Did He Really Say That?
You know, my expectations for President Bush’s historical literacy are not high. But his comments in Riga, Latvia on Saturday at the commemoration of the anniversary of the 60th anniversary of the Allied victory over Hitler managed to fail to clear even my abysmally low bar.
As we mark a victory of six days ago — six decades ago, we are mindful of a paradox. For much of Germany, defeat led to freedom. For much of Eastern and Central Europe, victory brought the iron rule of another empire. V-E Day marked the end of fascism, but it did not end oppression. The agreement at Yalta followed in the unjust tradition of Munich and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Once again, when powerful governments negotiated, the freedom of small nations was somehow expendable. Yet this attempt to sacrifice freedom for the sake of stability left a continent divided and unstable. The captivity of millions in Central and Eastern Europe will be remembered as one of the greatest wrongs of history.
OK. First, the one thing he actually managed to get right: it was a colossal tragedy that the nations of Eastern Europe had to exchange one dictator for another at the end of the war. Seriously. After so many years of war and oppression, they deserved their freedom as much as the people of the West did.
However. Bush compares the Yalta conference, at which the victorious Allies set up the framework for postwar Europe, to be morally equivalent to such odious doings as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which was the 1939 agreement between Nazi Germany and the USSR to jointly invade and divide up Poland.
Now, I see why Bush might get a bit of a kick talking this way — it fits his usual, generic “democracy is job 1” rhetoric. But it’s more than a little offensive. Yalta was not an agreement to make something happen that was not already in place, like Molotov-Ribbentrop was — it was a simple recognition of the facts on the ground. In 1945 the Red Army was in control of Eastern Europe, and Stalin wasn’t going to order them out anytime soon. Churchill and Roosevelt could protest, but they had little leverage. Stalin already had what he wanted. Yalta was a recognition of this, not the cause of it.
Bush’s words go beyond historical illiteracy into offensiveness because they imply that Britain and America should have done something about this state of affairs. What would Bush have had us do? Declare war on the USSR and try to push them out of Eastern Europe altogether? Fat chance — the Red Army dwarfed the other Allied forces, Britain had already been bankrupted by fighting the Nazis, and America was weary of war and ready for peace. There are some mountains you just can’t climb; Churchill and Roosevelt had the wit to recognize that, even if Bush does not.
And it’s not like they left Yalta empty-handed. At Yalta, Churchill and FDR got Stalin to at least agree to hold fair elections in his territories — even if they knew he would never act on this promise, just by getting him to make the agreement, they were maneuvering him from the position of World War ally into the Cold War enemy, seizing the moral high ground for the West in the rift that they must have known was coming.
Oddly, after excoriating the heroic leaders of the WW2 generation for not being macho enough to stick up for democracy (!), Bush seems to change his mind in the next breath:
The end of World War II raised unavoidable questions for my country: Had we fought and sacrificed only to achieve the permanent division of Europe into armed camps? Or did the cause of freedom and the rights of nations require more of us? Eventually, America and our strong allies made a decision: We would not be content with the liberation of half of Europe — and we would not forget our friends behind an Iron Curtain. We defended the freedom of Greece and Turkey, and airlifted supplies to Berlin, and broadcast the message of liberty by radio. We spoke up for dissenters, and challenged an empire to tear down a hated wall. Eventually, communism began to collapse under external pressure, and under the weight of its own contradictions. And we set the vision of a Europe whole, free, and at peace — so dictators could no longer rise up and feed ancient grievances, and conflict would not be repeated again and again.
That’s all substantially true — but if we had walked away from Yalta and resolved to free the East by force, none of it would be. Instead the history of the second half of the twentieth century would be a story of even more global war, fought across the world, with millions of casualties and Europe’s recovery delayed by decades — and, almost certainly at some point, some level of atomic war between the combatants, with all the consequences that implies.
The people of the world were spared all that because of the decisions Churchill and Roosevelt made at Yalta, and in the immediate postwar months that followed. The outcome of the war wasn’t perfect; but given the reality of the USSR and Stalin, it’s easy to see how it could have been a lot worse. President Bush should think about that before he boils every leadership decision down to Democracy™ vs. Dictatorship™.