In 1952, after nearly 30 years in the political wilderness, the Republicans were prepared to try anything to elect a president. One of the things they tried was a double-barreled appeal to Americans of East European origin. They accused Franklin D. Roosevelt of selling out the nations of Eastern Europe at Yalta, and promised to roll back the Communist occupier.
"Rollback" was tested and found wanting in June 1953, when workers in the Soviet occupation zone of Germany hurled stones at Soviet tanks, while the U.S., British, and French co-occupiers scurried to dissociate themselves from these desperate rebels.
Since 1952, whole libraries of memoirs and studies of World War II diplomacy have taught us that the sellout began long before Yalta. It was rooted in the stubbornly defended U.S. policy of refusing to discuss postwar boundaries or political arrangements before the fighting ended.
Still, "Yalta" remains a useful symbol of an attitude long held and often demonstrated by American politicians and their West European counterparts, all of whom prefer to deal primarily with the Soviet rulers and secondarily with each other, relegating the interests of the nations of East-Central Europe to a tertiary status, at best.
So it was when the East German workers rose in 1953, when the Hungarians revolted in 1956 and when the Czechs and Slovaks, in 1968, tried to turn their Stalinist system into "socialism with a human face."
Since August 1980 we have witnessed the latest act of this drama. The most numerous, highly politicized, and fearless of the Eastern European peoples, the Poles, have tried again to enlarge the elbow room within which they might determine for themselves some of the conditions of their national life.
Many of the elements of the drama of 1980-81 have been new and surprising. But one is as old as the memories of those, like myself, whose initiation into world affairs began to the strains of Chopin's "Grand Polonaise," crackling faintly over the radio from Warsaw, above which the Stukas swooped and dove. That is the slightly embarrassed, gradually accelerating, and inexorable disengagement of Western leaders from the spectacle of yet another Polish martyrdom.
The excuses, too, sound much the same. "There was really nothing we could do." "Headstrong . . . romantic . . . they always go too far." "Quixotes, attacking tanks with their lances . . ." As Napoleon said, after the charge of the Poles at Somosierra, 'Magnificent, but it's no way to win a war.' "
On Sept. 5, 1939, Leopold Amery, MP, urged the British air minister, Kingsley Wood, to support the Poles at least symbolically by setting the Black Forest afire with incendiary bombs. "Oh, you can't do that," said Wood. "It's private property." Instead, Bomber Command dropped leaflets on Frankfurt, Munich and Stuttgart . . .
So "Yalta" acquires new dimensions. But there are some significant differences.
This time the Republicans did it. And they did it, not once, but twice.
The first time cannot be dated precisely, but it spanned the 11 wasted months between the inauguration and Dec. 12, 1981. Early assessment of the U.S. and Western interest in the Polish struggle could have prompted a concerted effort to forge a joint policy designed to use the Polish debt as leverage not only on the Warsaw regime but on the credit-dependent Soviets. No one can say whether such an effort might have succeeded. But the stakes were high enough to warrant trying.
Instead, President Reagan simply continued Carter's hapless policy of propping up the Warsaw Communists with credits, credit guarantees, and food aid, enabling them to stock the food stores on Dec. 14, following the imposition of martial law. More damaging: by lifting Carter's partial grain embargo in April, unconditionally, he signaled the Soviets that U.S. policy would, after all, be one of business as usual.
About the same time (March 26), it is true, the White House issued one in a series of administration statements. This one "reflect(ed) the views of the president of the United States." It warned both the Soviets and the Polish Communists that "any measures aimed at suppressing the Polish people . . . could have a grave effect on the whole course of East-West relations."
But when, on Dec. 13, 1981, Jaruzelski and his colleagues nevertheless imposed martial law, the Reagan administration restricted itself to punishing them with a number of measures that can render the already parlous economic condition of the country only marginally worse.
The administration's subsequent measures against the Soviets stopped short of the sole sanction that, in view of their catastrophic 1981 harvest and consequent introduction of bread rationing, might have given them pause and led to reconsideration of their veto on a negotiated settlement between their prot,eg,es in Poland and the Polish people.
Instead, the administration opted yet again for business as usual. And a television show.
Remarkable! Two "Yaltas" in less than a year. And they did it without even trying.