Delusions of Dominance
Biden Can’t Restore American Primacy—and Shouldn’t Try
DEFEAT in war invariably brings in its wake an avalanche of apologetic writing by the losers. The leaders of the vanquished nation are intent on exonerating themselves; men of action, military and political, who made history without much thought of how it would be written, suddenly become concerned about the opinions of posterity. A debate, for the most part quite unedifying, begins at once and is apt to continue far beyond the point where it is of interest to any but historians.
The victors, on the other hand, are less given to post mortems. Having been convinced from the outset of the justice of their cause and the rightness of their policy, they take success as a matter of course. The seamy side of the conflict is soon forgotten and the uncertainties, the long chances, the wretched blunders are conveniently glossed over if not ignored. Books and articles on this last war there are in plenty, but for the most part they are in the nature of thrilling narrative, panegyrical biography or personal reminiscence. And yet it is perhaps even more necessary for the victors to take counsel with themselves and essay an honest appraisal of the record. Victory is a heady draught, all too apt to breed overconfidence and self-delusion. History is punctuated by disasters which followed on the heels of success, springing from exaggerated notions of past achievement or extravagant conceptions of national prowess.
Since war is indeed but a continuation of policy by other means, it follows inexorably that once hostilities have broken out political decisions must be subordinated to the requirements of strategy. In such circumstances traditional policies may have to be abandoned, natural sympathies may have to be sacrificed. The problem is further complicated by the fact that most modern wars are fought by coalitions of states that are frequently, nay almost proverbially, strange bedfellows. One overriding interest -- that of defeating a common enemy -- may bring them together, but a dozen other interests may drive them apart. Diplomatic revolutions are the stuff of which the drama of history is made. They are the nightmare of statesmen, whose incessant task during a war is to obviate friction between allies and to reconcile as best may be the diverging aims of the associated Powers, at least until the victory is won.
So far as the United States is concerned, the recent world conflict divides naturally into the periods of our non-belligerency and of our active participation. During the first phase the important decisions were of necessity political, while during the second they were preëminently military, though, of course, political considerations remained of moment all the way through and again became predominant as the war drew toward its close.
Under our constitutional system the executive power is concentrated in the President, who is much more the effective head of the government than in most other democratic states. In the field of foreign policy his authority is almost unrestricted. In the words of a Supreme Court decision: "in this vast external realm, with its important, complicated, delicate and manifold problems, the President alone has the power to speak or listen as a representative of the nation." He is, therefore, the very fountainhead of policy, limited in his decision only by his own judgment of what the Congress and the people will approve and support. At the same time, however, he is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and therefore has the final word in all matters of strategy and operations. Through the union of civil and military authority in one man we are spared the all-too-common and sometimes disastrous conflict between politicians and soldiers, and we avoid serious divergence between policy and strategy. When wisely exercised, the presidential authority makes for singleness of purpose and unity of action. Thus far in our history the system has worked successfully. Whether by divine dispensation or by pure luck, in all major crises we have had presidents who were equal to the occasion.
Franklin D. Roosevelt's rôle as the maker and director of American foreign policy is likely to be a matter of violent dispute for a long time to come, perhaps even beyond the time when his papers are made available for scholarly study. During the last few years of his life, Harry Hopkins probably knew his mind pretty intimately, but in the first eight or nine years of his administration the President does not appear to have confided much in any one man. His relations with Mr. Hull were based on complete loyalty and tremendous mutual respect, but the two men were so different in temperament that there could be no real intimacy. The President, of course, conferred and discussed with other men too. He relied heavily on Mr. Sumner Welles and for some years was influenced by the views of Mr. Bullitt. But no one person got the whole picture, no one person was permitted the inwardness of the President's thoughts or the vision of his ultimate objectives. Under the circumstances it is hard to speak authoritatively and in some cases one can do little more than conjecture.
