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The Final Mission to Moscow: Excerpt from 'Harry Hopkins: FDR's Envoy to Churchill and Stalin'

By    |   Monday, 23 Feb 2015 11:32 PM

Excerpt from Harry Hopkins: FDR’s Envoy to Churchill and Stalin by Christopher D. O’Sullivan

Cabling Stalin, Hopkins said: “I feel that Russia has lost her greatest friend in America. The president was ever deeply impressed by your determination and confidence that the Nazi tyrants of the world will be driven from power forever.” And, to Chiang Kai-shek: “You can be sure that those of us who remain behind will do everything in our power to promote the cause of a free China but the oppressed people throughout the world have lost their greatest
champion.”

Hopkins telephoned Bob Sherwood the day after Roosevelt’s death. He spoke with little sentiment. “You and I have got something great that we can take with us all the rest of our lives,” he told Sherwood. “It’s a great realization. Because we know it’s true what so many people believed about him and what made them love him. The president never let them down. That’s what you and I can remember. Oh, we all know he could be exasperating, and he could seem to be temporizing and delaying, and he’d get us all worked up when we thought he was making too many concessions to expediency. But all of that was in the little things, the unimportant things—and he knew exactly how little and how unimportant they really were. But in the big things—all of the things that were of real, permanent importance—he never let the people down.”

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After the White House service, Hopkins asked Sherwood and his wife to come home with him to his house in Georgetown. Sherwood sat up with him as Hopkins talked. “God damn it,” Hopkins said to Sherwood. “Now we’ve got to get to work on our own. This is where we’ve really got to begin. We’ve had it too easy all this time. Whatever we thought was the matter with the world, whatever we felt ought to be done about it, we could take our ideas to him, and if he thought there was any merit in them, or if anything that we said got him started on a train of thought of his own, then we’d see him go ahead and do it, and no matter how tremendous it might be or how idealistic he wasn’t scared of it. Well—he isn’t there now, and we’ve got to find a way to do things by ourselves.”

The new president knew more fully than most the role Hopkins played in the war. In fact, immediately after Truman took the oath of office at 7:09 p.m. on the day Roosevelt died, he suddenly looked around the room and asked, “Where’s Harry Hopkins?” In his former capacity as head of the Senate’s so-called wartime watchdog Truman Committee, he understood that Hopkins had been Roosevelt’s wartime eyes and ears, taking on sensitive missions and attending wartime conferences, and he asked Hopkins to brief him “on all phases of the job” of president. Truman told Hopkins he desired to appoint him to his cabinet to have him close at hand. Hopkins demurred and instead suggested that other old New Dealers should resign to give the new president a free hand to choose his own people and enjoy a fresh start. “Truman should have his own people around him, not Roosevelt’s,” Hopkins advised Truman’s political handler, Missouri political boss Bob Hannegan. “If we were around, we’d always be looking at him and he’d know we were thinking, ‘The President wouldn’t do it that way!’ ”

When Germany surrendered at the beginning of May, congratulations poured in to the surviving member of the Roosevelt-Hopkins partnership. From the San Francisco Conference, Molotov, Eden, and Stettinius dispatched a joint toast to Hopkins. “At dinner last night,” they cabled from San Francisco, “we three drank a special toast to you in sincere recognition of the outstanding part you personally have played in bringing our three countries together in the common cause. We regret that you are not with us at this moment of victory.” Churchill graciously wrote to Hopkins: “Among all those in the Grand Alliance, warriors or statesmen, who struck deadly blows at the enemy and brought peace nearer, you will ever hold an honoured place.”

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“For myself,” George Marshall wrote, “I wish to tell you this that you personally have been of invaluable service to me in the discharge of my duties in this war. Time after time you have done for me things I was finding it exceedingly difficult to do for myself and always in matters of the gravest import. You have been utterly selfless as well as courageous and purely objective in your contribution to the war effort.”15 Hopkins nonetheless felt it a cruel fate that FDR was buried in “that little garden in Hyde Park” while “no man in the world contributed more to victory and freedom.” Commemorating the day of Germany’s final capitulation, he emotionally told a national radio audience: “I believe that the free people of the earth will forever bless his name.”

Privately, Hopkins grew concerned that the opportunity for an enduring peace had been jeopardized with Roosevelt’s death. He thus took an intense interest in the post-Yalta U.S.-Soviet relations. Hopkins had long believed that it was imperative to avoid postwar conflict with the Soviet Union. “It is in our self-interest to play ball with Russia,” Hopkins had written back in November 1943. “The logical thing is to cooperate with Russia, do business with Russia, be friends with Russia, make the maintenance of armaments by her and by us for defense against one another unnecessary.

In the wake of the president’s death, Hopkins seemed to be the only remaining American official in whom Stalin had confidence. Urged on by Stettinius and Harriman, Truman decided that Hopkins might achieve more in Moscow to rescue U.S.-Soviet relations than anyone else. “I believe that Stalin’s feelings for Hopkins went back to July 1941,” Harriman recalled. “Hopkins was the first Western visitor to Moscow after the German attack, when things were going pretty badly. Stalin evidently saw in Hopkins a man who, in spite of ill health, had made that long, exhausting and hazardous journey to bring help. It was an example of courage and determination that impressed Stalin deeply. He had not forgotten.”

By sending one of the leading proponents of the policy of cooperation with the Soviet Union, Truman would convey a clear message about his desire for frank talk with Stalin. The Soviets would respect this gesture. Charles Bohlen thought Hopkins a smart choice because he was “esteemed by the Bolsheviks because of his forthright honesty and his refusal to indulge in any diplomatic subterfuge or ambiguity.” Bohlen later revealed that Stalin once confided that Harry Hopkins was the first American to whom he had spoken po dushe—“from the soul.” Hopkins understood he would face enormous challenges at Moscow. Relations between Moscow and Washington had rapidly deteriorated since Roosevelt’s death on April 12. Hopkins’s agenda included rescuing the faltering United Nations Conference, salvaging the increasingly doubtful upcoming meeting of the Big Three in Berlin, reaffirming the Kremlin’s previous pledge to intervene against Japan in the Far East, clearing up the growing discord over Poland, and, time permitting, discussing the fate of a defeated Germany.

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It was an ambitious agenda, but Hopkins was realistic. He had long thought it best to lower expectations with regard to relations with the Russians, work hard for the best outcome you could possibly achieve, keep matters in perspective, and strive to mitigate the inevitable misunderstandings. Churchill you could manage, Hopkins thought. The prime minister’s eccentricities and self-absorption were tolerable, even typical of men of his stature. But the enigmas of Stalin and the Soviet system always remained slightly beyond his comprehension.

Excerpt from Harry Hopkins: FDR’s Envoy to Churchill and Stalin by Christopher D. O’Sullivan. Copyright © Rowman & Littlefield. Used by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.

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After Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s death, Harry Hopkins, his closest advisor and friend, risked his own health to attend talks in Moscow. Hopkins was the only American official in whom Stalin had confidence.
moscow, harry hopkins, fdr, churchill, stalin
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Monday, 23 Feb 2015 11:32 PM
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