[Warning - long post. Blame Bolton.]
There has been a bit of a dust up recently regarding the words President Bush recently spoke about the Yalta agreements that ended World War II. Basically he suggested that that very agreement led to the suffering of Eastern Europe under communism during the cold war. It's not terribly hard to find that theory understandable and believable. After all, the premise is widely held that this division was the beginning of the eventual Cold War. But for some time, the right used it as a chance to suggest that FDR somehow betrayed not only Eastern Europe, but the US as well, making us willing participants. Because of this, many on the left are calling Bush's statements wrongheaded and even egregious.
National Review Online has put up a piece from the editors refuting that and rightly so as I don't quite see that this is Bush's point from his remarks. The NRO immediate refutation is basically this:
Jacob Heilbrunn, writing in the Los Angeles Times, made two typical criticisms of Bush’s history: first, that Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe was inevitable because “the territory was already in their possession”; second, that refusing to cut a deal with Stalin “would have seriously jeopardized the common battle against Germany (at a moment when Roosevelt was concerned with winning Soviet assent to help fight the Japanese, which he received).”
The second point is unconvincing. Stalin was just as eager to defeat Hitler as Roosevelt and Churchill were, and by the time the Allies sat down at Yalta in February 1945, the Third Reich was already in its death throes. As for Japan, the U.S. was quite capable of winning in Asia with or without Russian “assent.”
The first point, on the other hand, contains an element of truth. But, while the proximity of the Baltic states to Russia made their annexation into the USSR almost inevitable, the fates of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Germany weren’t necessarily sealed. Even if their occupation was unpreventable, it does not follow from this that the U.S. and Great Britain had to bless the Soviet occupiers. Eastern European democrats would have been strengthened by early encouragement from the West — even if that encouragement was nothing but a silent refusal to endorse Stalin’s ambitions.
I agree. Further, they go on to stress that in many ways, Bush's recent words have more to do with strengthening our efforts in the current war on terror by maintaining our message to those we are fighting and those we desire freedom for. Again from NRO,
The fundamental question raised by Yalta is: What should powerful democracies do to aid and protect those who live under totalitarian regimes? Bush rightly called Yalta an “attempt to sacrifice freedom for the sake of stability [that] left a continent divided and unstable.” That sounds an awful lot like the implicit deal the U.S. struck for decades with the regimes of the Middle East. Bush’s words may have been spoken in Riga, but they were meant to encourage democrats from Moscow to Tehran.
Quite. David Greenberg has also gotten in on the act over at Slate. He begins,
Bush's cavalier invocations of history for political purposes are not surprising. But for an American president to dredge up ugly old canards about Yalta stretches the boundaries of decency and should draw reprimands
Hmm. Well, David apparently isn't interested in placing the historic moment in current perspective. And to be fair, he seems to have a fairly solid sense of his history, especially making sure to note that much of the initial carving was done in Tehran in 1943 (a bit ironic, that.) The 1945 meeting was meant to finalize a few other things and hope to get Stalin to budge on Poland.
I actually don't have much issue with most of what Greenberg says, mostly because he presents a decent argument even if it fails to see what Yalta means in historic terms. What I do have particular issue with is the thought (held by many) that it was simply impossible for us to continue to fight the Soviets after winning against the Germans. This is essentially the point made in the LA Times above and Greenberg gives us this line,
Stalin, of course, never allowed elections in Poland or anywhere else. "Our hopeful assumptions were soon to be falsified," Churchill wrote. "Still, they were the only ones possible at the time." Short of starting a hot war, the West was powerless to intervene, just as it was in Hungary in 1956 or Prague in 1968.
Does anyone recall what we had in 1945 that they did not? How about the bomb. Yes, by 1956 and 1968, we could not really do much (and hoped not too), but there was a moment early on in which we attempted to stand up to them in 1948 with the Berlin Air Lift (a year prior to the Soviet discovery of the bomb.) Earlier in 1945 however, we had a large portion of our military poised ready to act in Europe, and Patton wanted to badly. We were already aware of the odious nature of the Stalinist regime and we had further resources available to mobilize if the need arose (and representing far less of our GNP than the Soviet's.).
The common arguments are that the citizens here wanted to "bring the boys home" and that we were still fighting Japan. As NRO mentioned above, we did not need Russia's help in Japan. We had been asking them to do something for some time and they never lifted a finger until it appeared that Japan was going to lose. And as for bringing the boys home...well, we hear the same refrain today as we have in every war we have fought overseas. But if the need and purpose is right, then it can be sold to the American public and they will back it.
No, we did not act because there was too much sympathy for the communism of the Soviets right here in America. Fascists were bad, but Uncle Joe? Well, he was our pal - we could not turn our backs on him then...not after what he did to help us win WWII. Well, tell that to the millions that died under his rule. In fact, as hard as it might have been, I'm not totally convinced that we needed Stalin to win the war. The fact that we allied with his regime in the first place stinks of the same cozying up to dictators that we have seen a lot of in our past. And it always comes back to haunt us. Yes, President Bush...I'm talking to you now. Please note Saudi Arabia and Pakistan (though the latter seems a somewhat different creature when considering the typical dictatorship.)
I will accept that most felt that the decisions made in the "big three" conferences were felt to be the best that the parties could do, at least in terms of the US and UK (came out pretty smashing for Stalin) but I do not accept that there was no other alternative. There is no doubt that people were tired of war (the Brits were pretty darn sick of it in 1939 as it was) and one cannot deny the reality on the ground. The Soviets occupied a large swath of Eastern Europe, though no thanks to earlier agreements. I have always been led to believe that Patton was made to stop when he thought he could get to Berlin because of agreements made between the big three (but to be honest, nothing to back that up.) The question is (and not to try and cast specific blame on FDR or Churchill) - why did they trust Stalin? For they must have. I have read elsewhere that Roosevelt was leery of the Soviet leader but felt the U.N. the best place to deal with him and not Yalta. Well, we see how effectual they were then and they are now (cue evil Bolton.)
My point is this. As always, the right thing is often times the tough thing. Had we done the right thing in 1945, we might not have seen the Cold War, or at least not one that cost the number of Eastern European, Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese and US lives that were lost in the history we know. And it helps to remind ourselves of that because we just happen to be fighting a war at the moment that could use that lesson as a guide. Mistakes happen, always. But that does not mean we cannot correct them and stay the course with what we know to be just.
Looking back on that time and recognizing the mistakes made, and the stakes at play that were lost because pragmatism and "reality" helped usher into 60 years of hiding under our beds, serves us well. I don't want to make the same mistakes again. Remember your history well, but don't forget what it can teach you. That is all.