Yalta Conference
Some nations sacrificed for the sake of stability
4 - 11 February 1945
author Paul Boșcu, August 2019
The most important meeting between the three leaders happened in Yalta. The Yalta Conference is even now fiercely debated and analyzed. It had the most complex repercussions on post-war Europe.
The Yalta Conference was an inter-Allied meeting to discuss Germany and the reorganization of post-war Europe. During the meeting, US President Franklin D. Roosvelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin met near Yalta, Crimeea. Roosevelt certainly tried everything – including straightforward flattery – to try to bring Stalin round to a reasonable stance on any number of important post-war issues, such as the creation of a meaningful United Nations, but he overestimated what his charm could achieve.

By the time of Yalta, it was Roosevelt who was making all the efforts to keep the alliance together. With the Red Army firmly in occupation of Poland, and Soviet divisions threatening Berlin itself when the conference opened, there was effectively very little that either FDR or Churchill could have done to safeguard political freedom in Eastern Europe, and both knew it.

Of more immediate concern to both Britain and the United States was the impact of the Yalta agreements on the Polish corps fighting in Italy and the Polish division in Montgomery's forces on the Western Front. Would these men, who were still very much needed by the Allies, continue to participate as valiantly as in the past, in a cause that must have looked already irretrievably lost to most of them? In anxious talks and soundings between the two parties, it became clear that until victory over Germany, the Polish soldiers would indeed continue to fight alongside the Western Allies.

The Allied occupation zones had been agreed many months earlier, and confirmed at the Yalta summit in February. The Russians got to Eastern Europe first. To have frustrated their imperialistic purposes, it would have been necessary for the Western Allies to fight a very different and more ruthless war, at much higher cost in casualties. They would have had to acknowledge the possibility, even the probability, of overcoming the Red Army as well as the Wehrmacht. Such a course was politically and militarily unthinkable.

The Allied leaders met in a series of sessions which have gained more fame — or notoriety — than perhaps they deserve. Most of the major diplomatic choices were prefigured at the Tehran Conference, and the most contentious political issue between the Soviet Union and the Western Allies — the fate of Poland and Southeast Europe — had been effectively settled between Tehran and Yalta by the occupation — or liberation — of practically the whole of that area by the Red Army in the interim. If one major factor overshadowing the Yalta deliberations was the control which the Soviet Union in fact already exercised over almost all of Eastern and Southeastern Europe, the other side of the coin was the British control of Greece, and American and British predominance in Italy, France, and most of the Low Countries.

A far more realistic approach to dealing with Stalin had been adopted by Churchill in Moscow in October 1944, when he took along what he called ‘a naughty document’ which listed the ‘proportional interest’ in five south-east European countries. Greece would be under 90 percent British influence ‘in accord with the US’ and 10 percent Russian; Yugoslavia and Hungary were 50-50; Romania would be 90 percent Russian, 10 percent British; and Bulgaria 75 percent Russian and 25 percent ‘the others’. Stalin signed the document with a big blue tick, telling Churchill to keep it, and generally stuck to the agreements.

The conference made it plain that, following victory, a communist government would rule Poland, and that the east of the country would become Russian soil. By the time of the meeting at Yalta, the ‘Lublin Committee’ was installed in Warsaw, and already the Czechoslovak government-in exile had followed Soviet wishes by recognizing it, not the London government-in-exile, as the legal regime of its northern neighbor.

The Americans and British found that they would get very little in the way of concessions regarding the government of Poland, and the concessions which they did obtain were quickly repudiated soon after the meeting: the expansion of the Lublin regime by representatives of the London government-in-exile and others from within Poland was quickly and effectively sabotaged, while the free elections, which Stalin promised could be held as early as a month off, were not held until 1989, forty-four years later.

The Poles clung to vestigial hopes that their fighting contribution to the Allied cause might yet make possible some modification of the Yalta terms in their favor. But the reality, of course, was that each of the conquering nations would arbitrate the future of the countries it occupied in the fashion that it deemed appropriate. Stalin’s soldiers were already in Poland, for which Britain and France had gone to war, while the Western armies were far away.

Since the Soviet Union had not interfered in the fighting between the British and the Greek Communists when the latter had attempted to seize power, Stalin may have felt entitled to repress all opposition in the area controlled by his army, although agreeing to the American proposal of a declaration assuring all liberated and occupied territories the freedom to choose their own government. The Soviet Union wanted ‘friendly’ regimes in East and Southeast Europe, and there was no way that governments which Stalin considered friendly were likely to emerge from free elections.

Getting the American public to accept the compromises the Western Powers had made on Poland was going to be difficult. Both the British and Americans agreed to an eastern border for Poland based on the Curzon Line — as they had previously indicated they would at Tehran — but Roosevelt did try very hard, though unsuccessfully, to salvage the primarily Polish city of Lwów as well as the nearby oil fields for Poland.

The Western Powers had become increasingly committed to a major role for France in post-war Europe. With very great reluctance, Stalin agreed to an occupation zone for the French in Germany but insisted absolutely and successfully that this zone be carved out of the zones allocated to the United States and Great Britain. The Soviet Union was not about to give up any portions of the territory assigned to it; Stalin may well have thought of France as simply a satellite of the Western Powers. Furthermore, it was only after Roosevelt changed his mind on the subject of assigning France a place on the Allied Control Council for Germany that Stalin also agreed to this.

