In February of 1945, Hitler’s empire was crumbling.
His dream of securing lebensraum—living space—through military conquest, had failed, and the Allies were closing in.
The Soviet Union, having liberated Poland, invaded eastern Germany with over two million men under the command of Georgy Zhukov.
Meanwhile, the Allies on the Western Front, led by the United States and Britain, made preparations for their own campaign, having at their disposal the largest invasion force ever assembled by mankind.
The Third Reich’s end now seemed inevitable.
But what would rise from Europe’s ashes?
Three men would meet to decide, with nothing less than the fate of the world in their hands.
An Urgency for Resolution
When President Franklin Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Marshall Josef Stalin met at the small coastal resort of Yalta, it was the second such official wartime conference between the so-called “Big Three”.
The leaders had previously met in Tehran in November 1943, to discuss how to end the war.
The Western Allies had committed to opening a second front against Germany in mid-1944, while Stalin had nominally agreed to join the war against Japan after Hitler’s defeat in Europe.
By the Fall of 1944, the Western Allies had liberated Paris and Brussels, but a series of setbacks had begun to worry Britain and America.
Targets like Rotterdam would remain under German occupation until the end of the war, while capturing the fiercely-defended but strategically crucial Antwerp proved to be a headache for Allied command.
The ambitious Operation Market Garden, the brainchild of British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, had ended in the decimation of British and Polish airborne units, and a major Wehrmacht counteroffensive—now known as the Battle of the Bulge—was a decisive yet immensely costly conflict for the Allies.
Meanwhile, the Soviets had made great gains in the east.
After catastrophic defeats in 1941 and 1942, they had secured two crushing victories 1943, obliterating the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad and then dealing a fatal blow to Hitler’s military capabilities at Kursk.
By the following year, all of the USSR had been liberated, and Soviet troops began their march towards Berlin.
By January, Warsaw, Budapest, Krakow, and Lodz had all been abandoned by the Germans. The Red Army was now just 40 miles from the capital of the once mighty Third Reich.
After the struggles of the Allied advance in the west, Soviet gains in the east were met with enthusiasm and relief by US and British officials, but rumors swirled in Washington of a possible peace deal between Stalin and Hitler.
The Soviets were sweeping all before them, and appeared to be in a good position to end the war themselves, without the aid of the Allies.
If Britain and America were to have a part in the futures of Central and Eastern Europe, the administration of post-war Germany, Poland, and plans for a successor to the failed League of Nations, then they had to act quickly and decisively when the three Allied leaders met again.
Deciding the Location
Before travelling to Yalta, Roosevelt and Churchill, under top secret arrangements, met on the Mediterranean island of Malta.
Roosevelt, who had just been re-elected, was in ill-health. He wore full-leg braces to his inauguration and had difficulty standing and walking; his whole body shook as he took to deliver his podium address with the aid of his eldest son, James.
James would later tell him he “looked like Hell.”
Churchill had arrived in Malta’s capital, Valetta, with tragedy in his wake and thankful to still be alive. In adverse conditions, one of the three planes in his party overshot the small island and crashed, killing most of its passengers, including several high-ranking officials.
The two leaders, accompanied by their daughters, Anna and Sarah, lunched and conversed at great length while they were there—their complex relationship was rooted in respect and admiration in equal measure, though it meant more to Churchill than his counterpart.
The remaining third of the Big Three, Stalin, would naturally be making his own way to Yalta.
Getting “Uncle Joe”, as he had been nicknamed by the Americans, to agree to a meeting had been a difficult negotiation in and of itself.
Churchill had first muted a meeting between the three leaders in July 1944, writing to Roosevelt that he believed Casablanca, Rome, or Tehran would make suitable candidates for an August ’44 summit.
The idea found favour with the president, but with a counter proposal that it take place in September in Scotland. They wrote to Stalin, who declined. Major Red Army offensives and no inclination to meet on foreign territory prompted him to remain in Moscow for the time being.
Stalin’s want was for greater bargaining power before meeting with the Western leaders—he would be in a far stronger position to negotiate for territory in Europe after the Soviets defeated Germany.
Roosevelt and Churchill continued to press, suggesting Alaska as a potential destination, and the prime minister had even travelled to Moscow to conduct talks with Marshall Stalin personally.
His legendary powers of persuasion paid off—on Churchill’s last day in the Russian capital, Stalin wrote to Roosevelt, agreeing to a summit and suggesting a location and time; a Black Sea port in November ’44.
The president was uneasy about the proposed location—in Soviet territory far away from home and an arduous journey made all the more difficult by his failing health.
He suggested 10 alternatives: Athens, Piraeus, Salonika, Jerusalem, Istanbul, Rome, Alexandria, Cyprus, Malta, and the French Riviera.
Furthermore, Roosevelt was keen to move the date until after his inauguration—a further postponement didn’t bother Stalin; time was in his favour, and not Roosevelt’s.
Roosevelt favored the Crimea, while Stalin’s preference was Odessa. Churchill was never enamoured by the Crimea, but, unwilling to disrupt proceedings any further, was accommodating to both his counterparts. On hearing of the president’s decision, Stalin’s foreign minster, Molotov, pressed for Odessa, but Roosevelt had made up his mind and on this he would remain firm; the small coastal town of Yalta was confirmed as the meeting place.
Churchill, never a man short of words, wrote to Roosevelt and coined Operation Argonaut as a codename for the summit—evoking the legendary Greek heroes and their quest to find the Golden Fleece.
