Exit Strategies

Summit of Betrayal


In 2005 the Russian government invited government leaders from around the world to come to the capital to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of victory over Nazi Germany, VE Day.  Poland and the Baltic states attacked Moscow for not apologizing for the Soviet occupation of their countries. For them, the end of World War II wasn't followed by anything that could be called liberation.    

President Bush stepped into this diplomatic row on May 6th of that year on his way to Moscow. 

As we mark a victory of ... 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. ...The agreement at Yalta followed in the unjust tradition of Munich and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pace. One again, when powerful governments negotiated, the freedom of small nations was somehow expendable.

Bush was echoing sentiments expressed a decade earlier by the previous American administration. To Clinton Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, the name of Yalta had become "a codeword for the cynical sacrifice of small nations' freedom to great powers' spheres of influence." This attitude towards the February 1945 conference isn't uniquely American. Timothy Garton Ash wrote in a book on the Polish Solidarity movement that when he first went to that country he kept hearing the word "yowta" used in situations where an English speaker may say "That's life" and signal his surrender to fate. Later he realized that his Polish contacts were saying "Yalta," as the place had for generations come to represent betrayal and abandonment.  

It goes without saying that when people condemn the results of the Yalta conference, they're condemning the American and British governments in general and Roosevelt and Churchill in particular; we know not to expect any better from Stalin.

But how fair is the standard analysis? Did the democratic leaders truly "sell out" Eastern Europe? Britain, after all, ostensibly declared war on Germany over the freedom of Poland in the first place. S.M. Plokhy, Harvard Professor of Ukrainian History, takes us into back and forth between the three world leaders at the historic conference in Yalta: The Price of Peace. The author relies on previously classified documents for the USSR, British, American and Soviet records and memoirs from Yalta participants to give us a day by day account of the motivations, desires and fears which decided the fates of million.

With victory coming into sight in the summer 1944, British Prime Minister Churchill began trying to convince Roosevelt that a deal needed to be struck with Stalin over the future of Eastern Europe. When the Soviet leader was contacted, he was shrewd enough to realize that he had everything to gain by dragging his feet as his soldiers moved towards Germany. Being as paranoid as he was, Stalin also didn't want to meet outside of Soviet territory and turned down an offer to come to Alaska. Tired of waiting, Churchill personally went to Moscow in October and on his last day there Stalin agreed to a meeting in one of the Soviet Black Sea Ports. Yalta, old playground for the Tsars and by then the main holiday retreat area of the Soviet Union, was agreed upon.  

Going into the conference the British and American leaderships were anything but united. For the U.S., the main goal was trying to get the Soviet Union into the war with Japan. FDR was surrounded by Wilsonians who hoped to get Stalin's agreement for a new United Nations, an organization which would ensure long-term world peace and stability and do away with the old games of power politics and spheres of interests. Churchill, for his part, was still playing the balance of powers game. After beating the drumbeat for war all during Nazi Germany's rise, he was trying to contain a monster that was partly of his own making. Stalin went into Yalta hoping to consolidate his territorial acquisitions in Europe and maintain good relations with the Western powers while the USSR took a few decades to rebuild.  

Each of the three delegations was assigned to an old imperial palace within driving distance of the other two upon arrival on the night of February 3. Conferences between the big three would be held in the evenings, the foreign ministers met during the day and there would be informal meals and private gatherings throughout. Some issues were dealt with quite easily. The USSR agreed to enter the war against Japan if it was allowed to seize South Sakhalin and the Kurile Islands upon victory. They also wanted a sphere of influence in North China. The Americans were more comfortable giving away the territory of an enemy than signing away the future of a friend, but both demands were met. From Roosevelt's perspective, the most important thing was saving American lives and ending the war as soon as possible. Japan still claims the South Kurile Islands to this day. 

On the United Nations, Stalin's main fear was being outnumbered. Since British dominions were given votes, the Soviets asked whether Ukraine and Belarus could have seats. Before leaving to Yalta the president had told Congress that if the Soviets asked for places for their satellites, he would demand a vote for each of the 50 American states.  Despite this inconvenient fact the leaders agreed in principle to recommend to the UN conference meeting in April that Ukraine and Belarus become part of the General Assembly.  

