Seventy-five years ago, in February 1945, some of the last battles of World War II were still being fought but the Allies—US President Franklin Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin—knew the defeat of Nazi Germany was not far off. Their next great challenge was to decide how to manage the peace and to do that the three leaders needed to meet face to face, as they had last done in Teheran in 1943. Under pressure from Stalin, the chosen venue was on his home territory—the Black Sea resort of Yalta on the Crimean Peninsula, recently liberated from the Nazis.
Between February 4 and 11, 1945 the “Big Three”—as the press called them—made decisions that resonate to this day. Stalin’s price for Soviet entry into the war against Japan enabled the Red Army to advance into Korea and precipitated the Korean War, leading to the continuing partition of Korea and the ongoing confrontation with the Kim dynasty today. Yalta also seeded the ground for the Cold War. Within just weeks Stalin violated protocols signed at the conference that should have guaranteed democratic freedoms for the countries of Eastern Europe, and the Iron Curtain began to descend.
This diary reveals—often in the words of those who were there—what happened on each of eight momentous days, exactly 75 years ago, as Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill not only defined a new world order but bequeathed a problematic legacy to our time. Head here to read days one, two, three, and four.
Early Morning: Vorontsov Palace
Sarah Churchill writes home, “Papa is bearing up very well—despite the strain of getting through so much in really so short a time …” She and Sawyers, his valet, have “a wonderful idea” for keeping her father sustained at the long plenary sessions: “We are going to send him over some chicken soup in a thermos—and when they break for a few minutes for tea—he could have his chicken soup! If he doesn’t have a whisky and soda!”
Noon: Vorontsov Palace
Foreign Ministers discuss the first meeting of the United Nations and the Soviet request for extra seats. They quickly agree a date—April 25—and accept Stettinius’ invitation for it to convene in the US. However, uncertain of Roosevelt’s attitude, Stettinius refuses to commit himself on UN membership for the Soviet republics. Molotov tries to blackmail him, suggesting that if they cannot agree on UN membership, they should make this public. Realizing such exposure could compromise the unity of the UN before it is even established, Stettinius hastens back to the Livadia to consult the President.
15.30: Livadia Palace, Roosevelt’s study
Roosevelt tells Stettinius that “somehow or other we will now have to accept the Soviet proposal.” At that moment, the study doors open to admit Stalin. Roosevelt immediately tells him the Foreign Ministers have agreed the agenda for that day’s plenary session. Does this include the admission of additional Soviet republics? Stalin asks. Yes, the President replies.
Stalin has come at Roosevelt’s invitation for a private meeting about Soviet Union entry into the war against Japan. He presents his terms—he wants from Japan the southern half of Sakhalin Island, north of Japan, and the largely uninhabited Kuriles, a chain of 32 islands extending from just beyond the northernmost Japanese home island of Hokkaido northwards to the Russian Kamchatka Peninsula. Roosevelt says “there is no difficulty whatsoever” about Stalin acquiring these islands (some of which were taken from Russia in the 1904/5 Russo/Japanese War). Stalin’s further demands include access, at the expense of US ally Nationalist China and its leader Chiang Kai-shek, to the strategic Manchurian Railroad and the warm water Chinese port of Dairen [Dalian] at its terminus. Roosevelt prefers Dairen to become a free port because he hopes the British will return Hong Kong to China as an international port, though he knows “Mr. Churchill would have strong objections.”
Stalin insists that unless all his conditions are met he will find it hard to explain to the Supreme Soviet why their country is going to war against Japan—a country that, unlike Germany, has not attacked them and with whom he has signed a non-aggression pact. As for the Chinese Nationalists, Stalin suggests there is no need “to speak to the Chinese” until he has moved Soviet divisions eastward. Roosevelt agrees on the pretext that Chinese security is so lax there would inevitably be leaks. Stalin also proposes “it would be well to leave here with these conditions set forth in writing agreed to by the three powers.” Roosevelt agrees that Molotov should draft a secret agreement on the terms they have discussed.
Churchill has meanwhile arrived at the Livadia to discover Stalin is with Roosevelt—the President had not told him about the meeting. Stettinius sends in a message that Churchill is here. Roosevelt writes back “Let him wait.” He is buoyant. In a meeting lasting barely half an hour, he has secured Soviet agreement to enter the war against Japan. Stalin is also content, having obtained his objective of substantial acquisitions at Japan’s expense and a Soviet foothold in North-East China.
16.15: Livadia Palace—The Ballroom
Roosevelt opens the fifth plenary session. Eden reports the Foreign Ministers’ recommendations that the first UN conference be held on April 25, 1945 in the United States, that only those countries which have declared war on Germany and signed the UN Declaration by a specified date in February be invited, and that the conference itself should decide the organization’s founding members. At that stage the US and UK delegates will support the admission of two Soviet republics as members of the General Assembly.
