Lex’s post, as always, gives us much history and even more thought. His picture of the laconic Ike and the eloquent Churchill take us back to that period. And the sense of relief, of heroism that earned that triumph resonates. Much as I would rather emphasize the elections in Iraq than Abu Ghraib (in part because the former is far more important), I believe the great celebration for today should be V-E Day and the history to be noted his. But this note isn’t only about the dark side of VE day, but the bright side of today – of free and independent Baltic nations. Bush’s speech looks to the past, but mostly it aims at the present – aims at an audience of Putin, of those in the Middle East. He notes that Yalta was based on the belief stability could be bought by using others. In that, it was wrong.
And we remember part of the history that lead to that treaty was another one by which Hitler & Stalin divided Europe–giving Germany Poland, while Stalin would “protect” Estonia and Latvia (eventually the two added a clause for Lithuania). Bush celebrates Baltic independence, certain principles, and defines American policy.
Pundits ridicule Bush for his “look into Putin’s heart,” but Bush “gets it” about Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Stability bought at the expense of others is no great victory. Today, we make trade-offs, in other places and with other peoples. But I am reassured: my vote last fall was for a sense of proportion that leads to Bush’s Latvian & Georgian visits, to an apology and awareness that trade-offs may be necessary but also that the cost is no less great because we are not the ones that have to pay. And to a sense the Bush’s speeches, whoever may be writing them, say much that needs to be said.
Update: Powerline’s John Hindraker also argues that the news services have ignored the core of the speech. He praises Bush’s vision:
To a greater extent than any politician since Churchill, President Bush has set forth and defended his policies in a series of speeches that combine intellectual brilliance and philosophical gravity. Today’s speech in Latvia was the latest in this series, and, like the others, it will be studied by historians for centuries to come.
Then, he adds, from Deacon: Bush has been criticized for alienating our “friend” Russia by visiting Latvia and Georgia. But Russia’s problem with Bush’s visits to countries that the Soviet Union victimized shows how far Russia from being our friend . . . . The Middle East represents the subtext of Bush’s speech in Latvia, as John points out. But President Bush also recognizes that the western states of the former Soviet Union could themselves once again become a major battleground in the struggle for freedom
Update:Wretchard (for whom I have immense respect) notes of Bush’s speech: “In one sense, it is always futile to apologize for history. But George Bush’s apology is really addressed toward his perception of American historical intent.” One of the commentors, Joel Gaines, argues that Bush replies to a context defined by Putin.
“I do not disagree with you [Wretchard], however, this line comes just after Putin’s State of the Nation address in which he stated (paraphrase)”the fall of the Soviet Union was the geopolitical tragedy of the century”. While I do not question the President’s sincerity – it is as you say a huge leap – I believe the primary message is two-fold:
1) Dear Russia, don’t you even think about it.
2) Dear Former Satellites, we have your back.
Note Bush’s words, clearly as much about the present as the past:
Once again, when powerful governments negotiated, the freedom of small nations was somehow expendable. Yet this attempt to sacrifice freedom for the sake of stability left a continent divided and unstable. The captivity of millions in Central and Eastern Europe will be remembered as one of the greatest wrongs of history.
Update: Further discussion (and a round-up of the Left’s take on Bush’s speech) by Matt Welch. He also links to his earlier note. Welch, of course, is more sympathetic to the Central European point of view than most. (May 11)
Update: The Buchanan (the man of 15 degree vision) steps in and is fisked by Stephen Green. (May 12)
Update: The History News Network begins with a post by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. on Huffington’s blog (whose interpretation and emotion is predictable); they counter this with “The Real Myths of Yalta” by John Radzilowski who publishes in FrontPage (equally predictable–harsh on communism) . HNN quotes from two editorials (those paired in our local paper). One is Jacob Heilbrunn, who concludes “Once Again, the Big Yalta Lie:”
What’s more, it was the isolationist right that never wanted to fight the war in the first place, which it conveniently forgot once it began attacking Democrats as being soft on communism. Nothing of course could be further from the truth. Roosevelt went on to recognize Stalin’s perfidy shortly before he died, and it fell to Truman to fight the Cold War.
The other side is argued by Anne Applebaum, whose “Saying Sorry” concludes:
Both left and right should also consider contexts more carefully. Certainly the president’s speech last weekend did not sound personal, as if he were apologizing to feel good about himself. It did not mention Roosevelt by name or wallow in Cold War rhetoric. On the contrary, Bush went on afterward to talk about the democratic values that had replaced Yalta, and to draw contemporary lessons. The tone was right — and it contrasted sharply with the behavior of Russian president Vladimir Putin, as perhaps it was intended to. Asked again last week why he hadn’t made his own apology for the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe, Putin pointed out that the Soviet parliament did so in 1989. “What,” he asked, “we have to do this every day, every year?”
The answer is no, the Russian president doesn’t have to talk about the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe every day — but during a major, international anniversary of the end of the war, he clearly should. And no, the U.S. president does not have to talk about Yalta every year, but when he goes to Latvia to mark the anniversary of the end of the war he should — just as any American president visiting Africa for the first time should speak of slavery. No American or Russian leader should appear unpatriotic when abroad, but at the right time, in the right place, it is useful for statesmen to tell the truth, even if just to acknowledge that some stretches of our history were more ambiguous, and some of our victories more bittersweet, than they once seemed.
(Last update added May 15. As if anyone is reading things this far down.)
