Yalta is unfinished business. It has a longer past and it may have a more ominous future than is generally recognized. Forty years after the fateful Crimean meeting of February 4-11, 1945, between the Allied Big Three of World War II, much of our current preoccupation with Yalta focuses on its myth rather than on its continuing historical significance.
The myth is that at Yalta the West accepted the division of Europe. The fact is that Eastern Europe had been conceded de facto to Josef Stalin by Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill as early as the Teheran Conference (in November-December 1943), and at Yalta the British and American leaders had some halfhearted second thoughts about that concession. They then made a last-ditch but ineffective effort to fashion some arrangements to assure at least a modicum of freedom for Eastern Europe, in keeping with Anglo-American hopes for democracy on the European continent as a whole. The Western statesmen failed, however, to face up to the ruthlessness of the emerging postwar Soviet might, and in the ensuing clash between Stalinist power and Western naïvete, power prevailed.
Yalta's continuing significance lies in what it reveals about Russia's enduring ambitions toward Europe as a whole. Yalta was the last gasp of carefully calibrated Soviet diplomacy designed to obtain Anglo-American acquiescence to a preponderant Soviet role in all of Europe. At Yalta, in addition to timidly reopening the issue of Eastern Europe, the West also deflected, but again in a vague and timorous fashion, Soviet aspirations for a dominant position in the western extremity of the Eurasian land mass.
Yalta thus remains of great geopolitical significance because it symbolizes the unfinished struggle for the future of Europe. Forty years after Yalta that struggle still involves America and Russia, but by now it should be clear that the issue is unlikely to be resolved in a historically constructive manner until a more active role is assumed by the very object of the contest, Europe itself.
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