Two Yalta Myths

By Alger Hiss (The Nation, January 23, 1982). 

There are two myths about Yalta. The first, propagated by Franklin Roosevelt’s early cold-warrior critics, suggested that an ailing President had “sold out” Poland and Eastern Europe by yielding to Joseph Stalin’s demands. Now, in the wake of the Polish crisis, this first myth is being turned on its head. Liberal pundits, notably Robert Kleiman, a member of the New York Times editorial board, and Flora Lewis, a columnist for the same paper, have correctly observed that no agreement on spheres of influence was reached at Yalta in February 1945. But they dispel this first “myth of Yalta” in a manner that casts doubt on the de facto recognition of spheres of influence by the United States and the Soviet Union that has emerged since the war. The new myth is a very dangerous one in an age of first-strike nuclear weaponry.

On January 7, a signed piece by Kleiman appeared on the editorial page of the Times under the headline “Once More the Yalta Myth.” Kleiman attacked the negative attitudes of some Europeans, especially West Germany’s Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, toward Western sanctions against the martial law regime in Poland. Kleiman correctly blamed Roosevelt’s political enemies for starting the myth that he “sold out” Poland: “A generation ago, conservative Republicans spread it widely because they found it a useful way to discredit the Democrats among voters of East European origin.” But he concluded that “East Europe’s rights were indeed the issue at Yalta, but the West did not abandon them there.” The implication is that Western intervention in contemporary Poland is permissible because no agreement on spheres of influence was reached at Yalta. Only in passing did Kleiman mention, “By the time of Yalta, Stalin’s armies controlled most of Eastern Europe. The quarrels in the West, then and since, have turned more on what to say than what to do about that.” How true.

The first myth about Yalta was concocted to denigrate Roosevelt’s terms for postwar peaceful coexistence with the Soviet Union (including the establishment of the United Nations, the plans for which were drawn up at the conference – one of its major achievements). The new myth, ironically put forth in the month of Roosevelt’s birth 100 years ago, also tends to disparage policies of acceptance and caution. While it is true that no agreement on spheres of influence was reached at Yalta, since the war the United States and the Soviet Union have recognized a de facto line in Europe separating the East from the West. If either power should breach this line militarily, the other would regard this action as a casus belli. To cast doubt now on the validity of this tacit agreement is to ignore history. By word and deed, each superpower has repeatedly recognized the other’s sphere briefly: the 1948 Berlin airlift; the U.S. decision to end deNazification policies in occupied West Germany in the early 1950s; the recognition of East Germany by Western powers in the early 1970s; and the West’s non-intervention in the internal upheavals in Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1967, and Poland in 1970 and 1976.

The facts about what happened at Yalta have long been available in official documents, statements of participants in the conference and books by objective scholars. Poland was not Roosevelt’s to give away. By the time of the Yalta conference, Russian troops had pushed the Nazis out of most of Poland, and in a matter of weeks they had occupied the entire country. (They also occupied the Balkan nations.)

The Yalta agreements were concluded soon after the near breakthrough by the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge. In addition, at that time the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who were in no position to take a successful completion of the atomic bomb project for granted, believed that unless the Russians agreed to declare war on Japan after Germany’s defeat (as they subsequently did), the United States would suffer a million casualties or more in an invasion of Japan. In short, the Joint Chiefs opposed a diplomatic confrontation with the Soviet Union at Yalta. Agreement among the Allies was a military necessity. And when an agreement was reached, it was widely hailed by the press (including such conservative Republicans as Henry Luce) and the general public as a diplomatic triumph.

Just before the American delegation, of which I was a member, left Yalta, Secretary of State Edward Stettinius was standing with Gen. George C. Marshall outside our villa. Stettinius turned to Marshall, who had rarely left his desk in Washington during the war years, and said, “General, I assume you are very eager to get back to your desk.” Marshall answered, “Ed, for what we have got here, I would have stayed a month.”

That was the mood of the participants at Yalta. And I have no doubt today that we got as much as circumstances permitted.

Yet the myth that Roosevelt sold out Poland, widely disseminated by many Republicans at the same time that Joe McCarthy was exploiting the Communists-in-government issue, drew support from all manner of conservatives, including rank reactionaries, who joined lustily in the anti-Yalta chorus. Mounting Cold War sentiment made it difficult for accurate accounts of the Yalta agreements to counter the myth, with the result that many, perhaps most, otherwise well-informed Americans have until quite recently regarded Yalta as a dirty word.

Now the new Yalta myth could serve a similar purpose in the hands of those seeking to revive the Cold War. Acceptance of this myth will make it all the more difficult to develop imaginative, effective policies designed to prevent a global confrontation of dangerous dimensions.