From an ideological perspective, the setting for the Feb. 4 to 11, 1945, Crimea Conference was as unlikely as the wartime alliance itself. The resort town of Yalta, 51 km southeast of Sevastopol, was a prerevolution playground of the czars, a balmy Black Sea playground where the Romanovs, their friends and relatives built their palaces and idled away the summer months. Despife the town’s patrician past and the heavy damage it sustained during ! the early stages of the Second World War, Soviet Marshal Josef Stalin chose it as the site for his historic summit with the two titans of the West—U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. During the conference Stalin proved to be an extremely generous —and shrewd—host. And Yalta itself achieved lasting recognition as a place where great men had met to negotiate great issues—including the future of Europe—while their armies advanced remorselessly on Nazi Germany.
Smashing: The Yalta summit took place 14 months after Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin had met in Tehran to coordinate Allied efforts to crush Adolf Hitler and to begin planning the postwar world. Most modern historians trace the current East-West division of Europe to decisions reached among the Big Three at Tehran. But Yalta became best-known among many historians— especially those who were American critics of Roosevelt—as the meeting at which Stalin outwitted his Western counterparts and stole an empire.
By late 1944, after the Normandy invasion had successfully established a second front, Germany’s future was virtually decided. A new summit meeting seemed essential—to decide, among other issues, what to do after Germany’s unconditional surrender. At Tehran, despite his negotiating acumen, Stalin was clearly regarded as a junior partner. But little more than a year later, with the Red Army smashing its way west along a broad front from the Baltic to the Balkans and with the Western Allies not yet across the Rhine, Stalin’s power was undeniable.
The site itself paid tribute to his importance. The Soviet dictator refused to leave his own country—partly for security reasons, partly because he was de-
termined to meet his allies as their acknowledged equal. Unable to change his mind, Roosevelt and Churchill eventually agreed to make the long and hazardous journey to the Black Sea and planned a preliminary Anglo-American conference on the Mediterranean island of Malta. Churchill, in a playful mood
despite the gravity of the times, marked the agreement on a conference site by scribbling a few lines of doggerel: No more let us alter or falter or palter. From Malta to Yalta, and Yalta to Malta.
‘Fateful’: Both Roosevelt and Churchill had deep concerns about the conference. The American leader’s chronically frail health was degenerating rapidly—two months after his return from the Crimea, Roosevelt died—and
Churchill worried about the risks involved, as well as his personal comfort. In Triumph and Tragedy, the final volume of his epic history of the Second World War, the British leader recalled his concern: “From all the reports I had received about conditions at Yalta, we could not have found a worse place for a
meeting if we had spent 10 years looking for it.”
The allies were already suspicious of each other, and Churchill also foresaw the historical significance of Yalta. Barely a month before the meeting he wrote Roosevelt that Yalta “would be a fateful conference, coming at a moment when the Great Allies are so divided.” Added the British leader, prophetically: “At the present time, I think the end of
this war may well prove to be more disappointing than was the last.” Damage: They arrived from Malta on Feb. 3, in delegations that were expected to number 35 each but which had grown to a total of about 700. Roosevelt was accompanied by Secretary of State Edward Stettinius Jr. and by Harry Hopkins, his principal adviser; Churchill by Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden. Stalin’s foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, led the welcoming delegation at Saki airfield, where, Churchill wrote later, Roosevelt “looked frail and ill.” Accompanied by Molotov, the British and American parties drove the remaining 120 km to Yalta. In his postconfer-
ence report to the British House of Commons on Feb. 27, Churchill described the trip in detail: “[We] motored over the mountains—about which very alarming accounts had been given, but these proved to be greatly exaggerated—until we found shelter on the southern shore of the Crimea. This is protected by the mountains and forms a beautiful Black Sea Riviera, where there still remain, undestroyed by the Nazis, a few villas and palaces of the vanished imperial and aristocratic regime.”
