Yalta and the Neoconservatives
Last January, in an article in the New York Review of Books entitled “Neoconservative History,” Theodore Draper delivered himself of a fevered attack on four pieces in COMMENTARY which he accused of slandering Franklin D. Roosevelt and misrepresenting the role he played at the Yalta conference of 1945. Three of the pieces thus singled out for attack were the contributions of Lionel Abel, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, and Robert Nisbet to the symposium, “How Has the United States Met Its Major Challenges Since 1945?” (November 1985). The fourth was an article by John Colville, “How the West Lost the Peace in 1945” (September 1985).
According to Draper, these writers severally and in concert have resurrected the “Yalta myth”—a myth invented by right-wing opponents of liberal internationalism in the early 1950's and intensified by McCarthyites. Today, says Draper, in the service of a new assault on the Rooseveltian heritage of liberal internationalism, the neoconservatives—and here his wrath turns upon Irving Kristol in particular—have not only brought the “myth” back but have done so by means of a deliberate falsification of history.
Contrary to the “myth,” Draper maintains, Roosevelt and Churchill at Yalta did not sign away Poland and Eastern Europe to Stalin. The fait accompli already had happened: i.e., the Red Army already had the region in its clutches. At Yalta, the Western leaders signed an agreement with Stalin which, had the Soviet dictator lived up to it, “might have extricated Poland” from the Soviet grip. But, Draper writes, “words hardly mattered” at Yalta; what mattered was “brute power.” Thus, “Yalta was a dividing line, not because of what happened there, but because of what happened after it.”
Yet if we are to understand what happened at Yalta, the main task surely is to ask not “what happened after it” but what happened before it. For here what is past really is prologue.
Specifically we must inquire—as Jeane Kirkpatrick and Nisbet do—into Roosevelt's mind-set in the four years before Yalta. In doing so, we must avoid either being vindictive or full of praise. Instead we simply must ask: what was Roosevelt's overriding strategic objective in World War II? Subordinate to that, what was his view of the Soviet element in the war after June 22, 1941?
Here we deal not with Roosevelt alone, but with a major component of an American strategic attitude. In the war, Roosevelt displayed both the best and the worst qualities of American attitudes toward war and peace. The clear merits of Roosevelt as wartime leader were that he wished to employ American force in the most concentrated fashion in order to gain battlefield victory quickly, rejecting doctrines, such as those of Liddell Hart and Churchill, which argued for a strategy of indirection that could have prolonged the war. Roosevelt instinctively sensed the impatience of the American public, which, hating war, despised protracted conflicts. He thus in effect abandoned politics and became Commander-in-Chief. (As he himself said in 1942, “Dr. Win-the-War” had replaced “Dr. New Deal.”) Roosevelt also understood the need for Americans to have a sure and even simple principled base for going to war. Beyond defeating Hitler and Tojo, he therefore enunciated a high goal: the Four Freedoms, which he was able to sell to Churchill at the Atlantic Conference in 1941.
Such vague and principled aspirations were in themselves important; they were (and remain) consonant with a long American liberal tradition. But what of the serious “political goal,” so crucial to seminal strategists like Clausewitz? Here we come to Roosevelt's defects which, like his merits, were also consonant with a long American tradition.
The great Spanish liberal historian, Salvador de Madariaga, once wrote a little book, The Blowing Up of the Parthenon, a commentary on the early years of the cold war and the wartime years which preceded it. Like Arthur Koestler and others, he described World War II as a triangular war, among the liberal democracies, the Nazi totalitarians, and the Leninist totalitarians.
But to be more precise than Madariaga, World War II as a triangular war consisted of phases and theaters. In phase one, 1939-41, Hitler and Stalin arrayed themselves against the West; in phase two, 1941-45, Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin arrayed themselves against Hitler. In the theaters, however, the triangular war continued uninterruptedly through both phases—as may be seen, for instance, in Yugoslavia and China, where battles raged among pro-Western, pro-Soviet, and Axis forces.
Another, somewhat different example—the terrifying episode of the Warsaw uprising in 1944, where Nazi and Soviet forces in taut concert eliminated the Polish pro-Western resistance—remains a hideous scar on the Western conscience. As the recently published Roosevelt-Churchill correspondence shows, the British leader vainly pleaded with Roosevelt to demand of Stalin that Anglo-American airborne assistance be permitted to reach the freedom fighters. Roosevelt procrastinated. As the Red Army stood by on the east bank of the Vistula, Hitler's forces exterminated the Poles.
