A lot of people forget that the Soviet Union did about 90% of the actual fighting in the war against Hitler.  Starting in 1942 Stalin repeatedly asked his "allies" in the west to either open a second front Europe or at least send military forces, particularly air power to help Soviet forces.  In both cases he got promises that were never kept.

What he got instead was a declaration of a policy of "unconditional surrender" in early 1943 about which he was never consulted, a policy which gave the Germans every incentive to fight to the bitter end.   In spite of repeated protests from Stalin to modify this ill-considered policy, Roosevelt flatly refused to change his position, guaranteeing continued huge Russian losses while the west postponed its promised attack in the west for two years.

Even before the onset of the Cold War in the years after 1945, tension and distrust marked the relationship between Great Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union.  Although this tension was understandable given the ideological differences between capitalism and communism, a more important immediate cause was the bizarre, even duplicitous, conduct of President Franklin D. Roosevelt toward Josef Stalin.
The evidence below concerns two important areas of disagreement between the Soviet union and the Western Allies, especially the United States, during the Second World War: 1) the opening of a second front against Germany in Western Europe and 2) the policy of unconditional surrender.  Unfulfilled promises made to Stalin by Roosevelt and Churchill (the former in particular) about opening a second front in 1942 and then the American-British adoption of a policy of unconditional surrender without consulting the Soviets deepened the distrust between the West and the Soviets that later developed into the Cold War.
The decisions not to open a second European front in 1942 and to demand the unconditional surrender of Germany also had significant effects on the course of the war itself.
  • Lengthening the war.  Several of Hitler's former generals have attested to the lengthening of the war caused by unconditional surrender.  Once the policy was adopted in 1943 it gave Joseph Goebbels an important propaganda weapon.  Most of the German people did not have access to information other than that provided by the regime.  Goebbels was therefore able to exploit unconditional surrender as proof that the Allies sought to utterly destroy the German people.  This hardened the resolve of ordinary Germans to fight on to the bitter end, especially on the Eastern Front.  If no quarter could be expected then surrender was not an option.  Consequently millions of people would die because of the inflexibility of Allied policy.  Furthermore, because unconditional surrender ensured that the Germans would fight on no matter what the cost, it also ensured that the Soviets would have to fight their way across Eastern Europe and deep into Germany proper.  Eventually, Stalin came to see that the policy of unconditional surrender played into his hands.  Creating a series of subservient, client states in Eastern Europe had been a long-standing objective of Russian foreign policy, even well before the revolution in 1917.  Unconditional surrender finally allowed Stalin to achieve this goal.
  • Undercutting German resistance efforts.  There was important opposition to Hitler at the highest levels of the German military.   However, the eventual success of any coup against Hitler depended on the ability of the resistance to say that the Allies would help stabilize Germany if it was led by someone other than Hitler.  The policy of unconditional surrender significantly undercut any popular support that the resistance could count upon.
  • Sealing the fate of millions of Jews.  By January 1943 (when unconditional surrender was decided) large pockets of Jews within Nazi-occupied Europe were still alive, including practically all of the Jews within the major ghettoes of Warsaw and Łódz.  These Jews would be slaughtered in the gas chambers of Nazi death camps throughout 1943.  In 1944 the Jewish population of Hungary also would be largely exterminated in Auschwitz-Birkenau.  Had a more flexible policy been adopted by Roosevelt and Churchill, a policy which would have allowed Germans to surrender anywhere under any circumstances, the German war effort probably would have collapsed much sooner than May 1945.


