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Covering the Map of the World — The Half-Century Legacy of the Yalta Conference, Part 4

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As we have seen, Roosevelt approached his meetings with Stalin with a determination to make friends and use the Red Czar of Soviet Russia as his partner in creating a Global New Deal. The nature of the Soviet regime and its master did not bother FDR in the least. In 1940, when Congressman Martin Dies told Roosevelt of his concerns about possible Soviet agents in prominent positions in the federal government, FDR replied: “I do not believe in Communism any more than you do, but there is nothing wrong with the Communists in this country. Several of the best friends I have are Communists.” As for the Soviet Union, FDR told Congressman Dies: “I look upon Russia as our strongest ally in the years to come. . . . While I do not believe in Communism, Russia is far better off and the world is safer with Russia under Communism than under the Czars. Stalin is a great leader, and although I deplore some of his methods, it is the only way he can safeguard his government.” When FDR spoke these words in 1940, Stalin was in a tacit alliance with Hitler under the terms of the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 .

In September 1943, two months before his meeting with Stalin at Teheran, FDR spent an hour and a half with Archbishop (later Cardinal) Francis Spellman. InSummit at Teheran: The Untold Story (1985), historian Keith Eubank explains:

When he had talked with Cardinal Spellman on September 3, Roosevelt did not conceal his thoughts about Stalin and Eastern Europe. Stalin would receive Finland, the Baltic States, the eastern half of Poland, and Bessarabia [all the lands Stalin had coveted under his Pact with Hitler]. There was no point in opposing “these desires of Stalin, because he had the power to get them anyhow. So better give them gracefully.” Moreover, the population of eastern Poland “wants to become Russian.” He expected eastern Europe to come under some form of Russian protectorate.

Roosevelt thought the Russians would get about forty percent of the capitalist economy in Europe. The job of the Europeans was to accept this and, over ten or twenty years, influence the Russians to be less barbaric.

Roosevelt also seemed to think that this civilizing process might not be too difficult because when he returned to the United States from Yalta, he told his Cabinet members that he had found in Stalin “something else in his being besides this revolutionist, Bolshevik thing.” FDR said it might have something to do with Stalin’s early training for the priesthood in the Russian Orthodox Church. “I think that something entered into his nature of the way in which a Christian gentleman should behave,” Roosevelt declared.

As an example of Stalin’s conduct as a “Christian gentleman,” in 1939 he sent the following telegram to all officials of the NKVD (the secret police later known as the KGB), as a directive for guiding the use of torture when they arrested and interrogated tens of thousands of people:

The Central Committee [of the Communist Party] explains that from 1937 on the NKVD [is] given permission by the Central Committee to use physical influence. . . . The Central Committee believes that the method of physical influence must necessarily be used in the future . . . as a completely correct expedient method.

And when Stalin was informed that the use of brutal tortures was having the desired effect, he told a group of NKVD officers, “Give them the works until they come crawling to you on their bellies with confessions in their teeth.”

The “fix” was in, therefore, even before the Big Three sat down at that conference table in the Crimea. Writing about Yalta, George N. Crocker stated in Roosevelt’s Road to Russia (1961):

[The Big Three] finalized decisions so malodorous — for slave labor, forcible repatriation of refugees, the uprooting of millions of human beings from their home and lands, the breaking of pledges of the right of self-determination, and similar brutalities. . . . [O]ne is struck by the casualness — and the callousness — with which these Moguls of the twentieth century wielded the cleaver. Ancient cities [lands and peoples] were picked off like the wings of butterflies.

This is what makes the rhetoric of the “Protocol of Proceedings” issued by the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union at the end of the conference so cruel, cynical, and deceptive. The section of the Protocol devoted to a “Declaration on Liberated Europe” asserted:

. . . the principle of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live — restoration of sovereign rights and self-government to those peoples who have been forcibly deprived of them by the aggressor nations. . . . [T]he three governments will jointly assist the people in any European liberated state or former Axis satellite state in Europe . . . to establish conditions of internal peace [and] . . . to form interim governmental authorities broadly representative of all democratic elements in the population and pledged to the earliest possible establishment through free elections of governments responsive to the will of the people; and to facilitate where necessary the holding of such elections.

Fine words, except for the fact that as Robert Nisbet observes in Roosevelt and Stalin: The Failed Courtship (1988):

Since the time of Lenin the Soviet understanding of such Western words as “democracy,” “liberation,” “freedom,” and “representation” has been a universe apart from the Western understanding.

For communists there was always a stark contrast between “bourgeois democracy” and “proletarian democracy.” The bourgeois variation was a “false” democracy in which the outer forms of freedom existed — freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right to vote — but under which “true” freedom was denied because the capitalists owned the means of production and thus could still economically exploit the workers who were dependent upon them for work and wages. Only in the socialist state, in which the means of production were nationalized and the ruling Communist Party planned the economy in the name of “the people,” could there be “true” democracy. To deny participation and power to “bourgeois” political parties, therefore, was the only way to assure the triumph of true freedom and real representation for the working masses.

