WEDGED into a natural amphitheater between the Black Sea and the Crimean Mountains, Yalta seemed to have been built for drama. The towering peaks, bearing the gray scars of ancient avalanches, loomed above the town like “a vision of the Sierras,” as Mark Twain had written in The Innocents Abroad. Anton Chekhov, who wrote The Cherry Orchard and Three Sisters at his villa in Yalta, observed in “The Lady with the Pet Dog”:
The stories told of the immorality in such places as Yalta are to a great extent untrue … tales of easy conquests, of trips to the mountains, and the tempting thought of a swift, fleeting love affair.… The town with its cypresses had quite a deathlike air, but the sea still broke noisily on the shore; a single barge was rocking on the waves, and a lantern was blinking sleepily on it.
That sea—to the ancients, Pontus Euxinus, Sea Friendly to Strangers—had broken noisily on a shore occupied by Cimmerians and Scythians, Greeks and Genoese, Tartars and Russian princes. Two thousand annual hours of sunshine—comparable to Nice—suggested salutary conditions on the Crimean coast, and the first of three dozen sanatoriums for tuberculars and other invalids had been financed by progressive intellectuals, including Chekhov and Maxim Gorky. In 1920, by Lenin’s decree, Yalta became a workers’ spa, a proletarian paradise of fig, mulberry, and beech groves overlooking an inky sea of imponderable depth.
Then came the Germans. Three years of warfare, including the epic siege at nearby Sevastopol, utterly despoiled the Crimea, and Stalin’s invitation to the Anglo-Americans had triggered weeks of frenzied efforts to make Yalta presentable. Thousands of Red Army soldiers filled bomb craters, refurbished gutted houses, and shoveled manure from nineteenth-century palaces that the Germans had used to stable their horses. Fifteen hundred rail coaches ran from Moscow, a four-day journey, bringing carpets, window glass, and even brass doorknobs, which the absconding enemy had sawed off and carried away. Chefs, waiters, chambermaids, maîtres d’s, linens, beds, curtains, dishes, and silverware were gathered from the Hotels Metropol, National, Splendide, and Moscow for duty at Yalta. Each night a Russian convoy swept across the Crimea, rooting through farmhouses, boarding rooms, and schools for shaving mirrors, washbowls, coat hangers, clocks, and paintings. Swarms of plasterers, plumbers, painters, electricians, and glazers worked around the clock. Five hundred Romanian prisoners-of-war planted shrubs and semitropical flowers in riotous profusion.
British and American support ships were diverted to Sevastopol when it was found that Yalta’s coastal waters remained clogged with German mines. (“They didn’t leave a map,” a Russian officer explained with a shrug.) From the ships’ holds, office furniture, two hundred tons of radio equipment, and all that tipple aboard Franconia was trucked for fifty miles—and nine hundred hairpin turns—across the mountains. A “sanitary survey,” conducted in Yalta on January 28 by U.S. Navy physicians, found a “marked infestation with bed bugs”; hundreds of mattresses and pillows were sprayed with a 10 percent solution of DDT dissolved in kerosene. Linens were dusted with DDT powder and, for good measure, Russian kitchen staffs received instruction in “hygienic practices.”
Four Soviet regiments arrived to safeguard Yalta, in addition to 160 fighter planes, several antiaircraft batteries, and Stalin’s security cordon of 620 men, reinforced by a personal bodyguard of a dozen Georgians carrying tommy guns. Seventy-four thousand security checks were made within a twenty-kilometer diameter of the town, and 835 suspected “anti-Soviet elements” arrested. Three concentric circles of sentries ringed the Soviet, British, and American compounds, and the woods grew stiff with shadowy agents. Eavesdroppers with listening bugs and directional microphones also arrived from Moscow, intent on overhearing as many private conversations as possible.
Despite the efforts of all those Soviet maids and maîtres d’s, ARGONAUT would be more rough-hewn than earlier conclaves in venues like Casablanca, Quebec, and Washington. “Regret necessity for nineteen full colonels sleeping one room,” a terse message to the British delegation warned. Lieutenant General Hastings Ismay, the prime minister’s military assistant, later wrote, “It would have been difficult to find a more unget-at-able, inconvenient, or unsuitable meeting place.”
