Saturday, February 8, 2020

Was the 1945 Yalta Conference a Mirage? — Michael Jabara CARLEY

The relatively smooth waters of cooperation between FDR, Churchill, and Stalin at Yalta concealed roiling cross currents beneath the glistening surface which some historians like to emphasise. These rip tides were quick to erupt in the last weeks of the war.
Much has been written over the years about the wartime Yalta conference, and more ink will no doubt be spilled this year, on its 75th anniversary. Yalta was supposed to mark the beginnings of post-war Anglo-American-Soviet cooperation. Plans were discussed for the United Nations. Germany was to be sorted out so it would not again threaten European security. Reparations in kind were to be paid to the USSR to help rebuild the country. Poland was to be moved westward with a new government acceptable to the Big Three allies. The USSR would come into the war against Japan, and so on. The atmosphere at the meetings was cordial, but the cordiality did not last long. All the high hopes were soon dashed, and then followed by a welter of recriminations. Naïve, sick Franklin Roosevelt (FDR) caved in to Joseph Stalin. Or FDR betrayed Winston Churchill. Or Churchill and FDR abandoned Poland to communism. Or… and this is perhaps the more common view in the West, Stalin betrayed the Grand Alliance and duped his partners. Yalta, whichever way you look at it, did not lead to those “broad, sunlit uplands”, as Churchill put it, on which many pinned their hopes.
The Russian government likes to remind people in the West of the Grand Alliance against Nazi Germany with a view to improving relations in the present for some new common cause, or simply because there is no other alternative. One can understand that need and the reasoning, and more power to the Russians for trying, but as a historian I follow the trails of evidence wherever they lead.
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You will find this extraordinary document in the British National Archives at Kew in a Cabinet file entitled “The Russian Threat to Western Civilisation”. My guess is you can also find fresh files like this one, dated 2014 or after, in top secret US and British government vaults. Foreign Office official Warner was more right than he knew when he wrote about the danger of 100 years of Anglo-Russian hostility. If one starts the clock ticking in 1917, we are at 103 years and counting.
This is why I propose that the Yalta conference was a mirage, brilliant to be sure, but still a mirage. As soon as the German danger subsided, it was back to business as usual in the West. The Grand Alliance was over—it was a “truce”, some of my students have said. The cold war, which began after 1917, then gradually resumed in the spring of 1945. Count the years since 1917 when the USSR and Russia have had good relations with the west and with the United States in particular. Four years out of 103 leaves not quite a century of hostility, and this does not bode well for change in the foreseeable future. It is best to see things as they are, and not as you might wish them to be.