How Stalin Did It

The book is hefty, 666 pages with weighty material on the key role that Stalin played in World War Two. It’s worth every page. Drawing on Russian archives that have been opened in recent years along with a vast number of other souces, author Sean McKeekin describes in “Stalin’s War” the master strategy of a dictator who combined singularity of purpose wth the utmost brutality to achieve his ends, and it worked. At one point, his ally Winston Churchill proposed a toast: “God was on the side of the allies.” To which Stalin replied, not entirely in jest: “And the devil’s on my side.” Know thyself, we are told. He did.

Russian Premier Joseph Stalin, President Franklin Roosevelt, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The Yalta Conference 1945. Picture by Corbis/Getty Images

Stalin got World War Two off to a good start from his point of view. Forsaking his communism much to the horror of true believers, he made a pact with that other  devil Hitler to divide Poland. At the same time Stalin was ceded control of the rest of Eastern Europe. When Hitler attacked, Stalin held back temporarily, thus letting the German take the blame for dismembering Poland. Britain and France declared war on Hitler, and Stalin was off the hook.

But he ran into trouble when he advanced on his smaller neighbor Finland. The Finns fought bravely against an unprepared Red Army. Suddenly, world opinion turned against the over-reaching dictator, presenting him, says McKeekin, with the greatest crisis of his career. He rose to the occasion by suing for a moderate peace with Finland, and all was forgotten. Too bad, writes McKeenin, since at that time both totalitarian regimes were vulnerable to an allied strike that could have changed history.

In his expansion plans for the Soviet Union in both Europe and Asia, Stalin received critical aid from an unexpected quarter, a gift that kept on giving. U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, a consummate politician at home was at sea abroad. Somehow he was convinced of the good intentions of Stalin whom he liked to call “Uncle Joe.” He gathered a tight clique around hm that shunned anyone even mildly critical of Stalin, including Secretary of State Cordell Hull and Russia expert George Kennan, who later defned the Cold War.

Stalin waged a successful subversive war against friends as well as enemies. The Russian archives reveal that hundreds of his agents honeycombed the U.S Government with often a decisive influence on policy. Harry Dexte r White, top aide to Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morganthau, was alerted to a possible agreement that might stop the pending war between the U.S. and Japan. This was contrary to Stalin’s interest of having all the other powers fighting among themselves. White managed to release an official paper subverting the effort, and the attack on Pearl Harbor followed. Later seven agents in Treasury (seven!) collaborated on the so-called Morganthau Plan that would have reduced post war Germany to impoverishment. News of the Plan, later scuttled, intensified German resistance at the cost of many more American lives.

Drawing on a range of statistics, McKeekin concludes that the Nazi invasion of Russia would have succeeded without the enormous U.S. aid to Stalin, which is not fully acknowleged to this day. The Russian troops who turned the war at Stalingrad fought valiently with overwhelming casualties to reach Berlin. But still their boss had his doubts. He sent along punitive battalions to execute any who malingered or retreated. Nowhere to go but ahead.

At war’s end, Stalin conquered and occupied Eastern Europe, including Poland where the war began. McKeekin writes that he had an all-consuming hatred of Poles akin to Hitler’s antisemitism. It’s only fitting that forty-five years later an uprising in Poland contributed significantly to the collapse of his amazing but short-lived empire.

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