Yet apprehension ran far deeper than concerns over crowded quarters and bed bugs. “This may well be a fateful conference,” Churchill had told Roosevelt. “The end of this war may well prove to be more disappointing than was the last.” ARGONAUT would help shape the postwar world. Now all that remained was for the Argonauts themselves to arrive.
Sacred Cow touched down at 12:10 P.M. on Saturday at Saki airfield on the Crimean west coast, followed twenty minutes later by the prime minister’s upholstered Skymaster. Wearing his cape and a gray fedora with the brim turned up, Roosevelt descended in the caged elevator to the icy runway, where a Secret Service agent lifted him into a Russian jeep. He was greeted by Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet foreign minister, known privately to the Americans as “Stone Ass.” With Churchill standing at his elbow smoking a cigar, the president took the salute of a high-stepping, white-gloved honor guard from whose rifles live ammunition had been confiscated. All twenty-five planes from Mission No. 17 stood in perfect alignment as the captain of the guard marched past holding a sword “straight in front of him like a great icicle,” wrote Charles Moran. A band crashed through three national anthems and then the “Internationale.”
We will destroy this world of violence,
Down to the foundations, and then
We will build our new world.
He who was nothing will become everything.
“The president looked old and thin and drawn,” Moran added. “He sat looking straight ahead with his mouth open, as if he were not taking things in.” Three large tents stood near the crude control tower. Tables inside were heaped with platters of salmon, sturgeon, whitefish, caviar, and black bread. Beside steaming glasses of tea stood pitchers of vodka, as well as bottles of cognac and champagne. Marshall, muffled in a fur-lined khaki overcoat, glanced disapprovingly at this repast and muttered, “Let’s get going.”
Soon a weaving convoy of sedans and buses followed the unpaved road to Yalta, eighty miles and five hours away. No photograph or Movietone footage could have more vividly conveyed to the Western Allies the intensity of the war being waged by their eastern comrades: mile upon mile of gutted buildings, barns, crofts, trains, tanks, trucks. Peasant women in shawls and knee boots waved from barren fields and from orchards reduced to flinders. Except for a few sheep, no livestock could be seen, or farm machinery, or men for that matter, apart from the sentries in greatcoats and astrakhan hats, one every hundred yards, saluting each passing vehicle with an abrupt extension of their rifles at a thirty-degree angle. Churchill passed the time by reciting Lord Byron’s epic poem Don Juan. Beyond bleak Simferopol, the terrain lifted from snowy moor to mountain. The Route Romanoff followed a high, winding trace around the limestone flank of Roman-Kosh, the highest peak in the Crimea, before descending to the serpentine coastal road above the sea, each mile warmer than the mile before, until shortly before six P.M. they came to Yalta. Female traffic wardens waved them through with a waggle of red and yellow flags.
Churchill and the British contingent peeled away for their assigned billets in the Villa Vorontsov, described by Ismay as “a fantastic mixture of bogus Scottish castle and Moorish palace”; its furnishings, another guest said, radiated “an almost terrifying hideosity.” Built for a Russian governor in the early nineteenth century, with a handsome view of the Black Sea, the estate had served as a headquarters for Field Marshal Erich von Manstein during the Germans’ Crimean offensive. Great logs now burned in the hearths, and Russian housekeepers in black livery scurried about in an effort to accommodate the visitors. When Sarah Churchill mentioned that caviar was improved by lemon juice, a tub holding a lemon tree heavy with fruit appeared in the foyer. When Air Marshal Portal noted that a large glass tank lacked fish, goldfish swam on the instant.
