In February 1945, Nazi armies were quickly beaten back towards Berlin by armies of the Soviet Union. British and American forces were preparing to invade Germany. Unconditional surrender could be expected from Germany in a matter of weeks. Also, in the Pacific War, American forces moved steadily from island to island towards a final invasion of the Japanese home islands. The possibility of using an atomic bomb to end the war was unknown to military experts and world leaders. With the defeat of Germany and Japan a certainty, the leaders of the Big Three Allied Powers, Prime Minister Winston Churchill of Great Britain, Communist Party Secretary Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union, and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt of the United States, met to plan and discuss the postwar world. The meeting was held at Livadia Palace at Yalta on the Crimean Peninsula of the Black Sea from February 4 to February 11, 1945, and was called the Yalta Conference. Was the Yalta Conference a success for the United States and Great Britain? One possibility is that a wily Joseph Stalin took advantage of an ailing Roosevelt to get many concessions in return for few on his part. It may also be argued that the agreements reached were mostly harmless and benefited none of the Big Three. Along this same notion, it can be argued too that conflicting aims and conflicting personalities inevitably led to compromises that failed to satisfy any of the leaders. The correct answer to the question is actually that the Yalta Conference was a success for the United States and Great Britain because they benefited most. That is to say that even though some significant concessions were made to Stalin by Churchill and Roosevelt, Stalin’s concessions were even more significant. If it appears, in hindsight, that the Soviets came out ahead, it is because Stalin went back on his word, not because of concessions to him.
Discussions at Yalta opened on the topic of the future of Germany. Churchill believed that there would undoubtedly be “severe military control” to begin with, until all German underground movements have ended. As for the dismemberment of Germany, Roosevelt had earlier suggested dividing it into five parts, and Stalin agreed, but Churchill disagreed with them and wanted only to split it into two parts, Prussia and Austria-Bavaria. President Roosevelt then brought up the question of whether or not France would be given an occupation zone in Germany. It was decided that France should be given land from the British and American zones to control. This was an important item because by allowing France to control an occupying zone, the burden of keeping control of Germany, in terms of troops and supplies, on the United States and Britain would be less.
Stalin next demanded that harsh reparations be paid by Germany to the Soviet Union to compensate for the nearly twenty million dead Soviet soldiers and the Nazi destruction of nearly one thousand Russian towns and cities. Stalin wanted reparations in two ways. First, in seizing of German “factories, land, Machinery, machine tools, rolling stock of railways, investments in foreign enterprises, and so on.” Second, in yearly monetary payments after the war over ten years. Stalin proposed that 80 percent of all German industry, namely iron and steel, engineering, and metal and chemical industries, should be confiscated and carried away physically and used as reparation payments. He added that all, not just part of, aviation plants facilities for the production of synthetic oil and all other military enterprises and factories should also be confiscated and used as reparation payments. Germany’s possession of 20 percent of its heavy industry would suffice to sustain economic stability, Stalin argued, and all reparations would end within ten years, while the removal of factories and other wealth would end within two years. The Soviets proposed that reparations should only be paid to countries that had sustained direct material losses such as damage to factories, land, and homes and the losses of personal property by citizens. Since the losses were so huge, Stalin proposed that countries receive reparations based on their contribution to the winning of the war and the value of their direct material losses. He stated that reparations should not exceed twenty billion dollars and the Soviet Union should get no less than half of that, ten billion dollars. Churchill was first to respond to this proposal and stated that he did not believe it would be possible to get even the amount the Soviets wanted for themselves much less twenty billion dollars for all damaged countries. He spoke from British experience after World War I, trying to collect its reparations from Germany, stating that “1,000 million pounds . . . would never have been extracted if the United States, at the same time, had not loaned Germany a larger sum.” This attitude was common to Roosevelt as well and both he and Churchill said that public opinion in their countries was opposed to the concept of reparations in hindsight of the failed Treaty of Versailles. Roosevelt’s contribution to the reparations discussion consisted basically of stating that the United States wishes not to be in a position again to have to loan money to Germany because it is crippled. Churchill also brought this point against such harsh reparations by asking what would happen if Germany were reduced to starvation? If it was decided that the Germans must be fed, who would pay? Stalin responded by saying that with or without reparations, these questions would arise, to which Churchill responded with a suggestion to let specific reparation amounts be decided at a later date, by a special commission, thereby allowing this discussion to proceed to other matters namely setting up a new world organization to replace the League of Nations, the United Nations. The fact that Roosevelt and Churchill did not give in to Stalin’s reparation proposal is important because had they done so, the same mistakes that were made at the Treaty of Versailles would have been made again, and possibly with even more dire consequences. The figure of twenty billion would only be used as a basis for further discussion by the Reparations Commission, not as an agreed amount. This was a big achievement on the part of Britain and the United States.
