I n the catalogue of 20th-century misery, Eastern Europe’s place is lamentably prominent. Ravaged by Nazi brutality in World War II, it fell to Soviet domination after the war. Speaking over the weekend in Latvia, President Bush said that the Yalta agreement codifying that domination “followed in the unjust tradition of Münich and the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. Once again, when powerful governments negotiated, the freedom of small nations was somehow expendable.”
Yalta’s outraged defenders are now out in force. Jacob Heilbrunn, writing in the Los Angeles Times, made two typical criticisms of Bush’s history: first, that Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe was inevitable because “the territory was already in their possession”; second, that refusing to cut a deal with Stalin “would have seriously jeopardized the common battle against Germany (at a moment when Roosevelt was concerned with winning Soviet assent to help fight the Japanese, which he received).”
The second point is unconvincing. Stalin was just as eager to defeat Hitler as Roosevelt and Churchill were, and by the time the Allies sat down at Yalta in February 1945, the Third Reich was already in its death throes. As for Japan, the U.S. was quite capable of winning in Asia with or without Russian “assent.”
The first point, on the other hand, contains an element of truth. But, while the proximity of the Baltic states to Russia made their annexation into the USSR almost inevitable, the fates of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Germany weren’t necessarily sealed. Even if their occupation was unpreventable, it does not follow from this that the U.S. and Great Britain had to bless the Soviet occupiers. Eastern European democrats would have been strengthened by early encouragement from the West–even if that encouragement was nothing but a silent refusal to endorse Stalin’s ambitions.
“President Bush’s Yalta message
will be heard beyond Russia.”
So, Bush was right to regret Yalta. Of course, he was speaking as much to Latvia’s eastern neighbor as to the crowd assembled before him. Russia is awash with nostalgia for the bad old days of Soviet Communism: Vladimir Putin has recently called the breakup of the USSR “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” and statues of Stalin are popping up across the country. Bush’s speech was an implicit but powerful criticism both of Russia’s flirtation with authoritarianism and of its swooning sentimentality about Soviet brutality.
And his message will be heard beyond Russia. The fundamental question raised by Yalta is: What should powerful democracies do to aid and protect those who live under totalitarian regimes? Bush rightly called Yalta an “attempt to sacrifice freedom for the sake of stability [that] left a continent divided and unstable.” That sounds an awful lot like the implicit deal the U.S. struck for decades with the regimes of the Middle East. Bush’s words may have been spoken in Riga, but they were meant to encourage democrats from Moscow to Tehran.