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Book review: 'Yalta,' by S.M. Plokhy

By Andrew Nagorski
Sunday, February 21, 2010; B07

YALTA

The Price of Peace

By S.M. Plokhy

Viking. 451 pp. $29.95

Like Munich, Yalta is much more than the name of a place: It's shorthand for a pivotal historical event with all the loaded emotional baggage of its consequences. While Munich stands for appeasement to Hitler, Yalta stands for, in the most charitable interpretation, the West's reluctant acquiescence to Stalin's takeover of Poland and most of Eastern Europe -- or, to harsher critics, outright betrayal. Either way, Yalta set the stage for the division of the continent and the ensuing Cold War.

Harvard historian S.M. Plokhy has provided a rich new narrative of the eight days of meetings in the Crimean resort between Joseph Stalin, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill in February 1945. Drawing upon formerly secret Soviet documents and reports and memoirs from all three sides, he brings the conference and its key players to life, making a familiar story feel lively and fresh. But he is far less successful in his goal of "peeling off the accretion of multiple layers of Cold War myth" about Yalta -- especially when it comes to his attempt to vindicate FDR's performance there.

What Plokhy labels myth is, in fact, the conventional view of Yalta that is largely supported by his own version of events. As he points out, the ailing Roosevelt made a fundamental mistake on his way to Yalta. Meeting Churchill in Malta, he refused to discuss a common strategy since he didn't want Stalin to think that the Western leaders had "ganged up" on the Soviet leader. As Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden complained to FDR aide Harry Hopkins, this meant that the Americans and the Brits went into the conference with no agreement on "how to handle matters with a Bear who would certainly know his mind."

Roosevelt's other miscalculation was his longstanding belief that personal diplomacy could make Stalin more accommodating. The Soviet dictator was only too happy to play the gracious host to reinforce his guest's predisposition. Kathleen Harriman, the daughter of U.S. Ambassador Averell Harriman, noted the astounding preparations of FDR's suite at the Livadia Palace. She reported that the rugs were changed four times, requiring the heavy Victorian furniture to be moved in and out at each try because "the Soviets just couldn't make up their minds which oriental colors looked best."

Roosevelt did secure two key commitments from Stalin: The Soviet Union would enter the war against Japan after Germany's defeat, and it would join the United Nations. But the first was clearly in Soviet interests, since it allowed Stalin to seize southern Sakhalin and the Kurile Islands from Japan and establish a sphere of interest in Manchuria. As for his support for the future U.N., Stalin played his classic game of first demanding an outrageous price -- separate membership for each of the Soviet republics -- and then making it look like a concession when he agreed to "only" two extra seats, for Ukraine and Belarus.

On the central issue of Poland, Stalin didn't yield anything meaningful. The Soviet leader explained that, unlike tsarist Russia, he wasn't seeking to wipe Poland off the map -- although that had been precisely the result of the August 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Instead, he would settle for seizing eastern Poland, locking in the territorial gains of that infamous Nazi-Soviet agreement. And he insisted on installing a communist regime to replace the London-based Polish government-in-exile. He pledged to hold elections that would include non-communists, but the results were preordained.

Plokhy maintains that there was little the Western leaders could have done to change that outcome, since Soviet troops were already in control of Eastern Europe. That's a familiar argument, not easy to dismiss. Plokhy's mistake is to go one giant step further by asserting that Yalta ensured "some elements of political pluralism" in Poland. In reality, Poland's new communist rulers, backed fully by their Soviet masters, ruthlessly persecuted opposition leaders, terrorized their supporters and falsified the results of the parliamentary elections of January 1947, proclaiming an "overwhelming" victory.

Elsewhere, though, he harbors few illusions about what the conference's terms meant for Poland and others. One chapter is pointedly called "A Polish Surrender." His attempt to paint FDR in a more positive light looks more like a strained effort to offer a catchy new take than a serious revisionist thesis. Nonetheless, Plokhy's book makes for compelling reading -- for its details and drama, not its conclusions.

Andrew Nagorski is vice president and director of public policy at the EastWest Institute and the author of "The Greatest Battle: Stalin, Hitler, and the Desperate Struggle for Moscow That Changed the Course of World War II."

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