By Joshua L. Wick, Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
For eight days in the beginning of February 1945, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet Premier Josef Stalin convened one of the most secretive meetings of modern times.
The decisions that came from this intense conference set in motion some of the major events of the next century that would shape the U.S Navy and the world. And even today questions remain, what was the real price of the decisions made at the conference? Did they cost our country and the world more than they gave in return?
The president relied heavily on the Navy for getting him safely and quietly to high-level meetings and conferences during World War II. Roosevelt and Churchill had met secretly in August 1941 aboard USS Augusta off the coast of Newfoundland. It was aboard the ship the two forged a strong alliance and developed the premise of a pact they hoped would be agreed upon by the League of Nations: to “respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live; and they wish to see sovereign rights and self-government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them.”
This was also the case with Yalta. USS Quincy (CA 71) was tasked with transporting the ailing president to the Russian resort city on the Crimean peninsula.
President Roosevelt and his party embarked aboard the Baltimore-class heavy cruiser at Newport News, Va., on Jan. 23, 1945, for passage to Malta in southern Europe, arriving Feb. 2. Roosevelt then departed Quincy and continued on to the Crimea by air.
Once all the leaders were gathered in Yalta, the discussion, bargaining and debating began for the second conference of World War II. The first had been the highly secret meeting in 1943 between the “Big Three” in Tehran where they agreed to a military operation that would eventually become the Invasion of Normandy or Operation Overlord.
The Yalta Conference was to take the blueprint of the Atlantic Conference and hammer in the details. As with most international conferences, the leaders and their entourages had their own agendas, goals, cultural and political differences. With Germany’s surrender expected, their focus was on post-war reorganization, reestablishment of a war-torn Europe and how best to enforce the reparation and demilitarization of Germany.
Article II of the conference stated: To foster the conditions in which the liberated people may exercise these rights, the three governments will jointly assist the people in any European liberated state or former Axis state in Europe where, in their judgment conditions require,
(a) to establish conditions of internal peace;
(b) to carry out emergency relief measures for the relief of distressed peoples;
(c) to form interim governmental authorities broadly representative of all democratic elements in the population and pledged to the earliest possible establishment through free elections of Governments responsive to the will of the people; and
(d) to facilitate where necessary the holding of such elections.
Though they each had their own issues, they all wanted the unconditional surrender of Germany. Roosevelt sought agreement and establishment for his “United Nations” and for the need of military support for the ongoing war in the Pacific theater. The fate of Eastern Europe, especially Germany’s division and Poland’s borders, were the main bargaining chips for “The Big Three.”
The level of corporation required from the conference was unprecedented. The Soviet Union agreed to join the Allies in the war against Japan with two caveats: the Mongolian People’s Republic would be preserved and territories in the southern part of Sakhalin that had been taken by Japan in 1904 would be returned to the Soviet Union, along with the Kurile Islands. The commercial port of Dairen would be internationalized, allowing Soviet interests and the ability to lease property for a base at Port Arthur.
Roosevelt got Stalin’s agreement in the Pacific, but Stalin appeared to be running the show.
Expectations were high but short-lived as history proved when the players on the field suddenly shifted. Only a few weeks after the Yalta Conference, President Roosevelt died at his “Little White House” at Warm Springs, Ga. He had served an unprecedented 12 years in office and had just started his fourth term that would have seen him through the reconstruction of Europe after World War II, and to some degree, keeping Stalin reined in.
While Stalin and Roosevelt were able to come to terms despite huge differences in philosophy, that was not the case with Roosevelt’s successor, President Harry S. Truman. As he agreed with the Yalta Conference, Stalin did throw his support against Japan, another factor that led to Japan’s surrender. An interesting historic side note is that USS Quincy, the cruiser that carried Roosevelt to the Yalta Conference, was among the flotilla of ships in Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2, 1945, for the Japanese surrender.
But the end of the war also signified the end of Stalin’s cooperation. Agreements made during the Yalta Conference, based on the premise of “the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live,” didn’t apply to the border countries within the Soviet Union’s Eastern bloc of nations.
Luckily for Roosevelt, he never witnessed the erasing of the lines they drew at Yalta so the Eastern European countries could retain their sovereignty. As the Soviet Union expanded borders further west and more nations were integrated into Stalin’s communist government, the Iron Curtain separated the East from the West.
In the end, what came from Yalta sparked the military, economic, scientific, political, and ideological start of the Cold War. Once again for nearly 45 years, America’s Navy was on the front lines of the cat and mouse games in the high-stakes Cold War conflict.
The comfort of 70 years of hindsight make it possible for us to look critically at the decisions made at Yalta and the policies that followed, but perhaps the most important question is what could have realistically been done differently?