March 15, 2015

Finest Hour 159, Summer 2013

Page 52

By Erica L. Chenoweth

Yalta 1945: Europe and America at the Crossroads, by Fraser J. Harbutt, Cambridge University Press, hardbound, illus., 468 pp., $42.

The Yalta Conference of February 1945, laden with secret dealings viewed as “the foundational sin of the postwar era” (9), is given a make-over by diplomatic historian Fraser Harbutt, who believes that “Yalta has been hopelessly misunderstood,” a symbol “chameleonic in every sense except its fixation on Roosevelt’s performance”

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(13). Harbutt’s unique work pays tribute to a “more enduring aspect of diplomacy where one looks to find logic and patterns rather than emotion and improvisation,” while also looking to serve as corrective to the “Americocentrism” pervading the historical record (xii).

Harbutt reframes Allied relations during WW2 from “East-West,” with Stalin as the outside man, to “Europe-America,” with Roosevelt and his administration decidedly on the fringes. “The war,” he writes, “was steadily integrating the United States and Europe,” but politically “they remained two distinct arenas” (74). Harbutt alternates easily between a narrative style informed by meticulous research and a style more strictly selective and analytical. He encourages the examination of events and circumstances in relation to each other but also to a deeper, underlying historical process. His body of work is informed by the “notion of recurrence within very slowly changing historical patterns” (xiv).

A range of sources, including print, radio broadcasts and opinion polls, describes relations between Europe and America during the war. Harbutt reviews the work of historical colleagues present and past, details Anglo-Soviet diplomatic relations in 1939-44, considers the British Foreign Office and the exiled governments “cloistered” in London (114), and highlights the “persistence of European political and intellectual vitality” (122) by giving brief tribute to the pockets of resistance in Western Europe. He understands that “the Anglo-Soviet Relationship was not all sweetness and light, and it was never intimate” (192). But he contrasts the strength of Anglo-Soviet diplomatic relations and their few shared interests with Roosevelt’s remoteness and tactics of “evasion or procrastination” when it came to any discussion of postwar settlements (257), despite private assurances.

Harbutt is evenhanded with the central characters, but in the end he presents a narrow view of Churchill’s most obvious diplomatic flaws and fears. Stalin’s intentions remain obscure, due to the lack of evidence and the tight-fistedness of Soviet archives. Harbutt argues that the persistent geopolitical bargaining between the British and Soviet governments, combined with FDR’s abstinence, solidified boundaries more than most wish to believe, ultimately defining early on what land was to fall behind the Iron Curtain. Yalta was therefore positioned at a critical “crossroads” in relations between Europe and America. He believes there is evidence for an “Anglo-Soviet ‘road not taken’ that, among other things, might have prolonged Britain’s status as a Great Power” and avoided or diminished the Cold War (xxii).

We are vividly reminded of the remoteness of Yalta and the Russians’ discomfiting habit of being “relentlessly hospitable” (281). Harbutt adroitly analyzes the political dynamics at work between the players, seeking to reveal the “deeper impulses” (284) that worked to undermine conference goals and allowed the spiral into a crisis less than two weeks after its conclusion. Roosevelt is trapped in the dilemma of his own making, being forced to “make some kind of choice” between his declarations to the American public and his compromising private assurances at past conferences to Stalin (285). Roosevelt, Harbutt writes, “chose finesse and deception, with consequences that would contribute to the breakdown of the Grand Alliance” (285).

The days of the conference are carefully traced. Roosevelt, the book argues, sacrificed almost all to guarantee the survival of the fledgling United Nations and his own domestic success, refusing to engage in any practical geopolitical disputes with Stalin, sweeping the rug out from under the British and sacrificing any practical involvement with postwar governments in lands occupied by the Soviets.

Harbutt does not refute the claim that President Roosevelt caused a diplomatic debacle. He does conclude, again by looking at “less obvious levels” of operation, that FDR’s actions were more intentional than many have supposed. The president, he writes, invented and engaged in a new kind of radical public diplomacy.

The final chapters follow the rapid disintegration of relations between the Big Three, as Russia reacted poorly to public pressure and Churchill strove to unite with America in the new Cold War. The Allies, Harbutt contends, soon faced a very different postwar order from the one they had anticipated, mainly through confusion, misunderstanding and miscalculation.

The book is well-written, with only a handful of typos, and is worth reading even if the thrust of Harbutt’s thesis— that the Cold War might have been avoided if Europe had been left to its formerly arranged practical geopolitics, rather than being severely disrupted by Roosevelt’s well-intentioned universalism—is not entirely convincing. It is a well-researched and eyebrow-raising contribution to the continuing conversation on tripartite relations in the late Forties.

Ms. Chenoweth, a fishery biologist for the state of Alaska, is co-editor of a new edition of Churchill’s Great Contemporaries (ISI Books, 2012) and wrote “Churchill and the Theater” in FH 152.

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