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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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Summit meetings held in fluid wartime situations with relatively unscripted scenarios provide maximum opportunities for individuals to be makers of history. Each of the Big Three leaders came to Yalta with impressive personal gifts and well-defined goals. Each made compromises. Each left feeling he had been more successful than not. Stalin emerges as the biggest winner. Entering the conference with the strongest hand, he played it to maximum advantage. It is debatable, however, whether he was (as Harbutt thinks) a modern version of Metternich or Bismarck. Plokhy, a native Ukrainian with a vivid historical memory of Stalinism, is more ambivalent. 

Unlike the founders of European realism, the Soviet dictator was not a conservative traditionalist who wanted to restore an old order. He was a determined revolutionary who saw the expansion of his nation’s power as a means of advancing socialism. Temporarily holding his military lines at the Oder, he diverted divisions south to secure his grip on the Balkans. Possessing limitless cynicism about human nature, conceiving of sovereignty over subject peoples as total domination, he was a conscienceless sociopath, willing to sacrifice lives without limit. He defended without compunction the Red Army’s tolerance of wholesale rape and looting. Suspicious to the end that his Western allies would make a separate peace with Hitler, he seems to have felt that paper agreements might have a utility in binding partners who made them but did not require reciprocal good faith. When his foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, privately expressed qualms about the Declaration on Liberated Europe, he responded, “We can deal with it in our own way later. The point is the correlation of forces.” Plokhy quotes him as remarking that “the best friendships are those founded on misunderstanding.” 

Churchill emerges from both books considerably diminished in stature. A tribune of democracy and an unabashed imperialist, torn between rhetorical idealism and cynical realism in his diplomacy, he was at best a man of contradictions. Harbutt depicts him as an exploitative betrayer of Poland and, after the war, as a deceptively self-serving memoirist. Plokhy describes him as more similar to Stalin in his realpolitik than to Roosevelt. Both authors see the much-maligned Eden, and Britain’s senior career diplomat, Alexander Cadogan, as steadying influences.

A more generous assessment might treat Churchill’s surface inconsistencies as outcomes of his efforts to balance a hard-eyed appreciation for power with a liberal conscience. Correct in understanding that Poland could not escape heavy-handed Soviet influence, he nevertheless struggled as a matter of principled commitment to achieve some measure of autonomy for it. His other diplomatic causes, before and after Yalta, strengthened the postwar position of the liberal West. His determination to maintain the Mediterranean as a British lake bolstered democratic forces in Italy, saved Greece from a Communist dictatorship, and helped preserve Turkish independence against Soviet demands for control of the Black Sea straits. His insistence on reestablishing France as a great power promoted the rehabilitation of the only postwar Western European nation capable of raising a mass army that could put up a fight against a Soviet incursion. 

In all these matters, he was at odds with Stalin and frequently at variance with Roosevelt. He was hamstrung by the uncomfortable fact that Britain had become a junior partner in the alliance, dependent on American financial support and facing an uphill struggle to reestablish itself as a major power in the postwar world. Given his lack of leverage, his diplomatic achievements were substantial.

Roosevelt was the preeminent leader of democracy during World War II. No other national leader expressed the ideals of freedom so frequently and eloquently nor indulged so naturally in the conviction that liberal-democratic values were destined to become global norms. He defined the purpose of the war in such telling phrases as “Four Freedoms,” and “United Nations.” He was determined to establish a new international organization that would keep the peace and enforce the precepts of liberal democracy around the world. In all these ways, he followed in the footsteps of the president under whom he had served a generation earlier, Woodrow Wilson.

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