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Liveblogging World War II: February 8, 1945: Yalta

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S.M. Plokhty: Yalta: The Price of Peace:

Guards welcomed the guests arriving at Livadia Palace on February 4, 2005, as they had done sixty years earlier. Aside from the guard of honor, and the return to Livadia of some of the soldiers and waitresses who had provided security and service sixty years earlier, there was little resemblance to February 1945. The organizers of this Yalta conference—a symposium entitled “Yalta 1945-2005: From the Bipolar World to the Geopolitics of the Future”—anxiously awaited but never received greetings from President Viktor Yushchenko of Ukraine, to which Yalta and the Crimea now belong, or from President Vladimir Putin of Russia, the legal successor to the Soviet Union. Nor were there greetings from the leaders of Britain or the United States. Each had his own reasons to overlook the anniversary of the conference that helped shape the modern world.... The historical and political consequences of its decisions continue to haunt the world’s political elites. In October 2004 opposition parties in the German parliament raised questions about the continuing militarization of Kaliningrad Oblast, the part of the former East Prussia around Königsberg allocated to Russia by the Big Three in February 1945... suggested the creation of a Lithuanian-Polish-Russian region of cross-border cooperation to be called “Prussia.” The Russian government was appalled.... In Japan there has always been a national consensus favoring the return of territories lost to Russia after the Second World War.... In the spring of 2005 the Japanese parliament adopted a resolution increasing the number of islands that it wanted back.... In early 2005 Russia’s neighbors to the west, the Balts and Poles, attacked the Russian government for its failure to apologize for Stalin’s occupation of Eastern Europe. The attacks came in response to Russia’s decision to invite world leaders to Moscow to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany....

George W. Bush in Riga on May 6, on his way to the Moscow celebrations:

As we mark a victory of six days ago—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. VE Day marked the end of fascism, but it did not end oppression. The agreement at Yalta followed in the unjust tradition of Munich and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Once again, when powerful governments negotiated, the freedom of small nations was somehow expendable. Yet this attempt to sacrifice freedom for the sake of stability left a continent divided and unstable. The captivity of millions in Central and Eastern Europe will be remembered as one of the greatest wrongs of history....

Clinton’s classmate Strobe Talbott:

After World War II, many countries in the east suffered nearly half a century under the shadow of Yalta. That is a place name that has come to be a codeword for the cynical sacrifice of small nations’ freedom to great powers’ spheres of influence, just as Versailles has come to signify a short-sighted, punitive, and humiliating peace that sows the seeds of future war.

A U.S. administration official later revealed that President Bush’s remarks in Riga were intended as an invitation for Putin to apologize for the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. If that was indeed the case, then the White House speechwriters clearly miscalculated.... The speech, which linked Yalta, Munich, and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, reignited the old debate between Republicans and Democrats over the role of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in what his critics called the “sellout” of Eastern Europe to Joseph Stalin.... Democrats maintained that the Yalta Conference had done little more than recognize the reality on the ground....

The agreements became a battleground between Republicans and Democrats over the conduct of foreign policy. Disagreements gave rise to numerous myths about Yalta. Some blamed the conference participants for selling out Western interests to Stalin. Others tried to exonerate them. It became almost impossible to take a dispassionate view, or to distinguish myth from reality....

The perception of the Yalta Conference as a diplomatic failure was largely based on the disappointments of the early Cold War. From the perspective of the late 1940s and early 1950s, the Yalta agreements failed to prevent the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe and were accused of creating conditions for communist victory in China, where the Soviet Union was allocated a sphere of influence in Manchuria. And yet, if diplomacy is the art of the possible, and if one were to judge the results of Yalta according to the geopolitical and military situation at the time, one would conclude that the Western leaders achieved considerably more than they were subsequently credited with. It is sometimes overlooked that Yalta was a wartime conference, and that the West was greatly indebted to the Soviet Union for the coalition’s ultimate victory. The most devastating war in human history was far from over, and to achieve victory the Western leaders needed the Red Army and its commander in chief. Roosevelt, in particular, felt he needed the Red Army to help end the war in the Far East quickly and with as few American casualties as possible.... Both Roosevelt and Churchill realized that without a conference with Stalin, their influence on Eastern Europe would be nil. They did their best to make the summit happen.... At Yalta, both Roosevelt and Churchill were in a poor bargaining position, as American and British forces were still recovering from the German counterattack in the Ardennes while the Red Army was securing bridgeheads on the Oder River....

