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A Comment

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.”1 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 minister of agriculture and four other non-Communists to enter a reconstituted provisional government more than four months after the Yalta conference. This sustained refusal on the part of Great Britain and the United States to accept the Soviet perversion of the Yalta agreement as “a legitimate state of affairs” in Poland is hardly done justice to in Kolakowski’s version. When the Anglo-American effort eventually failed of its purpose, the reason had far more to do with the balance of power in Eastern Europe during the ensuing cold war than with any mythical appointment of Stalin by Churchill and Roosevelt.

One wonders what could be expected of the Yalta conference. Sir Frank Roberts rightly says: “They [the Soviets] had all the cards by that time. But we did achieve a settlement on paper.” What other kind of settlement was possible at the conference? Professor Kolakowski agrees that “the incorporation of Central and Eastern Europe into the Soviet empire resulted not from the Yalta agreement but from the sheer presence of the Soviet army on those territories.” If so, how could “the Yalta agreement legitimize actually the Soviet role in this area”? The inconsistency here is striking. One cannot have it both ways. On paper, the British and American negotiators did so well that a “revisionist” historian tendentiously concluded: “The decisions at Yalta involved compromise by each nation, probably more by the Soviets than by the Western nations.”2 In fact, there were compromises on all sides, though the Soviets had to be pressed hard to make any. Of course they were all made on paper, which is the only way conferences make compromises. Afterward the “sheer presence of the Soviet army” made possible “the incorporation of Central and Eastern Europe into the Soviet empire,” as Kolakowski rightly puts it. No one in his right mind at that time thought that the Soviet army could have been expelled from Poland without a Third World War starting before the second had even ended. In the last analysis, Hitler’s Germany was responsible for the tragedy by having provoked the war, and the Soviet Union was subsequently responsible by having used the German defeat for its own aggrandizement.

I have little quarrel with Sir Frank Roberts, except for one point. Roosevelt was so conscious of the “many Americans of Polish origin even of the first generation in America” that he referred to them twice in one meeting as a reason for injecting himself into the Polish problem at Yalta:

He would like to have some assurance for the six million Poles in the United States that these [Polish] elections would be freely held, and he said he was sure if assurances were present that elections would be held by the Poles there would be no doubt as to the sincerity of the agreement reached here.3

American intervention in Eastern Europe was not then taken for granted as an aim of US policy, as it came to be after the promulgation of the “Truman Doctrine” in 1947. It is invidious to suggest that Roosevelt was less keen than Churchill on achieving an “honorable” settlement. Reasonable men could differ on the best tactics to pursue after the Yalta conference, but Churchill and Roosevelt differed very little on the main Polish issues at Yalta. After Roosevelt’s death, Harriman showed no less determination to get an honorable settlement than did Clark Kerr. I question for the very reasons given by Roberts—“the war had begun with an Anglo-Polish alliance and the Polish government [in exile] was in London”—whether the British would have been pleased if the Americans had previously interfered more vigorously in the Polish sphere of British policy.4

As for Dr. Polonsky’s main point about the wisdom of changing “the focus of argument from the frontiers to the future government,” it was precisely this approach that Roosevelt had urged at Yalta. On one occasion, he said: “I think it is particularly important to find a solution of the governmental question. I am not so concerned with frontiers.” Churchill took the same line—“I am more interested in the question of Poland’s sovereign independence and freedom than in particular frontier lines.”5 But this was precisely the sticking point with the “London Poles.” The British could not have “pushed strongly for the acceptance by the Soviets of the [Polish] government in London” in return for accepting the Curzon Line, because the Polish government in London steadfastly refused to accept the Curzon Line. When Mikolajczyk wanted to adopt such a policy, he was ousted by the government in London. Thus Kulski “was regarded as a traitor by nearly all the other Poles in London,” as Roberts puts it, because he advocated what Churchill and Roosevelt recommended at Yalta.

Stalin and the Soviet regime behaved abominably toward the Poles. Nothing can justify what they did—and not only in this case. But the tendency to transfer most of the blame from Stalin to Churchill and Roosevelt or to Roosevelt alone is historically unfounded and politically wrongheaded. It is far truer and better to put the responsibility for imposing the Communist yoke on Poland after Yalta where it belongs—on the Soviet Union. In this respect I agree wholeheartedly with Sir Frank Roberts.


Yalta & the Fate of Poland: An Exchange August 14, 1986

  1. 1

    Sir Llewellyn Woodward, British Foreign Policy in the Second World War (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1971), Vol. III, p. 509.

  2. 2

    Diane Shaver Clemens, Yalta (Oxford University Press, 1970), p. 290.

  3. 3

    Foreign Relations of the United States: The Conferences at Malta and Yalta, 1945 (Government Printing Office, 1955), p. 848. Also see pp. 677, 846.

  4. 4

    It was only on January 30, 1945, a few days before the Yalta Conference, that Foreign Secretary Eden told Secretary of State Stettinius that it was the turn of the United States “to take up the burden on this [Polish] issue” (Anthony Eden, The Reckoning, Houghton Mifflin, 1965, p. 591).

  5. 5

    The Conferences at Malta and Yalta, 1945, p. 718 (Roosevelt), p. 678 (Churchill). Toward the end of the conference, Roosevelt wanted to leave out all mention of frontiers but was opposed by both Stalin and Churchill (p. 907).

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