Sign up for our free Churchill newsletter:
Yalta, 1945

Winston Churchill
of the International Churchill Societies 1994-95

Principles and Compromises: Churchill, Roosevelt and Eastern Europe

Presentation by Warren F. Kimball
Annual Churchill Conference,
Boston, 28 October 1995

    Winston Churchill was a British statesman whose goal was to advance the interests of Great Britain. When in office, that was the principle fundamental to his actions. If other principles came into conflict with that bedrock commitment, they automatically took second place. And there were times when what individuals might consider immutable rights—political freedom, for example—came into conflict with what Churchill considered British interests. He understood that conflict and tried to reconcile the two—but when that failed, his interpretation of British interests prevailed. The political fate of Eastern Europe after the Second World War, particularly Poland, is one such case.

    The tenets of liberalism—be it the British or American form— ensured that at least the appearance of free choice presented itself in the states liberated and occupied by the Anglo-Americans, although a good deal of effort (much of it covert and coercive) went into preventing those peoples from freely choosing either Communism or Socialism. But throughout most of Soviet-liberated Eastern Europe, only one choice was available, with only desultory protests from either London or Washington. Churchill and Roosevelt clearly anticipated little else.

    Poland was different. As the end of war in Europe drew near, Poland somehow became the litmus test for those who would become the Cold Warriors on both sides of the Iron Curtain. It became Stalin’s gauge for Western intentions. It became the touchstone in the West of the Soviet Union’s willingness to cooperate in the postwar world. At the same time, it was the too-high hurdle for those who still sought a continuation of the wartime cooperation between the great powers.

    How did the Polish issue become one of absolute and immovable principle? Why not the Baltic States, Romania, Bulgaria, or even Ukraine? A cultural affinity between the Anglo-Americans and western-oriented Poland may have played a role, but Poland was not geo-politically or economically crucial to either Great Britain or the United States, nor was it as important in American domestic politics as Roosevelt and others claimed.

    In fact, Roosevelt grossly exaggerated "the Polish vote" in his statements to Stalin. The claim of six to seven million Polish-Americans— "a genial Rooseveltian exaggeration evidently plucked from the air" in Arthur Schlesinger’s phrase—actually translated into less than half that number, many of whom were not voters.

    That hyperbole was, perhaps, a bit more calculated and less genial than it appeared, for it allowed FDR to escape public responsibility for the political fact that he, Churchill, and Stalin’s Red Army, together ensured that, in the short run, Poland’s independence would depend on Moscow’s self-restraint, not Anglo-American guarantees.

    Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt’s closest advisor, was right to label Poland "political dynamite" for the U.S. elections scheduled for the autumn of 1944—but not because of the Polish vote. What Roosevelt feared was what historians claimed had doomed Woodrow Wilson’s efforts at Paris, thirty years earlier. There the great powers had disagreed, and compromise seemed the only way to avoid disharmony. But those compromises were too unsavory and selfish for American tastes, and had helped convince them that the United States should take the moral high ground and "go it alone" rather than sully itself by working with the European powers in a League of Nations.

    Poland threatened to play the same role after World War II. Roosevelt had already agreed at the Teheran Conference to the Curzon Line as the Soviet-Polish boundary—a concession Poles were sure to denounce. But for the President to associate himself publicly and proudly with the compromise settlement that had been emerging ever since mid-way through the war would jeopardize his goal of preventing a retreat into what he called isolationism—without helping the Poles.

    Was Poland somehow more important psychologically? If so, that was a strange role for the place where anti-Semitism took on its most virulent form. Perhaps, just perhaps, Poland occupied a special place for the British because it had served as the casus belli for finally breaking with appeasement and standing up to Hitler. Part of that feeling (and feeling is the correct word) may have been because Britons realized that their support in 1939 for Poland had been an empty shell—promises made with no chance of preventing that nation from being overrun by Germany.

    For the bulk of Americans, however, Poland was just another East European country. In fact, that it was an Eastern European nation made it even less appetizing and more foreign to most in the United States. Nevertheless, whether Poland was or was not the relevant issue, it became the litmus test for postwar cooperation among the great powers and, as Roosevelt feared, the measurement of success for his all too inchoate scheme of great power collaboration. As Harry Hopkins told Stalin, shortly after Roosevelt’s death, Americans viewed the Polish-settlement as "a symbol of our ability to work out problems with the Soviet Union."

