John Radzilowski: The Real Myths of YaltaRoundup: Talking About History
[John Radzilowski, Ph.D., is a writer, historian, and senior fellow at Piast Institute (http://www.piastinstitute.org). He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.]
"Outrage” … “cause for shame” … “incendiary.” This was the mainstream media’s reaction to President Bush’s speech this week in Riga, Latvia, wherein he strongly denounced the injustice perpetrated on half of Europe 60 years ago at the Yalta Conference. It was a Yalta that President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill agreed to the Soviet takeover of half of Europe. What followed was nearly 50 years of repression, killing, and, of course, the Cold War.
This week Bush recognized that shameful history. He called Yalta “one of the greatest wrongs of history” and compared it to the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939. “We will not repeat the mistakes of other generations, appeasing or excusing tyranny, and sacrificing freedom in the vain pursuit of stability,” the president vowed. “We have learned our lesson; no one’s liberty is expendable. In the long run, our security and true stability depend on the freedom of others.”
But stirring statements in support of freedom for small countries like Latvia don’t go down well in the mainstream media or in the halls of academe. There FDR is considered a virtual saint, the Soviet Union a misunderstood ally, and the crimes of Stalin and other communist dictators are often passed over in silence or calmly rationalized.
Leading the charge was the Los Angeles Times. Editorial writer Jacob Heilbrunn breathlessly accused the president of perpetrating “an old right-wing canard… belonging to the Ann Coulter school of history” and parroting Joseph McCarthy. Heilbrunn went on to defend the Yalta treaty, noting its “Declaration on Liberated Europe” and its call for free elections in Poland. Besides, he claimed, Eastern Europe was already in Soviet hands, so there was nothing that could be done. Moreover, irritating Stalin might have caused Russia to drop out of the war against Hitler.
The Myth of “Uncle Joe”
During World War II, the myth of crusty old “Uncle Joe” Stalin as our trusty ally was born and carefully tended by the American left. It has never really been dispelled. In reality, Stalin was one of the major culprits of the horror of World War II and the Holocaust. Although first place in that category will always go to Hitler and the Third Reich, Stalin and the communist state played a major role in Hitler’s grab for control of Europe.
The Soviets and Germans had been in secret contact since the early 1920s, and Hitler’s rise to power was only a temporary interruption. The Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939 gave Hitler the green light to invade Poland and the Soviet attack on that country in 1939 broke Poland’s southeastern redoubt, shortening the war by weeks and saving the lives of many Nazi soldiers. Then, Stalin gave Germany a secure eastern border and provided the Nazi dictator with huge quantities of strategic raw materials, including food and badly needed oil. Without Stalin’s help, the rapid Nazi conquest of Scandinavia and Western Europe would not have been possible. The terrible fate of these countries and of their Jewish communities under Nazi occupation must be laid, in part, at Stalin’s door. The Soviet navy even provided direct help to Nazi commerce raiders preying on British shipping during Britain’s darkest hours. All the while, Stalin was busy enjoying the territory he had gained by allying with Hitler, murdering hundreds of thousands of his new subjects and deporting millions more to the living hell of the gulags.
During this era, compliant communist parties in the west supported Stalin and opposed efforts to stop Hitler as “capitalist warmongering.” While many on the left had misgivings about the Hitler-Stalin pact, most kept silent or rationalized Stalin’s actions as clever political moves designed to fool communism’s enemies. These internal contradictions were only relieved by Hitler’s attack on his erstwhile ally in 1941.
Yet many in academia are still parroting the old propaganda. Stalin, they claim, was “forced” into the Nazi-Soviet alliance. They further contend that Stalin’s assault on Poland, the Baltic States, and Finland in 1939–40 was simply an effort to “regain” territory unjustly lost during the Russian civil war! Implicit is the assumption that Stalin had a “right” to impose Soviet terror on sovereign states beyond his border.
The Mistake of Yalta
The LA Times may wish to believe otherwise, but Yalta was the result of an American policy based on wishful thinking combined with starry-eyed visions of dividing the world into “peaceful” spheres of influence that have long afflicted so-called realists. This tendency was furthered by the strong chorus of Soviet sympathizers both inside and outside government.