(WFF - Transcript of Roosevelt Molotov Meeting)

In late May 1942, the Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov made a secret visit to Washington with the expressed aim of securing an American promise to open a second front in France against Germany by autumn of that year.  Since fall of the previous year, thus before the United States was even actively engaged in the war, plans for fighting Germany in France had been under development in the War Department.  By the spring of 1942 these plans had developed into Operation Sledgehammer, which foresaw an emergency invasion across the English Channel to draw German troops from the Soviet front in case the military collapse of the USSR appeared imminent.  What remained unknown was the timetable for such an invasion.  Roosevelt favored an unrealistically early assault date.  As Robert Sherwood notes,

"In his long cable to Churchill of March 9, [1942] Roosevelt had spoken of 'plans for establishment of a new front on the European Continent,' adding, 'I am becoming more and more interested in the establishment of the new front this summer'."  Five days later, Roosevelt reiterated the matter of a second front to Harry Hopkins, writing in a memorandum, "I doubt if any single thing is as important as getting some sort of a front this summer against Germany."[1]

Throughout the early months of 1942 the Kremlin had desperately sought the active military involvement of British and American forces in Western Europe.  However, despite American plans, successive Soviet diplomatic communiqués calling for a second front had been summarily rebuffed by Washington.  The negative American attitude appeared to have changed in April 1942 when Roosevelt invited Molotov to Washington specifically to discuss relieving German pressure on the Soviets.  After arriving at the White House on May 29, Molotov discussed with Roosevelt the subject of a second front on the next day (May 30).

According to Sherwood, Molotov asked Roosevelt directly:

"... Could we undertake such offensive action as would draw off 40 German divisions which would be, to tell the truth, distinctly second-rate outfits?  If the answer should be in the affirmative, the war would be decided in 1942.  If negative, the Soviets would fight on alone, doing their best, and no man would expect more from them than that.  He had not, Mr. Molotov added, received any positive answer in London. Mr. Churchill had proposed that he should return through London on his homeward journey from Washington, and had promised Mr. Molotov a more concrete answer on his second visit.  Mr. Molotov admitted he realized that the British would have to bear the brunt of the action if a second front were created, but he also was cognizant of the role the United States plays and what influence this country exerts in questions of major strategy.  Without in any way minimizing the risks entailed by a second front action this summer, Mr. Molotov declared his government wanted to know in frank terms what position we take on the question of a second front, and whether we were prepared to establish one.  He requested a straight answer.

The difficulties, Mr. Molotov urged, would not be any less in 1943. The chances of success were actually better at present while the Russians still have a solid front.  'If you postpone your decision,' he said, 'you will have eventually to bear the brunt of the war, and if Hitler becomes the undisputed master of the continent, next year will unquestionably be tougher than this one.'

The President then put to General Marshall the query whether developments were clear enough so that we could say to Mr. Stalin that we are preparing a second front. 'Yes,' replied the General. The President then authorized Mr. Molotov to inform Mr. Stalin that we expect the formation of a second front this year."[2]

Three days later, on June 1st, Roosevelt repeated to Molotov his promise to open a second front in 1942 and an official press statement to this effect was prepared for release upon Molotov's safe arrival in Moscow: "In the course of the conversations [between the President and Molotov] full understanding was reached with regard to the urgent tasks of creating a Second Front in Europe in 1942."[3]

His promises to Molotov aside, Roosevelt was well aware that the United States was incapable of launching an invasion of France in 1942.  Already, one month earlier during Anglo-American staff talks in London, General George Marshall "spoke at some length of the possibility that they might be compelled to launch the emergency operation, known as SLEDGEHAMMER, sometime before the autumn of 1942.  If this were necessary, he said, the American contribution in troops would necessarily be a modest one since there was not enough shipping to transport a substantial force across the Atlantic within the next five months.  He said that the President was opposed to any premature operation, involving such great risks, but that if such an operation were made necessary by developments on the Russian Front, American troops should take part in it to the fullest possible extent."[4]

Subsequent events demonstrated that an Anglo-American offensive would indeed become a reality in 1942, but what Molotov and Stalin did not know was that the second front they opened would be in North Africa and not in Europe.  The second front in France requested by Stalin would not become a reality until June 1944.  The Soviets would thus continue to fight the bulk of the German Army alone for another two years.

Given the past betrayal by Great Britain of its Eastern European allies (see below) and the failure to open a second front in Europe despite the promises of President Roosevelt, Stalin can perhaps be forgiven if by early 1943 he believed the United States and Great Britain were willing to fight the Third Reich to the last drop of Soviet blood.


