Eight Days at Yalta

Diana Preston | 24 mins


‘The Big Three’

The three leaders who would at Yalta decide the end of the war and the shape of the future peace shared completely only a single common goal – the speedy defeat of Nazi Germany. Just as their backgrounds and their route to power varied markedly, so too did their aspirations and ambitions, both for themselves and their countries.

Churchill, seventy in the previous November, was the oldest; Stalin, born in December 1878, was sixty-six; and Roosevelt, the youngest, would be sixty-three on 30 January 1945 as he journeyed to the conference. The stresses and strains of office and of the war had taken their toll on all three. None was in particularly good health, with that of Roosevelt being conspicuously the poorest. A bout of polio in August 1921 had paralysed him from the waist down – a paralysis which he refused to believe was permanent and tried numerous therapies to alleviate. Even in January 1945 he had a new masseur and healer, ex-prize fighter Harry Setaro, who told him ‘Mr President, you’re going to walk.’

With the acquiescence of a media more compliant than now, Roosevelt concealed from the public the extent of his paralysis, often using a system of heavy steel leg braces to allow him to stand at important events and even to walk short distances with the help of a stick or the arm of an aide, swinging his legs from the hip. In this he was helped by the determined way he built up his upper body strength, even becoming a better swimmer than any of his White House staff. An aide recalled, ‘You did not really notice he could not walk. He was a sort of Mount Rushmore being wheeled around, and all you noticed after a while was the Mount Rushmore part.’ However, approaching his sixty-third birthday Roosevelt was also suffering excessively high blood pressure, had an enlarged heart with a weak left ventricle leading to reduced blood supply throughout his body, chronic sinus and bronchial problems, frequent headaches, chronic insomnia, and bleeding haemorrhoids – several of which conditions were exacerbated by his enforced sedentary lifestyle.

Stalin suffered from chronic psoriasis, tonsillitis, rheumatism and foot problems, among which was that two toes on his left foot were fused together. His face was marked by boyhood smallpox. Following an infection his left arm hung stiff, sufficiently so for him to be declared unfit for military service in the First World War. In spring 1944 his aides had found him unconscious at his desk from an unknown cause. Although almost certainly the fittest of the three, he had developed a hypochondriac’s sensitivity to any small health problem, probably heightened by fears of poison and increasing paranoia in general.

Churchill was so overweight that in 1942 he had to have a new desk installed in his Cabinet war rooms beneath London’s Whitehall because he could not fit behind the previous one. Throughout his life he had been subject to depression which he likened to having ‘a black dog on one’s back’. He routinely took barbiturate sleeping pills. He had suffered a heart attack when visiting President Roosevelt over Christmas and New Year 1941/2 and had had several bouts of pneumonia. During the worst of them, which occurred in mid-December 1943 in Morocco as he returned from the first meeting of the ‘Big Three’ – as newspapers habitually labelled the three leaders – in Teheran, his doctor Lord Moran told one of Churchill’s ministers that he expected him to die. He had had several previous brushes with death, not only in action during his early career as an army officer and war correspondent, but also due to accidents, as when in 1931 a car knocked down and nearly killed him in Manhattan. The aftermath of this incident provides a major clue to one of his habits. It was Prohibition time in the United States and Churchill demanded that the doctor treating him write a note stating, ‘This is to certify that the post-accident convalescence of the Hon. Winston S. Churchill necessitates the use of alcoholic spirits especially at meal times. The quantity is naturally indefinite but the minimum requirements would be 250 cubic centimetres.’

Churchill habitually used alcohol. He enjoyed whisky – a favourite was Johnny Walker Black Label – which he always drank without ice but with sufficient soda or water for one of his private secretaries to describe it as ‘really a mouthwash’. He loved champagne, particularly vintage Pol Roger, fine wine and brandy.

Whether Churchill was an alcoholic has been much debated. He himself said, ‘I have taken more out of alcohol than it has taken out of me.’ But many suspected he was addicted. Sumner Welles, one of Roosevelt’s first envoys to Britain, dismissed him as ‘a drunken sot’. When he heard Churchill had become prime minister, Roosevelt told his cabinet ‘he supposed Churchill was the best man that England had, even if he was drunk half of the time’.

