Presidents aren't expected to know much history, but their speech-writers are, and even presidents are expected to be considerate of their hosts' feelings. President George W. Bush's speech in Riga did not measure up.
It wasn't Bush who started the quarrel about whether the Soviet Union 'liberated' or 'occupied' eastern Europe after 1945. It was the presidents of Lithuania and Estonia, who refused to go to Moscow for the ceremonies commemorating the Soviet defeat of Germany 60 years ago, and the presidents of Latvia and Poland, who only agreed to go with great reluctance. But Bush jumped into the argument with enthusiasm, insensitivity, and considerable ignorance.
What he did was to condemn the Yalta agreement of 1945, signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin. It didn't actually 'carve Europe up' between the victors, but it did give each of them responsibility for getting certain liberated countries back on their feet and restoring them to independence.
Bush condemned Yalta, claiming that the Western allies had needlessly sold the eastern European countries into 40 years of Communist rule. And then he flew off to Moscow to shake the hand of his host, Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Bush was going to Moscow to commemorate Russia's sacrifices in the struggle against Nazi aggression, which were far greater than America's. Moreover, it was the Soviet army that tore the guts out of the Nazi military machine.
By 1945, the Soviet army was the strongest ground fighting force in the world. It physically controlled the eastern European countries that became Moscow's responsibility at Yalta. Moscow later installed Communist regimes there and there was absolutely nothing that Roosevelt or Churchill could do about it. President Bush favours wars to overthrow undemocratic regimes, but against the Soviet Union in 1945' That's just crazy.
Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia were especially upset about the ceremony, for they were the victims of the secret Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 that was the starting gun for the war. Stalin got German assent to his annexation of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and eastern Poland and Germany got the rest of Poland.
When Hitler invaded Poland to collect his share of the deal, Britain and France declared war on Germany in Poland's defence. They did not also declare war on the Soviet Union, though in strict morality they should have, because they had their hands full in just dealing with Germany. And the US, safe behind its oceans, did nothing.
Two years later, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, and effectively signed his own death warrant. Six months after that, the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbour finally drew the US into the war, and American industrial strength played a big part in hastening the defeat of the Nazis . But it was the Russians who paid most of the price in human lives for defeating the Axis.
That deserves respect, as does the fact that the Red Army actually did liberate eastern Europe from something far worse than communism. By mid-war, the Nazi regime planned not only to exterminate the Jews and the Gypsies, but to starve 35 million 'useless eaters' to death to make room for German settlers.
Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians and Poles have a right to resent both what Stalin did to them and the present Russian government's refusal to apologize for the past. Bush has the right to support them, though they face no threat from Moscow and this was not the week to pour fuel on the flames. But it was simply not fitting for Bush to talk like this while he was on his way to Moscow to join the Russians in mourning their dead.