Randall Bennett Woods, A Changing of the Guard: Anglo-American Relations, 1941–1946 (Chapel Hill, 1990).
The United States: Supporter Not Leader
Article first published online: 19 JAN 2012
© 2012 The Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR)
Volume 36, Issue 1, pages 213–216, January 2012
How to Cite
BURK, K. (2012), The United States: Supporter Not Leader. Diplomatic History, 36: 213–216. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-7709.2011.01016.x
- Issue published online: 19 JAN 2012
- Article first published online: 19 JAN 2012
Yalta 1945: Europe and America at the Crossroads . Cambridge : Cambridge University Press , 2010 . xxx + 438 pp. Notes, index. $38.00 (cloth )..
Fraser J. Harbutt set out to write a profoundly revisionist book. Tired of the inadequacy of an historiography of the Yalta Conference, its origins, and its aftermath, which sees events entirely through American eyes and concentrates overwhelmingly on the relationship between the United States and the USSR, Harbutt argues that “we should bring the Europeans much more fully into our thinking about World War II Allied diplomacy” (p. xvii). He argues that rather than an East-West process as such, it was an American-European one—and the European half had two participants, the USSR and Great Britain. President Roosevelt, he argues, had remarkably little to do with the European geopolitical outcome: rather, it was Churchill and Stalin who created the Europe that, for nearly half a century, remained as they had planned it. It is a dense, carefully interwoven, convincing argument, based on a careful analysis of a wide range of documentation. Or as Harbutt himself puts it, he was making “an effort to bring a little evidential density to the story” (p. 115).
Fundamentally, Roosevelt did not care very much for Europe, actively disliked the British Empire, and endeavored to maintain the United States's detachment from both. What he wanted was to be a successful Woodrow Wilson, to establish—this time to last—a universal, international organization supported by all of the Great Powers and devoted to the maintenance of peace. For this goal, he was eventually ready to sacrifice almost all other policies, hoping, as did Wilson, that postponed problems could and would be sorted out by this organization, now called the United Nations. The Europeans, and especially Stalin, used Roosevelt's devotion as a lever to force concessions from the president.
Along the way, Harbutt emphasizes the range and depth of American policies designed to destroy the British Empire, and in particular Britain's economic and financial position. Randall Bennett Woods described this some years ago,1 but Harbutt lists all of the attacks in a manner that makes it clear the destruction many American policymakers, civilian and military, intended to wreak upon Britain. There was no concurrent attack upon the Soviet Union: Roosevelt planned (?) assumed (?) that after the war, the world would be guided by the joint endeavors of the United States and that other liberal reformist power, the USSR. Within this vision, the British had no place; indeed, they were an obstacle and had to be weakened and relegated. Only near the end of 1944 did Roosevelt and others begin to realize that they might have made a mistake and that Great Britain might be rather useful as an ally after the end of the war, if she could still walk.
Where the book is revelatory is in the description and analysis of the Anglo-Russian relationship. Churchill, along with most of the British political establishment, did not trust the United States to play any part in European security after the war. She had picked up her ball and gone home after the First World War; Roosevelt had announced that U.S. troops would be withdrawn from Europe within two years of the end of the current war; therefore, to safeguard her own security, it was important that Great Britain come to a satisfactory arrangement with the remaining huge, and unconstrained, power on the Continent, the Soviet Union. Negotiations from 1941 resulted in, first of all, the Anglo-Soviet alliance of March 1942, a military alliance whereby the two agreed that neither would sign a separate peace with Germany but that also promised postwar collaboration against German revanchism, with twenty years of mutual assistance; Britain also accepted the Soviets' 1941 frontiers (with the exception of the Polish lands). It was this agreement that provided the foundation for subsequent negotiations over the future of the smaller states, the interests of which both Churchill and Stalin, in the classic Great Power mode, were inclined to dismiss.2 The Foreign Office and the Cabinet, as well as most of the political class, supported the agreements with the Soviet Union: there had to be a balance of power, and the United States was not only unreliable, she could also be threatening. The USSR and the United Kingdom worked out a mutually agreeable division of Europe, one that, in fact, lasted until the end of the Cold War. In summary, by what Harbutt calls the “Moscow Order,” agreed in October 1944, the USSR was to have Eastern and Central Europe for its sphere, while the British would have Western Europe and the Mediterranean for theirs. The Americans had very little to do with it: it was the Moscow Order, not Yalta, that determined this outcome.
