May 24, 2013

Finest Hour 147, Summer 2010

Page 53

Reviews – How the Historiography of Yalta Evolved from W. S. Churchill to S. M. Plokhy

Yalta: The Price of Peace, by S.M. Plokhy. Viking, hardbound, illus., 480 pp., $29.95, member price $24.

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By Ted Hutchinson

Mr. Hutchinson is the executive director of the American Society of Law, Medicine & Ethics, and editor of the organization’s journal, JLME.


Yalta. The word itself is short, hard, almost inscrutable. Even if it is the name of a town in the Crimea, it is above all a quintessentially Russian word—a word that evokes as many memories and feelings as other famous short, hard Russian words, like Moscow….Gulag….Stalin.

In 1945 the leaders of the “Big Three” allied nations met in Yalta to decide what would happen to the world after the 20th century’s second great war had ended. The paranoid Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin, refused to travel far from his home base, so the ailing president, Franklin Roosevelt, traveled across the globe. Third in the triumvirate was Britain’s prime minister, Winston Churchill, who arrived all-too conscious of the fact that his influence was waning just when he needed that influence the most.

Over the course of the next eight days, these three very different leaders and their respective staffs shaped much of the postwar world. Germany would be partitioned. The Soviets would enter the war against the Japanese once the European war had ended, a goal strongly desired by the Americans. But no satisfactory agreement was ever really reached on the future of the nations of Eastern Europe, now held by Stalin’s Red Army.

The tragedy of these countries was epitomized by Poland, whose invasion by Germany had, after all, led to Great Britain entering the war. Regardless of the tactics tried and language used, it was clear that the Americans would not go as far as Churchill wanted to assure Polish freedom once the war had ended. The Soviet Union would keep what it had taken, nothing short of another war would change that. And no one wanted another war.

Even before the meetings in Yalta had officially ended, people were using the words “betrayal” to describe what had happened to Poland. In effect, the historiography (the history of the history, so to speak) was being written before the ink on the agreements signed at Yalta was even dry.

As with so many other historical events in which he was first a participant and then a chronicler, Winston Churchill helped set the template for how historians would consider Yalta. He did this first in his “Sinews of Peace” speech in Missouri in 1946, (popularly referred to as the “Iron Curtain” speech) when he emphasized the darkening shadow over Eastern Europe caused by Soviet occupation; and more prominently in the final volume of his war memoir, which was read by millions of people. That volume not only discusses Yalta (Churchill, in a letter to Harry Hopkins, said that they could search for ten years before finding “a worse place in the world”) but sets the general framework historians would use to discuss the final years of the war, a framework best encapsulated by the title of the final volume, Triumph and Tragedy, which aptly describes both the victory over Nazi Germany and the reality of the Iron Curtain.

After the war it was historians in the United States who first brought simmering feuds to a boil with Yalta as a match point. Upon Roosevelt’s death, Missourian Harry Truman assumed the Presidency, and he won a presidential election in his own right in 1948. But with the end of the Second World War came an end to the relative truce that had reigned over American party politics, and the rise of a more fervent vein of anti-communism.

Much of the early work on Yalta, then, was little more than thinly disguised political criticisms of the FDR and Truman administrations, criticisms that grew stronger through the 1950s as anti-communism became more mainstream and controversies like the Alger Hiss spy scandal erupted. By 1952 authors like Chester Wilmot were able to publish books like The Struggle for Europe, which depicted Roosevelt as a weak-kneed, naïve collaborationist who handed Eastern Europe to Stalin like a door-prize.

As historiographer Donald Cameron Watt has pointed out, the mid-1950s (both in the U.S. and in Great Britain) also witnessed the rise of “scientific” history, which purported to use documentation, expertise, and an air of detachment to create a superior brand of history. In truth such books (like Herbert Feis’ Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin and John Snell’s Illusion and Necessity: The Diplomacy of Global War) differed little from what came before in depicting Roosevelt, and to a lesser extent Churchill, as weak leaders who gave way to Stalin at Yalta. But because of their air of detachment, such books were widely admired.

This anti-Roosevelt, anti-Yalta trend continued in the academy into the 1960s, with the rise of what is popularly understood as the “Wisconsin School” of historians, epitomized by Walter LaFeber and others. These scholars, as their group name would suggest, hailed largely from the American Midwest, where enthusiasm for Roosevelt and the New Deal was never strong, and support for populism and war neutrality continued through the war years and after. These scholars added another criticism to the growing list hurled at FDR and Churchill: in addition to being naïve and unprepared, they were also elitist.