Stalin is not satisfied. Why should nations which “have wavered and speculated on being on the winning side and are now rushing to declare war on Germany” be treated the same as nations “who have really waged war and have suffered.” He pressures Roosevelt to agree the Soviet republics be recognized as UN members immediately. Churchill supports him—“the martyrdom and sufferings” of the Ukraine and Belarus should be rewarded. Roosevelt resists. Stalin finally gives way.
After these testy exchanges, the three leaders again “wrestle with the problem of Poland.” Roosevelt responds to Molotov’s proposals of the previous day. He accepts the Soviet proposals for Poland’s eastern border with only minor modifications, but rejects extending Poland’s western frontier as far as the Western Neisse River. He insists on a new “Polish Government of National Unity” comprising “representative leaders from the present Polish provisional government in Warsaw ( i.e. the Lublin group), from other democratic elements inside Poland and from Polish democratic leaders abroad.”
A sharp confrontation ensues as Molotov launches a barrage of objections. Why are the Americans and the British ignoring “the existence of the present government in Poland,” which has “great authority” and support in Poland? Why are they objecting to a border along the Western Neisse when there is not “the slightest doubt” the Poles themselves desire this?
When Molotov finishes, Churchill begins. Roosevelt scribbles a note to Stettinius, “Now we’re in for 1/2 hour of it.” Peering over his half-moon glasses Churchill says that this is “the crucial point of this great conference.” If they leave Yalta while still recognizing different Polish governments, “the whole world will see that fundamental differences between us still exist” that will “stamp this conference with the seal of failure.” To avoid a situation highly destructive to Allied unity they must demonstrate that “a new government representative of the Polish people has been created, pledged to an election on the basis of universal suffrage by secret ballot.”
Ignoring the previous charade about being unable to invite Polish leaders to Yalta, Molotov responds blandly that it is very hard to resolve the Polish question without participation of the Poles themselves. Roosevelt suggests that, since all agree on the need for free elections, the only remaining issue is how Poland should be governed until then. Stalin, speaking at greater length than usual, rejects the US proposals. The sympathies of the Poles, he claims, lie with those who stayed in the country and suffered under a brutal occupation, rather than with those who left. The Red Army’s advance into Poland has transformed the age-old hostility of the Poles into tremendous goodwill. They view their liberation from the Nazis as “a great national festival in their history.” The only way to achieve agreement is to reconstruct the existing Provisional Government in Warsaw—not to attempt to set up a new one.
Returning the debate to elections in Poland, Roosevelt asks how soon they could be held. “In about one month unless there is a catastrophe on the front and the Germans defeat us,” Stalin says. “I do not think this will happen.” Roosevelt suggests deferring further discussions to allow Foreign Ministers to reconsider the issues, prompting rare jocularity from Molotov who laughs, “The other two will outvote me.”
19.40: The meeting breaks up. Stalin again has conceded nothing. On Poland’s new government his intention is “to allow one or two émigrés in, for decorative purposes, but no more.”
Early evening: Livadia Palace
Roosevelt is exhausted by an “arduous” and “emotionally disturbing” meeting. His complexion is grey. Dr. Bruenn takes his blood pressure and discovers for the first time that he is suffering from “pulsus alternans”—a condition in which strong heart beats alternate with weak ones and a sure indication of an overtaxed heart. However, Roosevelt has less than an hour to rest and change before departing for the grand dinner Stalin is hosting that night at the Yusupov.
21.00: Yusupov Palace
Delighted with “the good, very good” agreement with Roosevelt on Soviet entry into the war against Japan, Stalin is in “excellent humour and even in high spirits.” His security chief, Lavrentii Beria, is among the dinner guests, listening “very carefully to all that is said,” and drinking only lemonade or mineral water. When Roosevelt asks who he is, Stalin grins, “Ah, that one, that’s our Himmler.”
The inevitable toasts begin. Stalin lauds Britain for standing alone “when the rest of Europe was falling flat on its face before Hitler” and Churchill as “his fighting friend and a brave man.” Next, he toasts Roosevelt. Though his country has not seriously faced invasion, the President “has been the chief forger of the instruments which had led to the mobilization of the world against Hitler.” Roosevelt’s brainchild, the Lend-Lease program, allowing US Allies to acquire vital US goods and equipment but defer payment, is a “most remarkable and vital achievement.” However, Stalin warns that maintaining unity in wartime when there is a common enemy is “not so difficult.” The harder challenge will come after victory. The three must ensure their relations in peacetime are “as strong as they have been in war.”