At Dumbarton Oaks, some proposals for the organization of the United Nations were discussed, but not much was decided. The meeting at Yalta opened with proposals submitted to Churchill and Stalin by Roosevelt on December 5, 1944. These proposals dealt with voting rights in the Security Council. Roosevelt suggested that each member of the Council should have one vote. All important matters, such as admitting and expelling States from the organization, suppressing and settling disputes, and providing armed forces, would require unanimous support from all members of the Security Council. This would mean that the Security Council would be powerless unless all of its members would cooperate. If a dispute might be settled by peaceful methods, the Security Council would still have to agree unanimously and vote in that manner, but if a member of the Council were involved in the dispute, it could discuss the decision, but it could not vote on it. Stalin did not immediately respond to this voting proposal, saying that he had not had time to study it, but he would respond when discussions continued the next day. Stalin asked Churchill what would happen if China, as a member of the Security Council demanded the return of Honk Kong, or what would happen if Egypt demanded the return of the Suez Canal. Churchill responded simply by saying that as he understood it, neither could sanctions be imposed on Great Britain, nor could a decision to use force be taken without the permission of Britain because Britain would be a permanent member of the Security Council, whose unanimous agreement would be required, under the terms submitted by Roosevelt, for any such actions to be taken. However, steps for a peaceful agreement, such as arbitration, could be recommended. Stalin seemed to be primarily concerned with preserving the unity of the Big Three, and this voting format would prevent the Great Powers from fighting each other. Successfully convinced that this proposal would be successful in promoting unity, Stalin finally agreed to it. This is another example of a victory for the U. S. and Britain over Stalin, because now they had a little control over his actions in the future through the United Nations.
Regarding votes in the General Assembly, Stalin originally requested that the Soviet Union should have sixteen votes, one for each Soviet Republic. Facing opposition from both Roosevelt and Stalin, he reduced this request to only two or three votes, for the Ukraine, White Russia, and Lithuania, stating that they had made great sacrifices in the war because they were the first to be invaded and had suffered greatly. Churchill and Roosevelt simply agreed that they would support this at the San Francisco meeting. This concession is one of the main arguments used to defend the theory that an ailing Roosevelt conceded too much to Stalin. There are two holes in this argument. First, the two extra votes in the General Assembly were not too significant. They have not been an important factor in the work of the United Nations in any way. Only the Veto Power has had any significant effect on the effectiveness of the United Nations. The most important goal to achieve concerning discussions about the United Nations, from American and British points of view, was to secure the Soviet Union’s participation in the organization, and the concession of two extra votes for the Soviet Union is a minor one compared to Stalin’s acceptance of the United Nations. Thus Roosevelt was once again victorious, because he conceded a couple of insignificant votes in the U. N. for a guarantee that Stalin would be a part of the U. N., which was one of Roosevelt’s goals going into the conference.
The next item to be discussed was which nations should receive invitations to attend the San Francisco Conference. Stalin agreed to Roosevelt’s definition of countries that should be invited, and this was another significant achievement by Roosevelt. All Associated Nations that declared war by March 1, 1945 were able to participate as original members in the San Francisco conference, which made it possible for a number of Latin-American nations to participate in the conference. Concerning the world organization, one more important concession by Stalin was Roosevelt’s insistence on full and frank discussions in the organization, making it possible for smaller nations to use the United Nations as a forum to present their views to the world. This final concession was very significant, if not only for the fact that Stalin had no respect for such small nations, and wished to give them as little power as possible.
The next major issue discussed at Yalta was Poland and its future. The Polish issue proved to be the most controversial and most difficult of all questions considered, as it was discussed at now less than seven out of the eight meetings of the Yalta Conference. It is important to be aware of the military situations of all three leaders at this time before their actions at the conference can be judged. At the time of the Yalta Conference, American and British troops had just recovered the ground lost by the Battle of the Bulge. They had not yet bridged the Rhine, and in Italy their advance was slowing in the Apenines. This is a stark contrast to the progress of Soviet troops, who had just swept through almost all of Poland and East Prussia, and had reached some points on the Oder River in Germany. Most of Hungary had been liberated, eastern Czechoslovakia had been captured, and Yugoslav partisans had recaptured Belgrade by November 1944. Therefore, by February 1945, Poland and all of eastern Europe except for most of Czechoslovakia, was in control of the Red Army. As a result of this military situation, judging the performances of Churchill and Roosevelt cannot be based on what they permitted Stalin to do in Poland, but on what they could persuade him accept. The first items discussed were Poland’s borders.
