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Thursday, June 9, 2016

“Yalta: The Price of Peace”, by S. M. Plokhy

480 pages, Viking, ISBN-13: 978-0670021413

It is February 1945, and the leaders of the Allied Powers – Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 32nd President of the United States of America; Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland; and Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin, Dictator of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics – arrive at Yalta, a resort city on the south coast of the Crimean Peninsula surrounded by the Black Sea. As the Second World War was still going on, the three decided to meet in the south of the Crimea, a place of luxury that had known war before, perhaps the most famous being the Crimean War of the 19th Century. The three leaders were to decide the fate of the world in a limited number of days, and among the many issues discussed were the fate of Germany, the question of Russia’s entrance in the war against Japan, the redrawing of Eastern European borders, particularly those of Poland. Yalta has always a controversial subject which divided the historians: on the one hand, there were those who claim that Western interests were sacrificed because Churchill and Roosevelt wanted to pacify Stalin; on the other hand, there were those who claimed the opposite; namely, that everything was done to achieve a lasting balance of power.

Yalta: The Price of Peace by S. M. Plokhy convincingly dispels the first myth. Drawing on newly-discovered documents locked-away in the former Soviet archives, the thesis of the book is very simple: the Western leaders did all that could be done and achieved the best possible results within that period of time. Published and unpublished documents and diaries also confirm this thesis, and S.M. Plokhy quotes extensively from the diaries of many of the participants – big wigs such as General George Catlett Marshall, Jr., the American Chief of Staff of the United States Army; Robert Anthony Eden, 1st Earl of Avon and the British Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs; Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Molotov, the Soviet People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs; and Churchill himself, along with other, lesser players, such as Roosevelt’s daughter Anna Roosevelt Boettiger and even Churchill’s doctor. Plokhy’s new findings confirm that the Russians were extremely resolute to establish control (if not mastery) over their Western neighbors, with Poland as the key player. To be precise, after Yalta, each side remained suspicious about the other’s intentions; Yalta did not cause the Cold War, the Cold War came afterwards.

The problem pointed out by the author at the very beginning of the book concerns the absence of an official conference record which could have settled the controversy; instead, we get a lot of quotations from memoirs or notes taken during those eight fateful days. The author is very good at conveying to the reader the atmosphere which prevailed at the various meetings and does not spare even the tiniest details, thus giving us a feeling of actually being there, seeing, hearing and attending the meetings. His analysis of the various phases and issues is extremely good and helpful in understanding what went on because he includes the broader panoramic picture of everything. To give just an example, when he discusses the Far Eastern question (which was to settle the terms of Russia’s entrance in battle against the Japanese), Plokhy provides an extensive background to the relations between Russia and Japan, starting from the 19th Century onwards, including details about the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-1905. The motivations, thoughts, and actions of the Big Three and their aides are well illustrated, military and political manoeuvers are discussed in detail, and he provides a balanced and realistic look at the debates which went on during the final days of the conference (even some menu contents are described for the curious reader). The last two parts of the book examine the high expectations following the Yalta conference and the crises in the East-West relations that followed FDR’s death. This sorrowful event was the end of cooperation with the USSR.

The epilogue is an exceptional analysis of the Yalta agreements, absolving both Roosevelt and Churchill of any mistakes; the Soviet Union had its own reasons to be satisfied with the results, because its power status has been recognized. Professor Plokhy then asks: could the Western Allies have done better at Yalta? The first answer that comes to mind is, of course they could have. The problem was that both Churchill and FDR viewed the postwar world through different lenses: Roosevelt was interested in global supremacy, while Churchill, in contrast, was interested more in Europe and in the control of the Mediterranean, which was essential to the continued existence of the British Empire; thus, from Churchill’s point of view, Stalin was a potential enemy and not an ally. Both Churchill and FDR were committed to prevent the communization of Eastern Europe. Yalta: The Price of Peace is first-rate history, and though I haven’t read any competing works, it is difficult for me to believe that any might be better for the general reader.

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