The British insistence on American and thereafter Soviet acquiescence in a full role for France was presumably related to the repetition by Roosevelt of his Tehran pronouncement that large numbers of American troops would not remain in Europe for more than two years after the defeat of Germany. The British and possibly also the Americans anticipated that the French could eventually take over the American zone in southern Germany which Roosevelt had just agreed to accept, and which would certainly be adjacent to any French zone.

Rosvelt had taken to Yalta the new Secretary of State, Edward Stettinius, and he carefully explained the United States compromise proposal at the meeting when Stalin claimed not to have studied it beforehand. Although on this point the Soviet leader, to the enormous relief of the American delegation, agreed to accept the proposal to the effect that the great power veto would not apply to procedural matters, he insisted on another concession: earlier the Soviets had asked for sixteen seats (and votes) in the Assembly of the United Nations, one for each of the constituent Soviet Socialist Republics in the USSR. The Americans had objected, but the British, who wanted a place for India as well as for each of the self-governing Dominions, were not so sure. Now Stalin insisted on two extra votes, one each for the Ukrainian and the Belorussian SSRs; the British agreed to the demand, and the Americans reluctantly went along.

Roosevelt, who remembered the domestic American opposition to what the public had seen as multiple British votes in the League of Nations with one for each of the Dominions, insisted on keeping this concession secret, and ensured British and Soviet support for two extra votes for the United States in the Assembly if that should prove desirable. When the whole deal leaked out soon after, there was a temporary uproar, but this tempest in a teapot was quickly calmed.

It was agreed that those countries which declared war on Germany by 1 March 1945 should be invited to the 25th of April founding conference for which France would be one of the inviting powers, and also that this conference was to be held in the United States, a point on which the Americans were particularly insistent. If the American public was to be permanently weaned from its isolationist proclivities, the best way to engage their attention for a new world security organization was to base it in the United States. San Francisco, California, was chosen as the location. Unlike President Wilson after the end of the Great War, Roosevelt, who was a Democrat, decided to include key leaders of the Republican Party in the United States delegation. With Senator Arthur Vandenberg, the key spokesman on international affairs of the opposition in the Senate, appointed to the delegation, Roosevelt effectively co-opted the most likely opponent of the Yalta agreements.

The future of Germany was certainly a major topic of discussion. The agreement on occupation zones, previously worked out in the European Advisory Commission, was approved with the addition of a French zone. An Allied Control Council, meeting in Berlin, would set policy, but other than the aims of de-nazification and de-militarization, there was little agreement on what to do. The Soviet Union and the Western Powers interpreted ‘democratization’ very differently. Since the line between the eastern and western zones had been agreed upon, the extent of territorial cession to Poland would, in effect, be left to the Soviets. The line of the Oder and western Neisse would come to be the new border.

Before any plans for the future could be implemented, Germany and Japan would have to be defeated. The way to crush Germany appeared to be rather obvious: concentric attacks on the Reich. There was some exchange of military information, but there was in practice no more direct and detailed coordination of operations between the Soviet Union and the Western Allies now than earlier, and the minimal attempt — such as arrangements for American planes to use airfields in Hungary — quickly evaporated in the face of Soviet refusal to implement the promises made.

With Poland firmly under Soviet control, and both Poland itself and the Soviet occupation zone pushed far westwards, Russia could feel safe from any future German invasion. As for that country itself, the issue of dismemberment came up once more. There was again theoretical agreement that this would be a good idea, with the Soviets especially insistent.

The Russians argued at Yalta that a reparations sum of twenty billion dollars should be set, with half going to them and the balance to the other countries at war with Germany. The Americans and British both read their experience with reparations in the years after World War I as showing that a fixed sum was a bad idea; the British because their zone of occupation would be in need of endless subsidies after its industry had been removed, the Americans because of their belief that American loans had paid for German reparations and might end up doing so again. No agreement was reached, and the issue was left for the Allied Foreign Ministers to resolve.

Given that at the time of the conference Stalin’s armies were in the full flood of success, that Anglo-American armies remained firmly stuck on the far side of the Rhine, and that Soviet troops were within 50 miles of the German capital of Berlin, it was a major diplomatic achievement for Britain and the United States that they gained all of western Germany and a significant portion of central Germany for their occupation zones.

Since Stalin had originally promised to join the war in East Asia for a suitable price after the defeat of Germany, several major changes had taken place in that war. The Americans and Australians had made major advances in the Southwest and the Central Pacific theaters and the British had defeated the Japanese in Burma, but the fighting had been exceedingly bloody and bitter. Now Roosevelt obtained not only Stalin's promise to join the war against Japan two to three months after the end of hostilities in Europe, but also two concessions highly important for the Chinese government. Stalin agreed to help the Chinese Nationalists and he recognized that, once cleared of Japanese troops by the Red Army, Manchuria would be returned to Chinese sovereignty.

