Wednesday, April 11, 2012

What We're Reading: Roosevelt's Lost Alliances

Roosevelt’s Lost Alliances: How Personal Politics Helped Start the Cold War, by Frank Costigliola

This is not your mother’s diplomatic history. Traditional works of scholarly research display a propriety that eschews the personal and psychological. Anything that that would appear gossipy or salacious or speculative about the personal lives of major actors in historical events is usually avoided as something not relevant to the objective fact or actions, something that would undermine the high seriousness of the inquiry or the credibility and dignity of the exposition. But what is an author to do in a circumstance where he believes that personal relationships were indeed central to the story of what happened historically, that they were an integral and essential part of the dynamic that explained decisions and events and that their existence, and their estrangement, actively framed important international perspectives and diplomatic choices? This is perhaps new scholarly territory, and potentially dangerous ground, and it would seem to require some judgment and discretion for an author to pull this off, but Costigliola has done this. He has produced a work of historical diplomatic scholarship that is not only important but intimate and remarkably interesting.

Costigliola has made a convincing case here for the insights that his less traditional approach can produce, so much so, that it may be difficult after reading his book to read any other exposition of historical and diplomatic events and not wonder about the personal relationships and off the record asides behind what is described to us at official or face value. But it is important to note here, that Costigliola chose a set of relationships, that between the major Allies of the Second World War, that in fact, if not uniquely, at least in this instance revolved to an extraordinary degree around personal interaction and relationships, a circumstance that make the form his inquiry both necessary and productive. The nature of the world crisis and the exigencies of international decision making in a time of war concentrated an extraordinary amount of power in the hands of but a few individuals. Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin, and Franklin Roosevelt met face to face a number of times during the conflict, and all three met together at Tehran and at Yalta. They were each convinced of the importance of the personal relationships they developed with each other in advancing the war and protecting their own national strategic interests. As Castigliola makes clear in the portraits he gives us of these leaders, each of them were men of extraordinary egotism and fully confident in their ability to use their personal charm and political skills to convince the others to prosecute the war and shape the post war world according to their own national vision. And so we find here a record of the very human frailties and vulnerabilities that we don’t usually find discussed in historical narratives, the personal dislikes and antagonisms, the deliberate obfuscations and ambiguities, the calculated slights, the unspoken understandings and personal bonds, the mental and physical failings of leaders, and their hubris.

The central thesis of Roosevelt’s Lost Alliances is that the Cold War was not inevitable, and that Franklin Roosevelt’s death was catastrophic to the Alliance and to the fate of the post war world. Roosevelt was essential to the working of the Alliance, the fulcrum. The personal relationship he developed with Churchill and Stalin, and his remarkable political skills and vision, were critical to holding the Alliance together and shaping its future, and they were particularly important when the cohesive force of facing a mutual enemy was diminishing as an Allied victory neared. The problem was that Roosevelt could not anticipate or imagine that he would not be around to see things through and secure the peace. The personal relationships he established with his counterparts were not mirrored at the diplomatic level between the countries. His vision was not one that was shared by the State Department and diplomatic core, and it was not one that he adequately explained to the country or for which he created a national consensus. Roosevelt understood the defense and strategic needs of the Soviets, was unsympathetic to the notion of sustaining the British Empire, and above all he was politically pragmatic. He was determined not to repeat the lost peace of Wilson’s idealistic internationalism, viewing it as often detached from individual national security needs and the present realties of international politics. He thought Wilson’s idealistic democratic aspirations were something that would have to be carefully shepherded into realization, over time, by the continued cooperation of the major powers.

When Roosevelt died, he left few in the State Department who shared his vision, and indeed in the years preceding his death the evolution of those in the State Department had been towards a hardening of relationships with the Soviet Union. Some of the most interesting parts of this book describe how the antagonistic views of the U.S. delegation to Moscow developed, particularly the views of U.S. Ambassador Averell Harriman and the influential diplomat George Kennan, architect of America’s Cold War “containment” policy. Truman, Roosevelt’s successor who Roosevelt had left completely out of the loop, was a plain spoken matter of fact man who did not truck in the ambiguity, sleight-of-hand, or apparent indecision that were Roosevelt’s trademarks as a political manipulator. He was congenial to the dichotomous interpretation of the U.S. Soviet relationship fostered by Harriman. Harriman, Kennan, and Truman are scrutinized rather critically in Roosevelt’s Lost Alliances. Some may find this rather bracing.

This book is filled with colorful anecdotes and remarkable gaucheries that will make the reader unable to ever again give much reverence or indulgent sympathy to many of those leaders who held the fate of millions in their hands. Their flaws seem to have been greater than those of the average man. Churchill does not come off very well here, described often as having the exuberant outlook of a pre-pubescent schoolboy, as heavily dependent on constant drinking to keep his mental faculties in working order, and as an exhibitionist (he apparently insisted on discussing matters with Roosevelt during his White House visit on occasion naked or in his bath). Churchill’s daughter-in-law, Pamela Churchill (later Harriman) while still married to his son, took multiple lovers among the American diplomatic and military delegation to London. She was at the center of an unofficial channel of secret information and privileged access to major decision makers. Roosevelt’s closest assistants in the White House also led checkered lives. Margueritte “Missy” Lehand, Roosevelt’s most intimate confidante on his White House staff ended up suffering a stroke and mental breakdown. His personal roving ambassador, Harry Hopkins, was a heavy drinker and a ladies’ man whose health was always tenuous. Another important Roosevelt confident, Undersecretary of State, Sumner Welles, had a serious drinking problem and was finally forced out of the State Department because of his involvement in a homosexual scandal. Stalin delighted in getting his major underlings drunk in order to amuse himself with their indiscretions. Diplomatic parties hosted by the Kremlin were homosocial bonding fests where the American and English ambassadors participated in drinking contests with their Soviet counterparts until the last of the competitors passed out. One of the best stories about these notorious events is told by British Ambassador Archibald Clark Kerr. At a Kremlin gathering he was engaged with his hosts in an argument over the proper way to fire a tommy gun. An unloaded weapon was produced, and Clark Kerr demonstrated his notion of the proper technique, miming shooting Stalin and his aides. The gun was passed to Kliment Voroshilov, a Stalin military aide who demonstrated an alternative technique. Stalin also took up the gun and mimed, in a raking style, shooting most of his military aides and government officers assembled in the room.

Perhaps the story that seems to demonstrate most clearly the importance of the personal relationships that were formed in the lives of these leaders (and their sometimes unexpected importance in illuminating the historical record of major events) is the unexpected treasury of documents that came to light in 1991 that testify to the long time relationship between Margaret “Daisy” Suckley and Franklin Roosevelt. It is not believed that this was a romantic relationship, but it was certainly intimate. In letters to her Roosevelt made off- the-cuff and frank remarks about important events and personalities. Suckley also kept a diary that included much about Roosevelt’s personal life as well as impressions about his moods and health. She lived to be 100 years old, and when she died in 1991 the diary and Roosevelt’s letters to her were found stuffed in a suitcase under her bed.

There is a great deal in Roosevelt’s Lost Alliances that may make the reader cynical about political leadership, but there is also, like the Suckley story, a certain poignancy here, a reminder that those we choose as leaders do not by the dispensation become (whatever their egotism or claims) some different or more capable order of human being than the rest of us. It is a concession we seem oddly (and dangerously) very inclined to make. This demonstration and reminder in Roosevelt’s Lost Alliances of the relevance to history of the very human and personal failings of those who lead us is what makes this book serious, and important history.