While some were actual agents of the Soviet Union, many were simply ignorant and foolish. Communism, they believed, did indeed represent the wave of the future. They wanted to be on the “right side of history” in its inevitable march toward utopia. This meant support for the Soviet Union. Thus did those who opposed the Soviets become “reactionaries” and “fascists.” Likewise, the people of Eastern Europe who would be most affected by the Yalta agreement were viewed as “reactionaries” for opposing Soviet wishes. This spiteful notion originated in 1920, after the Red Army’s crushing defeat at the battle of Warsaw temporarily halted efforts to spark “worldwide conflagration” at the point of a bayonet.
By 1943, Roosevelt had come to the view that the independence of small states was an obstruction on the road to peace, and that the Great Powers had the right to impose governments on states without the consent of their populations. Roosevelt was entranced with a vision of a world peacefully directed by the U.S. and the Soviet Union. This vision was fueled by pro-Soviet propaganda and hopelessly naïve reports sent from Moscow by American officials such as Ambassador W. Averell Harriman. Harriman’s papers show a man who had little knowledge of the region he was in and whose information frequently came from Soviet agents posing as neutral “progressives.” Thus, both Roosevelt and then Truman were led to believe that, while Stalin was a little rough at times, he was a democrat at heart who simply ran a political machine in mode of Tammany Hall. Truman compared Stalin to Kansas City political boss Tom Pendergast. Roosevelt had earlier informed Boston Archbishop Francis Spellman that Russian rule over parts of Europe would eventually help civilize Russia and, in fact, that most people in eastern Europe really wanted to be Russianized.
By feeding the Americans a picture of central and Eastern Europe that was at variance with reality, the Soviets were able to dictate the key terms of the Yalta accord and later agreements—even to the point of determining the future makeup of the Polish government. Ironically, Roosevelt measured this a success: he felt he got Stalin to “compromise.” Only Churchill raised a protest at proceedings. He was roundly ignored. Soviet leaders meanwhile were surprised and pleased with the ease at which they had achieved their goals. They had gotten everything they wanted.
This history notwithstanding, Yalta supporters have long maintained that, had Americans failed to appease Stalin, the Soviets might have concluded a separate peace with the Nazis. This is so far-fetched that it is hard to believe anyone would take it seriously. Stalin’s goal was to control as much of Europe as possible. There was no reason to stop pushing until the Red Army had reached the heart of Germany. This had been a Soviet goal since 1920. Why should Stalin have stopped when this prize was within reach?
Soviet intentions were plainly obvious long before Yalta or Tehran. While Soviet forces played a major role in fighting the Nazi scourge after June 1941—and suffered horrific losses due to German barbarity and the incompetence of their own leaders—Stalin’s behavior until 1941 should have been a clue. As soon as the tide turned against Hitler, Stalin gave orders for Soviet agents to begin a campaign to secretly destroy non-communist, anti-Nazi partisans in eastern Europe that were actively engaged in fighting against Hitler’s forces. In 1944, Stalin’s armies stood aside while the citizens of Warsaw fought Hitler’s armies for two months and were massacred by the SS. The Soviets even refused to allow Allied planes to drop supplies to the resistance and shot at American planes that strayed into Soviet airspace.
Supporters of Yalta are outraged at the notion that Yalta was a “betrayal” of Eastern Europe. Yet consider the fate of Poland. Polish forces had fought the Nazis longer than any country; they fought alongside the U.S. and British in every major campaign in Europe and made up the 4th largest army in the fight against Hitler; the Polish government in London was an official ally of the U.S. and Britain. This did not prevent Roosevelt from acquiescing in the dismantlement of this Allied government and its replacement with a group of Stalin’s henchmen. Even as the men of the Polish 1st Armored division, determined to link up with the American 90th Division under Gen. George S. Patton and to close the trap on Nazi armies in Normandy, were battling the SS, Adolf Hitler and SS Hitlerjugend divisions, Roosevelt was planning to hand them over to another sort of dictator. If that isn’t betrayal, what is?
Undoing the Yalta Mentality
The democratic revolutions in central and Eastern Europe in the 1980s and 1990s ended the worst results of Yalta but, as the LA Times has shown, the Yalta mentality lives on. The American left and its acolytes in the media and academia are compelled to defend not only the Yalta agreement itself but the underlying ideas on which it was based. After all, if Yalta was merely confirming the inevitable fact of Soviet control in Eastern Europe, why get so worked up about it?
