“Stalin’s War: A New History of World War II”

A Book Review
Published: 2022-05-07

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Sean McMeekin is a professor of history at Bard College in upstate New York. Stalin’s War: A New History of World War II is McMeekin’s latest book that focuses on Josef Stalin’s involvement in World War II (New York: Basic Books, 2021; all subsequent page numbers from there). This well-researched and well-written book uses new research in Soviet, European and American archives to prove that World War II was a war that Stalin—not Adolf Hitler—had wanted.

A remarkable feature of Stalin’s War is McMeekin’s documentation showing the extensive aid given by the United States and Great Britain to support Soviet Communism during the war. This article focuses on the lend-lease and other aid given to the Soviet Union during World War II which enabled Stalin to conquer most of Eurasia, from Berlin to Beijing, for Communism.

Communist Agents Promote Stalin

Numerous people sympathetic to Communism and Josef Stalin rose to prominence in U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration. Among these were Alger Hiss, who was identified by decrypted Soviet telegrams (the Venona files) released to the public in the 1990s as having collaborated with Soviet military intelligence (the GRU). More highly placed was Harry Dexter White, who rose rapidly to become the right-hand man of Henry Morgenthau, Roosevelt’s powerful secretary of the Treasury. Venona decrypts show that White worked for the GRU as early as 1935, and later reported directly to Soviet functionaries working for the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD; pp. 43f.).

There were hundreds of additional paid Soviet agents working inside the U.S. government by the end of the 1930s. From the Departments of Agriculture and State to the Treasury and the U.S. Army, these Soviet agents were placed highly enough to favorably influence policies that affected the Soviet Union. Soviet agent Whittaker Chambers’s handler reported proudly to Moscow, “We have agents at the very center of government, influencing policy.” These Soviet agents in Washington, D.C. provided Stalin with a critical strategic foothold in the American government as he prepared the Soviet Union for war (pp. 44f.).

Roosevelt did everything he could to improve relations with Stalin. In November 1936, Roosevelt appointed a Soviet sympathizer, Joseph Davies, as his ambassador in Moscow, after U.S. Ambassador William Bullitt had become openly critical of Stalin’s regime. Roosevelt also purged the U.S. State Department of anti-Communists in 1937 (pp. 49, 132). McMeekin writes (p. 527):

“Reading through the minutes of Harry Hopkins’s Soviet protocol from 1943, it is hard to escape the impression that Soviet agents of influence had taken over the White House.”

Stalin-friendly journalists such as Walter Duranty of the New York Times and fellow travelers such as George Bernard Shaw also helped cover-up Soviet crimes such as the famine-genocide of the early 1930s and the Great Terror. By contrast, they emphasized German crimes such as the Röhm purge and Kristallnacht. This double standard, when it comes to the public exposure of the crimes of Hitler and Stalin, has continued in the historical literature to this day (pp. 47f.).

The cover-up of the Soviet executions of Polish citizens is a prime example of how Soviet crimes were ignored. McMeekin writes (p. 110):

“The number of victims murdered by Soviet authorities in occupied Poland by June 1941—about 500,000—was likewise three or four times higher than the number of those killed by the Nazis. Amazingly—despite his own war of conquest against Poland being, if not as deadly as Hitler’s during its military phase, then marked by a geometrically larger number of executions and deportations and far more destruction in economic terms—the Vozhd (Stalin) received not even a slap on the wrist from the Western powers for his crimes.”

Lend-Lease Aid Begins

After the German invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, the debate over American aid policy toward Stalin took on world-historical importance, as it had the potential to decide the outcome of the war on the eastern front. While Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill expressed strong support for the Soviet cause, numerous U.S. Congressmen did not share their sentiments. For example, Sen. Robert M. La Follette Jr. warned (p. 350):

[I]n the next few weeks the American people will witness the greatest whitewash act in all history. They will be told to forget the purges in Russia by the OGPU [secret police], the persecution of religion, the confiscation of property, the invasion of Finland and the vulture role Stalin played in seizing half of prostrate Poland, all of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. These will be made to seem the acts of a ‘democracy’ preparing to fight Nazism.”

Despite reservations from many U.S. Congressmen and the majority of the American public, powerful figures in the Roosevelt administration had determined that the Soviet Union would receive lend-lease aid. The Soviet embassy placed its first request for American aid on June 30, 1941. It requested $1.8 billion worth of American warplanes, anti-aircraft guns, toluol (the critical input in TNT), aviation gasoline and lubricants. Roosevelt approved this Soviet request in principle on July 8, and established a special office in the War Department to process military supplies destined for Russia (pp. 352, 354).

