Monday, May 18, 2015

Who Was Not at Yalta?

In February 1945, the city of Yalta hosted the famous wartime conference which included U.S. President Roosevelt, Britain’s Winston Churchill, and the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin. Yalta is located on the southern end of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula on the shores of the Black Sea.

It was clear by this time that Germany would lose the war. The purpose of the conference was to organize the postwar environment in Europe.

Who accompanied FDR to Yalta? One might think that, because this meeting would set the international tone for years and even decades to come, America’s best diplomats and intelligence experts would be on hand to advise the president during the days-long event. Historians Stan Evans and Herbert Romerstein write:

With everything that was on the line at Yalta, one might suppose the U.S. government would have sent there a first-rate team of policy experts and negotiators to uphold American and free-world interests. Dealing with the tough and wily Soviets in such a context would have required the best that mid-century America had to offer. Such, however, was not to be the case at this world-changing summit.

Contrary to what might be a reasonable expectation on the part of the reader, the team FDR brought with him to Yalta was not an all-star list of foreign policy experts or intelligence geeks. His Secretary of State, Edward Stettinius, had been in office one month, hardly enough time to develop the agile negotiating skills needed vis-a-vis the USSR.

Stettinius would last less than six months as Secretary of State. It was during this narrow window of time that the Yalta conference occurred. Both his predecessor and his successor - Cordell Hull and James Byrnes, respectively - had more impressive resumes and gained experience from longer time in that office.

A neophyte Secretary of State was not the only weakness on the American team at Yalta. The delegation seemed designed for weakness at the negotiating table. Evans and Romerstein continue:

Few people familiar with the American delegation at Yalta would have called it first-rate, or even adequate to the challenge. On the military side, there was an impressive show of brass and braid, but the diplomatic group was different. Among his entourage Roosevelt had two staffers knowledgeable of the Soviet Union — interpreter Bohlen and ambassador to Moscow W. Averell Harriman — plus some support personnel to be discussed hereafter. But notably absent were ranking U.S. experts who knew a lot about the Soviets and diplomacy in general: top-line officials such as Undersecretary of State Joseph Grew, State’s European chief James C. Dunn, Russia specialists Henderson and Kennan. None of these would make the trip to Yalta.

In fact, the contingent from the United States was deliberately assembled to allow the Soviets to gain an advantage at the bargaining table. Advisors placed in high positions at the State Department, notably one Alger Hiss, personally advised the president on such matters.

What FDR didn’t know was that Hiss was on the payroll of Soviet intelligence agencies. Hiss was a spy, working for the communists. In addition to leaking classified information to the USSR, he also influenced the president’s policy decisions in ways which played into the hands of Moscow.

Churchill and Roosevelt made some bad agreements with Stalin at Yalta. Some were bad because they placed large regions of eastern Europe under a totalitarian regime, others were bad because they were empty promises which Stalin did not intend to fulfill. In the case, e.g., of Poland, Stalin told Churchill and Roosevelt that after the Red Army had pushed the Nazis out of the country, political liberty and free elections would follow. The Soviets, of course, did no such thing. Poland was overrun by the USSR and would remain a vassal state for the next forty-five years.

The deals made at Yalta were not only bad, but bad by design. Alger Hiss, and other Soviet operatives inside the Department of State, ensured that the American ability to negotiate would be hamstrung, and the Stalin could craft agreements to his liking.