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Covering the Map of the World — The Half-Century Legacy of the Yalta Conference, Part 2

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On the evening of February 8, 1945-the fifth day of the Yalta Conference — the Big Three — Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin — adjourned from the official meetings of the day and gathered for a formal dinner, hosted by Stalin, at Koreis Villa. In his account of the conference, Roosevelt and the Russians, Secretary of State Edward R. Stettinius recorded, “The atmosphere at the dinner was most cordial, and it proved to be the most important dinner of the Conference. Stalin was in excellent humor and even in high spirits.” And Winston Churchill “manifested real hope that there could be a world of happiness, peace and security.” Stalin and Churchill exchanged toasts of magniloquent mutual admiration.

Then Stalin proposed a toast to FDR. According to the notes kept by Roosevelt’s translator, Chester Bohlen, and published in the Department of State’s volume The Conferences at Malta and Yalta, Stalin said that he and Mr. Churchill had had simple decisions. Their countries were fighting for their survival against the Nazis.

[B]ut there was a third man whose country had not been seriously threatened with invasion, but who had had perhaps a broader conception of national interest and even though his country was not directly imperiled had been the chief forger of the instruments which had led to the mobilization of the world against Hitler.

President Roosevelt replied to the generous remarks of his Soviet host and said that he “felt that the atmosphere at this dinner was that of a family, and it was in those words that he liked to characterize the relations that existed between their three countries.” While “each of the leaders represented here were working in their own way for the interests of their people,” Roosevelt stated that their greater “objectives here were to give every man, woman and child on this earth the possibility of security and well-being.”

Franklin Delano Roosevelt had been elected the 32nd president of the United States in 1932 as America was reaching the bottom of the nation’s worst economic depression. He had run on a Democratic Party platform that called for cutting taxes, reining in the high government expenditures of the Hoover administration, eliminating excessive government regulation, and respecting the rights and responsibilities of the sovereign states.

But immediately upon taking office, FDR threw away his platform promises and began a great experiment in centralized executive power, gigantic government spending (by historical standards), and the imposition of a planned economy. In a mere one hundred days, Roosevelt transformed the constitutional order of the United States. Congress passed his vast alphabet soup of programs and departments — NRA (National Recovery Administration), AAA (Agricultural Adjustment Administration), WPA (Works Progress Administration), CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps), TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority), and a legion of others. An army of bureaucratic locusts swarmed across the land-regulating, controlling, directing, ordering, and dictating. And political corruption was everywhere.

Nor was this some ad hoc, pragmatic set of emergency measures that somehow absentmindedly was stumbling America into a planned economy. No, the intellectuals who flooded Washington and filled the ocean of new government positions knew what it was they wanted. During the 1932 campaign, one of Roosevelt’s supporters, Stuart Chase, published a book entitled A New Deal , in which he said:

We propose then a National Planning Board [be] set up under the auspices of the Federal government . . . and manned by engineers, physical scientists, statisticians, economists, accountants and lawyers. . . . Why should Russians have all the fun of remaking a world?

James P. Warburg, who had been one of FDR’s economic advisors in 1933 and who had resigned in disgust over the direction taken by the New Deal, wrote in his 1935 book, Hell Bent for Election :

Mr. Roosevelt’s present purpose is to give the nation a “more abundant life” by first vesting in a central federal bureaucracy headed by himself complete dictatorial powers over all the factors that affect the economic and social life of the country. . . . That is a purpose to which we cannot subscribe, because: To accomplish this purpose means to substitute for the American form of government a central “authoritarian” state, along the lines of the various European experiments in Socialism and dictatorship.

Of course, FDR did have his admirers. In a 1934 interview with Newsweek, Benito Mussolini said that he greatly admired the American president because, like himself, Franklin Roosevelt was a “social Fascist.”

The only thing that saved America from the clutches of a permanently planned economy was the courage of the Supreme Court, which in 1935 declared several of the central New Deal programs unconstitutional. Roosevelt may have ranted against the justices as “nine old men” who wanted to keep America in the horse-and-buggy era, but David Lawrence, the founder of U. S. News & World Report, was more correct when he defended the justices in his 1935 book, Nine Honest Men — they were men, he said, who placed a higher value on the principles of the Constitution and its protections of individual liberties and restrained federal power.

FDR was reelected in 1936, but the ideological fire that had kindled the red-hot fervor of the early New Deal days had diminished. Roosevelt needed new, virgin worlds to conquer. And with war clouds forming over Europe and Asia, Franklin Roosevelt saw his new mission: a Global New Deal. As FDR promised in point six of the Atlantic Charter that he and Churchill agreed to in August 1941, “After the final destruction of the Nazi tyranny” he would work to assure “that all the men in all the lands may live out their lives in freedom from fear or want.” At what cost in tax dollars and at the risk of whose lives Roosevelt planned to assure this worldly welfare paradise for all men everywhere, he did not specify; nor did he exactly explain what “fear” or “want” meant in this context. He set himself the goal of being the world leader who took up the mantle first worn twenty years earlier by Woodrow Wilson: to make the world safe for his own conception of democracy. Once again, as FDR had entitled a collection of his speeches in 1933, we were “on our way.”