Alas, Moran complained, “nothing is left out but cleanliness.” Bedbugs soon brought American fumigators with their DDT sprayers—too late for Churchill’s badly gnawed feet, although a bigger, bug-free bed was shipped by special train from Moscow. Generals and admirals now shared cells built for serfs—“We sleep in droves like prep school boys in dormitories,” one officer wrote his wife—and just two bathrooms with cold taps served the entire villa. Sarah wrote her mother of seeing “3 field marshals queuing for a bucket” to relieve themselves. Yalta, the prime minister would harrumph, was surely “the Riviera of Hades.” Perhaps only Brooke was happy: “I picked up a great northern diver, scoters, cormorants, many gulls and other diving ducks,” he told his diary. “Also dolphins feeding on shoals of fish.”
Ten miles away the Americans settled into the fifty-room Villa Livadia, a two-story, flat-roofed palace of limestone and marble set on a sea bluff. Suitcases and musette bags were piled in the grand foyer, as the travelers arrived to be greeted by servants who bowed at the waist and addressed Roosevelt as “Your Excellency.” (“The president did not seem displeased,” one general noted.) Here too the guests found an odd mixture of elegance and inconvenience. Waiters in swallowtail coats carried silver trays with little cakes and scalding tea in tall glasses, and caviar hillocks seemed to rise from every oak table. In a makeshift salon, a Russian barber and manicurist stood ready to groom the Americans, and the lush grounds around Livadia offered fifteen kilometers of walking paths lined with cedars, yews, and black cypresses shaped like exclamation points. Yet only four bathtubs and nine lavatories served more than one hundred Americans living on two floors in the villa; cards thumbtacked to the doors listed bathroom assignments by age, rank, and sex. (The president’s daughter, Anna, was one of two women in the traveling party.) For the impatient, auxiliary latrines were dug in a nearby deer park. A notice to all delegates asked, “Please do not pilfer rooms and dining services for souvenirs.”
An air of tragedy hung over Livadia, which had been built in 1911 as a summer palace for the last czar, Nicholas II, and his czarina, Alexandra, at a cost of two million rubles, paid in gold. Orthodox priests had spattered holy water and swung smoldering censers to bless each room. Little imagination was required to see the royal couple with their four daughters and ailing son arriving by imperial train from St. Petersburg, snacking on reindeer tongue and smoked herring as they cavorted through the villa or aboard the three-masted, twin-funneled royal yacht anchored below the bluff. It was said that lion-head embellishments on the marble benches outside the front entrance caricatured the czar; that he slept in a different room every night to foil assassins; that a private outside staircase had been used by the mystical Rasputin to visit the czarina. After abdicating in 1917, Nicholas futilely petitioned to retire at Livadia; instead, he and his family were murdered, and the villa became first a tuberculosis asylum and then a German division headquarters in 1941. Hitler had promised the estate to Rundstedt after the war for services rendered, and thus it escaped the torch.
Now Roosevelt slept in the czar’s first-floor suite, whose décor was described as “early Pullman car,” with brass lamps shaded in fringed orange silk and bottle-green harem cushions scattered across the floor. Marshall was assigned another royal bedroom upstairs, and Admiral King, to the great mirth of his comrades, occupied the czarina’s boudoir.
* * *
At four o’clock on Sunday afternoon, the heavy wooden doors flew open and a Secret Service squad marched into the Livadia foyer, followed by a Soviet security phalanx at port arms. From a black Packard in the semicircular driveway emerged a short ursine figure in a round military cap and a greatcoat adorned with epaulets and six brass buttons. His trousers were tucked into boots of soft Caucasus leather with elevated heels, and on the khaki tunic of his marshal’s uniform he wore the red ribbon and five-pointed star of a Hero of the Soviet Union. The impenetrable dark eyes and gray pushbroom mustache were softened by a slight smile that revealed irregular teeth, more black than bone in tint, and even the fading light showed that beneath a heavy coating of talcum powder his cheeks were dimpled with the smallpox scars he had incurred at age six. All conversation stopped—Russian servants were careful not to rattle the teacups—and junior officers pressed forward, necks craned, as if to catch a fleeting glimpse of Grendel.
