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Covering the Map of the World — The Half-Century Legacy of the Yalta Conference, Part 1

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In the late afternoon of February 4, 1945, the “Big Three” of the Allied side in World War II — Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin — took their seats around a conference table at Livadia Palace, a few miles south of Yalta on the Crimean Peninsula in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

The war in Europe was rapidly reaching its end. On the Western front, American, British, and other Allied forces had successfully turned back Hitler’s last offensive of the war in December 1944, when the German Army had attempted to attack across Luxembourg and Belgium and cut off the British forces in southern Holland from the main body of American forces in northern France. The Western Allies, in February, were now poised to begin their assault to capture the German Rhineland and make the push into the heart of the Nazi Reich.

On the Eastern front, in early February 1945, the Soviet Army was already less than fifty miles from the outskirts of Berlin. In July 1944, Moscow radio had made an appeal to the Polish resistance to take up “direct active struggle in the streets” of Warsaw to assist the Red Army, which by then had reached the east bank of the Vistula River, opposite the Polish capital.

On August 1, 35,000 members of the Polish underground Home Army rose up and attacked the German garrison in Warsaw. For sixty-three days, until October 2, they fought against the German Army, at the end of which 15,000 Polish freedom fighters were dead, 200,000 other Polish civilians had also been killed, and most of Warsaw was in ruins.

During these two months, Stalin’s army neither attacked the Germans nor gave artillery cover to the Polish forces who had responded to Moscow’s call for armed resistance. Nor would Stalin allow British and American planes to drop supplies to the Polish forces and then land in Soviet-controlled territory for refueling.

The Polish underground Home Army had been the backbone of the anticommunist and noncommunist resistance forces. The failed uprising left them shattered. This meant that there was now no large and well-organized Polish group left to oppose the “Lublin Poles,” the communist underground organization hand-picked and controlled by Stalin.

Only in December did the Red Army again take the offensive on the Polish front, and by February 1945, most of western Poland and portions of eastern Germany up to the Oder River had been “liberated” by Stalin’s forces. The Red Army was now preparing for the battle to capture the capital of the Nazi Reich.

During this first week of February, in the former palace of Czar Nicholas II in the Crimea, the Big Three leaders were meeting to determine the fate and future of the postwar world. Chairing the opening session, on February 4, President Roosevelt proposed that “each would speak his mind frankly and freely, since he had discovered through experience that the best way to conduct business expeditiously was through frank and free speaking.” FDR added that he “knew that while they were here in Yalta they would cover the map of the world.”

Before the Big Three was an agenda that was truly global in its nature: the future of freedom in Eastern Europe; the fate of Germany in the postwar era; the establishment of a world-peace organization — the United Nations; the control of the colonial empires; and the strategy for victory in the Pacific War against Japan once Germany was defeated. And the horizon of their agenda stretched practically until the end of the century. At the third session, on February 6, FDR said that he “felt strongly that all the nations of the world shared a common desire to see the elimination of war for at least fifty years,” and under their stewardship, he believed that this was “feasible and possible.”

Who were these Big Three upon whose shoulders the fate of the world was held at this Yalta Conference? On the evening of February 8, these world leaders held a dinner for themselves at which the vodka and champagne flowed freely and forty-five toasts were made. Stalin began by proposing a toast to Winston Churchill, who he characterized as “the bravest governmental figure in the world. . . . [D]ue in large measure to Mr. Churchill’s courage and staunchness, England, when she stood alone, had divided the might of Hitlerite Germany at a time when the rest of Europe was falling flat on its face before Hitler.” Stalin “knew of few examples in history where the courage of one man had been so important to the future history of the world.”

If the burden for starting the Second World War fell on the shoulders of Adolph Hitler (and, as we shall see, Joseph Stalin), the burden for its prolongation and severity belonged on the shoulders of Winston Churchill. In the late 1930s, Churchill had opposed any attempt to reach an accommodation with Hitler. After the German invasion and occupation of Poland in September 1939, Churchill had resisted any and all attempts to reach a compromise that would have limited and ended the war. As First Lord of the Admiralty in Neville Chamberlain’s war cabinet, he was impatient with the lack of British aggressiveness. In March 1940, he persuaded the other cabinet members to violate Scandinavian neutrality and invade Norway. When German intelligence gained information about this, Hitler ordered the invasion and occupation of Denmark and Norway, beating the British by only a few days. Only then did Churchill cry out against the violation of the territorial integrity and neutrality of little countries.

In May 1940, Hitler sent his armies across the borders of Holland and Belgium, and by the middle of June, half of France was conquered by the German army; the French capitulated, and an armistice left two-thirds of France under direct German occupation. In Stockholm, Sweden, the representatives of several members of the British cabinet had meetings with German representatives about the possibility for a compromise peace.

Hitler proposed that Britain remain independent and a major sea power, neither paying Germany any war indemnities nor surrendering any portion of its empire to the Nazi Reich; Hitler spoke of offering units of the German Army to serve under British command to maintain the British Empire and preserve the mastery of the “white race” over the “inferior” peoples of the world. Hitler only wanted British acceptance of German dominance on the European continent.

Churchill, now the prime minister of the war cabinet, cut off all talks with the German government. Instead, desperately needing the help of the United States, he ordered the British air force to begin bombing cities and civilian targets in Germany, hoping to instigate a German retaliation that would shock Americans into coming to Britain’s aid when photos would arrive across the Atlantic showing bombed English cities. Churchill got what he wanted — the destruction of Coventry and the London Blitz.

