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29 January 2020updated 08 Apr 2020 9:40pm

Between toughness and talking: 75 years since Yalta

At the Yalta Conference 75 years ago, as the Red Army was taking control of eastern Europe, Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin met to plan the peace. What did the “Big Three” want? And what did they get?

By David Reynolds

Seventy-five years on from the summit of 1945, “Yalta” remains a dirty word. Not as tainted as Munich”, now lodged in the English language as a synonym for surrender, but certainly no “finest hour” moment of which to be proud.

In Gaullist France the conference of 4-11 February was depicted as the week when the “Big Three” wartime allies – the US, the Soviet Union and the UK – carved up Europe into two blocs. Even today, Emmanuel Macron periodically raises the spectre of a “new Yalta” whenever Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin get cosy. In the US after 1945, Republicans blamed Franklin D Roosevelt for consigning millions of human beings to communist oppression. Sixty years later George W Bush was still coupling Yalta with Munich as moments when “the freedom of small nations was somehow expendable”. The summit, declared the US president in Riga in 2005, “will be remembered as one of the greatest wrongs of history”.

In truth, however, Yalta didn’t divide the continent. By the time Roosevelt and Winston Churchill met Josef Stalin, the Red Army was already in control of much of eastern Europe. Yet their encounter sheds a revealing light on the complexity of summit diplomacy, a point so often missed by today’s media in its rush after a summit to declare who was the victor. Each of the Big Three left Yalta with real gains: as so often, it was when they came down from the summit that the problems emerged. The Yalta story also vividly illustrates one of the great challenges of statecraft – as pressing in the era of Putin, Xi Jinping and Brexit as in the days of Josef Stalin – about the perpetual balancing act between toughness and talking.

Roosevelt and Churchill were both fascinated by face-to-face diplomacy, and each believed himself a master of the art. In March 1942, before meeting the Soviet leader and having exchanged only a half-dozen messages with him, Roosevelt told Churchill: “I think I can personally handle Stalin better than either your Foreign Office or my state department. Stalin hates the guts of all your top people. He thinks he likes me better, and I hope he will continue to do so.” In January 1944, Churchill told an old friend: “If only Stalin and I could meet once a week, there would be no trouble at all. We get on like a house on fire.” Of course, the prime minister’s moods were volatile and, as an inveterate anti-Bolshevik, he feared that the red tide might engulf Europe, but that prompted him to engage in personal summitry with “Uncle Joe” in the hope of reducing the danger.

Stalin had proved reluctant to meet until he felt in a strong enough position to match the Anglo-American duo, and this did not occur until after the Red Army’s victory at Kursk in July 1943 and its subsequent advance into the Ukraine. The Big Three convened for the first time at Tehran in November 1943. A year later Stalin was even better placed, with Soviet troops flooding into eastern Europe, from Poland to Bulgaria. He insisted on meeting at Yalta, an old Tsarist resort on the southern coast of Crimea, rejecting all attempts by his two allies to find a more accessible location in the Mediterranean. Stalin was scared of flying and reluctant to venture outside the Soviet security net, so Yalta suited him fine. Churchill, by contrast, grumbled: “We could not have found a worse place for a meeting if we had spent ten years looking for it.”

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The journey itself was a nightmare. Roosevelt took ten days by sea to get to Malta; Churchill flew there from London. Both arrived on 2 February. They and their staffs then flew to Saki on the west of the Crimea – a flight lasting more than seven hours – followed by a four-hour drive across snow-covered mountains and down to the sea at Yalta. En route they saw frequent evidence of the recent savage fighting to drive out the Nazis.

Although each delegation was accommodated in a former Tsarist palace, the facilities were not luxurious. It had taken a huge effort by the Soviets just to make the buildings basically habitable. Kathleen Harriman, daughter of the US ambassador, wrote home: “All the Moscow hotels have been stripped of their staffs, furniture and plates, china, kitchen utensils… Besides that, the country nearby is being scoured for such things as shaving mirrors, coat hangers and wash bowls… We’ve just found one ashtray that advertises a china factory ‘by appointment of’ five Czars!!”

