George W. Bush

Yalta Once More, With Feeling


At the risk of flogging a dead treaty, I feel compelled to note that lefty writers have lost their freakin' minds over President Bush's Yalta reference in Latvia this Saturday, and that they are misreading or ignoring important recent history in doing so. To see how, keep reading after the jump!

Joshua Micah Marshall called Bush's statement a "historically ignorant and morally hideous claim," and said that "the president also makes common cause…with those who argued before the war and after that the US and the UK made their fundamental error in the war itself, by allying with the Soviets against Nazism rather than with Nazism against the Soviets."

David Greenberg compared the remark to Hitler's infamous "Stab in the Back" theory, and huffed that "for an American president to dredge up ugly old canards about Yalta stretches the boundaries of decency and should draw reprimand."

Joe Conason called it "ugly and erroneous criticism," "unforgivable" and a "historical falsification…to slander one of his greatest predecessors." Matthew Yglesias accused Bush of "taking up the John Birch/McCarthy line as the new official American take on this." And a conspiratorial Kevin Drum asked:

But here's what I'm curious about: why did Bush mention Yalta at all?…So who was the reference aimed at? Not just the Latvians, that's for sure. Bush is a master of using codewords in his speeches, and inserting Yalta into this speech wasn't a casual decision. It was there for someone. Who?

To which David Greenberg seconded: "Anyway, I don't think Yalta dealt significantly with Latvia. At least it wasn't a central issue there. Had Bush given the speech in Poland, or even in Hungary, Yalta might have seemed more relevant."

Well, Bush did give the speech in Poland—in June 2001—but Greenberg's right: Yalta didn't deal significantly with Latvia, if by "significantly" you mean "primarily." But from the Baltics' point of view (and yes, there are other points of view besides the domestic Cold War squabble), there was the not-insignificant matter of having their countries erased from the post-war map by the soon-to-be victorious superpowers. Latvians, like Poles and several other Mitteleuropean tribes, cannot stop yammering about "Yalta," and understandably so. When the first Clinton Administration tried out some compromise "Partnership for Peace" arrangement for Central Europe's leading new democracies, the Poles responded with a Yalta-Munich one-two punch. ("We've gone from Chamberlain's umbrella to President Clinton's saxophone," an aide to Lech Walesa memorably told me back then.) Ask any American diplomat who dealt with the Baltics from 1993 to maybe 2000—it was all Yalta, all the time.

Ronald Asmus was one such diplomat; he wrote an influential 1993 Foreign Affairs article advocating NATO expansion, and then was brought on during Clinton's second term to help get it done. Chapter 2 of his book Opening NATO's Door is entitled—wait for it, lefties!—"Dismantling Yalta." As Asmus makes clear, the pro-NATO expansion advocates in Clinton's team saw Yalta as a division that needed unification, a wrong that needed righting, and a diplomatic mistake to avoid repeating. On page 280, Asmus reports that at a pro-expansion ceremony in Washington, "Vice President Gore reminded Senator Biden that it was the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Yalta conference that had started to cement the original division of Europe—and that the West was now overcoming." On page 177, we learn that "Albright also viewed enlargement as a moral imperative. It was an opportunity to erase the lines drawn by the armies of Hitler and Stalin and accepted by the West at Yalta."

Albright's own book contains a passage which, if I'm reading Conason and Marshall and Greenberg right, makes her a neo-McCarthyite John Bircher fond of discredited Hitlerite tactics:

After Madrid, the President went to Warsaw to congratulate Poland on its invitation [to NATO], then to Bucharest to reassure Romania. These were amazing stops. Working with our Polish hosts, the White House advance team produced an American campaign-style event in Warsaw's Castle Square. Thirty thousand jubilant "mourners" attended what was advertised as "Yalta's Funeral." There were marching bands, red carpets, balloons, and banners. The sun even broke through just as the President began to speak of the opportunities and obligations of NATO membership.

Italics mine, to drive home a point: It has been official American policy to bury Yalta in symbol and by name for at least a decade now. U.S. diplomats and leaders, many from Central European stock, have become fluent in the language of Munich and Yalta, which also comes dancing freely from the lips of the likes of such moral persuaders as Walesa and Vaclav Havel. I was shocked and appalled, living in Central Europe at the time, that respected American commentators so routinely misunderstood the easy-to-find stated motivations for our European policy. There were more than enough Capitol Hill hearings on the issue; it's not hard at all to find stuff like "the Clinton Administration adheres to the idea of a NATO club of European democracies, repeatedly emphasizing the compelling importance of 'righting the wrongs of Yalta.'"

Since I've wasted this much space I'll drive the rest of you away with four last quick points. 1) Bush never mentioned Roosevelt. 2) Note the sentence directly after his placing Yalta "in the unjust tradition of Munich and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact."—"Once again, when powerful governments negotiated, the freedom of small nations was somehow expendable." This does not require a decoder ring, does it? 3) The comment was made in the specific and politically charged context of Vladimir Putin refusing to apologize to the Latvians for the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. 4) In making the above points, I am not laying out my 12-point program for What Roosevelt Should Have Done Differently. For that matter, neither was Bush. (His November 2002 speech in Prague, which also name-checked Yalta, followed its invocation with these two lines: "We have no power to rewrite history. We do have the power to write a different story for our time.") I'm just suggesting that those looking for a Stab in the Back or at least a John Birch slap within the remarks of the president may have stumbled onto a plot even more sinister, because the Clintonites are in on it, too.