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, four, five and six.
Morning: Roosevelt’s apartments, Livadia Palace
Dr. Bruenn finds Roosevelt a little revived: “Spirits are much better. Is eating well—delights in Russian food and cooking. Pulsus alternans has disappeared. No cough.” Roosevelt tells Stettinius that to help reach final agreement on Poland, he will not insist on a formal statement that foreign ambassadors be allowed to monitor the Polish elections, though “the Russians … must understand our firm determination that the Ambassadors will observe and report on the election in any case.”
Noon: Vorontsov Palace
The hard-pressed Foreign Ministers meet again. Stettinius reports the changed US position on Poland, but Eden objects and sends a note to Churchill. Churchill, who is working in bed, instructs “do not agree.” Ministers decide they must inform the plenary session they remain deadlocked.
German reparations come next. Eden circulates fresh proposals. Molotov immediately spots that they contain no reference to a possible total of $20 billion. Eden claims Russian expectations of reparations are wholly unrealistic. Soviet official Ivan Maisky complains the British want “to take from Germany as little as possible.” This issue, too, is deferred to the plenary.
Molotov fully justifies his nickname of “stone arse,” repeatedly refusing to discuss Eden’s suggestion that the conference should discuss withdrawal from Iran where all three countries have forces and eyes on oil concessions.
Early afternoon: Yusupov Palace
Molotov and Harriman meet to finalize the secret agreement on Soviet terms for entry into the war against Japan, which Molotov has drawn up. The draft asks for more than Stalin agreed with Roosevelt two days earlier. As well as Dairen, it refers to Soviet “possession” of another Chinese harbor, Port Arthur, and sole Soviet control over the Manchurian Railroad.
Taken aback, Harriman stalls: He must consult the President who, he thinks, will require that Port Arthur and Dairen be free ports, that the Manchurian Railway be operated jointly by a Chinese-Soviet Commission and that “the concurrence of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek” be sought. Harriman hurries back to the Livadia Palace where the President agrees with Harriman’s suggested changes.
That afternoon: Yusupov Palace
Alarmed by the Foreign Ministers’ discussions on Poland, Churchill drives with Eden to see Stalin and Molotov. Churchill again stresses the backlash he will face from Parliament unless a British ambassador is allowed into Poland to report on what was happening. As a solution, he proposes adding to the agreement on Poland a sentence stating that recognition of the new Polish government “would entail an exchange of Ambassadors, by whose report Governments would be informed about the situation in Poland.” To his relief, Stalin agrees. Though not the full-blooded commitment Churchill wanted, it is something. He calls it “the best I could get.”
Churchill then raises the repatriation of prisoners of war. What does Stalin want the British to do with the large number of former Russian POWS they are holding? Return them all “as quickly as possible”—those who fought for the Nazis will be “dealt with,” Stalin says. Churchill asks how many British POWs the Red Army has liberated and “begs for good treatment for them: every mother in England is anxious about the fate of her prisoner sons.” Stalin agrees the British can send liaison officers behind Red Army lines to care for them.
Still unaware of the secret agreement between the US and the Soviet Union, Churchill probes Russian wishes in the Far East. When Stalin said he wants a naval base such as Port Arthur, Churchill assures him the British would welcome “Russian ships in the Pacific.”
16.00: Livadia Palace
Roosevelt presents specially engraved Fourth-Term Inaugural Medallions—commemorating his recent election for a unique fourth presidential term—to Churchill, Stalin, Eden and Molotov. Then he and Stalin withdraw to his study to confer again about Soviet terms for entering the Pacific War. Stalin agrees Dairen should operate as a free port but argues that since Port Arthur will be a Russian naval base, the Soviet Union should lease it. Roosevelt does not object.
16.20: Grand Ballroom, Livadia Palace
Roosevelt arrives first. Churchill enters next and whispers to Roosevelt, “I believe that I have succeeded in retrieving the situation”—a reference to his discussion with Stalin on Poland. Stalin arrives and the seventh plenary session opens. Eden presents a revised draft agreement on Poland incorporating the wording Churchill has just agreed with Stalin. Roosevelt consults Admiral Leahy who whispers, “Mr. President, this is so elastic that the Russians can stretch it all the way from Yalta to Washington without ever technically breaking it.” Roosevelt replies, “I know, Bill, I know it. But it’s the best I can do for Poland at this time.”