At the end of the Allied war conference held in Casablanca, Morocco between January 14 and 24, 1943, President Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill issued a joint statement calling for the unconditional surrender of the Axis Powers: Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and Imperial Japan.  Although the policy of unconditional surrender was intended to prevent the rise of a "stab in the back" myth that could fuel a resurgence of German militarism and nationalism after the war, its had a far wider impact than Roosevelt (its primary creator) could have imagined.

Josef Stalin actively disliked the policy of unconditional surrender, until after the tide of the war had shifted decisively in his favor and ongoing  German resistance provided a reason for Soviet troops to push deeper and deeper into Eastern Europe and Germany.  At the heart of Stalin's disdain for the policy was his deep distrust of the Western democracies.  To a considerable this lack of trust derived from direct experience dealing with them.

In 1938 and 1939, for instance, the willingness of Great Britain and France to betray their promises to protect Czechoslovakia and Poland from German aggression (see our page on the Western Betrayal of Poland in 1939), as well as their (particularly Britain's) thinly-veiled diplomatic coldness toward Moscow, led Stalin to sign a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany.  This pact also contained secret clauses that allowed the Soviet Union to occupy eastern Poland several weeks after the German attack.

Then, in June 1941, German forces attacked the Soviet Union and drove to within striking distance of Moscow by December of that year.  In 1942 the Soviet situation was desperate and President Roosevelt repeatedly promised to open hostilities on the European Continent against Germany that year.  The Red Army thus continued to fight the vast majority of Hitler's troops alone.  Soviet arms continued to sustain atrocious losses, the Germans occupied vast sections of Soviet territory, and the country teetered on the brink of destruction.

Until early 1945, therefore, Stalin continued to follow a policy of conditional surrender with the Germans.  He made it clear multiple times that the Red Army would gladly enter into peace negotiations with the Germans as long as Hitler and his government were removed from power.  For instance, after the victory at Stalingrad in February 1943, just one week after the unconditional surrender announcement at Casablanca, Stalin stated:

"Occasionally the foreign press engages in prattle to the effect that the Red Army's aim is to exterminate the German people and destroy the German state.  This is, of course, a stupid lie and a senseless slander against the Red Army. ... It would be ridiculous to identify Hitler's clique with the German people and the German state.  History shows that Hitlers come and go, but the German people and the German state remain."[5]

This was followed by another Stalin appeal on November 6, 1943, when German forces were in full retreat:

"It is not our aim to destroy Germany, for it is impossible to destroy Germany, just as it is impossible to destroy Russia.  But the Hitler state can and should be destroyed.  It is not our aim to destroy all organized military force in Germany, for every literate person will understand that this is not only impossible in regard to Germany, as it is in regard to Russia, but it is also inadmissible from the viewpoint of the victor."[6]

Lastly, according to the American Ambassador to Moscow, W. Averell Harriman, the Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov told him in 1943 that "Stalin had some reservations about it (i.e. the policy of unconditional surrender), that it might make the Germans fight harder."  Harriman claims to have advised Molotov to have Stalin "raise the question with the president, which he did [at Teheran].  But Roosevelt never followed up Stalin's suggestion that he clarify his meaning."[7]


Stalin never shielded his misgivings about the policy of unconditional surrender from either Roosevelt or Churchill.  In fact, he openly asked for some kind of declaration of surrender terms, no matter how harsh.  Consider his appeal to Roosevelt and Churchill during dinner on the first night of the Teheran Conference, on Sunday, November 28, 1943:

"As a war-time measure Marshal Stalin questioned the advisability of the unconditional surrender principle with no definition of the exact terms which would be imposed upon Germany.  He felt that to leave the principle of unconditional surrender unclarified merely served to unite the German people, whereas to draw up specific terms, no matter how harsh, and tell the German people that this was what they would have to accept, would, in his opinion, hasten the day of German capitulation."[8]

