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Covering the Map of the World — The Half-Century Legacy of the Yalta Conference, Part 3


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The Yalta meeting was the culmination of the wartime conferences between Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt. Both Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt placed a high value on personal diplomacy. Churchill believed in the “great man” theory of history. As John Charmley has recently expressed it in his biographyChurchill: The End of Glory (1993), Churchill believed that “such men could be recognized by the mark they made on their own and subsequent ages, and knowing himself to be one, Churchill enjoyed making contact with others of the same species.” He had used personal diplomacy with great effect in his relationship with FDR, first in establishing a stream of war material from America under Lend-Lease and then obtaining American participation in the war against Nazi Germany.

While deeply suspicious of communism and the Soviet Union, Churchill believed that a similar personal relationship could work with Stalin — in getting the Soviet leader to work with him in determining the political settlement that would rule the world at the end of the war. He traveled to Moscow in August 1942, wanting to establish such a relationship with the “old Bear,” as Churchill called Stalin.

The first two sessions in the Kremlin went badly, with Stalin insulting the British as cowards unwilling to fight with the same aggressiveness as the Red Army. Rather than remind Stalin that the British had fought alone against Hitler for the year between the fall of France in June 1940 and the Nazi invasion of the U.S.S.R. in June 1941 — a year during which the Soviet Union was informally allied with Hitler under the terms of the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of August 1939 — Churchill confided to one of his aids, “I still feel I could work with that man [Stalin] if I could only break down the language barrier.” He was convinced that he and Stalin were not getting along because something was being lost in the translation. Stalin played up to Churchill at their next session, inviting the British leader to his country house outside Moscow for a late-night supper. Churchill said afterwards, “I was taken into the family, we ended friends.”

Churchill again traveled to Moscow in October 1944 for a personal one-on-one meeting with Stalin. After the meeting, Churchill wrote to his wife: “I have had a very nice talk with the old Bear. I like him the more I see him.” And to Clement Attlee, he wrote, “Stalin had made several expressions of personal regard which I feel were all sincere.”

At the center of this meeting was a proposal of Churchill’s to carve up southeastern Europe into joint British-Soviet spheres of influence. According to the British ambassador, who was present at the meeting, Churchill “produced what he called a ‘Naughty document,’ showing a list of Balkan countries and the proportion of interest in them of the Great Powers. He said the Americans would be shocked if they saw how crudely he put it. Marshal Stalin was a realist. He himself was not sentimental.”

Churchill proposed that Romania be ninety percent under Soviet influence and ten percent under British influence; Bulgaria would be seventy-five percent under Soviet influence and twenty-five percent under British influence; Greece would be ten percent under Soviet influence and ninety percent under British influence; and in Yugoslavia and Hungary, the Soviets and Britain would split their influence, fifty-fifty. Stalin changed Bulgaria to ninety percent Soviet influence and signed his approval. When Churchill suggested burning the document, Stalin told him to keep it.

Churchill, who had expressed anger and voiced condemnation over Stalin’s division of Eastern Europe with Hitler in 1939, now proposed to do the same. And Churchill abided by the agreement. When, at the beginning of 1945, Stalin began forcibly deporting Germans out of Soviet-occupied Romania, Churchill said: “Why are we making a fuss about the Russian deportations in Romania of [Germans]?. . . It is understood that the Russians were to work their will in this sphere.” And when members of the British Foreign Office then complained that Romanians were being sent to the Soviet Union for forced labor, Churchill said: “We must bear in mind what we promised about leaving Romania’s fate to a large extent in Russia’s hands. I cannot myself consider that it is wrong of the Russians to take Romanians of any origin they like to work in the Russian coal-mines.” In Churchill’s mind, he had gotten what he wanted: a dominant British influence in Greece and Stalin’s acceptance of British naval dominance in the Mediterranean.

Churchill took the same attitude towards the fate of Poland. In September 1939, Churchill had strongly advocated Britain’s going to war against Nazi Germany on behalf of Poland’s independence and territorial integrity. But now in the face of Soviet designs on Poland, Churchill’s tune changed. From the first meetings with British diplomatic representatives after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Stalin had insisted that the British government accept as legitimate the Soviet conquests under the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939. The Soviet leader demanded the acceptance of Soviet control of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, eastern Poland, the Romanian province of Bessarabia, and the border territories annexed as a result of the Soviet-Finnish War of 1939-1940.

At first, Churchill tried to resist, saying that these matters should be settled at a peace conference at the end of the war. But in the end, he conceded everything Stalin wanted. Indeed, it then became Churchill’s job to serve as Stalin’s diplomatic agent to get the Polish government-in-exile in London to accept the Soviet demands. Churchill told Polish Premier Stanislaw Mikolajczyk that Stalin’s demands for permanent annexation of eastern Poland and a coalition Polish government with a strong contingent of communists hand-picked by Moscow were ones he agreed with “not because Soviet Russia is strong but because she is right.” If the Poles resisted, Britain would just leave Poland to its fate under Stalin. After all, he said, Poland would be compensated with large portions of German territory to the west.

At his meeting with Stalin in 1944, he had told the Soviet dictator that giving Poland these areas of Germany would involve expelling millions of Germans from their homes. “The population might be moved from Silesia and east Prussia to Germany,” Churchill said to Stalin. “If seven million [Germans] had been killed in the war there would be plenty of room for them.” (Churchill had already made an agreement with the Czechoslovakian government-in-exile to expel over three million Germans from the Czech Sudetenland at the end of the war.)

