Seventy Years Ago Today: The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact
When American students learn about World War II, they are usually taught that it began on September 1, 1939, when the Germans invaded Poland. They do not get much instruction about the Treaty of Non-Aggression between the Third German Reich and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, better known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (after the foreign ministers of the two countries), signed early on August 24, 1939, but dated August 23. By this agreement, each side promised to remain neutral in the event that the other were attacked by a third party.
A key feature of the agreeement, however, was the secret protocols that accompanied it, by which the USSR and Germany divided eastern and central Europe into “spheres of influence” and provided that each side might occupy its sphere should “territorial and political rearrangements” be made in these areas. In other words, they agreed on a plan for carving up the entire area between the USSR and Germany as their borders existed at that time.
Seventeen days after the German invasion of Poland, the Russians invaded from the other side and quickly occupied the Polish territories identified as the Soviet sphere of influence in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Afterward, the two sides cooperated economically and militarily in subduing the Poles and in supplying one another with various raw materials and manufactured goods, including military arms and equipment, as well as plans for weapons.
The pact, which came as a great surprise to almost everyone, created a potentially huge embarrassment for the many Soviet sympathizers in the West, including those in the United States, who had worked tirelessly for years to move public opinion against the fascists in general and Germany in particular. But, like the mindless marionettes they were, they missed not a beat, switching virtually overnight to praise for Stalin’s efforts to promote world peace and opposing war against Hitler.
Further potential for embarrassment arose in June 1941, when, notwithstanding the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Germans invaded the Soviet Union. Disdaining embarrassment, the Roosevelt administration immediately embraced the mass murderers in Moscow and maintained them in a tight embrace for the balance of the war. Strange bedfellows, indeed.
Ross Levatter - 8/28/2009
That's exactly how they saw it...
Robert Higgs - 8/25/2009
Well, given a difference of opinion between lawyers and historians with regard to a question of historical interpretation, the lawyers would be right. It only stands to reason, does it not?
RL - 8/25/2009
Well, that was exactly the point of the Volokh.com poster (me, as it happens). But many posters, including Somin himself, explained that was clearly wrong, and they are mostly lawyers, so I'm sure they're right. :-)
Robert Higgs - 8/24/2009
But for the Treaty of Versailles (or an alternative treaty with similar terms regarding German war guilt and Allied demands for huge reparations), it seems extremely unlikely that the evil Nazis would have been running Germany in 1939, and hence in a position to make a treaty with the evil Bolsheviks running the USSR.
Tim Sydney - 8/24/2009
In mainstream commentary and history the 'isolationists' are excoriated for opposing FDR's alleged foresight in wanting to take the US into WW2. Yet FDR was pushing, and the isolationists were opposing, the war path well before the Nazi-Soviet split.
Germany invaded the USSR on June 22, 1941, a mere six months before Pearl Harbor.
If if had not been for isolationist opposition, FDR would have taken America into the war much earlier. It is possible Hitler would have delayed opening a new war on the Eastern Front if he already America to contend with.
The net result would presumably be that instead of losing a "mere" 400,000 lives in WW2, America may easily have lost over a million. And the economic cost of war presumably would have been much higher too.
The pessimistic forecasts of many of the isolationists, that war would lead to economic depression and a loss of liberty at home (when as Lawrence Dennis predicted troops would return home to unemployment lines), were not born out. But they were perhaps "a near miss", especially when compared to the Panglossian portrait usually painted.
RL - 8/23/2009
Ilya Somin today, on Volokh.com, posted that this was "the most evil treaty in history". One poster tried to suggest the Treaty of Versailles might more properly qualify, but this was quickly stomped on by the many historical experts participating in that site.