Joseph Stalin intrigued even Franklin Roosevelt, who now greeted the marshal with a broad grin and an extended hand from behind the desk of his makeshift study in the palace. They shared native shrewdness, political acumen, and a conviction that their respective nations were about to become superpowers—a recent coinage that they would help define. In other respects the wealthy patrician had little in common with this son of a drunk cobbler and a mother born into serfdom. Roosevelt a few weeks later would tell his cabinet, preposterously, that during Stalin’s youthful study for the priesthood “something entered into his nature of the way in which a Christian gentleman should behave”; in fact, he had left the seminary to specialize in bank robbery, extortion, and—as the first editor of the Bolshevik newspaper Pravda—manipulation of the masses. Calm, laconic, and often courteous, with, in Brooke’s estimation, “a military brain of the highest caliber,” he was also vindictive, enigmatic, and a murderer to rival Hitler. Still, Roosevelt repeatedly told his lieutenants, “I can handle Stalin.” As for the marshal’s perspective: he had observed a few months earlier that “Churchill is the kind of man who will pick your pocket of a kopeck.… Roosevelt is not like that. He dips his hand only for bigger coins.”
Beneath a painting of a farmer plowing his field and a chandelier with bulbs of varying size and brilliance, they made small talk. The president was pleased they could have a private conversation before Churchill joined them. Stalin spoke a few snatches of English, perhaps learned from Hollywood movies, notably, “You said it!,” “So what?,” and “What the hell goes on around here?” With Bohlen translating and taking notes, Roosevelt assured the marshal that he was “living in comfort” at Livadia, where all plenary sessions would convene for the president’s convenience. He observed that Allied military fortunes had “considerably improved” since their last meeting, in Teheran fourteen months earlier. With armies from east and west now edging closer, he hoped that General Eisenhower would be able to communicate directly with Soviet field commanders rather than routing all messages through the Combined Chiefs. The shocking pillage of Crimea made him “more bloodthirsty than a year ago,” the president added, and he urged Stalin to consider offering a dinner toast “to the execution of fifty thousand officers of the German army.”
The marshal replied that the carnage was much worse farther north in Ukraine; there the enemy’s Lebensraum plan to settle ten million German colonists in the east had resulted in genocide. Everyone had become more bloody-minded, he said, for the Germans were “savages and seemed to hate with a sadistic hatred the creative work of human beings.”
Roosevelt offered Stalin a cigarette and lighted another for himself. The British, he said, were “a peculiar people and wished to have their cake and eat it too.” As for the French, he wholeheartedly agreed with Churchill’s tart rationale for excluding De Gaulle from ARGONAUT. (“I cannot think of anything more unpleasant and impossible,” Churchill had recently written Anthony Eden, his foreign secretary, “than having this menacing and hostile man in our midst.”) Yet the president believed it might make sense for France to have a postwar occupation zone in Germany, along with the Big Three.
Why, Stalin asked, given how little France had contributed to winning the war?
“Only out of kindness,” Roosevelt replied.
Stalin nodded. “That,” he said in his thick Georgian accent, “would be the only reason to give France a zone.”
They parted with another handshake. Later, tamping tobacco into his pipe, the marshal gestured toward the ailing man in the wheelchair and mused aloud, “Why did nature have to punish him so?”
* * *
Upon Churchill’s arrival at 5:10 P.M., the first plenary session began with twenty-eight men convening in what had once been the Livadia state dining room. Half sat around a circular table covered in white damask and the rest perched on chairs along the walls. Measuring fifty by thirty feet, the chamber had double walnut doors at one end and a huge conical fireplace, now blazing merrily, at the other; half a dozen arched windows gave onto the garden. In this high-ceilinged room Nicholas and Alexandra in 1911 had celebrated the sixteenth birthday of their eldest daughter, the Grand Duchess Olga Nikolaevna, with a dress ball and a cotillion supper; as an autumn moon sailed above the Black Sea, the czar gave Olga a necklace of thirty-two diamonds and pearls. It was said that even in November the scent of roses had perfumed the night.
