Bush, Yalta and the Blur of Hindsight

By Jon Meacham
Sunday, May 15, 2005

The setting was convivial, the sentiments warm. On the morning of Sunday, Feb. 11, 1945, in the billiards room once used by Czar Nicholas II in the Livadia Palace at Yalta, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill were putting the final touches on a communique after a weeklong conference at the Crimean seaside resort. The war in Europe was drawing to a close (Hitler had barely 11 weeks to live), and the Big Three were contemplating the future of the European continent and the daunting task of finishing the fight against Japan.

The language in the agreement they signed that day was eloquent and high-minded. Order in Europe, it said, "must be achieved by processes which will enable the liberated peoples to destroy the last vestiges of Nazism and Fascism and to create democratic institutions of their own choice." The Allies, including Stalin, pledged to defend "the right of all peoples to choose the form of Government under which they will live" in order that "all the men in all the lands may live out their lives in freedom from fear and want." Churchill was so pleased with Yalta, a British diplomat noted, that he was "drinking buckets of Caucasian champagne which would undermine the health of any ordinary man."

As we now know, and as President Bush pointed out a week ago on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe, Churchill was drinking to a deal that would soon fall apart with dark and long-lasting consequences for a continent divided between freedom and fear. At the time, though, Roosevelt, too, thought that, all in all, it had been a good week. Stalin had agreed to become part of the prospective United Nations organization, a long-cherished dream of the president's, and to join the Pacific war -- a clash that FDR and Churchill expected to last until 1947. (The Manhattan Project would not prove successful at making an atomic bomb for another five months; to ensure Soviet help in the anticipated Asian land war, FDR made territorial concessions in the Far East.) And while the Soviets occupied Poland and much of Eastern and Central Europe, Roosevelt and Churchill believed that Stalin had shown a willingness to live up to the spirit of the communique. "We have wound up the conference -- successfully, I think," Roosevelt wrote to his wife, Eleanor.

Such hope was illusory but understandable. After all, hadn't Stalin signed the document promising democracy, toasted Churchill as "the bravest governmental figure in the world" for inspiring England's lonely stand against Hitler in 1940, and said he was "confident" that "our relations in peacetime should be as strong as they had been in war"?

He had, but as Bush has reminded us, Stalin's word was worthless. Once a bright, fleeting hope for an orderly, democratic peace, the Yalta pact is now seen as a crucial opening phase of the Cold War, the moment when the Anglo-American allies, but especially the more influential Roosevelt, failed to protect Eastern and Central Europe from Soviet domination.

"V-E Day marked the end of fascism, but it did not end oppression," Bush said in Latvia on May 7. "The agreement at Yalta followed in the unjust tradition of Munich and the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact," he added, referring to two treaties that cleared the way for World War II. "Once again, when powerful governments negotiated, the freedom of small nations was somehow expendable."

Harsh words -- overly harsh, in my view, and not because great leaders of the past deserve automatic absolution at the altar of history. "To do justice to a great man, discriminating criticism is always necessary," Churchill once wrote. "Gush, however quenching, is always insipid." But Bush's criticism is more damning than discriminating. In its sweep, the president's characterization of Yalta essentially indicts Roosevelt and Churchill as knowing actors in the manufacture and hanging of the Iron Curtain. For generations of post-World War II conservatives, "Yalta" was code for the left-wing "sellout" to the communists, and Bush was probably playing on deep-seated right-wing passions to set his own campaign for democracy apart from the liberal failures of the past.

But such code rarely does justice to the world's complexities, and Bush could one day come to regret his dismissive allusion. (How would he like a future president to use "Iraq" as shorthand for a war fought on the basis of incorrect intelligence and carried out with poor planning for the aftermath?) By swerving to hit FDR and Churchill, Bush has committed the same sin that presidents so often rightly deplore in others: He has second-guessed well-meaning leaders who were in the arena dealing with the world as it was, making the most difficult of decisions at the most tumultuous of times.

And Bush's historical juxtaposition leaves much to be desired. Linking Yalta to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's concessions to Hitler at Munich in 1938, which cleared the way for Germany's annexation of Czechoslovakia before the war, is tenuous enough. At Yalta in 1945, driven by the need to keep the Soviets in the fight against Fascism, FDR and Churchill did nothing about the Soviet takeover of the Baltic states, tacitly accepting what Stalin had done six years earlier.

