How the post-WWII world order came into being within eight days in Yalta

Jinoy Jose P | Updated on April 24, 2020 Published on April 24, 2020

The Big Three: A sand monument of the leaders at the Yalta Conference (From left) British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, US President Franklin D Roosevelt and Soviet Premier Josef Stalin   -  ISTOCK.COM

Historian Diana Preston delves into the minutiae of the conference at Yalta in 1945 that determined the fate of Germany and Europe after the war

*Diana Preston charts the meeting of ‘the Big Three’ — US President Franklin D Roosevelt, UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet Union (USSR) Premier Joseph Stalin — in Yalta during February 1945

*The decisions taken at Yalta continue to have important geopolitical ramifications

*Although the ‘Cold War’ is formally over, tensions remain with Putin’s Russia

Yalta, a resort town on the southern coast of the Crimean Peninsula, played a vital role in determining the future of post-war Europe, thanks to the now-famous eight-day conference held during February 4-11, 1945. US President Franklin D Roosevelt, UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet Union (USSR) Premier Joseph Stalin — famously called The Big Three — charted a plan for the reorganisation of Germany and Europe after World War II. They ratified an agreement of the European Advisory Commission that set the boundaries of post-war occupation zones for Germany. The decisions taken at the meeting in the Ukraine town continue to intrigue historians and international relations experts alike. In her book Eight Days at Yalta: How Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin Shaped the Post-War World, London-based historian Diana Preston adeptly tracks the tussle to shape the international post-war order. Her previous books include Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy and Before the Fallout: From Marie Curie to Hiroshima. Excerpts from an interview with BLink.

Diana Preston   -  IMAGE CREDIT: PICADOR


What prompted you to write a book about the Yalta meeting now?

‘Big’ moments in 20th-century history fascinate me, particularly as we still live with so many of their legacies. I’ve written about how warfare changed forever during the first year of WWI, and also about the development of the atomic bomb. It was natural for me to want to explore the Yalta story where many of the same issues and themes occur — morality versus expediency, for example. Also, 2020 is the 75th anniversary of the Yalta conference. Three quarters of a century is a good long lens through which to look back, assess and reflect.

Today we know that the meeting fixed the fate of Eastern Europe and beyond. But what would have happened if that meeting hadn’t taken place? Can you give us some important possible outcomes?

It’s hard to visualise the Yalta meeting not taking place. Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill had already met in Tehran in 1943 to discuss the conduct of the war. It was natural that, as allies, they would want to meet again, once Germany’s defeat was beyond doubt, to discuss the post-war order. For Yalta not to have happened implies some sort of breakdown in relations between the US and UK on the one hand, and the Soviet Union on the other. If there had been such a rupture and no meeting at Yalta, the war would probably have lasted longer because the three powers would not have been coordinating their military strategy. There would have been a race to get to Berlin first and tension over how a defeated Germany was to be administered, perhaps leading to military confrontation between the western allies and the Soviet Union, however unwelcome to both. At the very least, there would have been no agreement on new borders for Poland, on the establishment of the United Nations or, of course, on the terms for Soviet entry into the war against Japan.

What’s the most important take away from the Yalta meeting?

The legacies that still affect our world, reminding us that geopolitical decisions almost always have long-term ramifications, often with unintended consequences. For example, one of Roosevelt’s key objectives at Yalta was to secure Soviet entry into the war against Japan to save millions of young US lives that he believed would otherwise be lost in invading the Japanese home islands. He therefore readily accepted Stalin’s demands for territorial and other concessions at the expense of his ally Nationalist China’s Chiang Kai-shek, as well as of Japan. This allowed the Red Army with US agreement to sweep into Japanese-occupied Manchuria and on into northern Korea to the 38th parallel. Soon after, despite Stalin’s pledge to support a free and independent Korea, Soviet troops sealed the 38th parallel and, with Soviet backing, Korean Communist leader Kim Il-Sung, took power in the north. This set the scene for the establishment of North and South Korea, the Korean War, continuing partition and the ongoing instabilities today. An irony is that if Roosevelt had had more faith that the atom bomb, being developed by the Manhattan Project, would work, he would have realised he had no need of Soviet assistance in the Pacific.

Eight Days at Yalta: How Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin Shaped the Post-War World; Diana Preston; Picador; Non-fiction; ₹850


Another Yalta legacy is that although the ‘Cold War’ is formally over, tensions remain with [Vladimir] Putin’s Russia. The current standoff over the Crimea, annexed by Putin’s Russia, and over Russian ambitions elsewhere in Ukraine show that — just as in 1945 over Poland — world leaders know they have few viable sanctions beyond moral pressure on Russia.

Many historians consider Stalin as a cruel and authoritarian leader. But in your book, at least in parts he comes across as a hero statesman. Your comments.

