The enemy of my enemy is not a trustworthy friend

History is more interesting with additional points of view, and that’s what The Daughters of Yalta accomplishes.

Written by Catherine Grace Katz, the book recounts the Yalta Conference from the perspectives of three eminent daughters: Sarah Churchill, Winston Churchill’s favorite child; Anna Roosevelt, FDR’s daughter who was tasked with guarding the secret of the president’s ailing health; and Kathleen Harriman, daughter and most trusted confidante of U.S. ambassador Averell Harriman.

Their inclusion adds greater depth to the history, and Katz does an excellent job of getting inside everyone’s heads, fathers and daughters alike, to present the personal dimension. For example, we get a sense of how Winston was haunted by Europe’s failure to achieve a lasting peace after the previous World War.

The book also shows the friction within the U.S.-British-Soviet alliance, and how the Soviets were generating the bulk of that friction. The Americans and British were indeed swimming with sharks to defeat the Nazis (sharks who were previously allied with the Nazis, who of course could also be described as sharks themselves).

On one hand, the Soviets showed excessive hospitality at Yalta. Their guests’ most casual wishes were granted. Sarah Churchill mentioned how lemon would go nicely with the caviar she was eating, and wouldn’t you know it, a lemon tree appeared on the premises the next day.

But the wish-granting had a dark side. The Soviets were spying on the Americans and British. They planted non-metallic bugs and installed microphones to eavesdrop on their guests.

“They steered FDR toward their listening devices in the Livadia gardens by tidying certain garden paths, so he could manage them in his wheelchair, practically guaranteeing that they could follow his every move,” Katz writes.

Soviets would transcribe private conversations and report summaries to Stalin in advance of meetings.

The NKVD secret police were an ominous presence at the conference. Katz explains that they were “an elite force of terror under Stalin’s leadership. The agency became the secret police and assassination squad. It made the supposed enemies of the people, whether political dissidents or an entire ethnic minority, disappear.”

Kathy Harriman had already learned to be suspicious of the Soviet government, and she was not alone in her concerns. Working as a newspaper reporter in London, she was tasked with covering press conferences given by leaders of exiled European governments, such as those of Poland and Czechoslovakia.

“At these press conferences, the issue that raised the most immediate concern was not Nazi aggression, but rather Britain’s new alliance with the Soviet Union. The exiles were not pleased with the sudden rush of support for Stalin in Britain and the United States,” Katz writes.

“The exiled Polish leaders were particularly vocal. They argued that Stalin would look for any opportunity to seize Poland and install a de facto Soviet regime. Kathy believed them. Not until the late summer of 1944 would Averell realize that Kathy had been right to listen.”

Even before the conference, Kathy Harriman experienced the Soviets’ duplicity firsthand, though she didn’t realize it until later. She and several other journalists were invited to Katyn Forest in Russia to observe a mass grave containing the remains of thousands of Polish soldiers.

What had actually happened was that the Soviets executed nearly 22,000 Polish citizens in 1939. This included “soldiers, intellectuals, and aristocrats — anyone who might have the means and desire to actively resist Soviet rule,” Katz writes. 

“With so many ‘enemies of the state’ in their clutches, the Soviet leaders realized they had a prime opportunity. They could begin liquidating the Polish ruling class, thus making it easier to control the country once the war was over.”

Stalin ordered the executions, and the Soviet agents tampered with the evidence to make it look like the Nazis committed the massacre. The Soviets then fooled the journalists, including the skeptical Kathy Harriman, into believing their innocence regarding this particular atrocity.

“The Nazis committed countless crimes against humanity … but the Katyn Forest massacre was one crime they did not commit,” Katz says.

She later adds, “No matter how much the British and the Americans abhorred the atrocities the Soviets committed, defeating the Nazis remained paramount.”

The Daughters of Yalta is an excellent, insightful book. I’ve provided only a glimpse of it. Read the whole the thing!

