Once Again, the Big Yalta Lie

By Jacob Heilbrunn
Jacob Heilbrunn is a Times editorial writer.

Los Angeles Times

May 10, 2005

During his visit to the Baltics over the weekend, President Bush infuriated Russian leader Vladimir V. Putin by declaring the obvious: that the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe was "one of the greatest wrongs of history." But it was what he said next — comparing the Yalta accord among Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin in 1945 to the Hitler-Stalin pact — that should cause outrage here at home.

The claim that Roosevelt betrayed Eastern Europe at Yalta, and that he set the stage for 40 years of Soviet domination, is an old right-wing canard. By repeating it, and by publicly charging that the Yalta agreement was in the "unjust tradition" of Hitler's deal with Stalin, Bush was simply engaging in cheap historical revisionism. His glib comments belong to the Ann Coulter school of history.

The slander against Roosevelt that Bush has taken up dates back to the early 1950s, after Harry Truman and Dean Acheson had supposedly "lost" China to communism. That's when the American right first decried what it viewed as a consistent pattern of "appeasement" in the Democratic Party. The right contended that Roosevelt "sold out" Eastern Europe at the Yalta conference by promising the Soviets an unchallenged sphere of influence in the region.

One element of the right-wing mythology developed in those years was that Alger Hiss, who served during the war as an assistant to Secretary of State Edward Stettinius Jr. — and who was charged in the years that followed with being a Soviet spy and was convicted of perjury — was instrumental in getting Roosevelt to collude with Stalin against Churchill. It was none other than Joseph McCarthy who declared in February 1950 that "if time permitted, it might be well to go into detail about the fact that Hiss was Roosevelt's chief advisor at Yalta when Roosevelt was admittedly in ill health and tired physically and mentally." In later decades, conservatives such as Ronald Reagan would denounce any negotiations with the Soviet Union as portending a new "Yalta."

But what actually happened at Yalta? Let's review the facts. The conference itself took place in the seaside Crimean city in February 1945, during the final months of the war. A delegation of more than 600 British and U.S. officials, including FDR and Churchill, met with Stalin. They discussed postwar borders and issued a "Declaration on Liberated Europe" calling for free elections in Poland and elsewhere.

The truth is that Yalta did not hand Eastern Europe to the Soviets. That territory was already in their possession. Stalin had made clear his plan to take over as much territory as possible back in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939, which carved Poland in half and gave the Soviets the Baltic states. The discovery in 1943 of the massacre of Polish officers by the Soviet army in the Katyn forest was further evidence of Stalin's malign intention to exterminate the leadership of Poland. Then, in 1944, during the Warsaw uprising by the Polish Home Army, Stalin halted the advance of his army on the banks of the Vistula River and allowed Nazi SS units to return to slaughter the Poles. By the time of Yalta, the Red Army occupied all of Poland and much of Eastern Europe.

Theoretically, Churchill and Roosevelt could have refused to cut any deal with Stalin at Yalta. But that could have started the Cold War on the spot. It would have seriously jeopardized the common battle against Germany (at a moment when Roosevelt was concerned with winning Soviet assent to help fight the Japanese, which he received).

Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower was happy to let the Soviets bear the brunt of the fighting as they marched toward Berlin, and he was unwilling to expend American troops on storming the German capital. The only one who was eager to do that was Gen. George Patton, who hoped to take on the Russians as well. Given the domestic pressure to "bring the boys back home," Roosevelt would have been taking a politically suicidal course had he broken with our allies, the Soviets.

Roosevelt was hardly perfect at Yalta. He was naive about Stalin's intentions and believed he could cajole the dictator into following more moderate policies. But FDR's approach was not particularly different from that of Churchill (who had declared that he would "sup with the devil" to win the war, which is what he and Roosevelt, in effect, did).

As for the charges about Hiss' influence, they've been overblown by the right for political purposes; in fact, Hiss was a minor player at Yalta.

What's more, it was the isolationist right that never wanted to fight the war in the first place, which it conveniently forgot once it began attacking Democrats as being soft on communism. Nothing of course could be further from the truth. Roosevelt went on to recognize Stalin's perfidy shortly before he died, and it fell to Truman to fight the Cold War.

Roosevelt's record is no cause for shame, but Bush's comments are.