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Covering the Map of the World — The Half-Century Legacy of the Yalta Conference, Part 9

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The Yalta Conference formalized the configuration of the post-World War II era for almost half a century. It codified the division of Europe into East and West. It opened Asia to communist expansion. It assured the establishment of the United Nations and the idea of the global policeman. It heralded America’s permanent and prominent intervention on the world stage of international politics.

Every one of these postwar results of the Yalta Conference can be laid at the feet of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. As the practitioner of personal diplomacy through the tool of executive power, FDR either produced these results through his agreements with Stalin and Churchill or created the conditions for them to happen.

Defenders of the Yalta accords have argued that the protocol devoted to a “Declaration on Liberated Europe” said nothing about a division of Europe into spheres of influence. Technically, this is true. The agreement required free, democratic elections to be held in the countries liberated from Nazi occupation, with each of these nations having the liberty to choose the political systems it desired. But for both Roosevelt and Stalin, public statements and formal agreements were only the cover and propaganda tools for behind-the-scenes understandings.

Roosevelt had promised the American people during the 1940 presidential campaign that he had no intention of getting the U.S. into a foreign war. He also emphasized that he had not committed the United States to war through any secret agreements with England or any other belligerent power. Yet, at the very time he was publicly making these statements, he had in fact committed the United States to eventually fight on England’s side against Germany. FDR used a conflict with Japan as the “back door to war,” while all the time assuring the American people that he wanted to avoid a confrontation in the Pacific. Deception and lies behind public promises were part of Franklin Roosevelt’s stock and trade, no less than Joseph Stalin’s.

Behind the public promises at the Yalta Conference, FDR had made his private agreements with Stalin concerning the Soviet dictator’s free hand to do what he wished in Eastern Europe, just as Churchill had made his own private agreements with Stalin behind Roosevelt’s back about spheres of influence in the Balkans. Of course, unless the United States had been ready to go to war with the Soviet Union, Stalin was going to be able to do whatever he wanted in the countries “liberated” by the Red Army.

But what the Yalta accords gave the Red Czar was legitimacy. Using his own Marxian definitions of “democracy” and “freedom,” Stalin — and later his Soviet inheritors — could claim the right to impose their own will and political order on the unfortunate people in this part of the world. Robert Nisbet correctly expressed it:

Yalta performed a service to the Soviets that was almost as important to Stalin as the occupied areas themselves. This was the invaluable service of giving moral legitimation to what Stalin had acquired by sheer force. The Declaration on Liberated Europe alone accomplished that.

Roosevelt’s secret deal with Stalin for Soviet entry into the war in the Pacific did the same. In the Atlantic Charter of August 1941, FDR had pledged that the United States neither wanted nor endorsed the forced transfer of people and lands. Yet, to win Stalin’s promise to join in the war against Japan, FDR gave the Soviet dictator control over railroads and seaports in Manchuria — in violation of his own public promises to the Chinese government that all areas of China occupied by the Japanese would be returned. This gave Stalin the political control he wanted in the most industrialized part of China; moreover, the presence of Soviet troops in northeastern China also served as a springboard for the eventual conquest of mainland China by Mao Tse-tung’s communist armies. Stalin not only allowed Mao’s guerrilla forces to flood into Manchuria behind Soviet Red Army lines, but he also turned over large amounts of captured Japanese military equipment to Mao’s armies.

The communist conquest of China was assured in the late 1940s when the Truman Administration imposed an arms embargo on China, following Chiang Kai-shek’s refusal to form a coalition government with Mao Tse-tung. (That Chiang’s Nationalist government was both authoritarian and corrupt does not change the fact that U.S. policy towards China during and after the war helped tip the scales in favor of a communist victory in that country.)

The establishment of the United Nations legitimized the idea of the right of some nations of the world to impose their conception of order, stability, and peace on the rest of the globe. Frank Chodorov introduced a special issue of The Freeman(March 1955) devoted to the topic of “One Worldism and the United Nations” with the following summary of the problem:

In any of its forms, One Worldism is interventionism; it is the conceit that absolute wisdom resides in some people, who are duty-bound to impose their special gift on the less enlightened. It rules out the idea that the peoples of the world might be happier if permitted to live by the particular cultures that time has evolved for them. They must be brought to conform to the perfect formula. But people do not readily give up their accustomed way of living and thinking and are resentful of interference from the outside. Hence, the very premise of One Worldism, or interventionism, leads to friction, not to peace and good will. . . . It is this conviction of “manifest destiny” — of a divine mandate to improve mankind — that makes One Worldism a threat to peace.

However, the establishment of a uniform global order, under the supervision and command of the United Nations, was going to work in the post-World War II era only if the Big Five of the Security Council were unanimous in their courses of action. But this was not the case. First Stalin and then the later dictators of the Soviet Union had a conception of a world order different from that of the political leaders of the United States. These conflicting visions of world order were the basis of the Cold War.

If Stalin would not join the U.S. in imposing a particular world order and instead insisted on an alternative and rival vision of One Worldism, then the United States would go it alone with its own allies on its side of the Iron Curtain. The United States took on the mantle of Global Policeman in the face of Soviet-led communist revolution in various parts of the world. America was now burdened with intervening in endless conflicts and fighting any number of wars anywhere in the world in the name of securing perpetual global peace and freedom.