For the translators it is a hard night at the end of a long, hard day. To their amazement during the dinner, Stalin “gets up, glass in hand and says: ‘Tonight, and on other occasions, we three leaders have got together. We talk, we eat and drink, and we enjoy ourselves. But meanwhile our three interpreters … have to work, and their work is not easy. They have no time to eat or drink. We rely on them to transmit our ideas to each other. I propose a toast to our interpreters.’” He walks around the table, clinking glasses with each one. Raising his own glass, Churchill exclaims: “Interpreters of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your audience!” This parody of the Communist slogan “so tickles Stalin’s sense of humor that it is some minutes before he can stop laughing.”
Watching and listening with fascination are the “Little Three,” as the leaders call Sarah Churchill, Anna Boettiger, and Kathleen Harriman, whom Stalin has invited. Before the meal, Sarah recited to Beria the five Russian sentences she has mastered, including “can I have a hot water bottle please,” to which the secret police chief leerily replied, “I cannot believe that you need one! Surely there is enough fire in you.”
The dinner does not finish until after midnight. Stettinius goes to bed with the UN still on his mind. He wakes suddenly “with a clear picture of San Francisco playing host to the United Nations. My mind races with enthusiasm and freshness. I see Nob Hill, the Opera House … the Fairmont and the St. Francis Hotel, each filling its purpose. I see the golden sunshine, and as I lie here on the shores of the Black Sea in the Crimea, I can almost feel the fresh and invigorating air from the Pacific.”
Morning: Roosevelt’s apartments, Livadia Palace
An excited Stettinius tells the President his idea of holding the first UN Conference in San Francisco, but finds Roosevelt downbeat—why transport so many people so far in wartime? He tells Stettinius to reflect further. Roosevelt also says US public support for the UN will be hard to win if the Polish problem remains unresolved and asks him to prepare fresh proposals. Roosevelt’s physical frailty touches Fenya, an elderly Russian chambermaid: “Such a sweet and kind man, but so terribly, terribly ill.” Anna Boettiger resents the strain he is under while so many aides do nothing but “sit on their fannies and play gin rummy.”
11.00: Livadia Palace
The US and UK Chiefs of Staff tell Roosevelt and Churchill their estimated date for defeating Nazi Germany is July 1, 1945 at the earliest and December 31, 1945 at the latest, and for Japan around eighteen months later.
Noon: Grand Ballroom, Livadia Palace
At the Foreign Ministers’ meeting Stettinius presents revised US proposals on Poland. The Soviet-backed Lublin group should “be reorganized” into a fully representative government including democratic leaders from Poland and abroad. Once it is in place, elections should be held, which ambassadors from the US, UK, and Soviet Union to Poland will observe to confirm they are “free and unfettered.” Molotov immediately objects, particularly about the ambassadors’ role. Stettinius says they must inform the plenary session they still cannot agree.
Next, Stettinius presents the latest US proposals on German reparations: the nations that sacrificed most in the war will be first in line for compensation; Germany should pay in two ways—first by surrendering industrial equipment, rolling stock etc., second through annual deliveries of commodities over the next ten years; when calculating the total reparations the special commission to be set up in Moscow should bear in mind the Soviet Union’s suggested total of $20 billion. Molotov wants $10 billion for the Soviet Union but Stettinius suggests the Soviets should receive 50 percent of any agreed total. Molotov grudgingly accepts but Eden opposes specifying any total figure until the Moscow commission has ascertained how much Germany can bear.
Ministers briefly discuss the forthcoming UN conference, including the idea of setting up territorial trusteeships to govern former colonies liberated from the Japanese. They agree that the five permanent members of the Security Council should explore this before the conference opens.
16.00: Courtyard, Livadia Palace
Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin gather for a photo call in the oriental rug-strewn colonnaded courtyard, where three chairs stand ready. Roosevelt, enveloped in his favorite dark cape, is helped to the middle chair. Churchill, wearing a Russian fur hat and swaddled in a buff-colored military greatcoat sits, cigar clamped between his jaws, to his right. Stalin, in red-flashed army greatcoat and cap, sits to his left. Their diplomatic and military staffs hover in the background. US army photographer Robert Hopkins detects “a kind of euphoria … for what has been accomplished … Their faces reflect relief from the strain of negotiations, and there is laughter and good-natured banter.”
Among the photographers is Red Army captain Samary Gurary. In his haste after the shoot he opens his camera before re-winding the film. Though he immediately snaps it shut he is sure he has ruined the film. Gurary knows that Stalin personally vets official photographs of himself. During the ten minutes he takes to develop the film, he feels his life “hanging by a thread.” Luckily his shots are undamaged. They will appear in Pravda.
16.30: Grand Ballroom, Livadia Palace
Roosevelt opens the sixth plenary session. The tone is set as Stettinius reports that Foreign Ministers still cannot agree on Poland. By now Molotov has discussed the latest US proposals with Stalin. The Soviet Union can agree, as the US suggests, that the present provisional government of Poland—the Lublin group—should be reorganized “on a wider democratic basis with the inclusion of democratic leaders from Poland itself and from those living abroad.” However, references to “democratic parties” should be qualified by the addition of “non-Fascist and anti-Fascist.” References to ambassadors observing the elections “should be eliminated” as offensive to the Poles.
