'Roosevelt and Stalin' details the surprisingly warm relationship of an unlikely duo

How FDR and Stalin forged a bond that helped to shape history.

Roosevelt and Stalin: Portrait of a Partnership By Susan Butler Knopf Doubleday 608 pp.

A history book that’s mostly about a couple of meetings shouldn’t be a page-turner, especially when you have a pretty good idea about what’s going to happen. But Roosevelt and Stalin: Portrait of a Partnership manages to be more exciting than a million calls to order. And no wonder: When this odd couple meets, the future of the world is on the line.

On one side of the equation is President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a consummate charmer who’s as full of manipulative bonhomie as ever when he twice meets with the Soviet leader. For his part, a short and stocky Joseph Stalin grins and bursts into a delighted laugh when he first walks up to FDR.
Stalin grins and laughs? Stalin? This is just one of many surprising moments in “Roosevelt and Stalin,” which intricately tracks the World War II negotiations between three powerful men over the future of the planet.

Stalin in person turns out to be much more complicated than the common depiction of him as a ruthless monster. Armed with Clinton-style charm – yes, you read that right – Stalin is suspicious and paranoid too. But he has plenty of reasons to be both. So does the third big shot whose name doesn’t even make it into the title of this book: Winston Churchill, the British prime minister and odd man out who can’t break through the cozy FDR-Stalin twosome.

Author Susan Butler is the perfect historian to explore the connections between the two men since she’s author of “My Dear Mr. Stalin: The Complete Correspondence of FDR and Joseph V. Stalin.” The 2006 compilation was well-received by reviewers who managed to get past the startling title (“My Dear Mr. Stalin”!), but the letters take a back seat to eyewitness accounts in “Roosevelt and Stalin.”

The pair of Big Three conferences – in 1943 in Tehran and in 1945 in Yalta – focus more on the future than the present, even though World War II isn’t over yet. Each man has a different goal: FDR wants to see the creation of a United Nations to enforce the post-war peace, while a Churchill hopes to preserve the British empire, and Stalin has his eye on eliminating the German threat. Roosevelt is the only one in the catbird seat, however, and Stalin has plenty of reasons to make him happy while Churchill sulks.

For one thing, Roosevelt pushed for the US to recognize the Soviet Union well before Pearl Harbor, despite the pesky matter of communists despising capitalists and vice versa. And he  supported US help for Russia when “most Americans still thought of Europe’s problems as being as far away as the moon.”

Butler isn’t a master storyteller, but she has a firm grasp on dozens of other details from  FDR’s infamous non-stop talking to Stalin’s honey-colored eyes and fireplug body. (An American says he’s “the coach’s perfect dream of a tackle” with huge hands “as hard as his mind.”) The two men bond by making fun of an annoyed Churchill, and Stalin even teases FDR by acting offended to learn he’s called “Uncle Joe” behind the scenes. 

Butler also captures near-disasters, like when a miffed British general declares in a toast that his country has suffered more than Russia, and she expertly deciphers the many moments of manipulation. In a discussion of Poland and his own re-election hopes in 1944, for example, FDR somehow convinces Stalin that Polish voters in the US are much more powerful than they are.

Roosevelt, who’s energetic, pragmatic and “devious” even as his health declines, comes across as the most effective and visionary of the trio. He usually gets what he wants and needs, and the story of how he does it turns this book into a master class in the arts of negotiation and diplomacy.

But FDR has a huge blind spot. Up until the very end, “Roosevelt and Stalin” virtually never mentions a man who forever annoyed the Russians by declaring in 1941 that “if we see that Germany is winning, we ought to help Russia, and if Russia is winning, we ought to help Germany, and that way let them kill as many as possible.”

This man’s name is Harry Truman. When Roosevelt dies in 1945, just weeks after the Yalta conference, the vice president knows virtually nothing about the wartime talks and has never even spent a second inside the White House’s Map Room brain center.

Truman would learn about the nuclear bomb, which spawned an intense debate in the Roosevelt Administration about whether to mention it to the Soviets, America’s supposed allies. In fact, they’d already figured out something was up.

Despite this fault line over trust with FDR, the Soviets would later mourn a safer world they believed Roosevelt would have created if he’d lived. To them, he was a dear friend who passed away too soon.

But FDR still accomplished plenty. The unlikely cooperation between the capitalist and the communist, the product of human warmth and trust, created the flawed but essential United Nations. As Churchill sulked, Roosevelt and Stalin grinned and charmed and arm-twisted their way to victory and the world beyond the war. We all live in their legacy.

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