A piece in this space four weeks ago titled "Undoing Yalta" has brought an uncommon amount of thoughtful criticism. Since it is the Yalta season -- the 40th anniversary of this crucial wartime meeting of Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin has just passed -- and since the issue of the conference -- the future of Europe -- is with us forever, I am going to run the truck over it again.
My first article had picked up on some proposals of former White House adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski for undoing the division of Europe formalized at Yalta. The main thrust of most of the critics is that the division of Europe -- specifically, of Germany -- was and is a very good thing indeed. It has ensured unprecedented stability in a region notorious for upheaval. Not since Marcus Aurelius, one correspondent wrote -- you remember Marcus -- has Europe enjoyed a longer period of peace.
He, and others, contested the premise that lies, stated or unstated, behind all recommendations to "undo" Yalta -- that many dangers loom in untended aspirations for East European independence and German reunification and in the continuing U.S.-Soviet confrontation in Europe:
"First, as a result of the long period of stability and peace, and continuous interactions at almost non-stop conferences in Vienna, Geneva, Helsinki, Stockholm and elsewhere, explicit and implicit rules of engagement have developed. We can read each other's moves and intentions in Europe much better than elsewhere. The dangerous terrain is outside Europe, where few rules of Soviet-U.S. engagement exist. Second, in Europe we each have nervous allies who restrain us and confine the scope of our confrontation."
A clutch of correspondents pounced on my formulation of the idea of "a single comprehensive Europe" with a "common culture and history." They offered stern, scholarly reminders of the jagged past of Europe, of its blood feuds, of its religious and cultural divides, of the simple difficulty of locating it on an agreed political map.
There was also a strong tendency to let the sleeping dogs of history lie, especially Russian dogs. "After all, the Soviets paid dearly in World War II, and you cannot expect a willingness to (revise Yalta) unless you were dealing in very, very large-scale disarmament, and even a 'decoupling' of the U.S. from Europe," a professor wrote. "There is no reason to denigrate Churchill and Roosevelt for doing what seemed sensible at the time. We fought a relatively small war in the West and, in the much wider geographic heartland, the Russo-German war was gigantic by comparison, perhaps 4-1. We could not have expected to move farther to the east with our forces, and the end of such a huge war has always had much to do with influence and boundaries many years following."
Wrote a second professor, born in the East: "For years, I was with those who demanded repudiation of Yalta but as I learned more about the period I also learned that it was a logical product of the wartime alliance and that there was nothing FDR could conceivably do to prevent Soviet domination of East Europe. In his 'Iron Curtain' speech in March 1946, Churchill in effect conceded East Europe to the Soviets, including even Czechoslovakia, long before Stalin had established effective means of controlling it."
Well, these are serious considerations. In such an intricate high-stakes game where a balance has long held (however expensively and nervously), the burden falls on those who seek a change to demonstrate that it would improve on the status quo. The current shape of Europe is no accident. There can be no casual approach to revising it.
Where I am most disappointed by my critics, however, is in their lack of feeling for the Soviet-suppressed peoples of Eastern Europe and in their lack of imagination in considering how East Europeans might someday receive a greater measure of the rewards of freedom that we of the West insist on as a matter of principle, a matter of course, for ourselves.
As for the Germans, one can say simply that they have earned the long- lasting suspicion of their neighbors on all sides, and no one is going to forget the context in which the German problem remains tightly bound.
We are not talking about a run-up to World War III here, or about the abandonment of prudence. We are talking of a situation fully 40 years after the war in which the Soviets cite a version of history and use their imperial power to maintain an occupation that is unjust and cannot be justified even by the tenderest reading of their legitimate security interests. In these circumstances, there need be no apologizing for a little careful impatience for the plight of a region -- East Europe -- with plenty of historical, cultural and human ties to the West.