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PROGRAMMING ALERT: Watch the director’s cut of “Three Days at the Brink,” where Bret Baier goes inside the Tehran Conference and FDR, Churchill, and Stalin’s risky plan to end WWII, exclusively on Fox Nation.
What struck me most in researching the Tehran conference of November 1943 for my new book, “Three Days at the Brink: FDR’s Daring Gamble to Win World War II,” was how friendly and even ingratiating FDR was toward Joseph Stalin, a vicious dictator and known murderer of millions of his countrymen. FDR justified his conciliatory behavior by insisting that we needed Stalin in order to win World War II.
To be fair, our nations were in an alliance to defeat Hitler and the Axis powers. It was also true that the Soviet Union had borne the brunt of casualties in the war. But beyond the discussions about ending the war, FDR also entered into a collaboration with Stalin in Tehran and later at Yalta that sought to reshape the postwar world. Still angling to convince Stalin to join the fight against Japan, FDR wanted more than anything else to get the Soviet dictator on his side.
FDR might have thought he had little choice but to play along with Stalin. He figured he could get away with it, but if he had a postwar strategy to rein in the Soviet Union, he didn’t live to pursue it. And FDR’s critics would later say that relationship and the leeway given to Stalin led to catastrophic consequences in Eastern Europe and for what would be a four decade-long Cold War.
BRET BAIER: THREE PRESIDENTS AT THE BRINK — FDR, EISENHOWER, REAGAN AND THE FUTURE OF THE FREE WORLD
It’s tempting to think of those long-ago summits as relics of the past. But decisions made more than seventy years ago have relevance to the way we pursue foreign policy today.
President Trump’s overtures to Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un have set many observers on edge. The bad faith of Russian and North Korean leaders is an old story for American negotiators. In 1943, Stalin said all the right things to FDR’s face, preaching the value of freedom and independence for every nation. Then, once FDR was in the grave and the war was over, he proceeded to break every promise he had made. Knowing what we now know, we can only speculate about what would have happened had not FDR been so willing to allow Stalin to dominate eastern Europe after the war. For that matter, what would have happened had not the control of Germany been divided between east and west?
While I was writing this book, I accompanied President Trump to two meetings with Kim Jong Un, and I couldn’t help but consider the parallels to FDR’s meetings with Stalin.
In Singapore, the two men met for the first time against a backdrop of deeply ingrained mutual hostility. For decades, North Korea has been a hidden land whose principal goal has seemed to be the destruction of the American way. Its children are indoctrinated to hate America. The fact that this brutal regime with animosity toward the west was developing nuclear capabilities was a looming crisis, and each administration had tried to tackle it in different ways for almost two decades.
President Trump’s courtship of Kim Jong Un seemed almost unthinkable, especially after the president had threatened North Korea with “fire and fury” early in his presidency. But rhetoric can be distinguished from diplomacy. After all, Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union “the evil empire,” and then went on to sit at the table with Gorbachev and carve out substantial agreements on nuclear disarmament. Trump administration officials were using the Reagan framework—hoping that the formula would work with Kim as well. Even the doubters were cautiously hopeful, just because the scene of an American president and a North Korean leader smiling broadly as they promised to explore cooperation was so unprecedented. No previous sitting president had met with a North Korean leader, although Bill Clinton came close.
As President Trump prepared to leave Singapore, I had a rare opportunity to interview him aboard Air Force One while his impressions were still fresh from his meeting. A pleased and confident Trump told me, “I’m totally confident. And if we can’t…we can’t have a deal…we have to be—you know, it has to be verified. But one of the things that, really, I’m happy is that the soldiers that died in Korea, their remains are going to be coming back home. And we have thousands of people that have asked for that, thousands and thousands of people.” Indeed, the return of soldiers’ remains was a tremendous symbolic act of good will on the part of Kim. (Although to this day, the process of getting the remains back to the US has been slow and incomplete.)
Even so, many observers were still skeptical about trying to negotiate with a man whose regime—and that of his father and grandfather—were characterized by savagery against its citizens. Pointing out the human rights violations, I bluntly said to President Trump, “He’s a killer. He’s executing people.”
