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The weakness of empires

Franklin Delano Roosevelt's last important action as President of the United States was his trip to Yalta to confer there with the two other most powerful men in the world, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin. Their first concern then was how to finish off the Japanese war as soon as the Germans had surrendered. Their second concern was the future organization of Europe.

Churchill and Roosevelt were already uneasy about what would happen in those parts of Europe which already were being liberated by the armies of the Soviet Union. They were even more concerned about those still to be liberated. It was obvious that by the time the fighting ended the Soviet armies would be deep in the heart of central Europe.

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Churchill wanted to temper the dangers of the future by a system of ''spheres of influence.'' Roosevelt and the others of the American delegation refused to go along with Churchill on any program which would officially recognize a special Soviet sphere of influence. They realized how much protest would boil up at home from the great communities of Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, and other persons whose parents or grandparents had come to the United States from Central and Eastern Europe. Roosevelt did not agree to any special Soviet ''sphere of influence.'' Indeed, he succeeded in extracting from Stalin a pro forma agreement that there would be ''free elections'' in the countries his armies would liberate.

But neither Roosevelt nor Churchill were confident that those promises would be honored. Roosevelt took one further step to try to mitigate the lot of those about to be liberated by the Soviets. He took Stalin aside and, in effect, preached to him a sermon on how much better it is in the long run for a great power to be gentle with its small neighbors.

He recalled to Stalin the story of US treatment of Mexico. In his own early career, when he was Assistant Secretary of the Navy, the US had been anything but a ''good neighbor'' to Mexico. Under President Wilson's orders the US Navy had seized the Mexican seaport of Vera Cruz and the Army had invaded northern Mexico.

Times changed. Herbert Hoover became President. A new phrase was coined. The US would from then on be a ''good neighbor'' to its Latin neighbors to the south. According to Roosevelt's sermon to Stalin it had paid off. Relations with the neighbors did improve -- more or less, with ups and downs. And, of not negligible importance, it proved less expensive to let the neighbors run themselves, than to run them from Washington.

Stalin may or may not have listened with interest to what Roosevelt said to him at Yalta about ''good neighbors.'' The record shows nothing on this point. But even if interested, he certainly did not act upon it. Soviet stooges were imposed upon the liberated countries. Moscow imposed its will. And for a time, as often in the early stages of a new empire, Moscow benefited.

Now we are in a new phase in the story of the Soviet empire. We are at the point where the subject peoples are all in incipient rebellion against a system in which they were exploited by the imperial power.

Why has there been so much trouble in Poland? Because the Soviets have been milking Poland to satisfy some of their own economic shortages. They are still treating Poland not as an honorable ally, but as a conquered province of empire to be exploited for the imperial benefit.

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Moscow is boasting these days of the ''fraternal'' aid it is sending Poland. Actually, it is repaying a small part of the value which has been extracted from Poland over the past dozen years or so by terms of trade arbitrarily fixed in Moscow to the disadvantage of the Poles. If the Soviets paid off all of Poland's debt to the Western countries, it would still owe a balance to the Poles. They are not doing anything as generous or fair as that.

When an imperial power treats its subject peoples fairly empires become expensive. Why was the British Empire liquidated? Because London was spending more money keeping up the empire than it was earning from the empire. From the time it treated its subject peoples fairly, it became first a luxury and finally an unaffordable luxury.

Moscow does not yet treat its subject peoples fairly. It still exploits them. It has yet to accept the lesson the US learned with Mexico between the days of Woodrow Wilson and the days of Herbert Hoover. It is still exploiting them.

And that is precisely why Moscow is having trouble with Poland and will go on having trouble with Poland, and with the others, until it, too, learns the hard way that being a ''good neighbor'' is cheaper -- and safer. It is also moral.

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