Churchill, Truman and Communism in East Europe

I recently read Churchill’s memoirs which were written some years after WW2. He spends a fair amount of time bemoaning the fact that countries like Poland, Roumania and Bulgaria became Soviet satellites. He makes a fair case that this was foreseeable after Stalin did not address concerns regarding Poland at and after Yalta. Some of the problems were related to the poor health of Roosevelt and Harry Hopkins. However, other factors such as Eisenhower differentiating between political and military roles, the wish to withdraw troops from Europe due to fatigue and Japan, appeasing Stalin, the relative inexperience of Truman as a new VP, Churchill losing an election to the Socialists and an unpopular Polish government-in-exile in Britain also are mentioned. Churchill made a note to Stalin at a conference where he basically supported an English influence in Greece and “gave” Roumania and Bulgaria to Soviet influence, and implied Yugoslavia should be “50-50” despite whatever ideas Tito might have had.

Could a more interventionist US have prevented Soviet control of Eastern Europe post-war by taking cities earlier, leaving armies in place while negotiating and “shaking hands with the Russians” further east? Was Truman naive? Is Churchill being fair and accurate?

Were there any significant examples of cities the western allies took from the Germans and then relinquished to the Russians? Or even cases where they could have taken eastern European cities ahead of the soviets if the political will existed?

All the cases that Churchill bemoans (Poland, Bulgaria, etc) AFAIK were a long way from the western allies, so basically choices were accept the fait accompli or start a war with the soviets in 1945. It’s really hard to see WWW3 in 1945 as anything but a bad outcome for everyone.

US forces got into Thuringia and western Czechoslovakia, almost reaching Prague. But there had been prior agreement, at least about the occupation zones for Germany and Austria, which involved withdrawing Allied troops to those agreed boundaries.

The assumption was that what became Soviet satellites would (re-)establish independent democratic government. Their Sovietisation wasn’t instantaneous on the arrival of the Red Army - it was a gradual process over the next few years, until the writing on the wall became inescapable with the 1948 coup in Czechoslovakia.

Don’t forget the domestic pressures to get as many troops home as possible, and the residual effect of wartime propaganda about Russia as an ally bearing a massive burden of combat. Negotiating the NATO treaty and its predecessors was quite a delicate process: as remarked at the time, it was about “keeping the Americans in” as much as “keeping the Russians out and the Germans down”.

I was thinking more of the American view (according to Churchill) that negotiations in Europe were largely between Britain and Russia and the Americans under Truman initially did not want to be seen to play favourites or get too involved when they were prioritizing getting troops home or to Japan (instead of leaving them for a month until meeting Stalin to allow for .more negotiating influence). Churchill blames sone of this on the American ambassador to Russia who he saw as too sympathetic, but perhaps so was the newly elected Socialist government in Britain little mentioned by Churchill.

There were a lot of cities in Eastern Europe that could have been taken earlier if this was a concrete goal - specifically in Czechoslovakia, “Eastern Germany” and Poland. The Russians were already dominant in Rounanua (Churchill’s spelling) and Bulgaria and Tito essentially controlled the Partisans in Yugoslavia.

To my knowledge, the withdrawal of American forces from those areas was in exchange for the Western allies getting sectors in Berlin and Vienna (which had both been taken by the Soviets). Apparently the US considered a presence in those cities more valuable than the rural areas of Thuringia and Czechoslovakia. As subsequent history shows, that was probably a fair evaluation, as the four-power status of Berlin, which lasted until 1991, became of great importance during the Cold War.

So is the OP (and/or Churchill) suggesting that retaining those western bits of Czechoslovakia would have been a good idea? Even if it meant tearing up a treaty, losing Austria and Berlin (and possibly Greece IIRC) and very possibly starting a war?

That seems dubious at best.

I think Churchill’s general view was we basically should have fought hard to avoid most of Eastern Europe falling under Soviet control; not just Thuringia and western Czechoslovakia but Poland, Hungary etc. The thing to keep in mind about Churchill, is with WWII he was somewhat of the ultimate “right man, right place.” In many respects Churchill had been wrong and deficient for much of his political career prior to WWII, WWII made him right once, but it made him right at probably the most important time in British history.

I think while I sympathize with the thinking behind Churchill’s belief we should’ve challenged the Soviets, the practicalities of it suggest that this was probably not a wise gamble. Given the state of the Soviet economy, the fact the United States had more people and an untouched industrial sector and more natural resources, I do think if we wanted to go to war with the Soviets over control of Eastern Europe (note this would not assume any kind of invasion of Russia proper), we’d ultimately win it. However in the immediate aftermath of V-E day the Soviets outnumbered us on the continent significantly in men and tanks. With us at war with them it’s likely they have trouble keeping parts and oil necessary to maintain all those tanks, but they’d likely push us into Western France or even further before we could stop them by shifting lots of men and material to Europe for what would basically be WWIII.