Indeed, like much of the Crimean peninsula, Yalta had suffered severe damage, the result of German occupation and subsequent Red Army liberation. Churchill’s concern over his personal comfort proved to be largely unfounded —biographer Piers Brendon reported that in Yalta the British leader “consumed buckets of Caucasian champagne and mountains of caviar.” The biggest nuisance, apparently, was caused by bedbugs. In his book Such a Peace: The Roots and Ashes of Yalta, Cyrus L. Sulzberger, the veteran New York Times foreign affairs columnist, wrote that on Churchill’s first night in the Crimea he summoned Lord Moran, his personal physician, and demanded powders to counter the insects. The Soviets could do little to solve that problem, but their hospitality was otherwise impeccable. On the day after a member of Churchill’s party remarked casually that there was no lemon to garnish cocktails, the British were astonished to find a lemon tree, heavy with fruit, growing in a planter in the hall.
Doubts: Stalin and his party .stayed in the sprawling Yusupov Palace near the even grander Livadia Palace, which had been prepared for Roosevelt and where most of the plenary sessions took place. Churchill and his senior aides were assigned to Vorontzov Palace, a large villa designed by a 19th-century British architect for a Russian prince. Most of the Anglo-American delegations were billeted five and six to a room, and all but Roosevelt had to share toilet facilities. After their discussions the conferees adjourned 5 for evening banquets, s with endless rounds of toasts and speeches. On one occasion Stalin responded to Churchill by praising the intimacy of the alliance. “Possibly,” he added, “our alliance is so firm just because we do not deceive each other.” It was a speech of supreme irony, because the three leaders harbored growing doubts about each other’s motives. Indeed, that very week Stalin had postponed the Red Army’s determined advance on Berlin without even telling Churchill or Roosevelt.
Their divisions in part reflected their
differing priorities, although each of them agreed that Germany’s defeat was nearly complete. Roosevelt, concerned about the Pentagon’s estimate that the war against Japan would cost a halfmillion Allied lives and continue for at least 18 months after a ceasefire in Europe, wanted Stalin’s assurance that Moscow would declare war on Tokyo after Germany’s surrender. Churchill’s primary goal was to protect Britain’s empire and to maintain its position as a global power. But with Roosevelt vowing to pull American troops from Europe within two years after the war, he was also increasingly concerned about possible Soviet domination of Europe.
Prisoners: Because Britain was virtually bankrupt from the struggle against Hitler, Churchill also sought an expanded peacetime role for France as well as a free and democratic Poland to counterbalance the Soviets. For his part, Stalin was determined to bring as much territory as possible under Moscow’s hegemony and to protect Soviet security by reducing Germany to a handful of unarmed pastoral states.
Most of the conference was dominated by the Polish question, and Churchill extracted a promise from Stalin that a larger Polish state, the western part of which would be seized from Germany, would have “free and unfettered elections” in which all political viewpoints except nazism would be represented.
Roosevelt won a secret agreement from Stalin to declare war on Japan, a pledge considered critical at the time but one overtaken by the successful development of the atom bomb and President Harry Truman’s decision to use it on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In exchange Roosevelt agreed to recognize Soviet claims in Manchuria, Outer Mongolia and in the Pacific itself, where Moscow coveted several strategic Japanese islands. Stalin accepted Roosevelt’s approach to voting procedures in the postwar United Nations, a compromise that laid the groundwork for the UN’s creation later that year. And secretly, the Americans formally agreed to a Stalin proposal that the Allies repatriate all prisoners of war, a decision that condemned an estimated three million to execution or enslavement by the Soviets.
As they left Yalta, with the Germans near surrender, both Roosevelt and Churchill declared that their negotiations had been largely successful and that a lasting peace in Europe would follow. But within weeks Stalin’s troops had consolidated and extended their grip on Eastern Europe, and it was clear that the Soviet leader’s pledge of free elections was empty. The hot war was ending, but the Cold War had just begun.
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