The President was unusually well equipped by education and experience to deal with international affairs, yet during the early years of his administration he appears to have been so engrossed by domestic issues as to have given little attention to foreign problems, either political or economic. He was apparently quite disillusioned about international organization and collective security and quite insensible to the importance of the crisis in international trade. His one compelling foreign interest in the early period was the development of the Good Neighbor Policy and the furtherance of hemispheric solidarity. This, to be sure, was a notable exception and was to prove itself one of the most successful of his policies. It need not be discussed in any detail here, though we may note that, viewed in the context of the early years of the Roosevelt Administration, even the Good Neighbor Policy was only an expression of a modified isolationism. The President, whose thoughts were centered on national reform and national welfare, expanded his conception to the whole hemisphere. Yet basically the idea was the same, reflecting a hope for self-sufficiency.
It was only during the second term, when crisis began to follow crisis both in Europe and the Far East, that the President's attention began to focus on the international scene and his basic foreign policies began to take form. The famous "quarantine" speech at Chicago in October 1937, though still shrouded in considerable mystery, at least revealed an acute sense of the world danger and a keen realization of the possible repercussions of the foreign situation on our own national interests. With a suddenness that shocked the country the President not only expounded his views but proceeded to outline a policy. The change was too abrupt and the proposal too vague and ominous for popular sentiment. The President drew back, and for more than a year did not again express himself so flatly and forcefully.
Nonetheless, it is beyond doubt that long before the outbreak of the war in Europe Mr. Roosevelt's ideas had taken definite form and had begun to crystallize into policy. He detested the dictatorships and all that they stood for and he regarded their aggressiveness as at least an ultimate threat to this hemisphere and this country. Although public opinion generally shared his aversion, it was for the most part skeptical about the implications of what was loosely called Fascism. There was a good deal of applause for the President's repeated and sometimes unmeasured castigation of Hitler and his ilk, yet there was almost universal opposition to any specific action by this Government, however mild. The President's advocacy of "methods short of war" received a cold reception and his urgent requests for repeal of the arms embargo were turned down despite his insistence that repeal would strengthen his influence for peace. For all its reprobation of Fascist aggression, the American public in 1939 was disgusted with the rest of the world and was determined not to jeopardize its domestic policies or its peace.
Through the American Foreign Service, the Washington Government was probably more fully and accurately informed about the world situation on the eve of the crisis than was any other government in the world. The President and his advisers were under no illusions about the ultimate objectives of Germany, Italy and Japan, nor did they have exaggerated notions about the ability of Britain and France to resist successfully. Envisaging, as they did, the possibility of a Nazi victory in Europe and an effective combination of the German and Japanese efforts, they appreciated to the full the ultimate danger to Latin America and the United States. Their policy, therefore, was to give all possible support to the democracies, within the limitations of the law and the bounds of public opinion. And so was born the first and most fundamental of American policies connected with the war -- the identification of our long-term interests with those of Britain and France and the extension of all possible aid to those countries.
This policy was initiated in a very modest way by facilitating the purchase and manufacture of airplanes in this country. Yet when such aid was accidentally revealed in February 1939, it created such a furor in Congress and in the press that it probably deterred the President from too great insistence on repeal of the arms embargo. Only after the agreement between Hitler and Stalin, and Germany's conquest of Poland, was repeal of the embargo carried through Congress by handsome majorities. Although little public reference was made to the full significance of the repeal, it was well understood that the prime objective of the President was to make munitions and supplies available to the democracies. We may therefore conclude that Congress, in repealing the embargo, reflected a growing willingness on the part of the public to follow the President's lead.
