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The End of a Friendship and the Start of the Cold War

ON MAY 29, 1942, Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet foreign minister, arrived in Washington, D.C. to try to convince the Americans to open a Western front. The conversation between Molotov and President Franklin Roosevelt began awkwardly, with Molotov—a man so gruff and bureaucratic that Lenin called him “Comrade Filing Cabinet”—struggling to make small talk. But the formality faded that evening, as they sat side by side on a couch, with cocktails, talking until each retired to his White House bedroom. When Molotov returned home a week later, he brought with him a promise of American preparations for a second front and a framed photograph of the president, signed, “To my friend Vyacheslav Molotov.”

What a difference three years would make. Molotov next visited Washington on April 22, 1945, just two weeks after Roosevelt died. With the war in Europe nearly won, the United States and the Soviet Union had already begun bickering over the fate of the continent. This time Molotov stayed across the street from the White House. His meeting with President Harry Truman did not go well. The two clashed over the Soviet Union’s brutal occupation of Poland; Molotov explained the Soviet need for a friendly government in Warsaw, and Truman accused the Soviets of reneging on previous agreements. When Molotov changed the topic, Truman got up. “That will be all, Mr. Molotov,” he said. Molotov left the meeting ashen. Within a year, George F. Kennan would write his “long telegram” outlining the logic of containment, and Churchill would speak of “an iron curtain” descending across Europe. The alliance was nearly dead, and the Cold War was alive.

How did a friendship that once seemed so promising sink so low? According to Frank Costigliola’s meticulous book, the U.S.-Soviet relationship fell apart primarily because Roosevelt was no longer around to keep it together. Like those admirers of John F. Kennedy who contend that the world would have been spared the worst of the Vietnam War had he not been shot, Costigliola argues that the Cold War could have been avoided had Roosevelt not suffered a fatal stroke early in his fourth term. “Especially because of Stalin’s suspicious, touchy nature,” he writes, “safe passage to peacetime collaboration required a U.S. leader with the emotional intelligence, elasticity, charm, and confidence of a Franklin Roosevelt rather than the personality of a Harry Truman.”

Roosevelt’s Lost Alliances is a fine work of diplomatic history, and Costigliola deserves praise for expertly detailing the inner workings of the Grand Alliance, particularly the American part of the equation. But his main argument, that Truman’s insensitivity kick-started the Cold War, never escapes the realm of the far-fetched. It is the Cleopatra’s-nose theory of history. But a great world conflict is never only the result of personalities and their quirks. The origins of the Cold War are to be found not in the personal relations between the Soviets and the Americans but in their competing visions of world order and the global balance of power.

In making his case, Costigliola calls Roosevelt “the fulcrum of the Grand Alliance,” and documents, visit by visit, the legwork done by the president and his team to sustain the “Big Three” partnership between Washington, London, and Moscow. In January 1941, for instance, Roosevelt’s most trusted aide, Harry Hopkins, visited London with the aim of determining whether the United Kingdom was ready to take on Germany. Hopkins was a hit, charming his way through the British public, Fleet Street, and Churchill’s inner circle, and exuding Anglo-American solidarity wherever he went. At a dinner in Glasgow, he rose to his feet and promised Churchill America’s unconditional support. “Whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God,” he said, quoting Ruth in the Old Testament. At that, Churchill is said to have wept. Two months later, the U.S. Congress passed the Lend-Lease act, sending over $30 billion worth of supplies to the United Kingdom.

Yet it was only after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor that the U.S.-British alliance became a true war-fighting partnership. Churchill soon flew to Washington and took up quarters on the second floor of the White House, where he made himself at home (and once supposedly greeted the president in the nude, an old chestnut for which Costigliola provides an earnest historiography). The visit centered on military planning: Roosevelt agreed to a “Europe-first” strategy and backed a U.S.-British invasion of northwest Africa. It was also a chance to sell the alliance to the American public and to underscore the two countries’ common heritage. Roosevelt and Churchill lit the White House Christmas tree together, and in his address to a joint session of Congress the prime minister spoke of his American mother and promised the two countries would both “beat the life out of the savage Nazi.”

Americans needed more convincing when it came to working with the Soviet Union, the headquarters of communism and erstwhile Nazi ally. As Costigliolia notes, U.S. and British ties with Stalin “lacked the cultural glue” that bonded Churchill and Roosevelt. Those two leaders, he writes, both formed part of a “transatlantic elite,” whereas Stalin grew up the son of an alcoholic cobbler in provincial Georgia. Still, in Costigliola’s account, Roosevelt managed to bridge the class divide. The basic disagreements over strategy proved harder to overcome. Although Roosevelt had promised Molotov to open a second front, the Kremlin ended up waiting two painful years, until the D-Day landings of June 1944, for that pledge to be fulfilled. Washington also took issue with the Soviet government’s irridentist claims to the land it had seized early in the war. Differences concerning the organization of postwar Europe rose to the surface at the Tehran conference in November 1943, where the three aging leaders, all exhausted from travel, kicked the can down the road.

