The Yalta (Crimea) Conference was the second World War II meeting by the “Big Three,“ President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Premier Joseph Stalin, heads of the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union. The meeting took place for a week in the winter of February 1945 at the Livadia Palace at the Black Sea resort of Yalta in Crimea. Their ultimate agreements would change the course of history and lay the seeds of the Cold War and beyond, all the way to Putin and the Ukraine.
After their Tehran Conference in 1943, the three leaders promised to meet again before the war ended. The Soviet Premier Stalin refused to travel further than the Black Sea, so once again, Prime Minister Churchill and President Roosevelt had to take the long and exhausting plane trips to attend the Yalta summit. Stalin arrived by train from Moscow. According to American intelligence, all the rooms were bugged by the Soviet NKVD.
By February 1945, the end of World War II was finally in sight.
Both Nazi Germany and the Japanese Empire were on the retreat. The Yalta meeting was intended to discuss the re-establishment of all the war-torn nations of Europe, ravaged by the Axis powers. The Allies had successfully liberated France, Belgium and half of Italy. In the Pacific, General MacArthur had retaken the Philippines and was slowly ‘island hopping’ toward Japan. On the Eastern Front, the Soviet Red Army had crossed Poland and Ukraine, taken East Prussia, and were now a mere 50 miles from Berlin.
All three leaders came to the conference with an agenda for governing post-war Europe, and keeping peace on a post-world war Earth. Because Russia had beaten the Allies to Berlin, Stalin felt his position at the conference was strongest. According to the U.S. delegation, “It was not a question of what we would let the Russians do, but what we could get the Russians to do.”
Roosevelt and the U.S. desperately wanted Soviet support in the Pacific War against Japan, specifically for the planned invasion of Japan. The U.S. also wished for Soviet participation in the new United Nations to prevent future such wars. Wi Winston Churchill pressed for open trade, free elections and democratic governments in Eastern Europe (especially Poland). Stalin demanded a Soviet ‘sphere of influence’ in Eastern Europe, as a part of the USSR’s national security strategy against future aggression.
The first topic on the agenda was the future of Poland, and Stalin was quick to state his case:
“For the Russian people, the question of Poland is not only a question of honor, but also of security. Throughout history, Poland has been the corridor through which the enemy has passed into Russia. Poland is a question of life and death for Russia.”Soviet Premier Josef Stalin
Stalin said that the Soviet Union would help create a “mighty, independent Poland.” He made it clear that his demands regarding Poland were not negotiable. The Russians were to gain territory from eastern Poland, and Poland was to be compensated by extending its western border into Germany. Roosevelt and Churchill pushed for free elections in Poland, and Stalin grudgingly agreed. He had recently installed a Communist puppet government in Warsaw.
But the agreement on Poland was so elastic that the Russians could stretch it all the way from Moscow to Warsaw without ever breaking it. Roosevelt’s response to this comment was, “I know, but it is the best I can do for Poland, at this time.”
On the agenda for Roosevelt and the U.S. was to get the Soviets to enter the Pacific War against the Japanese Empire ASAP and join in the invasion of Japan later that year. The Manhattan Project had yet to provide a viable atomic bomb. As it turned out, Stalin did not need convincing. The Soviets had been humiliated by Japan and the loss of Manchuria during the Russo-Japanese War. The Soviets were keen on regaining those lost territories.
But President Roosevelt did not know this.
Stalin’s ‘poker face,’ hid his true objectives from Roosevelt – control over Eastern Europe. The President met Stalin’s price, and Soviet Union agreed to enter the Pacific war within 90 days of Germany’s surrender. He also got the Soviets to agree to join the new United Nations. However, this was on one condition: they be given one of 5 permanent memberships on the UN Security Council with veto power. This provided the Soviets with more control in world affairs and greatly weakening the power of the UN. Roosevelt nevertheless agreed.
Roosevelt and Churchill also got Stalin’s agreement to a Declaration of Liberated Europe. The Big Three agreed that all original European governments would be restored to the invaded countries and that all civilians would repatriated. Democracies would be established and all territories would hold free elections as early as possible.
“The establishment of order and the rebuilding of national economies must be achieved by enabling the liberated peoples to destroy the last vestiges of Nazism and fascism and to create democratic institutions of their own choice.”Declaration of Liberated Europe, 1945
Of course, by February 1945, Soviet armies were in already in control of Poland, and Stalin was installing a communist government there. The Big Three also agreed on the postwar division of Nazi Germany itself into four sectors, one each for the U.S., Britain, France and Soviet Union. The same was true for Berlin, which would lead to the Berlin Wall years later. Germany would undergo demilitarization and denazification. Nazi war criminals were to be found and put on trial. Overall, Roosevelt felt confident that Yalta had been successful and left in high spirits.
Yalta was the last trip of Roosevelt abroad. To many observers, including a keen Stalin, he appeared ill and wasted. Stalin essentially got everything he wanted, namely a significant sphere of influence in Easter Europe as a ‘buffer zone.’ Roosevelt and Churchill were willing to sacrifice the freedom of those small nations for the sake of stability. So Stalin also left Yalta very pleased with the overall results. Franklin Roosevelt died two months later in April 1945. Vice President Harry Truman took over. Winston Churchill was replaced as UK Prime Minister in July of the same year.
As it turned out, with the atomic bomb, the U.S. never needed Russia’s help with Japan. Post-World War II, Russia gained the southern half of the Sakhalin Islands and Kuriles from Japan, half of German East Prussia, and control of Finland. Roosevelt had let slip that the U.S. would not protest if the Soviet Union annexed the three Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) for reasons of ‘security.’ Or for that matter, if they established puppet governments.
Josef Stalin did exactly that.
It also became apparent that Stalin had no intentions of holding free elections in Poland. It would be 50 years, after the Solidarity Rebellion, before the Poles first held free elections. Stalin further broke the Yalta pledge by forcing Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia to construct Communist governments, instead of allowing free elections as promised. These countries fell behind the “Iron Curtain.”
The Yalta Conference is regarded by Eastern European countries as the “Western Betrayal.” Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia believed the Allied powers, despite promising democratic governments, allowed those smaller countries to be made Communist states, controlled by the Soviet Union. At the Yalta Conference, the Big Three sacrificed their freedom for the sake of post-war stability. Those concessions of Roosevelt and Churchill lead to the power struggle of the subsequent Cold War lasting 45 years through the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
What lessons does Yalta hold for us today? In the name of peace, the U.S. and UK accepted weak promises from a ruthless dictator on behalf of an ally. In exchange for what it needed in Germany and Japan, the U.S was essentially throwing up its hands as the Soviet Union imposed Communist rule on all of Eastern Europe. Immediate victory over Nazi Germany and Japan took priority, and the war-weary US was not willing to risk a subsequent showdown with Stalin over Poland.
Yalta still evokes powerful emotions to this day. For Poles, Hungarians, Lithuanians, and others, Yalta means an abandonment of the US, the UK and their core values. For Russians, Yalta symbolizes a time of great victory and power. After the Russian invasion of Chechnya in 2000 and Crimea in 2014, Russia President Vladimir Putin suggested having a Yalta 2.0 Conference to discuss the future of modern Eastern Europe. Ironically at the time, the Ukraine feared the West would be tempted by a “Second Yalta,” in which NATO and Moscow would once again make deals at their expense, in the name of ‘peace.’
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