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PRIMARY DOCUMENTS  |  Provoked by Pearl Harbor: The White House Meetings of FDR and Churchill, December, 1941
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Activities: I. The Atlantic Charter and the Origins of the United Nations  |  Back to Activity

British-Soviet Relations

Even before the United States declared war on Germany and Japan, Great Britain and the Soviet Union were waging war against Hitler. The Soviets had entered the war in June 1941 when Germany invaded the U.S.S.R. . Though fighting the same enemy, relations between Great Britain and the Soviets were complicated. In late November 1941 Winston Churchill saw the need to send British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden to Moscow. His goal: to open conversations between the two countries on war aims, plans for the post-war organization of peace, and the details of mutual military assistance.

As Winston Churchill traveled by sea to the United States in the days just after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he kept up a steady correspondence by telegram with important political and military members of the British government, especially Anthony Eden, who by this time was in Moscow for meetings with Soviet premier, Joseph Stalin, and his ministers.

On January 5, 1942 Churchill received a report from Eden, which read, in part:

In the second conversation, on December 17, M. Stalin pressed for the immediate recognition by His Majesty's Government of the future frontiers of the U.S.S.R., more particularly in regard to the inclusion with the U.S.S.R. of the Baltic States and the restoration of the 1941 Finnish-Soviet frontier. He made the conclusion of any Anglo-Soviet Agreement dependent on agreement on this point. I, for my part, explained to M. Stalin that in view of our prior undertakings to the United States Government it was quite impossible for His Majesty's Government to commit themselves at this stage to any post-war frontiers in Europe, although I undertook to consult His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom, the United States Government, and His Majesty's Governments in the Dominions on my return. This question, to which M. Stalin attached fundamental importance, was further discussed at the third meeting on December 18.

Churchill later recalled, "In the forefront of the Russian claims [as reflected in Eden's report] was the request that the Baltic States, which Russia had subjugated at the beginning of the war, should be finally incorporated in the Soviet Union." He recorded his feelings about this possibility, saying: "As soon as I read the telegrams I reacted violently against the absorption of the Baltic States."

To British cabinet member, Clement R. Attlee, Churchill wrote on December 20, 1941:

Stalin’s demand about Finland, Baltic States, and Roumania are directly contrary to the first, second, and third articles of the Atlantic Charter, to which Stalin has subscribed. There can be no question whatever of our making such an agreement, secret or public, direct or implied, without prior agreement with the U.S. The time has not yet come to settle frontier questions which can only be resolved at the Peace Conference when we have won the war.

The mere desire to have an agreement which can be published should never lead us into making wrongful promises. Foreign Secretary has acquitted himself admirably, and should not be downhearted if he has to leave Moscow without any flourish of trumpets. The Russians have got to go on fighting for their lives anyway, and are dependent upon us for very large supplies, which we have most painfully gathered, and which we shall faithfully deliver. I hope the Cabinet will agree to communicate the above to the Foreign Secretary. He will no doubt act with the necessary tact and discretion, but should know decisively where we stand.

In early January 1942, while still visiting in the United States, Winston Churchill’s concerns about the Soviet Union remained. In this passage from The Grand Alliance he recalls those concerns, and includes a copy of a letter he sent to Foreign Minister Eden about this matter:

I was much disturbed by the reports which Mr. Eden had brought back with him from Moscow of Soviet territorial ambitions, especially in the Baltic States. These were the conquests of Peter the Great, and had been for two hundred years under the Czars. Since the Russian revolution they had been the outpost of Europe against Bolshevism. They were what are now called "social democracies," but very lively and truculent. Hitler had cast them away like pawns in his deal with the Soviets before the outbreak of war in 1939. There had been a severe Russian and Communist purge. All the dominant personalities and elements had been liquidated in one way or another. The life of these strong peoples was henceforward underground. Presently, as we shall see, Hitler came back with a Nazi counter-purge, the deadly comb ran back and forth, and back again, through Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. There was no doubt however where the right lay. The Baltic States should be sovereign independent peoples.

Letter of Churchill to Foreign Minister Eden, January 8, 1942:

We have never recognized the 1941 frontiers of Russia except de facto. They were acquired by acts of aggression in shameful collusion with Hitler. The transfer of the peoples of the Baltic States to Soviet Russian against their will would be contrary to all the principles for which we are fighting this war and would dishonour our cause. This also applies to Bessarabia and to Northern Bukovina, and in a lesser degree to Finland, which I gather it is not intended wholly to subjugate and absorb.

Russia could, upon strategical grounds, make a case for the approaches to Leningrad, which the Finns have utilised to attack her. There are islands in the Baltic which may be essential to the safety of Russia. Strategical security may be invoked at certain points on the frontiers of Bukovina or Bessarabia. In these cases the population would have to be offered evacuation and compensation if they desired it. In all other cases transference of territory must be regulated after the war is over by freely and fairly conducted plebiscites, very differently from what is suggested. In any case there can be no questions of settling frontiers until the Peace Conference. I know President Roosevelt holds this view as strongly as I do, and he has several times expressed his pleasure to me at the firm line we took at Moscow. I could not be an advocate for a British Cabinet bent on such a course.

I regard our sincerity to be involved in the maintenance of the principles of the Atlantic Charter, to which Stalin has subscribed. On this also we depend on our association with the Untied States. . . .

About the effect on Russia of our refusal to prejudice the peace negotiations at this stage in the war, or to depart from the principles of the Atlantic Charter, it must be observed that they entered the war only when attacked by Germany, having previously shown themselves utterly indifferent to our fate, and indeed they added to our burdens in our worst danger. Their armies have fought very bravely and have shown immense unsuspected strength in the defence of their native soil. They are fighting for self-preservation and have never had a thought for us. We, on the contrary, are helping them to the utmost of our ability because we admire their defence of their own country and because they are ranged against Hitler.

No one can foresee how the balance of power will lie or where the winning armies will stand at the end of the war. It seems probable however that the United States and the British Empire, far from being exhausted, will be the most powerfully armed and economic bloc the world has ever seen, and that the Soviet Union will need our aid for reconstruction far more than we shall then need theirs.

You have promised that we will examine these claims of Russia in common with the United States and the Dominions. That promise we must keep. But there must be no mistake about the opinion of any British Government of which I am the head, namely, that it adheres to those principles of freedom and democracy set forth in the Atlantic Charter, and that these principles must become especially active whenever any question of transferring territory is raised. I conceive therefore that our answer should be that all questions of territorial frontiers must be left to the decision of the Peace Conference. Juridically this is how the matter stands now.

[Source: The Grand Alliance, pp. 558-559, 615-616]

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