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Getting Down to Brass Tacks

ISSUE:  Spring 1945

Standing as we are at the climax of the greatest war in history, surrounded by the vast wreck and ruin which it has brought to our whole social and international order, and confronted ever more urgently by the first practical tasks of reconstruction, it is difficult not to feel that we have once more underestimated our true problems. As in 1919, we are arriving at the final crisis with a set of ideas, policies, dreams, and “principles” which seem to fit only very imperfectly the concrete issues that events are everywhere raising before us. It is not that these ideas are necessarily wrong or ill-conceived; it is rather that they are so often simply inapplicable.

We hear a great deal of detailed discussion as to what should be done with Germany or what courses should be followed in regard to the liberated territories; we know that there are committees and conferences sitting learnedly upon these matters; the chief spokesmen of the great Allies are constantly assuring us of their agreement and understanding. Then, suddenly, the wheel of history turns. We are stunned to find British soldiers and Greek patriots shooting each other down in the streets of Athens; we are told that Italy, in a state of starvation and chaos, is on the verge of an explosion; we are grieved by a bitter clash of rights nnd purposes in Poland; our public cannot understand the course of British policy in the Mediterranean or of Russian policy in the border areas, and neither the British nor the Russians seem to understand our own. It is almost as if the discussions had been about something else, as though the committees and conferences had been sitting in a vacuum and as if the principles upon which the chiefs of state are so cordially agreed are, however admirable in themselves, simply unrelated to the practical issues which must be dealt with. When President Roosevelt set out for the Crimean Conference, there still seemed to be a wide gap between the realities before us and the national attitudes which we were bringing to them.

To review past American policy is to realize how insubstantial a guide it has offered to the tangled questions now immediately ahead. There is not a great deal to review. We have the Four Freedoms; we have the Atlantic Charter; we have the pronouncements of Moscow and Teheran, and we have Dumbarton Oaks. These, together with the Connally Resolution and a few utterances by official spokesmen comprised, up to the appearance of the Crimean communiqué, about all the available documentation. It forms a pattern which, it seems to me, can be very briefly summarized. The war must be waged to total victory. Germany must be disarmed and rendered powerless, by whatever methods may prove necessary and convenient, to dominate again the course of European and world history. For the rest, the old sovereign nation-state system must be re-established, substantially as it was in 1939 and with substantially the old frontiers; the several peoples must freely choose the sort of governments by which they wish to be ruled (provided only that these are not “fascist”), and when this has been done all are to be organized into an international security system. In addition, we are committed to several at least potentially important initiatives in the field of international economic organization. These, however, remain unfortunately vague and tentative.

But it is only too painfully obvious that all of this cannot be done at once. The terrible wreckage of the war implies a certain, perhaps considerable, period of “transition” before any such neat solution as this can be assembled, packaged, and delivered. The final element in American policy was that which concerned this period of transition. And it was a policy of having no policy. It was, simply, to keep everything in suspension, to avoid everything which might foreclose the future, to postpone every thorny present issue until such a time as it can be settled in accordance with the polite and comfortable general pattern. That there were reasons for this formulation of American policy it is impossible to deny. It has been dictated by serious considerations both of statesmanship and of domestic politics, and it may be that the country would have permitted nothing more. But it has its very dangerous flaws.

A first warning of them came, even before the Atlantic Charter, in our unhappy and tortuous relations with the French after the 1940 defeat. General de Gaulle was a phenomenon which neither fitted the broad pattern nor allowed of postponement. Those official American sources which were hostile toward de Gaulle were constantly emphasizing his undemocratic, his dictatorial, even “fascist,” character. He had no popular mandate. The Free French at the outset included the merest handful of Frenchmen, and many of them were colonials, outside the main stream of French democracy. How could the United States support this vigorous group of dictatorial direct actionists without tending to impose them on France? And what would become of our principle of leaving the ultimate form of government to the free choice of the liberated peoples if the issue were foreclosed in that fashion? But the issue would not remain in suspension. It was being foreclosed by events, by passions, by emotional values outside the neatly logical boundaries of our policy, even while our diplomatists strove awkwardly to keep it open.

Fortunately, General de Gaulle was to prove himself a statesman of an even higher order than we might normally have had a right to expect. In speaking alone he really did speak for France; in seizing for his own small band the control of fate, he was also seizing it for the French people; his skillful and subtle policy has been remarkably successful so far in preserving the Republic while revivifying it. Since he had the courage to act without a mandate, France has now given him one in unmistakable terms. The issue feared by our professional diplomatists has been avoided. But the issue was there. And in Greece, in Italy, and in other quarters, Europe has been less fortunate.