John Hancock, America’s first proto-president

Long ago, I was an assistant manager at a clothing store. For reasons that were never sufficiently explained, whenever I completed a refund transaction, I had to get the signature of one of the other employees—in addition to my own and the customer’s, resulting in a most impressive triple-signature document.

One day I asked a 21-year-old co-worker to sign one of those receipts, and she said, “All right, I’ll give you my John Hancock.” Then she stopped and thought for a moment, wondering aloud, “Why do they call a signature a John Hancock?”

John Hancock

I immediately responded, “John Hancock was the first person to sign the Declaration of Independence, and he signed it really large.”

She laughed, clearly not expecting anyone to actually know such a thing. “OK, nerd.”

(And I didn’t even mention that the guy presided over the Continental Congress, or that he’s a character in the hit Broadway and motion picture musical 1776.)

My response—and, I believe, valid question—was, “But wait, who doesn’t know who John Hancock is?”

Naturally, this led to a poll among the other employees who happened to be there. To my dismay, only two others were familiar with the late Mr. Hancock. One was a friend of mine from William & Mary, thereby doing nothing to dispel the “nerd” allegation. In fact, that was the rebuttal: “Oh, well, you two went to the nerd school.”

So we were apparently disqualified. The other was a high school junior whose history class had only just covered the Revolutionary era.

The high school boy answered, “Oh! He signed his name big enough that the king could read it without his spectacles!” That may just be a myth, but close enough.

There were several others working that day, all in the teens through 20s range. None of them had the slightest clue who the man was, and they were all astonished that anyone would know this seemingly random piece of trivia.

I may have been ahead of the curve by knowing an entire thing or two about Hancock, but I didn’t know nearly enough.

Recently, I read a full biography on the man in question, John Hancock: Merchant King and American Patriot by Harlow Giles Unger (2000). Turns out, Hancock is much more than a signature. He was an important figure leading up to the American Revolution, and as president of the Continental Congress from 1775 to 1777, he was essentially the first chief executive as the colonies adopted the Declaration of Independence—in a sense, the first proto-president of the United States of America.

According to Unger, what made Hancock indispensable as the Continental Congress’s president was his skill as a moderator, which he honed at Boston town meetings, in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, and at the Massachusetts Provincial Congress.

“In all three, he had often reconciled Tories with Whigs, radicals with conservatives, and rural interests with urban interests. Congress elected John Hancock unanimously. He considered his election as president of Congress the greatest honor of his life,” Unger writes.

Impartiality was vital to his role as president, and his neutrality earned him the respect of the delegates.

Unger says, “He was the perfect president, with some appeal to all factions but favoritism to none. He understood everyone’s point of view. His experience as moderator and legislator appealed to moderates; his wealth, business position, and education appealed to conservatives; and his defiance of British authority in Boston appealed to radicals. And what appealed to all was his vast experience directing a large organization, namely the House of Hancock.”

Unger emphasizes the importance of Hancock’s broad appeal, as the states were anything but united before the Declaration.

Additionally, after the delegates voted on each matter, the task of executing fell to the president, as did the responsibility of communicating with the leaders of each colony.

Hancock had to “supervise the acquisition, collection, and shipment of money, arms, and ammunition that Congress approved for transfer to the army. Congress legislated, but President Hancock executed,” Unger writes.

Also, Hancock’s wasn’t merely the first signature on the Declaration of Independence. For about a month, his signature was the only one on the document, and “it constituted tangible evidence of treason that would have cost him his life if he had been captured,” Unger says.

One of his final accomplishments as president was helping guide the Articles of Confederation to adoption. Though far from perfect (as we now know with our historical hindsight), the Articles were a necessary stopgap measure at the time.

“His imminent departure evidently forced delegates to recognize how important his mediative skills had been in holding Congress together. Without him, many delegates would have deserted and shattered the unity essential to effective prosecution of the war. In his absence they would need a contract to bind them together,” Unger says.

So that’s a little more about Hancock, and that’s still just a glimpse of the man behind the signature. Read Unger’s book for a more thorough portrait.