The Nation, Jan. 23, 1982
are two myths about Yalta. The first, propagated by Franklin
Roosevelt's early cold-warrior critics, suggested that an
ailing President had "sold out" Poland and Eastern
Europe by yielding to Joseph Stalin's demands. Now, in the
wake of the Polish crisis, this first myth is being turned
on its head. Liberal pundits, notably Robert Kleiman, a member
of The New York Times editorial board, and Flora Lewis,
a columnist for the same paper, have correctly observed that
no agreement on spheres of influence was reached at Yalta
in February 1945. But they dispel this first "myth of
Yalta" in a manner that casts doubt on the de facto recognition
of spheres of influence by the United States and the Soviet
Union that has emerged since the war. The new myth is a very
dangerous one in an age of first-strike nuclear weaponry.
January 7, a signed piece by Kleiman appeared on the editorial
page of The Times under the headline "Once More
the Yalta Myth." Kleiman attacked the negative attitudes
of some Europeans, especially West Germany's Chancellor Helmut
Schmidt, toward Western sanctions against the martial law
regime in Poland. Kleiman correctly blamed Roosevelt's political
enemies for starting the myth that he "sold out"
Poland: "A generation ago, conservative Republicans spread
it widely because they found it a useful way to discredit
the Democrats among voters of East European origin."
But he concluded that "East Europe's rights were indeed
the issue at Yalta, but the West did not abandon them there."
The implication is that Western intervention in contemporary
Poland is permissible because no agreement on spheres of influence
was reached at Yalta. Only in passing did Kleiman mention,
"By the time of Yalta, Stalin's armies controlled most
of Eastern Europe. The quarrels in the West, then and since,
have turned more on what to say than what to do about that."
first myth about Yalta was concocted to denigrate Roosevelt's
terms for postwar peaceful coexistence with the Soviet Union
(including the establishment of the United Nations, the plans
for which were drawn up at the conference - one of its major
achievements). The new myth, ironically put forth in the month
of Roosevelt's birth 100 years ago, also tends to disparage
policies of acceptance and caution. While it is true that
no agreement on spheres of influence was reached at Yalta,
since the war the United States and the Soviet Union have
recognized a de facto line in Europe separating the East from
the West. If either power should breach this line militarily,
the other would regard this action as a casus belli.
To cast doubt now on the validity of this tacit agreement
is to ignore history. By word and deed, each superpower has
repeatedly recognized the other's sphere briefly: the 1948
Berlin airlift; the U.S. decision to end deNazification policies
in occupied West Germany in the early 1950s; the recognition
of East Germany by Western powers in the early 1970s; and
the West's nonintervention in the internal upheavals in Hungary
in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1967 and Poland in 1970 and 1976.
facts about what happened at Yalta have long been available
in official documents, statements of participants in the conference
and books by objective scholars. Poland was not Roosevelt's
to give away. By the time of the Yalta conference, Russian
troops had pushed the Nazis out of most of Poland, and in
a matter of weeks they had occupied the entire country. (They
also occupied the Balkan nations.)
Yalta agreements were concluded soon after the near breakthrough
by the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge. In addition, at
that time the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who were in no position
to take a successful completion of the atomic bomb project
for granted, believed that unless the Russians agreed to declare
war on Japan after Germany's defeat (as they subsequently
did), the United States would suffer a million casualties
or more in an invasion of Japan. In short, the Joint Chiefs
opposed a diplomatic confrontation with the Soviet Union at
Yalta. Agreement among the Allies was a military necessity.
And when an agreement was reached, it was widely hailed by
the press (including such conservative Republicans as Henry
Luce) and the general public as a diplomatic triumph.
before the American delegation, of which I was a member, left
Yalta, Secretary of State Edward Stettinius was standing with
Gen. George C. Marshall outside our villa. Stettinius turned
to Marshall, who had rarely left his desk in Washington during
the war years, and said, "General, I assume you are very
eager to get back to your desk." Marshall answered, "Ed,
for what we have got here, I would have stayed a month."
was the mood of the participants at Yalta. And I have no doubt
today that we got as much as circumstances permitted.
the myth that Roosevelt sold out Poland, widely disseminated
by many Republicans at the same time that Joe McCarthy was
exploiting the Communists-in-government issue, drew support
from all manner of conservatives, including rank reactionaries,
who joined lustily in the anti-Yalta chorus. Mounting Cold
War sentiment made it difficult for accurate accounts of the
Yalta agreements to counter the myth, with the result that
many, perhaps most, otherwise well-informed Americans have
until quite recently regarded Yalta as a dirty word.
the new Yalta myth could serve a similar purpose in the hands
of those seeking to revive the Cold War. Acceptance of this
myth will make it all the more difficult to develop imaginative,
effective policies designed to prevent a global confrontation
of dangerous dimensions.