The meeting at Yalta (code-named argonaut) was less significant than either its detractors or supporters alleged. Many of the decisions confirmed there had already been taken during the earlier 1943 Tehran Conference and other meetings. At the time, its outcome generated considerable satisfaction. Only with the developing Cold War and the realization that Soviet help had not been necessary in the Pacific war did Yalta became such a fractious issue in U.S. politics, with Republican Party leaders charging that there had been a Democratic Party "giveaway" to the Communists.
The bargaining position of the Western leaders had not appreciably improved since the Tehran Conference. Indeed, they had just suffered the humiliation of the initial German successes in the Ardennes Offensive (Battle of the Bulge). The Red Army, by contrast, had smashed German Army Group Center and was then only 50 miles from Berlin.
Another factor at Yalta was Roosevelt's determination to draw Stalin "out of his shell" and bring the Soviet Union into postwar cooperation with the Western powers. As a result, he continued the conciliatory tactical approach he had employed at the Tehran Conference by making every effort to accommodate the Soviet leader. It did not enhance the Western bargaining position when Roosevelt announced that U.S. troops were unlikely to remain long in Europe. He also continued his practice of distancing himself from Churchill, most notably on colonial issues. Another factor at work was that Roosevelt and the United States had chosen to seek the speediest possible conclusion to the war with the least expenditure of American lives, rather than wage the war for certain geopolitical objectives, as Churchill had preferred.
Stalin, however, knew exactly what he wanted. After World War I, the Western Allies had sought to construct a cordon sanitaire (protective barrier) to contain Bolshevism. Stalin's goal was now the reverse—he wanted a belt of east European satellite states to exclude the West. This arrangement was to provide security against another German invasion and to protect a severely wounded Soviet Union, which had suffered the deaths of as many as 27 million citizens and terrible material losses against the West and its influences.
Roosevelt secured Soviet agreement to the Declaration on Liberated Europe. The leaders pledged that the provisional governments of liberated areas would be "representative of all democratic elements" and that there would be "free elections . . . responsive to the will of the people." But events would prove that such lofty phrases were subject to completely different interpretations.
In discussions on Germany, the Big Three agreed to government by an Allied control council. German occupation zones were also set, and at the suggestion of the Western leaders, France was allowed a zone, although Stalin insisted it be carved from territory already assigned to Britain and the United States. The three leaders also agreed on steps to demilitarize Germany, dissolve the National Socialist Party, and punish war criminals. Further, in what would later be regarded as a controversial decision, they agreed that all nationals accused of being "deserters or traitors" were to be returned to their countries of origin.
The Soviets insisted on exacting heavy reparations from Germany for damages inflicted by that nation on the Soviet Union. The Western Allies, remembering the trouble caused by reparations after World War I and fearful they would be subsidizing Soviet exactions, refused to set a specific amount but tentatively agreed to discuss the sum of $20 billion. The Soviet Union was to receive half of any reparations.
Particularly important to Roosevelt was the establishment of a postwar United Nations organization. Well aware of this and not greatly interested in the organization himself, Stalin used it to secure concessions on other matters. The Big Three adopted recommendations from the Dumbarton Oaks Conference that the United Nations be organized on the lines of the old League of Nations, complete with the General Assembly, Security Council, and Secretariat. It also set the composition of the Security Council. Roosevelt agreed that the Soviet Union might have three votes in the General Assembly. The most difficult matter to resolve was that of the veto in the Security Council, although this only became an issue in U.S. politics later, when the Soviet Union exercised that privilege so liberally. The U.S. Senate would not have approved American participation without the veto provision.
Poland was a particularly vexing matter for the two Western leaders, but the Red Army already occupied the country. Regarding boundaries, Stalin demanded and succeeded in establishing the Curzon Line, with slight modifications, as Poland's eastern border. The Allies were more strenuous in objecting to the Oder-Neisse Line as its western boundary, and there was no agreement on this matter at Yalta. Regarding the Polish government, Moscow had, only a month before Yalta, recognized the Lublin Poles as the official government of Poland. Stalin agreed to broaden this puppet government on a "democratic basis," and he pledged to hold "free and unfettered elections as soon as possible on the basis of universal suffrage and secret ballot." The Western Allies secured the same concessions for Yugoslavia, Romania, and Bulgaria.
The most controversial decisions taken at Yalta concerned the Far East. These decisions were kept secret from China. Stalin had already made it clear that the Soviet Union would enter the war against Japan sometime after the defeat of Germany. This matter was, in fact, never in doubt. The problem lay in the timing. Here, Stalin was in the same position enjoyed by the Allies before the invasion of northern France. Tardy Soviet entry into the Pacific war might mean heavy U.S. casualties in an invasion of the Japanese home islands. No one knew whether the atomic bomb would work and, even if it did, whether it would be decisive in bringing about Japan's defeat.
Stalin pledged to enter the war against Japan "two or three months" after the defeat of Germany. In return, the Soviet Union would receive South Sakhalin Island, concessions in the port of Dairen, the return of Port Arthur as a naval base, control over railroads leading to these ports, and the Kurile Islands (which had never been Russian territory). Outer Mongolia would continue to be independent of China, but China would regain sovereignty over Manchuria. In effect, these concessions would replace Japanese imperialism with that of the Soviet Union, but the Western leaders believed they were necessary to secure the timing of the Soviet entry into the Pacific war. In future years, what Americans disliked most about Yalta was that these concessions turned out to be unnecessary. Spencer C. Tucker
Feis, Herbert. Churchill-Roosevelt-Stalin: The War They Waged and the Peace They Sought. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1957.; Fischer, Louis. The Road to Yalta: Soviet Foreign Relations, 1941–1945. New York: Harper and Row, 1972.; Gardner, Lloyd C. Spheres of Influence: The Great Powers Partition Europe, from Munich to Yalta. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1993.; Mastny, Vojtech. Russia's Road to the Cold War: Diplomacy, Warfare, and the Politics of Communism, 1941–1945. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.; Seton-Watson, Hugh. Neither War nor Peace: The Struggle for Power in the Postwar World. New York: Praeger, 1960.; Snell, John L. The Meaning of Yalta: Big Three Diplomacy and the New Balance of Power. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1956.; Stettinius, Edward R., Jr. Roosevelt and the Russians: The Yalta Conference. Walter Johnson, ed. New York: Harold Ober Associates, 1949.; Szaz, Zoltan Michael. Germany's Eastern Frontiers. The Problem of the Oder-Neisse Line. Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1960.; Theharis, Arthur G. The Yalta Myths: An Issue in U.S. Politics, 1945–2955. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1970.; Thomas, Hugh. Armed Truce: The Beginnings of the Cold War, 1945–1946. New York: Atheneum, 1987.
Spencer C. Tucker