Yalta: The Price of Peace. By S. M. Plokhy. New York: Viking, 2010. 451 pp.
The "structure" of the international political system as we know it today--that is, the Westphalian states system that first saw the light of day at what was then, in 1648, the most significant diplomatic gathering ever convened to settle a great-power war--has usually been mightily conditioned by the decisions taken (or not taken) by the leaders of the principal victorious powers at conferences intended to arrange the postwar order. Almost always, those decisions have quickly been adjudged controversial to the point of being deeply flawed, with the result that subsequent generations have debated, at times heatedly so, the political and ethical merits of the conferees' work, in the process touching off endless charges about who it was that "lost" the postwar peace, and why they had been so misguided as to have done so. Prior to 1945, it looked as if the Paris peace talks that brought to an end the First World War would forever occupy pride of place as the most discreditable peace conference ever. But then along came Yalta in February 1945, and almost immediately thereafter, there developed a new, low, standard for assessing the unfortunate results of peace palavers.
How did that latter summit manage to relegate Paris 1919 to a distant secondary place in the annals of botched statecraft, at least as that statecraft has been conventionally interpreted? This is a question that, implicitly, provides the story line of this masterly, extremely balanced, and exhaustive study into the historic summit on the Crimean peninsula at which three leaders--Franklin D. Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin, and Winston Churchill--set about designing the shape of the postwar world. Ever since, the work the trio did at Yalta has come under intense scrutiny, typically of a most uncharitable nature, to the point that a series of "Yalta myths" has been handed down through successive decades, and these have been taken to represent, if not the whole truth, then a goodly portion thereof. So intense has been the controversy over Yalta that any other peace conferences' outcomes are almost invariably seen to have been "better" (or at least "less bad") than those of Yalta.
It is to probe and demolish those sundry myths that S. M. Plokhy has bent his efforts in this study, which draws heavily upon primary and secondary sources in English and Russian. Was Yalta as bad as so many critics have made it out to be, asks...