This blog is provided by the Common Sense Society of Budapest as an online, English-language platform for the publication and exchange of diverse and differing perspectives about Hungarian politics, economy, and culture. The views represented here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of CSS. The Common Sense Society does not receive funding from any government entity or political party.
The great work of Herbert Hoover’s lifetime, Freedom Betrayed, is both a memoir and a diplomatic history of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War. Meticulously researched, written, and revised over a period of 20 years, Hoover’s most labor-intensive literary achievement has finally been published after nearly fifty years in storage at the Hoover Institution Library and Archives at Stanford University.
In 1938, roughly five years after his now infamous term in the White House, Hoover toured Europe as a visiting dignitary and was warmly received all over the continent, where the memory remained of his work as chairman of the A.R.A. (American Relief Administration) overseeing humanitarian relief and reconstruction efforts in post-war Europe. Hoover met with Adolf Hitler, Neville Chamberlain, and numerous other world leaders. Hoover could see firsthand that Europe was quickly advancing towards war, with German militarization as the prime facilitator.
Originally conceived as separate books, Freedom Betrayed consists of three parts. In the first volume, Hoover traces the rise of Communism and other international developments that culminated in the Nazi invasion of Poland and Soviet occupation of the Baltic states, closing with America’s formal entry into the war after Pearl Harbor. The second volume is a diplomatic history of the war, focusing on the series of Allied conferences from 1941-1945 and Hoover’s assessment of Communist progress up to 1946. The third volume consists of four case histories of countries that had fallen to Communism (Poland, China, Korea, and Germany). Dr. George H. Nash, Hoover’s biographer, deserves a great deal of credit for the tremendous task of editing the book, tracing it’s evolution over the two decades that Hoover wrote it and compiling it into the finished form that Hoover intended.
In the book, Herbert Hoover contends that freedom was betrayed by both American and British leaders through their deceitful maneuvering of America into war, with acquiescence to Communism resulting in the enslavement of Eastern Europe and China. Hoover made numerous statements in print, public speeches, and radio addresses discouraging American involvement in the war in Europe soon after it started in 1939. Hoover’s opposition continued when Germany attacked the Soviet Union in June of 1941. In what he considered to be the most important speech of his life, he addressed the nation by radio imploring his fellow Americans not to allow themselves to be drawn into war on the side of the Soviets. In his view the two sides were equally despicable and the two “devils” (as he sometimes called them) should be allowed to fight one another to exhaustion. Hoover speculated that even if the Soviet Union were defeated, the Nazis would never be able to consolidate their gains and the vast territory and disparate peoples under their control would be in a constant state of rebellion.
In Hoover’s view the United States should have built up its defenses and prepared itself to enter Europe as a great stabilizing force, as it had after World War I. Only once the Nazis and Soviets had bludgeoned one another to near collapse would it be wise for America to play a role. Hoover’s protests were in vain, however, and President Roosevelt’s energetic support of Stalin helped to speed the defeat of Hitler, though at the price of the enslavement of tens of millions, a result that the Allied leadership seemed at best reluctant to protest, and at worst assented to and facilitated.
Hoover presents his case by highlighting the statements of Allied leaders and comparing them to their actions, making a strong case that the Americans and British engaged in a deliberate policy of appeasement towards the Soviet Union. The result is a strong indictment of many senior leaders and President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill in particular. Of all the Allied conferences Hoover puts the greatest focus on the Teheran Conference and pinpoints it as the definitive moment of the Allies’ betrayal of Eastern Europe to the Soviets and the clearest example that the Atlantic Charter of 1941, discouraging territorial aggrandizement, would not apply to Stalin’s expanding empire.
Though his sources were limited compared to those available today, Hoover makes a compelling case for a thorough re-examination of the narrative of World War II that has been commonly accepted in the West. Hoover’s rationale for not publishing the book during his lifetime was to avoid generating controversy and bad blood between him and living participants in wartime events.
Now that nearly half a century has passed since the book was completed, and over seventy years since the war began, Hoover’s epic history presents us with an opportunity to reexamine some of the most momentous events in modern history. Hoover doesn’t presume to have the answers, but the book’s greatest asset is the variety of questions that it poses. Why did the United States recognize the Soviet Union in 1933, despite unceasing Communist subversion? What was the advantage to Allied interests to strongly support the Soviet Union through Lend Lease, even when Germany’s defeat was certain? To what degree did Soviet agents influence Allied policy at the highest levels and why weren’t they dealt with when they were exposed?
I recently came across this photo of Soviet troops in 1946, standing next to an American Willys jeep amidst the ruins of Warsaw on the Aleje Jerozolimskie, which runs through the heart of the city. How much did the billions of dollars in American aid to the Soviet Union help to facilitate the subjugation of Poland? Why should the cost of defeating Hitler have been the enslavement of Eastern Europe? Did Roosevelt and Churchill even make these calculations?
These and other questions deserve more complete answers, and Hoover’s revisionist history dares to demand those answers.
–Nicholas Siekierski is the Assistant Archivist for Exhibits and Outreach for the Hoover Institution Library and Archives at Stanford University and is currently working towards his PhD in history from the Polish Academy of Science in Warsaw. He blogs about history at researchteacher.com.