I cite this unpleasant instance of triangularity not as a revelation derived from hindsight, but as one in which the actors at the time knew full well what was going on. Why was Roosevelt so loath to act? Because, surely, his overriding political objective was defeating the Axis; war-winning excluded or superseded all other considerations.
Moreover, while Churchill recognized the triangularity of the war, Roosevelt did not, seeing it rather as a sequential set of conflicts.
During the time of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, in a 1940 White House speech to the Communist-dominated American Youth Congress, Roosevelt gave a bitter, extemporaneous tongue-lashing to the Soviet Union and to American fellow-travelers. The USSR, he then said, was run by a dictatorship as absolute as any in the world, and was allied with another dictatorship. Scarcely two years later, Stalin, the absolute dictator, had to Roosevelt become “Uncle Joe.” Was this transformation in Roosevelt's mind a consequence of a changed Realpolitik situation, or was it a result of genuine self-mesmerization?
This is no idle question. As to nuances of triangularity in the Roosevelt administration, Roosevelt, regardless of his own personal convictions, certainly harbored, among his advisers, individuals of known pro-Soviet persuasion. (There were, by contrast, no crypto-Nazis in Roosevelt's cabinet or on his staff at that or any other time.) One Soviet agent went with him to Yalta—Alger Hiss; others, like Harry Dexter White, played significant roles in shaping U.S. postwar policy in both China and in Central Europe.
But long before these events, in the 1930's, Roosevelt, cultivating Stalin before Hitler did, dispatched the notoriously pro-Soviet Joseph Davies as Ambassador to Moscow—an appointment which at the time almost caused the U.S. Moscow embassy staff to resign en masse.
In addition, in 1937, as George Kennan tells it in his Memoirs, the White House one day out of the blue ordered the State Department to dismantle its Division of East European Affairs (colloquially known as the Russian Division)—a full-scale, sudden purge of talented Sovietologists, who then were banished to obscure posts like Teheran. The division's precious archives unceremoniously were removed to dark, obscure stacks in the Library of Congress; the State Department thus was blinded, as far as its knowledge of Soviet affairs was concerned. As Kennan comments:
I never learned the real background of this curious purge. It was rumored that the Western European Division considered that we in the Russian Division “took Russia too seriously”—that we gave it attention that was out of proportion to that given by other divisions to other countries. I have no doubt there was something in this; but it surely was not the whole story. There is strong evidence that pressure was brought to bear from the White House. I was surprised, in later years, that the McCarthyites . . . never got hold of the incident and made capital of it; for here, if ever, was a point at which there was indeed the smell of Soviet influence . . . somewhere in the higher reaches of the government.
Small wonder, then, that Roosevelt in 1942 already wrote to Churchill that he, Roosevelt, should be the leader in wartime discussions with Stalin, since Stalin trusted him and distrusted Churchill's advisers as anti-Soviet! “I know you will not mind my being brutally frank with you when I tell you that I think I can handle Stalin better than your Foreign Office or my State Department. Stalin hates the guts of all your top people. He thinks he likes me better and I hope he will continue to do so.” (Draper, in a subsequent exchange of letters in the New York Review, dismisses this statement as mere Rooseveltian boast-fulness; it helps considerably, however, to understand the context for this boast, if boast it was and not simple candor.)
Whatever one makes of such speculations, it is undoubtedly true that from the moment of Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt gave his undivided attention to winning the war—this was the job to be done. It is also true that he paid very little attention to Soviet wartime actions or their portents. Whatever worries others in his entourage may have had, Roosevelt simply does not appear to have been bothered about Stalin's possible betrayal of the Allied war effort. Instead, Roosevelt clearly defined the war in simple ways. He wished to smash the Axis. Also, he had two fronts to fight upon: the American front in the Pacific and the joint front in Europe. He thought it necessary to get Stalin's help, after VE day, in winning against Japan, and he was willing to pay the price of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe for that.