The French episode was a warning of one serious defect in our policy. The liberated nations might not peacefully convert themselves into capitalist democracies; they might not be willing or able to wait until some ultimate general settlement before making their choices; it might be impossible to keep such matters indefinitely in suspension. The events of the transition period were very likely to determine the shape of the final solutions, whatever policy might say; fierce passions were in consequence likely to swirl around those events and fierce hands to be raised in the effort to control them for conflicting ends. For this our policy was not prepared.

The Atlantic Charter had barely been promulgated before a second warning appeared, in our relations with Russia. A main purpose of the charter was to define American aims in relation to the very large commitments we were entering into under the lend-lease act. The charter was drawn up in August, 1941; its “principles” were accepted by the Soviet Union in the subsequent lend-lease agreement and more formally in the United Nations agreement of January 1, 1942. But how, specifically, did these principles—particularly those renouncing territorial aggrandizement and affirming the rights of peoples to choose their own form of government—affect the territories along the western borders of the Soviet Union? In 1939 and 1940 Russia had formally incorporated the Baltic States, eastern Poland, and Bessarabia into the union, and although the Germans had since overrun them all, this still represented the legal position from the Soviet point of view. No one suggested that the charter would compel any rearrangement of existing relations in the democratic empires—such, for example, as the grant of independence to India, to the Dutch East Indies, or to Puerto Rico—and in inviting and accepting the Soviet signature to the charter without raising the point, the western Allies might seem to be extending the same sort of immunity to existing arrangements within the Soviet Uniori Yet large numbers of Americans and Britons, to say nothing of the Poles and other peoples directly involved, put an altogether different construction on the charter. Too hastily they assumed that it had obligated Russia to surrender territories which the Russians regarded as their own and which could only be liberated, if they were ever to be liberated at all, by Russian arms.

Here were the makings of a tangle for which the loose phrases of the Atlantic Charter could offer no practicable solution. The Russians apparently recognized the danger, and when Mr. Molotov undertook his journey to London and Washington in the spring of 1942 he endeavored, according to a widely accepted report, to clarify matters. Stalin had already agreed with the Polish Government-in-Exile, then under General Sikorski, that the 1939 boundary settlement with Hitler had lost its “validity”; but in this statement the Russians envisaged no more than minor or local rectifications of the 1939 frontier, and they wished the Anglo-Russian treaty, which Mr. Molotov was negotiating, to confirm specifically their broad claim to the Baltic states and eastern Poland. This suggestion, again according to report, brought the alarmed intervention of President Roosevelt. Such a declaration would seem to Americans a flagrant violation of the Atlantic Charter; that precious instrument must not be exposed at birth to such stultification. The Russians were content, for the time, to drop the matter, But they did not drop their basic view of the situation; nor could anyone do away with the many concrete issues presented by the military, political, and social organization of east-central Europe which lay behind that basic view.

The whole episode was too rashly hailed as a great victory for American policy and the principles of the charter. Mr. Arthur Krock, for example, writing in The New York Times, was ecstatic:

The realistic and high-minded diplomacy by which the political postwar autonomy of the little Baltic states was preserved during the recent treaty negotiations between Great Britain and Soviet Russia reflects great credit on those two governments and that of the United States. . . . To President Roosevelt and Secretary Hull goes the high credit for having insisted on finding a device for Russian security that would not foreclose the postwar independence of the Baltic states. This insistence . . . provided the pressure which produced the solution and redeemed the promises of the Atlantic Charter.

Today it is unhappily only too apparent that it had done nothing of the kind. Again the President had simply postponed an embarrassing problem; it was an attempt to evade issues which could not be evaded. And so far from facilitating an ultimate solution, postponement probably only enhanced the difficulties. It hardened the Russians, the various Polish and Baltic groups, and American and British opinion in their several contradictory attitudes and thereby invited the peremptory and “unilateral” decisions which have since occurred.

There is circumstantial evidence that another attempt was made at Teheran, at the end of 1943, to correlate American, British, and Russian policy upon the specific questions of Poland, the Baltic States, and the Balkans; there are also indications that the understanding, if any, was less precise than the various parties supposed or than the situation called for. Too much room seems to have been left for Russian suspicions of the western Allies; certainly, no effective steps were taken to lessen popular American and British suspicions of Russia. Whether or not the misunderstanding went to the extent of affecting military operations, as some believe, its other consequences were certainly grave enough by the end of 1944; and a main purpose of the latest “Big Three” meeting was, clearly, to tackle these problems, which might better have been honestly faced and fought out three years ago.

