Modern American Myth
Reprinted from The Pocket Book Magazine, November
By ALGER HISS
America, lacking its own medieval and classical mythology, has compensated by
creating rather more than its share of latter-day myths. Pocahontas, Ponce de
Leon, Paul Bunyan, Barbara Fritchie, and dozens more-each period of our history
and each region has its legendary figures. Tales of witchcraft in colonial New
England have vied for popular favor with legends of piratical brutishness on
the Spanish Main.
It is the nature of fables and myths to transcend facts. They are expressions
of mood rather than accounts of historical events. The Yalta Myth has arisen
in the post-war decade, ten years filled with fears that gradually replaced the
purposiveness with which we had faced the Great Depression and the Axis powers.
Among the sources of our fears has been the recognition that as a nation we have
not been notably successful at fashioning strong and tranquil relations with
the other peoples of the war-torn world. The times have been fertile for visions
of hobgoblins. A menacing outer world can readily be peopled in the fearful imagination
with demons and wicked sorcerers.
The Yalta legend has it that there a failing President, incompetently or malevolently
advised, betrayed stricken Poland and our ally China. Soviet ascendancy in Eastern
Europe has been dismaying to many Americans, not least to those of Polish, Czech,
and Slovak descent. The swift and stunning collapse of our China policy has disturbed
still other large segments of our people. A devil theory, personifying the forces
which thwart and confound, is easier to absorb than rational, comprehensive exposition
and solution of the discontents that plague the globe. The legend explains the
vast social upheavals of Europe and Asia as resulting from the faltering or cynical
appeasement of Stalin by Roosevelt - as though the two leaders, like the Olympians
of much earlier Greek myths, could dispose of nations and peoples.
YALTA PARTICIPANTS STILL HEROES
The Yalta Conference, held from February 4 to February 11 in the year 1945 on
the semitropical Black Sea coast of the Crimean peninsula, was attended by a
host of Western statesmen and soldiers. Ironically, most of the participants
remain heroes to the ambivalent perpetrators of the Yalta Myth.
Sir Winston Churchill was the chief promoter of the conference. James
F. Byrnes, one-time Senator, Justice of the Supreme Court, and Secretary
recently, a staunch champion of the older American myth of white supremacy,
was a senior member of the American delegation. So was Fleet Admiral
William D. Leahy,
the salty and sceptical sailor. Edward I. Stettinius, Jr., was Secretary
of State, and W. Averell Harriman, Ambassador to Moscow. General George
of Staff; Fleet Admiral Ernest King. Chief of Naval Operations; and Major
General John R. Deane, at the time chief of our military mission in Moscow,
at Yalta. The twentieth-century twin passions for memoirs and Congressional
investigations have ensured full accounts by the major heroes. Each of
these participants has
written, or testified, at length as to the actual course of events at
Yalta. Each told of the Conference within a few years after it had taken
Each buttressed his memory by reference to official records and personal
and diaries (Mr. Byrnes, a former court reporter, relied also on his
verbatim shorthand notes). None gives even slight support to the legend's
that Poland and China were "sold down the river.” The private
papers of Harry Hopkins (no hero to the Yalta romancers) have also been
account jibes with that of the other participants.
According to Sir Winston and to Admiral Leahy, some seven hundred other
Americans and Britons went to Yalta. Neither our relentless journalists
nor our inquisitive
legislators have brought from this host of privates, noncoms, clerks,
colonels, and generals a single item that smacks of demonology or sorcery.
Yorker enterprisingly published "That Was Yalta: Worm's-Eye View" by a Navy
lieutenant junior grade. This account of the staffing, housing, and culinary
arrangements was written because its author felt that all the other American
participants "have had their say about what went on there.”)
The other voluminous and authoritative reports of the Yalta Conference
have been available for some years, with no restraining effect upon the
the Yalta Myth. Since it so patently feeds in pastures of fantasy, remote
from fact, the Myth may even survive the release this March [March 17,
the State Department of the entire official record in two volumes totaling
500,000 words. Within less than twenty-four hours the Scripps-Howard
editorial response to this (surely unread) vast corpus of minutes and
firmly faithful to the cherished Fable: "The Yalta Story, a Pandora's Box." Many
other papers were equally prompt in displaying their obliviousness to recorded
fact: "Giveaway," "A Witch's Brew," "Sorry Record" were
repeated, along with the main theme of the Legend that Yalta had contrived a "sellout" of
Poland and China.
