President Bush's remarks in Latvia marking the sixty years since V-E Day have set off a mini-storm of criticism for his criticism of the Yalta Agreements.
As we mark a victory of six days ago -- six decades ago, we are mindful of a paradox. For much of Germany, defeat led to freedom. For much of Eastern and Central Europe, victory brought the iron rule of another empire. V-E Day marked the end of fascism, but it did not end oppression. The agreement at Yalta followed in the unjust tradition of Munich and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Once again, when powerful governments negotiated, the freedom of small nations was somehow expendable. Yet this attempt to sacrifice freedom for the sake of stability left a continent divided and unstable. The captivity of millions in Central and Eastern Europe will be remembered as one of the greatest wrongs of history.
Josh Marshall, in particular, goes over the top. Bush, he says:
joins a rich tradition of maniacs who believe that at the end of World War II we should have joined with the defeated remainder of the German army and fought our way through Eastern Europe to the border of Russia and, in all likelihood, on to Moscow to overthrow the Soviet Union itself -- certainly not a difficult proposition considering what an insubstantial land Army the Soviet Union had at the time.
Marshall is, of course, being sarcastic about the strength of the Red Army and he's right that there was little that Roosevelt probably could have done at Yalta to change the situation on the ground in Eastern Europe. But Marshall overlooks that FDR, against the objections of Churchill, had already agreed to much of this at Tehran in 1943, before the Red Army had advanced beyond its own borders. Also, FDR seemed willing to hand over Eastern Europe because he entertained the fantasy that through his skill and charm he could "handle" Stalin and ensure Soviet cooperation after the war. Here, I think, Max Hastings gets it right in his recent book, Armageddon, on the end of World War II:
"It may be true that the Western allies lacked the military power to prevent the rape of eastern Europe, but posterity is entitled to wish that Roosevelt had allowed himself to appear less indifferent to it."
Perhaps even worse than Marshall's comments are those of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. now writing on Arianna Huffington's blog. According to Schlesinger, rather than handing over Eastern Europe to the Soviets, FDR cleverly maneuvered Stalin into a trap!:
As for Eastern Europe, Stalin "held all the cards" in the words of Charles E. Bohlen, the Russian expert. But FDR managed to extract an astonishing document – the Declaration on Liberated Europe, an eloquent affirmation of "the right of all people to choose the form of government under which they will live." Molotov warned Stalin against signing it, but he signed it anyway. It was a grave diplomatic blunder. In order to consolidate Soviet control, Stalin had to break the Yalta agreements – which therefore could not have been in his favor.
Ah, yes, the memorable "Declaration of Liberated Europe." Surely, Stalin rued the very day he signed that document. Does Schlesinger really think that Stalin paused for a moment to consider the implications of violating that or any other symbolic agreement?
Finally, I think Anne Applebaum provides the best analysis of Bush's remarks. For those who haven't read it, her book on the Gulag is outstanding and her WaPo column seems to get better and better. Anyway, read the whole piece, but here's the best part:
Both left and right would do better to stand back and think harder about how important it is for American diplomacy, and even Americans' understanding of their own past, when U.S. presidents, Republican or Democrat, admit that not every past U.S. policy was successful -- which, by any measure, Yalta was not. Since the end of the Cold War, historical honesty has become more normal everywhere in the West, and rightly so: We aren't, after all, trying to withstand a Soviet propaganda onslaught, and we've grown more used to thinking, at least some of the time, of our national disputes as evidence of the authenticity of our democracy. To put it differently, apologies are something that democracies can do, at least occasionally, but that the Chinese or the Syrians always find impossible. Infallibility nowadays is something that only dictatorships claim.