And You Thought World War II Was Over?

Historical falsification, when spoken by the President of the United States to slander one of his greatest predecessors, should not go unanswered. In a display of the extremist ideology that drives politics and policy in his administration, George W. Bush chose a platform in Latvia to repeat an old right-wing slur against Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Mr. Bush said that the 1945 Yalta conference where Roosevelt met with Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin to plan the end of the Second World War “followed in the unjust tradition of Munich and the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.”

For the President to utter such cheap remarks about Roosevelt (and Churchill, whom he ridiculously imagines to be his model) was unfortunate. For him to utter those remarks on foreign soil, during ceremonies commemorating the end of the war fought so bravely by Roosevelt and Churchill, was unforgivable.

Mr. Bush sounded as if he (or his chief thinker, Karl Rove) had received special tutoring from noted fabulist Ann Coulter. Her regurgitation of these same themes in a book-length screed earned the repudiation of many decent conservatives and every competent historian who bothered to take notice.

There is nothing wrong with criticism of Yalta, or for that matter of Roosevelt, his conduct of the war and his dealings with our wartime allies. Although F.D.R. achieved the status of household deity for many American families, including mine, he was far from perfect.

The implication of the President’s speech in Riga, however, is that the decisions reached at Yalta were morally equivalent to the feeble betrayal at Munich and the dictators’ bargain between Stalin and Hitler. That outrageous comparison reflects neither the realities of February 1945, when the three leaders met at a seaside hotel in the Crimean capital, nor the agreement that emerged.

The fundamental fact of the moment was the presence of seven million Red Army soldiers in Central and Eastern Europe. Western leaders had been forced to acknowledge that reality years earlier, when the outcome of the war against Hitler was still in doubt. To dislodge Stalin’s troops would have required F.D.R. and Churchill to be willing to contemplate war against their Soviet ally long before World War II had ended.

As the late Roy Jenkins bluntly observed a few years ago in his biography of Churchill: “Declaring war on Russia, over Poland, in the spring of 1945, was simply not a feasible policy.”

Nothing that the democratic leaders might have said would have stopped Stalin’s troops from occupying Eastern Europe. The first experimental atomic-bomb test was still six months away; both F.D.R. and Churchill believed they needed Russian help not only to complete the conquest of Nazi Germany but to defeat Imperial Japan.

At Yalta, Stalin committed to abrogate his non-aggression pact with Japan. American military strategists hoped that Soviet intervention would reduce the human toll of the expected invasion of the Japanese mainland, which they estimated would cost a million U.S. casualties over the course of a brutal, 18-month campaign.

What the democratic leaders did insist upon-in direct contradiction of the Bush slur-was the Declaration on Liberated Europe, including a written promise from Stalin to permit free and fair elections in the occupied nations. Poland was to be reconstituted as an independent democratic state, with an interim government that included both communists and democrats.

According to Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the Soviet foreign minister urged Stalin not to sign the declaration. The dictator signed anyway, presumably in full knowledge that he wouldn’t honor its provisions. But as Mr. Schlesinger also notes, his aggressive domination of Eastern Europe meant that he was abrogating rather than affirming the Yalta agreement. Those violations confirmed Stalin’s duplicity and provided lasting moral authority to the Western democracies.

Ronald Reagan was among the opponents of communism who drew on that moral power. “Let me state emphatically, we reject any interpretation of the Yalta agreement that suggests American consent for the division of Europe into spheres of influence,” said the late President in August 1984. “On the contrary, we see that agreement as a pledge by the three great powers to restore full independence, and to allow free and democratic elections in all countries liberated from the Nazis after World War II.”

The postwar division of Europe resulted from military realities, not diplomatic concessions. For Mr. Bush to pretend otherwise in pursuit of ancient partisan arguments is truly puerile.

Having rather easily overthrown the weak, backward regimes of Saddam Hussein and the Taliban, he now seems to regard himself as superior to men who faced enemies possessing enormous military and industrial power. Having acted on entirely wrong information about Iraq, despite all the advanced technology at his disposal, he now second-guesses the decisions of leaders who had to rely on far less sophisticated intelligence sources.

Perhaps he believes his own sycophantic publicity. For in voicing his ugly and erroneous criticism of justly venerated men, he only appears to have overestimated himself. And You Thought World War II Was Over?