Roosevelt too enjoyed alcohol, though he did not drink so much as Churchill. He particularly liked to mix cocktails ‘with the precision of a chemist’, as a friend observed, a social ritual he could still perform despite his disability. Churchill detested these cocktails and would sometimes slip to the lavatory with his glass to pour his away and replace it with water. Invited to taste one of Roosevelt’s cocktails, Stalin described it as ‘Alright, cold on the stomach.’

Stalin drank spirits, particularly vodka, but preferred the white wine of his native Georgia – said to be the first place wine was ever produced – and could sometimes become drunk. However, his Foreign Minister Molotov suggested that more often he used alcohol to test people, insisting they keep on drinking to see what true opinions they might express in their cups or simply for the amusement of seeing them fall down dead drunk. According to Beria’s son Sergo, ‘Stalin loved that. He delighted in the spectacle of human weakness.’ Averell Harriman, Roosevelt’s envoy, detected a similar trait in the President, ‘He unquestionably had a sadistic streak . . . [and] always enjoyed other people’s discomfort . . . it never bothered him very much when other people were unhappy.’

All three men smoked heavily. So did many of their aides. Any room including those at Yalta where they met would have reeked of their various tobaccos and been truly smoke-filled with a blue-grey haze. Roosevelt was a virtual chain-smoker, inhaling through a holder usually Camels but sometimes Lucky Strikes, both of which were untipped – as were nearly all cigarettes of the time. Stalin also chain-smoked. He enjoyed American cigarettes but was more often pictured using one of his pipes, some of which were imported from Dunhill in London, frequently gesturing with them to underline a point in debate. Churchill only smoked large, long cigars, also purchased from Dunhill, often eight or nine a day.

In physical appearance Churchill and Stalin were stout and short, even if according to one of his interpreters Stalin wore ‘special supports under his heels built into the soles of his boots to make him look taller than he was’. Milovan Djilas, a Yugoslav Communist visitor to Moscow in 1944, described Stalin as:

of very small stature and ungainly build. His torso was short and narrow, while his legs and arms were too long. His left arm and shoulder seemed rather still. He had quite a large paunch and his hair was sparse though his scalp was not completely bald. His face was white, with ruddy cheeks . . . His teeth were black and irregular, turned inward . . . Still the head was not a bad one . . . with those amber eyes and a mixture of sternness and mischief.

Churchill’s daughter Sarah Oliver recalled Stalin as ‘a frightening figure with his slit, bear eyes’ although sometimes ‘specks of light danced in [them] like cold sunshine on dark waters’.

A guest at a White House dinner party described the five foot six inch Churchill as:

a rotund, dumpy figure with short, slight arms and legs, narrow in the shoulders, mostly stomach, chest and head, no neck. Yet, as he advanced into the room, a semi-scowl on his big, chubby, pink-and-white face with its light blue eyes, the knowledge of his performance since Dunquerque and something about his person gave him a massive stature. He moves as though he were without joints, all of a piece: solidly, unhurriedly, impervious to obstacles, like a tank or a bulldozer.

Roosevelt’s distant (sixth) cousin and frequent companion Margaret ‘Daisy’ Suckley thought Churchill ‘a strange looking little man. Fat & round, his clothes bunched up on him. Practically no hair on his head . . . He talks as though he had terrible adenoids . . . His humorous twinkle is infectious.’

Roosevelt was more than six inches taller than either of the others, being six foot two when standing in his leg braces. The same dinner guest who described Churchill depicted Roosevelt’s ‘ruddy’ face, ‘broad-shouldered torso and large head’ with ‘close-set square eyes [which] flashed with an infectious zest . . . His hands gesturing for emphasis, lighting one cigarette after another, and flicking the ashes off his wrinkled seersucker coat, shook rather badly. The rings under his eyes were very dark and deep.’ One of his interpreters described how Roosevelt ‘thought he had a sense of humour’ but in fact it was ‘exceptionally corny’. He ‘loved to tell jokes . . . and roar with laughter, very visibly savouring and enjoying his own humour’.