Roosevelt responded in kind: “Your suggestion of Argonaut is welcome,” he said. “You and I are direct descendants.”
From Malta to Yalta
“No more let us falter. From Malta to Yalta. Let nobody alter.” – Churchill
Much to the chagrin of Churchill and the British delegation, Roosevelt was uninterested and unwilling to discuss any approaches of a tactical nature as to how the British and Americans would handle the Russian delegation at Yalta.
Anthony Eden, Churchill’s foreign minister and a future prime minister, was concerned about the lack of coordination, saying that they “were going into a decisive conference and had so far neither agreed what we would discuss nor how to handle matters with a Bear who would certainly know his mind … the President was so unpredictable that the Prime Minister and I became uneasy at this void.”
Roosevelt instead spent his time on Yalta sightseeing, determined not to come across to Stalin as though he and Churchill were colluding against the Soviet leader before the crucial meeting—he would do nothing that might prompt any suspicion.
In any event, the British and Americans were far apart in a number of areas that a pre-conference meeting may have done little to help.
Churchill’s main priority was assuring that no one power could be dominant in Europe. This meant curtailing Germany’s strength, while reinforcing French and Polish aspirations in order to maintain a balance of power on the Continent.
The Americans had little interest in the politics of Europe, and they viewed Churchill’s Conservative government and its imperial leanings with suspicion.
Their priorities were centred around the defeat of Germany and Japan—all other goals were secondary. Most importantly, Roosevelt had succeeded in not committing to any British demands, meaning he could pursue any strategy of his choice.
On February 2nd, at 11.30pm, the British and Americans began leaving Malta, their planes taking off in 10-minute intervals.
The delegations had departed, the stage was set. Yalta, and Stalin, awaited.
Arriving in Yalta
“If we had spent ten years in our research, we could not have found a worse place in the world than Yalta.” – Winston Churchill
Safely landed, as the two leaders’ cavalcades snaked their way to Yalta, Soviet troops, many of whom were women, lined the route, performing Russian salutes to the passing convoys.
On either side, the rolling hills of countryside were adorned with burnt-out tanks, buildings reduced to rubble, and destroyed German freight trains—the remnants of the Nazi retreat from the Crimea.
Roosevelt was so stirred by the scenes of Nazi devastation that during his first meeting with Stalin, he told him he was “more bloodthirsty in regard to the Germans than he had been a year ago.”
The convoy rumbled on, at 20 miles per hour, for the six-hour journey to Yalta. There was just one stopover for a surprisingly lavish lunch, setup in advance by Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov, featuring vodkas, wines, caviar, fish, bread, and everything else to be expected for a quick lunch by the most powerful men on the planet.
The president stopped only to use the restrooms, with his daughter Anna insisting they eat sandwiches on the road instead. British delegation chose to tuck in, and Churchill himself was said to be in fine spirits.
On arrival, three palaces awaited each delegation: Livadia Palace for the Americans, Voronstov Palace for the British, and Yusupov Palace for the Soviets. Each one, damaged to some degree by the Germans, was renovated and prepared by none other than Lavrentiy Beria, chief of the Soviet secret police, the NKVD.
After a cold drive, the delegations were welcomed to their palaces with roaring fireplaces, cuisine, and an abundance of alcohol. It was time to get some rest and prepare for the Yalta Conference.
German Military Situation
“Churchill is the kind who, if you don’t watch him, will slip a kopeck out of your pocket. Yes, a kopeck out of your pocket!” – Josef Stalin
The Yalta Conference began at 5pm on February 4th in the ballroom of Livadia Palace. Livadia had been picked on account of catering to the president’s health, which had deteriorated to the point that he was now confined almost exclusively to a wheelchair.
He had been among the first to arrive, helped out of his wheelchair and to the table—cameramen and other press representatives were engaging in an unspoken rule: do not take any photographs of the president that might reveal his true incapacities to the world.
Others gathered in the ballroom. The large round table at which the plenaries would take place offered equal space to each delegation.
The pre-planned agenda item for discussion on the first day was the military situation regarding Germany.
The leaders sat at the table, along with their highest ranking military commanders, save for the Russians, whose generals were at the time coordinating large scale assaults on the Eastern front.
The first day was unique in that for every other session, the room would be dominated instead by political figures.
Stalin, the host, rose to his feet to open the occasion, only to ask Roosevelt to start proceedings. The president accepted with modesty, positioning himself as the unofficial chair of the forthcoming sessions.
He would use this power to influence the agenda and act as a would-be arbiter between Stalin and Churchill.
Unbeknownst to the other Allied leaders, Stalin’s extensive network of spies had already brought him extremely valuable information, detailing Roosevelt’s and Churchill’s negotiating strategies; their goals; their disagreements; and their intentions.
The military situation, and the capturing of Berlin, was of paramount importance.
General Antonov was first in giving his report on the Red Army’s position. The Soviets had advanced quickly during their winter offensive, destroying 45 German divisions and capturing 100,000 men.
The First Belarusian Front under Marshal Zhukov had established bridgeheads on the west bank of the River Oder, and were within striking distance of the Nazi capital, but his left and right flanks were exposed to counterattacks, making a coordinated push troublesome.
The question Stalin wanted answered was whether to push on, or to remain and shore up their territorial gains, a question that he and his commanders were already regularly debating long into the night.
General Marshall for the Western Allies was next to outline the situation on the Western Front.
The Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes was over and the Germans had retreated, allowing the Allies to stabilize the line to its original position.
He declared that there would be no major offensive or crossing of the Rhine until the beginning of March.
Western leaders were impressed by Marshall’s report, the Soviets—less so. In comparison to the Red Army’s gains, they felt Allied advances in the West paled.
But Marshall had convinced Stalin of one thing: Britain and America were serious about launching a major offensive in March when resources suited them. He even dropped his requests that they attack the heavily industrial Ruhr region or redistribute troops from Italy to the northern coast of the Adriatic.
He phoned Zhukov and told him to shore up positions along the Oder—Berlin would wait.
What was clear to everyone present was that the Soviets would inevitably take the capital—it was a matter of when, not if. Antonov and other commanders had no hesitations in making clear their desire to take Berlin immediately.
The delegations had had an opportunity to judge the abilities of the three leaders. FDR was notably sickly. Lord Moran noted that after the session, “Everyone seemed to agree that the president had gone to bits physically … He intervened very little in the discussions, sitting with his mouth open.”
Churchill, meanwhile, was as energetic as ever, presenting American-British positions and plunging without recourse into long, reasoned, arguments; typical displays of his famed rhetorical prowess—much to the displeasure of his own officials, including Eden. “He liked to talk. He did not like to listen, and seldom let pass his turn to speak.”
Stalin, in many ways a polar opposite to Churchill, was unmoved. While Stalin hadn’t got his wish for an Allied promise of a major February offensive on the Western Front, he found enormous success on the first day of proceedings.
He had found a way to dominate the plenary with few words, while neither hindering Western efforts nor aggrandizing Soviet gains. His tactical nous and military acumen had shown him to be leagues above his counterparts, and many of the Western delegations left the session impressed by the Soviet leader
And it wasn’t just the delegations, either; Stalin’s popularity soared in the West during the Yalta Conference.
The next day, on February 5, he would feature on the cover of Time magazine—a leader who appeared to be laying waste to every Nazi obstacle before him.
Dismemberment, Occupation Zones, Reparations
“Last week, as Stalin’s armies thundered into the eastern Reich, the pendulum was swinging back to rosy optimism. Perhaps once more it is swinging too far.” – Time magazine
At the start of the second day, Roosevelt found himself in an uncomfortable position. He had had little impact on the first day, and his willingness to arbitrate discussions between Churchill and Stalin had given the impression of a moderator rather than a negotiator.
But today would be different. Today he would look to turn his role into something more assertive and substantive.
Top of the agenda for the Allies was how post-war Germany would look, and French involvement in occupied Germany.
Stalin was far more interested in the dismemberment of Germany. He wanted assurances that the principle of dismemberment—splitting Germany into several smaller states—would be upheld by the Western leaders. If possible, he wanted details on how it would be split up.
He was extremely concerned that a unified Germany would threaten his dominion in Eastern Europe.
Roosevelt had previously in Tehran noted his preference for Germany to be divided into five states, while Churchill insisted primarily on Prussia—which he considered to be the warmongering heart of Germany—to be separated.
Churchill had an additional problem at home, where his cabinet was split on the issue, with some ministers concerned that German dismemberment would lead to resistance and more allocation of British resources to the continent they could ill-afford. With an election coming later in the year, Churchill had become cautious of the dismemberment plan.
Roosevelt had similarly got cold feet after being enthusiastic before. Public opinion was dicey, and he disassociated himself from such plans due to opposition from the State Department. Just as with British resources, partitioning Germany would require American troops on European soil for years, and US public opinion was not forthcoming to such a proposition.
Stalin, dissatisfied with their positions on dismemberment, demanded they state their final positions here and now and asked whether the principle of this course of action could be included as a clause in the terms of Germany’s unconditional surrender.
Churchill refused, and Roosevelt saw another opportunity to step in between them, prompting a compromise to agree on the principle of dismemberment, while leaving the details to be worked out at a later point with foreign ministers. By acknowledging that Germany had to be split apart, but avoiding going into details, the three leaders had found common ground.
The second item on the agenda was the occupation zones in Germany after their surrender.
As Churchill saw it, it was essential that France remain a strong power in Continental Europe in order to keep the balance of power—he was certain that the French army had to be built back up to full capacity in case of future German aggression. Just as Stalin would have the buffer of Poland in the east, Churchill was determined to have France as a buffer in the west.
After forming an alliance with General Charles De Gaulle in 1940 and supporting his efforts with the Free French, the British prime minister was sure he had the man for the job.
The Americans were unconvinced initially, attempting to form relations with the puppet Vichy government and then reaching out to De Gaulle’s rival, General Henri Giraud; but they eventually came around to the British plan and backed De Gaulle.
De Gaulle was a First World War veteran who had distinguished himself as an advisor in the Soviet-Polish war of 1919-21—for his services he received a Polish military decoration. He fought for the mechanization and modernization of the French army, and during the Battle of France he organized a rare successful counterattack against the advancing Germans. He became president of the French provisional government after leading the Free French from London and Algeria, and was fierce in his defence of French sovereignty.
De Gaulle was brash, combative, and a nuisance to both the Americans and the British, both of whom found his obtuse attitude difficult to work with. Nonetheless, there was no other option; he was the man to re-democratize France after the war, and the Western Allies knew it. When Harry Hopkins, FDR’s closest advisor at the time, met with De Gaulle for talks, the Frenchman told him bluntly that America hadn’t stood by in 1920 or in 1940, and only helped them now begrudgingly.
