This week, while touring the remnants of the former Soviet Union on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany, President Bush gave perhaps the greatest diplomatic performance of his career, balancing a host of moral and strategic interests simultaneously. In the Baltic republics, he recognized that the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe was "one of the greatest wrongs in history." In Russia he carefully avoided alienating the Russians too much. In Georgia he literally danced a jig and championed liberty for the entire world.
But the most exciting part of the president's trip, for some of us, was when he reignited one of the great debates of the 20th century: Did America betray Eastern Europe at the end of the Cold War? This question, symbolized by the debate over the Yalta conference, which codified the division of Europe, has preoccupied the left and right for nearly 50 years. Indeed, by revisiting the issue this week, Bush showed the consistency of his foreign policy since he took office. In his first European address - in 2001, before 9/11 - Bush declared "No more Munichs, no more Yaltas!"
Some quick background. The conference took place in the Crimean city of Yalta in February 1945. The war in Europe was winding down and America didn't yet have the atomic bomb. At the conference, America and Britain conceded to a host of Stalin's demands, including accepting the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe and the forced repatriation of all soldiers, refugees and other escapees of the Soviet Gulag.
This second set of concessions is usually left out of the debate over Yalta because it was so indefensible. The Allies understood that they were sentencing hundreds of thousands of men (and quite a few women and children) to death and misery. Many of these refugees went to extraordinary lengths to end the war in British and American custody only to be forcibly - i.e., at gunpoint - returned to the Soviets for liquidation. Many killed themselves and their families rather than go back. Shame on us all.
As for the more famous controversy over conceding Eastern Europe to the Soviets. This is a tougher nut to crack, and hyperbole has been common to all sides of the debate. One of the many layers to the controversy is the fact that Alger Hiss, the proven Communist spy - once beloved by liberals everywhere - was an advisor to FDR at the conference. How much of a role he played remains hotly debated. But only fools and Communist sympathizers would today disagree with the statement that he played too much of a role.
Defenders of FDR, who always had a soft spot for Stalin - "I like old Joe" - and defenders of Churchill, who understood completely what a barbarian Stalin was, claim that there was nothing the West could do. And besides, by consigning millions of East Europeans to slavery for generations we received in return a promise from Stalin to help defeat Japan in the pacific - eventually. Of course, Hiroshima made that chit worthless.
For example, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the revered liberal historian who has always considered it part of his job description to carry more water than Gunga Din for Democratic presidents, responded to Bush's speech with the usual haughty incredulity. "The American president is under the delusion that tougher diplomacy might have preserved the freedom of small East European nations. He forgets the presence of the Red Army. No conceivable diplomacy could have saved Eastern Europe from Soviet occupation."
Jacob Heilbrunn was more splenetic in the Los Angeles Times, caterwauling about Bush's peddling of "right-wing mythology" and the "Ann Coulter school of history."
The history is debatable. Schlesinger's emphasis on the word "diplomacy" is revealing. He writes, "It was the deployment of armies, not negotiating concessions, that caused the division of Europe." But the concessions at Yalta were possible because America chose to let Stalin occupy Eastern Europe. If, for example, General Patton had had his way, much of the occupation wouldn't have been a fait accompli. Schlesinger & Co. argue that Yalta was a concession to the necessities of reality. I wonder if FDR's defenders think tougher diplomacy is similarly pointless regarding, say, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank? Israel has it now, so that should settle the issue.
It's ironic: Liberals celebrated Bill Clinton's numerous apologies for America's Realpolitik "mistakes" during the Cold War as a sign of great statesmanship. But when an apology reflects poorly on the mistake that basically launched the Cold War, they bang their spoons on their highchairs about any attempt to tarnish FDR's godhood.
This raises the larger moral point. After a war to end one evil empire, we signed a piece of paper accepting the expansion of another evil empire. And it happened at Yalta.