Churchill points out the draft says nothing about Poland’s future borders. Though all agree on the eastern frontier, the western border remains at issue. Roosevelt wants to say nothing until the new Polish Government has been consulted. However, when Molotov urges that something, albeit not too specific should be said, and Churchill points out the President is on record that Poland should receive “a good slice of territory in the North and in the West,” he gives way and asks Churchill to draft suitable words.
The three leaders approve the revised Declaration on Liberated Europe, accepting Eden’s proposal to express their hope that France will associate herself with it. Roosevelt then announces a change of heart—he now agrees with Churchill that allowing France to administer a zone of Germany but not to sit on the Control Commission is illogical. Stalin acquiesces.
Then comes reparations. Churchill reads from “a very severe telegram” from his War Cabinet urging him not to agree to any specific total and arguing that $20 billion is, in any case, “far too great” and beyond the capacity of a “bombed, defeated, perhaps dismembered” Germany to pay. Roosevelt suggests nothing need be said publicly “about amounts of money,” which should be left to the Reparations Commission. Stalin, however, is furious. Rising from his chair and gripping its back so tightly “his brown hands go white at the knuckles,” he “spits out his words as if they burn his mouth. Great stretches of his country have been laid waste … is it the wish of the Conference that the Russians should not receive any reparations at all?”
Roosevelt continues to urge that “the whole matter be left to the Commission in Moscow” and Churchill refuses to budge on specifying a total figure. Finally, Stalin proposes new wording—that the leaders agree that Germany must compensate the Allied nations for the damage she has caused and will instruct the Moscow commission to consider the amount of reparations. When Churchill and Roosevelt agree, Stalin enquires sourly, “You will not go back on this tomorrow?”
By now the British delegation has produced re-drafted text on Poland’s borders. It states the agreed position in the east and that Poland will receive “substantial accessions of territory in the North and the West,” but that the views of the proposed Polish Provisional Government of National Unity should be sought and the final delineation of the western border should await an eventual Peace Conference. Stalin and Roosevelt accept the draft.
With the session drawing to a close, to both Stalin’s and Churchill’s amazement Roosevelt announces his intention to leave Yalta next day at 15:00. Horrified, Churchill argues that the remaining tasks, including agreeing a Conference Communiqué, cannot be accomplished in time. Surely the work is too important to rush, he says. Stalin suggests cancelling the formal dinner that Churchill is hosting that night so they can work on. Instead they agree that a Communiqué drafting committee should set to work that night.
20.00: The plenary breaks up. Everyone, Admiral Leahy thinks, looks “thoroughly tired.”
21.00: The final conference dinner, Vorontsov Palace
Royal Marines provide an honour guard for Churchill’s guests. Earlier that day, Beria’s security men have scoured the palace to ensure Stalin’s safety: “They locked the doors on either side of the reception rooms … Guards were posted and no one was allowed to enter. They then searched everywhere—under the tables and behind the walls.”
Shortly before 9:00 p.m. Churchill appears in the entrance hall dressed “in his tropical drill Colonel’s uniform.” At 2 minutes past 9:00, President Roosevelt is wheeled in. Stalin arrives and “remains a little in the background” until Churchill leads him to where drinks are being served.
Molotov edges up to Stettinius. “Can you not tell us where the [U.N.] conference is to be held?,” he asks. Stettinius immediately tells Roosevelt “Molotov is pressing me on a decision for the conference. Are you ready to say San Francisco?” “Go ahead, Ed; San Francisco it is,” Roosevelt replies. Stettinius hurries back to Molotov who beckons Eden over. Together they toast the success of the forthcoming conference, just eleven weeks away.
The elaborate dinner begins—a first course of caviar, salmon, sturgeon and suckling pig with horseradish sauce, then vol-au-vent of game, then a choice of two soups, then white fish in champagne sauce, then mutton shashlik and pilau and “wild goat from the steppes,” then roast turkey, quails and partridge with green peas, and finally ice-cream, fruit, petits fours, roasted almonds and coffee. Wine, vodka and champagne flow.
Superficially the mood is convivial, but there is underlying tension. Stalin makes clear his resentment over reparations, complaining he must “tell the Soviet people they are not going to get any reparations because the British are opposed to it.”
