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Eastern Front4th February 1945

'Big Three' meet at Yalta

Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin met together for the last time at Yalta
Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin met together for the last time at Yalta

On 3 February 1945, Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt arrived at Yalta, a resort on the southern coast of the Crimea on the Black Sea. They were there to meet with Stalin to discuss the final attack on the Germans and Japanese and the future of the post-war world.

They were meeting in the Crimea – a place Churchill described as the ‘Riviera of Hades’ – rather than anywhere else, for one simple reason; Stalin controlled where they met. It had been Stalin who had said that he would only meet the British and American leaders in Tehran back in November 1943, and it had been Stalin who had insisted this meeting would be on Soviet territory in the Crimea. It was a small – but significant – sign of Stalin’s power.

Much has been written about Roosevelt’s physical appearance at the Yalta conference. Hugh Lunghi, who was there as part of the British mission, was shocked to see the American President: ‘His face was waxen to a sort of yellow, waxen and very drawn, very thin, and a lot of the time he was sort of sitting there with his mouth open sort of staring ahead. So that was quite a shock.’

Roosevelt would be dead less than four months after Yalta, and he was clearly a sick man already. But what is certain is that, despite his obvious ill-health, Roosevelt’s aims and strategies for the conference were in perfect sync with his previously expressed views. His illness did not prevent his politics from being consistent.

The problem for the future of the world – at least in the eyes of Roosevelt’s critics – was that the American President was not overly concerned with the fate of Eastern Europe, with the exception of the fate of post-war Germany. Roosevelt’s focus was primarily on one practical measure – he wanted to get the Soviet Union to commit to fighting the Japanese after Germany had been defeated – and one ‘visionary’ measure – he wanted to get the Soviet Union to play an active part in the founding of the United Nations.

Churchill, on the other hand, arrived at Yalta much more focused on European issues – principally the seemingly never-to-be-resolved question of the future of Poland. The trouble he faced was that he had talked with near brutal frankness to Stalin, back in October on his visit to Moscow, about the relative ‘percentages’ of ‘influence’ that the Soviet Union and Britain/America should have over a number of Eastern European countries. This – to Churchill – had already resulted in the Communist control of Greece being prevented. But now, having seemingly ‘given away’ influence in other countries like Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria, how could he have a non-brutal, ‘honourable’ conversation about Poland – a country that had deliberately been excluded by Churchill from the ‘percentages’ deal?

As for Stalin, he was clearly looking to consolidate Soviet influence over the territory of Eastern Europe – territory that his troops had shed blood to gain. ‘Stalin behaves as if the only interests that are worth considering in the march across Europe are Soviet interests,’ says Professor Robert Service, talking of Stalin’s actions at Yalta, ‘and that the peoples of Eastern Europe and East Central Europe are lucky to be liberated and they should accept their liberation by the Red Army with grateful hands and allow the Red Army to do virtually as it wanted. So the future history of Eastern Europe is already there in 1944 and in 1945 – that there was going to be one superior state that’s going to have the right to act as it wants in Eastern Europe at the end of the Second World War. And it has won that right by all of the sacrifices of Soviet people in the so-called Great Patriotic War… We don’t yet know quite what was in Stalin’s mind, and we’ll never know because he didn’t keep a diary, but we can look at what he did in 1945 or earlier in 1944. He plans for an Eastern Europe that is subject to Soviet influence. That’s not the same as an Eastern Europe that’s fully communised, but it does mean that communist political influence is going to be very strong in those countries.’

The most divisive issue at the conference remained Poland. Though the boundaries of the new Poland had effectively been decided – like so much else – at the Tehran conference back in November 1943, there remained questions of detail, particularly about how the newly created Poland should be governed. Stalin had established his own puppet government of Poland – know as the ‘Lublin Poles’ – whilst the British and the Americans still supported the Polish government-in-exile based in London. Ultimately, at Yalta, both Churchill and Roosevelt decided to accept Stalin’s assurance that the Soviets would conduct free and democratic elections in Poland, and that a few of the politicians from the Polish government-in-exile would be absorbed into the new ruling group of Poland.

It was scarcely a ringing declaration from the West that guaranteed the freedom and independence of the new Poland. In fact, as Admiral William Leahy told Roosevelt, ‘this [the agreement on Poland] is so elastic that the Russians can stretch it all the way from Yalta to Washington without even technically breaking it.’ Roosevelt simply replied, ‘I know Bill, but it is the best I can do for Poland at this time.’i

But that was only half true, because Roosevelt had decided to focus on other – to him more important – issues at Yalta. And on both of Roosevelt’s key concerns – Japan and the UN – Stalin seemed to be amenable, agreeing to come into the war against the Japanese three months after the end of the war in Europe (in part in exchange for some Japanese territory) and to co-operate with the foundation of the United Nations.

As for the issue of what territory in Eastern Europe fell under the influence of the Soviet Union, that was not high on FDR’s agenda. ‘Roosevelt was pressured by Eleanor Roosevelt about the Baltics,’ says Professor Robert Dallek. ‘He was pressured by the Poles about what he was doing for Poland. And behind the scenes he’s contemptuous of this. He says at one point: ‘Do you expect me to go to war with Stalin over the Baltics?’ Sure, democracy, freedom, the rhetoric tumbles off their lips; the declaration of liberty for the East, a declaration of freedom for the liberated countries from Nazi control in Eastern Europe; it’s rhetoric.’