Churchill cautions against rushing such an important decision just because “there remains only 48 hours for their meetings” and everyone is eager “to put foot in the stirrup and be off …” and requests more time to consider. Roosevelt suggests Stettinius complete his report of the Foreign Ministers’ meeting, after which they will break for half an hour.
When Stettinius reaches the proposal that the five permanent members of the Security Council should discuss territorial trusteeships for former colonies, Churchill erupts. In “great agitation” he shouts that under no circumstances will he “ever consent to 40 or 50 nations thrusting interfering fingers into the life’s existence of the British Empire.” Roosevelt and Stettinius assure Churchill that the proposed trusteeships concern not the British Empire but liberated areas taken from the enemy such as “the Japanese islands in the Pacific.” However, Churchill, quivering with rage and repeating “Never. Never. Never.” takes some time to calm down.
After the recess they again discuss Poland. Roosevelt wants the reference to foreign ambassadors observing the Polish elections reinstated, but suggests hopefully that the three powers are “now very near agreement” and that “a little more work” by the Foreign Ministers that night might settle “only a matter of words and details.” Churchill supports Roosevelt on allowing ambassadors to observe the elections—the Western Allies know little about events inside Poland. What they do hear is alarming, for example that “members of the Polish Home Army and the underground forces” are to be tried as traitors.
With the debate on Poland again bogged down, Stalin switches discussion to the proposed “Joint Declaration on Liberated Europe.” Drafted by the US and approved by the Foreign Ministers, the page and a half long statement of high-flown ideals is to be released when the conference ends. It speaks of re-establishing order in Europe to allow “liberated peoples to destroy the last vestiges of Nazism and Fascism and to create democratic institutions of their own choice,” and upholds “the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live.”
On first seeing the text, Molotov told Stalin, “This is going too far!,” to which the Stalin replied, “Don’t worry, work it out. We can deal with it in our own way later. The point is the correlation of forces.” Stalin now praises the Declaration. He will accept it subject to “a small amendment” that support will particularly be given “to the political leaders of those countries who have taken an active part in the struggle against the German invaders.” Roosevelt points out that the Declaration will apply “to any areas or countries where it was needed” including Poland, where the elections will be the first practical test of the Declaration. That is why “like Caesar’s wife, they must be above suspicion.” Stalin retorts, “Caesar’s wife had that reputation but in fact she had her sins.” Churchill approves the Declaration but, ever keen to enhance France’s status, suggests it be invited to associate itself with the Declaration.
As the session draws to a close, Churchill announces that the Allied offensive in the West has begun—100,000 British and Canadian soldiers attacked at dawn the previous day around Nijmegen—Operation Veritable—and have advanced some distance. The second wave, from the US Ninth Army, will push forward tomorrow.
Evening: Roosevelt’s apartments, Livadia Palace
Roosevelt has the alcoholic rubdown and light massage his physician Dr. McIntire has prescribed every evening before dinner. McIntire finds the President buoyant. “It is with his old smile that he announces ‘I’ve got everything I came for, and not at too high a price.”’ Stalin has “agreed to full participation” in the UN Furthermore, the Soviet Union “will enter the war against Japan at an early date.” The only fly in the ointment is Poland.
Evening: Vorontsov Palace
Churchill, too, remains anxious about Poland. He cables his war cabinet in London that he is continuing to press on Poland—the most important issues are for the elections to be observed and “informing ourselves properly about what is going on in Poland.”
Churchill’s doctor, Lord Moran, hears of Churchill’s outburst on trusteeships. He reflects how, whenever the British Empire is mentioned, Churchill indulges “in histrionics which do no good … if only he would listen occasionally.” However, Roosevelt also seems to him to lose his balance “when colonies are discussed … he cannot leave the Empire alone … though he never turns a hair when a great chunk of Europe falls into the clutches of the Soviet Union. I don’t think that he has ever grasped that Russia is a Police State …”
22.30: Yusupov Palace
Foreign Ministers work into the early hours—the chief topic and chief obstacle is Poland. Finally, they hammer out a draft stating that the Lublin government will be “reorganized on a broader democratic basis with the inclusion of democratic leaders from Poland itself and from those living abroad.” Molotov still refuses to allow any reference to the ambassadors of the three powers in Warsaw observing the election. The question is left for the leaders to consider next day. With only limited time remaining, many are already looking beyond the conference and are eager to be gone.
Eight Days at Yalta: How Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin Shaped the Post-War World, by Diana Preston is available now from Grove Atlantic.