Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Yalta, Yalta, Yalta

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.

3 comments:

Marc Schneider said...

There are at least two blights on FDR's record: the Holocaust and Yalta. However, I think in both cases, he was largely stuck between a rock and a hard place. With respect to the Holocaust, he was concerned about the appearance that the war was being fought "for the Jews." This was a very popular sentiment and placed Germany-first policy in danger. With respect to Yalta, it would have been difficult to garner much support for confronting an ally, especially when much of Eastern Europe had fought with Germany. In other words, I think it's easy to criticize FDR's policies in hindsight but at the time he faced some very difficult decisions (and by the time of Yalta was dying in the bargain).

It's certainly true that American diplomacy has had its share of blunders and that we should be willing to acknowledge those, including FDR's. But it strikes me that conservatives take great glee in pouncing on FDR's mistakes and overlooks his accomplshments in steering the country through World War II.

We should certainly examine and think critically about our history. But unless we are going to advocate revisionism for revisionism's sake (as the 60's left wing revisionists did), we have to recognize the context in which the policies were made and the limited alternatives involved. To understand a president's decisions (both Democrats and Republicans), we have to try to place ourselves in their shoes. Otherwise, the criticism becomes nothing but cheap shots.

Philip Klinkner said...

That's why I quoted from Hastings and Applebaum. Both are acutely aware that the options facing the U.S. in 1944 were very few, but rightly point out that we need not have acquiesed as enthusiastically as we did.

Tom Geraghty said...

Why do you say Josh Marshall goes "over the top?" The fact that Roosevelt had agreed to "much of Yalta" (and just exactly how much, by the way?) before the Red Army occupied Eastern Europe seems pretty much irrelevant to the eventual outcome. Is there any alternative scenario under which WWII could have been won without a Soviet invasion of Eastern Europe? If not, your point is moot.

Also, based on what evidence do you argue that Churchill and Roosevelt "enthusiastically" backed the Yalta outcome? I would bet "grudgingly" would be a more appropriate word here.

At any rate, the "success" or "failure" of any policy ought to be at least partly measured against the available alternatives. Both you and Applebaum essentially admit that there were none that could have avoided the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe, and thus postwar Soviet domination of those countries. So you both are reduced to arguing that FDR should have bitched and complianed a little bit more. Maybe, but it doesn't justify aiding and abetting Bush's efforts to demonize FDR's wartime diplomacy as "in the tradition of Munich and the Hitler-Stalin pact". It wasn't.