It is common knowledge that during the first winter of war the Allies did not take full advantage of the chance to purchase American supplies. They were costly, and the need of them was not fully appreciated. The period of the "phony war" was brought to an abrupt end by the German invasion of Scandinavia, which sent shivers of apprehension through this country as well as through Britain and France. Then came the spectacular collapse of France. In a matter of weeks the prospects of victory had been completely reversed and Britain herself appeared to be on the verge of invasion and conquest. Along with many others, the President waited from day to day -- one might say literally from hour to hour -- for news that the German attack on the British Isles had begun. He realized more clearly than most Americans that if Britain went under, our bulwark in the Atlantic would be gone and that before long we might be faced with a war on two ocean fronts.
But even though Mr. Roosevelt expected the invasion of Britain, he stuck at all times to the hope that the British would be able to resist successfully. Faith in British determination enabled him to make the fateful decision to send abroad all available matériel without delay, though it should be added that American opinion was not slow in grasping the magnitude of the danger and in tacitly approving whatever action the President deemed necessary. The famous destroyers-for-bases deal, put over in the dark days of September 1940, evoked remarkably little criticism, partly no doubt because the whole transaction was a masterstroke, as important for our own security as it was for the maintenance of Britain's supply lines.
Looking back, we can now see clearly enough that the summer and early autumn of 1940 were the most critical phase of the whole war and that Hitler came nearer victory then than at any later period. That being so, it can be said with considerable assurance that the decision to give all possible support to Britain in her most dangerous hour was the most important and courageous decision made by the United States Government during the entire war period. Europe was in Hitler's hands, and when we decided to support Britain we knew that we might be putting our money on the wrong horse. But the consequences of Britain's defeat were so ominous that we had to take the chance. No matter how desperate the situation, it was still better for us to throw our weight into the struggle than to abandon the last outpost and await the Nazi advance on this side of the Atlantic. We took a chance on Britain, and we won.
The concluding chapter of the program of aiding the anti-Axis forces was written in the Lend-Lease Act of March 1941, which was precipitated by the inability of the British to continue to pay cash for munitions and supplies. As an operational device the Lend-Lease Act made possible for the first time the extension of unlimited aid not only to Britain but to any government engaged in fighting an aggressor. It was literally the key to victory, opening wide the doors to the American arsenal.
No positive decision comparable to these decisions in our European policy was ever taken with relation to the Far Eastern situation. If reckoned from the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, the crisis in Asia antedated the Roosevelt Administration as well as the beginning of aggression by Italy and Germany. In one sense our consistent support of Nationalist China against Japan was the prototype of our program of aid to France and Britain. But our policy in Asia, which promised in the first instance to be the touchstone of our entire attitude toward the growing world crisis, never came into clear focus. Originally, Secretary Stimson had proposed a bold move to check aggression and it is quite conceivable that if his proposal had been accepted not only Japan, but Italy and Germany might have been deterred by collective action. Actually, however, nothing was done to block the realization of the Japanese program, and when the rape of Manchuria was followed by the advance into North China in 1937, the tension in Europe was already so great that it was hardly more feasible for the United States Government to take a strong line than for the British to do so. The President and his advisers from that time on adopted an inconclusive position, reflected in the policy of nonrecognition and buttressed by a program of active though modest support for the Government of Chiang Kai-shek. We had, of course, much more effective weapons in our armory; and, in general, American opinion was more disposed to use them in the Far East than in Europe. But the President and Secretary Hull felt, no doubt correctly, that the United States could not afford to become seriously involved with Japan without thereby encouraging aggression in Europe. Our decision with regard to the Far East, then, was essentially a negative one. We muddled along, objecting and protesting and trying to deter Japan by shrouding our policy in uncertainty until the Japanese themselves cut the Gordian knot at Pearl Harbor.