Theatricality is a facet of many politicians. Roosevelt’s security chief Mike Reilly thought there was ‘a good deal of the actor’ about both Churchill and Roosevelt. Roosevelt had a habit of throwing back his head in a motion which he himself attributed to ‘the Garbo in me’. He once told Orson Welles that the two of them were the finest actors in the United States. An American diplomat recalled of Churchill and his British bulldog image, ‘Everything felt the touch of his art, his appearance, his gestures . . . the indomitable V sign for victory, the cigar for imperturbability.’ Milovan Djilas found it difficult to assess how much of Stalin’s behaviour was ‘play-acting’ and how much was real, since ‘with him pretence was so spontaneous that it seemed he himself became convinced of the truth and sincerity of what he was saying’. He also detected in Stalin ‘a sense of humour – a rough humour, self-assured, but not without subtlety and depth’. However, behind his teasing, particularly of subordinates, there was often ‘as much malice as jest’. Sergo Beria recollected how Stalin mocked Malenkov, one of his senior ministers, for being overweight, telling him it was ideologically unsound for a senior party official to be so fat and ordering him to exercise and take up horse riding ‘to recover the look of a human being’.

The working hours, habits and approach to government of the three varied considerably. Roosevelt worked ‘office hours’, often with his black Scottish terrier Fala at his side, usually halting and taking a swim before dinner. Churchill, according to his daughter, ‘never wanted to switch off’. He sometimes worked into the night. When he had no meetings in the morning he would remain in bed working on his papers lying scattered over the bedclothes, and sometimes wearing his ‘siren suit’ – a ‘onesie’ or all-in-one piece of clothing. A British diplomat described it as ‘a dreadful garment that [Churchill] claimed to have designed himself to wear during air raids . . . like a mechanic’s overalls or more still like a child’s rompers or crawlers’. Churchill often took a siesta after lunch. Sometimes he would dictate to one of his secretaries while soaking in the bath.

Stalin, who had Lenin’s death mask beside his desk in his small spartan office in the Kremlin, was even more nocturnal, routinely working late into the night and sleeping until eleven or so in the morning. According to Sergo Beria, ‘He always locked himself in when he slept, but it would be wrong to put that down to cowardice. My father said that Stalin did not fear death. He simply did not want anyone to see him asleep and defenceless. When he was ill he concealed his weakness.’ Andrei Gromyko, who was present at Yalta and other conferences as Soviet ambassador to Washington, ‘never saw a doctor with him throughout all the Allied conferences’. If so, Stalin was the only one of the three leaders who did not have a personal doctor in close attendance at Yalta.

As befitted a man who had uniquely already served three presidential terms and embarked on a fourth, Roosevelt always kept a close eye on domestic politics. He never went further than he thought a majority of public opinion would allow and made sure through his ‘fireside’ radio chats that the electorate understood and empathized with his message and motives. Roosevelt’s desire to have public opinion with him led a presidential rival to call him ‘a chameleon on plaid’ as he fitted his policies to the public mood. Churchill told his son Randolph, ‘The President for all his warm heart and good intentions, is thought by many of his admirers to move with public opinion rather than to lead and form it.’

Churchill – the only British prime minister ever to wear military uniform regularly in office, and his own Defence Minister – focused his attention on the conduct of the war and the relationship between Britain and its allies. He had not only little time but also little inclination to attend to domestic policy. Thus he left the members of his coalition Cabinet significant freedom of action in that area. Labour members took major roles in planning for post-war reconstruction and indeed laid the foundations of the National Health Service without interference from him. One of Churchill’s private secretaries, John ‘Jock’ Colville, noted that Churchill’s focus was on ‘defence, foreign affairs and party politics’, much less on ‘domestic problems or the home front except when he was aroused for sentimental reasons’.

Churchill rarely held a grudge. The morning after they had had ‘a sharp and almost bitter argument’, a colleague found him ‘benign and smiling and affectionate’. Roosevelt’s wife Eleanor described the Prime Minister as ‘lovable and emotional and very human’ even if she disagreed with many of his political views. Churchill’s daughter Mary considered that her father ‘was not complicated in his approach to people. He was trusting and very genuine. He could be wily if he had to, but it did not come naturally.’ Again according to Colville, ‘Patience [was] a virtue with which he was totally unfamiliar.’ Churchill recognized how his impatience, allied to his impulsiveness, led him to go off at tangents into oral flights of fantasy by telling his civil servants only to accept written instructions. He always liked an audience and tended to monopolize conversation.

