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opinion

In his otherwise eloquent remarks at Riga on the weekend, U.S. President George W. Bush, as has been his habit when in Eastern Europe, revived the Yalta myth about the origins of the Iron Curtain and the postwar division of Europe. He said that "the Yalta Agreement followed in the unjust tradition of Munich and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Once again, when powerful governments negotiated, the freedom of small nations was somehow expendable."

Yalta's Declarations on Liberated Europe and on Poland were all that the most ardent democrat would have wished: assurances of free, multiparty elections, secret ballots and the benefits of Western standards of freedom. Apart from these two declarations, Yalta did not otherwise dispose of Eastern Europe. As historian Ted Morgan wrote: "Yalta was a defeat for the Soviets and they so regarded it. What they won at the negotiating table, their armies already possessed. If Yalta was a sell-out, why did [Stalin]go to such lengths to violate the agreement?" The problem with Yalta was not that it was a bad agreement but that Stalin ignored it.

Eastern Europe was not written off, as Mr. Bush implies. At Tehran in November of 1943, it was agreed to move the Soviet and Polish western borders 200 miles to the west, rewarding Russia for her mighty war effort and compensating Poland at the expense of Germany. Stalin made it clear that the USSR would reoccupy the Baltic states of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, which had been Russian provinces for 200 years from the time of Peter the Great to the end of the First World War. He dismissed Franklin Roosevelt's request for a referendum in those countries and pointed out that the British and Americans had never asked the Romanovs to hold referendums there.

Mr. Bush is correct that the liberty of small countries must be protected against the aggressions of larger powers, but there was no practical step the Western leaders could take to assist the Baltic countries as the 360 divisions of the Red Army rolled into Central Europe.

In February of 1944, the European Advisory Commission, against the wishes of the United States, produced a plan for the division of postwar Germany into three approximately equal zones. This was a triumph for the British, who would have only a fraction of the forces of the Americans in Western Europe at the end of hostilities, much less the Russians. Not knowing that Tehran had a secret agreement and changed the Polish borders, the commissioners awarded most of the Russian zone of prewar Germany from territory that would be Polish.

This condemned Poland to Russian occupation, but also assured that Germany would move demographically to the West and become an unambiguously Western country for the first time. About 10 million Germans decamped to the West ahead of the Red Army. It was a tragedy for the Poles but a good geopolitical trade for the West. The United States had not wanted to demarcate occupation zones in Germany but leave it to where the armies ended up. Roosevelt correctly believed that the Germans would resist more fiercely in the East against the Russians than against the Western Allies, who generally observed the Geneva Conventions.

Winston Churchill, who was hardly soft on communism and was leader of the opposition to the 1938 Munich agreement, went to Moscow in October of 1944 and agreed that the Soviet Union would have pre-eminent influence in Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary; that the West would prevail in Greece; and that Yugoslavia would be a 50-50 division between them. This was essentially what occurred. It was, in Churchill's phrase, a "naughty" arrangement, made against Roosevelt's wishes, but it reflected military realities on the ground. Apart from these agreements, Eastern Europe was not formally carved up or assigned among the Great Powers.

The Russians were taking almost 90 per cent of the casualties among the Big Three Allies in fighting the Germans. It has never been clear how Roosevelt and Churchill were to deny Stalin what he considered his share of the spoils. Roosevelt wanted the Russians to take some of the anticipated one million casualties that would be involved in subduing Japan, if atomic weapons did not work. The first atomic test was only in July of 1945, more than five months after Yalta.

Roosevelt had hoped that the existence of atomic weapons in the hands of the U.S., plus a promise of immense economic assistance and co-operation in the durable demilitarization of Germany, could induce Stalin to be comparatively flexible in Eastern Europe. Stalin's rejection of this offer from Roosevelt and Harry Truman was a colossal blunder. The violated Yalta accords furnished much of the moral basis for the Western conduct of the Cold War, which ultimately the Russians could not win and which led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and of communism itself.

Mr. Bush should remember, even if he does not want to repeat it to live audiences in Eastern Europe, that, of all those countries, only the Czechs were politically distinguished before the war. The Hungarians and Poles jubilantly joined in tearing up Czechoslovakia after Munich. Munich was a bad arrangement, undertaken with good intentions by British prime minister Neville Chamberlain, because he knew that Britain and France could not go to war against the desire of the Sudeten Germans to join Germany.

The Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 was an act of stupefying cynicism, carving up Poland and the Baltic states, and submitting them all to brutal occupation. Yalta was an unexceptionable arrangement that required 45 years of vigilant containment to enforce. Mr. Bush should not perpetuate the Yalta myth and should not give ammunition to the forces of anti-Americanism in Europe, which claim that the English-speaking countries betrayed Eastern Europe. The West went to war for Poland. The English-speaking countries liberated Western Europe and, with those liberated countries, withheld recognition of Stalin's violation of his Yalta promises until Eastern Europe, too, was liberated.

Sixty years after V-E Day, this Republican president should stop parroting McCarthyite defamations of Roosevelt, Churchill and Truman. He cannot seriously lament that the West did not go to war with the USSR over Eastern Europe in 1945. He should stop apologizing for what was not, in fact, a discreditable episode in American diplomatic history.

Lord Black of Crossharbour,

former chairman of Hollinger Inc., is author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom.