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The Second Front; the most significant cause of tension between Russia and the West, 1941 and 1945?

Updated on March 5, 2014

It is possible to construct many theories as to why there were tensions between theSoviet Union and its western allies in the grand alliance. It is plausible to consider the events between the Russian revolution and Operation Barbarossa were the underlying cause of tension between the Western powers and the USSR that persisted through to 1945. It is possible to also state that fighting against Nazism diminished these underlying suspicions and that the allied nations had bigger disagreements about other issues.

Arguments are often constructed by historians that state the issue of a Second Front was the issue that caused the most tension between the three allies. With all of Europe under Nazi occupation the British had no front on which to fight, all the fighting was focused on the Eastern Front. On the other hand, it is possible to argue that they were very different personalities, nations, beliefs; this was an Allianceof convenience. Which would lead to conflicting war, and post war, aims; Eastern Europe’s, especially Poland’s, future is the main manifestation of this clash.

It can be argued that the biggest cause of tension between the western allies and Russia throughout the war was the issue of a second front. However, this argument is open to question and the primary source, taken from the memoirs of Joseph Davies, suggests a different interpretation. When the first unofficial messenger from President Roosevelt arrived in Moscow to meet Stalin there was no mention of military assistance. His mission was to express 'the determination of the president and our government to extend all possible aid to the Soviet Unionat the earliest possible time'1. They spoke at length about the evils of Nazism and about what Russia would need to fight the war. Stalin remarked 'give us anti aircraft guns and the aluminum and we can fight for three or four years'2. This meeting and Stalin’s requests can be interpreted in the manner that Russia did not need military but material aid. In fact the western allies were the first to bring about the issue of a second front. In a telegram from Churchill and Roosevelt to Stalin; 'A question as to where and when those resources can best be used to further to the greatest extent to our common effort'3 this seems to state that the allies have the resources ready but must plan or if this is not what Churchill and Roosevelt meant it could have easily been interpreted this way by Stalin. If Stalin did not mention the issue of the second front then this would support the argument that Stalin only pushed for the second front for material gain. If this is the case then it was not a major cause of tension on the side of the Soviets.

However, as the war intensified on the Russian front it is clear that the issue of a second front became key for Stalin for the Russian price of war had been high. This argument is plausible due to the sheer scale of Soviet suffering ‘8.7 million men and women in combat, 18 million civilians, for every one American that died 90, Russians died, 70,000 villages, 65,000 kilometers of rail track, over half the urban living space and nearly all production figures halved until 1947’4.

So with Russia losing so much and little action, except for North Africa, from the western Allies it is plausible to assume that in all three leaders’ eyes the issue of a second front would be a major cause of tension between them. Stalin pushed fiercely during negotiations, as can be seen in the published minutes of the Tehran conference, for the second front turning up the heat on the western side. Evidence that it had become a major source of tension by mid 1943 is clear when it was finally decided by Churchill and Roosevelt that they should continue with the plans to attack the ‘soft under belly of Europe’ the invasion of Italy was launched, it is noted by Molotov that Stalin ‘flew into rage, cursing loudly’. Such a response reinforces the argument that the issue of the 2nd front was important to Stalin and the disagreements over this would have been a major cause of tension. It also discredits the speculation that he was only pushing for a second front for more material aid. Regardless of motives Stalin’s insistence of a second front would have been a cause of tension between the allies, especially during the summer of 1942.

However, it is possible to argue that the importance of the second front declined during the war (clearly it disappeared after D-day) and that other factors caused greater disagreement. During the year of 1944 it is widely accepted among historians, such as D. Stone, G. Downing and Westad, is that Poland was at the front of all three of the leader’s minds. One of the key issues surrounding Poland was which government would be put in place; the British backed the ‘London Poles’ whom had fled from Poland when Germany had invaded, whereas the Soviets backed the ‘Lublin Committee’ a group of left wing Poles selected by Stalin. Evidence that the future of Poland became an important source of tension is plentiful. Britain had declared war on Germany for Poland and since the signing of the Atlantic charter, Churchill and Roosevelt had seen Polandas a key starting point for their ideas for self-determination and free trade for states.

However, this argument can be challenged, at the negotiating table with the Western Allies’ position weak. They had no choice but to let the Soviets place whatever government they wished in power and it was only through the negotiating skills of Roosevelt, and Stalin’s reluctance to seem hostile towards America, that a coalition was formed made up of the two. Another view that a minority of historians argue, such as G. Roberts, was that America and Britain gave Poland as a sacrifice to appease Stalin. Churchill to Stalin regarding the future of Poland; '(I am) prepared to take it up with the Polish government in exile... and offer it to them as probably the best deal they could obtain. If the Polish government refused this, then Great Britain would be through with them and certainly would not oppose the Soviet government under any condition at the peace table'5. The treatment of other eastern European countries enforces this argument, it can be suggested that the setting up of Soviet puppet governments was expected and accepted by the allies before it had even happened. A few weeks before the Tehran conference Churchill visited Moscow, in the meeting Churchill produced a scrap of paper, it read; ‘Romania; Russia 90% Other 10%. Greece; Great Britain 90% Russia 10%. Yugoslavia 50%-50%. Hungary 50%-50%. Bulgaria; Russia 75% Other 25%’6. this evidence strongly supports the view that despite western misgivings the future of Eastern Europe was not a major cause of tension between the allies, after allChurchill had proposed to Stalin spheres of influence and this agreement was accepted by Stalin, Roosevelt, although not informed about the agreement, did not object. The Allies had carved up and decided the fate of Eastern Europe between themselves without consulting the countries representatives involved, or breaking the Alliance.

