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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

ESSAY: FDR Bent Church-State Rules to Defeat Hitler

In early September, the Russian parliament overwhelmingly passed a new law sharply restricting the property rights and activities of nonmainstream religions. The administration of U.S. President Bill Clinton worries that the law indicates a return to the bad old days of Soviet-style religious repression.

This is merely the latest installment in the long-running drama of Russian-American clashes over religious freedom. More than a century ago, Washington protested tsarist anti-Semitic policies; U.S. objections to communist-atheist repression of religion were a staple of Soviet-American quarrels from the time of Lenin through the Gorbachev era. In these clashes, Americans generally have seen themselves as defenders of religious freedom and the independence of churches against statist traditions.

This has not always been the case, however. New documents discovered in the Soviet archives, dating from World War II, show that, at times, the story was more complex and that political pressure did not always flow from west to east.

On June 22, 1941, the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union and posed difficult dilemmas for U.S. diplomacy. In the still-neutral United States, many people viewed the clash between the dictatorships of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin with outright glee. The former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, William Bullitt, for instance, remarked that the Nazi-Soviet conflict amounted to a battle "between Lucifer and Satan.'' Most Western military observers believed that the German army, fresh from its triumphs in Poland, France and the Balkans, would make short work of the Red Army.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, however, stubbornly -- and, as it turned out, rightly -- rejected the assessments of his military experts and maintained that the Russian people successfully would resist the Nazi invaders, if only they were supported generously by the United States. So, from the first day of the war, he sought to extend "lend lease'' assistance to the Soviet Union and supply Moscow with the material means to defeat Hitler.

A great many influential Americans, especially religious leaders, opposed giving any military assistance to the atheistic Communists. Distrust of the Soviet Union was particularly strong among American Catholics. The Vatican had taken a consistently anti-Communist line in the years since the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. In March 1937, Pope Pius XI had issued an encyclical condemning Soviet atheism in the strongest possible terms and telling Catholics that they must not cooperate with communists in any endeavor. His successor, Pope Pius XII, was at least as ardently anti-communist and, although he condemned both Nazism and communism in strong terms, he clearly regarded the latter as the greater menace to religious freedom.

Throughout his presidency, Roosevelt was concerned deeply with religious opinion. He knew that working-class Catholics represented a crucial bloc in his political coalition, and that many Catholics were descendants of East European immigrants who loathed Russian imperialism, whether Soviet or tsarist.

Roosevelt was astonishingly frank about these worries when, on Sept. 11, 1941, he met with the Soviet ambassador to Washington, Konstantin Umansky. According to the American record of the meeting, "the president explained in some detail the extreme difficulty of getting the necessary authority from Congress'' for lend-lease assistance to the Soviet Union. The reason for recalcitrance on Capitol Hill was not only the record of Soviet religious repression, but also "the unpopularity of Russia among large groups in this country who exercise great political power in Congress.''

The Soviet record of the talk, which Umansky sent back to Moscow, is much clearer about who these supposed obstructionists were. "Roosevelt complained about the anti-Soviet intrigues of the church,'' Umansky wrote, "especially the Catholics and their people in Congress ... [and] said that he sent his personal representative to the Vatican, [Myron] Taylor, once again to the pope with the fundamental goal of neutralizing the 'in fact pro-fascist' influence of Catholics in the United States and to bring round the pope on the question of the Soviet Union.'' If Umansky's account is correct, this was an odd way for a U.S. president to refer to domestic critics.

In October, Umansky, who had returned to Moscow, explained to a high-level conference of Soviet officials that "the pope wanted to speak out against any country that entered into alliance with us. [But] Roosevelt called the Catholics to him and stated that [their] funds would be sequestered. ''

It is not clear, given the U.S. separation of church and state, just what funds Roosevelt possibly could have seized or withheld from the church. But a document from an entirely different source hints at an explanation. In the summer of 1941, Nazi intelligence agents operating in the Vatican reported to Berlin that, "Even before the war, the Vatican found itself in constant financial embarrassment. The largest contributors of money -- the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Austria, Spain -- have dropped out. Consequently, since the beginning of the war, the Vatican has regularly received a considerable sum from the United States, which is described as money collected by American Catholics but which, in reality, is drawn from secret funds held by Roosevelt.''

It is doubtful, although not impossible, that Roosevelt commanded a secret slush fund that he used to channel money to the Catholic Church. At any rate, no evidence has emerged of such a secret cache. It is quite possible, however, that Roosevelt let it be known through intermediaries that, if the pope were to forbid American Catholics to support U.S. assistance to Russia, then Roosevelt might use the powerful tools of the presidency to hamper or even block the transfer of U.S. funds to Rome.

Pope Pius XII never did endorse the German invasion of the Soviet Union, even though he continued to fear the consequences of a Soviet victory and Communist domination of Europe. Most American Catholic leaders, although they remained implacably opposed to Soviet communism, either supported aid to Moscow or at least refrained from public opposition. Lend-lease support began flowing to Moscow in November 1941, playing a vital role in the Soviet war effort.

This whole affair remains murky, but it shows that Roosevelt was prepared to bend the rules considerably when he was convinced that national security was at stake. The supposedly "impenetrable wall'' separating church and state in the United States can be breached from more than one direction; pressure can come from the government as well as from churches. At the very least, the incident might give Americans pause when they blithely judge other countries' church-state arrangements.

Stephen Miner, a professor of history at Ohio University, is the author of the forthcoming book "Stalin's Holy War.'' He contributed this comment to the Los Angeles Times.