Much of ARGONAUT’s initial meeting was given over to reports from the front. Speaking without notes, General Marshall offered a concise summary of circumstances in the west. The German salient in the Ardennes had been eliminated, he said, and Eisenhower hoped to cross the Rhine in March. Montgomery was readying an offensive southeast toward the Rhine above Düsseldorf, supported by the U.S. Ninth Army, which would drive northeast toward the same objective. The Ruhr would then be enveloped rather than assaulted frontally. A supporting attack by Bradley’s army group would angle toward Frankfurt and beyond, with Devers’s army group shielding the right wing. Tens of thousands of tons of cargo now arrived every day in European ports—this even though more than sixty V-1s and V-2s had pummeled Antwerp just two days earlier. Allied bombing continued to batter the Reich, Marshall added: in less than a year German oil production had dwindled to 20 percent of its peak.
The Soviet account, read by General of the Army Aleksei I. Antonov, was electrifying. The winter offensive launched east of Warsaw in mid-January had advanced three hundred miles in three weeks; the Germans evidently had expected Stalin to await better weather and so were caught out. Red Army troops outstripped even the ten to twelve miles a day their commanders had hoped for, and Soviet soldiers now stood on the Oder River, less than fifty miles from Berlin. Enemy forces in East Prussia had been cut off, with Soviet legions sweeping toward Stettin, Danzig, and Königsberg on the Baltic. Industrial Silesia had been overrun. Red Army political officers were nailing up signs with messages scrawled in diesel oil: “You are now in goddamn Germany.” Antonov estimated that forty-five German divisions already had been destroyed in the offensive.
The Soviets currently possessed a seven-to-one superiority over the Germans in tanks, eleven-to-one in infantry, twenty-to-one in artillery. Hitler had shifted reserves from the west, but many were diverted to Budapest, or to screen Vienna and the Hungarian oil fields. Stalin chimed in to say that on the central front in western Poland, Soviet divisions outnumbered German by 180 to 80. Neither he nor Antonov noted the liberation near Kraków a week earlier of Auschwitz, among the most heinous of Nazi concentration camps. Only a few thousand inmates had been found alive, but subsequent investigation would reveal the extermination of more than a million people, mostly Jews, and unspeakable medical experiments. The Germans had not had time to cart away seven tons of women’s hair shorn from victims, or 348,820 men’s suits and 836,515 dresses, neatly baled, or the pyramids of dentures and spectacles whose owners had been reduced to ash and smoke.
“Our wishes,” Antonov said, “are to speed up the advance of the Allied troops on the Western front.” German defenses had congealed east of Berlin; although Eisenhower in Versailles was offering three-to-one odds that the Russians would enter the enemy capital by March 31, that proved optimistic. Many Soviet divisions had been pared to fewer than four thousand men, with shortages of air support and artillery ammunition. Bridgeheads on the Oder remained pinched. Rain, snow, and mud slowed the armies’ momentum, as did the need to shift supply lines from Russian rail gauges to narrower western European tracks. Enemy counterattacks threatened the flanks in East Pomerania. Antonov put Red Army casualties in the past three weeks at 400,000, almost quadruple U.S. losses in the Bulge. When Admiral King complimented Soviet valor, Stalin replied, “It takes a very brave man not to be a hero in the Russian army.”
Valor, yes, but also iniquity. Soviet atrocities were now rampant in the east; they included the burning of villages, wanton murder, and mass rape in East Prussia, Silesia, and elsewhere. By late 1945, an estimated two million German women would be sexually assaulted by Red Army assailants, and that figure excluded Poles and liberated Soviet women who had been kidnapped by the Wehrmacht to Germany as slave laborers. In Königsberg, nurses would be dragged from operating tables to be gang raped. “Our men shoot the ones who try to save their children,” a Soviet officer said. German fathers executed their daughters to spare them further defilement, and raped women were nailed by their hands to the farm carts carrying away their families as part of the migration of 7.5 million Germans to the west over the next few months. “They are going to remember this march by our army over German territory for a long, long time,” a Russian soldier wrote his father. Of these things, nothing was said—not in the Livadia salon that day, nor at any point during ARGONAUT.