There are cynics who think that the myth-makers of Washington were well aware
that history and legend move by separate paths. The suggestion is that the recent
publication of the enormous Yalta record was designed as an editorial act of
massive retaliation against the Democratic successes of 1954, the mere further
public mention of Yalta being calculated to raise again the
dread specters associated with it. The New York Times, restrained as
is its wont, ascribes the release of the Yalta record to the appeal the
had: first, for the "many powerful Republicans" who have felt it essential
to win "the minority nationality groups in the large northern cities";
second, for "the Republican supporters of the Chinese Nationalists." Repudiation
of the Yalta agreements was, indeed, a plank in the Republican platform
A MYTH ONLY IN THE UNITED STATES
There is another unusual aspect of the Myth: It is of exclusively
American origin and, at least until March of this year,
its circulation has also been restricted
to the United States.
Yalta brought together as notable a gathering of Western warriors and statesmen
as have assembled since Roland's horn belatedly summoned Charlemagne's host
back to Roncesvalles. The Yalta decisions affected the entire globe. Yet the
to legend has been felt only in our country. The lack of imaginative response
in other lands is the more striking because other peoples would seem to have
had more compelling grounds than we to praise or pillory the historic meeting.
France was not invited to Yalta, a blunt recognition of her temporary prostration.
De Gaulle, the embodiment of wounded nationalistic pride, bitterly resented
Yalta's exclusiveness. Yet his followers have never seized upon this slight
as an outward
symbol to be blamed for inward malaise. In France, Yalta means just another
in the long list of diplomatic conferences.
In England, too, there has apparently been no popular audience for an epic
defaming the most dramatic gathering of the great figures of World War II.
Under the impetus
of the State Department's celebration of Yalta's tenth birthday by the release
for publication on St. Patrick's Day of every shred and tatter of recorded
casual conversation or banquet sally, there was only one instance of acceptance
of the made-in-America myth.
A dispatch of March 22 to The New York Times noted
that the words “Traitor of Yalta" had been scrawled in red oxide
across the base of President Roosevelt's statue in Grosvenor Square. But otherwise
have been as cool to Yaltan flights of fancy as have other non-American peoples.
Even the embattled Formosan adherents of Chiang Kai-shek, chief "victims" in
the Yalta Myth, have felt no urge to invent a Saga of Shame about the conference.
True, their spokesmen when talking to Americans have from time to time displayed
customary Oriental courtesy by employing some of the clichés of the
Yalta Story. But one senses that these instances prove only their close familiarity
with the American idiom and folkways. There is no indication that the Myth
rooted in the tropical soil of Taiwan.
One further peculiar characteristic of the Yalta Tale of Terror is that it
grew perversely from the great initial popularity of the Yalta Conference in
States. A nearly unanimous hymn of praise was the original response to the
agreements reached at Yalta.
For reasons of military secrecy in wartime, no mention was made until later
of the Far Eastern agreement, which provided among other things for Russia's
into the war against Japan. However, when the Far Eastern arrangements became
known a few months later, they, too, were universally praised.
The first press comment on the accords of Yalta appeared on February 13, 1945,
while the participants were still returning home. The New York Times concluded
its joyful analysis: "This conference marks a milestone on the road to
victory and peace." The New York Herald-Tribune found that "the
whole which emerges is self-consistent, is rational, and affords a firm foundation
all together can advance to the next stages of the immense task before us." Published
surveys of the rest of the nation's press showed that the great majority of
newspaper comment was similarly jubilant in tone. Time magazine, after "a
few days to ponder the results of Yalta," said that when compared with
In Congress, Senator [Arthur H.] Vandenberg [R-MI] was quoted as calling the
communiqué "by far the best that has issued from any major conference." Senator
[Wallace H.] White of Maine [Republican minority leader] thought "our
world will be better and happier one because of the agreement reached at the
afield, Herbert Hoover, according to The Times, gave "enthusiastic endorsement" and
found it "fitting" that the announcement of the Conference results
had come on Lincoln's Birthday.
There were, of course, dissents. Leaders of the Polish-American Association
gave first voice to phrases that were later to become embedded in the Myth:
and Churchill, they said, were "traitors to the cause of world democracy." The
Polish Government in Exile refused to "recognize" the provisions relating
to Poland's boundaries and governmental structure. The Chicago Tribune and the
Scripps-Howard papers were reserved in tone to the point of coolness. But they
were not symbolic of large-scale inarticulate resentment. The opposition was
ticked off by a Herald-Tribune cartoon a week after the first announcements.