To question Yalta, then, is to question the foreign policy legacy of FDR. While much can be said in favor of FDR, Yalta was a mistake: It greatly augmented Soviet power in Europe and gave America’s foe in the Cold War an improved strategic position. America got nothing in return.
To question Yalta is also to question the role of the Soviet Union and Stalin. Although many will acknowledge (when pressed) that Stalin perhaps wasn’t a kindly Uncle Joe, the role of the USSR in the defeat of Nazism is the only intellectual fig leaf remaining from the collapse of leftist ideology. Communism may have been an economic and cultural failure that murdered millions. But at least in that brief, shining moment, it defeated Hitler.
Unfortunately, while many Soviet soldiers were brave, their lives were squandered by a regime that saw them as expendable cannon fodder. In addition, the Soviet regime continued to war on its own people, expending valuable resources to murder alleged internal enemies as Nazi forces drove deep into the heart of Russia. Many Soviet soldiers were so brutalized by their own leaders that they committed mass rape, theft, and murder as they marched across Europe. While they freed the inmates of infamous Nazi death and concentration camps, in many cased they raped the female survivors, regardless of whether they were German, Russian, or Jewish. The Soviet victory over Hitler was the result of one evil and murderous regime defeating another. There is no redeeming grace for communism in the victory over Nazi Germany.
Nor did Yalta lead to the peace and security that Roosevelt had imagined. Instead, it ushered in decades of tension and low-level conflict. Trading away the freedom of others proved no bargain. Because America received nothing in return, Yalta has to be recorded as one of the worst failures of “realist” foreign policy in history.
But the history of Yalta also offers lessons for the present. Just Roosevelt and his advisors, having absorbed the propaganda of the political left, were convinced that the people of Eastern Europe were reactionaries incapable of real democracy, so too do today’s skeptics doubt that democracy can find purchase in Middle Eastern soil. Indeed, the tenor of some public debate prior to elections in Afghanistan and Iraq was eerily reminiscent of the commentary that attended the Yalta conference.
Only last week, many commentators were outraged that a U.S. president would support the freedom of such “insignificant” countries such as Latvia and Georgia over the interests of Russia. Why not bow to the inevitable and let Russia have its way with Latvia (which many Russians consider a major threat)? What would America lose? Similarly, many in the EU are fully in sync with the Yalta mindset. They seem ready to throw the Baltic States over the side to appease Putin.
This was the attitude that prevailed at Yalta. Bewitched by the prospect of stability, American leaders in fact sowed the seeds of the Cold War. President Bush does not intend to repeat their mistake. He clearly rejects the notion that big countries have some right to dominate smaller neighbors. Which is why Bush was correct to reject the “realism” inherent in Yalta and support the freedom of small countries like Latvia and Georgia. This week, Bush showed that American leaders can both break with the Yalta mindset and craft a foreign policy that is not only good for the U.S., but one that also lives up to our noblest ideals.
 Zaloga and Madej, The Polish Campaign of 1939 (New York, 1985); John Radzilowski, “Facing Westerplatte,” Am-Pol Eagle (Buffalo), Sept. 2, 1999.
 See H-Net My response and exchange with Prof. Stackleburg can be found in subsequent message logs of the H-Holocaust studies listserv at www.h-net.msu.edu.
 William Larsh, “Yalta and the American Approach to Free Elections in Poland,” Polish Review 40, no. 3 (1995): 267–80.
 John Radzilowski, “Ejszyszki Revisited, 1939–45,” Polin: Studies in Polish Jewry 15 (2002): 453–68.
comments powered by Disqus
- No President Has Pardoned Himself, But Governors and A Drunk Mayor Have
- Nixon sometimes met with leaders without his own translator
- How do you memorialize fallen in a war without end?
- NYT begins new series depicting lives of people on the front lives of the civil rights movement
- "Game of Thrones" creators sell show to HBO that imagines a world in which the Confederacy won
- Steven Salaita, Whose Revoked Job Offer Inflamed Higher Ed, Says He’s Leaving Academe
- Historians Against the War changes its name – and mission
- When did higher education become partisan?
- One reason H.R. McMaster and Trump don't have a close relationship
- Rick Perlstein joins criticism of Nancy MacLean's "Democracy in Chains"