How united were the Big Three at the Yalta Conference in 1945?
The Yalta Conference took place in the seaside resort town of Yalta on the Crimean Peninsula between 4-11 February 1945. It was a meeting between the heads of government of the three ‘Great Powers’: Britain, the USA and the USSR, represented respectively by Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin. These three countries and their leaders were known as the ‘Big Three’.
By the time of the conference the war in Europe was practically won. The D-day landings of June 1944 had successfully led to the pushing back of the German Army (the Wehrmacht) on the Western Front towards its border with France. Meanwhile on the Eastern Front the Soviet Army (known as the Red Army) had turned the tide of the war inexorably in the favour of the Allies. During the conference, the Red Army arrived within 70km of the German capital, Berlin. Although Hitler was unwilling to surrender, his military was on its knees and the final capitulation was beyond doubt.
The three powers at the conference were not natural allies. Britain and America had broadly similar concerns and aims for world peace and order based on capitalist democracy, whilst Stalin and his USSR had an entirely different world view based on Soviet communism and dictatorship. What had brought them together as allies was their common enemy in Nazi Germany. However, in the world after the defeat of Hitler the differences between East and West would inevitably return to the surface.
The objectives of the conference were many and varied, but the key reason for meeting was to discuss and plan for the post-war world. Who would hold power where? What would become of the soon-to-be defeated Germany? How would the war in the Far East be concluded? How would countries occupied by Germany be governed? How would a lasting peace be ensured? For each of these questions there were different ideas, opinions and perspectives coming from each Great Power.
For the USSR the main objectives of the conference revolved around securing their position and interests through political domination of Eastern Europe, ensuring that Germany would no longer pose a threat to their power and achieving reparations for their huge losses. The material and human sacrifice of the USSR far outweighed that of the Western allies and Stalin was keen to be compensated accordingly. For the Soviet Union, Great Power status was now secured through military might, but Stalin’s aims went further than that. Having liberated and occupied countries in the East, he wanted to bring them into the Soviet sphere of influence and protect the Soviet Union with a ring of totalitarian satellite countries . Stalin was not about to agree to leave the countries which he had saved from Nazism and allow them to become capitalist democracies (which is what he thought Churchill wanted).
The position of the USA was considerably different. Its world power status had been arguably upgraded to superpower by the war. Its territory was safe and therefore its economy was not disrupted in the same way as its European allies. As an outsider to the European continent, Roosevelt considered his point of view to be more neutral than his colleagues. However, the war with Japan was not won, and it was a key priority to arrive at victory as soon as possible. As such the USA would look to the USSR for military support. Beyond this, America’s aims at Yalta were about producing a peace that would be long-lasting and effective. A new world organisation, the United Nations, had been discussed as a means of bringing countries together to ensure world peace and cooperation. Roosevelt wanted to make this a reality and ensure that Stalin was fully on board. America did have concerns over the influence that the USSR may take over Europe, but Roosevelt’s policy was to use the force of his character to foster friendship and cooperation with Stalin.
Yalta Conference (Crimea), February 4 to 11, 1945. Onboard warship during the Crimean Conferences at Yalta, Russia. Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill with Marshall Joseph Stalin. U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. (2016/03/22).
Britain’s status as world power had diminished in the previous decades, with the economic rise of America on one side and the competing powers of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia on the other. For Churchill, the conference was about securing Britain’s future at the top table of international politics. This would be achieved by maintaining its influence in key areas such as Greece, ensuring its empire would remain intact, and limiting the extent to which the USSR could exert its power across the European continent. Churchill was also mindful of the failures of the Versailles Treaty after WW1 which had left Germany economically dependent, politically susceptible to extremism, and resentful of the international community – a situation which led Germany on the path to Nazism and ultimately the Second World War.
With their different priorities and differing world views, finding agreements between the Big Three would be no easy task. The circumstances on the ground at the time of the conference added to the complexity of the discussions. With the USSR occupying most of Eastern Europe it would be very difficult for the Western powers to exert strong influence in these areas. For the USA to ensure military support from the USSR against Japan, they would have to offer something in the other direction, for example. Likewise, for Britain to be able to maintain control of Greece, they would have to allow Stalin a free hand somewhere else. The Big Three were not equals and the balance of power had shifted between the allies. Stalin was the host of the Yalta conference and showered his guests with extraordinarily lavish hospitality, perhaps to compensate for any impression of inflexibility in discussions. He maximised advantages of any disagreements between the United States and Great Britain. By February 1945, Britain was facing a manpower crisis and the United States had more troops in combat. Roosevelt’s health was also failing (he died two months after the end of the conference). Many of those who attended the Yalta conference commented on how desperately ill the President looked. Roosevelt’s most trusted adviser, Harry Hopkins, later said that he doubted whether Roosevelt had heard “more than half of what went on around the table” at Yalta.
By the end of the conference, however, the three parties signed a statement which outlined agreements on almost all of the issues raised at the table. They could present a united front to the world and show that despite their differences they could work together. In this way, the conference was deemed to be a success on all sides. However, the agreements reached were open to interpretation and their ambiguity meant that the results were not as clear as the Big Three initially suggested. Compromises would have to be explained and defended in the British Parliament and US Congress (Stalin, meanwhile, didn’t answer to anyone!). Foreign Secretaries and diplomats would have to work through the details of agreements and find solutions that worked in practice as well as on paper.
When the conference ended the public face of the Big Three was that they had worked through their differences and reached friendly agreements on the main issues of the day. However, behind the scenes the discussions had been less friendly and more tense. When Churchill later came to writing about Yalta in his history of the Second World War, he found it “an intensely painful memory he would have preferred to forget”. Most historians agree that if Yalta was not the beginning of the Cold War, it was a key step towards it.