With the aid of a magnifying glass, "The 100% or Nothing Critics” triumphantly
announced upon a minute inspection of the agreements: "Just as I suspected!
A misspelled word!" Uncle Sam looked on with tolerant amusement.
When in August the Russians, as they had promised, entered the war against
Japan and the terms of the Far Eastern arrangements made at Yalta became known
with new Sino-Soviet agreements, the response continued to be enthusiastically
favorable. On August 29, 1945, Raymond Moley [one of FDR’s original “braintrusters”]
wrote in the Wall Street Journal that "a careful examination of the [Chinese-Soviet]
treaty and collateral agreements, now made public, suggests that Chiang gained
far more than he conceded . . . The present arrangements are much more advantageous
to China than were those [with Czarist Russia] of 50 years ago . . .” The
New York Times a day earlier had characterized the Sino-Soviet agreements as "A
victory for peace as great as any scored on the battlefield . . . they fulfill
all the requirements of both the United Nations Charter . . . and of the Cairo
Declaration . . .” The Christian Science Monitor thought that "The
Chinese-Russian treaty must be a great disappointment to the prophets of doom
. . . The prestige of Chungking is greatly enhanced by this treaty.” The
Chinese benefits, the Monitor asserted, had been obtained "at what seems
to be a very reasonable price."
On September 10, Life magazine, later a primary disseminator of the Yalta Myth,
declared the Chinese-Russian negotiations had brought "an agreement which
was as great a victory for common sense as the defeat of Japan was for armed
might. The Soong-Stalin treaties contain less ammunition for pessimists than
any diplomatic event of the last 20 years . . . the present prospects of China
are a vindication of American policy in Asia for almost 50 years."
These words of praise, it must be emphasized, were written after the successful
development and use of the atomic bomb, after Japan's surrender.
THE RUSSIANS MADE THE CONCESSIONS
A richly inventive imagination must have been at work in weaving the fable.
An atmosphere of horror is engendered by the assertion that Roosevelt was ailing
and was therefore a pliable instrument in the hands of wily Stalin and Svengali-like
American advisors. (Churchill's having participated in negotiating the Yalta
accords is simply ignored.) The crocodile tears for Roosevelt's health represent
great ingenuity. The only facts for fiction to build upon are the President's
sudden death two months after Yalta and the circumstance that to many participants
at the Conference he appeared drawn and tired. But fatigue was the common condition
of those who played major parts in the greatest of all wars. Death from an
is not normally, and was not in the case of Franklin D. Roosevelt, preceded
by failing mental or physical power. Admiral Mclntire, the President's physician,
who was with him at Yalta, has categorically and repeatedly asserted that Mr.
Roosevelt was neither mentally nor physically sick at Yalta. Admiral Leahy,
as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff saw him daily, wrote: "As we made
the final preparations for the Crimean Conference, I saw no sign of any serious
weakness in the President's physical condition." The Admiral added in retrospect
that Roosevelt's "personality had dominated the discussions." Mr. Harriman
has noted that at the conference President Roosevelt negotiated "with his
usual skill and perception." There is no dissent on this point from any
of those who at Yalta watched the President's alert and magnificent efforts
to insure victory over the Axis and to forge a sound basis for a peaceful post-war
The assertions of the Pandoran horrors loosed on the Black Sea fare no better
in terms of truth. The Myth lacks the usual plausible details that lend credibility
to fantasy. It relies largely upon emotion-tinged pejoratives: “appeasement" (e.g.
in William C. Bullitt's retelling of the tale in Life for September 6, 1948), "betrayal," "treason" (these
words predominate in the versions favored by members of the China Lobby and by
Eastern European emigré leaders), "sellout of China and Poland" (found
in all versions). Cleaned of the smudge of epithets, the Yalta Story is that
unwarranted and large-scale concessions were made to the Russians which resulted
in Soviet leadership in Eastern Europe and the accession of the Communists
to power in China. The facts are quite otherwise.
Even the background of the Conference is uncongenial to the charge of vast
unnecessary concessions. The meeting with Stalin was the result of vigorous
Anglo-American initiative in which Churchill, never noted for appeasement,
took the lead. "Only a personal meeting gave hope" - Churchill has thus
expressed his conviction that to coordinate the enormous designs of the war,
and to propose solutions for the complexities of the eventual peace, an immediate
conference of the three Allied heads of government was necessary. (Roosevelt,
after long consideration by British and American experts, actually chose the
site, Stalin having insisted that his health and his daily responsibilities for
the conduct of the Russian winter offensive prevented him from leaving Russia.)