Despite the animosity between De Gaulle and the Allies, the US was keen to support the British effort to re-establish France as a major power, which had already been pushed forward by Churchill managing to include the French in European Advisory Commission—established to make recommendations on the shape of post-war Europe—and the Security Council of the soon-to-be-created United Nations.
All of this was problematic for Stalin. He hated De Gaulle, and hated that France capitulated so early to the Nazis in 1940. As far as he was concerned, the French surrender allowed Hitler the opportunity to invade the Soviet Union.
He didn’t think that De Gaulle, who at most could muster three divisions, should be allowed such a prominent seat at the table when so many millions of Soviets had perished in the war.
When the prospect of a French occupation zone was put to Stalin, he balked. “The President thinks France should have a zone of occupation? For what reason?” To him, it was an act of kindness, and not one that had any resonance with him.
Churchill reassured the Soviets that the French zone would be carved out from the American and British zones, and Roosevelt took everyone by surprise when he announced that US troops would be stationed in Germany for no longer than two years.
Stalin agreed under the proviso that France not be allowed any influence of the control machinery for Germany. Roosevelt’s intervention had assured Stalin that he wouldn’t be ganged up on in Europe by three capitalist powers for decades to come.
The final item on the agenda was German reparations.
Stalin considered the French involvement question of secondary importance—reparations, however, were a primary objective; he wanted payback.
The Soviets were determined to reap what they regarded as their rightful spoils of war following the Nazi devastation of the USSR. Though they had estimated the costs of German aggression to be $50 billion, they had yet to agree on a figure to demand. They were undecided about whether to ask for their desired—and more reasonable sum—of $5 or $10 billion.
When one of his advisors leaned in to ask him which sum he wanted, Stalin shot back, “10!”. They also requested that of the German industrial equipment, which was to be dismantled and distributed among the Allies, the Soviets should receive 80%.
The man who had drawn up the report outlining Soviet demands was Ivan Maisky.
Like many of the Soviet leadership, Maisky was not an ethnic Russian, but he differed from them in many other ways. He was highly educated, well-spoken, and fluent in French and English—traits that would typically warrant suspicion in Stalin’s Russia. Worst of all, he had formerly been a member of the rival Menshevik faction before joining the Bolsheviks in the early 1920s.
But in spite of his past, Maisky was an enormously useful asset in the Soviet’s bid for reparations. He presented the Russian demands in English to Churchill and Roosevelt, whose delegations were impressed by his eloquence, assuredness, and conviction.
He demanded that the reparations be allocated to nations depending on two considerations: the contribution made to victory over Germany, and the damages caused by German aggression—both of which heavily favoured the Soviets.
The $10 billion figure quoted by Maisky was almost immediately quashed by Churchill, who told the conference that the winners of the First World War had secured only £1 billion from Germany—all of which was loaned to them by the United States.
The British, with the devastation of interwar Germany firmly in mind, were keen to avoid crippling reparations again. They feared that they’d be the ones picking up the slack should the burden of war debts fall excessively on German citizens.
Churchill closed his remarks with a clumsy metaphor: “If you want the horse to pull your wagon, you have to give him some hay.”
Stalin, aggravated, hit back: “Care should be taken to see that the horse does not turn around and kick you.”
Both leaders were approaching the situation with completely opposing mindsets. Churchill was wary about weakening the Germans, and worried that they’d resort to desperation, just as they had after the First World War.
Stalin, on the other hand, was dumbfounded.
Russia had been almost annihilated, come back from the brink, and had spent incalculable resources on defeating the Nazis. He wasn’t about to give them an easy ride when the war had concluded, he believed he was owed.
Again, Roosevelt was the compromise figure between them.
When President Wilson was negotiating for reparations after the First World War, he had promised Congress not to seek punitive damages, nor annexations, while the British delegation at the time under Prime Minister David Lloyd George wanted severe reparations from Germany as punishment for their role in the Great War—not unlike the Soviet position now.
At Yalta, it was the British who were opposed to severe reparations, and Roosevelt had nothing keeping him from advocating a tough stance on Germany. While the American delegation wasn’t interested in reparations for themselves, they sympathized with the Soviets, and were accommodating of their demands, but were opposed to overly zealous monetary reparations.
Roosevelt told the delegates that Americans didn’t want German money, nor the German people to starve, but he saw no reason why German citizens should be better off than their Soviet counterparts.
Indeed, as the Red Army advanced through eastern Germany, they were shocked to find that Germans had a standard of living far higher than their own. That Germany, the aggressors, could be let off without substantial reparations having wrought so much destruction would be difficult for the Allies to countenance with the Soviet position.
He had appeared to take the Stalin’s side again, who was quick to start outlining limitations on who could receive reparations, singling out France for exclusion, owing to its lack of contribution.
Churchill protested strongly, and Stalin was stumped by British resistance to his reparation proposal. He would later speak to his advisors, including Maisky, to reduce Soviet demands, fearful of antagonizing the Allies too much.
By the time the meeting ended, no agreement had been reached on the final figure for reparations. Stalin had hoped that by making earlier concessions on dismemberment and a French occupation zone, the Western Allies would give him room to meet his demands for reparations. He was wrong, and the session ended with him getting little of what he sought.
The second day was a disaster for Stalin.
The United Nations
“We must spell the end of unilateral action, the exclusive alliances, the spheres of influence, the balances of power, and all other expedients that have been tried for centuries—and have always failed.” – Franklin Roosevelt
When the League of Nations convened for its first meeting in Geneva in 1920, it was intended as a power-sharing forum that would provide peace for decades to come.