Stalin is absolutely not a hero to me. He was a brutal dictator. But I did want to bring out — because it influenced what happened at Yalta — his political skill, especially his superb grasp of detail, relentless determination and unerring ability to spot and exploit others’ vulnerabilities. Sir Alexander Cadogan, a senior British official at Yalta, thought him “much the most impressive of the three men”. Stalin’s daughter Svetlana said of him, “He knew and sensed the political game, its shades, its nuances. He was completely absorbed by it”. At Yalta, despite everything Roosevelt and Churchill knew about Stalin’s crimes against his own people — the show trials, the famine resulting from his economic policies — Stalin still managed to convince them they could trust him.

You write that of all three leaders Stalin was most certain of what he wanted to achieve and at what price. What were the other remarkable aspects of his leadership?

In the Soviet Union, he kept power by trusting few and taking all big decisions himself. His memory was near infallible and he was a master of detail. To enforce his will, he encouraged Soviet organisations to report on each other and state security to report on them all, fostering a climate of fear. Believing in ‘divide and rule’, he purposely set those around him one against another.

As Roosevelt admitted, Yalta was a compromise. Still, it made a big difference. In today’s foreign policy, does such an approach matter? If so why?

In achieving foreign policy objectives, compromise is always important. What perhaps matters most of all — and we see this in how Stalin handled things at Yalta — is to know what you are prepared to concede and what is an uncrossable line and to stick to it.

Would things have been different if Roosevelt wasn’t ill or Churchill wasn’t exhausted?

It might have made some difference. If Roosevelt had felt physically stronger, he might have battled harder, for example, for guarantees of a democratic future for the recently liberated countries of Eastern Europe. He could have threatened to suspend the Lend-Lease arrangements whereby the US was supplying goods and equipment to the Soviet Union while deferring payment for them. One thing Stalin did respect was the power of the dollar and he understood how vital Lend-Lease was to the Soviet war effort so such a threat might have had an effect. Churchill was certainly physically and probably mentally exhausted and Britain was a declining power, but Churchill struggled hard for his objectives, anachronistic as some were.

More important to the outcome than the health of the two western leaders was the timing of the conference. Originally scheduled for the summer of 1944, it was delayed twice at Roosevelt’s request — once to allow him to run for an unprecedented fourth presidential term and again to allow him to deliver his inaugural address. If the conference had taken place earlier, Stalin’s Red Army would not have advanced so far west and occupied so much of Eastern Europe as it had by February 1945 and Stalin’s bargaining position would have been much weaker. As Stalin was fond of saying, “Whoever occupies a territory imposes on it his own social system”.

Do you think the world has not given deserving attention to the contribution of the Soviet Union or the Red Army in defeating Hitler and then stalling the spread of Nazi/Fascism across the globe?

Yes, the West often fails to give credit for the immense sacrifices made by the Soviet Union during what Russians still call ‘The Great Patriotic War’. As Stalin frequently reminded Roosevelt and Churchill at Yalta, far more Russian blood was spilled than American or British. It’s estimated that around 420,000 American soldiers died and that Britain lost some 450,000, both civilians and military, but that over 25 million Soviet citizens died, and a huge number were injured.

What were the most important challenges you faced while writing and researching this book?

The sheer amount of research was a challenge and also full of surprises. The actual discussions between the three leaders are of course well documented in American, British and Russian sources and I was lucky enough to be able to visit Yalta twice. But I very much wanted to tell the story from the perspective of the more junior people who were there — from the junior American staff sleeping in dormitories and British secretaries and cipher clerks, to Roosevelt’s daughter Anna trying to protect her very sick father, and Churchill’s daughter Sarah, trying to care for her father, to those on the Soviet side such as members of the secret police, the NKVD, which was the team tasked with bugging and listening in to Roosevelt and Churchill, and the elderly Russian maid who was moved to tears by Roosevelt’s frailty. It took time and persistence to track down diaries and letters giving those perspectives. I also spent time researching what life was like during the conference’s eight days in the hastily renovated palaces where the three delegations stayed with the bed bugs, lack of functioning bathrooms so that field marshals queued to use a bucket, shortage of safe drinking water but copious amounts of vodka and champagne on offer. I also wanted to place the eight days of the Yalta Conference in the context of what was happening in February 1945 in the wider world with the liberation of the concentration camps and the long lines of refugees trying to reach safety.

What are you working on now?

I also write about exploration and my next book will be about Charles Darwin and the voyage of the HMS Beagle. When we think of Darwin, we tend to picture the bushy-bearded patriarch of his later years. I want to capture the young Darwin — just 22 when he embarked on the Beagle on what we might call the ultimate ‘gap year’. To help me see things through his eyes, I was recently in Chile following his route across the Andes and visiting places where he made some of his most important discoveries, especially in geology. I’m also planning to go to the Galapagos.

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Published on April 24, 2020
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