It was the British and the Americans who made all the requests for military and
political decisions. These requests had received careful study. Our delegation
and the British had a preconference rendezvous at Malta for the express purpose
of ensuring unity in our positions - hardly a mark of open-handed largesse toward
the Russians. In the very nature of things, therefore, the Russians, recipients
of numerous Anglo-American proposals, made what "concessions” there
THE AMERICANS WERE JUBILANT
From an American point of view, the results of the Conference warranted the
jubilation with which our press first hailed them. We coordinated the final
of Germany; Stalin agreed that Russia would enter the war against Japan within
three months after Germany's defeat; we were granted air bases north of Vladivostok
to ensure maximum bombardment of Japan, and other bases in Hungary from which
to press our air attacks against Germany. General Marshall beamed as he waited
for the car that took him from Yalta, saying with evident satisfaction that,
though as Chief of Staff he was much too busy to be attending conferences,
for what we had obtained he would have been willing to remain for months.
In the political field Anglo-American initiative won Soviet acceptance of the
United Nations Great Power voting formula drafted in Washington the preceding
autumn with the approval of Senator Vandenberg and other Congressional leaders.
The full American plan for inaugurating the United Nations with all the Latin
American countries (save Argentina, whose admission we did not then desire)
as charter members was agreed to. Stalin acceded to the restoration of France
China as great powers; he accepted a declaration drafted by the State Department
that announced the policies to be followed in the liberated countries of Europe.
Secretary of State Stettinius published a tabulation of concessions made at
this Conference where Churchill and Roosevelt were "the men who came to dinner." It "shows
clearly that the Soviet Union made greater concessions . . . than were made to
them." Mr. Byrnes, later Secretary of State, put it: "A realistic
conclusion is that the war agreements gave the Soviet Union very little that
they were not
in a position to take without agreement."
The myth has it that Poland was "given away." The Red Army had driven
the Nazis from Poland and had occupied it as thoroughly as we were to complete
our occupation of the Philippines a few weeks later. We could no more "give" Poland
to the Russians than they could "give" the Philippines to us. We
and the British did seek a Western form of government for Poland. In this we
only partially and later those partial successes were wiped out as the Cold
War liquidated these and other East-West compromises.
Churchill and Roosevelt, who was acting on advice from the State Department,
agreed to the establishment of the Curzon Line as Poland's eastern boundary.
This boundary had been fixed by the Allies of World War I as the fair ethnic
frontier between Russia and Poland. Marshal [Jozef] Pilsudski [Poland’s
chief of state] refused to accept the Allies' proposal and attacked Bolshevik
Russia, succeeding by force in extending Polish territory into lands inhabited
largely by Byelorussians and Ukrainians.
Arthur Krock [Washington bureau chief and later columnist for The New York
Times], at the time on vacation with "opportunity for deliberate reflection," wrote
a week after Yalta that its results "contained no surprises . . . the commitments
made therein were either foregone conclusions or belated acceptances of suggestions
which were obviously necessary when first offered. An example of the unsurprising
statements was that the executive branch of the United States Government, through
the President, accepts the Curzon Line in substance as Poland's reasonable eastern
boundary." And in compensation for the adoption of the Curzon Line in
the east it was agreed that Poland should receive western lands from Germany.
CHINA NOT BETRAYED
Still more baldly contrary to fact is the other main burden of the
Myth: that China, too, was "betrayed” and its territory "given away" in
its absence. At the time of Yalta the joint Chiefs of Staff estimated that it
would take eighteen months after the surrender of Germany to defeat Japan. Our
objectives included landings in Japan proper, for which Secretary [Henry L.]
Stimson [Secretary of War] estimated we would need five million men of whom a
million would be casualties. In a memorandum of January 23, 1945, prepared for
the Yalta Conference, the Joint Chiefs stated: "Russia's entry at as early
a date as possible consistent with her ability to engage in offensive operations
is necessary to provide maximum assistance to our Pacific operations." In
particular the Russians were counted on to pin down and defeat the theretofore
unengaged Kwantung Army, crack Japanese troops stationed in Manchuria. Throughout
1944 Ambassador Harriman took up with Stalin "on a number of occasions" this
deeply desired goal of Soviet entry into the Far Eastern war.