President Wilson, who had helped create the League, was unable to overcome Republican opposition at home, and the United States never joined.
He would watch from afar as his own creation tore itself apart; unable to enforce its resolutions and crippled by an inability to establish the unanimity its covenant had enshrined at its core.
Germany and Japan left in 1933, and Italy followed in 1937. The League couldn’t restrain any of them, and it was universally blamed for its inability to stop the war.
By the time of Yalta, it had been on an effective hiatus for six years—its dissolution was an inevitability.
But what would rise out of its ashes? How would the Allies learn from the League’s mistakes? And what would Stalin have to say about any potential successor?
Roosevelt was determined that the new organization be centred on his preferred philosophy of regional responsibility of the so-called four policemen—the United States, Britain, Russia, and China. Each nation would act as the guardian of this respective regions and be charged with security responsibilities.
The “four policemen” strategy was eventually dropped, but found a de facto presence in the founding of the Security Council, one of the UN’s principal organs featuring those same four powers as permanent members; each with the exclusive power of veto.
Though most of the outline of the UN had been agreed at the Dunbarton Oaks Conference the previous year, Stalin still had reservations about the Security Council.
With Britain pushing for French membership and the Americans pushing for China and Brazil to be members, the Soviet Mashal was enormously concerned the council was being stacked against him.
While the principle of unanimity, which had been the chief thorn-in-the-side of the League, was got rid of for the General Assembly, it would remain present in the Security Council.
This meant that while Security Council resolutions could be vetoed by the great powers, resolutions by the General Assembly would be agreed upon without the agreement of all, including those nations about which they were regarding.
Roosevelt wanted UN resolutions to not even feature the countries about which they would made—in effect locking them out of the room.
For Stalin, this would be unacceptable. The prospect of not having a say should an Eastern European country raise an issue in the UN would simply not fly.
“It’s ridiculous to believe that Albania would have an equal voice to the three great powers who won the war,” he said.
Churchill was similarly unconvinced, worried about the potential of disturbance from British colonies about which the British government would not be able to intervene.
The prospect of a veto quelled his concerns for the most part, and attempted to bring Stalin around; but Stalin was more fiercely opposed.
He considered Churchill naïve to think that a mere veto would be enough to stop a resolution. He thought the prime minister was wrong to think that China would be content with just a discussion of Hong Kong’s sovereignty, or that Egypt would be satisfied with simply voicing grievances about the Suez Canal.
They would always want more, and it would be a mistake to give them an inch.
Stalin was convinced that Roosevelt and Churchill were ganging up on him. He mocked Churchill’s rhetoric about the danger of being seen to create an organization whereby the three great powers held absolute power.
Roosevelt attempted to intervene and reassure the Soviet leader; “Full and friendly discussion in the Council would in no sense promote disunity, but on the contrary, would serve to demonstrate the confidence the great powers had in each other and the justice of their policies.”
Stalin was again unmoved, and suggested another discussion the next day.
It was a disaster for the Americans and the British. Not only had they alienated the Soviets about their plans for the Security Council, but Stalin came away from the plenary meeting utterly sure that they were plotting against him.
Race to the Finish
February 7th was a momentous day in history. It was the day the United Nations would live, or be setback.
The Americans were desperate—it would be a public relations nightmare if they came away from Yalta with no agreement on the proposed new peace organization.
Just minutes before the plenary was due to start, Churchill briefly sat on the edge of a chair next to Roosevelt and Secretary of State Edward Stettinius Jr.
“Stalin will accept the agreement,” he said.
The Americans were confused. Did Churchill know something about Soviet intentions? Was it a wish said aloud?
After initial talk about Poland, Stalin suggested they change the topic, perhaps to the United Nations. The British and American delegates agreed readily.
The Marshall gestured to Foreign Minister Molotov to speak: “After hearing Mr Stettinius’ report, and Mr Churchill’s remarks,” he said, “the Soviet government felt that these proposals fully guaranteed the unity of the great powers in the matter of the preservation of peace.”
In short, the Soviets had come around and accepted the UN voting proposals in full, with no additional amendments or comments.
Sighs of relief exuded from the delegates. Ivan Maisky noted in his diary of there were “smiles on many lips” of the Americans and British. Roosevelt had won a great victory, made greater by the sharp reversal of fortunes from the stalemate of the previous evening.
There was, however, one final concern to be put to bed—that of potential invitations for the UN being issued to Soviet republics.
At the Dunbarton Oaks Conference, it had been agreed that British dominions would be allowed entry to the UN, effectively giving the British Empire six votes in the General Assembly.
Not to be outdone, the Americans had been advocating for six Latin American countries within their sphere of influence to be granted admission. They additionally sought the inclusion of Ireland and Egypt, both of whom were sympathetic to the Western Allies.
This meant that the UK and the US had a lot of backing in both the General Assembly and the Security Council.
The Soviets were displeased, and once again felt as though they were being ganged-up on.
In response, they argued for the inclusion of the 16 Soviet republics, which they claimed were as independent as the British dominions. In reality, the republics were not independent, and Russia’s foreign ministers knew that their sovereignty was an issue the Allies would not ignore.
By the time they came to the Yalta Conference, and in acknowledgement of the issue, the Soviets had reduced their demands to just two republics, Ukraine and Belarus.