It has often been argued that if we had proceeded firmly with a policy of economic sanctions for Japan, we might have discredited the Japanese militarists and strengthened the liberal, civilian elements with which some sort of acceptable compromise might have been worked out. But actually there is little if any evidence that the Japanese warlords could have been deterred in their plans, which they regarded as vital to the national interest. The chances are, rather, that a positive policy on our part would have provoked hostilities when we were unprepared for them, and when lack of American support might have meant defeat for Britain in Europe. Viewed in this light, the decision not to join issue in the Far East was perhaps as important as any positive decision we could have come to. The Japanese militarists were left to assume the odium of aggression, while the astonishingly prompt declaration of war by Hitler and Mussolini relieved the Government and the country of a decision which, though it was by that time recognized as inevitable, would nonetheless have been a hard one to arrive at. Had we had our choice, we should probably have elected to stay out of the war for another six months at least. But Pearl Harbor, bad as it was, would have been a greater naval disaster had it come a year or six months earlier; and there were inestimable political advantages to this country in having the ultimate decision to go to war in Asia and in Europe imposed upon it.
Decisions which turn on questions of ideology, are, of course, "political," but they are much less amenable to dispassionate analysis and less susceptible of proof one way or the other than are specific diplomatic problems. We sometimes set them apart by calling them "moral problems." Their effects are usually vague and intangible, yet their importance is great. They were given full weight from the very beginning by so consummate a politician as President Roosevelt. Long before the outbreak of war in Europe the President had hoped to arouse world opinion against the aggressors and had directed his efforts toward building up sentiment against the dictators even in their own countries. Hitler's position was too strong to enable the President to make much headway in that direction, but he did succeed in unifying and galvanizing opinion in the democracies -- in reinforcing the conviction that in the end free men would win. The fact that the Nazi leaders were always apprehensive of his influence is perhaps the best evidence of the importance of his leadership.
In keeping with his belief in the significance of the imponderables, the President began to concern himself from the beginning of the conflict with plans for a peace settlement that would end the era of international conflict. He was convinced that men fought best when they knew what they were fighting for, when they had some vision of a better world to follow the tribulations of war. He recognized that even in the aggressor countries there was an overpowering desire for security and greater economic opportunity. His mind turned rather to these larger issues than to specific questions like territorial disputes. When, in February 1940, Under Secretary Welles was sent on a special mission to Europe to canvass the possibilities of peace, he took with him a memorandum outlining such a program. At the same time the President dispatched a personal representative to the Vatican to enlist the support of the Pope in the cause of an equitable settlement of world problems. Unfortunately most of this activity was unavailing. Instead of ending in a negotiated peace, the war broke into its most violent phase.
No serious political issue was presented by conquered Poland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium or the Netherlands, all of which had set up governments-in-exile which we could and did recognize. But two-fifths of France remained unoccupied under its own government, a government which indeed had concluded an armistice with the Germans and was of necessity more or less under the domination of Hitler, but which nevertheless pretended to some authority in France and to effective control of the French Empire. The question, difficult in itself, was further complicated bv the fact that the Vichy Government, under Pétain, was decidedly authoritarian in character and made no secret of its hostility to the democratic system.
In this instance, as in later cases, the President refused to subordinate what he believed to be the national interest to purely ideological considerations. He and his advisers had considerable respect for Marshal Pétain, but no sympathy whatever for subordinates like Laval and Darlan. The United States Government, like the country, despised the Vichy system and detested the Vichy policy of collaboration with the Nazis, but the national interest seemed to be best served by maintaining contact with the French and using such influence as we had to prevent the full victory of the collaborationist elements. Of course this meant turning a cold shoulder to de Gaulle and the Free French Committee in London (though we recognized and assisted the Free French authorities in those parts of the empire where they exercised effective control), and it probably threw some shadows over our rôle as a leader of democracy against Fascism. The fact remains, however, that in cases like this one cannot have one's cake and eat it.[i]
This same problem of compromise with nondemocratic forces was to dog the American Government all through the war and beyond the term of hostilities. The main job throughout was to defeat the Nazi and Fascist dictators and the Japanese militarists. In order to do this we had to coöperate with those who held the same purpose. Britain was one of the few democratic régimes on either side of the conflict. No real objection was raised to our support of Chiang Kai-shek, though his régime could be described as a democratic one only by courtesy. But of course the greatest problem was offered by Soviet Russia, where the issue was not compromise with reaction but association with Communism.
