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Covering the Map of the World — The Half-Century Legacy of the Yalta Conference, Part 7


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Franklin Roosevelt was fascinated by the communist experiment in Russia. In a conversation with Secretary of Labor Francis Perkins in 1933, FDR admitted: “I don’t understand the Russians. I just don’t know what makes them tick. I wish I could study them. ” In a later exchange, Perkins told Roosevelt about an American who had worked in the Soviet Union for a long time. Perkins had asked him what made the Russians “tick.” The man answered: “The desire to do the Holy Will.”

FDR excitedly replied:

“You know, there may be something in that. It would explain their almost mystical devotion to this idea which they have developed of the Communist society. They all seem really to want to do what is good for their society instead of wanting to do for themselves. We take care of ourselves and think about the welfare of society afterward.”

This idea remained transfixed in Roosevelt’s mind. Former Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles recounted in his book Where Are We Heading? (1946) that in the autumn of 1944, FDR felt confident that, in spite of the differences between the American and Soviet political systems, the Soviet and American societies were converging towards some common middle ground of welfare-state socialism. Welles wrote:

Franklin Roosevelt saw no need to fear Communism, if an international organization existed…. He regarded the American form of democracy as being at the opposite pole from the original form of Soviet Communism. In the years which had elapsed since the Soviet revolution of 1917, the Soviet system had advanced materially toward a modified form of state socialism. In the same way, the American polity since that time had progressed toward the ideal of true political and social justice…. He felt, therefore, that even though the internal systems of the two countries could never conceivably become identical, some progress towards approximation had already been made, and that this approximation made for a better understanding between the peoples of the two nations.

“He regarded this trend as making it more likely that no fundamental conflict between the two countries need ever become inevitable…. He felt it was indispensable that both governments should realize that in the field of world affairs their respective courses could always be parallel and need never to be antagonistic…. [Hie was willing to make material concessions in order for the United Nations organization to be established.... it was in that spirit and with that purpose that Franklin Roosevelt attended the meeting at Yalta."

To make the world permanently safe after the defeat of the Axis powers, FDR came to believe that what was needed was a now and radically more powerful League of Nations. What began to emerge in his mind was what became the United Nations. During a visit to Washington in May 1942, Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov was given an outline of what FDR had in mind. In the postwar world, FDR said, the U.S., Britain, the Soviet Union, and China would have to jointly suppress any future disturbers of the world peace. Germany, Japan, and other "smaller" countries would have to be controlled and possibly disarmed. He also told Molotov that colonial possessions of "weaker nations" would have to be placed under the trusteeship of the new world organization that Roosevelt wanted to see created. Molotov replied that he thought that these ideas were quite realistic and said that Stalin would fully support them.

In March 1943, Roosevelt elaborated his ideas in a discussion with Anthony Eden, the British foreign minister. FDR said that he saw an organization with a general assembly, in which all member nations would participate. But there would also be a security council of the major powers in whose hands real authority and military power would reside. "The real decisions," said Roosevelt, "should be made by the United States, Great Britain, Russia, and China, who would be the powers for many years to come and that would have to police the world." FDR also said that these Big Four would have to permanently control strategic bases around the world.

During a conversation with William D. Hassett, a presidential aide, in April 1943, Roosevelt explained how he saw this policing of the world:

The President said the policy of policing the world [was] not insurmountable. He suggested that the United States and China would police Asia. Africa would be policed by Great Britain and Brazil, the latter because of her proximity to Africa, with other interested nations cooperating. The United States will see to the protection of the Americas, leaving the peace of Europe to Great Britain and Russia.

FDR elaborated his plans for a world peace organization to Stalin. One branch of this organization would be comprised of only the “Four Policemen” — America, Britain, Soviet Russia, and China — who would be responsible to enforce peace around the world. If a revolution or a crisis arose in a small country, and The Four viewed this as a threat to world security, they would have the power to impose a quarantine by closing that country’s borders and enforcing a trade embargo; in the face of a more serious threat, The Four Policemen would send an ultimatum which, if ignored, would lead to the defiant country’s being bombed and, if necessary, invaded. Stalin found all this quite acceptable. (As George Crocker observed, in Roosevelt’s Road to Russia [19611, “There is no evidence of any discussion of the possibility that the offending aggressor might be one of The Four Policemen.”)

In August and September 1944, FDR, Churchill, and Stalin sent delegations to the Dumbarton Oaks estate in Washington, D.C., to work out the organizational structure for the United Nations. During the negotiations, it soon became clear that the Big Three had differences of opinion. The Soviet delegation for a long time pushed for the idea of an international military air corps that could bomb on short notice any country labeled an “aggressor.” The British delegation wanted to make sure that any questions that might undermine the integrity of the British Empire could not be brought before the United Nations for discussion. The American delegation attempted to keep alive the idea of The Four Policemen who would patrol the world. All of these positions were either diluted or modified. They were finally sorted out in a document that outlined the general structure of the United Nations.