The initial losses from that would likely be catastrophic. So it’s not the most realistic scenario. Maybe a more realistic scenario is we fought them politically and refused to accept their continued occupation in Eastern Europe diplomatically, but didn’t start a shooting war. We then start a massive military build up in Western Europe and start a shooting war 3-4 years later. Okay, if we do that we’re in better position in Europe to not get rolled due to sheer numbers, but we’ve also now looking at being years past when most Americans expected their boys home, and at great expense. Then we start a shooting war with the Russians, during which time in the interim they’ve repaired a lot of their industrial capacity and have more easy access to oil etc than during the height of WWII, so even though we’re in a much better tactical position so are they. Most likely again, we’re the larger company in manpower, economic resources, we have the atom bomb then and they don’t, we have a far bigger Navy (albeit that won’t be decisive in such a war) and we likely will attain air superiority–so I think we’d win. But I think the losses in our own dead would be much higher than in WWII itself.

The TLDR I’m pointing out is at very best Churchill was casually advocating for a position that would see many hundreds of thousands of dead American soldiers, maybe over a million, in exchange for a liberated Eastern Europe. I won’t say it isn’t a noble goal, but it isn’t all that realistic. It also would have been devilishly difficult to swing politically. As mentioned, we’d been telling the public for years the Soviets were our dear allies. Further, the Soviets weren’t completely stupid. They didn’t just impose “evil Soviet governments” on Eastern Europe day one. They instead quietly sponsored communist parties in the post-war occupied governments, that would develop some veneer of “popular legitimacy” with the people of those countries. Also in some cases, it frankly wasn’t just a veneer, there were actually a lot of actual communist sympathizing types in Eastern Europe in these countries in question.

Now giving Churchill a little more credit, maybe he just assumed we needed to be tougher with Stalin at the negotiating table, maybe he thinks we could have bullied Stalin into backing down, because Stalin might fear war with a combined United States / United Kingdom. Not that we’d be likely to conquer the USSR proper, but the fact we’d be winning the war and draining Soviet resources could threaten Stalin’s power base in the country and put him in an untenable position. Maybe Churchill thinks Stalin could be bluffed and bullied. The reality is, I’m just not sure that’s true. Stalin had a lot of faults but being weak of will certainly wasn’t one of them. I’m not really convinced he was giving up his “treasure” paid for with so many millions of dead soldiers, without a serious fight.

I’ll add as an addendum because I’ve been involved in a lot of discussion about Soviet/American hypothetical clashes in mainland Europe after WWII–I mention Russian fuel concerns at one point, I’m fully away the Soviets had access to vast oil resources. However, they had significant logistical issues moving fuel around and moving it from refineries into the field. American aid was essential at bridging these gaps, a huge portion of the fuel trucks and trains that moved fuel to the Red Army came from the United States. Lots of actual fuel did too, we supplied almost 60% of the USSR’s aircraft fuel for example because it was better for them to take it from us because it let them keep more of their refining capacity built towards make fuel for trucks/tanks. When I mention the hypothetical “early” conflict in which the Soviets had a significant advantage in tanks and men, I mention fuel because it is highly likely their logistics take big hits during that battle and they cannot easily replicate it, and moving and sustaining large amounts of fuel-powered vehicles in Western Europe would have gotten significantly more difficult for them.

Also, it’s important to remember that the Americans could not risk conflict with the Soviets in spring 1945 because the war in the Pacific was not over and the atomic bomb had not yet been dropped. It was widely expected that the invasion of Japan’s home islands would be necessary and that this would involve unprecedented US casualties.

According the the America First Committee, Churchill was bravely prepared to fight to the last American. That was a bit hyperbolic, but moving the British Empire to Ottawa, without asking the average Canadian’s input was not.

Churchill’s goal was to keep the Nazis off the British Isles (Jersey, etc. excluded of course). Eire would be re-occupied (with veteran Black & Tans) French sailors drown, Australian troops held back to defend GB while Australia was invaded by the Japanese; the Indian famine starved millions (as well as the one in Greece that his embargo guaranteed); and, since Tito was willing to fight the Germans unlike the Chetniks, postwar Yugoslavia would be Communist (Fitzroy Maclean confirmed this last point from a personal conversation with Churchill).

“Anything but Nazi, even if that means more Communism” had to be a bitter pill for Churchill to swallow, especially after he’d grandstanded at the Siege of Sydney Street, and lead the Intervention of Soviet Russia after WWI. But a lot of people had to die to keep Churchill’s sceptered isle from falling, even though the Germans still would have lost the war at about the same time anyway.

But also, it could not be known for sure in 1945 that the USSR intended a full sovietisation of those countries. With hindsight, seeing what they’d done in the Baltics and the part of Poland they got under the pact with Hitler should have made their intentions obvious, but in practice, it wasn’t seen as such till 1947/48 or thereabouts. By that time the only way to “fight” against it -short of all-out war - was to do what was done - the Treaties of Dunkirk and Brussels and then the creation of NATO.

The memoirs never mention fighting the Soviets. The implication was having an earlier meeting with Stalin and Truman, while the armies were still in Europe, to improve negotiating position (which may not have amounted to much at any rate). It was not because of a definitive conclusion of motives. More that Stalin would not let imparrtial countries monitor the elections in Poland (as in some other countries) and that none could “see behind the Iron Curtain”. Churchill’s telegrams show considerable foresight. One might conclude the illness of Roosevelt and Hopkins, the newness of Truman as his VP and Churchill losing a general election were particularly poorly timed. It is true Russia had agreed to fight Japan.

Churchill was a nutcase, whose worst ideas fortunately could easily be controlled by Alan Brooke and the Cabinet.

Any examples to support your opinion, or are you just spitballing?