75 Years From the Yalta Conference
Feb. 12, 2020
What a summit that divided Europe teaches the world today about power.
Seventy-five years after a summit that redrew postwar Germany and Europe, the world is still learning its lessons about conflict, politics and spheres of influence, analysts say.
The conference in Yalta, Crimea, led by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin concluded on Feb. 11, 1945, and set peace terms for World War II and decided the fate of Europe .
Analysts say the Yalta Conference doesn't provide immediate comparisons to today's Europe, but the anniversary comes as countries across the continent look to Germany for leadership as the United Kingdom prepares to leave the European Union . But Germany in 2020 is in flux; Chancellor Angela Merkel's hand-picked heir apparent announced on Monday that she would step down as the governing party's leader and not run for chancellor next year.
The Yalta anniversary also comes as diplomats and analysts will meet on Friday at the Munich Security Conference to discuss security challenges facing the world.
Looking Back at the Yalta Conference
Historic Turning Point for Europe
In the aftermath of the bloodiest war the world had ever seen, Roosevelt was aiming high: In 1941 he and Churchill laid out postwar principles , which included freedom for all nations to choose their form of government, open trade, and a system that would ensure no other power would ever pose the global threat that Nazi Germany did.
Yalta is still regarded as a turning point for Europe. Not only did the conference mark the beginning of the end for World War II, it decided new alliances in the Pacific and a separation of powers on the Old Continent. At Yalta, the three world leaders decided Germany should be demilitarized and controlled by the U.S. , the U.K., France and the Soviet Union. Several countries in Eastern Europe, including the now-dissolved Czechoslovakia , Hungary , Romania , and Bulgaria would become "friendly" to the Soviet regime .
"For Russians , through the Cold War and today, Yalta symbolizes a pinnacle of great power comity and accommodation," Daniel Fried, former U.S. Ambassador to Poland , writes in an op-ed for the Atlantic Council. "For Poles, Balts, and many others in Central Europe, Yalta means a betrayal of their countries and the United States' abandonment of its core values on the altar of Great Power politics."
In the U.S., Yalta remains a point of partisan debate between conservatives and liberals, say experts, with the two ideologies seeing the conference very differently.
"Non-Democrats would argue that Franklin Roosevelt sold out Eastern Europe to Joseph Stalin and negotiated away the freedom of Eastern Europe," says Daniel Hamilton, professor and former executive director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University. "The lesson that they take is that small countries are sacrificed."
Democrats argue that this is a superficial interpretation of what really happened and that the Soviet Union had already occupied Eastern Europe with military forces, Hamilton says.
"There were no British or American forces there, so to think that we even had the power to force them to retreat from that part of Europe was an illusion or it would have cost many American lives."
The Mixed Legacy of Yalta
The forces driving U.S. government diplomacy at Yalta were not an aberration in the aftermath of World War II, Fried argues, but a consequence of an " America First " movement that hindered the U.S. to express real interests in European security.
"Left and right isolationists agreed that the United States had been tricked into World War One for no good reason by a cabal of cynical Anglo-French politicians and arms merchants," Fried adds . "The default by most European powers of World War One debt to the United States fueled the sentiment that the United States was badly treated by European powers and that it should have nothing more to do with grand, Wilsonian visions."
What is often not mentioned, Hamilton argues, is that the negotiations at Yalta involved many unknowns that history later revealed, such as Stalin's intentions to occupy Eastern Europe and place communist governments in the region. At the time of Yalta, it was still unclear what was going to happen across Europe; Nazi Germany had not yet surrendered and there was still major fighting taking place across Asia.
"Roosevelt didn't want to sacrifice American soldiers if he didn't have to," says Hamilton. "And he was more focused on that than on all the political things."
Opinions today about the summit remain divided, with the international media still reporting about it differently. In Israel, The Jerusalem Post wrote that one of the main lessons to take from that historical event is that no one is ever to be trusted and that Yalta carries a "legacy of shame."
"The lesson from all this – for Poland, its neighbors, and for Israel, too – is simple: expect the worst from your enemies, and little better from your friends," the Israeli newspaper wrote last week.
The conference was not a failure, historians told the BBC , since global peace and trust were never expected by either Washington or Moscow.
Yalta was also a confrontation of political regimes and ideologies and the sacrifices that powers were willing to make to achieve their political goals were very different, Hamilton says.
"I would say, as a rule, democracies pay attention to (the cost of human lives), whereas authoritarian governments do not."
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