Yet considering the combination of these obvious facts, we still must judge Roosevelt for the missing element in his equations—an absence of strategic reflection as to the likely contours of world politics after the Axis collapse and defeat. Despite Draper's tortured attempt to make it appear otherwise, again and again Churchill tried to remind Roosevelt of the political implications and side effects of battlefield operations, particularly the unpleasant ones. Again and again, as in the Warsaw uprising affair, Roosevelt showed little interest
This Roosevelt mind-set, it must be emphasized, infected key subordinates and their battlefield decisions as well: no political considerations other than those related to the surrender of Nazi Germany were allowed to contaminate field operations. One logical consequence of this was to be seen in the spring of 1945, soon after Yalta, when Eisenhower—charged, as Allied Supreme Commander, with the pursuit and defeat of the Reichswehr—turned his forces southward toward a pitiful Reichswehr redoubt in Bavaria, and away from the momentous drive to Berlin. The decision may have been Eisenhower's alone, but it certainly was compatible with Roosevelt's overall strategy. In any event, it was the Soviet Red banner which was raised in triumph over the Reichstag in May 1945, and not the Stars and Stripes.
If Roosevelt correctly sized up the American temperament, then both as politician and warrior-leader he succeeded brilliantly. Americans got what they wanted—a quick solution. But as statesman he failed miserably. The eastern periphery of the Free World was thenceforward to lie to the west of Magdeburg, and Prague, which could easily have been taken by American forces, was to experience Red Army liberation instead. Roosevelt led his nation to victory, but at a price which his colleague Churchill clearly did not wish to share, and whose dangers many experienced and well-informed Americans on whom the White House could have drawn (such as Averell Harriman, George Kennan, and others) also sensed.
What happened at Yalta itself was the catastrophic consummation of these wartime strategic decisions. In fact, that consummation was foreshadowed by the very choice of Yalta as a site.
“Magneto” was the code word used by Roosevelt and Churchill in 1944 in correspondence to denote their upcoming summit meeting with Stalin in early 1945—as though the yet-to-be-determined site for it, had Stalin insisted, might have been in Magnetogorsk in far Siberia. The two Western leaders tried to lure Stalin (“U.J.,” for “Uncle Joe,” as they both by then called him) to various Mediterranean places. Stalin feigned ill health: such a long trip was impossible. So the ailing American President (who was soon to die) and his British partner (then recovering from a bout of pneumonia) ventured on a perilous long voyage to a disease-wracked and rubbled Soviet city.
The site agreement corresponded in one respect with previous summit locations, and with the one later to be held in Potsdam. During the war, Anglo-American leaders invariably went east. During the entire war, from 1939 to 1945, only twice did a major Soviet leader venture beyond the Red Army's pale to treat with the enemies of Stalin's enemies. This was Molotov, who went to Berlin in December 1940 and then to London and Washington in 1942. The wartime Moscow, Teheran, Yalta, and Potsdam conference sites thus betokened a Western supplicant willingness to deal with the totalitarian partner on his own turf. So the chosen site was Yalta.
Draper tries to put a good face on Roosevelt's conduct there, but his sophistries cannot and do not explain the coy, flippant role the President assumed in the negotiations, posing as genial umpire between Churchill the British imperialist and Stalin the Russian socialist. Nor does Draper's perverse revisionism explain why Roosevelt should have abandoned a common front with Churchill, engaging in bilateral talks with Stalin in which he and the Soviet dictator discussed ways to overthrow the British Raj in India.
But as the title of his article indicates, Draper is not mainly interested in what happened at Yalta in 1945; he is interested in discrediting the neoconservative critique of the neutered internationalism of the Carter years. To accomplish this, indeed, he abruptly changes gears, and subject, in the last section of his article and launches an assault on “the so-called neoconservative ideology,” which is supposedly typified by the foreign-policy writings of Irving Kristol.
Draper himself was once a very sharp critic of détente.1 But like many other formerly hardheaded analysts of the Soviet-American conflict, he seems to have become so fearful of Soviet power that he is now trying to dissociate himself from his earlier ideas. He has every right to change his mind on these matters. But this gives him no license to warp the thoughts of others. While it is, for example, fair enough to say that Irving Kristol is against liberal internationalism and in favor of “global unilateralism,” most other neoconservatives, including (as Draper himself is forced to acknowledge) Jeane Kirkpatrick, remain committed precisely to the liberal internationalist tradition which Roosevelt helped to shape but whose principles he himself then betrayed in appeasing Stalin at Yalta.
What is even worse than Draper's failure to distinguish among the varieties of neoconservative thought, however, is his near-hysterical defamation of those who are still trying to dispel the kinds of illusions about the Soviet Union that Franklin D. Roosevelt brought with him to Yalta, and that—thanks in part to people like Draper—now enjoy a dangerous revival.
1 See, for example, his article, “Détente,” in the June 1974 COMMENTARY.