The Americans and British were holding firm: one vote for the Soviet Union.
To the shock of everyone, Churchill intervened—on the side of Russia.
A British note-taker recorded his intervention thus: “His heart went out to mighty Russia, bleeding from her wounds, but beating down the tyrants in her path. He recognized that a nation of 180 million might well look with a questioning eye at the constitutional arrangements of the British Commonwealth which resulted in our having more than one voice in the Assembly.”
The Americans were dumbfounded—which side was Churchill on? They grew frustrated at his long, often emotional rhetoric, which then had to be translated into Russian for the Soviet delegation. Even his own delegation was annoyed.
“Silly old man,” British diplomat Alec Cadogan wrote. “Without a word of warning to Anthony [Eden] or me, he plunged into a long harangue about World Organization, knowing nothing whatever of what he was talking about and making complete nonsense of the whole thing.”
Churchill had come to consider the Russian proposal of two republics to be fair, particularly after climbing down from the previous demand of 16. His intervention had been coming, and Churchill and Roosevelt were not on the best of terms in any case.
In short, Churchill’s upstaging of the president had been the first sign of tensions that had been bubbling under the surface for a while.
Frustrated that Roosevelt refused to strategize at Malta, the prime minister had felt that since the Tehran Conference the president had been sidelining him in favour of Stalin. Churchill found himself distanced from the man he valued as a partner and still admired enormously.
The times of friendly relations between the two leaders had cooled dramatically.
This was enough for Stalin. He pounced, taking the opportunity to lobby Roosevelt for the two inclusions, claiming the Soviet government would only accept membership of the UN if they were given the additional votes.
There was a growing mood in the American delegation that they should give in to Stalin’s request.
Harriman recalled later: “We all realized that Stalin felt outnumbered and relieved he reduced his demand from sixteen to two.” The question of just how independent the republics were would be shelved.
Roosevelt had been boxed in. The American delegation had come to the Yalta Conference with a clear viewpoint on votes in the General Assembly: one vote for one nation.
Now, he had himself been cornered by Churchill and Stalin into accepting three votes for the USSR.
The US delegation was torn. Harry Hopkins complained of the president’s approach: “He seems to have no mind of his own. He came determined to oppose any country having more than one vote, but when the prime minister came out strongly in favor of Stalin’s proposal, he said he too would support Stalin.”
Roosevelt did find sympathy among some, however. Stettinius felt that the president’s flexibility was proof that he was in good shape, physically and mentally—an agent of compromise willing to do what it takes in the name of world peace.
The proposal was accepted, Stalin had got his way.
Not the 16 republics initially demanded, but three votes instead of one—a victory for the Soviet premier.
“I knew at Yalta of the immense pressure put on the President by our military leaders to bring Russia into the Far Eastern war.” – Edward Stettinius Jr.
Rain had been forecast during the conference, but instead, the sun shone unexpectedly bright as it rose over the Black Sea on the morning of February 7th.
The British delegation took the opportunity to take a morning trip to nearby Sevastopol, ostensibly to see where the Red Army had liberated the Nazi-occupied city the year before.
But they had other ideas. 100 years previously, Sevastopol had been the site of the Battle of Balaclava, where a combined British, French, and Turkish force fought the Russian Empire during the Crimean War.
The disastrous Charge of the Light Brigade, one of Britain’s most calamitous military actions, was the focus of much attention, particularly Field Marshal Alan Brooke, who couldn’t help but draw comparisons between the imperial struggles of the 19th century and the Soviet-German slaughterhouse of the current Eastern front.
“A grave beside a wrecked aeroplane here, a broken-down tank there, rows upon rows of shell and bomb craters, twisted iron cheveaux-de-frise, tangled basket wire, odd graves, and the usual rubbish of a battlefield. It is very strange how history can repeat itself under a different guise.”
While the British were taking in some sightseeing, the Americans were back in Yalta, more desperate than ever.
Though progress had been made on Germany and the UN, they were still yet to make any headway on their primary objective—Soviet participation in the Pacific War against Japan.
If the battle on the Western front to reclaim continental Europe had been bloody, an operation to take the Japanese mainland would be equally bloody, if not more so. Strategists estimated that American casualties could number as high as 350,000 by the time they took Tokyo. They needed Russian support.
After attempting to get the matter onto the agenda to no avail for the first three days, they had finally convinced the Soviets into discussing the matter on the fourth day.
Stalin had previously told Roosevelt and Churchill at the Tehran Conference in 1943 of his commitment to the transferring Red Army troops to the Pacific theater once Europe was won.
There was a catch, however.
In 1905, Russia had catastrophically lost a war against Japan in a fight over their respective imperial ambitions. The Treaty of Portsmouth, mediated by President Theodore Roosevelt, gave the strategically important southern portion of Sakhalin to the Japanese, which the Russians had previously traded the Kurile Islands for in 1875.
Now, Stalin wanted them both in return for Soviet troops in the Pacific. Marshal Stalin would have to negotiate with a relative of the man responsible to for ensuring they became Japanese processions in the first place.
Once again, however, Roosevelt found himself fighting on two fronts. While his military commanders were advocating the earliest Soviet entry possible, the State Department argued that under no circumstances should there be territorial concessions given to Stalin.
By mistake, the State Department’s line had failed to make it into the Yalta briefing notes, meaning the president was totally unaware of their stance. He was, however, keen to avoid giving in to an additional Soviet demand—that of the status of Mongolia, for which he wanted to consult the Chinese first before allowing the Russians a buffer state on their border.