For Poland’s western border, Stalin proposed that it should be the western Neisse River. He finally withdrew this demand when faced with opposition from President Roosevelt and the Prime Minister, and agreed to leave the western boundary of Poland to be settled at the peace conference. As for the eastern frontier, Stalin insisted that the Curzon Line be the new eastern border. The Soviet Union considered the area east of that line forcefully taken from it after World War I. The Curzon Line was not invented by the Soviet Union, but rather by Curzon and Clemenceau and representatives of the United States at the conference in 1919, to which Russia had not been invited. It was created based on the ethnicity of the area’s people, and Lenin had not agreed with it. By 1945, Russians had already accepted the line, and some even wanted Russia to take less than was conceded by Curzon and Clemenceau. So when Roosevelt suggested that Stalin might leave the Polish city of Lvov and some oil lands to Poland as a reassuring gesture to the world, he easily stood up to his Curzon Line demand by saying that he could not be “less Russian” than Curzon and Clemenceau. The fact that he did later propose minor deviations of from six to eight kilometers in favor of Poland speaks highly of the diplomatic powers of Roosevelt and Churchill, who were in no position at Yalta to change the Russian attitude on the eastern boundary because of the current military situation. Here is another fine example of the overwhelming success of Roosevelt and Churchill over Stalin at the conference, on a topic where they had no chips to bargain with.
The most difficult and time consuming question at Yalta was agreement on the government of Poland. At the time of the conference, the Soviet Union had established the Lublin Provisional Polish Government. Both President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill adamantly refused to recognize this puppet regime because it did not represent a majority of Poland’s people, while the Soviet Union insisted that all that should be done to the Lublin Government was to make it bigger. Roosevelt and Churchill then suggested reorganizing the government so as to include democratic leaders from outside Poland, which Stalin finally agreed to. The British and Americans also requested that “free and unfettered elections would be held at an early date,” which Stalin also agreed to. It may appear that Roosevelt and Churchill abandoned democratic Poland, but a pledge from Stalin to allow the government to be reorganized and that free elections would be held in a country which was entirely at his mercy is a great accomplishment by these leaders given what they had to bargain with. The fact that Poland later fell to communism was not a fault of Roosevelt or Churchill, but a fault of the fact that Stalin failed to live up to the terms of the agreement. The arguments against the gains of Roosevelt and Churchill concerning Poland can be summed up with the following quote: “What was conceded to Stalin at Yalta that he did not already have as a result of the smashing victories of the Red Army? Great Britain and the United States secured pledges at Yalta, unfortunately not honored, which did promise free elections and democratic governments [in Poland].”
The final topics of debate at Yalta were concessions of land to the Soviet Union in the Far East in return for its promise to declare war on Japan no later than three months after the end of the war in Europe. The concessions made by Roosevelt included the following: the preservation of the status quo in Outer Mongolia, the recovery by the Soviet Union of Southern Sakhalin and the islands adjacent to it, the use of Port Arthur as a Soviet naval base, the joint operation by a Soviet-Chinese company of the Chinese Eastern Railway and the South Manchurian Railway, and the acquisition of the Kurile Islands by the Soviet Union. China would retain sovereignty in Manchuria. The important thing to keep in mind here is that Roosevelt had just been told that the surrender of Japan might not occur until 1947, and some predicted even later, and he was told that, without the aid of the Soviet Union, it might cost the United States one million lives to invade the home islands of Japan and conquer them. In addition, the first experimental explosion of the atomic bomb was not to take place for another five months. These factors made it of utmost importance that Roosevelt succeed in persuading Stalin to join the war effort, which makes any concessions made by Roosevelt less important. Also, most of what was conceded to Stalin he could easily have taken by force, as neither China nor the United States was in a position to stop him. In signing the Far Eastern agreement, Roosevelt acted upon the advice of his military advisers, and most definitely not on any desire to appease Stalin and the Soviet Union, as he is often accused of doing because of his supposed ailing mind. Furthermore, one commonly overlooked fact by critics of the Far Eastern agreement is that the Soviet Union would sign a pact of friendship with the Chinese Nationalist Government. This is an important concession made by Stalin in addition to the fact that he had agreed to declare war on Japan following the conclusion of the war in Europe.
In conclusion, it is obvious that some significant concessions were made by Roosevelt and Churchill to Stalin at Yalta, but these concessions were necessary to arrive at some sort of compromise regarding several important issues facing the postwar world. Some important agreements reached are as follows: the agreement on voting procedure in the Security Council of the United Nations, pledges by Stalin to include democratic leaders in Poland’s new government and to allow free elections, allowing France to have an occupation zone in postwar Germany, and finally, Stalin’s promise to enter the Pacific War in return for land lost in the Russo-Japanese war. These agreements represent the power and success of American and British diplomacy at the Yalta Conference.