When Roosevelt convinced Stalin to install Yankee bases in the USSR

The Grand Alliance, as Churchill called the alliance between the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union in his memoirs, was an extraordinary and decisive event in defeating the Nazis.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
25 August 2023 Friday 10:24
3 Reads
When Roosevelt convinced Stalin to install Yankee bases in the USSR

The Grand Alliance, as Churchill called the alliance between the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union in his memoirs, was an extraordinary and decisive event in defeating the Nazis.

For a brief moment of enthusiasm it seemed that the collaboration of the two arch-enemy ideological systems would usher in a new era. It was when the Soviets authorized the operation of North American air bases in Ukrainian territory, between June 1944 and May 1945. The experience turned out to be a major culture shock and revealed the potential, but also, and above all, the limits of the cooperation.

By mid-1941, Hitler had pretty much achieved his goals: except for Britain, Europe was occupied or under his control in one way or another. So, confident in his power, he orchestrated Operation Barbarossa, a lightning-fast invasion of the Soviet Union, which, after Stalin's massive purges, famines and other hardships, was in no condition to withstand the attack. In fact, he came very close to succumbing to the Nazis.

With Operation Barbarossa, the Soviet Union went over to the allies, but even though they were united by a common enemy, Stalin did not lose sight of his priorities, nor did he trust his new partners. His reasons were not lacking: barely twenty years before, the British, French and Americans had done the impossible to put an end to the Bolshevik revolution, sending troops to fight them (aligned with the White Army of Russian royalists) and isolating and excluding them from all international arenas. .

In 1943, the Soviets were bearing the brunt of the war effort and desperately urged their partners to open another fighting front in the east, to force the Nazis to divert forces in other directions. For strategic reasons, the Americans put off Stalin's request, which was becoming increasingly impatient.

At the Tehran Conference (1943), the Americans proposed to install bases in the USSR to bomb Nazi targets in areas that, due to the distance, were out of their reach. These bases would allow them to take off from Italy or Britain and land in the area under Soviet control, dropping bombs on the Nazis on the way there and back.

From a strategic point of view, it was an irreproachable idea, but for Stalin, known for his paranoia, having the Americans on his territory was like putting a fox in the henhouse, so the negotiations for the installation of bases in Poltava, Myrhorod and Pyriatyn were very close.

Historian Serhii Plokhy explains in Forgotten Bastards of the Eastern Front (2019) that frantic work was done to put airbases in operating condition and to send equipment and qualified personnel in record time. The arrival of the planes at Poltava, in impeccable formation, with a roar that shook buildings, was the most impressive air show the Soviets had ever seen. They were fascinated, both by the planes and material arriving from the US and by the quantity and quality of goods available to their partners.

The collaboration was launched immediately and with enthusiasm. Language difficulties were overcome with a spirit of camaraderie and good humor, and they did not represent any obstacle to working, side by side, while they learned to know each other.

The Soviets found the Americans open and friendly, while the Americans were surprised by the Soviets' drinking habits. Likewise, they were struck by the fact that among their partners there were women in all positions and carrying out all kinds of functions: they could not only be nurses or office workers, they were also engineers, truck drivers or artillerymen.

The Soviets were shocked by the informal tone with which American officers and soldiers were treated and the discrimination against African-Americans. Another aspect that puzzled them was that the officers did not exercise any kind of control over the personal lives of the soldiers, who could read whatever they wanted or hang out with anyone.

Plokhy adds that the Soviets were so used to being controlled by the secret police that the freedom enjoyed by the Americans was inconceivable.

The first Frantic mission to take off from Soviet territory was a bombing raid on Poland, carried out at the same time that the Allies were landing in Normandy. It was a complete success and, consequently, the euphoria was intense. Everyone was convinced that it would be the beginning of a long collaboration that would extend to other sectors. However, tensions soon began to rise, both at the bases and between the authorities in Moscow and Washington.

At Poltava, a German bombing raid caused significant damage and made it clear that the Russian anti-aircraft defenses were a calamity. The reactions of both were radically different, and generated a deep discomfort. The Soviets' response had been to risk their lives to protect the materiel, while for the Americans, the paramount thing had been to protect lives, so no casualties among them occurred. Twenty-five people died on the Soviet side.

And it didn't take long for other sources of resentment to arise: the Soviets never left a job until it was done; On the other hand, for his partners, the breaks were sacred, and they left everything at the time it was due. The Soviets felt more committed and responsible, ideologically superior, and they saw in their partners people pampered by abundance, who squandered without thinking.

The Americans, in turn, believed themselves to be more capable and superior from a technological and professional point of view, and they made them feel that way, while the Soviets perceived themselves to be more ingenious when it came to finding solutions.

To further compound the discomfort among Americans, surveillance by the Soviet secret services became oppressive. Not only did they record the activities and opinions of all of them (especially those who spoke Russian or were descendants of Russian exiles, who seemed potentially more dangerous to them), but they did everything in their power to prevent them from coming into contact with the local population, in particular, outside the base.

Thus, the hosts unscrupulously interfered in the relations of their guests with local women. They recruited spies to seduce them for information, harassed them with interrogations or forbade them from approaching them, threatening all kinds of reprisals.

Americans had easy and direct access to food and highly coveted consumer goods (such as nylon stockings), which meant that, just as in France or England, some women preferred them to the locals, which did not alleviate the situation either. . The black market of objects or food stolen from the bases by some and by others caused many conflicts and contributed to the bad atmosphere.

As if that were not enough, the paranoia regarding the activities of the Americans and the fear of the spread of capitalist propaganda, or that the Western lifestyle would seduce the population, was total.

Meanwhile, also in high places the climate deteriorated. The rebellion in Warsaw in August 1944 put the Nazis in check, but, for its success, it needed the support of the allies. The Russians were in a better position to help the rebels, but they were pro-Western, and if Stalin came to their aid, he was jeopardizing his own plans for domination. So he dedicated himself to blocking any initiative in that sense, and even prevented the Americans from helping them from the bases in Soviet territory.

The exchanges between Stalin and Roosevelt escalated, and Soviet Minister Molotov requested the evacuation of the bases, arguing that they needed them for their own use. After arduous negotiations, it was agreed that the Americans would retain only Poltava, with a staff reduced to the bare minimum.

Plokhy explains that, from then on, the Americans multiplied their efforts not to antagonize their partners, despite all the obstacles they placed on them and that, frequently, ruined their missions. Authorizations had to be requested twenty-four hours before, they were given false weather reports so that they could not take off or land...

Another issue that pushed diplomatic relations to the limit was the Soviet treatment of released American POWs. Researchers Lee Trimble and Jeremy Dronfield explain in Beyond the Call (2015) that these had to get by however they could, when they were not left locked up in former Nazi concentration camps as espionage suspects. Many of those left to fend for themselves were injured, starving, and not even allowed to return home from Poltava.

For the Americans, their compatriots were the absolute priority, but for Stalin those who had been captured by the enemy were traitors, and they were lucky that he did not execute them, so he turned a deaf ear every time Roosevelt, furious, demanded that they be assisted. .

The tension reached such a point that the Soviets established a plan to assault the Poltava base, and the Americans did the same to defend themselves in case of aggression and destroy documentation that they did not want to see in enemy hands.

Once the Poltava base was deemed unnecessary, it was dismantled. Although its purpose had been strategic, it had raised unrealistic hopes that the Allies would be able to put aside their differences and usher in a new era of collaboration after the war.

In other words, the Cold War was already taking shape within the world war itself, and subsequent events, such as the development of the Manhattan Project, which was carried out behind the back of the Kremlin, only made the situation worse.