“When I first came to Poland I kept hearing a very strange word,” wrote Timothy Garton Ash in his award-winning book on the history of the Solidarity movement in Poland. “‘Yowta,’ my new acquaintances sighed, ‘yowta!’ and conversation ebbed into melancholy silence. Did ‘yowta’ mean fate, I wondered, was it an expression like ‘that’s life’?” In fact, “Yowta” is the Polish way of pronouncing the word “Yalta,” and for generations that word meant betrayal, abandonment by the Western Allies of the first nation that rose up against German aggression in September 1939. The negative legacy of Yalta, especially deeply felt in Poland, became part of political discourse in Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe throughout the Cold War.

Could the Western Allies have done better at Yalta and spared Eastern Europe decades of subordination to the Soviet Union? The first answer that comes to mind is “Of course they could have.” When one considers the long-term consequences for Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe, one cannot help but think that there could have been a better outcome. One need only recall the lack of specifics on the “reorganization” of the Polish government in the final documents of the conference. The devil is always in the details, and spelling out those details might have influenced Soviet behavior in the region. But could the Western democracies have stopped Stalin from doing what he wanted? Would words alone have changed his mind? What strikes anyone looking for flaws in Western diplomacy at Yalta is the lack of unity between Roosevelt and Churchill, both in their approach to Stalin and in their handling of many questions at the negotiating table. The two Western leaders viewed the postwar world through different lenses. Roosevelt’s agenda was global—the creation of a world peace organization, military victory in Europe and the Pacific, and the achievement of supremacy in America’s global economic competition with the British Empire. Europe was of secondary interest—once the war in that theater was over, the United States would end its involvement in European affairs. Given this approach, Stalin emerged as a potential ally rather than a competitor.

Churchill, by contrast, was keenly interested in Europe. He believed that securing control over the Mediterranean was vital to the continued existence of the British Empire, and that the independence of Eastern European states was essential to Britain’s security, as it would prevent the Soviet Union from dominating the whole subcontinent. From Churchill’s viewpoint, Stalin was a competitor and a potential enemy, by no means an ally. As Stalin held the trump cards, the Western leaders found themselves competing for his favors....

There is the big question of what would have happened if Roosevelt had adopted a different policy, decided not to abandon Churchill in his stand on Poland, and insisted on a continuation of the discussion. The question cannot be answered with any degree of certainty. There is, however, no indication that Stalin would have been prepared to yield if the Roosevelt-Churchill alliance had held fast and the conference had continued beyond its actual terminus. Stalin was not opposed to such a continuation, but he was prepared to discuss the Black Sea Straits and German reparations, not Poland....

The Western Allies chose... leaving the door open and continuing to try to turn the situation around. The sentiments of those who decided to take the risk and keep talking were later summarized by a member of the British delegation at Yalta and a Cold War-era ambassador to Moscow, Sir Frank Roberts: “We could have said ‘no, we’ll have nothing to do with it,’ in which case the Russians would have gone ahead. There wouldn’t even have been this, perhaps you may say, hypocritical possibility, by getting some Poles back into Poland.... In the end, the Western Allies succeeded in getting some of the democratic leaders and some elements of political pluralism back into Poland. Their hope of building on that modest success was not so naive as it appeared during the Cold War. Soviet archival evidence and recent research on the subject indicate that at the time of the Yalta Conference Stalin had not yet decided what to do with Eastern Europe. As late as May 1946, he advised the leaders of the Polish government: “Lenin never said there was no path to socialism other than the dictatorship of the proletariat; he admitted that it was possible to arrive at the path to socialism utilizing the foundations of the bourgeois democratic system such as Parliament.” Closing all channels of communication in February 1945 and giving up all available levers of influence would have been an error much greater than any for which the Western architects of Yalta were ever criticized....

Another entrenched myth that should be further scrutinized, if not completely discarded, originated with supporters of General Charles de Gaulle, who maintained that the Big Three agreed at Yalta to the division of Europe into spheres of influence. Indeed, most of the negotiations at Yalta were conducted on the assumption that Stalin had the right to friendly governments in countries bordering on the Soviet Union. But both Roosevelt and Churchill emphatically rejected the “communization” of Eastern Europe and did all they could to prevent the emergence of what Churchill later called an “iron curtain”—the heavily policed border that shut out the West and eventually eliminated the last vestiges of democracy in the region. It was their inability to agree on the division of Eastern Europe that caused most of the tension during and after the conference, as is well attested by the conference protocols, Roosevelt-Churchill-Stalin correspondence, and the actions of the Allied diplomats.

If one is looking for high-level meetings to blame for the Cold War-era division of Europe, then Moscow and Potsdam come to the fore, not Yalta...

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