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January 11 2020
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The Big Three: Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin attend the Yalta Conference, 1945.

Eight Days at Yalta: How Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin Shaped the Post-War World by Diana Preston

“No more let us falter! From Malta to Yalta! Let nobody alter!” So wrote Winston Churchill to Franklin Roosevelt on New Year’s Day, 1945. As so often with the British prime minister, humor disguised his earnestness. In trying to arrange the second meeting of the “Big Three” Allied leaders—Roosevelt, Stalin, and himself—Churchill had found the American president less than helpful. The purpose of the conference was nothing short of deciding the future of the postwar world, and yet F.D.R. originally said that he could spare no more than five or six days for the summit. Churchill was appalled. “I do not see any … way of realising our hopes about world organization in five or six days,” he cabled the president. “Even the Almighty took seven.”

The Yalta Conference of February 1945 remains a subject of serious contention. Only the Munich Agreement seven years earlier, which granted Hitler a portion of Czechoslovakia, can surpass it for controversy. A meeting designed to ensure a new international order based on peace and security, it was followed by the subjugation of much of Eastern Europe and parts of far-east Asia by the Soviet Union. Could the Western powers have done more? Were the British and Americans somehow complicit in the descent of the Iron Curtain? Could the Cold War have been avoided? These are the questions which have haunted the name of Yalta ever since.

Behind the Scenes

In this well-written and absorbing book, Diana Preston provides a chronological narrative of these crucial eight days. The atmosphere is there in full. With considerably more delegates than there were rooms at the various palaces and sanatoriums, eight U.S. generals were forced to share a single room, 16 colonels another, and 40 middle-ranking officers another. Bedbugs were as plentiful as baths were scarce and, as Churchill complained to an aide, “if we had spent ten years on research, we could not have found a worse place” than this resort in the bombed-out landscape of the Crimean Peninsula to hold the conference.

Still, the Russians were eager to please. The rugs in the president’s suite were changed four times prior to his arrival, while the banquet hosted by Stalin, on February 8, consisted of 20 courses and 45 toasts. By this stage, the delights of the rich Russian cuisine were beginning to wane for the British. As the permanent undersecretary of the Foreign Office, Sir Alexander Cadogan, wrote to his wife, “Caviare and mince pies for breakfast are all very well once in a way, but they pall after a bit.”

Eight U.S. generals were forced to share a single room, 16 colonels another, and 40 officers another.

As Preston makes clear, the Western leaders were not at their best at Yalta. While Churchill was garrulous and emotional, Roosevelt was visibly unwell (he would be dead in two months) and struggled to concentrate. Worse, the president refused to coordinate a joint negotiating strategy with the British (with whom the U.S. had much in common), preferring to treat with Stalin in private and, on more than one occasion, denigrating Churchill behind his back. Stalin, by contrast, played a strong hand well. “He never wasted a word,” recalled the British foreign secretary, Anthony Eden. “Hooded, calm, never raising his voice … he got what he wanted without having seemed so obdurate.”

Western Agenda

The main items on the agenda were the administration of a soon-to-be defeated Germany, the continuing war against Japan, the composition and structure of the United Nations, and the future of liberated countries, in particular Poland. Of the above list, the second and third issues were the ones that mattered most to the Americans. Unaware of how imminent a viable atomic bomb was, the U.S. top brass feared that, without the participation of the Russians, the war with Japan could drag on for another two years.

Accordingly, Roosevelt saw Stalin, privately, on the fifth day of the conference and reached a secret agreement whereby the Soviet Union would receive the Kuril Islands, South Sakhalin, and a foothold in northeast China in exchange for a declaration of war against Japan three months after the defeat of Germany. Neither Churchill nor the Chinese nationalist leader, Chiang Kai-shek, were consulted.

Insufficiently briefed on the atomic bomb, the U.S. top brass feared that the war with Japan could drag on.

For the British, the most important issue was Poland. The cause for which Britain and France had originally taken up arms, the independence of Poland would be the most obvious test of any “just” peace. The trouble was that the Russians were already in possession of that war-torn country and had no intention of relinquishing control. Determined to build a buffer zone of Bolshevized satellite states around the U.S.S.R., Stalin refused to deal with the Polish government in exile, the so-called London Poles, and stood steadfastly behind the Soviet puppet regime established at Lublin.

Churchill fought hard for the Poles, supported, though occasionally undermined, by Roosevelt. Eventually, they were able to obtain Stalin’s signature on a “Declaration of Liberated Europe,” which promised “democratic institutions” for those liberated from the Nazi yoke and free elections in Poland under international supervision. As it turned out, this piece of paper had no more value than that signed between Hitler and Neville Chamberlain following the Munich agreement.

Shadow of Doubt

With the Bolshevization of Eastern Europe, which began within weeks of the delegates leaving Crimea, the question that was inevitably asked was whether the Western powers could have done more at Yalta. For most modern historians, including Preston, the answer is no. With the Red Army occupying almost all of the territory under dispute, there was little the Americans and British could do to impose their will. Roosevelt, at the start of the conference, had spoken of the need to withdraw the majority of American forces from Europe (a shock to Churchill), and there was no way that the exhausted British could contemplate challenging the Soviet Union on their own.

As Preston notes, Roosevelt could have attempted to leverage Soviet reliance on American war matériel. Yet, as she also writes, “there was still a war to be won and no one wished to risk fracturing the alliance.” Ultimately, the Yalta agreement was determined by the realities of the military situation. Stalin believed that “in politics one should be guided by the calculation of forces,” and, where Eastern Europe was concerned—and before the completion of the atomic bomb—the advantage was overwhelmingly with the Russians. Although both Churchill and Roosevelt could show themselves to be staggeringly naïve in their assessment of the man they referred to as “Uncle Joe” (Roosevelt believed that during Stalin’s training as a priest, “something entered into his nature of the way in which a Christian gentlemen should behave”), it is hard to see how they could have achieved significantly more than they did. It was, as Churchill later wrote, “the best I could get.”

Tim Bouverie’s Appeasement: Chamberlain, Hitler, Churchill, and the Road to War is out now

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