Premature Evaluation: Yalta by S.M. Plokhy

Did FDR give away too much at Yalta? Was Churchill sketching out percentages of influence in Eastern and Southeastern Europe with Stalin? How far did Stalin’s plans for annexations run? And was the Cold War inevitable?

In Yalta: The Price of Peace, S.M. Plokhy goes to the literature and the archives with these questions, and so far (I’m not quite halfway through) comes back with good arguments and answers. His most helpful point, to my mind, is to relocate Yalta as a wartime conference. He accompanies the negotiations and their background with details of which armies were where at what times. While victory in Europe looked certain for the Allies if they held together, it was by no means certain whose forces would reach key areas first, and it was even possible that the Grand Alliance would break before war’s end. It certainly would not have been the first time in European history that a coalition had foundered on the shores of victory.

Two quotations that bear on the overall argument:

Stalin’s words [in a discussion about creating the United Nations] were a reminder that the peace being negotiated at Yalta was not one between the Allies and the Axis but between the victors themselves. (p. 126)

On January 16, 1943, Moscow informed the Polish government in exile that it had decided to revoke a provision of their treaty recognizing the Polish citizenship of ethnic Poles who found themselves on Soviet territory after September 1939 [i.e., after the USSR had invaded the eastern parts of interwar Poland, in accordance with the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact]. From now on they would be treated as Soviet citizens. (p. 159)

British leaders, having gone to war against Germany over Poland found it difficult to leave that country in Stalin’s sphere of influence without protest. Stalin, having seen Russia and the USSR invaded twice via Polish territory saw a friendly Polish government (for Stalinist values of “friendly”) as a necessity. Besides, the Red Army was in Warsaw, and the London Poles were in, well, London.

I’ll be interested to find out how much post-war conflict Plokhy sees as inevitable, given such deep divisions among the Allies on matters of both principle and practice. On the other hand, both East and West made compromises at Yalta, so maybe he will argue in favor of more contingency than is usually credited.

The research is solid, the prose is brisk, the details colorful and the argument clear. Good stuff.

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