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Liveblogging World War II: February 6, 1945: Yalta

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S.M. Plokhty: Yalta: The Price of Peace:

Of all the writers who have been to Yalta, Anton Chekhov has given us the most evocative description of the view from the grounds of Oreanda, the tsar’s manor next to Livadia. “Yalta was hardly visible through the morning mist; white clouds stood motionless on the mountain-tops,” he wrote in one of his best-known stories, “The Lady with the Dog”:

The leaves did not stir on the trees, grasshoppers chirruped, and the monotonous hollow sound of the sea rising up from below, spoke of the peace, of the eternal sleep awaiting us. So it must have sounded when there was no Yalta, no Oreanda here; so it sounds now, and it will sound as indifferently and monotonously when we are all no more. And in this constancy, in this complete indifference to the life and death of each of us, there lies hid, perhaps, a pledge of our eternal salvation, of the unceasing movement of life upon earth, of unceasing progress towards perfection.”

This “unceasing progress towards perfection” was something the Western delegates to the Yalta Conference might have hoped to be participating in during those chilly days of February 1945. “The Americans pitch their song on a higher note,” wrote Lord Moran in his diary on February 11:

They are leaving Yalta with a sense of achievement, they feel they are on top of the world and that while other conferences had been concerned with proposals of policy, Yalta has been the scene of important decisions that must influence the future of the world.

“We really believed in our hearts that this was the dawn of the new day we had all been praying for and talking about for so many years,” Hopkins told his biographer, Robert E. Sherwood, after the war. “We were absolutely certain that we had won the first great victory of the peace—and, by ‘we,’ I mean all of us, the whole civilized human race.” Lord Moran recorded in his diary that Hopkins, “lying on his sick-bed, is firmly convinced that a new Utopia has dawned. He says the Russians have shown that they will listen to reason, and the President is certain that he ‘can live at peace with them.’”

It was Hopkins’s excitement rather than Roosevelt’s more cautious belief in the possibility of future cooperation with the Soviets that defined the mood of the American delegation. The military had particular reason to be pleased... Soviet participation in the war with Japan was now an accomplished fact.... Stettinius was convinced that, on balance, the Americans had done extremely well.... There were of course concerns--Poland was at the top of everyone’s list--but most Americans were confident.... The Americans were not alone in catching the “Yalta spirit.” General Hastings Ismay... believed that this attitude was shared by all members of the delegation with the exception of the prime minister, “who had been disillusioned by the failure to settle the Polish problem.”...

In London... the members of the war cabinet were pleased with the decision on the United Nations... welcomed the agreement “reached on the very difficult matter of Poland”.... The agreements on Yugoslavia and German reparations raised no objections. The conference was hailed as a triumph.... Cadogan was impressed not so much by the immediate results as by the new spirit of cooperation shown by his Soviet hosts. “I have never known the Russians so easy and accommodating,” he wrote in a letter to his wife. “In particular Joe has been extremely good. He is a great man, and shows up very impressively against the background of the other two aging statesmen.” Belief in Stalin’s goodwill underpinned the newfound optimism. ... Hopkins told Sherwood. “But I have to make one amendment to that,” he continued:

I think we all had in our minds the reservation that we could not foretell what the results would be if anything should happen to Stalin. We felt sure that we could count on him to be reasonable and sensible and understanding—but we never could be sure who or what might be in back of him there in the Kremlin....

[Alger] Hiss, whose espionage for the Soviet Union was never proved in court but whose leftist sympathies are not in doubt, struggled like other members of the American delegation to make sense of Stalin’s personality and behavior. He knew of Stalin’s “monstrous crimes against his people” and had trouble reconciling that fact with the simple, modest image that the marshal successfully projected at Yalta:

He stood in the lavatory line with his aides and the rest of us lesser fry while Churchill was taken to Stettinius’ suite and Roosevelt went to his own. We never solved the enigma of Stalin’s character...

Senior members of the American delegation struggled to understand how such a seemingly reasonable and gracious man could be so inflexible and stubborn when it came to German reparations or the government in Poland. Stettinius resolved the contradiction by accepting Stalin’s claim that he was not free... under pressure from hard-liners in the Politburo.... Churchill believed that he had cracked the enigma of Stalin....

I find he does what he says he will do. It isn’t easy to get him to say he will do it, but once he says something, he sticks to it....

Churchill thought he could trust Stalin.... Churchill [had] fought to the very end on Poland and German reparations and felt more betrayed by Roosevelt than by Stalin. He would soon regret his faith....

Marshal Georgii Zhukov, who visited Stalin in Moscow in March 1945, found him happy with the outcome of the conference. Stalin was convinced that at least one of the Western leaders could be trusted. He had been concerned that the Western Allies might conclude a separate peace with Germany at the very end of the war, robbing the Soviet Union of the spoils of its victory. He suspected Churchill but, judging by Zhukov’s account, felt confident that he could trust Roosevelt. Stalin needed American help not only to defeat Germany but to rebuild the Soviet Union. Roosevelt had convinced Stalin at Yalta that cooperation with the West and especially with the United States was possible. That realization made the Soviets more open to compromise than ever before and contributed to the atmosphere of hope and mutual trust shared by all participants. The Yalta agreements marked a high point that would not be recaptured. In the months ahead, the United States and Britain would draw closer, but there would be no such progress in relations with the Soviet Union....

On February 27, Churchill presented the results of the Yalta Conference to his country in a speech at the House of Commons that lasted almost two hours and required a break in the middle. As he had warned on the last day of the conference, there was strong opposition in Parliament to the decisions on Poland, and he did his best in the speech to defend positions that he did not support. Churchill’s main argument was that Stalin had pledged to honor both Polish sovereignty and democracy.... “The PM was rather depressed, thinking of the possibilities of Russia one day turning against us, saying that Chamberlain had trusted Hitler as he was now trusting Stalin,” wrote Jock Colville, Churchill’s private secretary, commenting on the prime minister’s mood at dinner on February 23.... Churchill openly admitted the limits of what he could do at Yalta:

Great Britain and the British Commonwealth are very much weaker militarily than Soviet Russia, and have no means, short of another general war, of enforcing their point of view. Nor can we ignore the position of the United States. We cannot go further in helping Poland than the United States is willing or can be persuaded to go. We have therefore to do the best we can.... We are only committed on the basis of full execution in good faith of the terms of our published communiqué....

Always the shrewd politician, Churchill sought as much as possible to shift responsibility for future developments in Poland from himself to the Soviet leader. In his speech to the House of Commons, he said:

Most solemn declarations have been made by Marshal Stalin and the Soviet Union that the sovereign independence of Poland is to be maintained, and this decision is now joined in both by Great Britain and the United States.... The impression I brought back from the Crimea, and from all my other contacts, is that Marshal Stalin and the Soviet leaders wish to live in honourable friendship and equality with the Western democracies. I feel also that their word is their bond. I know of no Government which stands to its obligations, even in its own despite, more solidly than the Russian Soviet Government. I decline absolutely to embark here on a discussion about Russian good faith....

Bohlen... said that he did not know Hiss personally before Yalta:

At meetings at Yalta, his slightly cavernous face always wore a serious expression. He was not an outgoing person, but one who seemed to regard his associates from a superior distance....

Bohlen claimed that far from taking a pro-Soviet stand, Hiss had actually led the opposition in the American delegation to Stalin’s proposal to give the Soviet Union two additional seats in the UN General Assembly--a claim fully corroborated by State Department documents. If Hiss was indeed a Soviet spy, as the new evidence suggests, then his performance at Yalta is puzzling. Judging by what we know today, the Soviet spymasters mismanaged their greatest asset at the conference....

In the spring of 1945 Stalin had not yet developed a clear idea of what to do with his Eastern European conquests. He thought that the Soviet experience was unique, and that for the time being the countries west of the Soviet Union did not need a Soviet-type one-party state. He imagined that the Communist Party could coexist with other left-leaning parties in a so-called people’s democracy. These transitional regimes would prepare the ground for a complete communist takeover of their respective states, perhaps ten or fifteen years in the future.... What Stalin did not doubt was that the new states must be linked politically and strategically with the Soviet Union and be under its exclusive spell.... It was only after the unexpected death of Roosevelt that Stalin decided to make his case to the new president with regard to the Soviet presence in Eastern Europe...

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