The Yalta Myth

In the spring of 2005, speaking in Riga, President George W. Bush said that Yalta ranked with the Munich agreement of 1938 and the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 as a betrayal of freedom and of the rights of Eastern Europe. This was an outrageous misstatement. More than sixty years after the fact, it is time to drive a silver stake through the heart of the Yalta Myth.

With the start of the Cold War and the accompanying Red Scare in the United States, in 1946 and 1947, British imperialists, who had gone out of office with Winston Churchill in 1945, claimed that Roosevelt had been duped by Stalin into approving a Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe at Tehran in November 1943, and at Yalta in February, 1945. Mr. Churchill himself was more circumspect, wanly lamenting that these matters unfolded in a vortex that combined with a decline in Roosevelt's health that implicitly made him vulnerable to Stalin's blandishments, and Truman's steep learning curve in required knowledge of Soviet relations--which he needed to overcome to join Churchill in an adequately robust resistance to Stalin's ambitions. (If Churchill had gone to Roosevelt's funeral on April 15, 1945, and he got to the airport before he decided against it, he could have concerted plans with Truman at once. They did not meet for another three months.)

Some of Churchill's entourage were a good deal less restrained. Arthur Bryant, the initial editor of the war diaries of the chief of the imperial General Staff, Lord Alanbrooke, presented Roosevelt as a witless dupe of Stalin, even confecting this unsubstantiated imputation to Roosevelt: "Of one thing I am certain; Stalin is not an imperialist."1 There is not a scrap of evidence that Roosevelt ever said anything of the kind. Bryant--who at the start of the war produced, and then tried to suppress, a volume about Hitler called Unfinished Victory, in which he praised the Führer's "Cromwellian virtues"--is not a natural source for such criticism.

Another contributing factor in the growth of the Yalta Myth was the European view, led by the Gaullists and some of the German Social Democrats, that the United States in particular, and the Anglo-Americans generally, were not reliable defenders of the European interest. In his memoirs, de Gaulle masqueraded as the excluded advocate of Europe at Tehran, Yalta and Potsdam; depicted France as one of the main agents of its own liberation; and maintained that France never left the war in 1940. He wrote that only the United States of the Big Three opposed France's presence at those conferences, where "an enormous chunk of Europe . . . had [been] abandoned in advance to the Soviets." De Gaulle maintained that "the political oppression" of Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria were "the consequences" of those conferences, which entailed: "handing them over to the discretion of the Soviets."2 In fact, Stalin had objected more strenuously to any consultation with France than Roosevelt did, because he felt France had made "no contribution to victory." Nor, contrary to the implications of de Gaulle's elegantly written but self-serving account, was Stalin, as he told Churchill and Roosevelt two months later, much impressed with de Gaulle.

The real development of Big Three discussions of the fate of Eastern Europe are somewhat complicated, but easily recounted. The Moscow foreign ministers' meeting in October 1943 set up the European Advisory Commission (EAC) to determine, among other things, the zones of occupation of a subdued Germany. On the way to the Tehran Conference, five weeks later, on board the battleship USS Iowa, Roosevelt tore a map of Germany out of a copy of National Geographic magazine and drew three approximately equal zones on the map, for each of the three principal powers. He said that he expected the Germans would fight with super-human tenacity against the Russians in the east, but that when average Germans, soldiers and civilians saw that the war was lost, there would be a relatively swift advance by the Western Allies. He realized the importance of the Western Allies taking Berlin.3 (Once they were across the Rhine, they did move very quickly.)

At the Tehran Conference, the principal achievements, and the only ones with any relevance to Eastern Europe, were the selection of the place for the launch of the full Second Front in Europe, Italy being considered a diversion that only involved about thirty Western divisions; and the agreement of the postwar borders of Poland. Though they subsequently denied it, the British leaders, including Churchill and Brooke (later Lord Alanbrooke), were opposed to an early cross-Channel landing. They had their memories of horribly sanguinary encounters with the German Army in northeast France and Flanders in World War I. And the debacles of Dunkirk and Dieppe (1940 and 1942) when they had taken to the boats with unforeseen haste, were fresh in their minds.

Roosevelt was concerned that if the Western Allies did not make what Stalin considered a serious effort in the west, Stalin and Hitler would make a separate peace and solidify their joint domination of Europe. As long as Stalin believed that the defeat of Germany was possible and that the USSR could effectively expand to the west, he would stay in the war. But if he became convinced of an Anglo-American desire to keep the Russo-German war going, he would divide the spoils with Hitler. Stalin volunteered at Tehran that he had received peace-feelers from Hitler, and there had been two informal sub-ministerial meetings in Stockholm.


HistoryGreat PowersSecuritySociety
Eastern EuropeEurope