Yalta and the Death of the ‘Good War’
This month marks the 75th anniversary of the infamous meeting at Yalta of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and President Franklin Roosevelt. Yalta has become a synonym for the abandonment of oppressed people and helped inspire the 1952 Republican campaign theme “20 years of treason.” It is time now to recall and recognize the lessons of that betrayal.
FDR painted World War II as a crusade for democracy, hailing Stalin as a partner in liberation. From 1942 through 1945, the U.S. government consistently deceived the public about the character of the Soviet Union. Roosevelt praised Soviet Russia as one of the “freedom-loving Nations” and stressed that Stalin is “thoroughly conversant with the provisions of our Constitution.” Harold Ickes, one of FDR’s top aides, proclaimed that communism was “the antithesis of Nazism” because it was based on “belief in the control of the government, including the economic system, by the people themselves.” (Shades of Bernie Sanders!)
The fact that the Soviet regime had been the most oppressive government in the world during the 1930s was irrelevant so far as FDR was concerned. As Georgetown University professor Derek Leebaert, author of Magic and Mayhem, observed, “FDR remarked that most of what he knew about the world came from his stamp collection.”
Yalta was preceded by years of pro-Soviet propaganda by the U.S. government and its media lackeys. In his 1944 State of the Union address, FDR denounced those Americans with “such suspicious souls—who feared that I have made ‘commitments’ for the future which might pledge this Nation to secret treaties” at the summit of Allied leaders in Tehran the previous month. This helped set the two-tiered attack that dominated much of post-war American foreign policy—denouncing cynics and betraying foreigners whom the U.S. government claimed to champion. Never mind that Soviet spies had already infiltrated Washington, including the FDR White House.
Prior to the Yalta conference, FDR reportedly confided to his ambassador, William Bullitt, how he felt about Stalin: “I think if I give him everything I possibly can and ask for nothing in return, noblesse oblige, he won’t try to annex anything and will work with me for a world of democracy and peace.” Stalin wanted assurances from FDR and Churchill that millions of Soviet citizens who had been captured during the war by the Germans or who had abandoned the Soviet Union would be forcibly returned. After the war ended, Operation Keelhaul forcibly sent two million Soviets to certain death or long-term imprisonment. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn called Operation Keelhaul “the last secret” of World War II. It was covered up or ignored by Western media until the 1970s.
On March 1, 1945, FDR gave a speech to Congress on the glorious results of Yalta. His final spiel on Capitol Hill was one of the biggest cons of his career. A few weeks earlier, in the final communique from Yalta, FDR had declared, along with Churchill and Stalin, that “a new situation has been created in Poland as a result of her complete liberation by the Red Army.” Liberation? Tell it to the Marines. FDR then declared to Congress, “The decision with respect to the boundaries of Poland was, frankly, a compromise…. It will include, in the new, strong Poland, quite a large slice of what now is called Germany.” FDR agreed with Stalin at Yalta to move the border of the Soviet Union far to the west—thereby effectively conscripting 11 million Poles into Soviet citizenship.
Poland was “compensated” with a huge swath of Germany, a simple cartographic change that spurred vast human carnage. As author R.M. Douglas noted in his 2012 book Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans After the Second World War, the result was
the largest episode of forced migration, and perhaps the single greatest movement of population, in human history. Between 12 million and 14 million German-speaking civilians – the overwhelming majority of whom were women, old people, and children under 16 -were forcibly ejected from their places of birth in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, and what are today the western districts of Poland.
At least half a million died as a result. George Orwell denounced the “relocation” as an “enormous crime” that was “equivalent to transplanting the entire population of Australia.” Philosopher Bertrand Russell protested: “Are mass deportations crimes when committed by our enemies during war and justifiable measures of social adjustment when carried out by our allies in time of peace?”
FDR signed these death warrants at Yalta. Freda Utley, the mother of TAC publisher Jon Utley, did some of the first and best reporting on the vast suffering ensuing from the German expulsions. (The U.S. government approved similar brutal mass forcible transfers in the former Yugoslavia during the Clinton administration.)
FDR boasted to Congress, “As the Allied armies have marched to military victory, they have liberated people whose liberties had been crushed by the Nazis for four long years.” At that point, FDR and the State Department knew this was a total lie for areas that had fallen under the control of the Red Army. Roosevelt also claimed that the deal at Yalta was “the most hopeful agreement possible for a free, independent, and prosperous Polish people.” Yet he betrayed the exiled Polish government in London and signed off on Soviet-style “elections” with no international observers—effectively giving Stalin unlimited sway over Poland’s rulers.
Any illusions about Soviet benevolence towards Poland should have been banished when the Red Army massacred the Polish officer corps at Katyn Forest—an atrocity, according to documents since released by the National Archives, that the U.S. government assiduously covered up (and blamed on the Nazis).
In a private conversation at Yalta, FDR assured Stalin that he was feeling “more bloodthirsty” than when they’d previously met. Immediately after the Yalta conference concluded, the British and American air forces turned Dresden into an inferno, killing up to 50,000 civilians. The Associated Press reported that “Allied air bosses” had engaged in the “deliberate terror bombing of great German population centers as ruthless expedient to hasten Hitler’s doom.” Ravaging Dresden was intended to “‘add immeasurably’ to FDR’s strength in negotiating with the Russians at the postwar peace table,” as Thomas Fleming noted in The New Dealers’ War.
FDR told Congress that the Yalta Agreement “spells the end of the system of unilateral action and exclusive alliance and spheres of influence.” By the time he died the following month, FDR knew that democracy was doomed in any turf conquered by the Red Army. Yet the sham had been immensely politically profitable for Roosevelt and his successors kept up much of the charade.
American government secrecy and propaganda efforts did their best to continue portraying World War II as the triumph of good over evil. Yet if Americans had been told in early 1945 of the barbarities that Yalta had approved of regarding captured Soviet soldiers and the brutal mass transfer of German women and children, they would have been aghast. War correspondent Ernie Pyle offered a far more honest assessment: “The war gets so complicated and confused in my mind; on especially sad days it’s almost impossible to believe that anything is worth such mass slaughter and misery.”
In the decades after Yalta, presidents have continued to invoke lofty goals to justify U.S. military intervention in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria. In each case, massive secrecy and perennial lies have been necessary to maintain a facade of benevolence. Americans have still not seen the secret files behind the harebrained, contradictory interventions in Syria from the George W. Bush administration onwards. The only certainty is that, if we ever learn the full truth, plenty of politicians and other government officials will be revealed to have been bigger scoundrels than was ever suspected.
“Presidents have lied so much to us about foreign policy that they’ve established almost a common-law right to do so,” George Washington University history professor Leo Ribuffo observed in 1998. On the 75th anniversary of Yalta, Americans have no reason to presume that presidents, top government officials, or much of the media are more trustworthy now than they were during the final years of the “Good War.”
James Bovard is the author of Lost Rights, Attention Deficit Democracy, and Public Policy Hooligan. He is also a USA Today columnist. Follow him on Twitter @JimBovard.