On May 7, 2005, on his way to Russia to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Victory in Europe (V-E) Day, President Bush stopped in Riga, Latvia, to empathize with the Baltic countries because of the plight they endured under Soviet rule: "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."
President Bush’s remarks in Riga, insinuating the Allied leaders’ betrayal of the "freedom of small nations" in Eastern Europe, reflect an idealized ignorance of the realities of Europe and the international balance of power in the closing months of World War II.
By February of 1945, Hitler’s panzer divisions had been pushed back from their advanced positions by the Atlantic allies in the West and the Soviets in the East. In merely a few months, these two Allied armies would meet in the middle of Germany. Soviet military strength and the need to garner Soviet support for the ongoing war with Japan precluded American and British intervention in Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe. With beleaguered militaries and exhausted allies, Roosevelt and Churchill did their best to end the continuing war with Japan and avoid a devastating war with the Soviets.
The perception of Yalta as a symbol of liberal weakness is hardly new. Immediately after the Yalta conference concluded, criticism of FDR’s supposed acquiescence in negotiations made "Yalta" a representation of impotence in the face of the enemy. This was little more than a hollow, superficial criticism of U.S. foreign policy in the same vein as the subsequent attacks on Truman and Acheson claiming that they had "lost" China when it went Communist in 1949. Historian Ted Morgan writes, "Yalta was a defeat for the Soviets and they so regarded it. What they won at the negotiating table, their armies already possessed."
Dig deeper into the declarations of the Yalta agreement and one discovers a document that balances Wilsonian idealism and the brutal truths of the emerging Cold War. The Declaration on Liberated Europe called for elections to be held in Poland and most of Eastern Europe. That multilateral occupation of those lands was not called for, as would be the case in a partitioned Germany, was a reflection of their occupation by the Red Army. The United States was not willing – nor were the rest of the Allies ready – to go to war against the Soviet Union over Eastern Europe.
Roosevelt recognized these ugly realities and, in his dying months, attempted to ensure a victory against Japan. At Yalta the Soviet Union agreed to enter the war against Japan within three months of the German surrender. Though the Soviets declared war on Japan after Hiroshima was leveled and merely days before the Japanese surrender, at the time of Yalta the atomic bomb was not yet operational. Securing the promise of Soviet help in the Pacific was therefore essential because the Soviets would have been a crucial part of an Allied invasion that many estimated would require more than a million men.
FDR knew that Europe was in shambles and that the vast power and presence of the Soviet Union anxiously stood on Western Europe’s doorstep. Only an international consensus and multilateral action could hope to halt the expansion of the Red Army. The Yalta agreement set the foundation for the United Nations by calling for an organizing conference and outlining the structure of the Security Council. The U.N. came into existence not long thereafter with the promise of becoming the world’s forum for resolution of these very issues. The U.N. would be employed for just such a task in fighting the North Korean invasion of the South and by ejecting Iraqi forces from Kuwait. The potential efficacy of even a mature United Nations throwing the Soviets out of Eastern Europe in 1945, however, could not overcome the 360 Soviet divisions charging towards Central Europe.
Some of these components of the Yalta agreement – be they naïve or merely weak – were violated by Stalin, not FDR and Churchill. As Morgan puts it, "If Yalta was a sell-out, why did [Stalin] go to such lengths to violate the agreement?" The elections in Poland were heavily rigged by the Soviets. The promise of freedom and democratic government was betrayed by Soviet occupation and repression from Estonia on the Baltic to Bulgaria on the Black Sea. The Soviets didn’t declare war against Japan until August 8th, two days after the United States dropped the first atomic weapon on Hiroshima and six days before the Japanese surrender. The fulfillment of their promise to enter the war amounted to nothing more than a declaration. Yalta proved among the last efforts by FDR and Churchill to forge a peaceful post-war world where nations could negotiate the avoidance of war and the relief of oppression. Stalin violated this spirit.
In 1949 the Soviet Union tested its first nuclear bomb, heightening the nuclear buildup and making an attempt at freeing Eastern Europe even more impossible. An attack against Soviet positions in Eastern Europe might cause the Soviets to sweep across Western Europe with conventional forces. Any hint of nuclear war would ensure mutually assured destruction (MAD) of the Soviet Union and the United States as well as Europe.
FDR’s compromises at Yalta were not unequivocally righteous; few compromises are. Much of Eastern Europe would suffer the horrors of Soviet totalitarianism for the next half century. But neither the Yalta agreement, FDR nor Churchill were the culprits. By the time the Big Three met at Yalta, the Red Army was within fifty miles of Berlin and Eastern Europe was locked in the grip of the Soviet military. The Iron Curtain had already been drawn. Stalin’s aggressive expansion in, and subsequent oppression of, Eastern Europe was the cause of Yalta’s failure.
The stakes of Bush’s contortions of history are more than political posture. The Republican besmirching of FDR and the heart of modern progressivism is an attempt to dismantle its accomplishments while distorting and usurping its legacy. Ronald Reagan, the FDR liberal turned conservative, began an assault on Social Security and the New Deal that Bush continues to this day. But, as Reagan biographer Lou Cannon notes, Reagan’s "style has remained frankly and fervently Rooseveltian throughout his life. His cadences are Roosevelt’s cadences, his metaphors are the offspring of FDR’s."
This trend extends to national security as well. President Bush’s adoption of pre-emption in the wake of 9/11 was no novel idea. Months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, FDR urged his country to enter World War II to prevent the lethal danger to the United States posed by the potential of a fascist Europe: "When you see a rattlesnake poised to strike, you do not wait until he has struck before you crush him." But FDR perceived pre-emption as a tactic employed cautiously and cooperatively with allies in only the gravest of situations. Bush’s placement of pre-emption at the center of U.S. national security is a dangerous, unilateral version of FDR’s prudent employment of this doctrine.
Not content with these attempts at stealing FDR’s legacy, Bush has once again followed in Reagan’s path by blaming the fall of the Iron Curtain on FDR. In 1982, Reagan said that "a great mistake had been made at Yalta." Like Reagan, Bush has disregarded history in his treatment of Yalta. In 1977, Daniel Yergin defended FDR’s architecture in the Crimea, writing of détente with the Soviet Union: "In practice, it means a return to the Yalta axioms as the basic mode of dealing with the Soviet world, and perhaps a vindication for Franklin Roosevelt and his aims and methods in those fateful negotiations with Stalin and Churchill�???." Despite Republican attempts at linking Yalta with fragility and failure, history reveals that Yalta is synonymous with strong diplomacy.
President Bush’s condemnation of FDR’s statesmanlike leadership is revisionist history at its worst, ignoring the fact that compromise is an essential component of effective governance. Only in hindsight can we proclaim that past acts were "unjust." The "unjust tradition" of acquiescence and tyrannous expansion exhibited by Munich and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was not continued at Yalta. The blatant militarism and totalitarian repression of Germany and the Soviet Union manifested itself once again in Stalin’s betrayal of Yalta.
Michael Fuchs is the assistant to fellows at the Center for American Progress.