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The Road To Yalta
A dozen arduous years lay between our recognition of the Soviets and the conference in Crimea; then the friendship so briefly rekindled flickered out again
June 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 4
Many settlements, or what passed for settlements, were reached. The westward shift of Poland was confirmed; pledges as to the self-determination of liberated peoples were renewed; the Soviet Union, about to enter the war against Japan, was recognized as a major power in the Pacific, with legitimate aspirations there. The Soviets, in turn, recognized America’s particular interest in succoring the regime of Chiang Kai-shek, gave ground on some points concerning joint occupation of Germany, and seemed willing to forego crushing reparations if it could obtain American reconstruction aid. The debate over seating at the United Nations also resulted in what both sides then regarded a fair draw; and such was Yalta’s resulting mood that Prime Minister Churchill spoke in exalted terms of “the glories of future possibilities … before us,” while Harry Hopkins reported a deep sense of accomplishment there. “We really believed in our hearts,” Hopkins said, “that this was the dawn of the new day we had all been praying for … We were absolutely certain that we had won the first great victory of the peace.”
Perhaps, then, all—or almost all—would be well at last. Yet it was not to be so; and bitter blame has been heaped upon the Yalta Conference, as if it were the author of all our woes with Russia since. Yet perhaps it was culpable not so much for what it did as for what it did not do. Yalta left more matters unresolved than settled. In its headlong haste to catch up with the facts of military success, it was a political convocation that came too late. Moreover, it was one to which the warring partners came as unequals in the sense that they harbored very different political intentions, clothe them as they might. All spoke of liberation, but to the Soviets this meant also annexation of the liberated. On the other hand, the Western allies had no ulterior territorial motives: true, the British were willing to bargain with the Russians over spheres of influence so as to preserve their own, but the United States had no thought—and, it was agreed by all sides at home, no need—of aggrandizement at all.
America’s position all along had been to avoid making postwar commitments until the war itself was nearly won. As late as October, 1944, Roosevelt had cabled Harriman (then sitting in on the ChurchillStalin meetings at Moscow that prefaced Yalta), “It is important that I retain complete freedom of action after this conference is over.” Yet the area of such freedom was narrowing fast as Red armies swarmed over southeastern and central Europe, pushing borders westward on their own. The most that could now be done about displaced Poland was an ambiguous formula calling for “reorganization” of the provisional Warsaw regime—by which the West meant a new government based on democratic elections, while Moscow meant one firmly attached to itself. The West asked for free ballot boxes all over eastern Europe; Moscow promised, but at the same time began converting once-free nations into satellites.
The ailing President, returning homeward across calm seas aboard the U.S.S. Quincy in the trust that Yalta’s promise of freedom and equity would be fulfilled, was not to be spared disillusionment in the few weeks of life remaining to him. A mere fortnight later, Ambassador Harriman in Moscow was protesting sharply against Soviet moves to make defeated Rumania a captive state, and the West flatly refused to recognize the puppet regime set up there. More trouble was in store for our ambassador when an inter-Allied commission began to work out Yalta’s indecisive plan for Poland. On April 2, after wrangling sessions in which Molotov had become more and more intransigent, Harriman reported flatly, “No agreement was reached on any point.” Stalin himself, on the wire to Roosevelt, concurred. Harriman, for his part, was now reaching the point of recommending to Washington that further aid to Russia be suspended until Moscow ceased violating Yalta agreements. Then Stalin, suspicious because he had not been made party to the parleys between surrendering German commanders and advancing Anglo-American troops in Italy, cabled Roosevelt to charge deception and trickery. Roosevelt, aroused to the core, expressed “bitter resentment” at such “vile misrepresentations of my actions or those of my trusted subordinates.” This and Stalin’s reply were the last communications that passed between the two most powerful leaders of what had briefly been a common cause.
So the bright day dimmed even when the sun seemed to stand high. Roosevelt died, and Harriman in Moscow was alone in the gathering darkness. Once again, the modern world’s two titans, so different in their ways and make-up, so subject to alternating currents of mutual attraction and repulsion, drew apart. We had been by turns cordial friends over great distances (never more so than during our own Revolution and the Napoleonic wars), far-removed yet mutually amenable expansionists through the later nineteenth century, uneasy allies in two world wars, and profound ideological antagonists in the aftermath of each. Yet we had never, despite all our differences, become declared enemies on the battlefield; in fact, we were the only two great powers to have preserved peace—or what passed for it—with one another during all this long span of modern time. We did not speak one another’s language; perhaps in the deepest sense we never quite would. Yet some recognition of the madness of ever making war upon one another in the name of our two immense and kindred humanities on opposite sides of the globe seemed to have been borne in upon us both. Will the time now come when, if nuclear war is unimaginable and the sheer absence of war not enough, we may proceed with firmer skill to the building of peace?