Churchill’s deputy Clement Attlee believed, ‘Energy, rather than wisdom, practical judgment or vision, was his supreme qualification’ but ‘it was poetry coupled with [that] energy that did the trick.’ However in mid-January 1945, just before Yalta, Attlee typed himself – with two fingers ‘so that none of his staff should see it’ – ‘a very blunt letter to the P.M.’ It included a complaint about ‘the P.M.’s lengthy disquisitions in Cabinet on papers which he has not read and on subjects which he has not taken the trouble to master’. Colville wrote in his diary, ‘Greatly as I love and admire the PM, I am afraid there is much in what Attlee says.’ Churchill’s wife, to whom he showed Attlee’s letter, thought it ‘both true and wholesome’.

Roosevelt was much less emotional and much more restrained, calculating and enigmatic than the easily moved to tears, voluble and rarely dissimulating Churchill. He chose his words carefully, kept himself at the centre of the web of his administration and compartmentalized both his personal and political lives. His wife Eleanor warned Churchill, ‘when Franklin says yes, yes, yes it doesn’t mean he agrees . . . It means he’s listening.’ She also believed he had ‘a great sense of responsibility . . . And the great feeling that possibly he was the only one who was equipped and trained and cognizant . . . of every phase of the situation’. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allied forces in Europe, considered him ‘almost an egomaniac in his belief in his own wisdom’. Roosevelt’s vice-president for his third term, Henry Wallace, was not alone in thinking that he was ‘strictly opportunistic’. He worked ‘by intuition and indirection’ and could ‘very successfully go in two directions at almost the same time’.

Roosevelt’s last vice-president and successor, Harry Truman, described him as ‘the coldest man I ever met. He didn’t give a damn personally for me or you or anyone else in the world, as far as I could see.’ He ‘liked to play one outfit against the other’. An aide went further:

He would send messages out through one department and have the replies come back through another department because he didn’t want anyone else to have a complete file on his communications with Prime Minister Winston Churchill, for example . . . he didn’t want anybody else to know the whole story on anything . . . Because Roosevelt didn’t ever take people fully into his confidence, it left his subordinates always uncertain of where they stood. They had to be loyal to him, but they didn’t really know how loyal he was to them.

Roosevelt acknowledged the truth of some of these criticisms: ‘You know, I am a juggler and I never let my left hand know what my right hand does . . . I may be entirely inconsistent, and furthermore I am perfectly willing to mislead and tell untruths if it will help win the war.’ The respected Washington correspondent of the New York Times, Arthur Krock, summed up this ambiguity in him:

I think you’d have to go back to Jefferson to find another President like him. He was quite as inconsistent as Jefferson and at times as dishonest as Jefferson – but really a great man. There were a good many resemblances between him and Jefferson, and he always thought there were too.

Both Roosevelt and Churchill were – and had to be – good orators although in very different ways. Roosevelt was innovative in his use of friendly radio fireside chats. Churchill successfully adapted Roosevelt’s use of the radio to boost public morale in wartime but was a much more flamboyant and emotional speaker, a conjuror of quotable sound bites. Eisenhower recalled of Churchill he was ‘a master in argument and debate . . . intensely oratorial’, even one to one: ‘He used humor and pathos with equal facility and drew on everything from the Greek classics to Donald Duck for quotation, cliché and forceful slang to support his proposition.’ Even the curmudgeonly Free French leader General Charles de Gaulle acknowledged Churchill’s ability ‘to stir the dull English dough’.

Whatever the men’s colleagues, friends and families made of their abilities, Roosevelt’s wife Eleanor – niece of his fifth cousin former President Theodore Roosevelt – wrote, ‘A man in high office is neither husband nor father nor friend in the commonly accepted sense of the words.’ She acknowledged the bond her husband and Churchill formed, which helped them win the war – ‘a fortunate relationship’, she called it. The two men shared an extraordinary self-confidence, resilience and determination which allowed them, in Churchill’s words, ‘to keep buggering on’ to overcome any setbacks, whether political, military or, particularly in Roosevelt’s case, physical.