Most of the British and US delegations, even senior military, shared bedrooms and had to line up like ordinary soldiers to use the scarce toilets and baths. They also tried in vain to get rid of the bedbugs by spraying large quantities of DDT.

That the leaders of the US and Britain were coming so far, at considerable personal inconvenience, to pay court to Stalin has encouraged the perception that he was in the box seat. And that is accentuated if one focuses, like many commentators, on the issue of Poland, because here the Soviets also held the best cards. The Red Army already occupied half the country and Stalin’s Polish communist clients had formed a provisional government at Lublin. Roosevelt told leading senators before leaving Washington “that the Russians had the power in eastern Europe, that it was obviously impossible to have a break with them and that, therefore, the only practicable course was to use what influence we had to ameliorate the situation”. He and Churchill hoped to secure a new cabinet, involving non-communists from within Poland as well as figures from the exiled Polish government in London, which would prepare the way for full and free elections.

On the same page: Roosevelt and Churchill were encouraged by the atmosphere at Yalta and believed that they could do business with the Soviet Union. Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Instead, at Yalta they ended up accepting a statement that the Lublin regime would be “reorganised on a broader democratic basis”. Their hope that the British and US ambassadors would monitor the elections and validate them as “free and fair” was whittled down to a line in the conference communiqué that London and Washington would be “kept informed about the situation in Poland” by their ambassadors. Their fig leaf was the “Declaration on Liberated Europe” proposed by the US state department, in which all three allies affirmed the principles of “sovereign rights and self-government” that should prevail in countries freed from Axis rule.

Over Poland, Stalin got much of what he wanted. Yet effective summitry is about the linkages between various issues and the timing of concessions, which is why it’s usually misleading to isolate one single thread of negotiation. Poland was indeed a major preoccupation for Stalin – in 1920-21 the Poles had fought a brutal war with the USSR over their border – but he was even more concerned about the future of Germany. And on this issue the conference dynamics were different and the outcome much more to the liking of Britain.

Stalin wanted Germany “dismembered” into several smaller states – as before Bismarck’s unification of the Reich in 1871. Roosevelt was similarly inclined, sharing Stalin’s Germanophobia, but Churchill and the Foreign Office – haunted by John Maynard Keynes’s polemic about the “Carthaginian Peace” in 1919 – were determined not to repeat what they considered the mistakes of the Versailles treaty. They wished to avoid another territorial settlement that would fuel German vengeance, and also feared that punitive reparations could again destabilise the international economy.


In most of the German issues, the British got their way at Yalta. After much haggling, Stalin did secure a mention of dismemberment in the conference protocol, but British officials felt that the wording was sufficiently general to leave them with “a great of deal of elbow room”. On reparations, the Soviets came to Yalta with a detailed case – proposing a total bill of $20bn, paid in kind, half of which would go to the USSR. The Americans were willing but in a lengthy session on 10 February Churchill and his foreign secretary Anthony Eden tenaciously refused to name any figure. On several occasions, losing his habitual self-control, Stalin got up from his chair to speak with passion about the USSR’s wartime losses. He even returned to the issue at the final dinner – supposedly just a social occasion – to ensure that the communiqué would at least state that Germany should pay for damage caused.

The other concession extracted by the British was over France – and it gives the lie to Gaullist mythology. Admittedly none of the Big Three wanted the Free French Forces leader Charles de Gaulle anywhere near Yalta – partly because of France’s inferior status after the humiliating defeat of 1940 but mostly because all agreed he would be a pain in the neck. Yet the Foreign Office was mindful of Roosevelt’s warnings that he wouldn’t be able to keep US troops in Europe for more than a year or two after the end of the war. It therefore wanted to build up France as a potential ally against a resurgent Germany or perhaps a hostile USSR.

Encouraged by Eden, Churchill secured his allies’ agreement for the French to have a zone of occupation in Germany and a seat on the Allied Control Commission, though Roosevelt and Stalin privately considered this an act of “kindness” rather than recognition of France’s true status.

Roosevelt, by contrast to the others, wasn’t much bothered about the details of Europe’s territorial settlement. His priorities for the summit were, first, to confirm Stalin’s commitment to enter the war against Japan so as to minimise US casualties and, second, to foster postwar security by institutionalising the Big Three alliance in a new United Nations Organisation. On both issues, he came away satisfied.

