Sunday, March 24, 2013

Yalta and the beginning of the Cold War/Long War

The Yalta Conference of February, 1945 was a key summit meeting in the last year of the Second World War, in which British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, US President Franklin Roosevelt and Soviet leader Generalissimo Joseph Stalin agreed on various aspects of the postwar world. It was to become a major point of contention during the Cold War, primarily because of the agreements made on the fate of eastern European nations.

Fraser Harbutt in Yalta 1945: Europe and America at the Crossroads (2010) takes a new look at the conference and the years of wartime negotiation that led up to it. He particularly focuses on Anglo-Soviet relations during that period. He frames his discussion in terms of two large processes at work in the network of relationships between Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union: the attempt of Churchill and Stalin to establish a stable postwar order in Europe divided into a western zone dominated by Britain and an eastern zone under Soviet dominance; and, the effort of the Americans to draw the Soviets into active cooperation in a functional postwar United Nations structure for the international order.

Prime Minister Churchill, President Roosevelt and Generallisimo Stalin at the Yalta Conference, 1945

Hindsight may be 20-20 but it looks along the lines of what actually occurred. From the viewpoint of the later Cold War and now from the continuing Long War, Yalta was a major event in the historical process of a heavy US involvement in Europe, Americans leaders and the public having recognized the mistake of withdrawing from major involvement in the Old Continent and the League of Nations after the First World War. But FDR had to work to build the consensus in Congress and the general public for such an major change in long-term policy. The Yalta Conference and the optimistic vision of it that the Roosevelt Administration presented in the last weeks of the President's life became an important moment in that process.

But prior to Yalta, it was by no means clear to Stalin and Churchill that the US would become the major postwar player in Europe that it did. Nor was it apparent until late in the war to Churchill that it would no longer be able to play the large role in western Europe it had previously, in part because the Indian independence movement was becoming much stronger and the US was serious about pushing for decolonization of the British overseas possessions. So until late in the war, Stalin and Churchill assumed that the USSR and Britain would be the mutual leaders of an east-west alignment after the war. He writes of the state of play in early 1944:

Both Stalin and Churchill were Clausewitzian to their fingertips and acutely sensitive to the evolving political implications of the war. During 1944 their geopolitical interests in and around the European arena began to converge as the compression of the Axis center brought them physically closer together, even as they began to confront the potentially discordant and often ideologically tinged struggles for local dominance in the European states they were liberating. (p. 143)
The summit meeting between Churchill and Stalin in October 1944 plays a large role in Harbutt's account. This encounter is mainly remembered by this moment of drama:

The crucial exchanges began with a somewhat garish scene engraved on the memories of all modern diplomatic historians. Churchill, thinking the moment "apt for business," pushed a piece of paper across the table to Stalin. It contained certain percentages reflecting the actual or projected degree of British or Soviet influence in each Balkan state: Britain to have 90:10 in Greece; the Soviet Union to have 90:10 in Rumania; Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and Hungary to be shared 50:50. Stalin, according to Churchill, examined the document for a moment, placed a large blue tick upon it and returned it to Churchill. (p. 176)
This is typically treated as a diplomatic exercise that involved little practical consequence and was not a binding commitment. Nevertheless, the scene embodies the way in which both the British and the Russians understood their approach to the postwar world. Here, writes Harbutt, "both by explicit agreement and natural political implication it endorsed the Soviet grip upon virtually all the parts of Eastern and Central Europe that later came under its full sway." (p. 178) Here, the British conceded Hungary to Soviet dominance, but the future of Poland remained to be settled. This was a major issue at Yalta and the topic of bitter recriminations against Roosevelt in particular ever since.

Harbutt's book is regular old diplomatic history. He gives minimal attention to military developments and none to social history. But he does remind us of the bare realities of the military realities at the end of the war. The Red Army was in control of eastern Europe. The Western powers could not have dislodged them without a new world war, which would have been madness to launch. But he does not try to evaluate the interesting question of whether FDR and Churchill won more at the negotiating table over the future of eastern Europe than battlefield realities alone would have permitted.

But he does examine what went wrong in the Yalta agreements and the British-US-Soviet relationships that led to an East-West confrontation that we now know as the Cold War. In the third lecture in his History and Freedom, Theodor Adorno relates how at the beginning of the Third Reich, two policeman showed up at his door and did a house search. He reflects on the fact of that search that the search itself is a basic fact that was experienced in the most immediate way. Yet the fact cannot be fully understood without knowing about the larger context. A house search under a normal democratic regime with the rule of law would be unpleasant; it's a different experience for a Jewish household under a newly-established dictatorship with a strong anti-Semitic orientation.

