Summit Conferences - Roosevelt's summits



It is not surprising that Franklin D. Roosevelt, another political chief who was prone to personally engineered diplomatic fireworks, would find the summit conference a congenial tool. During his first term, Roosevelt concentrated on domestic problems. On the rare occasions he did involve himself in foreign affairs, his penchant for personal diplomacy, the dispatch of presidential agents, direct appeals to other heads of government, and proposals for top-level conferences offered a clear indication of his future course of action. After 1937, when Roosevelt assumed a more active role in foreign affairs, he based U.S. diplomacy largely on these techniques. Thoroughly distrusting the "striped-pants boys" in the Department of State and always on the lookout for opportunities to present issues to the American people in simple, dramatic terms, President Roosevelt loosed a torrent of midnight messages to European leaders and calls for general peace conferences. The purposes he assigned to these activities were less clearly formed, and in some ways more ambitious, than the cold assessment of potential results that underlay Hitler's fondness for summit conferences. While highly valuing the propaganda benefits, Roosevelt apparently also believed that leaderto-leader exchanges could bring about a personal rapport not possible via the ritualistic communications that typified traditional diplomacy. He also appears to have believed that mutual sympathy could lead to important breakthroughs. In retrospect, the emergence of the summit conference as a dominant instrument in the diplomacy of World War II appears to have been inevitable, given the leading role of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Certainly, as compared with past eras, World War II witnessed a marked increase in meetings between national leaders. The assembling of presidents, premiers, and generalissimos became normal, even expected, events. On the American side, ten such summit conferences took place: the Atlantic Conference between President Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in August 1941; the first Washington Conference (Roosevelt and Churchill) in December 1941–January 1942; Casablanca (Roosevelt and Churchill) in January 1943; the second Washington Conference (Roosevelt and Churchill) in May 1943; the first Quebec Conference (Roosevelt and Churchill) in August 1943; Cairo (Roosevelt, Churchill, and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek) in November 1943; Tehran (Roosevelt, Churchill, and Premier Joseph Stalin) in November–December 1943; the second Quebec Conference (Roosevelt and Churchill) in September 1944; Yalta (Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin) in February 1945; and Potsdam (President Harry S. Truman, Churchill [replaced by Clement Attlee], and Stalin) in July 1945. Although called for various reasons, these meetings shared common characteristics and together they made the concept of summit conferences, if not the term itself, familiar to anyone with the remotest awareness of foreign affairs.

The first of these conferences, the dramatic sea meeting off Argentia, Newfoundland, of Roosevelt and Churchill in August 1941, coming as it did before formal U.S. entry into World War II, was in many ways the most novel. The Atlantic Conference established the style and much of the agenda for subsequent wartime meetings. It was secret, occurred in unique circumstances, and—reflecting the purposes of summits to come—dealt more with personal relationships than substantive issues. The conference confirmed the program of U.S. military aid to Great Britain; produced a short-lived agreement on policy toward Japan; sanctioned a statement of high purpose, the Atlantic Charter; and, most important, brought together two members of the triumvirate that was to lead the Allies.

Roosevelt and Churchill had been corresponding on a regular basis since September 1939, when the president congratulated the British politician on his reappointment as first lord of the Admiralty and had invited him to "keep in touch personally with anything you want to know about." Churchill responded with alacrity, and thus began a momentous correspondence. Soon, however, the two men were expressing eager interest in a personal meeting, moved largely by curiosity and anxiety. Both leaders possessed tremendous confidence in their charm and persuasive powers, and wished to test them against a worthy opponent. This first confrontation, though "devoutly wished and gladly consummated," produced great concern on both sides. Roosevelt's confidant, Harry Hopkins, once predicted: "Bringing together President Roosevelt and the Prime Minister … would cause the biggest explosion ever seen." He was mistaken. Roosevelt and Churchill reached an amicable understanding at the conference. Deeply satisfied, Churchill informed the British war cabinet, "I am sure I have established warm and deep personal relations with our great friend." Roosevelt later told his wife that this personal encounter "had broken the ice," and he had been shown that Churchill was a man with whom he could work. Despite Churchill's boasts, however, political cooperation did not lead to true friendship.

