Author: Fahey, John E
Date published: May 1, 2011
YALTA: The Price of Peace, SM. Plokhy, Viking, New York, 2010, 451 pages, $29.95.
The first major work on Yalta produced after the end of the Cold War, S. M. Plokhy's Yalta: The Price of Peace reappraises the Yalta peace conference by benefiting from open Russian archives. Plokhy approaches the conference mostly from Roosevelt's perspective, but gives ample time to Churchill and Stalin. Stalin's actions are particularly well explained and examined compared to previous works. Plokhy's overriding theme is the incompatibility of the United States, the British Empire, and the Soviet Union. There was little to bring the Big Three together other than the defeat of Nazi Germany. As Plokhy writes, and as post-war history shows, we should remember that "in the absence of common values binding allies together, the difference between friend and foe can simply be a matter of time."
Most of the book deals with Yalta's day-to-day negotiations. The Soviets were able to record many of the conversations that took place at the negotiating table as well as private discussions between various members of the U.S. and British delegations. Plokhy gives particular emphasis to the discussions on the creation of the UN, which was of great personal importance to Roosevelt. One of Yalta's legacies is the British and U.S. acceptance of Soviet occupation of Poland, but Plokhy argues that Stalin's insistence on Soviet control over Poland made Churchill's best efforts to prevent it ultimately futile. Poland was one of the prices that Stalin insisted on for Soviet involvement against Imperial Japan. Obtaining a commitment by the Soviet Union to fight against the Japanese was one of Roosevelt's primary objectives of the Yalta conference and he proved willing to pay for it with Chinese territory and well as Polish independence.
Plokhy demolishes one myth surrounding Yalta - that of the role of Alger Hiss. Although we now know that Hiss was a Soviet agent for years before World War II, his role at Yalta was unclear until the opening of Russian archives. Apparently, Hiss was involved with collecting military information for the Soviets. Plokhy finds that "his military handlers showed little interest in the political information he could provide" and that he had minimal influence on the political settlements made at Yalta.
Plokhy vividly paints the personalities of the Big Three. Stalin appears genial and open, which helps to explain the Allied willingness to accept his assurances. Churchill is very aware of the grim realities of Soviet rule, and oddly, Roosevelt is reluctant to work with Churchill on the Polish question or even consult with him as to the purpose of the conference before it starts.
Plokhy concludes with a lengthy look at Yalta's legacy, arguing that the agreement proved vague enough for all parties to accept and led to divergent interpretations at Potsdam and during the post-war period. Plokhy sees the later disillusionment with Yalta as a product of the start of the Cold War, when the radically different aims of the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union became painfully clear. The problem was not necessarily the agreement itself, but its application.
John E. Fahey, Fairfax, Virginia