As the hour grows late, both Stalin and Churchill press Roosevelt to stay longer in Yalta. He resists but eventually gives way. If necessary, he will even delay his departure until Monday 12 February. The three leaders agree to hold an additional plenary session at noon next day, after which they will lunch together.
Early hours: Vorontsov Palace
American and British officials work into the small hours on a first draft of a Conference Communiqué to be submitted to the Soviets. A senior British official reflects, “Joe [Stalin] has been extremely good. He is a great man and shows up very impressively against the background of the other two ageing statesmen.”
Mid-Morning: Roosevelt’s apartments, Livadia Palace
Roosevelt shows Churchill the secret agreement setting out Stalin’s conditions for entering the Pacific War and asks him to sign. The words “the Heads of the three Great Powers have agreed that the claims of the Soviet Union shall be unquestionably fulfilled after Japan has been defeated” make absolutely clear that the US and UK will ensure the Soviet Union receives its promised rewards, whatever the views of the Nationalist Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek when he is eventually informed.
Churchill is hurt that Roosevelt has negotiated with Stalin in secret. Listening through concealed microphones, Soviet security agent Sergo Beria, notes that “the British leader does not conceal his resentment.” However, fearing British influence in the Far East will suffer if Britain is not party to the agreement, Churchill signs. Roosevelt entrusts the agreement to Admiral Leahy to take to the US and lock away with his secret papers in the White House.
11.30: Gardens of the Livadia Palace
Roosevelt and his daughter Anna Boettiger take a jeep ride through the grounds of the Livadia and inspect a guard of US navy sailors. The weather is pleasant, as it is has been throughout the conference—“Roosevelt weather,” some Soviet delegates call it.
Noon: Grand Ballroom, Livadia Palace
The eighth and final plenary session opens. The main topic is the draft Conference Communiqué—“this bloody thing,” Churchill calls it. It details what lies in store for Nazi Germany—unconditional surrender, disarmament, the removal or destruction of any industries with military applications, the trial of war criminals, the levying of reparations, and the imposition of Allied zones of occupation, including one for France. It also covers the forthcoming U.N. Conference in San Francisco and contains the Declaration on Liberated Europe.
Roosevelt and Stalin are in light-hearted moods, experimenting with each other’s languages with Stalin saying “OK” and Roosevelt nodding “Khorosho,” (“good”) as they approve point after point. When they come to Poland, Churchill predicts he will face fierce criticism at home “on the grounds that we have yielded completely to the Russian view,” but he will defend the agreement on Poland “to the best of my ability.”
After a mere 50 minutes the session ends.
13.00: Roosevelt’s private apartments, Livadia Palace
Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin, their Foreign Ministers and a handful of others withdraw for lunch while Soviet officials produce the final text of the Communiqué. US army photographer Robert Hopkins takes a picture that will appear in Life magazine with the commentary: “Together they represent a large part of the world’s population. One is a cobbler’s son, another an aristocrat, the third a descendant of thrifty Dutch settlers. In character and temperament, one could hardly find three more different men. Their debates are now over—and hopes are high for a peaceful world. Look at them! Churchill is taking a large spoonful of the caviar and is out for more; Stalin’s helping is a moderate one; FDR passes it up. Does it have any significance?”
Towards the end of the meal, the final Communiqué is brought in for signature. Roosevelt suggests that, as “such a wonderful host” Stalin should sign first. Stalin objects this might give the “sharp-tongued press” in America the impression that he “has had the President and the Prime Minister on a lead.” Why not sign in alphabetical order following the Cyrillic, Russian, alphabet? This would mean first Roosevelt, then Stalin, and finally Churchill. Churchill immediately points out that in the English alphabet, his name comes before Roosevelt’s, and also that he is the eldest. The others courteously agree he should sign first, then the President and finally Stalin. The three also decide that the text of the Communiqué should be broadcast simultaneously in Moscow, London and Washington at 23.30 Moscow time the following day, 12 February, incidentally Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.
15.45: The lunch—and the conference—formally end with “everyone in the highest spirits,” Sarah Churchill thinks. Roosevelt gives Stalin eight Legion of Merit decorations for members of the Soviet military delegation, saying “We will meet again soon—in Berlin!”
15.55: Stalin leaves the Livadia to board the heavily armored train that would carry him back to Moscow.
