What was the Yalta Conference?

The Yalta Conference was a meeting of three World War II allies: U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin. The trio met in February 1945 in the resort town of Yalta on the Black Sea coast of the Crimean Peninsula. The” Big Three ” Allied leaders discussed the fate of defeated Germany and the rest of Europe after the war, the terms of Soviet entry into the ongoing war in the Pacific against Japan, and the formation and operation of the new United Nations.

Tehran Conference
Prior to the Yalta Conference, the three leaders met in Tehran, Iran, in November 1943, where they coordinated the next phase of the war against the Axis powers in Europe and the Pacific.

At the Tehran Conference, the United States and Britain had committed themselves to launching an invasion of northern France in mid-1944 and opening another front of the war against Nazi Germany. Stalin, meanwhile, had agreed in principle to join the war against Japan in the Pacific after the defeat of Germany.

By February 1945, as Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin reassembled at Yalta, an Allied victory in Europe was on the horizon. Having liberated France and Belgium from Nazi occupation, the Allies now threatened the German border; to the east, Soviet troops had driven back the Germans in Poland, Bulgaria, and Romania and had come within 40 miles of Berlin. This gave Stalin a distinct advantage during the meeting at the Black Sea Resort, a location he himself had suggested after insisting that his doctors had prevented him from traveling long distances.

Pacific War
While the war in Europe was winding down, Roosevelt knew that the United States still had a protracted struggle against Japan in the Pacific War and wanted to confirm Soviet support to limit the length and casualties of that conflict. At Yalta, Stalin agreed that Soviet forces would join the Allies in the war against Japan within “two or three months” of Germany’s surrender.

In return for their support in the Pacific War, the other allies agreed that the Soviet Union would gain control of Japanese territory it had lost in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, including South Sakhalin (Karafuto) and the Kuril Islands. Stalin also demanded that the United States diplomatically recognize Mongolia’s independence from China; the Mongolian People’s Republic, established in 1924, was a Soviet satellite.

Partition of Germany
At Yalta, the Big Three agreed that after unconditional surrender, Germany would be divided into four postwar occupation zones controlled by U.S., British, French, and Soviet forces. The city of Berlin would also be divided into similar occupation zones. French leader Charles de Gaulle was not invited to the Yalta conference, and Stalin agreed to include France in the postwar government of Germany only if France’s occupation zone was taken from the U.S. and British zones.

Allied leaders also determined that Germany should be fully demilitarized and “denazified” and that it would assume some responsibility for postwar reparations, but not sole responsibility.

Poland and Eastern Europe
Stalin took a hard line on the question of Poland, pointing out that Germany had twice in three decades used the nation as a corridor for invading Russia. He declared that the Soviet Union would not return the territory in Poland annexed in 1939 and would not meet the demands of the London-based Polish government-in-exile.

Stalin agreed to admit representatives of other Polish political parties into Poland’s communist-dominated provisional government and to sanction free elections there, one of Churchill’s main goals.

In addition, the Soviets promised to allow free elections in all areas of Eastern Europe liberated from Nazi occupation, including Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. In return, the United States and Britain agreed that future governments in Eastern European countries bordering the Soviet Union should be “friendly” to the Soviet regime to satisfy Stalin’s desire for a zone of influence that would provide a buffer against future conflicts in Europe.

At Yalta, Stalin agreed to Soviet participation in the United Nations, the international peacekeeping organization that Roosevelt and Churchill had agreed to under the Atlantic Charter in 1941. He made this commitment after all three leaders agreed on a plan under which all permanent members of the organization’s Security Council would have veto power.

After discussing these key issues, the Big Three agreed to meet again after the surrender of Germany to finalize the boundaries of postwar Europe and other outstanding issues.

“There is no doubt that the tide of Anglo-Soviet-American friendship has reached a new high,” James Byrnes, who accompanied Roosevelt to Yalta, wrote in his memoirs. Although Roosevelt and Churchill also viewed the Yalta Conference as an indication that their wartime cooperation with the Soviets would continue in peacetime, such optimistic hopes would prove short-lived.

Impact of the Yalta Conference
By March 1945, it had become clear that Stalin had no intention of keeping his promises regarding political freedom in Poland. Instead, Soviet troops helped crush any opposition to the provisional government based in Lublin, Poland. When elections were finally held in 1947, they predictably solidified Poland as one of the first Soviet satellite states in Eastern Europe.

Many Americans criticized Roosevelt-who was gravely ill during the Yalta Conference and died only two months later, in April 1945-for the concessions he made at Yalta regarding Soviet influence in Eastern Europe and Northeast Asia. President Harry Truman, Roosevelt’s successor, would be much more suspicious of Stalin in July, when the leaders of the three major Allied powers met again at the Potsdam Conference in Germany to set the final terms for ending World War II in Europe.

But with his forces occupying much of Germany and Eastern Europe, Stalin could effectively ratify the concessions he won at Yalta and press his advantage over Truman and Churchill (who was replaced by Prime Minister Clement Atlee midway through the conference). In March 1946, barely a year after the Yalta Conference, Churchill delivered his famous speech declaring that an “iron curtain” had fallen across Eastern Europe, signaling a definitive end to cooperation between the Soviet Union and its Western allies and the beginning of the Cold War.

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