Saturday, February 6, 2010

Creating a Postwar World

Hour by hour with Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt.


Sixty-five years ago this week, as Soviet and Allied forces headed toward Berlin in the final months of World War II, three political leaders remade the modern world. Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin met near the city of Yalta, on the coast of the Black Sea, to determine the fate of postwar Europe.

The decisions they arrived at, and the agreements they made, proved so momentous that Yalta soon became a symbol of the political failures that led to the Cold War. The captive nations of Eastern Europe in particular blamed Yalta for putting them under the control of the Soviet Union. In communist Poland, where I grew up, one often heard about naïve and sickly FDR—only two months away from death—delivering the motherland into Uncle Joe's clutches. Countless Estonians, Hungarians and Czechs felt the same way.

The end of the Cold War has given scholars a chance to step back and take a more dispassionate look at those eight consequential days in February 1945. It is hard to imagine anyone doing so better than S.M. Plokhy in "Yalta: The Price of Peace." A historian from Ukraine who teaches at Harvard University, Mr. Plokhy has produced a colorful and gripping portrait of the three aging leaders at their historic encounter. He does not shy away from making judgments about the deal they struck there.

We first meet Roosevelt the month before, on Jan. 20, 1945, delivering a memorable promise in his fourth inaugural address—to "work for a just and honorable peace, a durable peace, as today we work and fight for total victory in war." Two days later he boarded the U.S.S. Quincy and headed for Europe to realize this vision. It is clear that FDR's goals at Yalta were to win the Soviet Union's support for the United Nations and its help in the war against Japan. All else was secondary, thus setting the U.S. up for concessions to Moscow.

Churchill, for his part, came to Yalta looking to restore an independent and democratic France and Poland—part of a balance-of-power calculation that he deemed critical to the future of Europe—and to limit the reparations required of Germany, lest Europe face of a repeat of the Versailles treaty after World War I. Stalin's plans were imperial: to get back the territory that the Russians lost from Poland in 1920 (and briefly regained in the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact with Hitler) and to subordinate Eastern Europe to Soviet rule.

Mr. Plokhy takes the reader through the conference hour by hour, making it apparent that the outcome at Yalta was very much up for grabs. Over and over again we see one leader or another blithely pushing pet ideas or haggling over details of agreements that would affect millions of people for generations to come. The material from Soviet archives, along with Western accounts, enables Mr. Plokhy to reconstruct conversations among the participants and to tell us what informed their thinking.
Yalta: The Price of Peace

By S.M. Plokhy
Viking, 451 pages, $21.95

The undereducated son of a Georgian cobbler, Stalin emerges early in this portrait as a savvier negotiator than either the patrician Churchill or Roosevelt. His charm wins FDR over, leading the American on numerous occasions to side with him against Churchill. Stalin was also the best informed of the three, thanks to British spy Kim Philby and the rest of the "Cambridge Five" who had for months provided the Soviets with Allied position papers, sometimes even before Churchill or Roosevelt saw them. Stalin masterfully exploited the divisions his intelligence told him about among Western leaders over what should happen to Germany or Poland after the war.

FDR and his advisers underestimated Stalin and the threat he posed, although it is also true that the Red Army's already deep advance into Central Europe limited their leverage over him. Once FDR had secured Stalin's backing for the U.N.—and had presumptively handed Japan's Kuril Islands over to the Soviets in exchange for their promise to enter the Pacific war—the U.S. seemed to lose interest. To Churchill's annoyance, Washington caved in to the Soviet demand for domination over Poland (and, by extension, over the rest of Eastern Europe) and to the division of Germany. Churchill mused to an aide that the next war would be "ideological" and a year later declared that "an iron curtain has descended across the Continent." But he could claim half a victory: Stalin signed off on a French sector in occupied Germany, restoring Paris as a serious Continental power, a British goal throughout the war. And German reparations were indeed limited.

Mr. Plokhy is forgiving of FDR. The president played his own hand skillfully, he says, and acted as a broker between the quarrelsome Stalin and Churchill. Though called naïve, the British and Americans knew that Yalta set the stage for a quisling Poland and for the transfer of millions of people across the redrawn borders between Poland, Germany and the Soviet Union. FDR and Churchill tried to comfort themselves by believing that Moscow would honor its promise to allow free elections in its soon-to-be satellite states.

At the end of the Yalta conference, the mood was even upbeat. Roosevelt compared the atmosphere "to that of a family." The Americans and British thought that they got the best result possible. During the signing ceremony, the Soviet foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, noticed the lemon tree that Stalin had ordered put in FDR's room after the president remarked that martinis tasted better with lemons, and the minister suggested that his American and British peers each pluck a branch from it as a souvenir. They did. "The Allies returned home from the peace conference with branches of lemon instead of palm," writes Mr. Plokhy. "For the time being, they did not see the irony in their gesture."

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