    Defining Poland in the postwar world was no easy task. Poles themselves seemed to have a remarkably flexible definition, as illustrated by their territorial wars with the Russian Bolsheviks almost before the ink had dried on the Versailles Treaty. What Poles claimed to be Poland was as much image and dream as reality. This was, after all, a state that had, in the 1930s, embraced colonial ambitions, less than a decade after it had finally emerged from centuries of foreign rule.

    When it came to the issue of Poland, Churchill sometimes takes the appearance of the idealist and Roosevelt the "realist. But it was only an appearance. Sporadically, and never in a way that would threaten British interests in places like Greece, the British Prime Minister kept trying to get the London Poles to accept compromises that would enable them to survive as a viable political element in a postwar Polish state. His were always the short-term solutions of geopolitical accommodation—ten percent here, an additional government ministry post there—but he kept trying.

    But reality kept rearing its ugly head. The trips by Eden to Moscow in 1941, and Molotov to London in 1942, almost ended with Britain committed to the Polish-Soviet boundary settlement demanded by Stalin. Churchill’s warning in January 1942 that he would resign rather than lead a British government that recognized Soviet expansion proved, like all his frequent threats to resign, an empty, childish gesture. Whatever his reluctance to accept Eden's advice and let the Soviet Union keep what it had gained in the pact with Hitler, the Prime Minister turned reflexively to spheres of influence early in March 1942 and cabled President Roosevelt that the Atlantic Charter should not be interpreted "so as to deny Russia the frontiers she occupied when Germany attacked her."

    The compromise Churchill sought failed to materialize. Poles, in London and the United States, rejected any settlement that did nor retain their "historic" frontiers—even if historians had not the vaguest collective notion of what that might mean. But more important were the objections of Franklin Roosevelt, who opposed making territorial settlements until after the war. The President’s dissent not only gave Churchill pause, but a reason to reject, at least temporarily, a solution he found distasteful.

    The compromise the British had proposed aimed, in good part, at securing the independence of postwar Poland, albeit at the risk of appearing to sacrifice the Baltic States. Churchill’s biographers all argue that he was incurably romantic about things like Polish independence, which may account for his dedication to lost causes, although in this case he took the advice once given by John Kenneth Galbraith to President John Kennedy that even liberals should not lose their lost causes more than once.

    Whatever Churchill’s rhetoric, he permanently abandoned the Poles to the harsh reality of having to live with the Russian bear, and fundamentally on the bear’s terms. For the rest of the war, his excursions in defense of the Poles were restricted to trying to get the exiled Polish leaders to accept the compromise offered in 1942. The steadfast rejection by the London Poles of that boundary agreement only gave further evidence to Stalin that they were his implacable opponents. Churchill did speak out, and speak out clearly, for something other than a Soviet-dominated puppet government in Poland, but those sentiments were never accompanied by consistent action—until March 1945, when Churchill finally took an unyielding though not public stand—asking FDR to confront Stalin while Britain kept silent lest the Anglo-Soviet arrangements of October 1944 (the TOLSTOY conference) regarding Greece be threatened.

    Roosevelt, on the other hand, "realistically" assumed that the Soviet Union would be the major player in Central and Eastern Europe after the war and avoided quixotic crusades aimed at the forlorn hope of instantaneously transforming the Bolsheviks into practitioners of liberal democracy (or free-market democracy, in today’s political jargon). He paid lip service to Polish freedom, but steadfastly refused to do anything more—no matter how Polish representatives who talked to him interpreted his remarks.

    Stalin, for his part, kept his eye on the prize and his troops marching westward. The Soviet leader steadily rejected any separation of the issues of boundaries and governance, making the point that any settlement of the Soviet-Polish frontier would be only as good as the intentions of the Polish government in power. Moreover, what was Stalin to think of the "percentages" arrangement at the TOLSTOY meetings, with Churchill suggesting that Central and Eastern Europe be divided up into numerically calculated spheres of influence? What else could he conclude but that Churchill and possibly Roosevelt (after all, Roosevelt’s ambassador, Averell Harriman was there) had decided to drop their commitment to an interactive, cooperative postwar working relationship and opt instead for a clear, old-fashioned delineation of what belonged to whom. As historian Lloyd Gardner ruefully concludes, the percentages arrangement negotiated at TOLSTOY made the task of getting the Soviet Union "to play a ‘decent role’...vastly more complicated."

