After World War I, the political right in Germany developed a myth called the “stab in the back” theory to explain its people’s defeat. Though military leaders had helped negotiate the war’s end, they fixed blame on civilian leaders—especially Jews, socialists, and liberals—for “betraying” the brave German fighting men. This nasty piece of propaganda was later picked up by Hitler and the Nazis to stoke the populist resentment that fueled their rise to power.
America has had its own “stab in the back” myths. Last year, George W. Bush endorsed a revanchist view of the Vietnam War: that our political leaders undermined our military and denied us victory. Now, on his Baltic tour, he has endorsed a similar view of the Yalta accords, that great bugaboo of the old right.
Bush stopped short of accusing Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill of outright perfidy, but his words recalled those of hardcore FDR- and Truman-haters circa 1945. “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.”
Bush’s cavalier invocations of history for political purposes are not surprising. But for an American president to dredge up ugly old canards about Yalta stretches the boundaries of decency and should draw reprimands (and not only from Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.).
As every schoolchild should know, Roosevelt and Churchill had formed an alliance of necessity with Josef Stalin during World War II. Hardly blind to Stalin’s evil, they nonetheless knew that Soviet forces were indispensable in defeating the Axis powers. “It is permitted in time of grave danger to walk with the devil until you have crossed the bridge,” FDR said, quoting an old Bulgarian proverb. He and Churchill understood that Stalin would be helping to set war aims and to plan for its aftermath. Victory, after all, carried a price.
In February 1945, the “Big Three” met at a czarist resort near Yalta, in the Soviet Crimea, to continue the work begun at other summits, notably in Tehran in 1943. (Many of the alleged “betrayals” of Yalta, at least in rough form, were actually first sketched out in Tehran.) By this time, Soviet troops had conquered much of Eastern Europe from the Germans, including Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, East Prussia, and Eastern Germany. The Western allies, meanwhile, remained on the far side of the Rhine River. Having made terrible military sacrifices to gain these positions, Stalin resolved to convert them into political payoffs.
Many of the agreements the Big Three reached at Yalta were relatively uncontroversial: The Allies decided to demand unconditional surrender from Germany, to carve up the country into four zones for its postwar occupation, and to proceed with plans to set up the United Nations.
But other issues were contentious. Asia was one. FDR wanted Stalin to enter the war against Japan, so as to obviate any need for an American invasion. In return, Stalin demanded that Russia regain dominion over various lands, notably Sakhalin and the Kurile Islands, then under Japanese control. He forswore any designs on Manchuria, which would be returned to China.
By far the knottiest problem—and the source of lingering rage among the far right afterwards—was the fate of Poland and other liberated Eastern European countries. Over several months, the Allies had been divvying up Europe according to on-the-ground military realities and their own individual national interests. The United States and Britain had denied Stalin any role in postwar Italy. Churchill and Stalin had agreed (without Roosevelt’s participation) that Britain would essentially control Greece, and Russia would essentially control Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary.
Poland was another matter. In Lublin, Poland, the Soviets had set up a government of pro-Communist Poles. Back in London, however, a pro-Western group claimed to be the true government-in-exile. Throughout the war, Stalin had acted with customary barbarity in seeking an advantage. In 1940 he ordered the slaughter of thousands of Polish army officers in the Katyn Forest, fearing their potential allegiance to the London Poles. In 1944, he stalled his own army’s march into Poland to let the Germans put down the Warsaw Uprising, again to strengthen the Communists’ hand.
At Yalta, Stalin wanted FDR and Churchill to recognize the Lublin government. They refused. Instead, all agreed to accept a provisional government, with a pledge to hold “free and unfettered elections” soon. For other liberated European countries, the Big Three also pledged to establish “interim governmental authorities broadly representative of all democratic elements in the population” and committed to free elections.
Roosevelt knew that Stalin might renege, and it was perhaps cynical for him to trumpet elections that might never take place. But as the historian David M. Kennedy has written, he had little choice, “unless Roosevelt was prepared to order Eisenhower to fight his way across the breadth of Germany, take on the Red Army, and drive it out of Poland at gunpoint.”
Stalin, of course, never allowed elections in Poland or anywhere else. “Our hopeful assumptions were soon to be falsified,” Churchill wrote. “Still, they were the only ones possible at the time.” Short of starting a hot war, the West was powerless to intervene, just as it was in Hungary in 1956 or Prague in 1968.
Because FDR kept many details of the Yalta agreements under wraps, people in Washington began whispering conspiratorially about “secret agreements.” Soon, critics, especially on the far right, were charging that FDR and Churchill had sold out the people of Eastern Europe—charges that Bush’s recent comments echo. They asserted that the ailing Roosevelt—he would die only weeks later—had come under the malign influence of pro-Communist advisers who gave Stalin the store.
But Yalta did not give Stalin control of the Eastern European countries. He was already there. Moreover, as Lloyd C. Gardner has argued, it’s possible that postwar Europe could have turned out worse than it did. For all its evident failings, Yalta did lead to a revived Western Europe, a lessening of open warfare on the continent, and, notwithstanding Bush’s remarks, relative stability. Without Yalta, Gardner notes, “the uneasy equilibrium of the Cold War might have deteriorated into something much worse—a series of civil wars or possibly an even darker Orwellian condition of localized wars along an uncertain border.” Such “what if” games are generally pointless, but they can remind us that the harmonious Europe that Yalta’s critics tout as a counter-scenario wasn’t the only alternative to the superpower standoff.
Along with the myth of FDR’s treachery in leading America into war, the “stab in the back” interpretation of Yalta became a cudgel with which the old right and their McCarthyite heirs tried to discredit a president they had long despised. Renouncing Yalta even became a plank in the 1952 Republican platform, although Eisenhower did not support it. In time, however, these hoary myths receded into the shadows, dimly remembered except as a historical curiosity, where, alas, they should have remained undisturbed.