The West and the Soviets in WW2

John Kane-Berman on the crucial role US aid played in the Soviet war effort

The Western share in the Soviet victory to be commemorated next month

It is fashionable these days to decry the role of the Western Allies in destroying Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime on the grounds that the Russians did most of the fighting in Europe and suffered vastly more casualties, both of which arguments are true.

Yet when victory was formally declared in Moscow on 9th May 75 years ago, loudspeakers all over the city played the American national anthem and joyful crowds streamed towards the American embassy. Averell Harriman, US ambassador in Moscow, remembered Russians weeping in the streets when Franklin Roosevelt died the previous month.

The Western contribution to ultimate victory was twofold. Firstly, every German division deployed in North Africa and Italy to fight the Allies, or stationed elsewhere in Europe and even in Norway to await the D-day landings, was a division unavailable for the fighting on the Eastern front. Secondly, the Russians received almost a quarter of all American Lend-Lease aid (most of the rest going to the British Empire).  

In his best-selling autobiography I Chose Freedom published in 1947, Victor Kravchenko, who managed a number of major Soviet factories, wrote

“I came to know more intimately even than the ranking generals and admirals how valuable American lend-lease weapons, materials, and machinery were in achieving victory. God knows we paid back in full – in Russian lives – for Allied help. The Stalingrad triumph was clinched before the great flow of lend-lease got started. But without the great influx of American airplanes, motor transport, telephones, a thousand other things we lacked, what would have been the fate of Soviet resistance?”

Often using their own people as slave labour, the Soviets made most of their own weapons, and their tanks were superior to Western tanks. But two-thirds of the 665 000 trucks, jeeps, and other vehicles used by the Red Army in the later stages of the war came from the West. When President Roosevelt went to meet Stalin and Winston Churchill at Teheran in November 1943, Stalin’s fleet of cars included armour-plated Packards, Cadillacs, and Lincolns. When Roosevelt travelled to Yalta in February 1945 for the next Big Three meeting, the male and female Russian troops lining the route from the airport all carried American Springfield rifles. Vast quantities of food were supplied to Russia, including the Kremlin itself.

One of the factors that necessitated Western aid was that Stalin had sent huge amounts of raw materials to Hitler under the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact signed in August 1939 (which Hitler then violated when he invaded Russia in June 1941).

Some lend-lease material went in Russian ships from North America across the Pacific to Vladivostock, where, wrote Kravchenko, the docks “groaned under mountains of American supplies and equipment”. Some was flown across central Africa. But the British contribution to arming the Russians should not be overlooked. Plenty of aid went round the Cape of Good Hope to the Persian Gulf and then up on the British-built railway towards the Caspian Sea. Stalin had no ships to spare for conveyance to Murmansk and Archangel via the Arctic route, so the British supplied both merchant ships and armed convoys to escort them.

Kravchenko is unusual in mentioning Western help, which is generally omitted from Soviet accounts. In August 1943 he was sent to Washington DC to join the large Soviet Purchasing Commission there. He was one of the Russian metallurgical specialists drawing up specifications for lend-lease equipment. Although under constant surveillance by Soviet spies and communist apparatchiks, he managed to defect.

I Chose Freedom pays due tribute to the “unsurpassed heroism and sacrifice of the Russian people”, fighting not for socialism or Stalin, but despite them. At the same time, the book is one of the earliest accounts of the totalitarian horrors of Stalinist rule: the intricate and multi-layered apparatus of spying, the paranoia, the treachery and lies, the fantasy, the corruption, the waste and incompetence of party control, the cruelty and inhumanity, the lawlessness of the police state, the never-ending purges and summary executions, and the barbarism of slave labour camps and collectivization. This last of course involved starving millions of peasants and their children to death.

Predating by twenty years the great exposes by Robert Conquest, I Chose Freedom is all the more powerful for being the account of a man who was both a cog in the machine and an eye-witness. And for all the joy in Russia on 9th May 75 years ago, Kravchenko’s conclusion echoes down the ages: “Millions of my people exchanged German enslavement for Soviet enslavement.”

* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. Readers are invited to take a stand with the IRR by clicking here or sending an SMS with your name to 32823. Each SMS costs R1. Ts and Cs apply.