16.00: Roosevelt, Anna Boettiger and Averell Harriman depart for the port of Sebastopol where the USS Catoctin is waiting. Packed into their limousine are last minute Soviet gifts—vodka, wine from Stalin’s native Georgia, champagne, caviar, butter, oranges and tangerines. Watching Roosevelt drive off, Leahy thinks he “looked fatigued … but so did we all. It was one of the most strenuous weeks I had ever had …”
17.30: Churchill, too, departs. Sarah Churchill writes to her mother of their “cavalcade of cars groaning with bulging suitcases winding its way” to Sebastopol where the British Cunarder Franconia is waiting. With Roosevelt already on the road and Stalin having disappeared “like some genie,” she reflects how, “after the last hand-shake, Yalta is deserted, except for those who always have to tidy up after a party.”
Late afternoon/early evening: Livadia Palace
The Foreign Ministers, tasked with that “tidying up,” work on to agree the lengthy and detailed confidential Protocol summarising the conference decisions. A host of other documents also require their attention. The closing hours of Yalta bring “great confusion and a good deal of irritation and squabbling.”
By the time the last documents have been signed, darkness has fallen. Strolling into the hall of the Livadia, Molotov suggests that Eden and Stettinius each take a branch of the lemon tree that appeared so suddenly after Roosevelt lamented to Stalin the lack of lemons for martinis. Others quickly join in stripping the tree until all that is left are those bits that “could [only] be sawed or chopped with an axe.”
Eden and his staff return to the Vorontsov Palace from which they will depart next day while Molotov goes back to the Yusupov Palace. Meanwhile, once the last details of the various agreements have been radioed through to Washington, Stettinius orders the connection between the Livadia Palace and the USS Catoctin to be cut and he departs. As his car crests the mountains separating Yalta from the western Crimea, he stops for “a last view of the site of this historic Conference.”
Churchill’s public comments on the outcome of the Yalta Conference are buoyant:
February 23, 1945, Churchill to members of his administration: “Poor Neville Chamberlain believed he could trust Hitler. He was wrong. But I don’t think I’m wrong about Stalin.”
February 27, 1945, Churchill to the House of Commons: “Most solemn declarations have been made by Marshal Stalin and the Soviet State that the sovereign independence of Poland is to be maintained … The impression I brought back from the Crimea, and from all my other contacts, is that 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. I know of no government which stands to its obligations, even in its own despite, more solemnly than the Russian Soviet Government … The ties that bind the three Great Powers together and their mutual comprehension of each other have grown.
The United States has entered deeply and constructively into the life and salvation of Europe. We have all three set our hands to far-reaching engagements at once practical and solemn … United we have the unchallengeable power to lead the world to prosperity, freedom and happiness. The Great Powers must seek to serve and not to rule’.
Privately, as one of Churchill’s private secretaries realizes, Churchill is worried both about Poland and how Britain, whose power on the world stage is dwindling, can enforce its will:
February 24, 1945, Churchill in a personal letter to the New Zealand Prime Minister: “Great Britain and the British Commonwealth are very much weaker militarily than Soviet Russia and have no means, short of another general war, of enforcing their point of view. Nor can we ignore the position of the United States. We cannot go further in helping Poland than the United States is willing or can be persuaded to go. We have therefore to do the best we can … The proof of the pudding is in the eating.”
In public, Roosevelt also presents the Yalta Conference as a success:
March 1, 1945, addressing Congress: ‘‘I come from the Crimea Conference with a firm belief that we have made a good start on the road to a world of peace … it spells—it ought to spell—the end of the system of unilateral action, the exclusive alliances, the spheres of influence, the balances of power and all the other expedients that have been tried for centuries—and have always failed.”
In private, the President, too, has reservations about Eastern Europe:
March 5, 1945, to a friend: “I didn’t say the result was good. I said it was the best I could do.”
Warm Springs, Georgia
April 12, 1945, Roosevelt dies. His successor is Harry Truman, Vice-President for only eleven weeks, during which Roosevelt kept him out of all major decisions on the war and of relations with Churchill and Stalin.
Churchill is increasingly perturbed by Soviet intransigence on Eastern Europe, especially Poland where the Allies can get little information about what is happening.
May 12, 1945, Churchill telegrams Truman: “An iron curtain is drawn down … We do not know what is going on behind … This issue of a settlement with Russia before our strength has gone seems to me to dwarf all others.”
Eight Days at Yalta: How Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin Shaped the Post-War World, by Diana Preston is available now from Grove Atlantic.