This meant that in the lands “liberated” by Stalin’s Red Army in Eastern Europe — Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria — the only democracy that would be the permitted would be the proletarian version in which the Communist Party, and those other political parties subservient to it, would be allowed to come to power in the New Deal world of the postwar period.

This was seen clearest in the section of the Yalta Protocol dealing with Poland. Behind the Red Army, a Polish Communist “Provisional Government” — the Lublin Poles, as they were called — took over local political power as the Nazis were displaced in the liberated portions of Poland. The Protocol stated:

The Provisional Government which is now functioning in Poland should be reorganized on a broader democratic basis with the inclusion of democratic leaders from Poland itself and from Poles abroad. . . . This [broadened] Polish Government of National Unity shall be pledged to the holding of free and unfettered elections as soon as possible on the basis of universal suffrage and secret ballot. In these elections all democratic and anti-Nazi parties shall have the right to take part and to put forward candidates.

This meant that additional politicians and parties would be incorporated into the Communist Provisional Government on the basis of a decision about which individuals and parties were to be considered properly “democratic” and “anti-Nazi,” with the communist governmental structure taken as the working political framework within which these individual politicians and parties would be permitted to participate and function.

U. S. Admiral William Leahy, who was present at the Yalta Conference, told FDR that this political arrangement was “phony” and that “this is so elastic that the Russians can stretch it all the way from Yalta to Washington without ever technically breaking it.” Roosevelt replied, “I know it, but it was the best I could get.” Based on his comments to Cardinal Spellman and other Americans, and from his explicit giving of a free hand to Stalin in Poland and the Baltic States at the Teheran Conference, in fact FDR really did not give a damn whether the people in these countries got anything more.

And what was Stalin’s attitude? Milovan Djilas, in Conversations with Stalin(1962), recounts that in April 1945 — only two months after the Yalta Conference and a month before the end of the war in Europe — Stalin told a delegation of Yugoslavian communists visiting Moscow:

This war is not as in the past; whoever occupies a territory also imposes on it his own social system. Everyone imposes his own system as far as his army can reach. It cannot be otherwise.

In Stalin’s Marxian mind, since the Western bourgeois democracies would impose exploitive capitalism on the working classes wherever their armies permitted, it behooved him, as the great leader of the world socialist revolution, to impose true, proletarian democracy on all those countries liberated by his Red Army.

Nor was there any regard, in the shifting of frontiers and the transferring of peoples from the jurisdiction of one state to another, as to whether the people whose lives were involved desired the change or not. In the portion of the Protocol on Poland, the Big Three also agreed that “the Eastern frontier of Poland should follow the Curzon line with digressions from it in some regions of five to eight kilometers in favor of Poland. They recognize that Poland must receive substantial accession of territory in the North and West.” In other words, Poland, in turn, would be given large portions of German territory.

At the end of the First World War, Poland was reborn as a nation-state out of the collapsed German, Austrian, and Russian Empires. At the peace conference at Versailles, Britain and France had demarcated the eastern border of Poland, and this became known as the Curzon Line. But in 1919, a war broke out between Poland and the new Bolshevik regime in Russia. At first the Poles advanced far into Russia, but the Bolsheviks counterattacked and reached the gates of Warsaw. The Poles then mounted their own successful counteroffensive and pushed the Red Army back, far to the east of the Curzon Line. The battle line became the political frontier when a peace treaty was signed between Poland and Lenin’s Bolshevik regime in March 1921.

When Stalin and Hitler divided Poland in 1939, once again erasing it from the map of Europe, the line separating Soviet and Nazi zones of occupation was partly along and partly to the west of the Curzon Line. Stalin insisted throughout his wartime meetings with Churchill and Roosevelt that the Curzon Line was to be the border between Poland and the Soviet Union, not the older frontier according to the peace treaty of 1921.

In this shifting frontier of political control between Poland and the U.S.S.R., no consideration was ever given to the preferences or desires of those living in these lands. But one thing is certain, life for those who fell under Stalin’s care in eastern Poland after 1939 was far from idyllic. It is quite doubtful that Roosevelt was right when he claimed that the people in these areas wanted to be part of the Soviet Union. Peasant land was seized, with the peasants forced into collective farms. All private property was nationalized. Tens of thousands of people were executed or sent off into slave labor in the Gulag prison camps. And in a region in which most of the people were either Russian Orthodox or Roman Catholic, religion was abolished and made a punishable offense.

But if the eastern lands of prewar Poland were being carved up according to the whims of Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill, what they had in store for Germany was even more cruel and cynical.

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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).