But to put Yalta in the same sentence with the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact unfairly casts Roosevelt and Churchill in the same light as Hitler and Stalin. Struck in August 1939, that bargain between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union satisfied Stalin's territorial ambitions and enabled Hitler to invade Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, without fear of a hostile Soviet reaction in the east. It was, in other words, the agreement that most directly triggered the beginning of World War II, a conflict that claimed nearly 60 million lives.

Bush was not wrong to evoke Yalta and its lessons, but his judgment that the conference was, as he put it, an "attempt to sacrifice freedom for the sake of stability" reflects a misunderstanding of what Roosevelt and Churchill hoped the communique would deliver as well as a failure to take the realities of the time into account. It's true that Yalta was not the Anglo-American allies' finest diplomatic hour and, as things turned out, may indeed have been one of their worst. The other Big Three conference, held at Tehran in late 1943, led to agreement about Operation Overlord, the cross-Channel invasion of France. Without that session it is conceivable that D-Day and the ensuing liberation of Western Europe could have been delayed indefinitely. Tehran, then, created something; the legacy of Yalta, on the other hand, was more about ratifying facts on the ground than it was about pressing ahead in new directions.

In hindsight, we can see that as one great conflict ended, another was beginning. The battle against Hitler gave way to what President John F. Kennedy -- at the time a young Navy lieutenant -- would later call the "long twilight struggle" against Soviet tyranny. It was with just such hindsight that Churchill, writing in the early 1950s, entitled the final volume of his war memoirs "Triumph and Tragedy."

Yalta and the final months of World War II were tragic in the purest sense of the term: a drama whose outcome was determined by fate and inherent flaws in the central characters. Given world enough and time, Roosevelt and Churchill both thought that they could have persuaded anyone of just about anything. "Poor Neville Chamberlain believed he could trust Hitler," Churchill said on his return to London. "He was wrong. But I don't think I'm wrong about Stalin." Yet he was wrong, and the reason why sheds light on both the promise and peril of personal diplomacy.

Human connections between leaders can be essential -- contemporaries believed that the pleasure FDR and Churchill took in each other's company helped win the war -- but such emotional bonds are often tenuous and easily broken. Bush could learn a useful lesson from the evaporation of affection and unity in Yalta's aftermath. The U.S. president who once looked into Vladimir Putin's soul and who this month took a well-photographed spin in the Russian leader's Soviet-era car suggests that, like FDR, he may believe that his personal connection with a Kremlin chief will lead to influence over Moscow's ever more authoritarian ways. Such was not the case for Roosevelt; perhaps Bush will fare better.

If FDR and Churchill were guilty of being too trusting and overly self-assured -- not the worst of flaws -- Stalin was guilty of crimes of a vastly different and deadly magnitude. A brutal killer who joined the war against Hitler only after the Fuehrer double-crossed him, Stalin was, as Churchill once said, "an unnatural man." He did not value liberty or life; his chief end was power, his main means of attaining and keeping it murder.

In the cold light of history, then, counting on Stalin's good faith was a terrible mistake, but what would Roosevelt and Churchill's retrospective critics -- including President Bush -- have had them do? "Whoever occupies a territory also imposes on it his social system," Stalin said in 1945. "Everyone imposes his own system as far as his army can reach. It cannot be otherwise."

Going to war with the Soviets in 1945 was hardly a reasonable option, and in fact never proved reasonable in the ensuing 40 years. Had FDR lived, would things have turned out differently with the Soviets? It seems unlikely.

The trouble was not in Washington or London but in Moscow. Just before he left the capital for what would be his last trip to his cottage at Warm Springs, Ga., Roosevelt told an aide: "We've taken a great risk here, an enormous risk, and it involves the Russian intentions. I'm worried. I think Stalin will be out of his mind if he doesn't cooperate, but maybe he's not going to; in which case, we're going to have to take a different view." Roosevelt knew that politics, like life, is an ever-unfolding story. Reflecting on Yalta, Roosevelt told a friend: "I didn't say it was good . . . . I said it was the best I could do."

Governing always looks easier from the visitors' side of the desk in the Oval Office, and history suggests that America would do well to be more forbearing and magnanimous in how we view past, present and, in campaigns, future leaders. "People are constantly evaluating somebody's standing in history, a president's standing in history, based upon events that took place during the presidency, based upon things that happened after the presidency," Bush has said. "And so I just don't worry about vindication or standing." Bush can only hope that his successors will be more generous in their verdicts about him than he has been in judging those who came before.

Jon Meacham, the managing editor of Newsweek, is the author of "Franklin and Winston" (Random House). He is working on a book about Andrew Jackson's presidency.

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