The aftermath of Yalta is a dramatic example of how larger forces work themselves out in a set of particular events and decisions that leaves us wondering whether with a different set of players that things might have turned out more happily. The left-revisionist view of the beginning of the Cold War usually treats Roosevelt's death and Harry Truman's accession to the Presidency as a decisive turning point toward the Cold War. Examining the East-West tensions within the wartime allowance at the time of FDR's passing, Harbutt writes:

... the fact that the Anglo-American front had reached this point of development by early April should surely caution us against a cavalier dismissal of the immediate post-Yalta period, sometimes brushed aside by historians who, looking for a crucial turning point, move too quickly from Roosevelt's supposedly sophisticated summit accommodationism to President Harry Truman's initial militance. For, focusing entirely on a "high politics" approach, we have seen a serious falling out among the Big Three since Yalta, due both to British and American concern about the stalemate in the Polish negotiations and to Soviet upset over the disjunction between the conference itself and the divergent presentation of it to an essentially captive world audience by the Western powers. The effects of this can be quickly summarized: a drift toward an East/West line-up, a trend exacerbated by Roosevelt's utopianism that, when challenged, turned slowly but perceptibly to a show of resistance to Moscow; Stalin's harsh correctives in Poland and Eastern Europe; and Churchill's exploitation of the growing United States-Soviet divide in the hope of a fundamental reorientation. By April 12 [Roosevelt's death] this tendency - involving a fading Europe/America scenario and a growing East/West line of thought and action - was already well under way. (pp. 354-5)
It's important to recognize these individual factors in terms of looking at what future negotiators and strategists might do better. Despite the fact that the Iraq War and the practice of austerity economics in the EU and the US during the current depression both give reason to wonder how much the Very Serious People ever learn from history.

Harbutt argues that Cold War began in early 1946 with the confrontation in the UN Security Council over the Soviet troops stationed in Iran and political dealings shenanigans they were pulling there. This established the Cold War line-up of a Western bloc dominating the United Nations aligning itself against the Soviet Union. He argues against taking the use of the atomic bomb against Japan as the beginning of the Cold War:

... it is very clear that after the Truman administration turned away from confrontation in late May 1945, a quieter period followed. There were innumerable distractions ranging from the apparent Big Three collaboration at Potsdam, through the shocks of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to victory over Japan, and then the turn of public attention to the agitations of demobilization and socioeconomic reconversion. The Soviets, for their part, were busy consolidating their position in Eastern Europe; the British turned during the summer to a domestically oriented Labour government.

But none of [the major] issues [among the Big Three], important as they seemed at the time or in retrospect, were inflamed enough in 1945 to drive the United States and the Soviet Union into a general political confrontation. Few scholars accept today, for instance, the revisionist argument that the atomic bomb was used against Japan primarily to intimidate the Soviets. It undoubtedly fostered anxiety and suspicion in Moscow and inspired Stalin to accelerate his own nuclear program. Truman, and especially Byrnes, privately viewed the American monopoly as a diplomatic asset, but they were studiously unprovocative in public and by November had committed the United States to the principle of international control, hardly the action of a state bent on intimidation." (p. 373)
This seems to me to be a fair evaluation of Truman's considerations of the effects of using the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a demonstration of anti-Soviet intentions. As Harbutt notes, the Truman Administration was very much aware of the potential diplomatic usages of the Bomb. But any such considerations were, at best, very much secondary ones in that case. How the Soviet leaders perceived those usages of the atomic bomb is another question, one into which Harbutt does not enter in this book. Even Gar Alperovitz, a leading revisionist historian on the Hiroshima/Nagasaki bombings, in The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb and the Architecture of an American Myth (1995) doesn't go further than circumstantial suggestions that such a motive on the part of the Truman Administrations may have played a larger role than generally recognized.

Could the Cold War have been avoided and what role did the Yalta plans for the postwar world play in it? Harbutt suggests that there was a basic contradiction between the universalist structure envisioned in the United Nations project and the insistence of the Soviet Union on practical dominance in eastern Europe. In selling Yalta to Congress and the American public as the triumph of the universalist vision and attempting to hide the practical agreement by Britain and the US to Soviet desires in eastern Europe, Roosevelt set the conditions that Churchill and others who were enthusiastic for an East-West confrontation after the war later exploited to portray the Soviet Union as a relentlessly hostile power. Harbutt:

One tantalizing question remains. Could the Anglo-Soviet concert - the long-anticipated scenario so suddenly subverted by Yalta - have avoided, had it survived the post-Yalta shakeout, the Cold War? Many during World War II had envisioned an ostensibly solid postwar structure, with Europe divided reasonably harmoniously between a Soviet-dominated East and a British-led West and a still-detached United States presiding benevolently: in North America. The flaw in that design, increasingly obvious after the frenzy of destruction in Western Europe early in I945, was the comparative weakness of the Western European grouping in relation to the Soviet bloc. There were, as we have seen, several personal and material causes for this. But much of the political responsibility lies with Winston Churchill. For despite a brief if vigorous effort in late I944, his influence was on the whole destructive. His passionate response at Yalta to a paper from the British embassy in Moscow advocating support for a postwar Western bloc give us a clue to his deeper preoccupations. His reply was succinct: "to make Britain safe she must become responsible for the safety of a cluster of feeble states. We ought to think of something better than these." (p. 407)
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