The alterations in the Pacific War appeared to make the final attack on Japan on the one hand more feasible and on the other hand more dependent on Soviet entrance into the war. With this background, American and British willingness to agree to the Soviet Union regaining its losses from the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5 looked reasonable enough. There were, however, additional Soviet demands, such as the Kurile Islands, and a recognition of the Soviet satellite status of Mongolia, without the participation of Chinese representatives. Roosevelt had hinted at some of the demands to Chiang at the Cairo Conference; he now undertook to obtain Chiang's agreement to them.

By the time Roosevelt and Churchill met Stalin at Yalta, the Combined Chiefs of Staff were urging their political masters to arrange Soviet participation in the Asian war. A Soviet army in Asia might deliver the coup de grâce to the Japanese Army, and at a minimum Russian air and naval forces could help halt exports and the deployment of reinforcements from Manchuria and Korea to Japan. The Americans even proposed that they use Soviet bases for their own air and naval operations.

No one yet knew whether the atomic bomb would work, nor, if it did work, what its impact on Japanese resistance might be. In the meantime, the Americans and British had secured a major ally for the war against Japan; the Americans to support the invasion of the Japanese home islands, the British to divert Japanese land forces from the planned campaign in Malaya scheduled to follow that in Burma.

Two secondary topics were also dealt with at the conference. The effort to bring some representatives of the Yugoslav government-in-exile into the new regime being established by Tito proved unsuccessful. An agreement with more dramatic repercussions was that designed to assure the return to Britain and the United States of their many soldiers who had been captured by the Germans and kept in prisoner of war camps overrun by the Red Army. In return for assurances on their prompt repatriation, the Western Powers committed themselves to returning to the Soviet Union all Soviet citizens — prisoners of war, forced laborers, or those who had agreed to serve in or with the German army.

The Soviet Union made endless difficulties about the return of United States and British prisoners. This was especially due to the Russian determination to crush all opposition in Poland, which made them unwilling to allow into the camps in Poland any western representatives who might observe developments in that country. The resulting clashes with American diplomats contributed greatly to their negative attitudes toward the Soviet Union and thus to the development of the Cold War.

The result of the return policy was the forced repatriation of many who feared for their lives. The British had taken the lead in returning such men already in August 1944; they extended the program to pre-1939 Soviet émigrés and to those from the areas annexed by the Soviet Union from 1939 on. On both of these issues the United States followed a different policy, refusing to repatriate émigrés against their will and allowing those who lived outside the pre-war Soviet Union to decline repatriation. Even so, tens of thousands were forcibly returned by both countries.

In subsequent years, the Yalta Conference came to be denounced as a sell-out to the Soviet Union, especially in the United States where, in the first great wave of revisionist writing on war-time relations between the Allies, American leaders were accused of giving away everything to the Russians. Later, when a new group of revisionists asserted that those same leaders had in fact been plotting against the Soviet Union during the same period when earlier critics thought they were plotting with her, the emphasis came to be on the concessions made by the Soviet Union. Perhaps it would be more reasonable to take a view which sees the three Allies as trying hard for an accommodation of divergent ideologies and interests, with the great problem being that some of the agreements reached were not afterwards carried out, so that the high water mark of cooperation was followed by new crises rather than more steps toward continued working together.

Churchill, who had tried unsuccessfully to arrange a prior meeting with the Americans to coordinate negotiating strategy, was absolutely euphoric at the end of the conference and reported to the British Cabinet in glowing terms on Soviet desire to work with Britain and the United States, and on Stalin's willingness to make concessions to that end. The great reversal came soon after. On the 27th February 1945 there was a coup in Bucharest, organized by Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Vyshinskii, which installed a Communist regime in Romania. This, coupled with the refusal to hold free elections in Poland and the arrest on the 27th of March of the leaders of the Polish underground when they were supposed to meet Marshal Zhukov, quickly ended the euphoria in London.

At the time, American public opinion was certainly highly favorable to the Soviet Union, in spite of earlier frictions, and continued to be so for some time. The American reaction took slightly longer, and would be accelerated by Stalin's extraordinary reaction to the negotiations for a surrender of German troops in Italy, but it came basically over the same issues: the divergence over any degree of real independence for the liberated peoples of Eastern and Southeast Europe.

After Yalta, more of the neutrals decided to join in the war in order to obtain admission to the United Nations Organization, a step for which the conference had set a deadline. Turkey had broken diplomatic relations with Japan at American insistence on the 5th of January and at about the same time had opened the Straits to Allied shipping; after Yalta the country declared war on Germany and Japan. Those countries of Latin America which had remained neutral, in some cases at American urging, while in the case of Argentina very much against United States preference, now hastened to join in. Sweden cut back on its deliveries to Germany, feeling increasingly secure from German retaliation.

As if the isolation of the Axis were not sufficiently advanced, the stupidity of Japanese soldiers on the rampage in Manila, where they burned down the Spanish consulate after butchering the officials and refugees in it, led Spain to renounce its representation of Japanese interests with the Allies and to break relations with Japan. The Germans, like the Japanese, would have to stand alone on the funeral pyre they had insisted on building for themselves, while others rushed to join the Allies as quickly as they could and as the Allies would let them.