Blogs > Cliopatria > George W. Bush, historian?

May 8, 2005 8:32 pm

George W. Bush, historian?

After ticking off the Russians with his comments on the Baltics, President Bush has now shifted. In a widely reported speech in Riga, Latvia, he denounced the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe as "one of the greatest wrongs of history." Bush stated that the United States shared responsibility for this tragedy because of America's signature of the Yalta agreements at the end of the War, permitting the division of Europe. Never again, he added, should America sacrifice freedom for the search for stability.

It is difficult to decide which is more startling, Bush's historical ignorance or the effrontery of his comments. Historians of the Second World War have long debunked the theory that the Yalta conference was responsible for the division of Europe. In fact, the Yalta accords contained very few provisions of substance, since President Roosevelt was primarily concentrated in assuring victory in the war rather than in planning actions for the postwar period (a phenomenon Mr. Bush should be able, more than most, to appreciate, given developments in Iraq). In order to assure that the Soviet Union would keep its promise to enter the war against Japan once the conflict in Europe was finished, he and Winston Churchill made certain concessions, most notably in arranging for a coalition government in Poland, with vague guarantees of free elections. According to Admiral Leahy (who is not an entirely trustworthy source) Roosevelt said that this was the best he could get for the time being. Whatever this is true or not, it is safe to say that the Yalta accords did not contemplate the long-term division of Europe, and were certainly no blank check for Soviet Occupation.

It is equally farfetched to call America's policy one driven by the search for stability over freedom. The Cold War was hardly a climate of stability and concord. In any case, with the Red Army in place, the only way that Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe could potentially have been halted after World War II, was by preventive World War, and nuclear holocaust. Even John Foster Dulles, for all his talk of "rollback" and taking the initiative against communism, was not prepared to risk such a conflict by supporting the Hungarian uprising in 1956.

Given Mr. Bush's virtuoso display of historical ignorance, he is probably not aware of the massive irony in his words. Frivolous accusations of a "sellout" or secret treaties at Yalta were widely aired by right-wing Republicans during the McCarthy era. The fact that there were no such protocols did not deter the more wild accusations. While this was intended in the first instance to discredit Franklin Roosevelt and thrust responsibility for the Cold War on the Democrats, the predominant role of this canard was in fueling support for the Bricker Amendment, an isolationist Constitutional Amendment meant to prevent any treaty from becoming internal law without separate legislation being passed. The idea was to prevent Executive Agreements or other arrangements from binding the country. It was only through the dedicated efforts of Preident Dwight Eisenhower, accompanied by internationalist Democrats, that the Bricker Amendment was narrowly defeated. If that Amendment had been passed, the White House's current assumption of power would have been difficult, if not unthinkable.

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Michael Meo - 5/9/2005

When you say "particularly the Balkins" perhaps you mean the Baltic coast, not the Balkan Peninsula.

Do you mean both?

David J Merkowitz - 5/8/2005

I meant conflated.

David J Merkowitz - 5/8/2005

On the history, I think you have it right, though Yalta and Potsdam Conferences are rather notoriously confounded, and Potsdam seemed to do more acceding to the situation on the ground than Yalta.
Clearly there was no easy way to end WWII and find a way to live with a former ally who was quickly turning into an enemy.
But Bush's comments strike as significant more in terms of how we relate to Eastern Europeans and particularly the Balkins and their memory of WWII and after. As Grant has already noted this about telling Putin that we remember what the SOviet Union was really about. The US will not stand by and have the USSR rehabilitated.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/8/2005

Actually, it probably has as much to do with shaming past Democratic presidents: Republicans have been trying to "de-saint" FDR for a couple of decades now.

Jeff Vanke - 5/8/2005

I don't know if those are Leahy's memoirs your citing. I have it third-hand that Leahy acknowledged never having read his memoirs, much less written them.

Grant W Jones - 5/8/2005

My guess is that someone on Bush's staff knows all the facts you cite. Why he is stating these untruths probably has more to do with embarrassing and shaming Putin. Actually, America's greatest sin at the end of the war in Europe was forced repatriation of Russians and Eastern Europeans, who are always lost down the Memory Hole.