Not surprisingly, since Stalin had instant power of life or death over his colleagues, they wrote much less about his personality and methods of working. At home he was undisputed leader in both political and military matters, trusting few and taking the big decisions himself. His daughter Svetlana said, ‘Human feelings in him were replaced by political considerations. He knew and sensed the political game, its shades, its nuances. He was completely absorbed by it . . . Cold calculation, dissimulation, a sober, cynical realism became stronger in him with the years.’

Sergo Beria wrote:

Stalin was supremely intelligent. He had a cold heart, calculated every action and remained invariably master of himself. He took all his decisions after having carefully weighed them. He never improvised. When he was obliged to depart from his original plan he never risked doing it until he had worked out a replacement strategy. It was not that he was slow in his reactions but he undertook nothing lightly. Every one of his actions formed part of a long-term scheme which was to enable him to attain a particular aim at a particular moment . . . Methodical in the extreme, Stalin’s vast memory constituted a veritable collection of archives and he drew from it at will the data . . . he needed . . . to achieve an aim. He prepared carefully for every meeting, studying the questions he meant to raise.

Sergo also said to enforce his will Stalin encouraged government organizations to report on each other and state security to report back on them all. He used hidden microphones to bug his colleagues’ conversations and ‘set those around him one against another. He was a master of this art.’

On a more personal level Andrei Gromyko recalled,

I was always aware, watching Stalin speaking, of how expressive his face was, especially his eyes. When rebuking or arguing with someone, Stalin had a way of staring him mercilessly in the eyes and not taking his gaze off him. The object of this relentless stare, one has to admit, felt profoundly uncomfortable.

Foreign diplomats, however, were surprised by the dictator’s seeming charm, the softness of his voice and how, unlike others, including Churchill, he often seemed prepared to listen to what they had to say, rather than to speak himself. Even if some of their praise of him was pragmatic, based on the wartime necessity of appearing to be on good terms with an ally, by and large they, like Churchill and Roosevelt and later Truman, formed much more favourable impressions of him than his known deeds should have warranted.

Churchill and Roosevelt were much closer in background to each other than to Stalin. They even shared common ancestors from the late Princess Diana’s family, the Spencers. Churchill was a nephew of the Duke of Marlborough and was born at the family seat, Blenheim Palace. His father was the Duke’s brother – the mercurial, talented, shooting star of a politician, Lord Randolph Churchill. His mother was an American beauty and heiress, Jennie Jerome and as a consequence Churchill claimed he ‘could trace unbroken male descent on my mother’s side through five generations from a lieutenant who served in George Washington’s army’, giving him ‘a bloodright to speak to the representatives of the great Republic in our common cause’.

Recent research suggests that Churchill’s childhood may not have been quite as lonely and isolated as his own writings suggest. Nevertheless he often pleaded for more attention from his parents, writing to his mother from school, ‘I am so wretched. Even now I weep. Please my darling mummy be kind to your loving son . . . Let me at least think that you love me.’ Lord Randolph Churchill certainly questioned his son’s abilities, telling his own mother that Winston ‘has little [claim] to cleverness, to knowledge or any capacity for settled work. He has great talent for show-off exaggerations and make believe.’ When Churchill wrote to his father, exulting in getting into the military academy at Sandhurst on his third attempt, Lord Randolph’s reply was crushing, condemning him for not doing well enough to get into an infantry regiment, continuing, ‘If you cannot prevent yourself from leading the idle, useless, unprofitable life you have had during your school days and later months, you’ll become a mere social wastrel . . . and you will degenerate into a shabby, unhappy and futile existence.’

