One of the more feverish accusations in the early years of the Cold War, the late 1940s, early 1950s, concerned Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his performance at the Yalta Accords in February 1945, which occurred as World War II was winding down and Soviet imperialism was becoming more apparent.
The GOP, and even a young Democratic senator named John Kennedy, regarded Roosevelt as selling out Eastern Europe to Stalin. The reasons supplied for this “treachery” were either that FDR was “soft on Communism” (the view of Joseph McCarthy, and even moderate Republicans who attacked McCarthy) and that an obviously dying Roosevelt was taken advantage of by a more robust Joseph Stalin.
In his book The Last 100 Days: FDR at War and Peace, David Woolner contests both interpretations, but devotes the most energy to the health issue. His starting point is that FDR was extremely competent and canny even though it was apparent he was dying—a month after Yalta, FDR broke precedent by appearing before Congress in a wheelchair. Woolner’s portrait of Roosevelt is heroic, with the president summoning his last bit of energy to push back at Stalin and secure the creation of the United Nations. Roosevelt’s effort was thus a noble self-sacrifice, as Woolner admits that these efforts led to his death at the age of 63.
However, Woolner’s argument that Roosevelt was fully alert contradicts the president’s own doctors, who advised him not to run for a second term and believed that by Yalta, February 1945, Roosevelt was fading daily and would be dead within the year. Instead, Woolner gauges the president’s competency based on how FDR saw himself: as a canny political operator.
By documenting FDR’s “competency” mere months before his death in April 1945, Woolner disputes those who saw Yalta as a sell-out and instead agrees with those in the FDR camp who asserted that Roosevelt prioritized free elections in Poland, and that Stalin broke his word on that issue (a view shared by Ronald Reagan, both in his New Deal phase and conservative one).
But facts complicate this portrait of a wily FDR, fully aware of the game Stalin was playing. Although Roosevelt on the very day of his death felt betrayed by Stalin and drafted a strongly worded cable denouncing the dictator’s broken promise about Poland, this stance was not present at Yalta.
Instead Roosevelt’s strategy was outright appeasement. He went into the accords with the intention of giving “Stalin whatever he wanted and asking for nothing in return” in order to secure the peace. This strategy strengthened when FDR delegated all policy matters to Alger Hiss, a State Department official later outed as a Soviet spy. His famed strategy of letting both sides fight it out, with his encouragement, then siding with the group that emerged dominant was not present at Yalta, where, to Churchill’s rage, FDR often sided with Stalin.
Had FDR been fully alert, he would have known that the Soviets were ending the Grand Alliance as early as 1944, when Stalin stated there would be no peace between capitalist countries and communist ones after Adolf Hitler was defeated. This belief became part of overseas Communist policy, when the American Communist Party, which had pledged to support the Constitution and the free enterprise system in the spirit of the Grand Alliance, were directed from the Kremlin to jettison these positions and return to a policy of uncompromising class warfare.
A Frustrating Read
Woolner is so wedded to his portrait of a mentally alert and savvy Roosevelt that he avoids more valid interpretations about FDR’s behavior at Yalta. Even FDR and Camelot spear-carrier Arthur Schlesinger Jr., asserted that Roosevelt was too distracted about defeating the Nazis to focus on Stalin (Schlesinger Jr. does believe the president was naïve about Stalin).
Woolner could have fallen back on Schlesinger’s enviable point that Stalin’s paranoia was so off the charts that no matter what policies Roosevelt offered Stalin would have believed there was an anti-Soviet design behind them. Nevertheless FDR’s strategy was muddled and contradictory. For all this enthusiasm for the United Nations, FDR at times wanted the world divided up into spheres of influence carved out between the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union (at Yalta he asked Stalin which part of the world he wanted to oversee).
Refreshingly Woolner does not engage in what would have happened had FDR lived. Others have asserted there would have been no Cold War, and imperialism, especially in the then-French colony of Vietnam, would have ended. Instead he focuses on what FDR actually did, unlike the Camelot School of History which, as relentlessly peddled by Schlesinger, asserted that had JFK dodged Oswald’s bullets the president would have ended the Cold War in his second term.
Even without Woolner’s desperate attempt to find moments of clarity in a dying-by-inches Roosevelt, his assertions that FDR was, by the time of Yalta, determined to push back against Stalin rings hollow. All in all, Woolner’s book is frustrating read that slights history and FDR’s medical condition.