Neoconservative History

Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin
Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin; drawing by David Levine


Myths are notoriously hardy. They can flourish, subside, and flourish again. One of the hardiest myths in modern American history is associated with the Yalta conference toward the end of World War II. It originally arose during the Truman administration, when Yalta was made into a code word for treason. The Republican party’s platform of 1952 went so far as to denounce the Yalta agreements on the ground that they had secretly aided “Communist enslavements.” That there was nothing secret about them after the full text was published in March 1947 and that they were intended to prevent Communist enslavements made no difference to the platform writers. The guilt for this treasonable sellout of Eastern Europe was attributed to one man, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and through him to the Democratic party in particular and to liberals in general. The accusation envenomed American politics throughout the McCarthy period but seemed to be spent by the late 1950s.

Now it has returned. It has just been put forward in one form or another not once but three times by three different writers in the pages of the November 1985 issue of Commentary, its fortieth anniversary issue. A related version has also come to the surface in the recently published diaries of John Colville, Churchill’s wartime private secretary and a contributor to the September 1985 issue of Commentary. I came across these rein-carnations in casual reading; no doubt more intensive research would turn up others, but these are enough to indicate a resurgence of an ominous mythology.

This phenomenon is worth examining for its own sake, because a nation should know its own past, and because Yalta-and-Roosevelt baiting is a form of retro-active politics that tells us something about the present.

The first specimen in the November 1985 Commentary was contributed by Lionel Abel, whose recent book was aptly entitled The Intellectual Follies. He based himself on a single article by Colville in the following way:

And Roosevelt was personally responsible for terrible foreign-policy decisions (described in these pages only two months ago by John Colville in his article, “How the West Lost the Peace in 1945”) which gave the Soviet Union control of Eastern Europe.

Colville in turn had placed the giveaway at Yalta in February 1945 and had specifically named Poland as the victim:

After long discussions and much argument [at Yalta] it was agreed that some non-Communist Poles should be invited to join the [Polish] government—though they would be but a minority—and that “free and unfettered elections,” in which all except the fascist parties should be allowed to put forward candidates, would be held within a few months. The British delegation was not content with the vagueness of the Soviet promises or the design of the proposed Polish government; but since the Soviets and Americans were in agreement, Churchill and Eden had to give…

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