Only one problem stood as a roadblock in his way: the American people. Throughout the late 1930s, up to the very attack on Pearl Harbor at the end of 1941, all the public opinion polls showed, over and over again, that Americans, in a vast majority, wanted to have nothing to do with wars in Europe and Asia. Americans were willing to generously give of their time and money to assist those harmed and hurt by the brutality of war; but they wanted no direct U. S. military involvement in foreign wars.

Franklin Roosevelt, however, decided that America should be at war and would be at war — because he concluded that the cause was just. In spite of neutrality acts passed by the United States Congress after the war had begun in Europe, he made secret military promises to the King of England and to Winston Churchill that America would assure British victory; and he sent American military vessels into hostile waters into the Atlantic and tried to instigate an incident with German naval ships to precipitate a war. When he could not get Hitler to respond, Roosevelt turned to the Pacific to find a “back door to war.” And at the same time, he lied continually to the American people, assuring the citizens of the United States that he had no intention of entering into alliances with any foreign power nor sending American boys off to fight on foreign shores.

Always anti-Japanese in his sentiments, FDR demanded that Japan completely withdraw from its recent military conquests in China. When they refused, he froze Japanese assets in the United States and embargoed all oil shipments to Japan. He entered into secret military agreements with the British, Dutch, and Australian governments for a war with Japan. The Japanese, time after time, tried to negotiate and compromise to avoid a war with America. Roosevelt refused even to respond to an offer by the Japanese prime minister to meet Roosevelt anywhere of FDR’s choosing to peacefully settle their differences. Finally, in November and early December 1941, when war was clearly inevitable and the U. S. military was reading Japanese secret messages that American ciphers had decoded, the Roosevelt administration failed to inform the military commanders at Pearl Harbor to be ready for a possible attack. At the very least, FDR and the military command in Washington were guilty of gross negligence and dereliction of duty. (See the review of A Time for War: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Path to Pearl Harbor inFreedom Daily, July 1992.)

Once America was a belligerent in the Second World War, Roosevelt set his sights on the bright and beautiful post-war global New Deal that he wanted to give mankind. But to attain this goal, he would need a partner, and FDR decided that the perfect accomplice for this deed would be Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union. But why Stalin? The explanation has been well summarized by Robert Nisbet in his superb book Roosevelt and Stalin: The Failed Courtship (1988):

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Roosevelt saw the Soviet Union, its record of terror and slaughter, its omnipotent dictatorship and despotism notwithstanding, as containing a greater promise of democracy and freedom than Great Britain. Somehow in Roosevelt’s vision all the ugly was squeezed out and what was left was a system in Russia not extremely different from his own American New Deal. Stalin was perhaps uncouth at times, carried the blood of barbarians in his veins, but on the other hand, Roosevelt may have thought, the Soviet Union, with all warts conceded in advance, was still constitutionally pledged to its people to provide jobs, medical care and welfare very much on the order of his own New Deal; more repressive, of course, in fact too repressive, but with a level of repression not of disqualifying importance. There was also the constitutional pledge to build a classless society, which meant the kind of egalitarianism perhaps that Americans had learned from Democratic Party populists. Also the Soviet Union was forward-looking and progressive in thrust, and the aged European imperial states were not.

When Roosevelt was preparing to meet Stalin for the first time at the Teheran Conference in November 1943, William C. Bullett, former U. S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union, tried to explain the true brutal nature of Stalin and the Soviet regime to FDR. Roosevelt replied:

Bill, I don’t dispute your facts. They are accurate. I don’t dispute the logic of your reasoning. I just have a hunch that Stalin is not that kind of man. Harry [Hopkins, Roosevelt's confidant and personal envoy to Stalin] says he’s not and that he doesn’t want anything but security for his country, and I think that if I give him everything I possibly can and ask nothing from him in return, noblesse oblige — he won’t try to annex anything and will work with me for a world of democracy and peace.

When Bullett pressed his fears and doubts about any good outcomes from a mindless altruism towards Stalin, FDR closed the discussion by saying, “It’s my responsibility and not yours; and I’m going to play my hunch.”

This was the frame of mind with which Franklin Roosevelt was now negotiating with Stalin and Churchill at Yalta. It was with this good feeling towards “Uncle Joe” Stalin — Roosevelt’s and Churchill’s name of endearment for the mass murderer of millions — that FDR could speak that night at this Big Three banquet about an atmosphere of a “family” around that table, dedicated to the giving to “every man, woman and child on this earth the possibility of security and well-being.” Never in modern history was there a darker surrealism in the use of words.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9

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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).