For the U.S. delegation, the fate of Europe was at best the third priority. The British cared most about an independent Poland and ironically, a Germany that wouldn't be too crippled. The USSR wanted $10 billion in reparations, a figure that Churchill thought would make the WWII peace into another Versailles.  No number was agreed upon and after Yalta, Stalin eventually reversed his desire for a dismemberment of Germany when he realized that it would be difficult to get anything without a centralized state.  

On February 7, FDR opened the planetary conference by suggesting they "take up the Polish question." The Soviets had set up a Communist government in Warsaw. The Western powers wanted to see it dissolved and a new government formed that included Polish exiles in London. Stalin recommended that the existing ruling coalition simply be expanded. After a debate on whether there was time to bring the Poles involved to Yalta so they could have a say, Stalin picked this time to agree on the US's formula for UN voting procedures. Soviet Foreign Minister Vycheslav Molotov then put forward a proposal on Poland calling for democrats to be brought into the government and an election be held as soon as possible. Molotov would meet with American and British ambassadors in Moscow to work out the details. Roosevelt agreed that this sounded good in principle and it was agreed that the foreign ministers would talk it over the next day.  

One the 8th, the Western powers revealed their counterproposal. Poland would have a presidential council made up of three members, one of whom would be a Communist. The council would go to Moscow and be involved in the discussion with the ambassadors. The Soviets refused to dissolve the Warsaw government and claimed that it enjoyed great popularity with its people. Churchill responded with an impassioned plea that they overcome their differences on this issue lest they "stamp this conference with the seal of failure." Stalin shot back that the Soviets hadn't enquired into what their allies were doing in France and had no idea whether Charles de Gaulle enjoyed any popular support. He even reminded Churchill that he hadn't questioned the heavy handed treatment of communists in Greece after signing off that country to Britain's sphere of influence in his meeting with the prime minister in October.  

Not only was there friction over the composition of the Polish government, but where its borders would be. To compensate the Poles for what the USSR would take, the Soviets wanted to give their neighbors large swaths of Germany. A complicated diplomatic game was played as to both the British and Soviets where the Polish borders should be depended on who controlled the state. No matter what they agreed upon at Yalta, it was clear that millions of Germans would have to be displaced. Churchill had written to his wife that while he was "clearly convinced that they deserved it," his "heart was saddened" by the plight of the women and children marching West as the Soviet army approached. The prime minister at Yalta said that large parts of the British public, but presumably not he himself, would be "shocked at the idea of moving millions of people by force." Stalin replied that when his soldiers came, they would simply run away and no transfer would be necessary, to which Churchill responded, "this, of course, simplified the problem." The issue had also been simplified by the fact that the Allies had killed six or seven million in Germany proper and thereby created space for the resettled population. In fact, Churchill went on, they'd kill another million or more before the war ended. After Stalin asked whether he meant two million instead, Churchill assured the Soviet dictator that he was "not proposing any limitation on them."  The reader might want to ponder why six million deaths of a certain other ethnic group are seen as the most heinous crime in world history while Churchill is still lionized.

In the end, the Western leaders all but surrendered on Poland. In their defense, they had nothing to offer and little leverage. The final declaration on the issue stated that the government of the country would be "reorganized." No agreement was reached on "free and fair elections"; instead the ambassadors meeting in Moscow would be charged with reporting on the situation in the country.  How the Polish government would be "reorganized" -- who would be added and in what form -- was also to be decided later.  The Soviets had wanted a clause that said all parties participating in any governing coalition would have to be "anti-fascist." Churchill objected on the grounds that that could mean anyone who wasn't a communist.  The term "anti-Nazi" made its way into the final draft instead.  

It was clear to all involved that what would happen in Poland would depend on how the necessarily vague Yalta agreement was interpreted.  And since the Soviets were the dominant military force on the ground, they would be able to do almost anything they wanted without violating the letter of the declaration they signed.  As Churchill had predicted, anyone who criticized the communist government was called a "fascist" and rounded up.  Over 80,000 Polish leaders were arrested and shipped East. In March 1945 the NKVD reached out to the Polish underground telling them they would be involved in upcoming elections. When the resistance fighters showed up for a meeting near the end of the month they were arrested, put on trial in Moscow and convicted. Poland was Sovietized and the West could do little more than complain. Churchill was so ashamed by the results of the conference that he refused to provide material on Yalta when it came time to write his memoirs and instead had his assistants piece together the story on their own. 

