From 4 to 11 February 1945, Josef Stalin, Winston Churchill, and Franklin D. Roosevelt met at Yalta in Crimea to “decide” the fate of post-war Europe. In fact, Europe’s fate had already been decided by the course of military operations. The agreements reached at Yalta merely tried to paper-over some of the ugly realities.
During 1944 the Red Army had plowed forward from inside the Soviet Union to a position forty miles from Berlin. In the process, the Red Army—three times the size of the combined British and American armies in Europe–had waded through a sea of blood—their own and that of the German army. The Russians had occupied almost all of Eastern and Central Europe. Meanwhile, from mid-1944 on, the British and Americans had occupied France, the Low Countries, much of Italy, and Western Germany. The war itself had divided Europe into spheres of influence.
The three leaders pursued their own agendas at the conference. Stalin wanted the Western powers to acknowledge Soviet power in the East. Churchill hoped to limit the scope of Communization there and to protect the interests of Britain’s Polish ally. Roosevelt wanted Soviet assistance in the war against Japan and Soviet participation in a post-war United Nations. In the end, Stalin got all of what he wanted; Roosevelt got all of what he wanted, but it turned out to be worthless; and Churchill got nothing of what he wanted, beyond fair words and promises.
At Yalta, the three leaders agreed that Poland would be kicked westward from its pre-war borders, yielding the Soviet conquests of September 1939 in return for territory taken from Germany. The Soviet puppet government in Poland would be reconfigured on a “broader democratic basis” by the admission of members of the government-in-exile in London. Stalin agreed to democratic elections in post-war Poland and in the other Eastern European countries at some unspecified date. Stalin agreed to enter the war against Japan within two or three months after the end of the war in Europe. He also agreed that the Soviet Union would join the United Nations. The Soviet Union would receive reparations in kind and in forced labor from Germany. France would receive occupation zones in Germany and in Berlin, but these would have to be carved out of areas previously assigned to Britain or the United States. Soviet citizens found in the West would be repatriated, regardless of their own preferences.
Filled with hatred and distrust of Western capitalist democracies, Stalin had no intention of honoring his weak commitments to democracy in Eastern Europe. Where the Red Army stood, it would remain. Where the Red Army remained, Communist dictatorships would be imposed by any means necessary. A hard-headed pragmatist, Stalin meant to honor his promise to make war on Japan and to take a seat on the Security Council of the United Nations.
Churchill first, and Roosevelt subsequently, came in for considerable criticism and abuse for their failures to achieve the liberation of Eastern Europe. In fact, this liberation depended entirely upon the balance of power in the area. This tipped heavily in favor of the Soviet Union. The best the two men could have hoped for was to encourage future Soviet co-operation on essential issues. No one wanted a further war after so much blood-shed and with more still to come. Nor would the democracies fight for the “rights” of small states.
Yalta, like Roosevelt’s earlier “destroyers-for-bases deal” in 1940 and Richard Nixon’s Vietnam War peace agreement in 1973, was an “executive agreement,” rather than a treaty approved by the Senate.