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The Yalta Myth

The Yalta Myth

by Author(s): Conrad Black

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.

Roosevelt was also concerned that if the Western Allies did not attack across the Channel and then into Germany, the Russians would occupy all Germany and Scandinavia, and possibly ignite Communist rule in France. The British wanted to invade up the Adriatic, land near Trieste, and advance through what they called the Ljubljana Gap (more or less of a geographic invention) to Vienna, and snatch some of the Balkans from the Russians, relying on the Germans to defend their eastern borders from the Red Army. The American high command and most informed posterity has considered that plan impractical and, in any case, to be hardly a substitute for the Normandy landings as an effective assault on German-occupied Europe.

Because the American legation at Tehran was well away from the British and Soviet embassies, it was determined that for security reasons, Roosevelt should stay with one or other of his two fellow summiteers. On the recommendation of his security unit, he chose the Soviet embassy, because it had larger quarters. He assumed (correctly) that everything he said would be recorded and translated by his host. When he and Churchill had important matters to discuss, they did so in the British embassy across the street. But the most important part of the conference occurred before it began, when Stalin visited Roosevelt in his room, their first meeting. Roosevelt asked him where he would prefer the Anglo-Americans to make their main Western European thrust, France or the Adriatic. Stalin emphatically favored France.

At the first session of the conference, November 28, Stalin stated the case for landings in France, a position Churchill knew Roosevelt agreed with, and said he was unenthused about activities in the Adriatic and Balkans. He also disputed Churchill's claim to be able to induce Turkey to enter the war against Germany at any useful time. Brooke believed that Stalin only favored the cross-Channel option because it would mire the Anglo-Americans in a futile bloodbath, or even a shambles like Dunkirk, weakening the Germans and facilitating Russian advances, without actually clearing the Germans out of France.4 In this, though it will never be known, Brooke may have been correct. If so, it was a piquant irony: Stalin was enlisted by Roosevelt to provide the casting vote in favor of the Normandy landings, thinking they would fail, as Churchill feared. But Normandy was an overwhelming success, and secured France and most of Germany for the West. Indeed, if Stalin had supported Churchill's Adriatic plan, and Roosevelt had agreed to it, Stalin would have ended up with much more of Europe than he did. (When then-Vice President Richard Nixon asked Churchill in 1954 what he then thought of his Adriatic plan, Churchill only said that it would have been "handy" to have Vienna. No doubt it would have, but not as handy as Paris.)5

There was a good deal of inconclusive discussion at Tehran about fragmenting Germany into many smaller states, as in the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, but none of the suggestions gained acceptance. The only other decision important to Eastern Europe was the secret delineation of a new Polish border with the USSR 200 miles to the west of the pre-war border, and quite close to what Eden pointedly called the "Ribbentrop-Molotov" line, of the 1939 Pact. "Call it whatever you want", said Stalin.6 Poland would then be given 200 miles of German territory on its western border, compensating it for what had been lost to Russia. It was agreed to keep these plans entirely secret, so as not to arouse the large populations involved; appear cynical; and, in the West, legitimize any part of the Hitler-Stalin arrangements or disturb six million Polish-Americans in the run-up to a presidential election.

Essay Types: Essay