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What’s the Context? 4 February 1945: the Yalta Conference opens

The Yalta Myth

Between 4 and 11 February 1945, while the Second World War still raged both in Europe and in the Far East, the ‘Big Three’—Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill—met at the Black Sea resort of Yalta, supported by large delegations, to discuss the shape of the postwar world. The agreements reached there, including arrangements for an occupied and denazified Germany, for a ‘World Organisation’ to ensure peace (the UN), for bringing the war in Japan to a successful conclusion and for the future of Eastern Europe, have been instrumental in ensuring that of all wartime Allied conferences, Yalta has retained the most negative resonance.

Churchill sat with Stalin and Roosevelt in a row. They are surrounded by lots of personel
Yalta conference Churchill Stalin Roosevelt 1945 (The National Archives ref: INF 14/447)

The enduring Yalta Myth is that Europe was ‘carved up’ at the conference, to the advantage of the Soviet Union and at the expense of countries like Poland. Roosevelt and Churchill were ‘outwitted’ by Stalin, and condemned Eastern Europe to years of Soviet domination. The Big Three leaders played a game of power politics that rode roughshod over the rights of countries and individuals, including Prisoners of War for whom enforced repatriation could mean death. Promises were made that no one had any intention of fulfilling.

Like all myths, these allegations contain an element of truth and provide a useful propaganda weapon. But they distort the reality of the situation. The Cold War cannot be laid at Yalta’s door, except in the sense that the decisions reached continued a long-established direction of travel. Sir Frank Roberts, the veteran British diplomat who attended Yalta and was still giving fascinating talks about it up to his death in 1998, stressed that context was the key to understanding what happened at Yalta, in particular ‘place and timing’: the timing because the end of the war in Europe was then in sight and the place because it was so obviously under exclusively Soviet control and so far from Western eyes.

Why Yalta?

Holding the Conference at Yalta demonstrated Stalin’s power. Claiming his health would not permit air travel, the Soviet leader insisted on meeting at the Black Sea. So the ailing US President Roosevelt had to make an arduous journey of 6000 miles; Churchill, aged over 70, 4000 miles. After meeting in Malta on 2 February, Roosevelt and Churchill flew 1400 miles to the Crimea, followed by an eight-hour drive. In fact, Soviet organisation of the conference was good, but the choice of Yalta reflected, intentionally, a shift in the axis of world power.

Stalin took a train to Yalta from Moscow. He controlled the physical aspect of the Conference, which included bugging his foreign guests’ quarters. This meant he knew some of what they were thinking: it also meant their whims could be accommodated; after Churchill’s daughter Sarah mentioned in the Vorontsov Palace, where the British were staying, that lemon juice went well with caviar, a lemon tree laden with fruit appeared overnight in the orangery. The surveillance was hardly a surprise to his British and American guests: Churchill, for example, had been warned that he could not receive his ULTRA messages at Yalta. But he did get lemons with his caviar.

Why February 1945?

The war in Europe was almost won. 1944 had been a decisive year, with the Normandy landings in June and the huge Russian summer offensive in the east. Stalin, despite the terrible losses suffered by Soviet forces, was in a dominant military position. By the beginning of 1945 the Eastern Front ran from Memel on the Baltic through Poland and Czechoslovakia down to Yugoslavia. The Red Army was on the Oder, barely 40 miles from Berlin; the Western allies were closing in on the Rhine, but held up by the German counter-offensive in the Ardennes.

The defeat of Germany was close: that of Japan, much less so. Nevertheless, postwar planning was well under way. At the beginning of 1945 all the Big Three recognised the pressing need to reach agreement on how the war would end, in Europe and the Far East, and also on what peace would look like. They all wanted to continue the wartime practice of sorting out global issues between themselves. But their priorities were different, and did not necessarily coincide.

Stalin: A Bear who knows his own mind?

Anthony Eden observed that the British and Americans had no negotiating strategy for Yalta sufficient to combat ‘a Bear who would certainly know his own mind’. But Stalin’s plans should have been no surprise. His intentions had been clear since 1939: to recover or control the territories of the old Russian Empire. He had spelled it out to William Strang in the abortive negotiations before the Nazi-Soviet Pact; he spelled it out to Eden himself in Moscow in 1941. By early 1945, Germany, thought Stalin, was finished as a world power: the USSR was poised to become one, based on its outstanding military contribution; now was the time to press his advantage.

But it was not as simple as that. At Yalta, Stalin’s priorities were to protect the frontiers of the expanded Soviet state and to be accepted as a superpower. He was deeply suspicious of the territorial, political and commercial ambitions of his fellow Allies. Intelligence he received from Soviet spies in both American and British official circles increased that suspicion. The Soviet Union badly needed to replenish its resources, human and material, depleted by its superhuman efforts in the armed struggle. How a defeated Germany was organised mattered to Stalin as a source of reparations; dominance in Eastern Europe was about populations and trade, as well as politics. The Soviet Union had frontiers in the Far East, too, so the outcome of war with Japan mattered. Stalin did not want the postwar world arranged by the old imperialist power, Britain, or the new military and economic superpower, America. His was a defensive as well as offensive position.

