Seventy years ago, on March 1, 1945, Franklin Roosevelt assured a war-weary nation that a new era of international peace and democratic government was at hand. The accords signed just weeks earlier at the Yalta Conference, he told Congress, laid the foundation for postwar cooperation between the Soviet Union and the democratic West.
“Never before have the major Allies been more closely united—not only in their war aims but also in their peace aims,” Roosevelt said. He went on to predict “the end of the system of unilateral action, the exclusive alliances, the spheres of influence, the balances of power, and all the other expedients that have been tried for centuries—and have always failed.”
Whatever the president’s political objectives, he knew this statement to be false. For 11 days during their meetings at Yalta in the Crimea, the “Big Three”—Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Josef Stalin—had argued intensely about their spheres of influence in the postwar world. Their aims were hopelessly at odds. The ideological divisions that would characterize the Cold War were already painfully apparent.
The debate over the fate of Poland—raised in seven of the eight plenary meetings—laid bare the political and moral gulf separating the democracies from Stalin’s Russia. “Poland had indeed been the most urgent reason for the Yalta Conference,” wrote Churchill in Triumph and Tragedy, “and was to prove the first of the great causes which led to the breakdown of the Grand Alliance.” Within days after Yalta, promises of a free, independent, and democratic Poland were betrayed, as the Soviet Union tightened its grip on Eastern Europe.
FDR’s role in the political debacle following Yalta continues to be debated. The presence of the Soviet Army in Eastern Europe, the perceived need for Stalin’s help in the war against the Japanese, the desire to tether the Soviet Union to a newly created United Nations, the massive casualties sustained by the Russians throughout the war—all of these, his defenders argue, limited the president’s choices.
That may be so, but these claims evade a deeper problem—a deficit of political and moral courage. In the years leading up to the Second World War, Roosevelt had kept America militarily enfeebled and morally indifferent: an isolationist democracy unprepared to fight a major conflict without grasping for help from an aggressive, totalitarian state.
Once the United States forged a formal alliance with the Soviet Union in the war against Germany, it was inevitable that Stalin would demand the “fruits” of his victories in Eastern Europe. “It is permitted in time of grave danger,” FDR opined, “to walk with the devil until you have crossed the bridge.” He would have done better to recall another old maxim: “He who dines with the devil had better have a long spoon.”
Instead, Roosevelt’s performance at Yalta assured Poland’s Communist enslavement.
The Nazi invasion and subjugation of Poland in 1939, of course, had triggered the Second World War. With Germany’s defeat near, the American and British negotiating teams went to Yalta determined to compel the Soviets to agree to a new Provisional Government in Poland—reorganized “on a broader democratic basis”—to replace the Communist puppets installed in the fog of war. After that, democratic elections would be held. “Honor was the sole reason why we had drawn the sword to help Poland against Hitler’s brutal onslaught,” Churchill said, “and we could never accept any settlement which did not leave her free, independent, and sovereign.”
But Stalin and his key negotiator, Vyacheslav Molotov, assailed the political integrity of Poland at every turn. After initially agreeing to a new Provisional Government, they insisted that the Communist Lublin Committee remain in control. Roosevelt was conciliatory. “The United States will never lend its support in any way to any provisional government in Poland which would be inimical to your interests,” he assured Stalin. He then assented to Stalin’s demand.
The Soviets also agreed to “free and unfettered elections” in Poland—but reneged on an earlier plan to allow international election observers into the country. Again, FDR backed down. The transcript of their deliberations includes this exchange:
FDR: I want this election in Poland to be the first one beyond question. It should be like Caesar’s wife. I did not know her but they said she was pure.
Stalin: They said that about her but in fact she had her sins.
FDR: I don’t want the Poles to be able to question the elections.
Molotov: We are afraid to leave this phrase in [about election observers] without consulting the Poles. They will feel that it shows a lack of confidence in them. It is better to leave it to the Poles.
FDR: Why not leave this for the foreign ministers and talk about this tomorrow?