The Soviets wouldn’t agree to anything until their political demands were met, and so again the Americans were in a deadlock they couldn’t afford to have.
Stalin decided to meet with Roosevelt in his study to talk the matter over in private. “If these conditions are not met,’ he said, “it would be difficult to explain to the Soviet people why Russia is entering the war against Japan.”
Roosevelt was rattled.
He told Stalin again that he had not yet had a chance to talk to the Chinese about Russian presence in Mongolia, though he had privately resigned to the other concessions.
The president could not afford to lose Soviet military assistance, but couldn’t be seen to be responsible for creating a Soviet sphere of influence in the Far East—he was cornered.
Stalin, noting Roosevelt’s discomfort, suggested what was already swirling in his head—a secret pact.
Russian demands to extend their sphere of influencer over Mongolia would be met, and the Chinese wouldn’t be told until 25 Red Army divisions had been moved to the Far East.
Roosevelt simply responded, “This could be done.”
Stalin had won a great victory. Roosevelt, meanwhile, had got what he needed, the Soviets were signed up to Pacific War, but the cost was high—it was one thing to give territories from their common enemy, Japan, but it was wholly another to give territories from their common ally, China.
Poland and Eastern Europe
“We shall not always have ideal answers.” – Franklin Roosevelt
The issue of Poland had been the most difficult geopolitical situation to resolve at Yalta.
For Churchill and the British delegation, the independence of Poland was crucial.
Britain had declared war after Poland was invaded by Germany and Russia, and its government was in London, awaiting a return to Warsaw. Achieving Polish freedom would be a symbol of finality after five-and-a-half years of bloodshed.
The American delegation also was keen to guarantee Poland’s independence, but their interests were distinct—they wanted to see how willing the Soviets would be to grant freedom to the Eastern European countries they had liberated.
Stalin had no interest in reinstating a capitalist government on the Soviet Union’s border.
After having fought so hard pushing Germany back, he was determined that Poland should be a communist ally to the USSR, and, as the premier force in the region, was in a strong position to do so.
The Americans, with their two main objectives wrapped up, had grown weary of the Polish question, and were looking to cede to Stalin’s wishes. They drew up a proposal advocating for the establishment of a “fully representative government”—meaning comprised of members of the British-sponsored and Soviet-sponsored Polish governments.
Molotov, keen to get an agreement accepted, presented what he claimed were minor amendments to the proposal, dropping the words “fully representative”, and attempting to move the discussion onto other matters.
Churchill was steadfast in opposition, interrupting Molotov: “I do not feel we should hurry away from the Crimea leaving these vital problems unresolved or reach hasty decisions.”
Roosevelt and Stalin said nothing.
The prime minister could see the writing on the wall—there would be no representative Polish government.
Instead he would turn his attention to free elections, asking Stalin if Stanisław Mikołajczyk, the Polish prime minister in exile, would be permitted to organize and participate in the forthcoming election. The Soviet premier indicated he would.
He then asked if foreign observers would be allowed in for the election, Stalin was non-committal.
Roosevelt spoke up, throwing his support behind Churchill. “I want this election in Poland to be the first one beyond question. It should be like Caesar’s wife. I did not know her but they said she was pure.”
Stalin responded quickly, “They said that about her but in fact she had her sins.”
The message was clear: the Western Allies should not expect free and fair elections in post-war Poland.
The very next day, Roosevelt dropped his support in explicitly demanding observers.
The British were upset. Anthony Eden wrote a note and passed it to Churchill, “Americans gave us no warning and I don’t propose to agree to their action.”
Churchill agreed; he would fight this battle alone.
As far as the president was concerned, the conference was nearing its end, they were almost at the finish line and the American delegation was anxious to reach an agreement with all the Allies on the matter.
“We did not wish to prevent a Polish settlement by insisting on the last sentence of our formula”, he said, referring to their proposal. “If this statement irritates the Russians, we can drop it, but they must understand our firm determination that the ambassadors will observe and report on the elections in any case.”
The British felt that any chance of a free Poland was slipping away from them.
Churchill, resolved to make a decisive move, went to see Stalin at his villa for a private meeting—if anything was to be achieved, it would be through him.
He arrived with Eden by his side in a combative mood, saying to Stalin, “I have come to discuss a highly unpleasant matter.” Eden had just discovered the Soviets were angling for more demands, and Churchill looked to head them off and draw a line under the saga.
Stalin gave assurances that officials would be allowed into Poland and would not be interfered with, and Churchill agreed to drop references to them reporting on elections.
The prime minister had failed in his bid to protect Poland, the very reason Britain had entered the war, but given the Soviet dominance in Eastern Europe, his expectations were met.
Lord Moran, commenting on this realpolitik, noted in his diary, “It was plain at Moscow, last October, that Stalin means to make Poland a Cossack outpost of Russia, and I am sure he has not altered his intention here.”
Poland was Russia’s.
The rest of Eastern Europe was decided along much the same lines as Poland—Stalin agreed to allow free elections in the newly liberated territories of Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. In return, the Western Allies would recognize that Eastern Europe would fall within the Soviet sphere of influence.
In actuality, they had little choice but to concede to Marshal Stalin’s demands. Nonetheless, the final hurdles had been overcome; the conference was drawing to a close.
An Uncertain New World Order
“The president is behaving very badly; he won’t take any interest in what we are trying to do.” – Winston Churchill
On February 10th, the allied leaders would meet for the last time at Yalta.