It is also worth keeping in mind that the mass destruction of the European Jews in the Nazi death camps did not begin in full force until 1942 and 1943. Before then, Hitler often spoke of the “final solution” as primarily involving the deportation of the Jews to somewhere out of Europe, a place like the island of Madagascar off the east coast of Africa. But with the British and Free French occupation of the island in 1942, that option was closed. In the world of “what if” history, if Churchill had not closed the door to peace talks with Hitler in 1940 and if a negotiated peace had been arranged, part of such a peace settlement could have been the deporting of the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe to Madagascar, and many, maybe most, of the six million Jews might not have had to perish in the Nazi death camps.

Throughout 1940 and 1941, Churchill did everything in his power to bring the United States into the war on Britain’s side. He set up secret propaganda departments to work clandestinely in the United States and often in violation of American neutrality laws passed by Congress. He succeeded in bringing the United States into the war through the “back door” of a Pacific conflict. The British and their Australian allies had broken some of the major Japanese military codes. Churchill, in November and December 1941, was seeing day-by-day secret Japanese code material about the coming attack against the American fleet at Pearl Harbor. He failed to pass along any of this material to Washington. Better a surprise attack to arouse the indignation of the American people than any American countermove that would foil the attack before it occurred. (See the review ofBetrayal at Pearl Harbor: How Churchill Lured Roosevelt into WW II inFreedom Daily, December 1991.)

This was Winston Churchill, “the bravest governmental figure of the world . . . one man . . . so important to the future history of the world,” as Stalin had toasted him. But what about Stalin himself, the Red Czar of Soviet Russia? After receiving such high praise from his Soviet host, Churchill replied with a toast to Stalin. He hailed “Stalin as the mighty leader of a mighty country, which had taken the full shock of the German war machine, had broken its back and driven the tyrants from her soil.” Churchill said he “knew that in peace no less in war Marshall Stalin would continue to lead his people from success to success.”

Before the Bolshevik Revolution, Stalin had been a minor player in the Leninist movement, sometimes involved in bank robberies to fund revolutionary activities in the Transcaucasian area of the Russian Empire. Strong evidence suggests that he may have even played a double game, occasionally serving as an informer for the Okhrana, the Czarist secret police. After the Bolshevik Revolution and Russian Civil War, he established a powerful niche for himself as General — Secretary of the Communist Party, responsible for selecting new candidates for Party membership and assigning and promoting Party members to positions of authority and power in the Soviet government. He soon had a vast and expanding network of Party members loyal to him for their personal power and privileges. By the end of the 1920s, after Lenin’s death in 1924, he had defeated most of his rivals for supreme power in the Communist Party structure.

In 1929, he instituted the first five-year plan and ordered the collectivization of agriculture in the Soviet Union. When the peasants resisted the loss of their farms and private land, he waged a four-year war against the Kulaks, who were private farmers who Stalin labeled counterrevolutionaries. Planned famines, mass deportations of peasants to Siberia and central Asia, and brutal executions broke the resistance to Stalin’s collective farm system. The best estimates suggest that as many as nine to twelve million peasants and private farmers died in the march towards collectivization. During this period, in 1931, Lady Astor of Great Britain was privileged with an audience with Stalin in the Kremlin. At one point she asked him pointblank, “And how long are you going on killing people?” Stalin calmly replied: “As long as it is necessary. . . . [T]he violent death of a large number of people was necessary before the Communist State could be firmly established.”

In the 1930s, Stalin destroyed all opposition to his rule and power through a series of show-trials and purges of the Communist Party, in which it is estimated that over four million people were killed. Many more millions ended up in the vast network of slave-labor camps that stretched like islands of terror and despair across the entire Soviet Union, what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn called “The Gulag Archipelago” — with the fate of many of these being a cruel death, as well.

In 1939, Stalin began his play for Soviet domination of Europe. Years earlier, in a secret speech to the Communist Party Central Committee in January 1925, Stalin had laid out the strategy from which he never swerved in foreign policy: “But if war breaks out [in Europe] we shall not be able to sit with folded arms. We shall have to take action, but we shall be the last to do so. And we shall do so in order to throw the decisive weight into the scales, the weight that can turn the scales.” Stalin’s Marxist-Leninist view was that any war that broke out in Europe would be a war between the imperialist and capitalist nations. The strategy was to deflect any attack against the Soviet Union, and instead allow the capitalist nations to fight each other to exhaustion, at which point the Soviet Army would enter the war and conquer the European continent for the Communist cause.

In August 1939, Stalin put the strategy into practice by signing a nonaggression pact with Hitler, which meant that the war would be fought in the West among Germany, Britain, and France, leaving the Soviet Union safe and secure. In the meantime, the secret protocols of the Nazi-Soviet Pact gave Stalin control over eastern Poland, the Baltic Republics, Bessarabia, and Finland. Stalin’s plan was that in 1942, at the latest, the Soviet Army would attack Germany, now that France was finished and England was weak and isolated off the European coast. The only problem was that Hitler double-crossed Stalin first by invading the Soviet Union in June 1941. This did not stop Stalin, after the German defeat at Stalingrad in the winter of 1942-43, however, in proposing a separate peace to Hitler through intermediaries in neutral Sweden, and obviously at the expense of his British and American allies. The only thing that prevented it was the fact that Hitler was unwilling to pay Stalin’s price for ending the war on the eastern front. (See the review of Icebreaker: Who Started the Second World War? in Freedom Daily, November 1991.)

This was Joseph Stalin, “the mighty leader of a mighty country,” who Churchill was sure “would continue to lead his people from success to success.” And what about the third figure of the Big Three, Franklin Delano Roosevelt? Stalin now proposed a toast to FDR.

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    Richard M. Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).