In a later meeting in Moscow, U.S. envoy Harry Hopkins asked Stalin what weapons the Red Army most desperately required. Stalin replied that the Red Army needed anti-aircraft guns, large-caliber machine guns, 7.72 mm caliber rifles, aluminum, and 20,000 pieces of anti-aircraft artillery. After Hopkins agreed to these requests, Stalin proceeded to his second-tier requirements, which included fighters, pursuit planes and medium-range bombers. Hopkins also assented to these requests. Later that night, Hopkins met with Stalin’s artillery expert to discuss technical issues (p. 360).

Hopkins presented Stalin’s material requests to Roosevelt, along with Stalin’s plea that the United States enter the war. Roosevelt agreed to deliver massive volumes of military weapons to the Soviet Union over the coming months, setting aside 100 large transport vessels exclusively for Stalin’s needs. The terms Roosevelt was offering Stalin for this aid were absurdly generous. Roosevelt opened a virtually unlimited credit line (initially $1 billion) to order whatever Stalin desired, in exchange for nothing whatsoever. This $1 billion of strategic exports to Stalin were made without Congressional approval and the American public being informed about it (pp. 364f.).

Despite the United States still being officially neutral in the European war, the Roosevelt administration had gone all in on the Soviet side. Roosevelt’s decision to support Stalin’s war effort in the summer of 1941 was premised on his view that the United States would enter the war against Germany eventually, whether or not most Americans supported Roosevelt’s interventionist policies. These shipments of free aid made a dramatic difference that eventually turned the tide of the entire war in Stalin’s favor (pp. 370-373).

More Lend-Lease Aid

In 1941, the Soviet war industry would not be able to function properly without massive American aid. The United States sent to Stalin’s war factories monthly deliveries of armor plate (1,000 tons), sheet steel (8,000 tons), steel wire (7,000 tons), steel wire rope (1,200 tons), tool steel (500 tons), aluminum ingots (1,000 tons), duralumin (250 tons), tin (4,000 tons), toluol (2,000 tons), ferro chrome (200 tons), ferro silicon (300 tons), rolled brass (5,000 tons), and copper tubes (300 tons; p. 368).

The Red Army lost 20,500 tanks between June and November 1941, amounting to 80% of Stalin’s armored strength (p. 381). The German conquest of industrial areas also caused Soviet tank production to drop from 2,000 to 1,400 tanks per month. Stalin said he needed 2,000 tons of armor plate per month to keep Soviet tank production going at even reduced levels. Roosevelt approved this request, and agreed to supply Stalin with 400 warplanes per month, and monthly shipments of 10,000 American trucks and 5,000 jeeps, 200,000 Red Army boots, 400,000 yards of khaki for uniforms, 1,500 tons of leather hides and boot-sole leather, 200,000 tons of wheat, and 70,000 tons of sugar (pp. 367f.).

Despite the massive American aid to the Soviet Union, the Russians were perennially disappointed in the volume of American lend-lease aid being received in Soviet ports. German U-boats, destroyers, and Luftwaffe air raids frequently sent American cargo to the bottom of the northern Atlantic Ocean or Arctic Sea. The perils of Arctic waves, freezing cold, ice and icebergs, snow and fog also made it difficult for American cargo to reach its intended destination (pp. 390f.).

Soviet purchasing agents had such influence in the Roosevelt administration that, by the spring and summer of 1942, they functioned like members of the U.S. government. The Lend-Lease Administration provided requisition forms to Soviet purchasing agents identical to those used by the U.S. armed forces. This sped up the processing time of Russian requests from an average of 33.2 days in 1941 to 48 hours by January 1942. For all intents and purposes, Stalin’s agents now had legal writ in the United States over essential war supplies (pp. 395f.).

Soviet industrial espionage in the United States took place on a massive scale during World War II. Spying was superfluous in the lend-lease era, as Soviet purchasing agents were allowed to inspect whatever American factories they wished. Soviet purchasing agents could now tell Stalin what to order from the best U.S. aviation factories: Bell, Douglas, and Curtis-Wright. Soviet assets in the U.S. government, like Harry Dexter White, could also casually walk over to the Soviet embassy and suggest reorienting the U.S. machine-tool industry to meet Stalin’s needs. All of these planes, specialized machine tools and other military weapons were delivered to the Soviet Union essentially free of charge (p. 396).

