Saying Sorry

“It just offends me that the president of the United States is, directly or indirectly, attacking his own country in a foreign land.” That was 1998. The speaker, Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), was then House majority whip. The president was Bill Clinton, who had “attacked his own country” while in Uganda. “Going back to the time before we were even a nation,” Clinton had told an African audience, “European Americans received the fruits of the slave trade. And we were wrong in that.”

Fast-forward seven years; the president is now George W. Bush. Last weekend he unexpectedly proffered an apology for the 1945 Yalta agreement, which legitimized Soviet control of Eastern Europe. Speaking in Latvia, one of the countries that remained under Soviet occupation, Bush said that Yalta, an agreement reached by Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin, “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.”

Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about Bush’s comments is that they constitute an apology for a historical disaster most Americans don’t remember. I certainly knew nothing of the bitterness that many East Europeans felt toward the United States and Britain until I was personally accused of “selling out” Poland at Yalta — a deal done 20 years before I was born — during my first trip to Warsaw in the 1980s.

Less surprising is the tenor of the reaction. On the left, a small crew of liberal historians and Rooseveltians have leaped to argue that the president was wrong, and that Yalta was a recognition of reality rather than a sellout. Their charges ignore the breadth of the agreement — was it really necessary to agree to deport thousands of expatriate Russians back to certain death in the Soviet Union? — as well as the fact that Yalta and the other wartime agreements went beyond mere recognition of Soviet occupation and conferred legality and international acceptance on new borders and political structures. But on the right, no one — certainly not Tom DeLay — has objected to Bush’s statement because it took place on foreign soil.

Politics, of course, explains these differences. Clinton’s trip to Africa occurred during the Paula Jones harassment lawsuit, and DeLay’s comments were part of what was to become an “if he can apologize for that, why can’t he apologize for Monica” story line. Bush’s trip to Latvia took place during a debate about Social Security, and may well become part of a “he’s trying to dismantle FDR’s legacy” story line. At the same time, no one on the right objected — and no one on the left applauded loudly — when Bush, on his own trip to Africa in 2003, not only apologized for slavery on foreign soil but declared that its impact still lingers. “My nation’s journey toward justice has not been easy, and it is not over,” the president said: “The racial bigotry fed by slavery did not end with slavery or with segregation.”

Both left and right would do better to stand back and think harder about how important it is for American diplomacy, and even Americans’ understanding of their own past, when U.S. presidents, Republican or Democrat, admit that not every past U.S. policy was successful — which, by any measure, Yalta was not. Since the end of the Cold War, historical honesty has become more normal everywhere in the West, and rightly so: We aren’t, after all, trying to withstand a Soviet propaganda onslaught, and we’ve grown more used to thinking, at least some of the time, of our national disputes as evidence of the authenticity of our democracy. To put it differently, apologies are something that democracies can do, at least occasionally, but that the Chinese or the Syrians always find impossible. Infallibility nowadays is something that only dictatorships claim.

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.

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