Editor’s note: Today marks the 75th anniversary of the commencement of the Yalta Conference, held February 4–11, 1945. The following article was published in the February 19, 1982, issue of National Review.
Three times in the last few months I have heard critics of President Reagan’s sanctions against Poland and the Soviet Union say quite flatly that the United States recognized Russian hegemony over Eastern Europe at the Yalta Conference in February 1945. Two were on television so I was helpless, but I asked the third for his source. “It’s common knowledge; see George Kennan’s two Op-Ed pieces in the New York Times.”
Kennan’s prose was a bit impenetrable, but in discussing the implications of any Soviet retreat on the Polish question he stated: “It would reach to the very foundation of the de facto division of Europe that has existed since World War II.” He added. “This division itself was a product of the war.”
This is accurate; the Soviet armies were rolling all over Eastern Europe and the Balkans and, with the exception of Yugoslavia and Austria, the Russian writ still runs in these occupied areas. But the de facto occupation is in fact a violation of the Yalta Agreement signed by Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin.
Stalin must have chuckled as he signed the document, which among other things contained an affirmation of the Four Freedoms and a promise that free elections would be held in the states liberated from the Nazis. Churchill must have known Stalin was chuckling, but by 1945 British policy was limited by the overwhelming American contribution to the war. He was certainly not going to stand on one foot awaiting free elections in Poland, Hungary, Rumania, and the other Red Army conquests.
Franklin D. Roosevelt was a very sick man — in two months he would be dead — and driven at Yalta by one major goal: to get Stalin’s agreement to enter the war against Japan. The background for this was the ferocious defensive capability of the Japanese army, which had triggered the Joint Chiefs of Staff to hit the panic button. Casualty projections for the defense of the Japanese home islands went over the million mark.
What about the A-bomb? You know it worked, but you have 20-20 hindsight. The few then aware of its existence didn’t know, and the first successful test was not until July. The Joint Chiefs had good reason to worry; shortly after Yalta the Marines took twenty thousand casualties capturing the tiny island of Iwo Jima. and from April to June the Army and Marines were savagely bloodied capturing Okinawa.
Moreover, the Joint Chiefs wanted the Russians to take on the crack Japanese Kwantung Army in Manchuria so it could not be recalled to the islands. What General MacArthur’s intelligence chief, General Willoughby — who later guaranteed that Chinese troops were not entering the Korean War — didn’t know was that the “crack” army had been shipped out to the Pacific and replaced by kids and middle-aged men.
Stalin was quite aware of Roosevelt’s agenda and kept pushing for legitimation of Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe, with Poland as the centerpiece. He had a stooge Polish government all lined up and wanted us to ditch the Polish government-in-exile in London. This was not without irony — as Churchill pointed out, Britain had gone to war to fulfill its alliance with the Poles, and the legitimate government was the one in London.
Roosevelt, born without an ideological chromosome, and who, even in the best of health, hated long-range planning, emerged with a compromise. Stalin’s Lublin government and the Polish exiles in London should form a coalition. Stalin, who had a special sauce for marinating coalitions before putting them through the famous “salami slicer,” agreed.
The President, then, could with a clear conscience claim that “Uncle Joe” had agreed to the Four Freedoms and to free elections. And he had accomplished the top priority; Stalin agreed to join the war against Japan. If anyone had told FDR, “You have just given the Russians Eastern Europe,” he would have been baffled. All he had done was get the London and the Lublin Poles, as Lyndon Johnson would have put it, “to reason together.”
In the last weeks of his life, Roosevelt did get a sense that Stalin was betraying him, but then he was dead. His successor, Harry Truman, had to learn from scratch; he had never even been briefed on the A-bomb!
Finally, suppose the U.S. had decided Stalin was playing a dirty game, what could we have done? If the American Army in 1945 after the defeat of Germany and Japan had been told it had to fight on to save Poland, or Nationalist China, there would have been the biggest mutiny in the history of the world. We wanted to go home!