I was not aware of the seminar on Yalta at All Souls College in October 1985 when I referred to the Yalta problem in my article, “Neoconservative History” [NYR, January 16]. The discussion at the seminar shows how the conference at Yalta in February 1945 still haunts us. It haunts us in large part because there is little agreement on what actually occurred there. The disagreement owes its durability both to the unfulfilled nature of the accords and to misrepresentation of what they were.
The main issue was starkly stated by Professor Kolakowski: “Did or did not the Yalta agreement legitimize actually the Soviet role in this area?” He went on to specify that this meant the acceptance as a legitimate state of affairs of a new Polish state built on the basis of the existing “Lublin Committee,” joined by some individuals from the West, and the presence of the Soviet army and NKVD in those territories.
The key word here is “legitimate.” It is a strange word to use for British-American “acceptance” of the Soviet army and NKVD in Poland in 1944–1945. Churchill and Roosevelt had to deal with the presence of the Soviet army in Poland as an accomplished fact; “legitimacy” had nothing to do with it. Is it conceivable that they should have taken the position that it was “illegitimate” for the Soviet army to drive the Germans out of Russia into Poland and then into Germany itself? The presence of the Soviet army and NKVD in Poland was brought about by the war and the German retreat, the “legitimacy” of which no one at that time questioned.
Kolakowski also oversimplifies the problem of the new Polish government. The agreement did not amount to the appointment of Stalin by Churchill and Roosevelt as “an expert on deciding what is or is not a democratic party.” If this had been all there was to the agreement, it would not have been necessary for the three to spend so much time wrangling over the issue. Nor would there have been such an extended, intense dispute immediately after the Yalta conference between British Ambassador Clark Kerr, US Ambassador Averell Harriman and Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov, the commission appointed to implement the agreement. Almost six weeks after Yalta, both Clark Kerr and Harriman were insisting: “The essential feature of this agreement was that a fresh start should be made in Poland, not by enlarging the existing [pro-Soviet] Polish Provisional Government (which was not really representative) but by reorganizing it on an entirely new basis.” Harriman, a Roosevelt protégé, certainly did not think that he was being unfaithful to Roosevelt’s intention; he was carrying it out in the circumstances that prevailed after Yalta and that were not the same as those faced at Yalta.
Only continued Anglo-US resistance to the one-sided Soviet interpretation of the agreement enabled Stanislaw Mikolajczyk—who had been named premier of the Polish government in exile in London in 1943—to become vice premier and …
Yalta & the Fate of Poland: An Exchange August 14, 1986