1939: The Alliance That
Never Was and the
Coming of World War II
By Michael Jabara Carley
Ivan R. Dee. 321 pp. $28.95
Reviewed by Adam B. Ulam
The passage of 60 years has not stilled the disputes revolving around the momentous events of the summer of 1939. Could the war have been avoided had Britain and France dealt more forthrightly with the Soviet Union, thus forging an alliance of the three states against Germany? Was it Stalin's (not unjustified) conviction of the Western Powers' insincerity and double game that led him to strike his bargain with Hitler, thus unleashing upon the world the horrors of the most destructive war in history?
Michael Jabara Carley answers both questions in the affirmative. To be sure, toward the end of the book he qualifies his judgment somewhat: "Each side [i.e., the West and the Soviet Union] could point to the other's contradictory policies and each had good reason for mistrust." Yet the thrust of his argument amounts to an indictment of Britain's and France's prewar leaders. Had they honestly pursued the goal of military alliance with the Soviet Union, they might have prevented the outbreak of the war, or at least greatly increased their chances of prevailing once the Germans attacked. Instead, because of their detestation and fear of communism they hemmed and hawed in their approaches to Moscow, leaving Stalin no option but to sign with Hitler.
Carley's theme is hardly new: It is found in the writings of the so-called revisionist school. That school counts among its adherents those Western historians and publicists, not necessarily on the left, who have argued that just as the Soviet Union was not solely responsible for the Cold War, so much of the blame for the Soviet-German alliance (and such it was between Aug. 23, 1939 and June 22, 1941), if indirectly, must largely rest upon the shoulders of Neville Chamberlain, Edouard Daladier and their ilk.
The Soviet official defense of the German-Soviet Pact went beyond the revisionists' censure of the Western statesmen for their hesitations and ineptitude. No! What Chamberlain and Co. really wanted, according to the Soviets, was to push Hitler east, eventually against the Soviet Union. And so Stalin had no choice but to protect his country by signing his compact with the devil, much as he would have preferred to side with the West. Strange as it might seem, this view found its defenders among Russian historians even after the break up of the USSR. Surely among many fantasies spun by Soviet propaganda during the Cold War, this one is the most absurd. Had they really wanted to push Hitler eastward, "the Western imperialists" should have cheered when he attacked Poland, rather than declaring war upon Germany and persisting in it even after Poland's collapse.
Unfortunately, Carley's argument and its variants as presented by other revisionist writers do not fare much better. Barring a miracle, there was nothing the West could have offered that summer of 1939 that would have persuaded Stalin to throw in his lot with the democracies. To do so meant, as he saw it, to expose his country, still bleeding from his terror, to a fate similar to that of Russia's in World War I, when it was fighting alongside Britain and France: a catastrophic military defeat and the collapse of the regime. His bargain, on the contrary, would guarantee Russia a long (so it seemed in 1939) period of peace, and the pleasurable prospect of a long, mutually destructive struggle between the Western imperialists and the Nazis. And of course there would also be handsome territorial dividends.
Carley considers as "mythology" the Western allegations that the Soviet government "colluded with Nazi Germany" and that "Molotov kept making fresh demands on the French and British to give the Germans time to catch up." Yet this was precisely Stalin's game. Carley is equally misled when he writes that the Soviet government wanted to see the war, once begun, "brought to an early end, if its propaganda is to be believed." Well, it definitely is not.
The author has accumulated quite an impressive documentation of the Western leaders' misgivings concerning the trustworthiness of their prospective Russian allies. In retrospect, were they very wrong? It is true that Messrs. Daladier and Chamberlain appeared almost determined to provide the future Soviet historians and our own "revisionists" with enough to justify the charge of the West's bad faith. They were dilatory in their dealings with Moscow. When in August a joint Franco-British military mission finally departed for the USSR, it was headed by a retired admiral and a superannuated general, and it traveled by a slow boat! But, alas, even the most vigorous and trust-inspiring pursuit of Moscow by London and Paris would not have made any difference, except perhaps by complicating the job of the future Soviet propagandist.
Much as Carley is diligent and thorough in presenting his thesis, it still cannot be sustained. Once Hitler proved responsive to Stalin's advances (and it was thus, not vice versa), "the alliance that never was" could never have been.
Adam B. Ulam is Gurney Professor of History and Political Science at Harvard University and the author of biographies of Lenin and Stalin.