The relations between the United States and Russia had not improved after the recognition of the Soviet Government in 1933. If anything, they had grown worse as a result of the failure of the U.S.S.R. to live up to its obligations. By 1940 they were about as bad as they could be and the distrust in government circles was exceeded only by the intense aversion to the U.S.S.R. of the American public. The Communist system, detested as a threat to the social order and a ruthless dictatorship, was at that time in even worse repute as the partner of Nazism.
When Hitler launched his assault on the Soviet Union, the President and the country were confronted with the question whether to support the Communist régime in its struggle against the invader. The choice of Government and of the American people was in the affirmative: we would send all possible assistance. In actual fact the United States supplied about 10 percent of the Russian requirements in equipment and munitions, representing crucial items without which the Soviet resistance might have proved futile. Though the decision has certainly provoked much searching of soul in the months since victory was assured, it met with remarkably little criticism at the time. The reason seems to me to be a fairly simple one. At the time the situation of Britain was becoming ever more desperate. The primary question was how the war could be won; and about the only hope of victory seemed to lie in bleeding the Germans white on the plains of Russia. The alternative to aiding Russia was to accept Hitler's oft-renewed peace offers, on the basis of recognizing most of his conquests and giving him a free hand against the U.S.S.R., with the extreme likelihood that he would triumph. And that meant a real and terrible danger of Nazi world conquest. In an explanatory letter to the Pope, President Roosevelt expressed himself quite categorically:[ii]
In my opinion, the fact is that Russia is governed by a dictatorship, as rigid in its manner of being as is the dictatorship in Germany. I believe, however, that this Russian dictatorship is less dangerous to the safety of other nations than is the German form of dictatorship. The only weapon which the Russian dictatorship uses outside of its own borders is Communist propaganda which I, of course, recognize has in the past been utilized for the purpose of breaking down the form of government in other countries, religious belief, et cetera. Germany, however, not only has utilized, but is utilizing, this kind of propaganda as well and has also undertaken the employment of every form of military aggression outside of its borders for the purpose of world conquest by force of arms and by force of propaganda. I believe that the survival of Russia is less dangerous to religion, to the church as such, and to humanity in general than would be the survival of the German form of dictatorship.
In short, the President regarded the Communist dictatorship as the lesser of two evils. But beyond that, as we learn from Mr. Welles' recent book, he at once recognized that understanding and coöperation between Moscow and Washington was one of the indispensable foundations for American foreign policy, and was convinced that a firm agreement with the Soviet Government was essential for future peace. He saw no need to fear Communism if an international organization existed, and believed that if Russia could be given security through such an organization, the Communist régime would gradually accommodate itself to the general society of nations. While the Russian and the American systems would probably never meet, they would approximate to the point where there would no longer be a serious problem of living together.[iii] The President shared an idea common at the time that the cult of world revolution was already receding in the minds of the Soviet leaders and that they were becoming more and more engrossed in purely national problems. And, after all, argued the President, Stalin and his associates could not live forever. It might well be that his successors might adopt a more agreeable line. To all these considerations should probably be added the fact that Russia's strength was underestimated and that there seemed to be reason to suppose that the Soviet régime, even if victorious, would be so seriously weakened as to be dependent on the Allied Powers and therefore well-disposed to any program of international organization and action.
To what extent this line of reasoning was sound can be determined only after the lapse of years. For the short run, however, it soon proved to be mistaken. During the first six months, when the Germans just barely failed to reach Moscow, the Soviets were coöperative in every way and did their best to play to the western gallery by demonstrations of religious concessions and so forth. But as soon as the tide began to turn, and particularly after the victory at Stalingrad, they began to change their tune. From that time on the British and Americans were in a perpetual quandary, and it would hardly be going too far to say that all the political decisions of the later period of the war hinged more or less directly on consideration of the Russian problem.
