Review by Paul D. Mayle
War Summits. The Meetings that Shaped World War II and the Postwar World. By David Stone. (Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, 2005. $29.95. Pp. 326. cloth; $19.95, Pp. 326 paper, June 2006).
David Stone’s latest work tackles the ambitious, and long overdue project of writing the history of the Anglo-American-Soviet meetings during the Second World War. The author examines the allied summit meetings from Placentia Bay to Potsdam from the perspective of a former military officer who experienced the dynamics of high-level meetings and the unique challenges of reaching consensus where diverse personalities and perspectives are in tension.
The first generation of historians of World War II summitry focused almost exclusively on Yalta (Charles L. Mee, Jr.’s seminal monograph on Potsdam is one notable exception). Much of that writing, of course, emerged through the filter of Cold War interpretations in light of widespread disappointment with the war’s outcomes. David Stone’s intent is to provide “a straightforward account and analysis” (p. viii) in a narrative covering the whole summit process from the first meeting of Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill in Newfoundland where they formulated the Atlantic Charter through the expansion of the alliance to include Joseph Stalin and then, finally, to the climactic summit meeting at Potsdam in the suburbs of prostrate Berlin. Such a history is warranted, according to Stone, because “In terms of its overall duration, the sheer scale of the Alliance it supported, and the nature of the global conflict it sought to resolve, the process of meetings and conferences which together comprised the war summits was without precedent, and it remains unique in the history of warfare and of international grand strategy and politics” (p. 273).
The author correctly identifies two potential pitfalls involved in a project of this magnitude. The first is that the finished product might be just another of the seemingly countless attempts to write a history of the war years, presumably adding nothing new to the field in the process. The second is the temptation to focus too heavily on the Big Three: Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin. Identifying traps and avoiding them, however, are two different matters entirely. The careful reader is left to wonder if the author did not, to some extent, provide both a mea culpa and a revealing self analysis of his work.
If, for example, the author did not fall headlong into the alluring trap of rewriting the biographies of the three giant figures that loomed over the world’s destiny during the war years, he certainly trips at the edge. Chapter 2, “Genesis of the Warlords,” contradicts the author’s avowed purpose of sticking to process rather than personalities. Churchill emerges as “widely read and intellectually astute, with a sound knowledge of the history of the world.” (p. 25) Indeed, Churchill gets a very favorable review throughout. Stone casts Churchill as the chief architect of the summit process. At Potsdam, he juxtaposes the brave statesman Churchill, with just one bodyguard, to his counterparts who cower behind small armies of protection, Stone heralds Churchill as the victor of one-upmanship when the leaders vied to provide musical entertainment for the social gatherings. Stalin emerges as the familiar ruthless tyrant and astute master of realpolitik. Roosevelt is the pragmatic manager with idealistic whims who cast his lot with Stalin at the expense of Churchill.
But each of the three has received nuanced attention since the Second World War, and scholarly research has revealed, to a great degree, that there was always more about each than met the eye. Besides, the summits did not occur in a vacuum, and the military staffs had a crucial role in sculpting the agendas and then responding to directives. Moreover, Stalin was not a participant in the allied summits until Tehran, and, at Potsdam, Truman replaced Roosevelt while Churchill, courtesy of a Labour Party victory in a general election, made an early exit. And the summit process included bilateral meetings-Roosevelt and Churchill; Churchill and Stalin-as well as conferences of foreign ministers, not to mention Dumbarton Oaks, where none of the leaders was present. Yet, the author maintains that the Big Three’s “guiding influence” (p. 20) was palpable at the staff level and that the leaders had the wisdom to compromise in order to meet and overcome a common threat to their respective national interests. This means that personalities overshadowed process.
The voluminous primary materials and memoirs now available clearly reveal that the allied leaders were hampered by the difficulties intrinsic to major strategic decisions, especially given their conflicting goals. American and British leaders, in particular, had to manage bureaucratic staffs that did not always agree with the decisions and were often at loggerheads that the diplomatic summaries of the meetings do little to disguise. Many memoirs of British participants in particular are much less subtle than the official minutes of the summit meetings about the tensions, distrust, animosity, and even ill will that the allies nursed and that sometimes spilled over in heated exchanges. This, of course, reflects the diplomatic balance sheet. But even the unflappable George C. Marshall, preeminent of the American joint chiefs, was put out on occasion with his counterparts in the British military during the lengthy and contentious debates over the second front. That the alliance functioned as well as it did was testimony to the convergence of mutual need and national interest.
