Revisiting History–President Bush Confronts the Past

President George W. Bush’s European schedule presented the White House with several difficult and complicated diplomatic questions. After all, the celebration of “V-E Day,” marking the end of World War II in Europe, was complicated by increased tensions with Russia and its neighbors. The president’s May 7 address in Riga, Latvia takes on an entirely new significance when we understand that the American president chose to speak in the capital city of one of the nations that had been enslaved by the Soviet Union for almost half a century.

Speaking on the eve of the 60th anniversary of V-E Day, President Bush first celebrated the anniversary of Adolph Hitler’s defeat. “The evil that seized power in Germany brought war to all of Europe,” the president stated, “and waged war against morality itself.” The president continued, “What began as a movement of thugs became a government without conscience, and then an empire of bottomless cruelty. The Third Reich exalted the strong over the weak, overran and humiliated peaceful countries, undertook a mad quest for racial purity, coldly planned and carried out the murder of millions, and defined evil for the ages. Brave men and women of many countries faced that evil, and fought through dark and desperate years for their families and their homelands. In the end, a dictator who worshipped power was confined to four walls of a bunker, and the fall of his squalid tyranny is a day to remember and to celebrate.”

Those were strong words, and the president could safely have ended there. After all, there is little risk in denouncing Hitler and celebrating the fall of the Third Reich.

But what the president said next was a significant departure from what American presidents had said in the past, and nothing less than a direct spear of criticism struck to the heart of the Soviet Union. After honoring the Baltic states for their struggle against tyranny, President Bush looked back, not only to the fall of the Third Reich, but to the foundation of the Cold War. “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 repression. The agreement at Yalta followed in the unjust tradition of the Munich, 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.”

Characterizing the Yalta agreement as “one of the greatest wrongs of history” was an amazing admission for an American president. After all, it was President Franklin D. Roosevelt who met at Yalta with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. The “Big Three” met in the Crimea as the war in Europe was coming to an end–but as Hitler still had a massive number of troops on the ground. In anticipation of victory, Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin looked to the future. Roosevelt was looking for a way to establish an international organization that would prevent another global catastrophe as well as a means of returning American troops within two years after victory. Churchill was working to establish France as a Continental great power that would relieve Britain–bankrupted by years of war–from the sole position of leadership in post-war Europe. Stalin was looking for far more. He arrived in Yalta determined to establish Soviet supremacy over Central and Eastern Europe–and he left the conference having achieved all of his goals.

The distance of six decades allows a more dispassionate reconsideration of what was really at stake at Yalta, and what really happened as a result of the agreements forged there. For years, many have criticized Roosevelt for refusing to use American military power to force Soviet troops out of Poland and other occupied territories. Others counter that such a move would have led to World War III–a war the American people were almost certainly unprepared and unwilling to fight. No doubt, the Soviets already controlled most if not all of the lands they were claiming. Nevertheless, the Yalta agreement led directly to the enslavement of millions of people and to the deaths of other millions in the Soviet gulags and the machinery of the Soviet system.

President Bush’s statements in Riga served to set the record straight. With amazing candor and remarkable grace, the American president returned to what is now a painful moment in our own nation’s history. “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.”

The president’s admission that the Yalta Agreement was “one of the greatest wrongs of history” represented both a diplomatic landmark and an act of moral courage. His tracing of American efforts to encourage the enslaved peoples of Europe reminds us all that tyranny, once established, must be confronted with both military and moral force.

Looking even beyond the president’s comments, Americans would do well to look back to Yalta with both embarrassment and moral analysis. As historian Arthur Herman recalls, the Yalta agreement was based upon several principles now revealed to be fallacious. As he writes, “The first of these fallacies was that collective security is more important than democracy and human rights.” Exhausted after years of war, the Allies sought to preserve their own interests rather than to press for human rights and the establishment of democratic governments. The Yalta agreements gave lip service to democracy, but were written with such elasticity that the Soviets could redefine democracy in their own terms. Herman points to the United Nations as the focus of the second Yalta fallacy: “Multilateral bodies can create common purpose among nations with conflicting interests.” As he argues, the framers of Yalta believed that “the United Nations would succeed where the League of Nations had failed. Instead, the U.N. would prove to be just another theater for superpower conflict over the ages–and by including two of Stalin’s puppet Soviet republics as members, Yalta fatally blurred the distinction between democratic and despotic regimes as legitimate voices of the ‘world community.'”

By the time the Allies met at Yalta, Churchill was growing exhausted and Roosevelt was nearing death. Of the three, only Stalin would continue in power and thus be able to exert his personal leadership. The absence of Churchill and Roosevelt from the world scene–in the case of Churchill at least for a time–gave Stalin virtually unrestricted opportunity to redefine the terms of the Yalta agreement. When V-E Day finally arrived on May 8, 1945, Roosevelt was dead. His successor as president, Harry S. Truman, inherited the legacy of Yalta. Speaking on V-E Day, Winston Churchill seemed to understand that Yalta meant disaster for much of Europe. In his radio broadcast, Churchill warned: “On the continent of Europe, we have yet to make sure the simple and honorable purposes for which we entered the war are not thrust aside or overlooked.” He understood that the defeat of the Third Reich would mean little, if totalitarian or police Governments were to take the place of the German invaders.

Nevertheless, even Churchill–who had long been concerned that Roosevelt underestimated Stalin’s intentions–believed that there was little the U.S. and Britain could do to prevent the Soviet conquest of occupied territories.

“It is not permitted to those charged with dealing with events in times of war or crisis to confine themselves purely to the statement of broad general principles on which good people agree,” Churchill recalled in his memoirs. “They have to take definite decisions from day to day. They have to adopt postures which must be solidly maintained, otherwise how can any combinations for action be maintained? It is easy, after the Germans are beaten, to condemn those who did their best to hearten the Russian military effort and to keep in harmonious contact with our great Ally, who had suffered so frightfully. What would have happened if we had quarreled with Russia while the Germans still had two or three hundred divisions on the fighting front? Our hopeful assumptions were soon to be falsified. Still, they were the only ones possible at the time.”

Sadly, Churchill may have been right. The assumptions of Yalta may have appeared to be “the only ones possible at the time.” They are not the only possible assumptions of our time, however. President George W. Bush set the record straight in characterizing the Yalta agreement as “one of the greatest wrongs of history.” The President demonstrated courage as he spoke these words to a nation that had fallen under Stalin’s iron grip. Let’s hope the world was listening.