In August 1941, the President and Mr. Churchill met in the waters off Argentia, Newfoundland, for the famous conference which produced the Atlantic Charter, a document comparable to the Fourteen Points of President Wilson, but far less specific in its provisions and more general in its appeal. No doubt the primary purpose of the Charter was to afford a common program for all anti-Axis forces and to mark out the lines of a peace settlement for which men everywhere would be willing to fight. But aside from its propaganda value in the democratic countries, we may, I think, assume that it was drafted with an eye to Russia. If the Soviet Government could be brought to subscribe to the provisions of the Charter against territorial aggrandizement and in favor of self-determination of peoples, in favor of equal access to raw materials and freedom of trade, and in favor of a permanent system of security and disarmament, clearly the Allied governments could look to the future with a greater measure of assurance. The Soviet leaders made no objection: along with the other anti-Axis Governments, they signed the Charter and joined the ranks of the United Nations.
But before long the Kremlin began to take a stronger line. There arose the insistent demand for a second front, in addition to the ever-growing requirements for supplies. For a long time a second front in Europe was militarily impossible and had to be evaded or refused. As a result, however, the Allied Governments were more and more haunted by the possibility that the Soviet Government might find it more advantageous to make a deal with Hitler, an idea which it was obviously in the Soviet interest to circulate. To me it seems that these fears were at all times groundless, for it is difficult to see how any Russian-German pact could have been more than a truce, or how Hitler could possibly have offered Stalin anything to compare to the gains he would make by an Allied victory over Germany. The war gave Russia the chance of centuries to dispose of a chronic menace, and as long as there was even a fair chance of success, the Soviets would have been stupid to accept anything less.
The fact of the matter seems to have been that the Soviet leaders were quite as suspicious of their Allies as we were of them. Whether sincerely or otherwise, they took the line that refusal to open a second front was an indication of unwillingness to crush the Nazi power or permit Communist Russia an unqualified victory. It was this mutual suspicion and constant recrimination more than anything else that lay behind the demand for unconditional surrender as formulated by the Casablanca Conference of January 1943 which, incidentally, Stalin refused to attend.
The primary objective of the President and Mr. Churchill at that conference was to reassure the Bolshevik leaders that there would be no compromise with Hitler and that the Allies would fight on to total victory. Whether or not the unconditional surrender formula had the desired effect in the Kremlin we cannot know, but in any event it was a fateful decision; for even if it served to keep the Russians in line, it undoubtedly made the struggle against Nazi Germany more difficult and more prolonged. Far from scaring the Germans into early surrender, it gave the Nazi propagandists their best argument for a last-ditch resistance. On balance it seems that the demand for unconditional surrender was an unfortunate and costly move, and that it was too high a price to pay for Stalin's peace of mind.
The President, influenced no doubt by the widespread criticism of the Paris peacemakers of 1919, seems to have made up his mind at an early date that after the conclusion of hostilities there should be a "cooling-off period" before the negotiation of the final settlement. Like President Wilson before him, he appears to have thought that international organization should come first and that, through collective action, many problems could be disposed of in a spirit of coöperation. Closely related to these ideas was the decision, arrived at with Mr. Churchill, to subordinate everything to the winning of the war and to avoid all political and territorial issues that might provoke dissension among the anti-Axis forces. Sound though this approach might have been, it necessarily presupposed that all parties would postpone final territorial settlements. Actually, the Soviet Government never showed the slightest intention of doing so, and serious difficulties arose almost at once. Hardly had the German armies been stopped before Moscow than Stalin began to press General Sikorski for a discussion of the eastern frontier of Poland. It was no secret that the Soviets, while fighting on the side of the western Powers, were fully determined to retain all that they had acquired through their partnership with Hitler. Sikorski, and after him Mickolajczyk, firmly refused to sacrifice eastern Poland, insisting that they had no constitutional power to barter with the national heritage. At first both the British and American Governments encouraged their stand, though neither Washington nor London was prepared to make an issue of the matter. But by 1943 the British had already weakened considerably, and by 1944 even the President appears to have reconciled himself to Poland's loss of her eastern territories in return for acquisitions at Germany's expense.