Industrial espionage was easy for Soviet agents to conduct in the United States. In addition to giving Soviet buying agents and engineers free rein to inspect American factories and tank-testing facilities, the transfer of entire American factories to the Soviet Union was approved, including their in-house intellectual property. The process began in July and August 1941, when Roosevelt personally approved contracts to have built in the Soviet Union a $4 million tire plant, a $3 million catalytic plant, a $2.75 million hydrogen plant, a $2.2 million cracking and crude distillation plant, a $1.75 million dehydrocyclization plant, a $1.5 million aviation lubricating oil plant, a $4 million aluminum rolling mill, and a $400,000 high-octane gasoline plant (pp. 397f.).

Lend-lease sharing with the Soviet Union extended even to top-secret military intelligence. McMeekin writes (pp. 401f.):

“Lenin had once prophesied that, after the revolution, capitalists would be happy to sell Communists the rope they would use to hang them. And yet not even Lenin could have imagined that American capitalists would hand over the rope free of charge—and not just any rope either.”

On February 18, 1942, Stalin even requested that the U.S. Navy convoy each shipment of war supplies from the East Coast all the way to the Soviet Arctic. Roosevelt granted Stalin’s request. In March 1942, Roosevelt ordered Adm. Emory S. Land to “give Russia first priority in shipping” and take merchant vessels off Latin American and Caribbean routes “regardless of other considerations.” Roosevelt ordered Russian shipments to be prioritized “regardless of the effect…on any other part of our war program”  (pp. 404f.). Thus, Stalin’s requests were given priority over all other military operations.

Lend-Lease Turns War in Stalin’s Favor

In the first seven or eight months of 1942, the German Luftwaffe dominated Soviet airspace, and German armored divisions enjoyed parity at worst and often considerable local superiority over the Red Army’s depleted supply of tanks. However, once lend-lease supplies began arriving in the Soviet Union in appreciable quantities, the material equation began to shift in Stalin’s favor (p. 416).

Interestingly, while much has been written about the superiority of Russian tanks such as the T-34 to comparable American and British models, in private Russian experts conceded that U.S. and British tanks had many positive aspects. American M-3 Stuart light and medium tanks were found to produce a “high density of fire.” The medium Stuart M-3 had “excellent visibility from the perspective of the commander,” while the light M-3 had “superior mobility.” The light and medium Stuart tanks were well designed ergonomically, with “convenient crew placement,” and were quieter than many Soviet models. At Stalin’s request, Roosevelt ordered American tanks to be retrofitted to meet Soviet needs (p. 418).

Roosevelt also sent a large number of Jeeps and trucks to help the Red Army. Studebaker trucks were outfitted with 76 mm Red Army guns and placed into immediate use, playing a crucial role in supplying mobile forces deployed beyond railheads. American jeeps proved immensely popular with Russian drivers because of their maneuverability and versatility. In addition to the 36,865 trucks and 6,823 jeeps delivered to the Soviet Union by June 30, 1942, between 25,000 and 30,000 more arrived by mid-November 1942, when the Red Army was preparing its counteroffensive to cut off Stalingrad (pp. 423f.).

At Stalin’s request, Roosevelt began sending 5,000 tons of aluminum per month to help build Soviet tanks. Soviet shortages of other nonferrous metals—including nickel, ferrochrome, and ferrosilicon—were filled by the Americans, who supplied Stalin with 800 tons per month of each of these important industrial metals. American shipments of specialty steels for military use were also sent to the Soviet Union. Roosevelt sent 4,000 to 5,000 tons per month of TNT and other high explosives to help the Soviets at Stalingrad. Finally, 300 tons of the weather-resistant vulcanized rubber compound called Vistanex was sent for use in the separation plates in Soviet tank and airplane batteries (pp. 425f.).

American lend-lease aid was crucial in helping the Red Army defeat the Germans at Stalingrad. Such lend-lease aid included 70,000 trucks and jeeps, 500,000 tons of American aviation and motor fuel and lubricants, 4,469 tanks and gun carriers, 1,663 warplanes, and tons of numerous food items to help feed Red Army soldiers. McMeekin writes, “[I]t is an imperishable historical fact that the Anglo-American capitalism helped win the battle of Stalingrad” (pp. 430-432).

Lend-Lease Aid Wins War for Stalin

Lend-lease aid meant that if Stalin simply bided his time, the surpluses of American capitalism would allow his armored divisions to keep growing. From July 1, 1942 to June 30, 1943, the United States shipped more than 3.4 million tons of goods to Stalin, including barbed wire (4,000 tons shipped each month), 120,000 machine guns, another 120,000 Thompson submachine guns, anti-tank mines (60,000 per month), 5,117 anti-aircraft guns, 24 million square yards of tarpaulin, 75,000 tons of oil pipe and tubing, 181,366 tons of TNT, 173,000 field telephones, 580,000 miles of telephone wire, and 220,000 tons of petroleum products, most of it refined aviation gasoline. Numerous additional Allied lend-lease shipments were crucial in the battle at Kursk (p. 462).

