The Grand Alliance is the name given to the anti-Axis coalition of nations headed by the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union during World War II. This wartime collaboration of the three nations not only presented a united front against Nazi Germany (the Soviets did not declare war on Japan until August 8, 1945) and deliberated on military strategy but also helped create the geopolitical power structure of the postwar world. A product of the common need to defeat Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany, the Alliance was troubled from the beginning by a history of American and British discord with the Soviet Union and by divergent worldviews and war aims. Disagreements between the Soviet Union on the one hand and the United States and Britain on the other as the war drew to an end led to the dissolution of the partnership and the onset of the cold war.
The Grand Alliance had its origins in the development of strong Anglo-American relations beginning in 1939. In August 1941, American president Franklin D. Roosevelt and British prime minister Winston Churchill met and produced the Atlantic Charter, which outlined war aims and principles. A number of other events paved the way for the Soviets to join the United States and Great Britain in the alliance. Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, allowing the three nations to unite against their common Nazi enemy and opening the opportunity for the United States to provide the Soviets with assistance under the Lend-Lease Act. With Soviet endorsement of the Atlantic Charter and American entrance into the war in December 1941, the Grand Alliance was formed. The partners made the defeat of Nazi Germany their top priority, both because the Allies agreed that Hitler posed the greatest danger and because the
Soviet Union had concluded a neutrality agreement with Japan in April 1941, which it did not formally abrogate until August 1945.
Throughout the war, the Allies consulted each other in a series of conferences to decide on both military strategy and how to reconstruct the global order in Europe and Asia. These conferences allowed the Allies to coordinate their military efforts, but also illuminated key issues producing conflict in the alliance both during and after the war. From the beginning, moreover, suspicions and tensions going back to the formation of the Soviet Union in 1917, divergent war aims, and ideological differences between the democracies and the totalitarian-communist USSR strained the alliance.
Initially, the opening of a second ERont in western Europe proved to be the most significant issue for the Grand Alliance, and it remained a source of suspicion and resentment for the Soviets. The German invasion of the Soviet Union had inflicted catastrophic destruction and loss of human life, and the Soviets badly wanted immediate relief on the eastern front. Stalin began to demand a second front as early as 1942, but the Americans and especially the British, concerned about their own military readiness, resisted early attempts to open the second front. Finally, in late 1943 at the Teheran Coneerence, Roosevelt sided with Soviet premier Joseph Stalin against Churchill in favor of opening the second front in the spring of 1944. For Roosevelt, a central priority, to which he eventually won Stalin’s agreement, was the formation of the United Nations as a guardian of international peace and a forum for continued big-power cooperation.
Throughout the war, a shifting balance of power among the members of the Grand Alliance also affected their deliberations. As the ravages of war left the British bankrupt and diminished their stature as a global power, Soviet-American relations became increasingly important as a priority for Roosevelt, sometimes even at the cost of relations with Churchill. This situation did not substantially harm the special relationship between Great Britain and the United States, built on a foundation of shared democratic ideals and values, and both the British and Americans found that their dealings with the Soviets were often marked by mutual suspicion and mistrust. Indeed, the United States did not even inform the Soviets about the Manhattan Project that produced the atomic bomb, while including the British in developing and discussing the new weapon.
Despite tensions, the members of the Grand Alliance appeared willing to try to work through their differences to create a peaceful, postwar geopolitical structure. But disagreements within the Alliance were plain at the Yalta Coneerence of early 1945, with the defeat of Germany in sight and questions about the postwar world becoming more pressing by the day. At Yalta, Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin gathered for what proved to be the last time to discuss the terms of German surrender, the postwar status of eastern Europe, especially Poland, and the conditions of Soviet entrance into the war with Japan. A compromise settlement was reached that included a Soviet commitment to join the Asian war after the surrender of Germany and a tentative decision about Poland’s border and government, but not without concern from Roosevelt and Churchill about the implications of a Soviet presence in eastern Europe. It appears, however, that Roosevelt understood Stalin’s concerns about Soviet security on the western borders and hoped his willingness to compromise would convince Stalin that Soviet control of Poland was unnecessary.
The already fragile Grand Alliance continued to deteriorate after the conclusion of the Yalta Conference. The Americans and British complained that the Soviets were not living up to agreements about the creation of independent governments in eastern Europe. President Roosevelt died in April 1945; Germany surrendered in May, eliminating the reason the Alliance had been formed. Much American public opinion opposed Roosevelt’s compromise at Yalta concerning Soviet influence in Poland, as the new president, Harry S. Truman, knew. In addition, the successful development of the first atomic bomb suddenly gave the United States more leverage than ever before but ultimately also increased Soviet-American tensions.
The PoTSDAM Conference of July 1945, the last of the Grand Alliance’s wartime conferences, marked the final semblance of cooperation among the Allies. By the end of the conference, Joseph Stalin was the single remaining original leader of the Grand Alliance; Clement Attlee replaced Winston Churchill as British prime minister partway through the conference. With Great Britain badly weakened by the war, Truman and Stalin were the primary actors at Potsdam, and Truman proved to be less willing to negotiate and compromise with Stalin than Roosevelt had been. The three nations were able to agree upon an unconditional surrender formula for the end of the war with Japan in the Potsdam Proclamation, and Truman notified Stalin for the first time, albeit in a cryptic manner, of the existence of the atomic bomb that the Americans had been working on with the British for some time. The Soviet Union agreed to enter the war against the Japanese in August, as it had promised at Yalta, but the atomic bomb made this pledge less significant than it had been just a few months before.
Truman was still on his way home from Potsdam when he heard the news that the first atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, heralding the beginning of the nuclear age (see Hiroshima and Nagasaki). The official end of the Japanese war came on September 2, 1945, an event that also brought the end of the Grand Alliance and a shift toward the postwar power structure. The United States and the Soviet Union emerged out of their alliance as the world’s superpowers, and the ongoing tensions and disagreements between the two nations soon developed into the cold war.
See also foreign policy.
Further reading: Herbert Feis, Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin: The War They Waged and the Peace They Sought (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1957); William Hardy McNeil, America, Britain, and Russia: Their Cooperation and Conflict, 1941-1946 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1953); Martin J. Sherwin, A World Destroyed: The Atomic Bomb and the Grand Alliance (New York: Knopf, 1975).
—Mary E. Carroll-Mason