Lord Randolph died when Winston was twenty. After Sandhurst, Churchill went both as an army officer and a successful reporter wherever the military action was – Cuba, the North-West Frontier in India, the last great cavalry charge of the British army at Omdurman in the Sudan, and South Africa, where he was captured in a Boer attack on an armoured train. His spectacular escape, and his thrilling first-person account of it for the Morning Post, made him a national hero. For the first time his mother took notice and promoted his career using the influence she had built up through her many affairs, including with Edward VII when he was Prince of Wales. In September 1900 Churchill was elected a Member of Parliament, which he was to remain, with one short break, until just before his death sixty-five years later. ‘Restless, egotistical, bumptious, shallow-minded and reactionary but with a certain personal magnetism, great pluck and some originality’ was how the socialist Beatrice Webb described him during his early years in Parliament. Originally a Conservative, he crossed the floor to join the Liberals, serving as Trade Secretary before being appointed Home Secretary and then in 1911 First Lord of the Admiralty, the political head of the Royal Navy.

Early in the First World War, Churchill – already a Cabinet minister for six years – was the major proponent of landings at Gallipoli in the Dardanelles, designed to knock Turkey swiftly out of the enemy alliance. The disastrous failure of the landings led in late May 1915 to his dismissal from the Admiralty. His wife later remembered, ‘The Dardanelles haunted him for the rest of his life. He always believed in it. When he left the Admiralty he thought he was finished . . . I thought he would die of grief.’

For some months in late 1915 and early 1916, Churchill became a front-line infantry battalion commander in the trenches of the Western Front – the only one of the Big Three leaders ever to see front-line action. Returning to Britain, he became Minister for Munitions and in 1919 Secretary of State for War. Before that in 1918, Churchill had attended a talk by Roosevelt at one of London’s Inns of Court. According to Joseph Kennedy, at the outbreak of the Second World War US ambassador to Britain and no friend to Churchill, Roosevelt told him Churchill had been rude and ‘a stinker . . . lording it all over us’. When they first met during the Second World War Churchill could not recall meeting Roosevelt before – somewhat to the chagrin of the President.

Churchill, as a British Cabinet minister, was among the most vociferous in urging armed intervention against the Russian Revolution. He condemned Bolshevism as a ‘foul baboonery’ and ‘A pestilence more destructive of life than the Black Death or the Spotted Typhus’ and approved the dispatch of support to White Russian forces around Archangel and Murmansk and the use of British naval forces to help ensure the independence of the Baltic states as agreed at the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919.

By the early 1930s, Churchill was in the wilderness. Having rejoined the Conservative Party and served five years as an undistinguished Chancellor of the Exchequer, he had become distanced from the leadership of his party following the Conservative defeat in 1929, originally owing to his opposition to the smallest concessions to Indian Home Rule and later to efforts by the British government to appease Hitler.

Churchill condemned the Indian independence leader Mohandas Gandhi as a ‘half-naked fakir’. When told by Lord Halifax, a former Viceroy of India, that he held views of India ‘similar to those of a subaltern [second lieutenant], a generation ago’ and that he might wish to update them by meeting some Indian political activists, Churchill replied, ‘I am quite satisfied with my views of India, I don’t want them disturbed by any bloody Indian.’

Churchill’s campaign against appeasement reached a peak after Neville Chamberlain’s notorious abandonment of Czechoslovakia under the 1938 Munich Agreement with Hitler. Churchill told the House of Commons,

Parliament should know there has been gross neglect . . . in our defences . . . we have sustained a defeat without a war the consequence of which will travel far with us along our road . . . the whole equilibrium of Europe has been deranged . . . this is only the beginning of the reckoning . . . the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be offered to us year by year – unless – by a supreme recovery of our moral health and martial vigour, we arise and take our stand for freedom.

Franklin Roosevelt came from a long-established Anglo-Dutch family and enjoyed a happy childhood on his family’s Springwood estate at Hyde Park overlooking the Hudson River near Poughkeepsie. An only child with a devoted if somewhat domineering mother, he was the only one of the three leaders to attend university – in his case Harvard. However, he did not excel academically there or subsequently at Columbia Law School, perhaps justifying Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s later comment, ‘A second-class intellect. But a first-class temperament.’

In 1910, as a Democrat in contrast to his Republican fifth cousin Theodore, Roosevelt secured his first elected position – that of a New York State senator. He later suggested that he needed this apprenticeship before moving on to the federal level, writing, ‘I was an awfully mean cuss when I first went into politics.’ Three years afterwards, he was offered his first federal office – that of Assistant Secretary of the Navy, a position which fostered his love of the sea, just as Churchill’s Admiralty posting had for him. In his very first message to Churchill, Roosevelt noted their common naval experience. Throughout the Second World War Churchill’s messages to Roosevelt were often signed ‘Former Naval Person’.