Given that Stalin was to break his promises on Poland after Yalta, and given that within months after Yalta the relationship between the Soviet Union and the West was to deteriorate so badly, it’s easy to believe that Churchill and Roosevelt were either conned by Stalin or just shut their eyes to the true nature of his regime. But as Professor David Reynolds says, the truth is not that simple: ‘Every time you have a conference with the Russians all through the war the British and the Americans have this sense that it’s better than the last one… So there’s this feeling that they’re difficult, nasty people and all the rest of it, but we’re making progress. Okay, they treat some of their minorities badly and all the rest of it, but you sort of push that aside. And then the other thing I think is that these leaders, Churchill and Roosevelt, are saying to themselves at the back of their mind: what alternative do we have? If we say the Bear hasn’t changed its spots, if you’ll let me mix the metaphor, the Russian Bear is essentially the same, as brutal and as bloody as ever. What prospect does that open up for Europe? Better to go with our hopes than surrender to our fears, because by the end of 1943 it’s clear that the Soviet Union and the Red Army are going to be a force in Eastern Europe, and really there’s nothing you can do in London or Washington to stop that. The decisions, in a sense, have already been made by default through delaying the second front [i.e. the invasion of France by the Western Allies], if that was ever a real alternative. So all that you can try and do is ameliorate the situation in Eastern Europe. Indeed, that’s what Roosevelt says before he goes to Yalta to the senators. He says, look, what we’re going to try and do is ameliorate the situation in Poland as we can’t change it. So there is a sort of fact of life there that the Soviet Union is going to be a force to be reckoned with, and that’s part of why they’re trying to make the best they can of it. Roosevelt says during the Tehran conference when they have a conversation about Poland, ‘Wake me up when we get to Germany, I don’t care two hoots about Poland.’ And what he’s expressing there, and it’s the same for people like Cordell Hull, his Secretary of State, is that what matters is the big picture for the post-war world. It’s setting up a framework of great power co-operation within the general institutional structure of the United Nations. And if you can do that, particularly if you can get the Soviet Union in it, that’s what really matters compared to the suspicion and the alienation of the inter-war years.’

But, as far as Sir Max Hastings is concerned there was another reality operating at Yalta. ‘Churchill was also naïve,’ he says. ‘Churchill worked himself up into an almost emotional fever in his distress about the sacrifice of Poland and the fact that Polish freedom, which Britain had gone into the Second World War for, was to be sacrificed to the Russians. But Churchill refused to recognise the logic of his own position, that if the Western Allies had been serious about wanting to see that Eastern Europe was free, they would have had to have got into the war on a very big scale and they would have had to have had D-Day in 1943. If they then fought like tigers and accepted casualties many times the scale of those that they did, then they might have been able to save Eastern Europe and Poland from the Russians, though even then it’s pretty doubtful. But what would have happened if Roosevelt and Churchill had gone to their own electorates and said: ‘We are actually going to launch a major campaign on the continent which is going to cost hundreds of thousands of extra lives, not in order to accelerate the defeat of Hitler, but in order to make sure that all these poor Polish and Romanian and Czech and Hungarian peoples don’t fall prey to the wicked Russians.’ No British or American government could have survived that because the other thing one has to remember is the colossal popular enthusiasm for Russia, especially in Britain. British people are saying that they thought Russia was absolutely wonderful. Reading people’s diaries from that period it is absolutely extraordinary, the euphoric expressions of enthusiasm for Uncle Joe Stalin and what he was doing.’

So was Yalta – particularly the failure to get Stalin to agree an enforceable political process that would lead to a democratic Poland – a ‘betrayal’ of the democratic ideals that Britain and America had enshrined in the Atlantic Charter in 1941? Indeed, was it betrayal of the very ideals that underpinned the decision to send so many soldiers of the Western Allies into battle in the first place? ‘It’s a betrayal of the ideals,’ says Andrew Roberts, ‘because we went to war for the integrity of Poland and the independence of Poland. In fact what we wanted in April 1939 was a trip wire for Hitler, something that triggered a war. It could have been Poland, it could have been anywhere else frankly, the key thing was to get us into a war with Germany before Hitler took anymore of Europe. One could argue forever about whether or not it would have been better to have done it earlier at Munich but certainly by the time Poland was invaded there was no alternative.’

‘But what we didn’t ever promise to the Poles was that we were going to be able to land an army on the other side of Europe. We didn’t ever promise them that we were going to attack Germany from the west, and we were in no position to do so either. So in that sense it was a betrayal of the ideals, but I’m not sure if it was really a betrayal of the country itself because there was simply nothing that could be done short of using a nuclear bomb, or threatening to, which was obviously impossible against our great and glorious comrade that had lost 20 million people fighting the Nazis. The key thing at Yalta was to try to get Stalin to stump up with the promise to go to war with Japan three months after the end of the war in Europe and also to try and get the Soviet Union into the United Nations organisation that was going to be set up after the war as well. After that you came up with free elections in Eastern Europe and so it wasn’t even the prime desiderata of the British and Americans. I think as well as wishful thinking there was a sense that the kinder and nicer you were to Stalin the more likely it would be that he was going to come into a world organisation that was inclusive... This sounds ridiculous coming from somebody who had, after all, denounced appeasements, which were precisely the same thing effectively only a decade earlier, but I think Churchill was an appeaser to the USSR up to and including Yalta.’

When Churchill returned from Yalta he told ministers that ‘Poor Neville Chamberlain believed he could trust Hitler. He was wrong. But I don’t think I’m wrong about Stalin.’ii  But, on the contrary, the next few months would demonstrate to Churchill that he had made just the same error as ‘poor’ Chamberlain had. Stalin had his own agenda for Eastern Europe. And it most certainly did not include the formation of a free and democratic Poland.  


i Quoted in James MacGregor Burns, Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom, Harvest Books, 2002, p. 572
ii Quoted in the entry for 23rd February 1945 in Ben Pimlott (ed.), The Political Diary of Hugh Dalton 1918-40, 1945-60, Jonathan Cape, 1987, p. 836