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The Big Three: Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin in Peace and War.

The Big Three: Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin in Peace and War. Robin Edmonds. Norton, $24.95. One of the seldom-noted consequences of the turbulent period through which we are now passing is its effect on historiography. During the half-century of the Cold War, studies of World War II were in vogue. Historians and readers seeking to understand the origins of the great American-Soviet confrontation looked for answers in Churchill's efforts to maintain the British empire, Stalin's frustrations as he waited for the opening of a second front, Roosevelt's confidence that his powers of persuasion would, in the end, bring the Soviets into line. The Cold War's finale might have made these questions seem more remote and antique, pushing them from the realm of current politics into that of abstract historical debate.

Historians of World War 11 have been saved from this fate by the events of 1990 and 1991. As the nations of the world grope for new alignments and as the UN coalition tries to tame the dictator described by President Bush as "Hitler revisited," the statecraft of World War 11 offers important precedents and lessons. How early must force be used to contain a regional power with world ambitions? How can we avoid miscalculation and misperception? To what degree should agreements between governments be concealed from the peoples of the world? How wise is a policy of unconditional surrender? To what extent is the strategy of a war fought by coalition shaped by the postwar aspirations of the coalition members? Can intemational organizations take the place of traditional balance-of-power politics?

An additional gain for historians of World War 11 is the opening of archives in the Soviet Union. James MacGregor Burns once considered following his Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom with a book called Big Three, but gave up after realizing the degree to which access to Soviet archives was restricted. Joseph P. Lash also sought to write a book on the subject, a successor volume to his Roosevelt and Churchill. With Franklin Roosevelt Jr. in tow, he went to Moscow and vainly sought to persuade officials of the Brezhnev regime to let him use the archives and interview surviving officials of the war. They refused, and he gave up the project. Now, presuming that glasnost survives the new Soviet retrenchment from reform, Western and Soviet scholars have the chance to rewrite much of the history of World War 11. in light of all of this, one approaches Robin Edmonds's The Big Three with high expectations of dramatic new information and analysis. Alas, these expectations go largely unfulfilled. A former British diplomat and author of a history of Anglo-American relations from 1945 to 1959, Edmonds has done a thorough job of searching American, British, and Soviet sources as well as consulting scholars in all three countries. But he offers little that we did not know before.

This is not helped by a writing style that seems more suited for the minute books of the British Foreign Office than narrative history. Latin quotations, decorative references to Shakespeare, Bacon, and "Ariadne's thread," and pedestrian observations such as "Roosevelt was a handsome man" tend to thrust the author between the reader and the events described, too often giving the volume the sound of a historian chatting about what happened, rather than letting the events and analysis themselves take center stage.

These shortcomings are all the more notable because of the brevity of this book. Even the most deft essayist would have a difficult time writing a central source on the ChurchillRoosevelt-Stalin relationship within the confines of 405 pages. Especially since Edmonds spends his first 175 pages on the eight years preceding the alliance, his treatment of this major historical subject winds up being synoptic and unstartling. Edmonds lauds the allies for remaining united, defeating Hitler, and creating the UN, and faults them for leaving the issues of Germany and the role of nuclear weapons unresolved. The need remains for a large, analytical history of the "Big Three": their impact on their times and our own.
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Author:Beschloss, Michael R.
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1991
Words:674
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