Considerable confusion has arisen as a result of sloppy record-keeping in connection with this dinner.  For example, British records erroneously indicate that the dinner and Stalin's comment occurred the following night, on November 29, 1944.  Roosevelt's personal translator, Charles Bohlen, is adamant, however, stating that "during dinner and afterwards" on November 28th Stalin kept returning to the issue of unconditional surrender.  The confusion surrounds if and when Roosevelt was present to hear Stalin's concerns.  According to Bohlen and the official record Roosevelt was present and finished dinner with the rest of the party.  Soon afterward, though, the President took ill, excused himself, and did not return.  Stalin then continued to press Churchill on the subject of unconditional surrender without FDR being present.  Roosevelt later added to the confusion by claiming in a Memorandum for the Secretary of State on December 23, 1943 that the subject of unconditional surrender "was not brought up in any way at Teheran in my presence."  This lapse of memory may have been caused by Roosevelt's illness.

Translator Bohlen was present at the dinner so there is no reason to believe that his memory of this was faulty.[9]  Furthermore, Churchill himself recalled Roosevelt being present in a Telegram from Prime Minister Churchill to President Roosevelt on January 2, 1944:

"Hull tells Eden that you have no recollection of any remarks by UJ [Uncle Joe] about unconditional surrender.  I certainly heard, with great interest, him saying something to the effect that he thought it might be well to consider telling the Germans at some stage what unconditional surrender would involve, or perhaps what it would not involve.  After that we began talking about the 50,000 [German officers to be shot] and your compromise and my high falutin, and I finished up by no means certain that the Germans would be reassured if they were told what he had in mind.

Find also [that] Anthony [Eden] telegraphed to the Foreign Office on November 30 as follows: 'Last night (November 29th) Marshal Stalin spoke to the President about unconditional surrender.  Marshal Stalin said he considered this bad tactics vis-à-vis Germany and his suggestion was that we should together work out terms and let them be known generally to the people of Germany.'

Perhaps this may give you a cue to what Anthony and I had in our memories and you may feel inclined to join with us in asking UJ whether he would care to develop his theme to us.  If, however, you prefer we can of course leave things where they are for the time being."


Having had his concerns ignored by Roosevelt at Teheran, Stalin made yet another effort to communicate his displeasure with the policy of unconditional surrender.  According to Charles Bohlen, some time after the Teheran Conference, Moscow transmitted a communiqué to the State Department "questioning the doctrine of unconditional surrender, which Roosevelt and Churchill had agreed to at their meeting in Casablanca in early 1943.[*The Kremlin repeated the arguments raised at Teheran that unconditional surrender afforded the Nazi propagandists an opportunity to play on the fear of the unknown and thereby stiffen the German willingness to fight.  Impressed by the argument, Hull asked what I thought. I replied that Moscow indeed had a good point.  At Hull's suggestion, I drafted a memorandum, which he signed and sent to Roosevelt. Supporting the Soviet suggestion, the memo said:

'As I understand it, the Soviet government believes that some definition, however general and severe, of the conditions of surrender which will be imposed on the enemy countries would deprive the enemy of this propaganda advantage and consequently weaken the morale of their armed forces and people. In view of the Soviet interest in this matter, do you approve of discussions with the Soviet and British governments to explore the desirability of some public definition for propaganda exploitation of the terms of unconditional surrender to be imposed on the respective enemy countries?'

Roosevelt replied with a flat rejection."[10]  Stalin had his answer.


Thus the policy of unconditional surrender would be followed by the Western Allies until the bitter end.  However, Soviet policy toward German surrender continued to be marked by ambivalence.[11]  As the war continued into 1944 it appeared publicly that Stalin had fallen into line behind unconditional surrender.  Yet behind Soviet lines various appeals for German surrender on any terms would continue to be made.  The most famous of these appeals were made by the members of the National Committee for a  Free Germany (NKFD) and the League of German Officers (BDO).

