The Yalta Myth

The Yalta Myth

by Author(s): Conrad Black

It was established that Stalin would simply seize Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania back from the Germans. Roosevelt suggested a referendum in those countries, but Stalin pointed out that the West hadn't asked any of his Romanov predecessors, from Peter the Great to Nicholas II, to hold a referendum in them, and that he wouldn't either.

Roosevelt's claim, based on his own account to his labor secretary, Frances Perkins, that he had teased Churchill (in Stalin's presence) to assure Stalin that he was not colluding with Churchill, receives no support whatsoever in the official records of the proceedings of any of the countries, or the memoirs of any of the participants. It is unlikely that Miss Perkins just made it up, though she may have exaggerated it. But it is not unlikely that Roosevelt largely made it up, as he did many stories about himself, to show the lengths he had gone to, in his efforts to break the ice with Stalin--for whom, in fact, he had less personal regard than did Churchill or de Gaulle.

This was how matters rested until the EAC determined in February 1944 that the Big Three should have approximately equal occupation zones in Germany. The United States, at Roosevelt's direction, did not want to demarcate the zones, because he thought the Western Allies, although they were still four months away from the Normandy landings, would be able to take almost all of Germany. The EAC met in London under the chairmanship of the third-ranking member of the British Foreign Office, Sir William Strang (a veteran of the Munich delegation and the even less successful British-Soviet talks of the summer of 1939); and the other members were the Soviet and U.S. ambassadors in London, Adam Maisky and John Gilbert Winant.

The British--fearing that, even counting the Canadian contingent, they would have less than a quarter of the number of American divisions in or near Germany, and barely an eighth of the number of Soviet soldiers in or near Germany--wanted to take advantage of this possibility of a large zone, relative to the size of their ground forces. The USSR fearing they might not secure much of Germany if the Western operations in France were successful, settled for about 40 percent of Germany as their zone.

Since Roosevelt did not believe in confiding in any of his associates, and the secrecy of the Polish borders agreement at Tehran was observed, the EAC imposed its zones of occupation surprisingly close to those Roosevelt had drawn on the National Geographic map on USS Iowa on Germany's pre-war borders. So half of the Soviet zone of Germany would in fact be in Poland. The EAC decision was approved by Churchill and Roosevelt (with little attention but some reluctance) at the second Quebec Conference in September 1944.

The Allied landings were famously successful, in both northern and southern France, and the Germans were backed up fairly close to the Rhine by late autumn, 1944. Winston Churchill went to Moscow in October, 1944, and, contrary to Roosevelt's wishes, made the famous spheres of influence agreement with Stalin on the "naughty piece of paper." Churchill conceded 90 percent Soviet influence to 10 percent Western influence in Romania; 75 percent Soviet influence to 25 percent Western influence in Bulgaria and Hungary; equal Soviet-Western influence in Yugoslavia; and 90 percent Western influence to 10 percent Soviet influence in Greece.

This accurately reflected military realities, with over 300 Soviet divisions in Eastern Europe, and was not an impractical arrangement, except that Stalin stamped out any external influence where he could and tried to take over Greece, before Churchill and then Truman stopped him. Churchill tried, completely implausibly, to claim in his memoirs that these arrangements, which he conceded were "fateful to millions", were merely "temporary." He knew Stalin too well for that, especially eight days after the extermination by the Germans--with Soviet complicity--of the heroic Warsaw uprisings.7

By Yalta, in February, 1945, the Eastern and Western Allies were all on the German borders. Roosevelt needed the United Nations Organization to involve the United States in the world and convince the isolationists that the world was no longer as sinister a place to be involved in. Until the effectiveness of atomic weapons were proved (five months later), the United States (both the president and the service chiefs), wanted the USSR to take its share of the anticipated one million casualties that would be sustained in subduing the home islands of Japan. The small islands of Iwo Jima and Okinawa alone were on the way to costing the United States over 50,000 casualties.

