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World War II: Yalta Conference

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World War II: Yalta Conference

Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin at the Yalta Conference

Photograph Courtesy of the US Department of Defense

Yalta Conference Overview:

In early 1945, with World War II in Europe drawing to a close, Franklin Roosevelt (United States), Winston Churchill (Great Britain), and Joseph Stalin (USSR) agreed to meet to discuss war strategy and issues that would affect the postwar world. Dubbed the "Big Three," the Allied leaders had met previously in November 1943, at the Tehran Conference. Seeking a neutral site for the meeting, Roosevelt suggested a gathering somewhere on the Mediterranean. While Churchill was in favor, Stalin refused citing that his doctors prohibited him from making any long trips.

In lieu of the Mediterranean, Stalin proposed the Black Sea resort of Yalta. Eager to meet face to face, Roosevelt agreed to Stalin's request. As the leaders traveled to Yalta, Stalin was in the strongest position as Soviet troops were a mere forty miles from Berlin. This was reinforced by the "home court" advantage of hosting the meeting in the USSR. Further weakening the western Allies' position was Roosevelt's failing health and Britain's increasingly junior position relative to the US and USSR. With the arrival of all three delegations, the conference opened on February 4, 1945.

Each leader came to Yalta with an agenda. Roosevelt desired Soviet military support against Japan following the defeat of Germany and Soviet participation in the United Nations, while Churchill was focused on securing free elections for Soviet-liberated countries in Eastern Europe. Counter to Churchill's desire, Stalin sought to build a Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe to protect against future threats. In addition to these long-term issues, the three powers also needed to develop a plan for governing postwar Germany.

Shortly after the meeting opened, Stalin took a firm stance on the issue of Poland, citing that twice in the previous thirty years it had been used as an invasion corridor by the Germans. Furthermore, he stated that the Soviet Union would not return the land annexed from Poland in 1939, and that the nation could be compensated with land taken from Germany. While these terms were non-negotiable, he was willing to agree to free elections in Poland. While the latter pleased Churchill, it soon became clear that Stalin had no intention of honoring this promise.

In regard to Germany, it was decided that the defeated nation would be divided into three zones of occupation, one for each of the Allies, with a similar plan for the city of Berlin. While Roosevelt and Churchill advocated for a fourth zone for the French, Stalin would only acquiesce if the territory was taken from the American and British zones. After reasserting that only unconditional surrender would be acceptable the Big Three agreed that Germany would undergo demilitarization and denazification, as well as that some war reparations would be in the form of forced labor.

Pressing on the issue of Japan, Roosevelt secured a promise from Stalin to enter the conflict ninety days after the defeat of Germany. In return for Soviet military support, Stalin demanded and received American diplomatic recognition of Mongolian independence from Nationalist China. Caving on this point, Roosevelt hoped to deal with the Soviets through the United Nations, which Stalin did agree to join after voting procedures in the Security Council were defined. Returning to European affairs, it was jointly agreed that the original, prewar governments would be returned to liberated countries.

Exceptions were made in the cases of France, whose government had become collaborationist, and Romania and Bulgaria where the Soviets had effectively dismantled the governmental systems. Further supporting this was a statement that all displaced civilians would be returned to their countries of origin. Ending on February 11, the three leaders departed Yalta in a celebratory mood. This initial view of the conference was shared by the people in each nation, but ultimately proved short-lived. With Roosevelt's death in April 1945, relations between the Soviets and the West became increasingly tense.

As Stalin reneged on promises concerning Eastern Europe, perception of Yalta changed and Roosevelt was blamed for effectively ceding Eastern Europe to the Soviets. While his poor health may have affected his judgment, Roosevelt was able to secure some concessions from Stalin during the meeting. Despite this, many came to view the meeting as a sellout that greatly encouraged Soviet expansion in Eastern Europe and northeast Asia. The leaders of the Big Three would meet again that July for the Potsdam Conference.

During the meeting, Stalin was effectively able to have the decisions of Yalta ratified as he was able to take advantage of new US President Harry S. Truman and a change of power in Britain that saw Churchill replaced partway through the conference by Clement Attlee.

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