Precisely what the Atlantic Conference achieved, other than the calming of anxious egos and the satisfaction of curiosity, is difficult to say. Roosevelt let pass the opportunity afforded by the postconference publicity to take bold action regarding American entry into the war. Looking back at this first summit, it appears that Roosevelt perceived the meeting as a way to avoid decisions. There was only the most rudimentary agenda, the president intentionally excluded Secretary of State Cordell Hull and other diplomatic officials, and the experts who did accompany him (mostly military figures) were given almost no time to prepare. As usual, the British were thoroughly briefed, and they took the lead in organizing the discussions. However, the environment in which the meeting occurred and Roosevelt's casual, often flighty approach to the weighty issues they raised proved a source of constant frustration to the British and to his own subordinates. The fact that there exists no official text of the Atlantic Charter, the conference's one clear achievement, is testimony to its chaotic and cursory nature.

The hopes and assumptions that Roosevelt assigned to this type of diplomatic initiative greatly influenced the summit conferences that followed at intervals during the war. The "conference" volumes in the Department of State's documentry series Foreign Relations of the United States reveal that subsequent meetings were vastly better organized than Roosevelt's meetings with Churchill off the coast of Newfoundland. But these documents also demonstrate that the procedures changed very little. Claiming that his meetings with Churchill (and the tripartite meeting at Tehran) dealt solely with military matters, President Roosevelt continued to exclude the professional diplomats. On several occasions he specifically forbade any member of his staff to take minutes of the talks with other political leaders. Only when the question of the final conference communiqué, the public announcement of the questions discussed and decisions taken, arose did the president participate fully in the discussion and ask for his advisers' recommendations.

It was not until Tehran, when issues affecting postwar problems were dealt with, that Roosevelt permitted thoroughgoing preparation, a more formal agenda, and the participation by subordinates in carefully organized discussions with their opposite numbers. Tehran perhaps was the only true "conference" out of all the wartime summit meetings. Much more than the meeting at Yalta—at which Roosevelt's participation, betraying ill health and mental exhaustion—was sporadic and confused, the Roosevelt-Churchill-Stalin conference at Tehran produced important decisions affecting the conduct of the war and the shape of the postwar world.

It is important to emphasize that the summit conferences of World War II treated vital issues: problems of grand strategy and logistics (the second front question being most important), policy regarding the vanquished enemies, creation of a viable international organization, and the political and economic conditions of the peace. Whether these issues could have been more successfully handled by means of traditional diplomacy is moot. Despite the baneful influences to which the participants in these meetings were subjected—interminable dinners and toasts, late night tête-à-têtes, the pressure to render crucial decisions on the basis of comradely pleadings and unsubstantiated information—one may argue that Roosevelt never reversed established policies of the United States while caught up in the "unreal atmosphere" of a summit conference. The decisions regarding the second front, German occupation zones, and the supposed "sellout" to Stalin at Yalta may have had little to do with summitry; and the most famous indictment of Roosevelt's participation in summit conferences, the offhand announcement of the "unconditional surrender" policy at Casablanca, can be presented, as Warren Kimball and others have argued, as a logical, carefully prepared extension of accepted policy. In addition, the practice of traditional diplomacy continued and, indeed, greatly increased during the war. Summit diplomacy did not replace, but rather superimposed itself on, the normal diplomatic process, and the difficulties experienced by American diplomats in settling relatively minor disputes do not suggest that oldstyle laborious negotiation would have resolved the major issues dividing the wartime allies.

To the related question—whether the reliance on summit conferences best served the interests of the American people—a more definite answer is possible. Here the practice was clearly harmful. It gave rise to erroneous assumptions on the part of American leaders and public about the nature of wartime diplomacy and about the likelihood of harmonious adjustment of all international conflicts. A summit conference seems always to generate "an aura of unreality," because it brings together persons who perhaps hold diametrically opposed viewpoints, and compels them to smile and genuflect to each other and to the ideal of mutual understanding and goodwill. An individual such as Franklin Roosevelt, predisposed toward personal initiatives and the belief that, for example, "Uncle Joe" Stalin was basically a tough ward politician who happened to speak Russian, risked losing his sense of perspective. Roosevelt confused the appearance of progress fostered by the congeniality present at these meetings with the reality of the conflict between American, Soviet, and British goals. A rosy assessment of colleagues' good intentions manifestly colored Roosevelt's evaluation of their subsequent actions as set forth in the cables and memoranda that flooded into the White House map room. Further, the optimistic readings about the summit conferences offered by President Roosevelt stimulated popular euphoria about the era of universal peace that surely would ensue because of these highly publicized communions of world leaders.



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