When North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950 with the support of Stalin, President Harry Truman immediately committed U.S. air, naval, and ground troops to the defense of South Korea. He neither asked for nor received a congressional declaration of war for American participation in a conflict on a far-off peninsula of the Asian mainland. With the Soviet representative absent from the Security Council, the U.S. pushed through a resolution in the United Nations calling for military support of the South Koreans. That became the rationale for U.S. leadership in a three-year war that cost the lives of 54,250 Americans and another 103,300 wounded.

On January 4, 1951, President Truman announced that he was sending sizable, additional U.S. ground troops to Europe. A week later, he stated that he did not need and would not request congressional approval for this expanded military commitment to NATO. “Under the President’s constitutional powers as Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces,” Truman said, “he has the authority to send troops anywhere in the world. . . . We will continue to send troops wherever it is necessary. . . .”

In 1962, during the first stages of the Cuban missile crisis, President John Kennedy imposed a quarantine around Cuba with no congressional approval. When Kennedy was asked at a press conference if he desired or needed congressional approval for actions that were bringing the United States to the edge of thermonuclear war, he replied: “No.” But if Congress wished to put itself on record supporting his actions, “I think it would be useful, if they desired to do so, for them to express their view.”

In August 1964, President Lyndon Johnson submitted the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution to the Congress. Arguing that North Vietnamese naval vessels had carried out unprovoked attacks against U.S. military ships in international waters off the Vietnamese coast, the president obtained congressional approval to take “all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent any further aggression.” The resolution also declared that the United States, “as the President determines,” shall “take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force,” to assist Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos in defense of their freedom.

While the resolution appeared to have been prepared in response to the North Vietnamese attack, in fact, it had been conceived in February and written up in draft form in May — three months before the incident in the Tonkin Gulf. Later investigations determined that the U.S. Naval vessels were not on a “routine patrol in international waters,” as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara testified before Congress. Instead, the U.S. ships were providing support for South Vietnamese commando attacks in North Vietnam. Furthermore, the first incident — on August 2 — was too minor to warrant a congressional resolution; and the second incident — on August 4 — may never have occurred. Later testimony suggested that radar on the U.S.S. Maddox may have confused freak weather effects for supposed gunfire from North Vietnamese boats. And sonarmen aboard the Maddox may have misinterpreted torpedoes for what were reflections from the Maddox ‘s own evasive weaving turns.

A few weeks before the November 1964 presidential election, President Johnson assured the American people that “we are not about to send American boys 9 or 10,000 miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.” Yet, within a few years, half a million American boys were fighting and dying 10,000 miles away from home in the Vietnamese jungles. By the time U.S. participation in the war ended in the early 1970s, 58,135 Americans had died and 153,000 had been wounded.

President George Bush announced in December 1989, while Congress was out of session, that he was sending 11,000 soldiers to Panama to secure the safety of Americans in that country and to arrest Panamanian general Manuel Noriega, who was accused of being a dictator and a drug dealer. In August 1990, following the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq, President Bush began sending troops to Saudi Arabia, without congressional approval. Instead, he acted under the authority of the United Nations. In January 1991, American forces began an aerial bombardment of Iraq, which was followed by a ground invasion of Kuwait and Iraq. During the 1992 presidential campaign, President Bush said: “I didn’t have to get permission from some old goat in the United States Congress to kick Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait.”

With or without the United Nations, with or without the consent of Congress, every president since Franklin Roosevelt has taken up his scepter of executive power. Whether it has been sending American soldiers off to war in foreign lands or undertaking covert operations against the governments of other countries, for half a century the constitutional restraints on the warmaking and foreign-entangling tendencies of presidents have been trampled underfoot. Deceptions and distortions of facts have been the tools of the trade of presidents and their executive agents.

Whether it be in the Cold War era of Soviet-American rivalry, or the post-Cold War era of new nationalism and regional conflicts, one American administration after another has taken it for granted that the United States is to plan and police the political order of the world. Whether it has been Democratic or Republican administrations, the assumption has been that America is to socially engineer the planet for a better tomorrow.

This conception of America’s role in the world is the most persistent legacy of Franklin Roosevelt’s World War II policies and the Yalta agreements. It is the natural outgrowth of the interventionist and planning mentality that dominated America and the world in the 1930s. It is the mentality of the dictator — the Leader — who must guide or compel people to a better, promised land, because they are too ignorant, or too weak, or too corrupt to guide themselves to that better life. And the Leader cannot be constrained by anachronistic notions of constitutional limits on executive power to intervene into the controversies, problems, and affairs of other people.

The Berlin Wall has fallen, the Cold War division of Europe has ended, and the Soviet Empire that Stalin built is gone. These legacies of the Yalta Conference have now passed into history, along with the millions of innocent victims who were the pawns in FDR’s and Stalin’s personal diplomacy. But the messianic drive to plan for and lead a New World Order persists in the thinking of too many of those who guide and determine foreign policy in the United States, regardless of their political party label. As long as this remains the case, the lives, liberties, and fortunes of the American people will be at risk — as cannon fodder for global social engineering. Only when this legacy of the Yalta Conference passes into history, as well, will Americans and much of the world have a greater chance for the peace and freedom for which they have yearned for five decades.

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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).