February, 1945: Yalta Conference Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

In February, 1945, the armies of the Soviet Union moved rapidly toward Berlin with the Germans in full retreat. In the West, British and U.S. forces, commanded by General Dwight D. Eisenhower, prepared to invade Germany. The unconditional surrender of Germany was expected in a matter of weeks. In the Far East, U.S. forces moved steadily from island to island across the Pacific toward a final invasion of the Japanese home islands. The possibility of using an atomic bomb to end the war remained questionable. Military experts did not believe the bomb could be made ready before the end of the year.

In February, 1945, the armies of the Soviet Union moved rapidly toward Berlin with the Germans in full retreat. In the West, British and U.S. forces, commanded by General Dwight D. Eisenhower, prepared to invade Germany. The unconditional surrender of Germany was expected in a matter of weeks. In the Far East, U.S. forces moved steadily from island to island across the Pacific toward a final invasion of the Japanese home islands. The possibility of using an atomic bomb to end the war remained questionable. Military experts did not believe the bomb could be made ready before the end of the year.

With the defeats of Germany and Japan a certainty, the Big Three Allied leaders–Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill of Great Britain, Communist Party secretary Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt of the United States–met to plan the postwar world. It was the last time the three would see one another, for Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, just two months after the conference ended and less than a month before Germany surrendered. At Stalin’s request, the Allies gathered at Livadia Palace (once a summer home of Czar Nicholas II) at Yalta on the Crimean Peninsula of the Black Sea. The conference lasted from February 4 to February 11, 1945.

Allied Issues

Yalta represented the height of Allied cooperation. The Big Three spoke happily of the end of the fighting, but conflicting aims and conflicting personalities led to compromises in the spirit of cooperation that failed to satisfy any of them. Four major issues were discussed, and in spite of much talk of cooperation, no comprehensive settlement proved possible. The future of Germany, the future of Poland, the nature of a world organization to replace the discredited League of Nations, and the Soviet Union’s formal entrance into the war against Japan were all highly controversial issues that needed to be settled by the Big Three.

Upon the defeat of Germany, Stalin wanted to divide that country into permanent zones of occupation; he also wanted reparations in kind (food and industry) to compensate for the nearly twenty million Soviet dead and the German destruction of one thousand Soviet towns and cities. Stalin demanded a harsh policy to prevent Germany from ever making war again. Churchill agreed to divide Germany, but not permanently. He insisted that a healthy Europe depended upon a prosperous Germany. Roosevelt’s position was somewhere between these two views. Stalin’s reparations demands were incorporated into the conference’s final protocol, and the three powers called for Germany’s “dismemberment” into occupation zones during the period following surrender. A U.S. proposal granting France the status of an occupying power gained Stalin’s reluctant approval. The details of Allied occupation policy, however, as well as the precise amount of reparations, were deferred to a later meeting.

In addition to a neutralized Germany, Stalin wanted the security of a friendly Polish government. He sought boundaries giving the Soviet Union territory from eastern Poland, while compensating the Poles with part of eastern Germany. The Soviet Union recognized the provisional Polish government in Warsaw (the so-called Lublin Poles), but both Great Britain and the United States insisted that the Polish government-in-exile in London also participate in the political rebuilding of Poland after the war. The Big Three agreed on a formula calling for the reorganization of the Lublin government with open elections, worded in such a way that both sides could see their respective interests maintained. The question of Poland’s postwar boundaries also found a compromise solution. Ignoring the protests of the London Poles, the Big Three set the Curzon Line as the basis for Poland’s eastern border, thereby sanctioning Soviet reacquisition of areas lost in the fighting during the Russian Civil War of 1918–1921. As compensation, the Poles would receive substantial accessions of territory in the north and west, but the precise delineation of the new German frontier was left to the peace conference.

British prime minister Winston S. Churchill (left), U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt (center), and Soviet premier Joseph Stalin at Yalta. (National Archives)

The United Nations

Primarily at U.S. insistence, discussion of a world organization to maintain the postwar peace enjoyed a high priority at Yalta. The Big Three planned an international conference to be held in San Francisco in April, at which the United Nations would be formed. Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill reached agreements on several points concerning membership and voting in the new body. Churchill resented U.S. proposals for United Nations trusteeships of colonial territories, which the British prime minister interpreted as an attempt by Roosevelt to dismantle the British Empire. Stalin exploited the disagreement over trusteeships between the Western Allies to gain Churchill’s support for his own plan to have two Soviet republics recognized as independent voting members of the new United Nations. The atomic bomb was still a somewhat vague conception at Yalta, and so it was assumed that the Soviets would be needed to defeat Japan. Stalin promised that in return for Russian territory ceded to Japan under Russia’s czarist imperial government, he would declare war on Japan within three months of Germany’s surrender. The agreement on the Far East was not made public in February, 1945.

The agreements at Yalta could have become the basis for an amicable peace, for the spirit of the conference was one of hope and trust. In the spring and summer, however, charges of bad faith and double-dealing began to replace the spirit of compromise. Serious disagreements that heralded the Cold War to come were soon in evidence, and within a short time, the good will that marked the Yalta Conference had vanished.

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