Although Roosevelt knew that an atomic bomb should be ready by August, no one could yet envisage it as a war-winning weapon. The US military expected they would have to mount a full-scale invasion of Japan, which could not begin before the spring of 1946, and were therefore delighted when Stalin not only confirmed plans to enter the Pacific War but also sanctioned discussions with the US military mission in Moscow. When someone observed to General George C Marshall, the army chief of staff, that after all the bedbugs and lousy plumbing he would doubtless be glad to get home to Washington, DC, Marshall replied: “For what we have gained here, I would gladly have stayed a whole month.”

Roosevelt also readily conceded to Stalin Japanese and Chinese territory that had belonged to Russia in Tsarist times. He saw all this as part of his larger aim of binding the USSR into the postwar order.

Here, the United Nations was of paramount importance. The basic structure of the UN had already been agreed, but details needed ironing out at Yalta so that a founding conference could be held. Although again not too fussed about specifics, Roosevelt regarded the UN framework as politically essential in order to lock the US into a postwar order and avoid a repeat of the isolationist backlash after 1918. He also believed that a commitment from the USSR to the UN – in contrast with its alienation from the League of Nations – would signal its willingness to cooperate in postwar security. But the Soviets were suspicious of the way the UK and US were trying to pack the General Assembly with their own clients – the British Dominions and various Latin American states. Fearing that its interests might be overridden, the USSR had held out prior to Yalta on various procedural issues about voting and even demanded seats for the 16 Soviet republics on the basis of the fiction that they were autonomous entities.


Once at Yalta, however, Stalin and his team backed down on the procedural questions and settled for three Soviet seats. It’s likely that most of their earlier objections had been bargaining ploys: indeed, at Yalta the Soviets carefully made these concessions just before tabling key proposals on Poland. Roosevelt, meanwhile, said he was “much gratified” by the Soviet change of heart and his chief of staff, Admiral William Leahy, called this “a major victory for the president”. Roosevelt was able to secure agreement for the UN to be inaugurated in San Francisco on 25 April. He returned home to write the keynote address.

Each delegation therefore had reason to be pleased with Yalta. On the UN and Japan, Roosevelt got what he wanted, though in ways that also suited Stalin. Churchill frustrated the Soviets over the central issue of Germany, but Stalin whittled down Western resistance over Poland. Overall, the British and Americans were greatly heartened by the atmosphere of the conference. “I have never known the Russians so easy and accommodating,” observed the habitually cynical British diplomat Alexander Cadogan. “In particular Joe has been extremely good.” The mood among the US delegation on returning home was described by Roosevelt’s speechwriter Robert Sherwood as one of “supreme exaltation”.

The “lesson” of Yalta, it seemed, was that the West could indeed do business with the Soviets. The state department hoped to draw a distinction between unacceptably “exclusive” spheres of influence – Soviet (or indeed British) blocs – and more “open” and informal spheres in which the Soviets would enjoy the security of having friendly governments, while pledging not to interfere in their internal politics and allowing them to develop economic and cultural relations with the wider world. That’s essentially what the Declaration on Liberated Europe was affirming.

Although Churchill didn’t go in for idealistic language, he had adopted a similar approach pragmatically in Moscow in October 1944 in his now notorious “percentages” deal with Stalin, which divided eastern Europe into spheres of influence. Even in countries where one ally was allowed to predominate – such as Greece for Britain and Romania for the USSR – the 90:10 split implied that control would not be total and would be exercised within some kind of Allied framework. That framework, Churchill assumed, would be sustained by continued consultation at the summit.

Like Roosevelt, although not as consistently, Churchill believed that the USSR had moved a long way from its Leninist revolutionary roots. As he admitted in January 1944, “the deep-seated changes in the Russian state” and “the new confidence which has grown in our hearts towards Stalin” had affected even this veteran anti-Bolshevik. Like it or not, the Russians would be a presence in postwar Europe. It was worth trying to get on with them, especially if the Americans would soon be pulling out.