Back to my own meandering at the earlier date::
Bush acknowledges the compromises that were a part of the treaties that ended WWII. He notes that in the following years
of struggle and purpose, the Baltic peoples kept a long vigil of suffering and hope. Though you lived in isolation, you were not alone. The United States refused to recognize your occupation by an empire. The flags of free Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania — illegal at home — flew proudly over diplomatic missions in the United States.
As we mark a victory of six days ago — six decades ago, we are mindful of a paradox. For much of Germany, defeat led to freedom. For much of Eastern and Central Europe, victory brought the iron rule of another empire. V-E Day marked the end of fascism, but it did not end oppression. The agreement at Yalta 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. Yet this attempt to sacrifice freedom for the sake of stability left a continent divided and unstable. The captivity of millions in Central and Eastern Europe will be remembered as one of the greatest wrongs of history.
Speaking to the Prime Minister of Latvia and the presidents of Estonia and Lithuania, he describes America’s fellowship with these states during both WWII and the Cold War, describing the Cold War as a Cold Warrior.
The end of World War II raised unavoidable questions for my country: Had we fought and sacrificed only to achieve the permanent division of Europe into armed camps? Or did the cause of freedom and the rights of nations require more of us? Eventually, America and our strong allies made a decision: We would not be content with the liberation of half of Europe — and we would not forget our friends behind an Iron Curtain. . . . And we set the vision of a Europe whole, free, and at peace — so dictators could no longer rise up and feed ancient grievances, and conflict would not be repeated again and again.
His trip & its perspective orders the chaos of people and memories tumbling about my mind. In the seventies, I remarked something to the effect (probably in the melodramatic tone I favored then) that we didn’t think enough about Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. The break-room response from my academic colleagues was one of cynical bemusement; ah, Ginny’s being nutty again. And what is an Estonia? Well, I don’t intend to worry, they said. My responses were probably stupid and certainly inchoate. But I did know it was something, out there, that was just, well, just not right.
I admire my fellow bloggers – I expect that they have always thought about these things more deeply and read more widely. I never puzzled out what little I knew nor looked harder. Besides, given that within a year or two after that coffee room chat I was a good deal more obsessed with paper prices than the boat people streaming out of Vietnam, I was (and am) in no position to be critical of my peers. But growing up, we knew refugees – Latvians settled in the western part of the state (a girl in my dorm freshman year was Miss Latvia U.S.A.) and Lithuanians were scattered around (the old woman that lived upstairs in the last place I lived in Lincoln was Lithuanian). States like Nebraska aren’t just red because of the independent self-reliance and stubborn patriotism of the heartland. It is also because we listened to the Latvians and Lithuanians, Czechs and Cubans that washed up upon the landlocked plains. My brother once told me he had casually remarked that perhaps assassination of a few despicable leaders was not such a bad idea. His roommate, whose father was beheaded in a turnover in Pakistan, countered late into the night with his own take on the subject. But as I moved into grad school, there were fewer checks – generally, we only knew people that thought like we did, had experienced what we had. We didn’t talk history even if we did politics. Austin was, if possible, even less aware than Nebraska’s counter culture society. (Being a yippie who tried to levitate the Pentagon then retreated to Austin’s pleasant climate is not quite the same as being aware.)
Listening to Bush’s remarks, I realize how little I actually knew. But, I suspect we might notice something else – something about what we knew and didn’t know in those days. We read Leon Uris’s Exodus and all Americans now read Anne Frank in grade school. We should (and I believe do) keep the evils of the holocaust in mind. Other evils, well, they aren’t so accessible.
Re context then: While the arguments on this blog about the Russian soldiers’ courage in the face of considerable odds is quite important – and another part of World War II we often forget–another “fact” is the Hitler/Stalin pact. Lex’s quite excellent regard for the incredible sacrifices of the Russians during the war is a perspective we need to take. Russian bravery was tested to the full. But the swallowing up of the three Baltic nations proved a rather uncomfortable piece of history to those on the left in the thirties and through the Cold War. It showed that not only was Russia imperialist, but even more dramatically, only too happy to make deals with Hitler. Anyone who looks at literature of those few years notes the sympathy with which pacifism was held in certain quarters between the signing of the Hitler/Stalin pact and the invasion of Russia. The socialist utopia wasn’t dimmed in those years, as we remember the bright halo at the socialist camp in The Grapes of Wrath, lighting that implies the Joads have at long last arrived in the world of socialist equality and socialist plenty. The America Firsters contributed to America’s isolation but so, too, in that brief period, did the fellow travelers. In August of the same year that movie came out, Stalin and Hitler signed
The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, also known as the Hitler-Stalin pact or Nazi-Soviet pact, was a non-aggression treaty between Germany and Russia, or more precisely between the Soviet Union and the Third Reich. It was signed in Moscow on August 23, 1939, by the Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov and the German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop. The non-aggression treaty lasted until Operation Barbarossa of June 22, 1941, when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union.
In a secret appendix to the pact, the border states Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania were divided in spheres of interest of the parties, that within a year would injure their sovereignty.
Re Chicagoboyz & Blowhard context now: In such small and embattled countries, the artistic life leaves little naval gazing; there we see Lithuania’s early choice of a musicologist as president. Artists do not see service to country at odds with the artistic life (service to art, perhaps). And there, I suspect, art retains its liveliness.
As time passes, bloggers (even blog commenters) seem to read the speech as a whole and with some historical context; other sources choose soundbites.
Re: What we can hope is that Bush’s speech and Bush’s vision triumph and define our policy so that in twenty years whoever is in office, Democrat or Republican, will feel duty-bound to still say “we have your back” whenever we can to freedom fighters wherever they are. And if we our army can’t “have their backs”, at least we can speak the truth to the Putins of that time as well.