Harbutt's assessment of British and Soviet diplomatic behavior is interesting. He makes a curious argument about “the inadequacy of much of the conventional wisdom about British diplomacy” (p. 28), which is the idea that Britain responds to the threat of domination of the Continent by a single Great Power. It is certainly the case that there is something of an instinctive British reaction to an overweening power on the Continent—indeed, A. J. P. Taylor commented that the Balance of Power in the nineteenth century “seemed to be the political equivalent of the laws of economics, both self-operating.”3 Harbutt, however, points out that would-be conquerors such as Philip II, Louis XIV, and Napoleon were well on their way before Britain acted and that she did very little against Wilhelmine Germany before the invasion of Belgium. But Britain was a naval power, with, normally, a very small army: Bismarck once commented that if the British Army landed on the German coast, he would send the local police force to arrest it. Until Germany publicly proclaimed her intention to build a navy larger than Britain's, the two had few important points of conflict. Britain could not fight a great land power herself but would have to form credible coalitions, as she did against Philip II, Louis XIV, eventually Napoleon, and Wilhelmine Germany. Harbutt alludes to the importance of the west coast of Europe to British policymaking, but he has underestimated it. Before airplanes, Britain could only be menaced by ship, and therefore it mattered that a powerful enemy not control the low countries or Denmark, whose harbors and their prevailing winds made them ideal places from which to launch an invasion fleet. Until 1939, Britain never claimed the need or desire to protect Eastern or East Central Europe: normally clear eyed about power, she knew perfectly well that she could not easily project her own power there. Harbutt recognizes that this was, as he writes, “a pragmatic and geopolitical approach”; it was possibly unnecessary for him to add that Britain was, except for “occasional spasms of public upset,”“largely unaffected by distracting moralisms” (p. 29), presumably unlike Americans.
The point was, Britain had traditionally built coalitions to protect herself, and others, from a threatening Great Power, but a coalition requires at least two to tango. The United States had made it very clear that she would not be a partner, and thus the British had no other choice but to come to an agreement with the USSR. Stalin, fortunately, saw Britain, and the Royal Navy, as one means of protecting the Soviet Union against the Americans after the war: the Anglo-Soviet agreement promised reciprocal safety, and it was in the interest of both powers to maintain it. It was only when the Americans had changed their minds about the relative threat of the USSR over that of the United Kingdom and began to indicate that a closer postwar Anglo-American relationship might be possible, that Churchill, who controlled British policy, decided to jettison the arrangement with the Soviet Union in favor of a closer one with the United States.
Harbutt's analysis of Stalin's behavior emphasizes his use of traditional bargain diplomacy. He points out that it was only when Churchill and Roosevelt began to deviate from their agreements with him, or to change unilaterally the interpretations of such agreements, that Stalin began to reinterpret them as well: it was at this point, he says, that historical desires began to join the need for secure borders as a driver of Soviet policy.
The argument that Harbutt develops as to the central importance of the Europeans in deciding what was to happen to Europe, and the relative relegation of the Americans to what was sometimes a supporting role, rings very true. Historians in Europe have sometimes felt that American historians can be imperialistic in their own way, by claiming the leading role for the United States in all events in which the United States participated. A case may be made for very recent history, but reading this back into the period before 1945, or even 1946, is a bit ahistorical. Harbutt makes this very clear. This is wonderfully well written and tremendously stimulating. It is a vastly important book.
Earl Russell, the British Foreign Secretary, was quoted in March 1864 as saying that “the Great Powers had not the habit of consulting populations when questions affecting the Balance of Power had to be settled.“ Quoted in A. J. P. Taylor, The Struggle for Mastery in Europe 1848–1918 (Oxford, 1954), 151.