These pitfalls aside, the author attempts to write what he calls an “entirely new review and contemporary analysis of the subject rather than an account culled directly from official documents or other related works” (p. ix). The most common references in the endnotes are to works by W.H. Thompson, Herbert Feis, and Robin Edmonds. Thompson may have been Churchill’s shadow, his bodyguard, but he was hardly the only or closest or, for that matter, the most unbiased witness to the events he describes. Feis, while providing a brilliant initial history of the Big Three, did not presume to have the final word. Given the numerous tomes on World War II diplomacy penned since, Stone’s bibliography is disappointingly and overly selective. There is no mention of the respective governments’ published archival material, the multitudinous memoirs, or the shelves of secondary works which are part of the canvas of Second World War historiography.
Where War Summits succeeds, however, it makes up in large measure for its shortcomings. The author stages the summit meetings in their contemporary settings. He provides a helpful chart to summarize the “strategic situation” for the 1944 summit at Quebec, “Octagon,” as well as summaries of Soviet aid and discussions of 1944 related to Japan. Similar charts for each of the featured meetings would strengthen the book’s utility as a resource. The book is arranged chronologically in three parts-setting the stage, shaping the war, and shaping the peace-to cover the allied meetings at Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, “Arcadia” (Washington, D.C., 1942), The First Moscow Conference (1942), “Symbol” (Casablanca , 1943), “Trident” (Washington, D.C., 1943), “Quadrant” (Quebec, 1943), Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Moscow (1943), “Sextant” (Cairo, 1943), “Eureka” (Tehran , 1943), Dumbarton Oaks (1944), “Octagon” (Quebec, 1944), “Tolstoy” (Moscow, 1944), “Argonaut” (Yalta, 1945), and “Terminal” (Potsdam, 1945).
Some of the interpretations raise the reader’s eyebrows. For example, the author describes the Yalta Conference, easily the most controversial, as the least productive of all the summits. If this is true, one would then need to explain why Yalta attracted so much attention in the postwar period. After all, one tangible product of the conference was The Declaration on Liberated Europe, but the outcome, according to Stone, “exemplified just how far postwar Europe would fall short of Roosevelt’s original vision of a better world and community of democratic nations, as well as demonstrating yet again the diplomatic acumen of Stalin…” (p. 248). This repeats the worn-out contention that Stalin went back on his word and thus set the agenda for the Cold War. However, no one has yet explained how any Soviet leader, especially Stalin, could have been expected to honor his word given such examples of American and British faith-keeping as the repeated false assurances that a second front was forthcoming or, for example, Churchill’s undeniable willingness to march the Polish frontier westward regardless of Polish sentiments to the contrary.
Beyond such issues of interpretation, however, the author successfully weaves the secondary accounts into an interesting narrative. Hence, the result is a good introductory history of the Second World War with a focus on allied diplomacy at the highest levels. In conclusion, the author calls on world leaders to apply the “broad lessons and examples of the war summits” to “provide the grounds for a degree of cautious optimism concerning the resolution of today’s very different but equally dangerous conflicts” (p. 280). But what emerges from this narrative is a process of diplomatic sidestepping-compromise, revisiting of issues presumably already settled, and agreement in principle-until events necessitated the next in a series of meetings. International terrorism is not so tangible a threat as the menace that created the Grand Alliance. Still, War Summits is a serviceable entry-level introduction to Second World War diplomacy in the Grand Alliance. But those interested in the complexities of allied diplomacy, which make the story all the more intriguing, must look elsewhere.
Paul D. Mayle, a U.S. Marine veteran, is Professor of History, Chairman of the Division of Social Sciences, and Director of the MVNU Semester in Hungary at Mount Vernon Nazarene University in Mount Vernon, Ohio. Author of Eureka Summit, Dr. Mayle’s research and teaching have concentrated on the Second World War, Eastern Europe (especially Hungary), and the Vietnam War.