Roosevelt: What price Uncle Joe?

Roosevelt was a sick man, and died two months after Yalta. His main priority was to secure the Soviet Union’s entry into the war against Japan. US military advisers warned that victory could take another 18 months, and at this stage it was by no means certain that the atom bomb would work, or that it would force Japan into submission. Roosevelt needed Soviet help in beating Japan, and was prepared to pay for it by conceding Stalin’s demands, whether to independent membership of the UN for the Soviet Republics of Ukraine and Byelorussia, to a veto system in the Security Council, or to the Kurile and Southern Sakhalin islands, regardless of other regional powers like China. Roosevelt wanted final victory over Germany, of course, but could afford to wait for it a while if necessary. Postwar, he envisaged only short-term American involvement in Europe, and was more interested in formulating principles than in the details that affected individual countries. Roosevelt’s other pet project, the United Nations, would, he was determined, ensure a peaceful environment that permitted US disengagement.

The Second World War had given the US global military and economic dominance. It was Roosevelt who was in the real position of power at Yalta. Though he valued the Anglo-American relationship, he was quite prepared to overlook British interests, ridiculing Churchill’s so-called ‘imperialist’ policies as outdated and irrelevant, playing up the importance of the Soviet Union. In reality, he was determined that US interests should prevail, and his two Allies had to find their own ways of dealing with that.

Churchill: the world at our feet?

Despite his more grandiloquent statements, Churchill was well aware of the dangers that Yalta posed to British interests, to the future peace of Europe and the wider world. Above all, he needed hostilities to end quickly: the burden of fighting a long war, alone from 1939 to 1941, had crippled Britain financially and forced it into what J.M. Keynes called ‘Starvation Corner’. US support for and aid to Britain, and a major American commitment to European defence, would be essential. At Yalta Churchill was frustrated by what he saw as Roosevelt’s lack of understanding of Britain’s global commitments, and of the threat perceived from Soviet dominance in Eastern Europe, but in the end his only weapon was persuasion. Though it was hard for Churchill to accept, Britain had little leverage at Yalta, and must concentrate on moderating, rather than dictating outcomes.

Churchill did score some successes at Yalta. One was the agreement that France should be invited to occupy a zone in Germany and participate in the Control Commission, an outcome crucial in view of Roosevelt’s determination to restrict the length of time American troops would stay in Europe. Less specific but nevertheless important was Churchill’s tough stance in defence of freedom and the rule of law, for example in the drafting of the Declaration on Liberated Europe that committed the three powers to establishing free elections and democratic governments. The fact that the Soviet Union failed to abide by its commitments does not diminish Churchill’s efforts to secure them. But he was playing a weak hand compared to that of Stalin and, even more, of Roosevelt.

What Yalta was−and was not

The Yalta Conference was significant, but that significance should not be inflated. Yalta was not a peace conference. It was just one, and not the most important in a series of Allied wartime meetings to address the issues that would face the post-war world. Many of the Yalta decisions, including those on the frontiers of Poland, enacted agreements already arrived at. Others (like reparations) were not to be worked out fully until the Potsdam conference in July-August 1945. Yalta was, in a sense, a transitional conference, marking the beginning of the end of the second global conflict within the memory of its participants. In assessing its proceedings, the effects on its participants−not just the Big Three, but the 700 delegates−of sheer exhaustion, of deprivation and loss, and of anxiety about the future, should not be underestimated. Yalta foreshadowed the emerging world, rather than determining it.

Suggestions for further reading:

John Erickson, The Road to Berlin: Stalin’s War with Germany (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1983)
Michael Charlton, The Eagle and the Small Birds (BBC, 1984)
C.M. Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky, KGB: The Inside Story of its Foreign Operations from Lenin to Gorbachev (Hodder and Stoughton, 1990)
Gill Bennett (ed), The End of the War in Europe (HMSO, 1996)
David Reynolds, Summits (Allen Lane, 2007)
Fraser Harbutt, Yalta 1945: Europe and America at the Crossroads (Cambridge University Press, 2014)

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  1. Comment by Lucy Tatner posted on

    Is it right to say Britain had fought the war alone from 1939 to 1941? France was our ally from September 1939 until June 1940, it's only really between Dunkerque and Pearl Harbour that Britain was alone

  2. Comment by Gill Bennett posted on

    Of course you are right that France was also in the war until June 1940; but I was referring in particular to Britain's bearing the financial burden. Debts incurred for the war effort between September 1939 and 1941 (when some help was received under Lend-Lease) played a significant part in Britain's dire financial situation by the time of Yalta.