The President was nonplussed.“He’s a tough guy,” he said of Kim. “Hey, when you take over a country, tough country, tough people and you take it over from your father, I don’t care who you are, what you are, how much of an advantage you have. If you can do that at twenty-seven years old, I mean that’s one in ten thousand that could do that. So, he’s a very smart guy. He’s a great negotiator, but I think we understand each other.” Perhaps President Trump was relating as the son of an overbearing father, but his basic position was that it was better to talk to Kim than to shut him out. There was plenty of handwringing about President Trump’s failure to repel this adversary, but in a larger sense it was the American way.
In Singapore, President Trump told me that he and Kim have “chemistry.” And although he surely discovered that personal chemistry is not enough, he agreed to a second summit in Hanoi, Vietnam in February 2019. It did not go so well, ending abruptly when the two sides could not agree on denuclearization. I was also there in Hanoi. The anticipation that a deal would be struck between the US and North Korea was high, but the framework was not set up. The North Koreans appeared to misjudge how far President Trump was willing to bend, and “denuclearization” had two different meanings for the two countries’ negotiating teams. The setting seemed designed to send a message to Kim—a booming economy in Vietnam that continues to expand after Vietnam’s Communist past. Statues of Vladimir Lenin are sprinkled throughout Hanoi positioned across from coffee shops and cellphone stores— a dichotomy that President Trump is trying to sell North Korea as well.
Even after the failed summit, President Trump held out hope. On June 30, 2019, he met Kim at the border and became the first president to step onto North Korean soil. It was a grandiose gesture. However, the positive symbolism of that event soon gave way to a standoff as North Korea continued to ramp up its nuclear program.
Donald Trump is not the first president to court America’s enemies, and nowhere has that been more evident than in Soviet and Russian relations. Even in the darkest early years of the Cold War, Dwight Eisenhower tried to develop a working relationship with Nikita Khrushchev, and brought him to Camp David where they watched westerns together. The two men were bitter adversaries, but they had one important issue in common: both agreed that a nuclear war was unthinkable. It would be mutually assured destruction (MAD). I’ve always thought Khrushchev described the nuclear standoff best when he said to Eisenhower: “We get your dust, you get our dust, the winds blow around the world and nobody’s safe.”
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Camp David has witnessed many such outreaches over the decades: Nixon gave Soviet general secretary Leonid Brezhnev the gift of a Cadillac and went for a heart-stopping drive with him on the property. Reagan never invited Gorbachev to Camp David, but George H. W. Bush did. There are photos of the president escorting Gorbachev in the camp golf cart—Golf Cart One. Later, Bush also invited Boris Yeltsin to Camp David. George W. Bush hosted Putin at Camp David when he was trying to establish a relationship with him, but when Barack Obama tried to get Putin to Camp David to attend the G8 summit in 2012, he was rebuffed.
American presidents have always tried to reach out to Russian leaders, even in the tensest times. The budding relationship between Eisenhower and Khrushchev was doomed when the Americans were caught spying with the downed U2 spy place. In the same way, President Trump’s outreach is dramatically complicated by Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, and its potential interference in 2020, which has soured most Americans to Russia’s true intentions. Nevertheless, President Trump still tries to find a way in.
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The point seems to be to keep negotiating. It’s easy to imagine Ronald Reagan throwing in the towel with the Soviet Union in 1986 after the disastrous summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, which ended with Reagan and Gorbachev walking away from the table. Yet a little over a year later, Gorbachev was in Washington DC, where they signed a treaty to eliminate intermediate-range and shorter-range missiles. Months later, Reagan was in Moscow, with perhaps the most significant platform of his presidency, openly sharing American values with Soviet citizens—a speech that was unthinkable just months before.
Upheavals in the world order are a given, and it’s fair to say that American presidents have made many mistakes in their efforts to balance our principles with undemocratic regimes. Critics will say FDR dropped the ball with Stalin. But, perhaps he had no choice. As Americans one thing seems certain—we’ve always been willing to keep the door open. We should not fear talk. We should fear the end of talks. To do otherwise is to make the world more dangerous.
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