The final supper would be held as the denouement of a conference that had lingering tensions.
Churchill was still upset at Roosevelt’s readiness to acquiesce to Stalin’s demands, so much so that he had skipped a pre-arranged meeting that day to instead see the Soviet leader.
Roosevelt had made clear his desire to leave the Crimea as soon as possible by suddenly announcing his delegation would be departing the very next day, much to the irritation of the British.
“As if the Conference isn’t so much more important than anything else,” Churchill’s daughter complained to Lord Moran.
The guests began arriving to the feast. Stalin, upon noticing an unattended purse, wouldn’t enter before it was removed—ever the paranoid premier.
Tensions didn’t just exist between the Western Allies, either.
Churchill and Stalin had clashed on a number of issues, notably reparations and Poland. Stalin at a previous dinner had toasted Britain’s monarch, George VI, while saying he was generally on the side of people, not kings.
Churchill tonight returned a slight of his own, proposing a toast to “His Majesty the King, the President of the United States, and President Kalinin of the USSR”—Russia’s head of state in name only.
Eventually, after food and drinks aplenty, the delegations began warming to each other somewhat, with Stalin and Roosevelt even offering Churchill advice on the upcoming parliamentary elections, about which Churchill expressed concern and would later go on to lose to his wartime deputy, Clement Atlee.
“Who could be a better leader than he who had won victory?” Stalin asked rhetorically, perplexed at the prime minister’s worries.
The evening saw them discuss other issues, like the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, and the rapport between the three leaders again began to encapsulate the so-called “spirit of Yalta”—the idea that the personalities and relationships between Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin uniquely positioned the trio as leaders to solve the world’s problems.
A Third Triumvirate for the 20th century.
After dinner, Churchill took them to his elaborate map room, where he proudly showed them where Canadian troops had reached the Rhine.
The Yalta Conference, and the war, was almost over.
“The agreement at Yalta followed in the unjust tradition of the Munich Agreement and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Once again, when powerful governments negotiated, the freedom of small nations was somehow expendable. ” – George W. Bush
When the Allies arrived at Yalta, there was a sense of trepidation among the delegations as to what might be achieved.
Sceptics like Alexander Cadogan of the British delegation were correct to assume that getting the three sides to come together in negotiation would be a mammoth task, as it so proved.
A few issues, like the military situation in Europe, were relatively simple to resolve, but most came down to long nights and bitter disagreements.
Stalin’s initial concerns about being cornered by the Western Allies were justified in the early stages of the Yalta Conference, only for Roosevelt to increasingly find himself siding with the Soviet leader, who used his age-old tactic of playing his enemies off against one another to strengthen his own position.
For the Russians, though, they fell well short of their aims on a number of issues. They agreed to founding the UN, but only with two additional votes instead of 16.
His desire for large reparations from Germany received a mighty pushback from Churchill, as did his plans to dismember Germany, and to prevent France from gaining influence on the world stage.
Stalin’s greatest success was assuring Soviet dominance in Eastern and Central Europe, which would soon fall behind the Iron Curtain.
Stalin’s success was Churchill’s failure.
Trying and failing in vain to make ground on the Polish question, the British delegation failed to ensure democracy in the Soviet-liberated territories, and had little choice but to surrender the cause—Poles, Czechs, and Slovaks would come to term this “the Western betrayal”.
Where Churchill did find success was in making sure France wasn’t sidelined in the post-war world. Determined that the old English foe should remain a great world power, he got France on the United Nations Security Council, as well as a German occupation zone.
For Roosevelt, the Conference met his expectations.
His cable to Stalin, immediately after its conclusion, read: “The far-reaching decisions we took at Yalta will hasten victory and the establishment of a firm foundation for lasting peace.”
He had got the establishment of the UN wrapped up and a commitment from the Soviets to fight the Japanese; he was less concerned about quarrels on continental Europe, and as such was more willing to let Stalin have his way at the expense of Churchill, but the American delegation’s main objectives had been achieved.
Delegates from the British and Soviet teams were quick to point out Roosevelt’s tired demeanor and ailing health, but he demonstrated his trademark ability to make deals and bring others to compromise, acting as a de facto mediator on many issues.
He wouldn’t, however, live to see the founding of the United Nations, passing away the very next month in April 1945.
Today, the Yalta Conference is remembered in polarizing terms.
For some, a crucial and necessary meeting that laid the foundations of peace that continues to this day.
For others, a shameful sell-out of smaller nations by the world’s foremost superpowers.
In truth, Yalta was somewhere in between.
It was, above all, a wartime conference during a time of unparalleled human devastation—its participants knew the stakes and knew they had to come away with something to show for it.
Nazi leaders were optimistic that the alliance between the West and the Soviets would break down, but following the agreements between the nations at Yalta they grew ever-more pessimistic of a fracture in their enemies’ resolve.
The emergence of the Eastern Bloc and the fall of China to the communists did much to overshadow Yalta’s achievements—Germany wasn’t paralyzed by reparations, France was invited back into the fold, as were the other great powers of the USSR and China, meaning for the first time in history there would be an effective opportunity for dialogue between the great nations.
Over the next decades and to the present day, the UN has been tested, as have relations between great powers, but to this day no two superpowers have directly fought each other since the Second World War.
The Yalta Conference was a stepping stone to peace, and a stepping stone to tensions that would help pave the way to the Cold War.
Its historical legacy is as monumental as the leaders who dictated it.