Two major points, however, were left unresolved. Would the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — the United States, Britain, the Soviet Union, China, and now also France each have an absolute right to veto a Security Council decision? And in the General Assembly was the Soviet Union to be given one vote or sixteen votes — one for each of the sixteen constituent republics of the U.S.S.R. — as Stalin demanded? These issues were resolved at the Yalta Conference.

On February 4, 1945, the first day of the Yalta Conference, the issue of power in the United Nations came up for discussion. Stalin opened the topic by saying:

“The three Great Powers which had borne the brunt of the war and had liberated from German domination the small powers should have the unanimous right to preserve the peace of the world…. [Ilt was ridiculous to believe that Albania would have an equal voice with the three Great Powers who had won the war and were present at this dinner.”

Stalin insisted that “he would never agree to having any action of any of the Great Powers submitted to the judgment of the small powers.”

Roosevelt agreed, saying that “the Great Powers bore the greater responsibility and that the peace should be written by the Three Powers represented at this table.” Churchill also concurred that “there was no question of the small powers dictating to the big powers,” but he suggested that the great nations should show “great respect for the rights of the smaller nations.” However, Churchill told Anthony Eden and U.S. Secretary of State Edward Stettinius that he would accept Stalin’s views because “everything depended on the unity of the three Great Powers.”

But the final decision by Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin to accept, the principle that the five permanent members of the Security Council would each have a veto over any decision was not merely an acceptance of Stalin’s view that small powers should not control matters concerning the interests of the Great Powers, it was no less a goal of the United States. Secretary Stettinius in his record of the Yalta Conference, Roosevelt and the Russians (1949), insisted:

“It is absolutely incorrect to state that the permanent members were granted the veto power on most questions only because of Russian insistence. The American delegation, at Dumbarton Oaks and after, favored the big-power veto on matters involving economic and military sanctions.”

Roosevelt, no less than Stalin, wanted no serious interference from the “small powers” in any decisions concerning the Great Powers’ policing of the world.

On February 7, the fourth day of the conference, Molotov raised the issue of how many votes the U.S.S.R. would receive in the U.N. General Assembly. He said that the Soviet Union was withdrawing its earlier demand for sixteen votes and “would be satisfied with the admission of three or at least two of the Soviet Republics as original members.” In the end, Roosevelt and Churchill accepted the inclusion of both Soviet Ukraine and Soviet Byelorussia as additional founding and voting members of the United Nations, along with the U.S.S.R. itself Roosevelt thanked Stalin for reducing his voting demand “as a great stop forward which would be welcomed by all the peoples of the world,” and Churchill also extended his “heartfelt thanks to Marshal Stalin and Mr. Molotov.”

In his book Franklin D. Roosevelt’s World Order (1959), historian Willard Range summarized FDR’s vision and design for the postwar era:

“It is obvious that Roosevelt’s conception of a collective security system under the guardianship of the Big Powers led by the United States was very paternalistic and clearly placed all the medium and small powers in the position of children in the family of nations…. His hopes for a global New Deal and a good neighbor climate of opinion had great bearing on the problem of security; and while his attitude toward smaller nations was that of a father, it was the attitude of a good father and a twentieth-century somewhat democratic and benevolent father who had the best interests of the children at heart; and if he could not quite bring himself to let the children have a vote in important family decisions, he nevertheless wanted them to express their views, be treated with decency and be made to feel important.

In his domestic policies, FDR was guided by the idea that the role and purpose of government was to use power to make a better society, even though this meant the loss of many individual freedoms of the past. Or as he expressed it in his second inaugural address in 1937, the government needed more power “power to stop evil; power to do good.” The private affairs of the American citizenry had to be brought into “their proper subordination to the public’s government.”

As FDR conceived it, the United Nations was meant to be an extension of this idea of political paternalism to the level of international relations. Just as FDR’s National Recovery Administration (NRA) in the early days of the New Deal was meant to cartelize industry in the name of generating national prosperity, the U.N. was meant to cartelize world security in the hands of a select group of Big Powers who were to be trusted to serve the global good of all. The United States, in partnership with a handful of other Big Powers — most especially Stalin’s Russia, for whose partnership FDR had been willing to give his endorsement to the enslavement of tens of millions of people — was to subordinate the affairs of the nations of the world to the benevolent supervision of the Global Policemen, who would rule them and monitor them, and if need be punish them with a military big stick, all for their own good, of course.

The consequences of this paternalistic idea, as practiced by Franklin Roosevelt during the war and at the Yalta Conference, have comprised the negative legacy that has dominated American government policy at home and abroad for the last half century.

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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).