By the beginning of 1945 the Soviet armies were already engulfing the Balkan area. Militarily the Allies could do nothing to influence Soviet policy toward countries like Poland, Rumania, Bulgaria, Jugoslavia, Hungary and even Austria. The remaining possibility was to temper the impending storm by discussion and agreement. The Yalta Conference represented the last, almost desperate effort of the President and Mr. Churchill to hold Stalin to the principles of the Atlantic Charter and to save eastern Europe from Bolshevik domination.
The Yalta Conference, like the preceding meeting at Teheran, concerned itself largely with military matters, in this case with the planning for the final assault on Germany. In reality, of course, the outcome of the war was already assured. The defeat of Germany was merely a matter of time and cost. Neither the western Powers nor the Soviets any longer needed each other to clinch the victory. But the President and his advisers, civilian as well as military, still felt that they needed Russian aid to wind up the Far Eastern conflict. It may be, as General Deane says, that no one seriously doubted that the Soviets would eventually enter the war against Japan, for Russian interests in the Far East were too extensive and important to permit of Moscow's exclusion from the final settlement. But it was obviously in Russia's interest to postpone action in the Far East till the latest possible moment, which would mean that the United States forces would bear the entire burden of Japan's defeat. For many months efforts had been made to get Stalin to commit himself, but the timing of Russian intervention was still not fully decided when the Yalta conferees assembled.
Rightly or wrongly the President was prepared to pay a substantial price for a definite agreement by Stalin to participate in the Far Eastern war. The great fear of the Americans at the time was that the Japanese, even after their home islands had been conquered, might attempt to continue the struggle with the large armies they still had in Manchuria and China. Although it seems unlikely that the Japanese could have continued effective operations on the Asiatic mainland, the only guarantee against such an eventuality was active intervention by the Soviet Far Eastern armies. In short, the President felt that the United States still needed Russian support and thereby was put at a disadvantage in discussion with Stalin. He felt obliged to pay a price for Russian intervention, only to discover later that the Soviet contribution in the Far East was little more than a victory parade. Our own atomic bomb served our purposes a hundred times better than did the Soviet armies.
The price paid for this concession in the military sphere was the recognition of Russia's unilateral settlement of the Polish frontier problem, attenuated only by Soviet acceptance of the vague and ill-defined principle that representative, democratic governments should be established in Poland and other liberated countries. And that was not all. With respect to the all-important German settlement, the President agreed to the compensation of Poland by the cession of German territory, accepted the Russian program for reparations in a general way, and consented to the zonal occupation of Germany along lines exceedingly favorable to the Russians. As everyone knows, these arrangements touching Germany were the prelude to the current struggle for power in Europe. It would be interesting and instructive to follow them in all their ramifications, but that would lead us beyond the scope of this essay. Before leaving the decisions of the Yalta Conference, however, something must be said of the agreements bearing on the plans for world organization.
These plans, proclaimed in the Atlantic Charter, were dear to the heart of the President and enjoyed almost universal support in the United States, where there was general agreement that our failure to join the League of Nations was a fatal blunder. Secretary Hull, through his arduous journey to the Moscow Conference in October 1943, had succeeded in aligning the Soviet Government with the scheme, and the Dumbarton Oaks Conference of August-October 1944 had produced a preliminary draft for the future United Nations organization. But the Russians had at that time insisted on an all-inclusive veto power for each of the five Great Powers sitting on the Council and this question had to be left for decision at the highest level. At Yalta the President induced Stalin to retreat somewhat from his initial position, but the real victory remained with the Soviet leader, for the veto power was retained for all but the less important areas of Council procedure. At the San Francisco Conference the Russians refused to be moved from this position, despite all influence that could be brought to bear and despite the vigorous objections of the minor Powers. The history of the United Nations organization since its inauguration is still so fresh that no detailed consideration of this decision of the Yalta Conference is required.
