(Above: left to right, Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin)
“ I just have a hunch that Stalin is not that kind of a man. . . . I think that if I give him everything I possibly can and ask for nothing from him in return, noblesse oblige, he won’t try to annex anything and will work with me for a world of democracy and peace. ” —Franklin D. Roosevelt.
“Poor Neville Chamberlain believed he could trust Hitler. He was wrong. But I don’t think I’m wrong about Stalin.”
– Winston Churchill
Unfortunately for Eastern Europe, both the President, and the Prime Minister proved to be wrong about not only the character of the Soviet Dictator, but about his intentions. But the outcome of the Yalta Conference which ended on today’s date, February 11 in 1945, would probably have been the same in any event.
The Yalta Conference
As World War II came to an end in Europe, the leaders of the soon to be victorious Allied powers of the United States, Great Britain, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R. – Russia) met at the Black Sea resort town of Yalta in the Crimean peninsula in what is now Russian-occupied territory of the independent Republic of Ukraine. The conference was held in the luxurious Livadia Palace (below) which
had once been a favorite retreat of the Czar. Here, the heads of the allied governments, Prime Minister Winston Churchill of Great Britain, President Franklin D. Roosevelt of the United States, and Josef Stalin, dictator of the Soviet Union met to discuss the post-war situation of Europe. And all three men had different agendas. Churchill wanted to keep Russia from becoming the overall power in Europe. Roosevelt wanted this also, but was mainly wanting Soviet participation in the new United Nations as well as Soviet help in the still unfinished war against Japan, and Stalin had his troops all over Eastern Europe and he was determined to keep them there.
The Leaders and Their Agendas at Yalta
Winston Churchill came to Yalta as the leader of a victorious Britain, but a Britain which had been seriously weakened by the struggle of this huge war, and no longer the vast imperial power that she had once been. He was hoping to negotiate the Russian away from becoming the predominant power in Europe. Roosevelt came to
Yalta hoping for this as well, but also with the need to get Russia to help out in the still unfinished war against Japan, and also to gain Russian participation in his cherished idea of an international organization to keep the peace – the United Nations. But Roosevelt was a very sick man at this time. The years of war had taken a great toll on him; in fact he would die in just over two months. As shown in the quotations that open this posting, both men thought that Stalin was a reasonable man with whom they could do business. But Stalin had his troops all over Eastern Europe, and far from being reasonable, he had no intention of turning loose of any of it. Poland in particular had been the route to invade Russia in 1812, 1914, and 1941 and he was determined to close it off once and for all.
The Yalta Negotiations and the Result
The negotiations over Eastern Europe came down to the fact that the Russians had it and that was it. As Llewellyn Woodward, a British diplomat said:
“The problem for the British and the Americans was to discover how far the Russians intended to collaborate with the western powers after the war… what use they intended to make of their military power… The President and his entourage continued to assume that, unlike Great Britain, Russia was not an imperial power.”
Also, FDR was very anxious to gain full Russian participation in his planned United Nations as well as the war on Japan. The atom bomb which would in a few months end that war, had not been developed yet, and the likely casualties of an invasion of Japan itself would be in the millions. The President was set on attaining these two vital goals. The
Russians had full military possession of Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe, and the prospect of forcing them out militarily was (above: the Yalta conference table) simply impossible for the war-weary and exhausted allies. This lead to long and detailed talks about free elections in Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe which in the end the Russians would not honor. Stalin had his foot on that land and had no intention of removing it.
FDR’s Sell-out of Eastern Europe?
When all of this became public in the months and years that followed the Yalta Conference, it began to look as though a sick Roosevelt had sold the store to Stalin, condemning Eastern Europe to years of Soviet domination. Yes, FDR had indeed been on his last lap during Yalta. But the truth had been much simpler. As James Mac Gregor Burns wrote, Roosevelt’s stance at Yalta did not result from
“naivete, ignorance, illness or perfidy, but from his acceptance of the facts: Russia occupied Poland. Russia distrusted its Western allies. Russia had a million men who could fight Japan. Russia could sabotage the new peace organization. And Russia was absolutely determined about Poland and always had been.”
(Above: the final partition of Germany into occupation zones)
The Final Joint Communique’ of the Yalta Conference issued on this date reflects the hopes of a world which was exhausted after years of war, and which was about to enter upon a new and even more perilous period of “Cold War” versus a determined and expansionist Soviet Union under Stalin:
“Our meeting here in the Crimea has reaffirmed our common determination to maintain and strengthen in the peace to come that unity of purpose and of action which has made victory possible and certain for the United Nations in this war. We believe that this is a sacred obligation which our Governments owe to our peoples and to all the peoples of the world.
“Only with the continuing and growing cooperation and understanding among our three countries and among all the peace-loving Nations can the highest aspiration of humanity be realized—a secure and lasting peace which will, in the words of the Atlantic Charter, “afford assurance that all the men in all the lands may live out their lives in freedom from fear and want.”
“Victory in this war and establishment of the proposed international organization will provide the greatest opportunity in all history to create in the years to come the essential conditions of such a peace.”
“A History of Modern Europe, 1815 to the Present” by Albert S. Lindemann, Wiley and Sons. Ltd., Chichester, U.K., 2013
“British Foreign Policy in the Second World War” by Sir Ernest Llewellyn Woodward, HM. Stationary Office, London, U.K., 1962
“Roosevelt: Soldier of Freedom 1940 – 45” by James MacGregor Burns, U.S.A., 1970