At Yalta, Stalin agreed to attack Japan within three months after the defeat
of Germany. In turn Churchill and Roosevelt endorsed Soviet claims: to the
return of southern Sakhalin (taken by Japan in the Russo-Japanese War); to
Islands (which connect northern Japan with the Soviet peninsula of Kamchatka
and which, initially penetrated by both countries, had been Japanese since
1875); to recognition of existing Soviet hegemony in Outer Mongolia; to the
Port Arthur as a naval base; to the preeminence of Soviet commercial interests
in Dairen, which was to be made a free port; and to joint Sino-Soviet operation
of the Manchurian railways which connect Russia with Dairen. (The commercial
and leasehold rights relating to the two ports and the railways had also
been taken from Russia by Japan.) These were the Soviet conditions for entering
the war against a foe we regarded as capable of inflicting upon us a million
in the course of our planned invasion of the home islands. Admiral Leahy
written that these requests "seemed very reasonable to me . . . and no
one was more surprised than I to see those conditions . . . labeled as some
concessions . . . to an enemy."
It was expressly stipulated that the provisions affecting China would "require
concurrence of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek," though Roosevelt felt certain
enough of that concurrence to agree that the Soviet claims "shall be unquestionably
fulfilled after Japan has been defeated." This certainty was warranted.
At the Cairo Conference, more than a year before Yalta, Roosevelt had talked
with Chiang about Russia's interest in warm-water ports, and Chiang had agreed
that Dairen be internationalized as a free port. Roosevelt knew further that
Chiang wanted to negotiate a permanent understanding with Russia.
Far from "betraying" Chiang or China, the "Yalta understanding," as
Mr. Harriman says, “provided a framework for negotiations between the
Soviet Union and the Chinese Nationalist Government . . . These negotiations
culminated in the Sino-Soviet agreements of August 1945 . . . welcome [as we
both in China and in the United States." It appears from Ambassador Hurley's
cables that within two or three weeks after Yalta, Chiang on his own initiative
had brought up all the points affecting China that had been agreed to at Yalta.
(President Roosevelt after his return had informed the Chinese Ambassador of
Considerably larger Russian claims were, indeed, quite generally anticipated.
On February 4, 1945, the day the Yalta Conference began, C. L. Sulzberger
wrote to The New York Times from Ankara that the Turks "believe that the Big
Three are meeting somewhere in the Black Sea area . . . the discussions may
on the Pacific War. It has been widely reported that at the Teheran Conference
Premier Stalin promised [to] join the war against Japan. . . Furthermore, it
is thought likely that Premier Stalin would like some quid pro quo, including
perhaps recognition of the Soviet Union's special interests in portions of
Manchuria, southern Sakhalin Island and Korea."
When President Truman on June 9 and June 14, 1945, informed T. V. Soong,
then Premier of China, of the full Yalta arrangements, Soong expressed gratification
and went promptly to Moscow for direct negotiations. Mr. Harriman, who kept
in close touch with Soong during these negotiations, says: "At no time
did Soong give me any indication that he felt the Yalta understanding was a
. .” For reasons of his own, and against Harriman's advice, Soong on
several points went beyond the terms of the Yalta arrangement in granting concessions.
In particular he gave the Soviet Union lease of half the port of Dairen, though
the Yalta agreement called merely for internationalizing the port. Ambassador Hurley on August 16 reported Chiang's general satisfaction
with the treaty.
There was no “betrayal" of Chiang. Roosevelt furthered Chiang's interests
by laying the basis for a treaty which Chiang greatly desired for the enhanced
domestic and international prestige that it gave him. No Chinese territory was
given away. On the contrary, Manchuria was restored to China. In 1931 Japan had
forcibly seized control of all Manchuria, designating it in 1932 as the "independent" state
of Manchukuo. Yalta expressly provided for recognition of China's sovereignty
over Manchuria. Mr. Harriman, whose knowledge of the far Eastern aspects of the
Yalta agreements is more complete than that of anyone else now living, says succinctly: "Nothing
that was done at Yalta contributed to the loss of control over China by Chiang
The myth of Yalta, related only in name to the historical event it purports
to recount, has served for a decade to frighten unwary Americans with the
Gobbleuns that'll git you if you don't vote right. Its destructive ghosts
will be laid
only as the American public learns again to face the problems of the real
world with rationality and fortitude. We will then not be lured to confusion
by fanciful dark tales of duplicity and greed. For there will be no inner
terror to project. Once again our folk tales will celebrate valor and integrity.
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Was Alger Hiss