    During the Yalta talks, Churchill dismissed the Americans as "profoundly ignorant of the Polish situation." Nothing could have been further from the truth. In reality Roosevelt and his advisors wanted to put the Polish question aside or behind them as a no-win situation that could only poison the well. Whatever happened, Poland could not be a winner. The Soviet Union would dominate any compromise; the Red Army would dominate any confrontation.

    Moreover, Churchill himself had been the sponsor, if not the author, of many of the concessions on Poland. When, at the Teheran Conference, he took matchsticks and demonstrated to Stalin how the Poles and Russians could each move westward at Germany’s expense by executing the parade ground maneuver "left close," he had, as in 1942, accepted Stalin’s solution. Details such as the fate of Lvov, or which river boundary to follow, were just that—details. A few weeks later the Prime Minister told Roosevelt that Soviet proposals for their frontier with Poland gave "the Poles a fine place to live," with ample space and a coastline on the Baltic. Poland’s responsibility to the great powers was, Churchill insisted, to accept the "duty" of guarding "against further German aggression upon Russia

    Churchill’s March 1945 decision to recommend a hard line on Poland had to do with appearances, not a commitment to freedom. That those appearances might be difficult to maintain should have become clear to him, and Roosevelt as well, when the Soviets refused to cooperate with the Anglo-American public relations charade of air-dropping supplies to the Polish Underground during its Warsaw uprising in September-October 1944. But the Prime Minister and the President both persisted.

    By the time of the Yalta meeting, they could only ask Stalin for the kind of concessions that might make the entire settlement palatable to their constituents at home: a non-Communist minister added to the provisional Polish government, a boundary adjustment that kept a few hundred square miles as part of Poland. Lord Beaverbrook described the growing political pressure in Britain: "…over Poland the opposition [to Yalta] is strong. It is led by a powerful Tory group who are the erstwhile champions of Munich. These followers of Chamberlain make the undercover case that Churchill beat them up in 1938 for selling the Czechs down the river, and now has done to the Poles at Yalta exactly what Chamberlain did to the Czechs at Munich."

    The Declaration on Liberated Europe, signed by the Big Three at Yalta, called for free elections, yet the consistent Soviet demand for a "friendly" government in Warsaw demonstrated that none of the anti-Soviet Poles in London would be acceptable in a new Polish government—elected or not. The Declaration came together with a minimum of time and bargaining, suggesting that all three leaders understood full well what it meant—or did not mean. When Churchill returned to Britain after the Yalta Conference, he expressed strong faith in his work: "Poor Neville believed he could trust Hitler. He was wrong. But I don’t think I’m wrong about Stalin."

    Churchill and Roosevelt had, for their own reasons—whether or not we agree with those reasons is beside the point—acquiesced throughout the war to Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. How could Churchill, or FDR for that matter, have any realistic expectation that those ideals would immediately be implemented anywhere in Europe, particularly in those areas occupied by the Soviet Union? Roosevelt certainly did not believe they could work in postwar France. Even Churchill pulled back from provisions in the Declaration calling for the Allies to "establish machinery" to promote its democratic principles, for fear that would provide justification for interfering in the British Empire. He and Eden took out the teeth by changing the wording to call for the allies to "consult together." The Declaration on Liberated Europe, and its broader forebear, the Atlantic Charter, were, as Churchill once remarked, "not a law, but a star. What he and Roosevelt wanted to do was "to keep the world engine on the rails."

    Whatever the chances of Roosevelt’s ideas being implemented, those chances were diminished when Churchill, with a general election hanging over his head, finally concluded, a few weeks after Yalta, that the time had come to confront the Soviets over the Polish question—or at least to get the Americans to do so. Great Britain did not drag the United States kicking and screaming into the Cold War. But Churchill’s March maneuver created an atmosphere that made it that much easier for Truman and his advisors to begin, just a few weeks after Roosevelt’s death on 12 April, the shift away from Roosevelt’s policies. And all these things mattered, whatever Churchill’s musing that a fifty-year peace would make all their disputes subjects "for academic discussion." Fifty years of a dangerous armed truce followed in Europe, while tens of thousands died elsewhere in what was Cold War by proxy. Perhaps history made that conflict inevitable. But a less intense confrontation in Europe might have let the great powers live a bit more peacefully elsewhere in the world. That said, avoidance of war between the West and the Soviet Union was the prerequisite to the liberation of Eastern Europe that came after those fifty years.

    After all—a devastated Rhineland after the Thirty Years War benefited no one, least of all the Rhinelanders.