Roosevelt was in France on an inspection tour during President Wilson’s negotiations at the Versailles Peace Conference which led to the creation of the League of Nations. The League was Wilson’s brainchild and he received the 1919 Nobel Peace Prize for his part in its foundation. Roosevelt returned to Washington from Versailles on the same ship as Wilson. During the voyage Wilson said of the League, ‘The United States must go in or it will break the heart of the world for she is the only nation that all feel is disinterested and all trust.’ Roosevelt agreed and stored the quote for future use – the sentiments would underlie his future advocacy of the United Nations at Yalta and elsewhere.

However, that same year the US Senate vetoed Wilson’s proposal that the US should join the League as impinging upon US sovereignty. Nevertheless the League was still a live issue when, at the age of thirty-eight, Roosevelt ran as the Democratic vice-presidential candidate to James Cox in the 1920 US presidential election. Roosevelt strongly supported the League during the campaign. After the landslide victory of Republican Warren Harding, the US remained outside the League, leaving that organization even more toothless than it might have been.

In August 1921, sailing in his yacht off New Brunswick, Roosevelt fell overboard as a sudden weakness deprived him of his balance. He had contracted the polio which paralysed his legs. In 1927 he founded an institute for the treatment and rehabilitation of polio patients at Warm Springs in Georgia. In line with the policy of the southern states, it was segregated – black people were not admitted. Like Churchill in his thinking about the races of the British Empire at this time, Roosevelt would go beyond casual racism, arguing in the newspapers against Japanese immigration because ‘Japanese immigrants are not capable of assimilation into the American population . . . the mingling of Asiatic blood with European and or American blood produces in nine cases out of ten the most unfortunate results.’

In 1928 Roosevelt ran for the governorship of New York State, winning by 25,000 votes out of 4.2 million when the Republican Herbert Hoover was winning the presidency by a landslide. Re-elected governor by a larger majority in 1930, Roosevelt then won the Democratic presidential nomination in 1932 when, following the economic crash of 1929, Hoover’s reputation had degenerated to the extent that the joke was, ‘If Hoover won, Mahatma Gandhi would make the best-dressed list.’ Roosevelt defeated Hoover in a landslide and immediately embarked on his New Deal revolution, telling the American people, ‘the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,’ launching public works programmes, regulating the banks and stock market and thereby restoring confidence in the economy, and giving direct assistance to the unemployed, who then numbered more than a quarter of the industrial workforce. In all he did he showed great ability as ‘a reconciler’ of seemingly diametrically opposed factions. Using what Henry Wallace called his ‘feminine intuition about people’, Roosevelt improvised solutions to solve immediate problems ‘at least for the present’. In 1936 he was re-elected with an even greater majority, won an unprecedented third term in 1940, and had started his fourth just before Yalta.

By the time the Versailles Peace Conference assembled in 1919 to decide the shape of Europe after the First World War, Stalin had achieved considerable power. According to a contemporary, ‘Stalin did not like to speak about his childhood’. He was born Joseph Vissarionovich Djugashvili in December 1878 to a drunkard father who beat him and his mother. Both Stalin’s parents had been born serfs. They lived in Gori, a small town on the Kura River in Georgia.

Stalin was the only one of four siblings to survive a harsh childhood. After his mother threw out his father she took in washing from the local merchants and priests. Perhaps with the latter’s help, in 1894 Stalin won a scholarship to the Orthodox seminary in the Georgian capital Tiflis (Tbilisi), where he was paid five roubles a month as a choirboy. Stalin later said his father once appeared at the seminary asking him for money, pleading, ‘Don’t be as mean as your mother!’ Stalin told him to leave or ‘I’ll call the watchman’.