At the time of the Yalta meeting the President was already a very sick man. It is more than likely that his failing health had much to do with his decisions on that occasion. But with that aspect we need not concern ourselves here. The long and the short of it is that the consequences of Yalta were unfortunate on almost every count and that the conference represented a rather sad closing chapter to a war which, on the whole, was wisely directed and gallantly fought.
One is drawn to the conclusion that the brilliant phase of American policy was the initial one, which was followed by a middle phase of expediency and compromise, and a closing phase during which we tried in vain to adjust to the Russian problem. Though this problem has emerged as the key issue of international relations, it is too cheap and easy now to say that the President and the country were misled in the decision which threw in our lot with the Soviets in the summer of 1941. We can see clearly now that it was a mistake to believe that the Bolsheviks had given up the idea of world revolution. Maybe they persist in the revolutionary struggle as a matter of faith and principle. More likely they regard it as the most effective instrument for eliminating their rivals and possible enemies, for the creation of a world fashioned in the Russian image, a world which the Soviet Union can dominate and in which it can therefore feel safe. Be this as it may, Europe and the world have been freed of the Nazi menace only to be confronted with the specter of Communist control.
The prospect of such an eventuality confronted the British and American Governments six years ago. They elected to support the Soviets because the Nazi danger was immediate and frightful, and it was truly perceived also that past treatment of the Soviet régime was at least partially responsible for the isolation and distrust so characteristic of Moscow. It was reasonable to suppose that after a great common effort the Soviets could be drawn into permanent association with other Powers, that mutual confidence and a feeling of security could be developed. After all, the Russian Government and people had a great internal problem of social betterment. They had a vast territory and immeasurable resources. They had no need to expand at the expense of neighbors and they had no ideas of racial superiority to drive them on. Looked at in these terms the crucial decision of 1941 still seems sound.
The really debatable part of our wartime conduct of foreign relations does not hinge on the original decision to aid Russia, but on the subsequent development of policy toward the Soviet Government. It is impossible to focus this criticism on any one problem or single decision. It was a gradual cumulation of questions, characterized perhaps by two chief errors. First, the President unquestionably overestimated his ability to influence Stalin (though here the "might-have-been" result is forever shrouded in uncertainty by his death), and put excessive hope on the possibility of solving the Russian issue through international organization. Second, both Mr. Roosevelt and Mr. Churchill exaggerated the danger that Russia might quit and make a new deal with Hitler. I find it impossible to believe that at any time, as long as there was even a fair chance of victory, it could have been in Stalin's interest to reverse himself. Actually the Soviets were fully as dependent on Allied aid, direct and indirect, as we were on theirs. The idea that during 1942 and 1943 they were carrying the major share of the burden was essentially a mistaken one. Under the circumstances there was no real need for "appeasing" Russia, and certainly no real excuse for acquiescing in Stalin's unilateral action in cases like that of Poland. The idea of sidestepping territorial and other difficult issues may perhaps have been initially sound, but it should not have been adhered to after it had become clear that the Kremlin was exerting its full power to get the settlements it wanted. The United States Government should then have taken a much stronger line. In the case of a showdown, we could have planned much earlier and in a much more constructive way for our own security in western and central Europe.
[i] cf. William L. Langer, "Our Vichy Gamble." New York: Knopf, 1947.
[ii] "Wartime Correspondence between President Roosevelt and Pope Pius XII." New York: Macmillan, 1947, p. 61-62.
[iii] cf. Sumner Welles, "Where Are We Heading?" New York: Harper, 1946, p. 36, 37, 102, 377.