The real problems arose after the summit. Both Roosevelt and Churchill chose to turn Poland, the weakest part of the agreements, into a major selling point. Roosevelt cited this to Congress as “one outstanding example of joint action by the three major Allied powers”, showing how real-world diplomacy must “often be a result of give-and-take compromise”. He talked up the conference as “a turning point” in US history and in “the history of the world”, claiming it presaged the replacement of spheres of influence and balance-of-power diplomacy by “a universal organisation in which all peace-loving nations will finally have a chance to join”.

Churchill told the Commons that Yalta showed “Marshal Stalin and the Soviet leaders wish to live in honourable friendship and equality with the Western democracies. I feel also that their word is their bond.” In private, the PM was even bolder, telling a meeting of ministers: “Poor Neville Chamberlain believed he could trust Hitler. He was wrong. But I don’t think I’m wrong about Stalin.”

Both leaders were giving huge hostages to fortune, apparently feeling that this was what the situation demanded. Churchill feared that the fragile Polish settlement might be scuppered by the London Poles and their parliamentary allies; Roosevelt did not want Poland to imperil the launch of the UN. Each man believed that his improving relationship with Stalin would help resolve any future problems. It’s worth restating what is obvious but frequently forgotten: Roosevelt did not intend to die on 12 April 1945, nor did Churchill anticipate his general election defeat at the end of July. Each expected to stay at the helm, steering the Grand Alliance to victory and then into more peaceful waters.

Reaching the summit: world leaders at the ninth G7 meeting, Williamsburg, Virginia, May 1983. Jean-Louis Atlan/Sygma via Getty Images

But during March 1945 relations with Moscow turned sour. The Soviets dragged their feet on repatriating Allied prisoners of war – an important facet of the Yalta agreements. In Poland the communist provisional government was allowed to veto candidates for its own “reconstruction” and to exclude Western observers from elections. Potential rivals in Poland were butchered or sent to the prison camps. And in late March Stalin accused his allies of secretly negotiating with elements of the German army in the Swiss capital, Bern.

London and Washington feared a sinister shift of Soviet policy. Yet most explanations for this assumed the continued good faith of Stalin himself: that seemed a pre-eminent lesson of Yalta, indeed of wartime summitry as a whole. The presumed change of heart was blamed on “party bosses” in Moscow or “Army marshals at the front”. Churchill was definitely unwilling to finger Stalin: on 5 April he wrote darkly to Roosevelt about “the Soviet leaders, whoever they may be”.

In other words, Stalin was seen not as the problem but as, potentially, the problem-solver – an interpretation that today seems bizarre. Churchill and Roosevelt both agreed that, at some point, the sensitive issues must be raised with Stalin personally – disagreeing mainly on when to do so. The PM warned Roosevelt of a “veil” or “curtain” coming down over eastern Europe and repeatedly pressed for a joint message of protest to Stalin about Poland. But the US president did not want to overload their direct line to the Kremlin. As he remarked to Churchill in a telegram hours before he died, he wanted to “minimise the general Soviet problem as much as possible” because frictional issues seemed to “arise every day” and “most of them straighten out, as in the case of the Bern meeting. We must be firm, however, and our course thus far is correct.”


Some historians have argued that the abrupt entry into the Oval Office of Roosevelt’s vice-president Harry Truman marked a fundamental change in US policy – citing his bluntness to the Soviets about adhering to the Yalta agreements on Poland. But, more likely, Truman was just trying to prove his virility as a neophyte president. He hadn’t been at Yalta and, on finally reading the agreement, he realised why the sceptical Leahy called it “elastic”. In May 1945 Truman sent Roosevelt’s wartime emissary, Harry Hopkins, to visit Stalin again and concoct some cosmetic changes to the Polish government so that formal diplomatic recognition could then be extended.

This drove Churchill to despair. Recognition would force him to sever all links with the exiled Polish government in London, for whom Britain had officially gone to war in 1939, and would betray thousands of Polish soldiers who had fought courageously with and for Britain. Just after VE Day in May 1945, the PM even instructed the military to draw up a contingency plan for possible war with the USSR in July in order to get a “square deal” for Poland. The planners were incredulous at the idea of attacking Britain’s former ally just two months after victory, using soldiers of the defeated enemy, and they firmly reminded the PM of what had happened the last time a European power had attacked the Soviet Union.