Stalin was expelled from the seminary in 1899. Shortly afterwards he became a full-time revolutionary and in 1902 was first exiled to Siberia. In 1907 he robbed a bank in Tbilisi of 250,000 roubles to fund the revolutionary cause. Afterwards he visited several European countries including Britain – he first met Trotsky in London – to attend revolutionary meetings. A visit to Prague and Kraków at the end of 1912 was his last outside Russia until the first ‘Big Three’ conference at Teheran in 1943. Some time before then he had begun writing in Russian rather than Georgian. His spoken Russian retained a strong Georgian accent throughout his life. In 1912 at Lenin’s urging he was elected a member of the Communist Party’s Central Committee and began using the name Stalin, meaning ‘steel’. At around this time he is believed to have acted as a double agent, betraying his opponents among the revolutionaries to the Tsarist secret police, the Okhrana. This may explain why the further period of exile to which he was sentenced shortly afterwards was less than might have been expected.

Following the abdication of the Tsar in March 1917, Stalin fled his exile and travelled to St Petersburg where he took over the editorship of Pravda (Truth), the Bolshevik newspaper, from his future Foreign Minister Molotov. After the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 he rose in the party hierarchy. In spring 1918, Lenin dispatched him on an armoured train with 400 Red Guards to bring order to the chaos and treachery in the strategic city of Tsaritsyn on the Volga, a gateway to the Caucasus’s oil and grain supplies threatened by advancing White Russians. There, from his blue-silk decorated railway lounge car, Stalin completed ‘a ruthless purge of the rear administered by an iron hand’. Tsaritsyn was renamed Stalingrad after him in April 1925.

Other important tasks followed until in 1922 Stalin was appointed General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Following Stalin’s merciless behaviour in suppressing dissent in his native Georgia and elsewhere, Lenin became disillusioned with his protégé, warning towards the end of 1922, after he had suffered his first stroke, that Stalin ‘has concentrated immense power in his hands, and I am not certain he will always know how to make use of this power with sufficient caution’; a little later he warned, ‘Stalin is too rough and this defect becomes . . . intolerable for one who holds the office of General Secretary [of the Communist Party].’ Nevertheless, in the years following Lenin’s death in January 1924 Stalin achieved complete power at the expense of Trotsky, not least by arguing that the Communist Party should concentrate on ‘Socialism in one Country’, the USSR, rather than on the rolling international revolution favoured by Trotsky.

Stalin oversaw a disastrous forced collectivization of peasant farmers, leading to a mass famine in 1932/3. Thirty-two million of the Soviet Union’s 70 million cattle died or were killed in the upheaval, together with nearly two-thirds of the goats and half of the horses. Tragically some 6–8 million people died, among them 4–5 million from the fertile Ukraine. Going through a Ukrainian village, a journalist found messages scrawled beside bodies, ‘God bless those who enter here, may they never suffer as we have.’

Dissatisfied with the lack of party discipline and firmness in the response of some colleagues to the turmoil of the collectivization and fearing attempts to usurp him both from the Trotskyite left and the Bukharinite right of the Communist Party, Stalin embarked on a series of great purges during the middle and late 1930s. On trumped-up charges – or even without charge – he had 93 of the 139-strong Central Committee and 89 of the 103 Soviet generals and admirals executed. Up to a third of the 3 million or so members of the Communist Party were also killed. Estimates vary, but many millions of ordinary civilians suspected of disloyalty or of being kulaks – former landowning peasants too rich for their own good – or simply innocents denounced by a personal enemy were deported or sent to the gulags, where they died in great numbers.

Although reports of the suffering and of the trials reached the West, many, particularly socialists and liberal thinkers sympathetic to communist ideals, refused to credit them, believing them exaggerated or that there was truth in the confessions at the trials – denying or not realizing they had been tortured out of the accused. In 1944, an American adviser who accompanied Vice-President Wallace on a visit to the Kolyma Gulag where 3 million died between 1937 and 1953 wrote a magazine article comparing the gulag to the Tennessee Valley Authority, a centrepiece project of Roosevelt’s New Deal. Roosevelt himself underestimated Stalin’s crimes when he found him guilty of ‘the indiscriminate killings of thousands of innocent victims’.

Reluctance on the part of the Western Allies to recognize the truth about the extent and gravity of the Soviet regime’s excesses, or at the very least a conviction that they were committed by dark forces outside the control of Stalin and the leadership, persisted throughout the war years.