- The Washington Times - Friday, February 19, 2010


By S.M. Plokhy

Viking, $29.95, 451 pages


For several generations of foreign-policy students, the term “Yalta” was a code word for an ailing President Roosevelt bartering into communist slavery Poland and other Eastern European nations. The undeniable evidence was that Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin treated many of the “agreements” painstakingly reached by FDR, Stalin and Winston Churchill in the Crimean city in February 1945 as worthless “promises” to be crumpled and tossed in the trash bin.

The Harvard Russian scholar S.M. Plokhy sums up the key lesson from the Yalta Conference in a telling phrase: “Democratic leaders and societies should be prepared to pay a price for close involvement with those who do not share their values.” And indeed a heavy price was paid for what happened at Yalta.

In hindsight - always a good vantage point from which to examine history - the scenario for Yalta was preordained. The Red Army already held sway over a wide swath of Eastern Europe, and Stalin’s appetite for more territory appeared unsated. He was in no mood to bargain over the spoils he had in hand, declaring, “This war is not as in the past; whoever occupies a territory also imposes on it his own social system.” Such is what he proceeded to do, without a glance at the peoples he subjugated under communism.

Thus we have Stalin blithely agreeing to negotiations over the postwar Polish state that would include both his hand-picked communists and a non-communist delegation that favored free elections leading towards democracy. When the latter group arrived in Warsaw, under a safe-conduct pass, the Soviet secret police promptly hauled them off to jail; several were shot. So much for Stalin’s “word of honor.”

Mr. Plokhy’s major contribution to the Yalta story was his acquisition of Soviet documents pertaining to the conference. Do be on notice that although his book is a fascinating read, sprinkled with “I-was-there” reminisces from all sides, we are dealing with intricate diplomatic history. So do not expect to breeze through this work in a single evening.

Mr. Plokhy insists that the record shows no sign that Roosevelt’s physical condition hampered his performance. Perhaps. But several factors should be considered. His blood pressure soared from 186/108 to 260/150 between March and November 1944. Physicians tried to restrict him to a four-hour “workday” (he refused). A hacking cough and abdominal pains made sleep difficult.

So why did Roosevelt risk his life by traveling halfway around the world? His chief goals were twofold: to persuade Stalin to enter the Pacific war, which he hoped would avert the bloodshed of an invasion of the Japanese home islands and to persuade Stalin to join the United Nations.

To achieve the first goal, Roosevelt blithely granted Stalin control of wide swaths of territory that by rights should have gone to his “ally,” Chiang Kai-shek of China. As for the Poles, FDR agreed to huge slices being taken off both its east and western borders. Although Mr. Plokhy has much to praise about the proceedings at Yalta, he faults both FDR and Churchill for agreeing “to redraw international borders and forcibly resettle millions of people without consulting the governments and nations involved.”

One of the more cynical - and bloody - concessions to Stalin was the forcible return to the USSR of Red Army soldiers taken captive by the Germans,and hordes of displaced civilians. To Stalin, capture was akin to treason, andsoldiers knew they faced imprisonment or death when returned; Hundreds chose suicide rather than return.

Given that State Department officer Alger Hiss was with the U.S. delegation, in a relatively minor role, suspicions have long lingered as to whether he had a hand in the concessions FDR made to Stalin. Based on the Soviet documents Mr. Plokhy obtained, the answer is “no.” Stalin, et al., seemed not even aware of Hiss.One explanation is that Hiss spied for the GRU, the intelligence service of the Red Army, whereas Yalta was under the purview of its rival, the NKVD. (Mr. Plokhyrefers to Hiss’ “persecution” - an odd choice of words - in postwar years, although acknowledging that he was probably a Soviet agent.)

But intelligencegave the Soviets a clear advantage at Yalta. The infamous Cambridge Five spy ring - think Kim Philby - sent to Moscow papers concerning the British-American positions on Poland.The British traitor-diplomat Donald Maclean, stationed in Washington, kept Moscow apprised of U.S. bargaining strategies. As Mr. Plokhy writes, “His documents were often considered so important and time-sensitive that instead of being sent to Moscow by diplomatic mail they were coded and dispatched by cable.”

The Soviet documents revealed a good deal of “rewriting of history,” always to Stalin’s advantage. For instance, although at Yalta Stalin was a staunch advocate of “dismemberment” of Germany after the war, he assigned blame to the West, not wishing to rile his East German subjects.

To be sure, Churchill does not emerge with totally clean hands. He wanted Germany stripped bare, saying, “By removing factories and equipment from Germany, Russia would be doing us a service, for it would put an end to German exports, which could then be replaced by British exports.” (Viewed up close, diplomacy can bear a strong resemblance to sausage-making.)

Most of the American delegation left Yalta in exuberant moods. FDR confidant Harry Hopkins spoke of the “dawn of a new age we had all been praying for and talking about for so many years.” Secretary of State Edward Stettinius claimed that the Soviets “made greater concessions” than did the United States or Britain.

But a few months later, Averell Harriman, who had served as ambassador to Moscow, bluntly warned the new president, Harry S. Truman, that “Stalin is breaking his agreements,” and that there was a new “barbarian invasion of Europe.”

Mr.Plokhy makes a strong case that the Yalta talks were essential to bring the war to a successful conclusion. But, in the end, I opt for Harriman’s assessment.

Joseph C. Goulden is finishing a book on Cold War intelligence. His e-mail is [email protected]

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