In history, as in any other scholarly pursuit, the pendulum always eventually swings back in the other direction, and by the 1970s diplomatic history was witnessing the rise of the “New Left” in the historiography, a group of historians more sympathetic to communism and socialism and thus less likely to fault Roosevelt and Churchill for seeking compromise at Yalta. While many of these scholars of the Left did yeoman work in returning balance to the discussion about Yalta and World War II diplomacy, many now feel that, as a group, they allowed their ideology to diminish their balance in their otherwise impressive work.

The mid 1970s and 1980s finally saw the declassification of many important documents related to Yalta in America, and in Britain when the thirty-year rule expired. The passing of time had also dulled some of the passions regarding the supposed Yalta “betrayal.” Throughout the 1980s, more reasonable and balanced books were published assessing this most important and enigmatic of wartime conferences.

But it was not until after the mid-1990s when a full portrait of Yalta could be written: one that could fully consider not only Roosevelt and Churchill and their staffs, but also Joseph Stalin and his Soviet minions. It took the fall of communism in Russia for the first truly great Yalta book to be written, and that book we now have in Plokhy’s Yalta: The Price of Peace.

Plokhy, a professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard, not only offers an astounding array of sources in America, Britain and Russia, but a great tolerance for being able to understand what was possible at the time. The book is no meditation on what could have been done at Yalta, but is instead a meticulous consideration of what was done—and why.

Plokhy’s volume, which is subtle and nuanced while still being a readable and engaging popular history, resists the oversimplified dichotomy that many previous historians have used to discuss the Yalta conference. According to Plokhy, Yalta was neither a triumph nor a tragedy. It was instead a conference between three different nations, each with its own agendas and ideas, and its preferred methods of attaining those goals. Plokhy makes it clear that each leader simply could not see the future—thus each did his best to address the most important issues of the day as he saw them.

The British, for instance, while deeply concerned about the future of Eastern Europe, were profoundly concerned with the future of Germany, how and if it would be partitioned, and whether France would be allowed to be an occupying nation. Plokhy shows that Churchill won many of these battles (to his satisfaction), and that the future of Germany as settled in Yalta is often lost in discussions of the failure of Yalta vis-à-vis Eastern Europe.

The United States, of course, had its own agenda, and felt that one of the best ways of achieving it was to distance itself from its longtime partner Great Britain, a snub that Churchill felt deeply. While this may well have been the wrong diplomatic strategy, Plokhy reasonably notes America’s victories at the bargaining table, such as Stalin’s promise to join in the Pacific war after the European theatre had closed. This concession seems of little import in hindsight (following the use of atomic weapons against Japan). But it is well to remember the importance the Americans attached to this concession. Plokhy makes it clear (as it should be) that the American diplomatic team were not dupes, and that Roosevelt was still firmly in control of policy.

Finally, we are left with the Soviet team, led by the inscrutable Molotov and his murderous master. Stalin, as a history teacher of mine used to say, was a paranoid with much to be paranoid about, both personally and as a leader. Plokhy suggests convincingly that Stalin actually conceded and cooperated to a reasonable degree with his wartime allies, and that both the Americans and the British could leave the conference feeling that they had made real gains.

But Stalin would not budge on Eastern Europe, and particularly Poland, where he only made a cosmetic agreement to hold elections and allow any kind of elected government, which he never intended to permit. Stalin clearly meant to hold his western neighbors, including Poland, as buffer states against future invasion, and looked to them as spoils of war. It is not even clear if Stalin fully understood the depth of the West’s (and particularly Churchill’s) hostility towards the occupation of Poland. As an extreme cynic, he could hardly believe he wasn’t surrounded by other cynics.

But Winston Churchill was no cynic, and made the strongest plea for a free government in Poland. His failure was partly that of his diminished influence (he could not carry the Americans with him) and partly just reality. Neither he nor the Americans wished for another war, and nothing but force (or the threat of it) would move the Soviets out of Eastern Europe. Plokhy, to his credit, thinks none of this should count as a demerit on Churchill. WSC was noble in failure, fighting for the Poles the entire conference even when it was clear things would not go his way. Churchill was not outfoxed; he was outgunned.

At the end of his book, S.M. Plokhy makes the observation that any democracy, no matter how noble, must be prepared to pay the price when they choose to partner with a dictatorship. Eastern Europe was the price the West paid for the partnership with the Soviet Union, a partnership that eventually won the war—the overriding goal, after all. The West lost Poland and its neighbors not through cynicism or incompetence but as the end result of a process that began when the West decided that Hitler’s Germany could not be allowed to dominate Europe.

Plokhy suggests that the Americans and British actually did about as well as they could possibly have hoped under these circumstances. His style, nuance, and subtlety makes this book one of the finest ever published about the Yalta conference. In the long historiography of this wartime summitry, few books have combined style and readability with both sensible and original thought.

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