President Clinton meets Boris Yeltsin at Franklin D. Roosevelt's homestead Monday to evoke, according to the White House, World War II's "spirit of cooperation" between Americans and Russians.
In reality, that alliance was marked by suspicion, fear, deceit, jealousy and misunderstanding. If Josef Stalin had visited Hyde Park, he probably would have brought a food taster.Monday's conference comes at a time when the United States and Russia are increasingly at odds over issues such as Bosnia and NATO. The two countries would like to revive some of the old wartime bonhomie - a feeling, according to historian Thomas B. Allen, that never existed.
"Cooperative? That word doesn't fit," said Allen, co-author of a Random House encyclopedia on World War II. "That was a relationship that started cool and turned icy." It beat Hitler, but spawned a Cold War that killed millions in proxy wars and sapped the economies of both nations.
Photos of their wartime conferences suggest intimacy, but the Roosevelt-Stalin alliance involved almost no military cooperation or joint strategy, not even for the D-Day invasion of Normandy.
The Soviets wouldn't let the United States use their Pacific ports against the Japanese. If a U.S. warplane wound up in Soviet territory, the Soviets interned the pilot, submitted a bill for his room and board and kept the plane.
The Americans, Soviets and British played one off against the other and spied on each other. When Roosevelt died in 1945, Stalin probably knew more about the top-secret nuclear Manhattan Project than did Harry Truman.
The United States sent $11 billion in war materiel to the Soviet Union, a contribution that Stalin once toasted as decisive. But he never told his own people about it.
The acrimony wasn't all the Soviets' fault. FDR foolishly promised to open a second front against the Germans in 1942. When he could not, Stalin worried that the United States and Britain planned to sit back and let Germany and the Soviet Union bleed each other white.
Even though Roosevelt and Winston Churchill knew Stalin's spies had told him of the atomic bomb project, they decided - at Hyde Park, in fact - to keep the research to themselves.
Roosevelt and Stalin even bickered over whether to meet, and where. Churchill visited Hyde Park three times during the war; inviting Stalin would have been as futile as asking him to the moon.
Stalin refused to join Churchill and Roosevelt at Cairo in 1943, insisting he could go no further than Tehran, in neighboring Iran. After much back-and-forth, the others succumbed to Stalin's idea of compromise and went to Tehran.
Things went well, though, and Stalin agreed to join the postwar United Nations. "I got along fine with Marshal Stalin," FDR told the nation, always eager to put a good face on things. "I believe he is truly representative of the heart and soul of Russia, and I believe we are going to get along well with him and the Russian people."
Two years later, Stalin refused to leave the Soviet Union at all. So the Big Three met at Yalta, rife with typhus, lice and bedbugs. "Ten years of research," Churchill said, "could not have found a worse place."
Roosevelt knew he was dealing with a tyrant whose purges and forced famines had killed millions, including some of his closest friends and advisers. He once pounded the arm of his wheelchair and insisted, "We can't do business with Stalin!"
But Roosevelt never gave up on Stalin. He thought he could charm him, reassure him, convert him.
Even toward the end, as Soviet designs on Eastern Europe were becoming clear, he cabled Churchill: "I would minimize the general Soviet problem as much as possible, because these problems, in one form or another, seem to arise every day, and most of them straighten out." He added: "We must be firm, however, and our course thus far is correct."
Roosevelt sent his last message to Stalin on the day he died. In it, he urged that there be no more "minor misunderstandings" between them, like who would negotiate the surrender of German forces in Italy.
That, in fact, had been a major dispute, and Averell Harriman, ambassador to Moscow, urged FDR to drop the word "minor."
The president refused. The alliance would collapse, but not on his watch.