Franklin Roosevelt also wanted a personal and what he called an “intimate understanding” with Stalin. In early 1942, FDR wrote to Churchill:

I know you will not mind my being brutally frank when I tell you that I think I can personally handle Stalin better than either your Foreign Office or my State Department. Stalin hates the guts of all your top people. He thinks he likes me better, and I hope he will continue to do so.

And the fact that Stalin was a dictator was viewed by FDR as an advantage in cutting any deals. “What helps a lot,” Roosevelt told one of his assistants, “is that Stalin is the only man I have to convince. Joe doesn’t worry about a Congress or a Parliament. He’s the whole works.”

At their first meeting at the Teheran Conference in November 1943, Roosevelt did everything in his power to endear himself to “Uncle Joe,” as FDR and Churchill affectionately called Stalin. At a private meeting without Churchill’s presence, Roosevelt told Stalin that he could do anything he wanted in Poland and the Baltic Republics. The transcript recounts that “jokingly” FDR said “that when the Soviet armies re-occupied [Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania], he did not intend to go to war with the Soviet Union over this point.” Besides, if an election were held in these three countries, Roosevelt was “personally confident that the people would vote to join the Soviet Union.” However, FDR did not press the issue of having any such free elections.

On the Polish question, Roosevelt said that he agreed with Stalin that the eastern part of Poland should be incorporated into the Soviet Union and that German territory to the west should be transferred to Poland. However, FDR explained to Stalin that the next presidential election was only a year away, and he could not make any public declarations on these issues. There were six or seven million Poles in America and “as a practical man [he] didn’t want to lose their votes.”

Roosevelt’s cynicism on transferring peoples and lands through secret deals between himself and Stalin was complete. According to Averell Harriman, who was U. S. ambassador to the Soviet Union during part of the war, “On one occasion in May [1944] the president had told me that he didn’t care whether the countries bordering Russia became communized.”

To amuse Stalin and curry favor with him, FDR even sank to ridiculing Churchill in front of the Red Czar. During the Teheran meeting, Roosevelt later said:

I began to tease Churchill about his Britishness, about John Bull, about his cigars, about his habits. It began to register with Stalin. Winston got red and scowled. . . . I kept it up until Stalin was laughing with me. . . . From that time on our relations were personal.. . . The ice was broken and we talked like men and brothers.

And what of Stalin? What did all of this personal diplomacy and “intimate understanding” among “great men” mean to him? Stalin had neither friends nor “brothers.” His was a world of political intrigue and psychological manipulation. He once revealed the workings of his mind to two of his communist comrades-in-arms during a conversation in 1923. “To choose one’s victim, to prepare one’s plans minutely, to slake on implacable vengeance, and then to go to bed,” Stalin explained. “There is nothing sweeter in the world.” He slept, it is said, with a copy of Machiavelli’s The Prince by his bed. In his Marxist mind of class conflict and capitalist encirclements, threats and enemies were everywhere. No one was above suspicion or to be trusted. If we are to believe Khrushchev, Stalin, in fact, once remarked, “I trust no one, not even myself.”

How did Stalin view FDR? According to one of Stalin’s translators, Valentin Berezhkov, in his book At Stalin’s Side (1994), the Soviet dictator considered Roosevelt to be a great manipulator trying to get the best of him. When Roosevelt offered in January 1942 to send American troops to the northern Soviet port of Murmansk and the Caucasus Mountains in the southern part of the Soviet Union to free Soviet forces to fight on the battlefront, Stalin viewed this as an attempt by FDR to grab Soviet territory.

When anti-Soviet articles appeared in American and British newspapers, Stalin refused to accept the idea that the press was not under complete government control in America and Britain. He believed this was all part of a “bourgeois ploy” and a double game that FDR and Churchill were playing against him. When Roosevelt failed to immediately deliver on some of Stalin’s demands because of congressional delay, Stalin said:

Roosevelt is talking about Congress again. He thinks I will believe that he is truly afraid of Congress. . . . He does not want to do it, and he is using Congress as an excuse. It is all nonsense! He is their military leader and commander in chief. Who would dare to object to him? It is just convenient for him to hide behind Congress. But he won’t take me in.

In 1944, Yugoslavian communist Milovan Djilas was in Moscow. During a late night dinner, Stalin summarized how he viewed his two war-time allies:

Churchill is the kind who, if you don’t watch him, will slip a kopeck out of your pocket. Yes, a kopeck out of your pocket. . . . And Roosevelt? Roosevelt is not like that. He dips in his hand only for bigger coins.

In his own paranoia and vision of Marxian class conspiracies, Stalin viewed Churchill’s and Roosevelt’s personal diplomacies as simply attempts to defeat him on the chessboard of global politics. Churchill’s proposal for a percentage division of southeastern Europe into spheres of influence was, in Stalin’s mind, an attempt on the part of the British prime minister to pick his pocket for a few “kopecks” in a part of Europe that Stalin planned to completely make his own. As for Roosevelt’s policy of giving to Stalin everything that he could and asking for nothing in return, other than the hope that Stalin would then work with him in creating a new deal for a tired world — as exemplified in the American President’s initiation of a discussion that resulted in FDR’s telling Stalin that Poland and the Baltic Republics were his to do with as he chose — this merely persuaded Stalin that Roosevelt was really trying to pull a fast one; Roosevelt was obviously only dipping for “bigger coins.” Stalin was not going to let himself be taken in. And at Yalta, he did not.

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    Dr. Richard M. Ebeling is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel. He was formerly professor of Economics at Northwood University, president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).