Formed in 1943, the NKFD was comprised of German expatriates (typically German communists) and former German soldiers who had either been captured by the Red Army.  The NKFD formerly came into existence in July 1943 with the future president of the communist German Democratic Republic, Walter Ulbricht, as its head.  The members of the NKFD published a weekly newspaper and distributed leaflets across the battlefront calling for the surrender of German troops.  They also produced radio programs and employed trucks fitted with loudspeakers which went to the front and asked German troops to lay down their arms.  The League of German Officers was formed several months later in September 1943 following the German defeat at Kursk.  Its chief was General Walther von Seydlitz, who had capitulated at Stalingrad.

In July and August 1944 the NKFD and BDO experienced their greatest successes thanks to the failure of an assassination attempt on Hitler's life on July 20th.  On July 22 eighteen senior ranking officers from what formerly had been Army Group Center crossed Soviet lines.  Army Group Center had once been a hotbed of opposition to Hitler and many officers had been complicit in a failed plot to kill Hitler in 1942.  These officers now feared for their lives in the purge that followed the failed assassination.  Two weeks later, on August 8th, Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus, the man who had surrendered the Sixth Army at Stalingrad in February 1943, also joined the NKFD, becoming the organization's highest-ranking member.  Paulus had grown increasingly critical of Hitler and the war effort throughout his captivity.  However, until this point he would not voice his opposition publicly.  Finally, with the failure of the assassination plot in 1944, Paulus declared a complete break with the Nazi regime.  He spent the rest of the war making radio broadcasts on the Eastern Front calling for Germans to turn away from Hitler and to surrender.


The Casablanca Conference

Foreign Relations of the United States Diplomatic Papers: The Conferences at Washington, 1941-1942, and Casablanca, 1943

Casablanca Conference, February 1943

The Teheran Conference

Foreign Relations of the United States Diplomatic Papers: The Teheran Conference

Teheran Conference Declaration, December 1, 1943


The Casablanca Conference

Basic Information on the Casablanca Conference

Das Nationalkomitee Freies Deutschland   German  Group set up by Soviet Union

Friedrich Paulus German

Friedrich Paulus Biographie German

Germans Against Germany in WW II

The Teheran Conference

History of the Teheran Conference


1. Robert E. Sherwood, Roosevelt and Hopkins: An Intimate History (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1948), pp. 518f. 

2. Sherwood, Roosevelt and Hopkins, p. 563.  That Molotov left Washington fully expectant that the U.S. would open a second front in 1942 is also recorded in the memoirs of Stalin's personal translator.  See Valentin M. Berezhkov, At Stalin's Side. Trans. Sergei V. Mikheyev (Birch Lane Press ), pp. 244f.

3. William H. McNeil, America, Britain & Russia: Their Co-Operation and Conflict, 1941-1946 (NY: Johnson Reprint, 1970), p. 182.

4. Sherwood, Roosevelt and Hopkins, p. 535.

5. Felix Wittmer, The Yalta Betrayal (Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton Press, 1954), p. 32.

6. Wittmer, The Yalta Betrayal, p. 32.

7. W. Averell Harriman & Elie Abel, Special Envoy to Churchill and Stalin, 1941-1946 (New York: Random House, 1975), p. 269.

8. See Bohlen Supplementary Memorandum "Memorandum of Marshal Stalin's Views as Expressed during the Evening of November 28, 1943," in U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States Diplomatic Papers: The Conferences at Cairo and Teheran, 1943, pp. 513-514.  Also see Sherwood, Roosevelt and Hopkins, pp. 782f. 

9. Charles E. Bohlen, Witness to History, 1929-1969 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1973), p. 144.

*. A survey of the correspondence contained within the Foreign Relations of the United States collection concerning Teheran did not turn up this communiqué.

10. Bohlen, Witness to History, pp. 156f.

11. For example, in October 1943 the Soviets signed the Joint Four-Nation Declaration in Moscow, the preamble of which promised "to continue hostilities against those Axis powers with which they respectively are at war until such powers have laid down their arms on the basis of unconditional surrender."  Yet one month later Stalin expressed his displeasure with unconditional surrender at Teheran.  Read the Joint Four-Nation Declaration.