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President Bush on World War II and Yalta


Now earlier in his travels, President Bush made a statement that was striking to hear from an American leader. He said the United States agreed to the division of Europe after World War II, allowing whole countries to fall under the dominance of the Soviet Union. Mr. Bush said such a mistake should not be repeated.

(Soundbite from speech)

President GEORGE W. BUSH: This attempt to sacrifice freedom for the sake of stability left a continent divided and unstable. The captivities of millions in Central and Eastern Europe will be remembered as one of the greatest wrongs of history.

INSKEEP: President Bush was offering his interpretation of the Yalta Conference. It was held in early 1945 near the end of World War II. Soviet leader Josef Stalin, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin Roosevelt attended. A famous photograph shows the three leaders sitting side by side. To learn more about that conference, we called Daniel Hamilton. He's a European specialist at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies here in Washington. He said it's hard to pull simple lessons out of the Yalta agreement.

Mr. DANIEL HAMILTON (Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies): The agreement was that the countries of Central and Eastern Europe would have to have free and fair elections, but be friendly to the Soviet Union. These were obviously two incomparable goals.

INSKEEP: Was it understood at the time, because of the ambiguous wording of this agreement, that in the end these countries would become satellite states of a Communist country?

Mr. HAMILTON: No. I believe it was quite contentious, and it's not only me saying this. President Reagan, not known for being soft on communism, was very adamant, saying that any interpretation of Yalta that suggests that the United States agreed to division of spheres of influence is absolutely wrong. He pointed out at that time that the agreement was to permit free and fair elections, they said, and that in his words the Soviet Union, you know, broke its agreement. It's a complicated piece of history.

INSKEEP: President Bush in his speech over the weekend went even further. He said that the agreement at Yalta, quote, "followed in the unjust tradition" of a couple of other agreements, and he mentioned the notorious Munich agreement, the Hitler-Stalin pact. He said it was pretty much the same thing.

Mr. HAMILTON: He did, and as I say I don't believe in the end he was trying to lump it all together and say the US was responsible for this. I think he was trying to show a pattern of what was happening in terms of the need to defend human freedom over stability. So there are other elements of history here besides just reducing it down to a soundbite.

INSKEEP: How does this particular soundbite, if you will, fit in with the president's broader strategy and his broader vision for the world?

Mr. HAMILTON: Well, the president in his speech did make the link between that piece of history and the world we face today and said that true stability comes from preservation and extension of human freedom. And the thing that he has made his own brand, if you will, is that he has said previous US presidents, while they would espouse this belief, always drew a circle around the greater Middle East, saying that somehow the idea of extension of freedom, human rights did not extend to this part of the world, and he has said that bargain is over.

INSKEEP: When you make a big philosophical pronouncement about freedom vs. stability, do those things really mean anything when you get down to the case-by-case question of whether you're going to deal with a country, whether you're going to back off dealing with a country?

Mr. HAMILTON: It makes a tremendous difference on any particular issue. The calculation must be at a particular time. Do you go out in public and support a dissident who is imprisoned? Do you speak out for the liberties of people who are behind jail cells or do you remain silent? The balance that we have to strike in the Cold War and at the end of World War II was one of risking all-out confrontation, another war, vs. managing the problem so that eventually the freedoms of those people could be secured. It was a hard balance to strike and there are many who can criticize the decisions taken, and many do. Today I think that the test is whether the United States puts its resources behind that rhetoric. I think that's to be the test, is on the ground.

INSKEEP: Daniel Hamilton is director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies here in Washington, DC. Thanks.

Mr. HAMILTON: Thank you.

INSKEEP: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Morning Edition
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.