Monday, March 15, 2010

What We're Reading: Yalta: The Price of Peace

Yalta: The Price of Peace by S. M. Plokhy

For those of us born in the ten years or so after World War II, the formative international conflict of our young lives was the Cold War, the ideological and nuclear standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union with side stops in Korea and Vietnam and a host of clandestine proxy wars and guerilla actions around the globe. It became part of the mythology of the Cold War that its origins could be traced to decisions that were made at a major conference of the Allies that took place at Yalta in the Crimea in 1945 shortly before the defeat of Nazi Germany. The meeting has been famously memorialized in the iconic photographs of Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin posing together for the press on one of the final days of the conference.

Yalta has been blamed for what critics have seen as a sellout by Britain and the United States of Poland and other Eastern European countries to a long period of Soviet domination and oppression. It has been criticized as well for the secret agreements that were made between the United States and the Soviet Union at the expense of China, a country that was then an American ally. Some critics have suggested that these agreements gave the Soviets a foothold in Manchuria and East Asia that was instrumental in helping to bring the Communists to power in China. The dynamic among the leaders at Yalta has often been portrayed as one where a wily Stalin outmaneuvered the naïve and too trusting Churchill and Roosevelt, and that in particular, Roosevelt’s failing health caused him to be a largely disengaged and ineffective advocate for his country’s foreign policy objectives.

S.M. Plokhy has attempted a major historical reassessment of the Yalta Conference, and presents here a fascinating look at what spin and mythology can develop around even what is relatively recent history. In doing so, this book recovers not only what is perhaps a true assessment of the importance and lessons of Yalta, but it demonstrates why historical scholarship is a valuable and necessary pursuit. His chief object is to place the decisions that were made at Yalta in the context of its time, with particular reference to events that immediately preceded the conference and to the military and political realities that prevailed at the time the leaders met.

In his reconstruction of the meetings and issues of contention among the Allies, Plokhy has woven together memoirs of participants at the conference, personal letters written by those from the conference, the U.S. and British protocols of the diplomatic meetings and plenary sessions, and newly available Soviet protocols and materials of the meetings. What emerges is a fascinating account of the dynamics and day to day functioning of the conference and an insightful portrait of how diplomacy works.

For a discussion of the issues, you are referred to the book, but there are several achievements in the exposition here that serve in particular to recommend this account. Plokhy includes an “Epilogue” to his account of the conference that is a first rate summary and an insightful evaluation of what happened at Yalta and its consequences. From memoirs and letters, and from the dialogue and comments recorded at the conference, the reader will also get a sense of the intelligence and character of each of the three principal leaders at the conference as they become dramatis personae of a sort. The reader will also come away from this account with a renewed respect for the ability and leadership of Franklin Roosevelt. But for this reader, what impressed me most was how in times of war and crisis fateful decisions that affect millions, decisions about who will live or die, about how and where they will live, are not decided by consensus or democratic majorities, by congresses or parliaments or politburos, but rather by a few individuals. There seems something almost absurdly wrong and disjointed as we listen in while Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin discuss redrawing national borders in eastern and central Europe and relocating millions of people, of calculating the cost in casualties of achieving one political or military goal with another. In Yalta, The Price of Peace, you see political and military power rarefied and condensed, packed into a pinpoint, laying stark claim to a dispensation to decide the most intimate fate and to cast a lasting shadow.

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