Yalta, a seaside resort on Russia's Black Sea Crimean coast, was the scene of the second and last wartime conference between the 'Big Three' Allied war leaders, Winston Churchill, Franklin D Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin. It was held between 4 and 11 February 1945 and was designed to decide on the final strategy of the war against Germany and Japan and settle the post-war future of Europe.
Roosevelt at Yalta
Since 1945, and especially during the Cold War, the agreements reached at Yalta have been the subject of subsequent criticism, especially in the United States. President Roosevelt, who died only two months after the conference, was accused by some of handing over Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe to Stalin and for allowing the Soviet Union to gain a foothold in the Far East against a promise of Russian intervention in the war against Japan.
Future Secretary of State James Byrnes, who was present at Yalta, recorded in his memoirs that, 'so far as I could see the President had made little preparation for the Conference'. Lord Moran, Churchill's doctor, thought that the President was 'a very sick man' with only a few months to live. Churchill was to complain to Moran that: 'The President is behaving very badly. He won't take any interest in what we are trying to do.'
But Churchill was also criticised for his seemingly passive acceptance of Soviet domination of Poland and Eastern Europe. In the House of Commons debate on Yalta, 21 Conservative MPs, including future Prime Minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home, tabled an amendment which regretted 'the transfer of the territory of an Ally to another power'. Junior minister George Strauss resigned in protest against the government's policy on Poland.
In the late 1970s, Churchill and Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden also came in for criticism when it became widely known that they had made a concession to Stalin that all former Soviet prisoners of war, including thousands who for whatever reason had changed sides and fought in German uniform, be forcibly repatriated. But again there were fears that if this was not agreed upon, then the Russians might prove highly obstructive when it came to repatriating Western prisoners of war the Red Army had liberated.
Churchill's effectiveness at Yalta was robustly defended by others, with Admiral William Leahy, Roosevelt's Chief of Staff, later writing that 'Churchill, I thought was at his best at Yalta', in fighting not only for Britain's interests, but also for those of France, Poland and other small powers.
At the time, and despite some disappointments not immediately made public, the results of the conference were generally seen as positive. Time magazine asserted that 'all doubts about the Big Three's ability to co-operate in peace as well as war seem now to have been swept away'. A verdict on which, at the time, James Byrnes agreed: 'That's how I felt about it. There is no doubt that the tide of Anglo-Soviet-American friendship had reached a new high'.
At Yalta Stalin agreed to collaborate in the establishment of the United Nations Organization, a project very dear to Roosevelt's heart. Reluctantly, and after a great deal of effort on the part of both Churchill and Eden, Stalin also agreed to France having an occupation zone in defeated Germany. With the atom bomb still untried and the prospect of heavy American, British and Australian casualties in an invasion of the Japanese home islands, the promise of Russian participation in the Far Eastern war was seen as a great coup.
Months later, on 8 August 1945, Russia did declare war on Japan as promised at Yalta, three months after the end of the war in Europe, on the day before the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. Later, during the Cold War, Soviet intervention in the war against Japan was almost invariably overlooked by Western historians, but it is now considered as one of the key factors in the Japanese decision to surrender, along with the dropping of the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The problem of Poland and Soviet relations
The problem of Poland's future was a special focus of the Yalta conference. The Russian frontier with Poland would be moved westwards to the Curzon Line, a boundary previously suggested in the aftermath of the First World War. As compensation, Poland's new western frontier with Germany was to be on the Oder-Neisse Line. Stalin agreed that free elections should be held in Poland as soon as possible. He also accepted Churchill's pleas that members of the Polish and Yugoslav governments-in-exile should be included in the new administrations of those countries. Russia also adhered to a 'Declaration on Liberated Europe' in which the 'Big Three' registered their desire for the establishment of democratic institutions in the countries that their forces had or were about to liberate from Nazi rule.
Charles 'Chip' Bohlen of the US State Department, who acted as FDR's Russian interpreter, believed that each of the 'Big Three' had achieved their major goals at Yalta, while recognising that, 'there was a sense of frustration and some bitterness in regard to Poland'. To American and British professional diplomats like Bohlen, the agreements reached at Yalta seemed on the surface to be 'realistic compromises between the various positions of each country'. Stalin had made a genuine concession in finally agreeing to a French zone in Germany, while Churchill and Roosevelt had given in a great deal on Poland. But even then, Bohlen thought, the plan as finally agreed upon might well have resulted in a genuinely democratic Polish government if it had been carried out.
Bohlen's State Department friend George Kennan was not so optimistic. In a memorandum written just before Yalta, Kennan had given a gloomy and prescient assessment of future Soviet relations with the West. In it he saw no hope of co-operation with Stalin in a post-war Europe, rather an 'unavoidable conflict arising between the Allied need for stable, independent nations in Europe and a Soviet push to the west'. Within a very short time Stalin was refusing to carry out his part of the bargain on Poland, disregarding the Declaration on Liberated Europe. And only a year and a month after Yalta, on 5 March 1946, Churchill made his famous 'Iron Curtain' speech in Fulton, Missouri.
The social side of Yalta
If the political and diplomatic atmosphere at the conference was sometimes fraught and heated, the social side was extremely cordial on both sides. Anthony Eden wrote later that, 'at Yalta the Russians seemed relaxed and, so far as we could judge, friendly'.
There were banquets at which innumerable toasts of vodka were drunk. At one Stalin described Roosevelt as 'the chief forger of the instruments which led to the mobilisation of the world against Hitler'. He called Churchill 'the man who is born once in a hundred years' and 'the bravest statesman in the world'. Eschewing vodka, the Prime Minister was described by one of his aides as 'drinking buckets of Caucasian champagne which would undermine the health of any ordinary man'. Roosevelt's declining health was evident to everyone present. Accompanied by his daughter, Anna, the 7,000 mile journey to Yalta had left the President sapped of energy.
Sir Alexander Cadogan, permanent head of the Foreign Office, wrote in his diary that 'Uncle Joe' Stalin was 'much the most impressive of the three men. He is very quiet and restrained…the President flapped about and the P.M. boomed, but Joe just sat there taking it all in and being rather amused. When he did chip in, he never used a superfluous word, and spoke very much to the point'. James Byrnes wrote in his memoir that the Soviet dictator was 'a very likeable person', while Churchill toasted him as 'the mighty leader of a mighty nation whose people had driven the tyrants from her soil'.
Yalta - a prophetic warning?
Amidst all the feasting, euphoria and the self-congratulation that Yalta, as the New York Herald Tribune wrote, 'produced another great proof of Allied unity, strength and power of decision', it was Stalin himself who rang a prophetic warning note. Replying to President Roosevelt's toast in which he hoped that the unity that had characterised the Grand Alliance against Hitler during the war would continue, the Soviet dictator replied:
'It is not so difficult to keep unity in time of war since there is a joint aim to defeat the common enemy, which is clear to everyone. The difficult task will come after the war when diverse interests will tend to divide the Allies. It is our duty to see that our relations in peacetime are as strong as they have been in war.'