Yalta: The Price of Peace. By S. M. Plokhy. New York: Viking, 2010. 451 pp.
The "structure" of the international political system as we know it today--that is, the Westphalian states system that first saw the light of day at what was then, in 1648, the most significant diplomatic gathering ever convened to settle a great-power war--has usually been mightily conditioned by the decisions taken (or not taken) by the leaders of the principal victorious powers at conferences intended to arrange the postwar order. Almost always, those decisions have quickly been adjudged controversial to the point of being deeply flawed, with the result that subsequent generations have debated, at times heatedly so, the political and ethical merits of the conferees' work, in the process touching off endless charges about who it was that "lost" the postwar peace, and why they had been so misguided as to have done so. Prior to 1945, it looked as if the Paris peace talks that brought to an end the First World War would forever occupy pride of place as the most discreditable peace conference ever. But then along came Yalta in February 1945, and almost immediately thereafter, there developed a new, low, standard for assessing the unfortunate results of peace palavers.
How did that latter summit manage to relegate Paris 1919 to a distant secondary place in the annals of botched statecraft, at least as that statecraft has been conventionally interpreted? This is a question that, implicitly, provides the story line of this masterly, extremely balanced, and exhaustive study into the historic summit on the Crimean peninsula at which three leaders--Franklin D. Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin, and Winston Churchill--set about designing the shape of the postwar world. Ever since, the work the trio did at Yalta has come under intense scrutiny, typically of a most uncharitable nature, to the point that a series of "Yalta myths" has been handed down through successive decades, and these have been taken to represent, if not the whole truth, then a goodly portion thereof. So intense has been the controversy over Yalta that any other peace conferences' outcomes are almost invariably seen to have been "better" (or at least "less bad") than those of Yalta.
It is to probe and demolish those sundry myths that S. M. Plokhy has bent his efforts in this study, which draws heavily upon primary and secondary sources in English and Russian. Was Yalta as bad as so many critics have made it out to be, asks Plokhy? Not really. It certainly did not augur well for the luckless states and their citizenry in Eastern Europe, Poland and the Poles prominent among them, forced for so long to dwell within the constraining embrace of the Soviet empire. But, says Plokhy, the "blame" for the division of Europe into rival spheres of influence should more accurately be laid at the doorsteps not of Yalta but of two other wartime summits intended to shape the postwar peace, namely, the Moscow conference of October 1944, between the British and Soviet leaders, and the Potsdam conference of July 1945, involving the same trio of countries as at Yalta.
Indeed, in a passage that will likely be the most memorable of this long book, Plokhy lays his cards squarely on the table and concludes that the two Western allies did "surprisingly well" (p. 393) out of Yalta, especially the United States. Franklin D. Roosevelt, so often depicted by critics as being too worn out to provide effective leadership to the American side, is seen by Plokhy instead to have been a skilful helmsman of the American ship of state, netting for it the two big catches he had journeyed halfway across the world to obtain: Soviet participation in the war against Japan and Soviet membership in the new United Nations. Britain, too, got much of what it wanted, including (and most importantly) a commitment from Stalin that France be positioned alongside the other great powers as a player of consequence in postwar European politics. One of the biggest ironies to come out of my reading of this book concerns the issue of the French, who at the time of Yalta and ever since, have ardently cultivated their own "Yalta myth," one that features their having been "betrayed" at the conference by all three leaders. In fact, as Plokhy shows so well, one of those leaders (Churchill) made it a core objective to get France reinstated as a member of the great-power club; another (Stalin) had absolutely no time for a country that he dismissed as a geopolitical featherweight; and a third (Roosevelt) allowed himself to be persuaded by British advocacy, and to intervene on France's behalf with Stalin, successfully so and notwithstanding the American president's own disapproval of the French leader, Charles de Gaulle.
This is but one of the several Yalta myths that Plokhy so successfully exposes to light and reason. In the end, his defense of Yalta, if that is what it is, must be seen as, at best, a case of one hand clapping. Still, in light of what that conference has come to represent, little short of an ignoble failure of imagination and courage as well as a trigger for the ensuing Cold War, even faint praise can be far from damning. Plokhy has written what may not be the last word on Yalta, but his book will, from now on, be an essential source for anyone seeking to come to terms with the shaping of the postwar international system.
--David G. Haglund