Thus, within the basic structure of American policy toward both the liberated and enemy peoples of Europe there have been two great lacunae at precisely the two most important points. Although nothing whatever can be done save by the harmonious joint action of all three major Allies, there has been a grave want of firm agreement and understanding with Russia. And although our general picture of the future is based upon the re-establishment of a democratic, sovereign-state system resting on the free expression of popular wills, we have hardly even considered how in fact such a system is to be rebuilt out of the infinite chaos of the war. A situation like that in Greece simply baffles us. We do not know whether to impose constitutional democracy forcibly upon the Greeks or to support a movement. of revolutionary violence and dictatorial direct action which, whatever its methods, at least appears to control the people. So we do nothing; only to find that even doing nothing itself affects the course of a history which will not stand still and tends to foreclose issues which will not remain in suspension.

The net result has seldom been summed up better than by Mr. John Foster Dulles in a recent speech:

The American nation has not yet adjusted itself to the working conditions of [international] collaboration. We are hesitant about giving or accepting collaboration with reference to the hard problems that daily present themselves. We like collaboration as an idea. We fear it as a reality. In consequence there has developed a sort of tacit understanding with our principal allies. They will give us world co-operation on paper—which is the way we like it. In return, we will drop out of the actual practice of collaboration, leaving each a free hand in its area of special interest.

It seems to me that the United States cannot act effectively in any of the great issues of peace and reconstruction—either in the treatment of the defeated enemy or in the restoration of the liberated peoples—until these gaps in our fundamental policy have been filled. The urgency of the need for doing so has been more and more widely recognized in the past few months—events in Europe have been convincing teachers—and there has been much solid progress. Senator Vandenberg’s address was a decisive contribution; the statement of the sixteen new Senators, largely echoing his views, was a helpful move. Armed with these and many similar expressions, Mr. Roosevelt was able to carry to the Crimea Conference a far more positive and incisive policy than he had previously used, and the Yalta communique seems very definitely to mark a new departure in American diplomacy.

Its outstanding implication, so far as the United States is concerned, is that the policy of postponement has been abandoned. There is no longer an attempt to hold in suspense present issues which will not remain suspended. Mr. Roosevelt was willing to cut the Gordian knot of Poland, somewhat roughly, perhaps, but effectively. He put his signature to the present solution of the Yugoslav problem. He committed the United States to a severe peace for Germany, He took whatever personal or political risk there was in bringing America firmly and fully upon the current stage; and although he did not thereby fill up the two basic gaps in our policy, he provided the essential foundation for doing so.

The rest resides with the development of American opinion and the progress of events. As to Russia, there seems to be no real bar to the establishment of cordial relations, along the lines laid down by the Crimean communique. Moscow is practically aware, as this country has not been, that the belt of intricately intermingled, jealous, various, and usually warring peoples which runs down across Europe from the North Cape to the Peloponnesus has to be organized in some way. Moscow’s solution for the problem consists in the incorporation of the border areas—the Baltic states, Poland approximately to the Curzon Line, Bessarabia —into the. constituent republics of the Soviet Union, and the re-establishment of the rest—Poland proper, Czechoslovakia, Rumania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and Greece-—as independent national sovereignties of just the sort which our State Department has envisaged. Formally, at least, Moscow has imposed only two conditions upon these intermediate sovereignties—that they should be under governments “friendly” to Russia and that they should keep order.

It is not easy for the West to object to this general scheme, especially as it has neither proposed any other nor has the strength to intervene in that area against what is proving itself to be by far the greatest military power in the world. The West cannot pretend to delimit the Soviet Union’s frontiers for it, any more than the Soviet Union could pretend to delimit our own. For the rest, the scheme is not unreasonable, considering the very great practical complexity of nearly every political issue in the area, while it is not necessarily opposed to the broader patterns of international organization which Britain and America have been elaborating. It is true that in such places as Bulgaria and Rumania, Hungary and liberated Poland, the great totalitarian empire has seemed to care very little for the niceties of democratic process. It has searched for “friendly” agents strong (and ruthless) enough to take control and wage war on Germany, without waiting on votes or parliaments. But it has explicitly recognized the independent sovereignty of all these states; both in ex-enemy Finland and in allied Czechoslovakia, where an effective democratic tradition has existed, it has shown no signs of an anti-democratic policy, and in the other states, if it has supported dictatorial government, it has not imposed Communism.

