Treachery at Yalta

By Clancy Sigal,
a novelist and screenwriter who lived for 30 years in England
Thursday, April 17, 2008


A Novel of Betrayal

By Michael Dobbs

Sourcebooks Landmark. 341 pp. Paperback, $14.95

"A Novel of Betrayal" is how Michael Dobbs subtitles this last of his Winston Churchill quartet, which traces Churchill's journey from political outsider to wartime leader and, finally, to anguished participant in the Yalta conference. This is the 15th book by Dobbs (not to be confused with the writer for The Washington Post). His others include "House of Cards," a novel about parliamentary skulduggery that formed the basis of a successful BBC television series.

In "Churchill's Triumph," the chief betrayer at the 1945 conference in the Soviet Crimea is not predatory Joseph Stalin but his enabler in chief, the mentally and physically disabled American president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, with his staff of political innocents such as Harry Hopkins and Averell Harriman. Members of Churchill's own entourage of jello-spined Foreign Office twits and compromisers also contribute.

Roosevelt, a dying man in the twilight of his unprecedented fourth term as president, is revealed as a flannel-mouthed idealist prepared to sacrifice Europe's small nations, particularly Poland, to get Stalin to enter the Pacific war on the Allies' side and agree to the organization of the United Nations. Dobbs's portrait of Stalin goes way back to the old Fu Manchu movies. His eyes are "Oriental, penetrating, sharp, yellow." Those vodka-crazed eyes, in Dobbs's view, and probably in actual history, are fixed on forcing the Allies into paying the Soviet Union back in territory for what it lost in human lives in the war against fascism.

Dobbs means to humanize the Yalta participants, which he does mainly by imagining Churchill's innermost thoughts as the prime minister grapples with, and is frustrated by, Roosevelt's collusion with the Soviet dictator. Churchill also becomes aware that Roosevelt's anti-imperialist rhetoric is a smoke screen for replacing Britain's hold on her colonies with Yankee dominance. But for Churchill, Poland is the moral yardstick of what the war is all about. Having "wept for Poland," the prime minister is ridden with guilt at his failure to rescue Chopin's homeland, "the first sacrificial lamb of the war."

The inner monologues Dobbs supplies for his Churchill, even privately in his water closet, are as "Churchillian" in their rolling pomposity as his public orations. "Winston believed with every breath and every beat of his heart in what he was fighting for -- for Britain, of course, but not just that. There was so much more, something wider and deeper. . . . Strange, elusive virtues that grew like seeds in dark places, like Truth, Hope, Family, the freedom for a man to think his own thoughts and sing his own songs."

After pages and pages of this stuff, I began to identify with those "little retching sounds in Churchill's brain" that go off like Blitz-era sirens when he's confronted by Stalin's filibustering or Roosevelt's pettifogging.

For conservatives -- Dobbs is also a Tory politician -- "Yalta" is a synonym for Roosevelt's treachery in bartering Poland for Stalin's empty promises. The facts are that for nine days in February 1945, as the Allies were closing in on Berlin and attention was turning to the Pacific war, Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin met to demand Germany's unconditional surrender; to establish the United Nations; and to bribe Stalin to join the war against Japan. Cynically, these "old men -- tired old men -- in a hurry" also gave Stalin the eastern half of Poland on his insincere promise to guarantee free elections in western Poland, while Churchill got Greece and some of the Balkans.

Churchill, "the most famous man on the planet," is simultaneously a gasbag -- bloated by the author's 20/20 hindsight -- and the only true realist at Yalta. Indeed, the novel's obsessive focus on Churchill-the-orator obscures a potentially thrilling subplot involving Sawyers, Churchill's real-life valet, and a fictional Polish cavalry officer who is the lone survivor of Stalin's wartime massacre of 22,000 Poles in the Katyn Forest. Churchill at Yalta doesn't yet know about Katyn until the Polish officer, disguised as a plumber, sneaks into the British temporary residence to tell him about this most outrageous Stalinist crime. At first, Churchill refuses to believe the tale of horror, and when he finally comes around, it's too late to save Poland from the combined mercies of Roosevelt and Stalin.

Dobbs's haranguing novel is so angrily and relentlessly anti-American that I had to keep putting it down to fan myself. Whew. The picture of Roosevelt he presents -- "sanctimonious old [expletive]," "decay eating its way" through his body to his brain, "flapping around like a turkey at Thanksgiving," "the blood supply to the brain beginning to choke" -- is grisly. How odd that the author, once the political guru to Margaret Thatcher, should so often sound like an echo of the agitprop of that Russian beast, Stalin.

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