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LAURENCE REES: At Yalta, when the 'Big Three' get together for the last time, there's a sense, isn't there, that Roosevelt is not really that interested in European borders?

DAVID REYNOLDS: Well, Roosevelt says during the Tehran Conference when they have a conversation about Poland, 'wake me up when we get to Germany, I don’t care two hoots about Poland'. And what he’s expressing there, and it’s the same for people like Cordell Hull, his Secretary of State, is that what matters is the big picture for the post-war world. It’s setting up a framework of great power co-operation within the general institutional structure of the United Nations. And if you can do that, particularly if you can get the Soviet Union in it, that’s what really matters compared to the suspicion and the alienation of the inter-war years.

A secondary issue as far as the Americans are concerned is exactly where these wretched lines run through Europe, because after all, Woodrow Wilson had spent weeks on that in Paris in 1919, and what had it done to prevent another war? Roosevelt’s view is - it’s big picture stuff - getting great power co-operation and particularly getting the Russians in from the cold. For Churchill the borders obviously have to matter more because Britain is much closer to it and also because Britain had officially gone to war over Poland in 1939, so the fate of Poland is something that is a matter of, as Churchill says at Yalta, honour to Britain and a matter of security, because Britain has interests in the continental balance of power in a way that America, 3,000 miles away, doesn’t.

LAURENCE REES: Of course, George W. Bush in Latvia in 2005 described Yalta as being shameful in the sense that Munich was shameful. Is that right?

DAVID REYNOLDS: The so-called Yalta myths have been a great part of Republican mythology ever since the 1940s. They were a way of attacking Roosevelt and the Democratic Party and it’s been brought up at various times since. The assumption behind it is that Roosevelt sold out Poland and Eastern Europe to the Soviet Union. It’s hard really to square that with the realities of 1945. The Red Army is in control of most of Poland by the time they meet at Yalta, so unless you embarked on a war to evict the Red Army from Poland there really is nothing you can do about that.

Churchill and Roosevelt are looking at Yalta as a way of making the Polish situation better. They hope they can get more of a mixed government and they want to reconstruct the government, including Communists, but also Poles from London, the part that had fled to Britain in 1939. They hope that Stalin will entertain some degree of political pluralism. That is a Utopian expectation as we now know, particularly in a country that Stalin deemed so vital to Soviet security. So you could say that by recognising the Polish government in June and July 1945, as they eventually do, which is essentially the Communists with one or two token non-Communists in it, Roosevelt and Churchill have sold out Poland. But I think the practicalities of the matter are that they could either have said we will recognise the government with no change, with some token changes, or we won’t recognise it at all, but they can’t change what is happening in Poland, particularly after Stalin has so ruthlessly in the spring of 1945 liquidated all the anti-Communist armies.

LAURENCE REES: But you argue in your writing that there were extra things that Roosevelt could have done for more leverage, but he chose not to do at Yalta. Things like the whole question of aid to Eastern Europe at the end of the war?


LAURENCE REES: So there were things that Roosevelt could have done that he chose not to?

DAVID REYNOLDS: If Roosevelt had wanted to play a very hard line, yes, he could have chosen to tighten the screw economically in that sort of way. Is it going to change Stalin’s position in Poland fundamentally? I don’t think so, because Stalin is in control of that country. So what do you get out of it? You get more acrimony, a face-off, but it’s not going to save the Poles. Roosevelt, with Stalin, was not a hard bargainer. Roosevelt’s belief was that the problem for the Soviets was that they didn’t trust the West enough and therefore you didn’t put the screws on. You tried to be co-operative and friendly and so on. That’s a miscalculation. But you asked me did Roosevelt sell out Poland in 1945? I don’t think you can say that. He didn’t give Stalin Poland, Stalin had already got it.

LAURENCE REES: If there is a lack of trust coming from Stalin, to a large extent surely it’s down primarily to Roosevelt - but also to a certain extent to Churchill - because of the failed promises of a Second Front in 1942 and 43?

DAVID REYNOLDS: They both jolly Stalin along on this question of the Second Front in ways that obviously do nothing to enhance Stalin’s confidence in their word. But does he have any confidence in their word anyway? It’s not clear to me he does. I mean, if you take some of the comments Molotov made retrospectively, he said we never thought there would be a Second Front, we just wanted to pin them down, make them say things publicly and so on. But if they had played it absolutely straight with Stalin on the Second Front and said, no, we can’t make any promises for 1942, no, we can’t make any promises for 1943 Stalin would have had his own suspicions as a result of that. He would have simply said they want me to just fight it out with the Germans to exhaustion. Stalin was never going to really trust the West whatever the West said or did, given his mentality.