The Germans had nothing to match the sheer volume of supplies Stalin’s armies were receiving each month. By the time the Germans struck at Kursk in July 1943, ratios in manpower, tanks and self-propelled guns favored the Soviets by more than three to one, in warplanes by more than four to one, and in guns and artillery pieces by five or six to one. These advantages were compounded by the fact that the Russians could choose and fortify their ground for defense. Kursk was a decisive battle which marked the failure of the last major German offensive on the eastern front in the war. This victory was made possible by Allied lend-lease aid and complementary U.S.-British landings in Sicily (pp. 436, 466, 473).

Stalin was also given first priority in regard to foodstuffs. American civilians were forced to provide Russians with food at a time of strict wartime rationing back home. So colossal were shipments of lend-lease foodstuffs to Stalin that by 1943 many American store shelves were emptied of essentials. Some 8,000 rationing boards in the United States during the war restricted consumption of everything from grain, milk, butter, and sugar to fuel, rubber, tires, fabrics and shoes. The most famous lend-lease foodstuff given to Russians during the war—Spam—was so highly prized by the Red Army that the American pork and meat-canning industry was reshaped to meet Soviet demand. A special manual was prepared and distributed to each Red Army unit explaining what foods were in the cans and packets they had received from the American lend-lease program (pp. 522-526).

Numerous American plants and refineries were dismantled and shipped to the Soviet Union. These include a Ford Tire Plant, a Douglas oil refinery, 11 hydroelectric plants, and a steel rail mill. The volume of U.S. industrial equipment shipped from July 1, 1943 to June 30, 1944 was 739,000 tons, with a dollar value of $401 million. McMeekin writes (pp. 527f.):

“Even before the third protocol period began in July 1943, Stalin’s procurement agents had already requisitioned $500 million worth of ‘industrial equipment’—an amount comparable to $50 billion today—consisting of everything from machine tools, electric furnaces, motors, cranes, and hoists to oil refineries, tire manufacturing plants, and aluminum and steel-rolling mills.”

Remarkably, lend-lease aid to the Soviet Union continued after Germany had been defeated. On May 10—two days after VE Day—U.S. President Harry Truman signed a presidential directive curtailing Soviet aid shipments sent to Europe, since the war in Europe was over. This reasonable directive was vigorously protested by Soviet officials. On May 27, 1945, Hopkins met with Stalin in Moscow. Stalin lit into Hopkins over the “scornful and abrupt,” “unfortunate and brutal” way Truman had cut off the supplies Stalin had been receiving. Stalin had the audacity to tell Hopkins that if American refusal to continue lend-lease aid was designed as pressure on the Russians, then it was a fundamental mistake that might result in reprisals (pp. 633f.).

Conclusion

The approximately $11 billion in military weapons, industrial equipment, technology and intellectual property given to Stalin was crucial in helping him win the war. The Soviet wartime debts were written off in 1951 at two cents on the dollar. By contrast, Great Britain paid its debts in full, with interest, until 2006 (pp. 658f.).

When measured by territory conquered and war booty received, Stalin was the victor in both Europe and Asia. No one else came close. The three Axis powers were totally crushed. France was a withered wreck and soon lost its empire. Great Britain was bankrupt and moribund. Although the United States was relatively untouched by the war at home and emerged in a strong position, the Cold War required a gargantuan expenditure over decades, until the Soviet Union eventually collapsed in 1991 (pp. 663-665).

The effect of lend-lease aid to Stalin was the expansion of Communism and the Soviet Union’s empire. McMeekin writes (pp. 665f.):

“The ultimate price of victory was paid by the tens of millions of involuntary subjects of Stalin’s satellite regimes in Europe and Asia, including Maoist China, along with the millions of Soviet dissidents, returned Soviet POWs, and captured war prisoners who were herded into Gulag camps from the Arctic gold and platinum mines of Vorkuta to the open-air uranium strip mines of Stavropol and Siberia. For subjects of his expanding slave empire, Stalin’s war did not end in 1945. Decades of oppression and new forms of terror were still to come.”


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Author(s): John Wear
Title: “Stalin’s War: A New History of World War II”, A Book Review
Sources: Inconvenient History, 2022, Vol. 14, No. 2
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Published: 2022-05-07
First posted on CODOH: May 7, 2022, 3:09 p.m.
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