No, World War II didn't end well for Poland.  But it's hard to see how Britain and the U.S., or at least their actions at Yalta, can be blamed for this.  Roosevelt and Churchill believed that without a conference on Eastern Europe their influence on the region would've been even less than it was. In early February 1945, the Soviets were less than 50 miles away from Berlin. Britain and America combined never even reached half the troop total of the USSR and didn't have any boots on the continent until June 1944.  

There was another reason why they had to make nice with Russians after Yalta. As the Red Army moved East, they found themselves responsible for tens of thousands of American and British POWs. Stalin refused to let the Red Cross bring the soldiers supplies and used them as bargaining chips to get back the Soviet citizens in the West, being particularly interested in those who had picked up arms for the enemy.  

Already in 1944 the British government heard that Soviet POWs who had fought with the Germans were killing themselves rather than be repatriated. London was unmoved. Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden saw agreeing to the Russian demands as the only way to bring British soldiers home. Moscow wouldn't even allow the Western Allies to send representatives to Eastern Europe to check on the medical condition of their men.

Some former residents of the USSR claimed German citizenship based on their service in Hitler's army. Unlike Britain, America was at willing to consider those in its custody to be whichever nationality they claimed. Eden talked Secretary of State Edward Stettinus out of this position on February 11, the last day of Yalta. The wording on the finial agreement signed was somewhat vague, but Moscow interpreted it to say that the 21,000  Soviet POWs in U.S. custody would be sent home. The Americans were brought over to this view.

After hearing they would be extradited, on June 29 1945, 154 Soviet prisoners in Fort Dix, New Jersey barricaded themselves in their barracks and planned to commit mass suicide. The American guards released tear gas in order to draw them out. As the Soviets rushed at their captors, seven of the POWs were shot down. The guards later found that three men had already hung themselves in the barracks; another fifteen nooses were already prepared. Incredibly, the British even sent to Russia thousands of soldiers who had fought decades earlier in the White Army and then settled in Austria when they were said to be Soviet citizens.  

This was the real crime of the Western Allies in the aftermath of the war. Still, even here, they found themselves in an impossible situation. The Soviet Union was absolutely shameless, willing to deny even the existence of American and British POWs while they went to the media with accusations about Soviet citizens being mistreated in Western Europe and America. While Poland was already lost by the time Yalta came around, the governments of Churchill and Roosevelt ended up taking an active part in the sending millions to the gulags and death.  

Most who hold up the ideal of the sovereign nation would say that a state has to look after its own people first and the evidence says that that's what the Western foreign policy establishment was doing. But in that case, what was the whole World War II thing about in the first place if not the British deciding that they were going to sacrifice their sons for the well being and freedom of continental peoples? And the U.S. leadership couldn't even come up with a plausible lie about why a German victory would eventually threaten American interests; they had to resort to provoking Japan into Pearl Harbor.  George Patton's solution to the POW problem was simply to march east. Surly the case for doing so was just as good as any ostensible excuse given for going to war with Nazi Germany.  

The true motivations for the Western Allies' fight against the Reich was revealed in what they sought at Yalta.  Roosevelt looked to end the war with Japan before finishing the Wilsonian dream of an international organization that would end all war. Churchill was following the age-old British strategy of ensuring no continental power would ever become too strong. While British power projection and imperialism are long dead (take that, Churchill's ghost!), American idealism remains among the world's most destructive forces. 

Yalta is worth reading for the profiles it gives us of the main figures on the winning side of the conflict that shaped the modern era. As for the conference itself, on most issues the American and British representatives did as much as they could do considering they saw an immediate showdown with the Soviet Union as unthinkable. Whether to send foreigners to their certain death to rescue one's own countrymen is the type of moral dilemma usually only found in ethics textbooks. It was when Nazism was declared to be a greater evil than Communism that the road was paved to Yalta ... and the ruin of the West.