8 May 2005
Yalta, Truth and Tact
By Gwynne Dyer
Presidents aren’t expected to know much history, but their speech-writers are — and even presidents are expected to be considerate of their hosts’ feelings. President George W. Bush’s speech in Riga on Saturday did not measure up.
It wasn’t Bush who started the quarrel about whether the Soviet Union “liberated” or “occupied” Eastern Europe after 1945. It was the presidents of Lithuania and Estonia, who refused to go to Moscow for the ceremonies on Monday commemorating the Soviet defeat of Germany 60 years ago, and the presidents of Latvia and Poland, who only agreed to go with great reluctance. But Bush jumped into the argument with enthusiasm, insensitivity, and considerable ignorance.
What he did was to condemn the Yalta agreement of February, 1945, signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt for the United States, Winston Churchill for Britain, and Joseph Stalin for the Soviet Union. It didn’t actually “carve Europe up” between the victors, but it did give each of them responsibility for getting certain liberated countries (mostly the ones their armies already occupied) back on their feet and restoring them to independence.
Bush condemned Yalta, claiming that the Western allies had needlessly sold the Eastern European countries into forty years of Communist rule and Soviet control. “We will not repeat the mistakes of other generations, appeasing or excusing tyranny, and sacrificing freedom in the vain pursuit of stability,” Bush promised, implicitly accusing Roosevelt and Churchill of just those crimes — and then he flew off to Moscow to shake the hand of his host, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Bush was going to Moscow to commemorate Russia’s sacrifices in the struggle against Nazi aggression, which were far greater than America’s. The two countries had roughly equal populations at the time, but about 27 million Russians died in the war, compared to only 405,000 Americans. Moreover, it was the Soviet army that tore the guts out of the Nazi military machine.
When the US, British and Canadian armies landed on the Normandy beaches in June, 1944, they were faced by about fifty German army divisions; at the same time the Soviets were facing over 200 German divisions. Moreover, the Soviet army beat the Germans because by the end it had better equipment, better fighting skills and endless determination. (Its numerical superiority over the Germans was less than two-to-one, lower than the advantage that the Western allies usually enjoyed.)
By 1945, the Soviet army was the strongest ground fighting force in the world. It physically controlled the Eastern European countries that became Moscow’s responsibility at Yalta. Moscow later installed Communist regimes there (partly because it wanted a buffer zone of friendly regimes between it and Germany, and partly just because it could) — and there was absolutely nothing that Roosevelt or Churchill could do about it. President Bush is in favour of wars to overthrow undemocratic regimes, or so he says, but against the Soviet Union in 1945? That’s just crazy.
As the war turned against them, the Nazi leaders began to fantasise that they could persuade the Western allies to switch sides and join them in a campaign to destroy the Soviet Union and wipe out Communism, but nobody in Britain or the United States ever considered it. If they weren’t willing to do that, however, how were they going to prevent the Soviet army from both liberating AND occupying Eastern Europe?
Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia were especially upset about this week’s ceremony in Moscow, for they were the victims of the secret Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 that was the starting gun for the Second World War. Stalin got German assent to his annexation of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and eastern Poland (thus restoring the borders of the pre-1914 Russian empire), and Germany got the rest of Poland.
When Hitler invaded Poland in September, 1939 to collect his share of the deal, Britain and France declared war on Germany in Poland’s defence. They did not also declare war on the Soviet Union, though in strict morality they should have, because they had their hands more than full just dealing with Germany. And the United States, safe behind its oceans, did nothing.
Two years later, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, and effectively signed his own death warrant. Six months after that, the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbour finally drew the United States into the war, and American industrial strength played a big part in hastening the defeat of the Nazis during the latter half of the war. But it was the Russians (and the Chinese, who tied down most of the Japanese army) who paid most of the price in human lives for defeating the Axis.
That deserves respect, as does the fact that the Red Army actually did liberate Eastern Europe from something far worse than Communism. By mid-war, the Nazi regime planned not only to exterminate the Jews and the Gypsies, but to starve 35 million “useless eaters” in Eastern Europe to death to make room for German settlers.
Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians and Poles have a right to resent both what Stalin did to them and the present Russian government’s refusal to apologise openly for the past. President Bush has the right to support them, though they face no threat from Moscow and this was not the week to pour fuel on the flames. But it was simply not fitting for President Bush to talk like this while he was on his way to Moscow to join the Russians in mourning their 27 million dead.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 8. (“When…enjoyed”; and “As the war…Eastern Europe”)