Saturday, January 9, 2021

The Daughters of Yalta (The Book)

The Yalta Conference was one of the most important and controversial episodes of the final year of World War II. Catherine Grace Katz has authored yet another account of that conference, but written from the very distinct perspective of three young women who were present as aides to their fathers. The Daughters of Yalta The Churchills, Roosevelts, and Harrimans: A Story of Love and War retells the familiar story, but with a focus on Sarah Churchill, Anna Roosevelt, and Kathleen Harriman, each of whom attended as personal assistant to her much more famous father. Such an emphasis on the role of family members - especially female family members - may seem a bit old-fashioned, a throwback to an earlier aristocratic and royal world, where family was what mattered and women played prominent (if sometimes subdued) roles.

The general outline of what happened at Yalta is a familiar one. The wartime alliance was in many respects a mismatch, with mutual suspicion and ideological incompatibility temporarily subsumed under the need to cooperate against a common foe. That cooperation had worked, and Germany's defeat was in sight early in 1945. But, the closer that came, the more the allies' differences about what the future of Europe should look like became more relevant. One unavoidable reality was that the Soviets, having done most of the fighting in the war and borne the brunt of the war's casualties, cared very much about controlling eastern Europe through which Germany had twice invaded Russia in the 20th century and was in fact now in a position to do so. Well aware of this problem but no longer in any position to do much about it without American support, Churchill remained desperately invested in the "special relationship" with the U.S. and in his personal relationship with Roosevelt. However Roosevelt remained wary of Churchill's imperial commitments and seemed to be distancing himself from Churchill in the hope of charming Stalin. Much has been made of Roosevelt's declining health at Yalta, and this account highlights that part of the story, since one of his daughter's roles was to insulate her father from stress as much as possible both to protect his health and to keep his condition as private as possible. Even so, this account confirms the conventional wisdom that Roosevelt's confidence in his own ability to charm Stalin was probably much more of a problem in terms of the final outcome than his health was.

The account highlights how Roosevelt cared less about Poland and eastern Europe than Churchill did and had two fundamental priorities regarding Stalin - first, getting him to join the Pacific War (a commitment Stalin honored on schedule in August 1945, by which time Roosevelt would be dead and Churchill out of office) and, second, guaranteeing Soviet participation in the United Nations organization. Katz emphasizes that Roosevelt was deeply attached to the idea of the UN - not because he naively believed it would guarantee perpetual peace but because he pragmatically hoped it could keep the peace for 50 years or so. 

Seeing the conference through the daughters' perspective does not add much to this already familiar story. But it does highlight the personal and inter-personal aspects of the conference which the daughters had to deal with - everything from dealing with the difficult personalities of people like Harry Hopkins and James Byrnes to the appalling physical conditions at Yalta. Interesting in its own right, the story of what a shambles the Tsarist place and the Crimean countryside were really helps to bring home what a totally destructive disaster the German invasion had been for the Soviets. The three women's excursions to explore the region really highlight this aspect, which we Americans, who did not suffer similarly from the war, often fail to appreciate about the Russians' experience and the particular perspective it gave them at Yalta. 

And then there was one episode which was certainly unexpected and particularly striking. Towards the end of the conference, the three women were out together experiencing as much as they could of their Soviet surroundings, when they "found themselves standing in front of a small Orthodox church. There was a service beginning inside. For a moment, they hesitated while deliberating whether to go in. Timidly, they decided to take a peek. As they looked inside the church, they were met with a surprise. Robert [Harry Hopkins's son and the American cameraman] said he had thought 'religion was stifled in the Soviet Union.' But this church was brimming with people." The ambivalent survival of religion even in Stalin's Russia reveals something significant about our contemporary condition:

"Nobody knew if Stalin would allow religion to thrive after the war, or if the Russian Orthodox Church was simply living on borrowed time. In a sense, this little church faced a similar uncertainty about the future as the three young women standing in the doorway watching the service. Everyone, from Sarah, Anna, and Kathy, to the children in the church waiting for their parents to come home, looked forward to the end of the war and the peace agreements that the conference at Yalta was meant to foster. After nearly five years of sacrifice, loss, and heartbreak for soldiers and civilians alike, the world yearned for a return to normality. But was the pre-war state of normality a world to which they wanted to—or could—return?"

Those who value the importance of individual personalities in history will appreciate this up-close account of the personalities of FDR, Churchill, and Averell Harriman - their authentic accomplishments and their personal flaws. The social interconnectedness of the three families also illustrates elite relationships and behavior, which continued to play an important role in society and politics, just as the interrelationships and behavior of their aristocratic and princely predecessors had, not so long before.

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