The whole idea was consigned to the archives under the apt code-name “Operation Unthinkable”. It reveals not only Churchill’s desperation at the fate of Poland but also, one surmises, his mental exhaustion after five unrelenting years of war leadership.

Churchill’s less panicked position was that the British and Americans should have it out with Stalin at the conference table rather than on the battlefield. He pressed this idea on Truman through the summer of 1945, until ejected by the electorate from Downing Street, and then declared it to the world at Fulton, Missouri, in March 1946. There Churchill insisted on the need to maintain the wartime “special relationship” between the US and UK in order to create a position of strength from which to negotiate “a good understanding on all points with Russia”. Hence his own title for the speech: not “the Iron Curtain” but “the Sinews of Peace”.

Fulton, if you like, outlined “operation thinkable” – Churchill’s considered policy towards postwar Russia – rather than the bellicose brainstorm of May 1945. In February 1950 he called for “another talk with the Soviet Union at the highest level”, adding that it was “not easy to see how matters could be worsened by a parley at the summit”. This speech, which introduced “summit” into the diplomatic lexicon, assumed that the Soviet dictator was still a man with whom one could do business – as in 1941-45.

In retrospect one might feel it was always unlikely that the Big Three would hang together once Nazi Germany had been defeated and the Red Army had moved into much of eastern Europe. In a doleful moment during Yalta, Churchill pondered the idea that “the only bond of the victors is their common hate”. But, he added, “we ought to think of something better”. Summitry seemed to be part of the answer: keeping open channels of communication.

Interestingly, there is evidence from the Moscow archives that in 1945 some of Stalin’s inner circle, notably foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov, assumed that the wartime alliance would continue into the postwar period – though manipulated, of course, to suit Soviet interests. But Stalin – whose health, like that of Roosevelt and Churchill, had been undermined by the war – now slipped into an increasingly paranoid view of his former allies. He also brooded on the threats from wartime “cosmopolitan” thinking at home to the stability of his regime. But neither the hardening of Stalin’s arteries nor of his policies was the direct result of Yalta.


The summit of February 1945 was therefore less significant than the self-interested mythology of US Republicans and French Gaullists made out. The West’s “surrender” of eastern Europe to the Soviets, if that’s what it can be called, occurred earlier and by default. Anglo-American delays in mounting the Second Front until 1944 – however understandable – meant that, if the Red Army defeated the Wehrmacht, it would end up deep in Europe. And the formal partition of the continent came later, in 1947-49, with the Marshall Plan, the establishment of two German states, and the creation of Nato. That’s when the Soviet Iron Curtain came down, as it became clear that the US would, after all, be a permanent presence in western Europe.

The Crimea conference should be remembered not as a territorial settlement, more as a mode of diplomacy – what historian Daniel Yergin 40 years ago dubbed the “Yalta axioms”. Roosevelt and Churchill, in their different ways, both assumed that they were dealing with a regime that, despite appearances, was not ideologically programmed to act in a certain way. They also believed that leaders make choices and that, through dialogue, it was possible to ascertain what incentives and pressures might encourage the USSR to move in a more congenial direction. The Big Two may have gambled too much in 1945 on “Uncle Joe” but that does not invalidate their underlying approach.

In the 1980s, Western politicians as diverse as Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Helmut Kohl worked to build a relationship with Mikhail Gorbachev. This helped ensure that the Cold War ended not with a bang but a handshake. More recently, painstakingly negotiated agreement was also the approach of Barack Obama to the problem posed by Iran. And for Brexit Britain the huge task of crafting a beneficial new relationship with the EU will be expedited by sensitive diplomacy behind closed doors rather than “Finest Hour” rhetoric about “them” and “us”.

Talking tough is often politically tempting. Engaging in diplomacy is usually a gamble. But in today’s fragile world, it matters more than ever. 

David Reynolds is the author, with Vladimir Pechatnov, of “The Kremlin Letters: Stalin’s Wartime Correspondence with Churchill and Roosevelt” (Yale)


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This article appears in the 29 Jan 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Over and out