I grew up in an ethnic neighborhood in which most of our neighbors were from Eastern Europe. The couple next door was from Slovakia. They did not want to be identified with Czechoslovakia even 30 years after the forced merger of those two countries, which today again are separate countries. The folks up the street were from Ukraine. It was from them that I learned not to say THE Ukraine. Their relatives were killed by Stalin. A Lithuanian family also lived in our neighborhood. In 1956 a family from Hungary moved into our neighborhood after having fled for their lives the Hungarian uprising. They spoke English because they had been affiliated with Americans living in Hungary.
From my neighbors and other Eastern European immigrants I learned about the Yalta Conference. This intense subject was like no other. My father, a German immigrant, matched their fervor. Many Germans were forced into Stalin’s slave labor camps.
Upon my graduation from high school my Aunt Mary and Uncle Paul took my father and me on a trip to Philadelphia in their new 1960 Mercury. Uncle Paul, a first generation Italian, had relatives there. We visited his relatives during the 1960 Democratic National Convention, which nominated JFK and LBJ. I sat out on their front porch, glued to the radio learning whatever politics I could. My hostess asked me what I was doing. When I told her, she smiled and proclaimed, “Yes, we are all Democrats.” I asked her how she could be a Democrat when FDR had sold millions into Communism and the Catholic Church was militantly anti-Communist. She was unaware of this until I told her what I knew.
During this trip, we visited the family slaughter house. (Uncle Paul’s relatives owned a meat market and a supply house.) When I returned to his relatives’ home about 20 neighbors were inside with some sitting on the stairway leading to the bedrooms upstairs. The lady of the house, in her very broken English, introduced me as a member of the family and “a very smarta boy.” She told them I would talk about the Yalta Conference, a subject about which they were uninformed. The reaction was remarkable. These folks from the Italian Ghetto of Philadelphia vowed never to vote for Democratic candidates again. One-by-one they told me I was the first Republican they ever met. I also was from the wrong side of the tracks but my father had taught me about politics.
Upon returning home to Wisconsin I told that story to the State GOP Chairman and urged him to send representatives to the South side of Milwaukee and to nearby suburbs, which almost exclusively were populated by relatives from Eastern Europe. The GOP Chairman never did, of course, and Eastern European immigrants continued to support the Democrats until Ronald Reagan was elected President.
I mention this because I want to thank President George W. Bush for his recent speech in Latvia in which he apologized to Eastern Europeans for the United States’ role in the Yalta Conference. I have waited all my politically conscious life to hear an American President apologize for participating in Yalta.
The war was winding down. Hitler was in a state of despair and killed himself. FDR, who was quite ill, Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin met at Yalta to determine the fate of Eastern Europe. Poland became a Communist satellite nation. Germany was, in effect, divided between East and West, with the Soviets controlling East Germany. Millions of Germans were forced into slave labor in the Soviet Union. And as Phyllis Schlafly has pointed out, all Russians who fled the tyranny of Soviet rule were forcibly returned to the Soviet Union. I know of one busload of Russian refugees who, when told they must return to the Soviet Union, killed themselves at a rest stop. FDR returned home weeks before he died and admitted to an aide that he might have been mistaken to trust Stalin. By then it was too late. President Truman had to deal with the consequences of FDR’s decision.
President Bush chose to apologize while visiting Latvia because the Baltic States, which briefly had been free, also were swallowed up by Stalin after World War II, with little response from our government. After the collapse of the Soviet Union the Baltic States became members of NATO and the European Union. Bush told the cheering Latvians that “the captivity of millions in Central and Eastern Europe will be remembered as one of the greatest wrongs of history.” Bush acknowledged that the United States was at fault and that when powerful nations negotiated “the freedom of small nations was somehow expendable.”
Bush spoke about Yalta before he visited Moscow to participate in ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of VE Day, ending in Europe, World War II, a time when the USA and the Soviets were allies. Some critics have suggested that the Soviets entered World War II as an opportunity to carve up Eastern Europe later. Perhaps. But the Soviet Union lost millions of its finest in “the great Patriotic War” fighting Hitler.
While Bush’s apology about Yalta put him in a most uncomfortable position to talk with Vladimir Putin, I am glad he apologized. An apology won’t erase the years that Poland and the Baltic States lived under the yoke of Communism. It needed to be said. Justice demanded it. I waited half a century to hear it and I am glad I did.