The strains may have accelerated Roosevelt’s decline. He already suffered from clogged sinuses, persistent fatigue, back pain, a hand tremor, high blood pressure, and, possibly, melanoma. When the Big Three next met, at Yalta in February 1945, they again failed to reach meaningful agreements regarding postwar Europe. On the fifth day of meetings, after what his cardiologist called “an emotionally disturbing conference” about Poland, Roosevelt began experiencing a fluctuating pulse. Two months later, he was dead.

For Costigliola, the Cold War began the day Roosevelt died. Instead of a president who spoke in reassuring terms and had hashed out a plan for postwar cooperation, the Soviets were left with Truman, an insecure simpleton (or so they thought) who compensated by talking tough with a country he viewed as culturally inferior. Predictably, Truman soon fell under the influence of a clique of “anti-Soviet stalwarts” in the State Department who, having spent years in Moscow chafing at the Kremlin’s restrictions on their contact with Soviet citizens, cast the Soviets as ideological opponents. “Once the emotional, exaggerated warnings by Harriman, Churchill, and Kennan about Soviet aggression became public knowledge,” Costigliola writes, “the kind of quiet deals formerly reached by the Big Three became unworkable.”

So what would Roosevelt have done? The book suggests he would have avoided provoking Soviet resentment by giving them freer rein in Eastern Europe and sharing the science behind the atomic bomb with them. Whether Roosevelt would have done either of those things is, to put it mildly, up for debate. In the months before his death, he was increasingly rankled by the Soviet Union’s tightening grip on Bulgaria, Poland, and Romania—as were Congress and the voting public. And no administration would have given up the United States’ prized nuclear secrets to the Soviets (who, it would turn out, were busy stealing them anyway).

The more glaring problem with Costigliola’s argument, however, is that it places far too much stock in Roosevelt’s personal touch. Costigliola gives Roosevelt credit for “cultivating personal ties, playing to emotional dispositions, minimizing ideological and cultural differences, and restraining explosive emotions” and argues that “the Truman administration might have gotten further with Stalin had it addressed the dictator’s apparent emotional needs.” Although Roosevelt may have picked up more manners at Hyde Park than Truman did in Missouri, the book never explains just how greater sensitivity would have changed Stalin’s geopolitical calculus.

Throughout the book, and especially in a drawn-out tripartite character study, Costigliola lends excessive importance to personalities and childhood experiences. He links Roosevelt’s boyhood interest in hunting, sailing, and stamp-collecting to a lifelong desire to “secure … his independence and his command at the center.” He blames Stalin’s reign of terror on “the brutality he suffered from his father” and mentions five times that the dictator once robbed banks. He treats readers to a lengthy Freudian analysis of Churchill’s relationship with women and credits the prime minister’s “boyish exuberance” with helping the United Kingdom win the war. Page after page, Costigliola demonstrates an obsessive drive to relay every discovered factoid, especially the psycho-biographically juicy ones.

More useful than childhood stories and psychoanalysis would have been a discussion of the balance of power. That, after all, was what gave birth to the Grand Alliance in the first place. Facing a common enemy that sought to upend the existing international order, the Big Three put aside their differences to extinguish the threat. When Germany lost the war, the Grand Alliance lost its raison d’être. At the same time, the Soviet Union—its resources harnessed by Stalin—was growing more powerful, and wary American officials knew it. As early as May 1944, Admiral William Leahy, Roosevelt’s top military adviser, warned of “the recent phenomenal development of heretofore latent Russian military and economic strength.” So it should have been no surprise that, when Germany’s defeat left a power vacuum in the middle of Europe, the Soviet Union—massive, populous, resource-rich—tried to fill it.

It was an accident of history that Germany’s collapse should coincide so precisely with Roosevelt’s death. The timing allows Costigliola to make the argument that it was America’s mishandling of Soviet relations that encouraged Soviet expansionism: Truman gave “Stalin no economic or political incentives to refrain from the repression that came so naturally to him,” Costigliola writes. Yet the Cold War started both much earlier and much later than Costigliola’s dating suggests: earlier, because Washington began breaking with the Soviets well before Roosevelt’s death, and later, because Truman continued Roosevelt’s non-confrontational policies for some time. When he decided to embrace containment in 1946, he did so not out of neither ineptitude nor insecurity but in response to a power that was pushing past its Eastern European sphere of influence.

Historians love to fixate on personal politics. As Carlyle famously alleged, “The history of the world is but the biography of great men.” Surely, when lost in the archives and staring at the diaries or letters of such powerful figures, it must be tempting to imbue every discovered quirk and anecdote with world-historical significance. But that tendency distorts. In the case of Costigliola, the focus on what was going on inside leaders’ heads makes him miss the exigencies of international relations that forced their hands.

Stuart A. Reid is a senior editor at Foreign Affairs.