In his latest tour de force, Lloyd Gardner, one of America's most distinguished diplomatic historians, examines President Franklin Roosevelt's policies toward the region from 1938 to 1945. A central theme is that in 1938 the Europeans, mainly the British and the French, with American acquiescence, allowed Germany to place the region within its sphere of influence, while in 1945 at Yalta the British and Americans acquiesced in Soviet domination-which they could not prevent short of a war in any event. The region was doomed to fall either into the orbit of Germany or Russia or into chaos, a power-politics truth Wilson had tried to deny at Versailles.
Roosevelt came home from Yalta and lied to the American people when he celebrated the event as an end to "spheres of influence and balances of power and all the other expedients which have been tried for centuries-and have failed." This lie was to cause much political trouble for the Democrats who followed Roosevelt.
The theme is not new, but the author puts forward a new and controversial interpretation of Yalta. Not only was it inevitable that Poland and the other central and east European nations fell to Soviet control, he writes, but it was a good thing for the world. The division of Europe was already in place before World War II ended and the Cold War began because of where the various armies ended up. Without the existence of the apparently threatening Soviet sphere of influence, Gardner suggests, Congress never would have gotten behind the Marshall Plan. Without the Soviet bloc to unite them, the nations of Western Europe would have fallen into their former bad habit of squabbling with each other. Gardner argues that the alternative to Yalta was not a free Poland, but World War III.
Implied in the argument is the notion that everything turned out for the best: the Soviet empire imploded because it was such a rotten system; World War III was avoided, thanks to NATO; freedom reigns throughout Europe, except in former Yugoslavia. Good enough, but one wishes Gardner had at least a single word of sympathy for the Poles, East Germans and others who suffered through nearly 50 years of brutal dictatorship. In 1939 Britain and France went to war to guarantee a free and independent Poland; what Poland got from that declaration of war was six years of total misery and destruction-and then Stalin rather than Hitler for a master.
Shortcomings aside, this is excellent history, enlivened by extensive research that gives Gardner illuminating, insightful and just plain funny quotations. One example: at the final Yalta dinner, Churchill warned Stalin that he had an election coming and "I shall have to speak very harshly about the Communists . . . You know we have two parties in England."
"One party is much better," Stalin responded.