Learning from the mistakes of Woodrow Wilson, in whose administration he had been a junior participant, Roosevelt moved to establish the United Nations before the war was over (unlike the League of Nations), and packed his administration and the founding UN delegation with Republicans and congressional representatives of both parties in equal numbers, despite his party's majority. At Yalta he won Stalin's support for the UN and his agreement to enter the war against Japan three months after the end of the European War, in exchange for minor territorial concessions that Stalin would have taken from Japan and China anyway.

The Yalta Agreement proclaimed the imminence of Allied victory, confirmed the occupation of Germany, invited France to be an occupying power in Germany (taking some of the British zone) and co-founder of the United Nations, which was also proclaimed. Yalta dodged the issue of reparations, which had been such a failure after Versailles. Roosevelt and Churchill managed, after some argument, to get approval in the Yalta Agreement of the Declaration on Liberated Europe, and the Declaration on Poland. The first promised national sovereignty, democratic government, direct emergency relief, provisional governments "broadly representative of all democratic elements in the population and pledged to the earliest possible establishment through free elections of governments responsive to the will of the people." Poland would be "strong, free, independent and democratic . . . on the basis of universal suffrage and secret ballot . . . [open to] all democratic and anti-Nazi parties."

These Declarations, which Stalin flagrantly violated with the first opportunity to do so, provided a great deal of the moral underpinning for the West's successful conduct of the forty-year Cold War that followed.

In Yugoslavia, a compromise government between the communist leader, Tito, and the regent (Subasic), was endorsed. The Big Three foreign ministers would meet three or four times per year, and unity in peace was "a sacred obligation." There were protocols governing war criminals, displaced persons, access of Soviet shipping to the Mediterranean; as well as the secret agreement over Japan, and the right of the United States to have three votes at the United Nations, as the USSR did. Czechoslovakia was the one country in Eastern Europe that seems never to have been mentioned and there has never been a satisfactory explanation for why the West did not occupy at least part of it.

There was nothing in the Yalta Agreement, nor in any of the official accounts of the conference deliberations, nor in any of the remembered versions of memoirists (Churchill, Eden, Cadogan, Brooke, Stettinius, Harriman, Leahy, Bohlen, or Marshall's recollections to his biographer, or Russian accounts) to justify the opprobrium that has come down on Yalta. What has happened, in Napoleon's phrase, is "lies agreed upon."

In the aftermath of the Cold War, the Yalta Myth has been exposed, and Churchill's role has been set in perspective. Winston Churchill's contributions to the salvation of Western civilization are beyond estimation, but he was not the heroic English "donkey" between "the Russian bear and the American eagle." (He won the Nobel Prize for Literature for his fine but somewhat bowdlerized account of the Second World War.)

The final salvo of the Churchill-as-heroic-minority-against-Roosevelt-and-Stalin school was a very late effort by the able and authoritative official biographer of Churchill, Sir Martin Gilbert, to produce evidence of Roosevelt's duplicity in the Soviet rape of Poland. Many years after his (and Randolph Churchill's) mighty eight-volume life of Churchill--in his otherwise admirable Churchill and America (2005)--Sir Martin claims that Roosevelt, at a private meeting with Stalin, (on February 8, 1945 at Yalta) had offered the Soviet leader a dilution of the democracy pledge to Poland.8 There is absolutely no evidence of this whatever, neither from Eden, whom Gilbert cites as a source; nor from Bohlen, who was Roosevelt's interpreter and translated every word that ever passed in person between Stalin and Roosevelt; nor from the Soviet account. Sir Martin Gilbert is a fine and rigorous historian (he appears to be extrapolating from a Foreign Office note), but such an allegation, in the face of so much countervailing evidence, should not be made without more support. And the timing of it, as the Churchill part of the Yalta Myth unravels, is suspect.

The companion myths, of Roosevelt's illness, or of the influence of Alger Hiss, a former communist and apparent Soviet spy, who was present in the American Yalta delegation, also hold no water. Roosevelt was declining physically, but all agree that his mental powers were undimmed. Hiss's only contribution was to oppose (unsuccessfully) the grant to the USSR of three votes in the General Assembly of the United Nations.

Essay Types: Essay