Arguably one of the main causes of tension between the Wartime Allies was that of eastern Europe. The Western allies had agreed to the causes laid down in the Atlantic Charter, which were in direct opposition with Stalin’s actions, which he claimed, were done for security reasons. However, historians, such as Painter, have argued ‘that Stalin was in no hurry to impose communism on eastern central Europe’8. In defence of Stalin’s actions historians, such as Roberts, claim that he was doing in Eastern Europe what he perceived as the accepted behaviour of the Allies. Roberts states ‘Stalin saw no contradiction between a peacetime grand alliance and the beginning of a Europe of socialism and communism’9 so his aims can be interpreted as territorial and ideological expansion. The British and Americans had imposed their own ideological government model in Italy without consulting the Soviet Union. Why should Stalin not be free to do the same? Roberts also comments ‘but this perspective was not shared by Churchill and Roosevelt’10. Stalin’s actions were mainly interpreted by the west as hostile and against the liberalist ideas the Western powers agreed to uphold in the Atlantic charter. Whether or not Stalin’s goals were expansionist his actions were still a definite cause for suspicions, thus tensions, by the west.

It is plausible that long standing mistrust between the west and east from events of the previous forty years played a roll in creating tension as an issue itself and exacerbated other issues. Gaddis argues that the Russian revolution of 1917 and Americas entry into the war can be seen as the beginning of the tension in the relationship between the USSR and USA 'Harbingers of a long twilight struggle pitting against each other... liberal capitalism and totalitarian socialism'11. The first interaction that the western world had with the future Soviet Union was their intervention in the Revolution of the side of the whites, 'Western capitalists and imperialists were trying to strangle the soviet baby in its cradle'12. This, arguably, was a personal issue to Stalin as he had been fighting against these forces and would lead to long standing mistrust towards the western allies. From the other side of the argument the west believed they had reason to be mistrusting of Stalin, the USSR established the Comintern and the show trials of the late 30s did not help improve relations, 'From the late 1920s until the summer of 1941 communism remained a threat in the eyes of many Americans and western Europeans'13. By 1939, up until the Nazi Soviet pact, relations were stable and mildly positive between the USSR and the western powers. It can, however, be argued that the only reason the relation stabilized was because of the birth of Nazi Germany and the increasing aggressiveness of the empire of Japan meaning the spread of communism was no longer 'the foremost threat to international stability'14 in the eyes of the west.It is plausible to suggest that these would have created long standing tension would have had major influences on all sides while negotiating and planning happened.

In conclusion, as the war progressed and the question became less how they were going to win and more towards what they were going to do once they won the issues that were raised became more and more complex and the answers more and more ambiguous. The evidence does not support the view that the Second front was the most significant cause of tension between the allies throughout the period of the war. It is clear that during 1942-1943 the Second front would have been a major cause of tension between the allies because of Russia’s desperate position; they were barely able to hold on in the face of the Wehrmacht’s assault. However, from the victory at Stalingrad onwards, its importance decreased as long as the Americans keep the huge amounts of supplies coming, the Russians could keep fighting without direct military assistance from the west. Past conflicts between the west and Stalin, although not a factor on their own, would influence all relations and decisions because of the under lying suspicions that they engendered. Ideology played a major roll as the war progressed, while the Red Army was smashing across Eastern Europe and the Western allies are still trying to break intoGermany, it became a race for liberation, of imposing ideology and moving on, for both sides, this became a major source of tension. Arguably this was bound to happen from the start, it was an alliance forged to stop Nazism. The ambiguity of the terms of liberation of countries, of western demands of Russia and the lack of a concrete set of goals allowed for an environment where all three of the allies were fearful of the other intentions.

The Second Front was the main cause of tension up until early 1943, soon after the battle of Stalingrad. After this it becomes clear that Stalin does not need military assistance from the West, after this the future of the states of Soviet liberated countries and disagreements over instated governments becomes the main source of tension.


1 The published memoirs of Joseph Davies documented in The Cold War: A History in Documents and Eyewitness Accounts by Hanhimaki and Westad. Page 23.

2 The published memoirs of Joseph Davies documented in The Cold War: A History in Documents and Eyewitness Accounts by Hanhimaki and Westad. Page 23.

3 A telegram between Roosevelt and Stalin published within the Cold War: A History in Documents and Eyewitness Accounts by Hanhimaki and Westad. Page 25.

4 Origins of the Cold War 1941-1949 by Martin McCauley. Page 37.

5 An extract from the official minutes of theYalta published within the Cold War: A History in Documents and Eyewitness Accounts by Hanhimaki and Westad. Page 26

6 The Cold War: A History in Documents and Eyewitness Accounts by Hanhimaki and Westad. Page 40

8 A Preponderance of Power: National Security, the Truman Administration and the Cold War by Melvyn P. Leffler. Page 9

9 Stalin’s Wars: From World War Two to Cold War by Geoffrey Roberts. Page 186

10 Stalin’s Wars: From World War Two to Cold War by Geoffrey Roberts. Page 186

11 An interpretation from John L.Gaddis featured in The Cold War: A History in Documents and Eyewitness Accounts by Hanhimaki and Westad. Page 1

12 The Cold War: A History in Documents and Eyewitness Accounts by Hanhimaki and Westad. Page 1

13 The Cold War: A History in Documents and Eyewitness Accounts by Hanhimaki and Westad. Page 2

14 The Cold War: A History in Documents and Eyewitness Accounts by Hanhimaki and Westad Page 2


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      mkkw 4 years ago

      Super ! Thank from Moscow ...

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      Anom 5 years ago

      This is a terribly badly researched essay, written completely from a cold war prospective with no understanding of the nature of the military situation during the war.

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      ruffridyer 6 years ago from Dayton, ohio

      Lots of information to digest. an excellent hub as usual.