In all this, Russia has been proceeding in the intensely and (to Westerners) disagreeably practical, pragmatic manner characteristic of totalitarian. But the West has offered no practical alternative. The one ground for a legitimate issue would seem to lie in the Western fear that Soviet pragmatism may in fact be only a cover for something else—for Soviet imperial, political domination of the whole of Europe up to the Alps and the Elbe, or the Rhine. There is one way of dispelling those fears. The West, taking Russian statements and policies at their face value, has a right, it seems to me, to insist that there should be no more sudden, “unilateral” decisions either in western Europe, Italy, and Greece on the one hand or in Poland, Hungary, and the Balkans on the other. But since Russia is just as suspicious of the West as the West is of Russia, it is quite obvious that if the West is to be a real partner in east-central European decisions, it must first accept with complete frankness the basic Russian postulates. It has to drop further argument about the Soviet frontiers if it is to have any useful influence in preserving the outer belt of countries, whose independence Russia has guaranteed, as working elements of a larger European or international organization. And so, precisely, it has been laid down at Yalta.

The second great gap in our policy, however, will probably be far more difficult to fill. If we succeed in establishing a real three-power or four-power partnership in meeting the details of reorganization, how are we going to apply our share in it? Even in the more western areas of Europe, where our influence is (or could be, if we chose to exert it) already of dominant importance, are we going to support social revolution, are we going to try to impose by force a return to parliamentary democracy, or are we going to follow a policy of pure expediency—like that which appears to guide Mr. Churchill’s embarrassed efforts—hoping for the best but probably thereby guaranteeing that nothing will turn out in the way we have expected?

It is impossible for me, at least, to see any logical answer for this fundamental dilemma; and it is therefore easy to predict that the third will in fact be the course adopted. Our

« plans for peace are all based on the tacit assumption that the world of the future will be, like that of the past, essentially a world of independent, capitalistic democracies, harmoniously adjusting their relationships by the elegant and now unfortunately somewhat old-fashioned precepts of popular vote and international law. But as we acquire some foretaste of the enormous ruin and chaos in which peace will actually dawn over Europe, the assumption seems less and less likely to be borne out. The armed resistance groups, the vigorous leaders who have fought their way ruthlessly to the top, the underground rebellions of the defeated, the totalitarian methods and controls which will often be unavoidable if life is to be held together, do not present a favorable milieu for the development of those mechanisms of free choice, majority decision, and plebiscitary agreement on which Western statesmen have been relying to provide the springs and sanctions of the new society. Yet the task of forcibly compelling Europe back into a democratic frame would probably be an impossible one (it proved so in the case of Germany after 1919) even if Britain and America had any intention of attempting it. Harassed as we are by the insatiable demands of the war, we have not even been notably successful in creating the conditions—economic and psychological—which would encourage a rebirth of democratic process.

Perhaps the view is too pessimistic. Perhaps, as the example of the French would suggest, there are stronger elements of moderation and sanity and compromise in the new Europe than one can now perceive. Perhaps, as some— notably Mr. James M. Warburg, Jr.—have suggested, a more vigorous and enlightened economic policy, a better implementation of the promise contained in the lend-lease agreements, in Bretton Woods, in UNRRA, together with a more conscious proclamation of the democratic gospel and the liberal values, would help to meet the problem. But the point is that this problem of restoration as against revolution, or liberal-democratic-capitalist process as against violence, authority, and pragmatic order, is bound to lie behind and affect every daily decision upon the practical details of European reorganization. We have seen this already, if dimly, in the case of France and Italy and Greece and Poland; we shall see it more formidably when we come to defeated Germany. I can offer no answer. But if the course followed is to be one of day-to-day expediency, then, by bearing the existence of the problem constantly in mind, with patience and some humility, we may do something to insure that the expedients will be more successful than they otherwise would be.

This may seem a lame conclusion. Perhaps it would have been more interesting to discuss the general question of the liberated and the defeated enemy territories in those comfortable and tangible terms of where to draw the boundaries, of whether to dismember or not, and so on. But almost any boundaries, any leaders, any groupings of peoples and interests will serve, if they accord with the general frame. And the general frame is defined by two factors: first, the organization of the major power centers as between themselves—which is the problem of Anglo-American relations with Russia—and second, the uses to be made of the power so organized—which is the problem of how we are to use our power vis-a-vis revolution or reaction in Europe. These are the vital spots, the hearts of our dilemmas. That, no doubt, is the reason why they have been so sedulously evaded up to now.


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