler also addresses oft neglected issues such as Roosevelt’s efforts to establish a method of aiding the Soviet Union despite significant opposition in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. Most important, Butler places the Roosevelt-Stalin relationship in the context of global political and military developments. As a result, Butler successfully challenges the notion that an idealistic Roosevelt was misled and betrayed by Stalin. Butler’s Roosevelt is a master political strategist who, despite the limitations of military reality (i.e., the presence of a massive Soviet army astride most of Eastern Europe), managed to achieve his major goals: Soviet participation in a postwar UN and in the defeat of Imperial Japan.

Butler organizes the correspondence chronologically by when Roosevelt sent or received it. In addition to her introduction, she has annotated the material in the book, placing each letter or cable in its political or military context. For example, to explain Stalin’s increasingly desperate requests for aid in autumn 1942, Butler uses memoirs and other sources to describe Soviet anxiety as the Battle of Stalingrad progressed. She does this with several lesser-known battles as well, and she regularly updates the reader on Allied military action on other fronts. Not only is this annotation vital for understanding the importance of Roosevelt’s or Stalin’s words, it also makes this book highly readable and entertaining.

Butler’s introduction stresses the importance of her inclusion of several previously unpublished letters from Roosevelt to Stalin. Yet, except in one case, she fails to identify which of the letters are the ones the Soviets failed to publish earlier. The inclusion of the previously unpublished documents is not the real significance of this volume, nor is the fact that the letters are organized and dated according to when Roosevelt sent them. A historian of this period would get roughly the same picture of the correspondence from the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ edition.

What makes Butler’s work valuable, however, is her well-researched and well-written introduction and annotation. She uses the most recent scholarship to reach conclusions that, ironically, are more groundbreaking than those presented in the foreword by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. While Schlesinger acknowledges Roosevelt’s achievements in his relationship with Stalin, he concludes that the Cold War began because Stalin betrayed Roosevelt. Butler uses Roosevelt’s correspondence with Stalin and other recently published histories to argue that the Cold War was the result of Truman and his subordinates’ betrayal of Roosevelt’s vision. As a result, My Dear Mr. Stalin is more than just an important documentary resource; it is a well-written, well-documented analysis of Roosevelt’s foreign policy and the origins of the Cold War. It should be read by everyone interested in those topics.

 

Originally published in the February 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.

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