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How the Big Three concluded the Good War

Sep 20, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 01 • By ALONZO L. HAMBY
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Yalta 1945



Europe and America at the Crossroads
by Fraser J. Harbutt
Cambridge, 468 pp., $38


The Price of Peace
by S. M. Plokhy
Viking, 480 pp., $29.95

They met at Yalta—Franklin D. Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin, and Winston Churchill—to divide up the world, or so the popular legend goes. Charges of betrayal followed quickly. The American president, critics declared, had conceded Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe to the Soviet Union. He also had sold out Chiang Kai-shek’s pro-Western regime in China. Feeble and appeasement-minded, he had ignored Churchill’s all-too-prescient warnings. These two intensively researched volumes reveal a measure of truth in the indictment. They also remind us that history does not yield gently to the demands of statesmen, follows no inexorable path of liberal progress, and is as often as not a saga of tragedy without a hint of farce. 

Fraser Harbutt, professor of history at Emory, devotes little more than a tenth of his Yalta 1945 to the conference itself. His achievement is to provide a rich and densely argued context. Focusing sharply on British foreign policy during World War II, he asserts that British statecraft, as practiced not simply by Churchill but also by Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden and the permanent Foreign Office bureaucracy, had already established a postwar division of Europe. A notorious “spheres of influence” agreement with Stalin in October 1944 effectively ceded most of Eastern Europe to Soviet control while preserving British hegemony in the Eastern Mediterranean nations. That—and the march of the Red Army into Eastern Europe—presented Roosevelt with a fait accompli, which the president attempted to cover with a fig leaf “Declaration on Liberated Europe” promising democratic elections and liberal institutions. What had occurred, Harbutt asserts, was simply a manifestation of “traditional European diplomacy.”

S. M. Plokhy, professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard, delivers a detailed account of the event itself. His narrative, more suited to a general readership, thoroughly surveys the back and forth of the discussions among the three principals and their chief aides. He even gives us a little face time with “the girls”—the adult daughters who accompanied Churchill, Roosevelt, and the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, W. Averell Harriman. The girls deliver human interest and occasional glimpses of the cultural gulf between the Westerners and their hosts. (Depicting the banality of an evil beyond the comprehension of the liberal Westerners, for example, Kathleen Harriman describes the dreaded secret police chief Lavrenti Beria as “little and fat with thick lenses, which gave him a sinister look, but quite genial.”)   

Both authors agree on the importance of an obvious, yet often overlooked, point: Yalta was a wartime meeting—from February 4 to February 11, 1945—designed primarily to plot the final acts of World War II and to lay the groundwork for a definitive peace conference that likely would occur in 1946. Its implicit delineation of spheres of influence—for the Soviet Union: Eastern Europe (assumed but not stated), Manchuria, Sakhalin Island, and the Kuriles (all relegated to a secret protocol); for Britain: the Mediterranean rim—was doubtless intended to prefigure the peace settlement. So were preliminary agreements about the nature of the United Nations, which then seemed destined to become an important and powerful stabilizer of world affairs. Other critical peace issues—most notably, the future of Germany as a unified state, and the amount of reparations it would be expected to pay—remained unresolved. The expected replay of Versailles, as it turned out, was never held. Yalta established the postwar order (or disorder, as Harbutt calls it) by default. 

Both authors point out that the West came to Yalta with a weak military hand. Anglo-American forces, just recovering from their setbacks in the Battle of the Bulge, were only beginning to enter Germany; the Soviets had advanced to the Oder river, a scant 50 miles from Berlin. In the Pacific, after a long and bloody island-hopping campaign, the United States was completing its reconquest of the Philippines. The final phases had been planned: The invasion of Iwo Jima was imminent, Okinawa next, then a cataclysmic invasion of the Japanese home islands. Roosevelt and Churchill could hope that the secret project to develop an atomic bomb might shorten the war, but there was no way to be certain that the bomb could be developed, or to gauge its impact if it was. The Soviet Union was still neutral in the Pacific war. The United States urgently needed its intervention.

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