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RUSSIA: Willkie and the Bear

6 minute read

Everywhere the Russians asked Wendell Willkie: “What about a second front?” He landed at Moscow from a Flying Fortress (the Russians call them “Monsters”) in a cold, gloomy rain. He was met by minor Foreign Office officials. As he stood for photographers in his blue suit, with a tan sweater over his vest, he looked eager, but he was tired after his long trip. There were pouches under his eyes. He was glad to get to the warm Foreign Office Guest House, near the steel framework of the huge, unfinished Palace of the Soviets, and to sit down to a late lunch. He filled himself quickly, not realizing that the meal would gradually embrace caviar, smoked salmon, cheese, tomatoes, calves’ brains, roast beef, chicken, ham, sausages, grapes, apples, vodka, wine, brandy and coffee.

The City. The next day the weather turned clear and Moscow’s streets were red and gold with autumn leaves. Willkie paid a call on Foreign Commissar Vyacheslav Molotov (“successful, most successful”). The people on the streets did not recognize Willkie; he had not been pictured in the papers—but they stared at his foreign clothing and his six Soviet bodyguards. In the Red Square he paused before the great black and red tomb of Lenin. He wanted to enter, but it was closed for the duration. He took a subway ride among workers dressed in black and pink-cheeked Red Army girls who had shingled haircuts and big brown coats.

One evening Willkie went witn U.S. Ambassador Admiral William H. Standley to hear Dmitri Shostakovich’s ambitious new Seventh Symphony (TIME, July 20). They were unnoticed both in the lobby and in their front box near the string basses. Willkie visited the mammoth new Lenin Library which, he was surprised to learn, had an exchange agreement with the Congressional in Washington. He heard a concert by popular Leonid Utesov and his Russian Socialist Federated Soviet Republic jazz orchestra. He spent three hours in a war factory and inspected some of Moscow’s anti-aircraft defenses. He asked hundreds of questions, and it began to be apparent that the Russians like Willkie a great deal. He was amazed at the unanimity with which the Russians, unlike Americans, seemed to approve of their government. Everywhere they asked him: “What about a second front?”

The Kremlin. On Willkie’s third evening in Moscow, the Guest House telephone operator jittered with excitement. Willkie had been invited to the Kremlin the next night to see Joseph Stalin. When the time came, Foreign Commissar Molotov was also present. Stalin wore a grey military blouse, pink whipcord trousers and black boots. Writes Willkie in LIFE this week: “Though stockily built, he was shorter than I expected him to be. … Actually he would have to stand on his tiptoes to look over my shoulder.” Most of their talk was military and off the record. But when Willkie said that air travel emphasized the smallness of man and his works, Stalin smiled: “Aha, so there’s something of the philosopher in you.” Toward the end, Stalin said: “Tell the Americans, if you like, that we need all the products they can send. . . . But I would suggest that you understate the case rather than give anyone the impression that you are encouraging Americans to assume a patronizing attitude toward us.” As to the second front, Stalin observed that, if the will was present, seemingly impossible obstacles could be overcome. Willkie was as impressed by Stalin as Harry Hopkins had been before him (TIME, Aug. 11, 1941).

Remembering how seldom Stalin had granted interviews to foreigners, Willkie asked if he might introduce his two traveling companions: Joseph Barnes, 35, onetime New York Herald Tribune Moscow correspondent, and John (“Mike”) Cowles, 44, co-publisher of Look and the Des Moines Register & Tribune. Stalin at once had a secretary telephone the Guest House and summon them.

The Front. After Willkie left the Kremlin he motored out at midnight to see a segment of the Russian front near Rzhev, 130 miles northwest of Moscow. A few hours after the wet, leaden dawn they changed to U.S. jeeps, which slogged through morasses of roads in ruined country recaptured from the Nazis last winter.

All day Willkie could hear gunfire. In a dugout, under a single, unshaded light bulb, he talked with stern, tough Lieut. General Dmitri Leliushenko, 38, who wore two Orders of Lenin, two Orders of the Red Banner and the gold star of a Hero of the Soviet Union. Said General Leliushenko: “I hope Mr. Willkie has seen with some care what the Germans did to our villages. They will pay for that, a life for a life. . . .”

Willkie asked the General the size of the front he was defending.

Growled the General to the interpreter: “You tell Mr. Willkie I’m not defending anything—I’m attacking.”

Later Willkie stood on a muddy hill within five miles of Rzhev and watched shells burst in the grey mist over the city. Around him were captured Nazi earthworks. Among them were damp, decomposing Nazi bodies, which stank. He talked with 18 young, exhausted, shivering Nazi prisoners. He talked with Russian troops. The Russians kept putting the question.

The City Again. They asked it again when, back in Moscow, Willkie had a long bull session with Russian writers including Konstantin Simonov, who had come from beleaguered Stalingrad (see ,p. 36).

At week’s end Joseph Stalin gave Willkie a dinner in the Kremlin. Only 25 were present. Dozens of toasts were drunk to the United Nations leaders. At one point Willkie remarked: “Mr. Stalin, you certainly have your eye on the ball.” Stalin wished to know what this meant and, through an interpreter, Mr. Willkie explained the phrase in terms of golf. Stalin chuckled.

The next day, when Willkie flew off toward China, it was warm Indian summer. As the great Liberator roared into the clouds, the group at the Moscow airport knew that the big, inquisitive, naive-shrewd American had scored a great personal hit in the land of the Soviets. He did not know the military answers to “How about a second front?” But after a week he thought he knew enough to make a formal statement to the world. Said he: “I am now convinced that we can best help Russia by establishing a real second front in Europe with Britain at the earliest possible moment our military leaders will approve. And perhaps some of them will need some public prodding.”

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