At 8:30 P.M., Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin, and eleven others adjourned to dinner “in very good humor,” according to Bohlen’s notes. Great care had been taken not to have thirteen at table lest the number discomfit the superstitious Roosevelt. Filipino mess boys served caviar, sturgeon, beef and macaroni, fried chicken, fruit, and layer cake, washed down with vodka and five types of wine. “The world will have its eyes on this conference,” Churchill declared. “If it is successful, we will have peace for a hundred years.” The prime minister was described by one diplomat as “drinking buckets of Caucasian champagne”; Stalin sipped only half his vodka during the innumerable toasts before discreetly recharging his glass with water.
Not until the final half hour did political issues arise, when table talk turned to the postwar epoch soon to come. “We three have to decide how to keep the peace of the world,” Stalin said, “and it will not be kept unless we three decide to do it.” Surely it was “ridiculous to believe that Albania would have an equal voice with the three great powers who had won the war,” he continued, adding that the Soviet Union would “never agree to have any action of the great powers submitted to the judgment of the small powers.”
Roosevelt agreed that “the great powers bore the greater responsibility,” and should dictate the peace. But smaller nations could hardly be ignored. “We have, for instance,” he said, “lots of Poles in America who are vitally interested in the future of Poland.”
“But of your seven million Poles, only seven thousand vote,” Stalin interjected, apparently concocting his statistics from thin air.
Great nations, Churchill declared, “should discharge their moral responsibility … with moderation and great respect for the rights of the small nations.” Rising to his feet, he proposed a toast to “the proletariat masses of the world,” then added, “The eagle should permit the small birds to sing and care not wherefore they sing.”
Shortly after eleven P.M. the gathering dissolved. Much work lay ahead, but president, prime minister, and marshal agreed they had made a good start. Not everyone agreed. “A terrible party I thought,” Anthony Eden noted in his diary. “President vague and loose and ineffective.” Churchill had “made desperate efforts and too long speeches to get things going again. Stalin’s attitude to small countries struck me as grim, not to say sinister.”
* * *
Stalin’s attitude toward Germany was far grimmer. He made this clear when the conference reconvened late Monday afternoon, February 5. “I should also like to discuss … the dismemberment of Germany,” he told Roosevelt and Churchill, reminding them that at Teheran the president had proposed carving the Fatherland into five lesser states. “Hasn’t the time come for decision? If you think so, let us make one.”
“We are all agreed on dismemberment,” Churchill said, “but the actual method, the tracing of lines, is much too complicated a matter to settle here in five or six days. It requires very searching examination of geography, history, and economic facts.… We reserve all rights over their land, their liberty, and their lives.… It is not necessary to discuss it with the Germans.”
“No,” Stalin agreed, “simply to demand from them.”
Roosevelt asserted that he still favored “the division of Germany into five or seven states,” but in fact the Anglo-Americans had backed away from such draconian solutions since their brief flirtation the previous fall with Henry Morgenthau’s agrarian scheme.
“We are dealing with the fate of eighty million people and that requires more than eighty minutes to consider,” Churchill said. Whatever the Allies decided must not leak to the enemy, he added. “Eisenhower doesn’t want that. That would make the Germans all the harder. We should not make this public.”
“No,” Stalin said, a cigarette jutting from his mustache, “these questions for the moment are only for us. They should not be public until the time of surrender.”
Glancing at a note slipped to him by Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt proposed deferring the matter until the three foreign ministers could devise a method for secretly studying dismemberment options. On the related issue of how postwar Germany should be occupied, the president observed that zones had been agreed upon by the European Advisory Commission in London but not yet approved by the Big Three governments. With a shuffle of paper he passed around a crude, hand-drawn map showing the tripartite division of Germany, including a jointly administered Berlin.
Churchill now raised the question of giving France an occupation zone, perhaps carved from the British and U.S. sectors, since the “French might be able to be of real assistance” in a protracted postwar period.
How long would U.S. forces likely remain in Europe? Stalin asked Roosevelt. “I can get the people and Congress to cooperate fully for peace but not to keep an army in Europe for a long time,” the president replied. “Two years would be the limit.”
“Germany should be run by those who have stood firmly against Germany and have made the greatest sacrifices,” Stalin said. “We cannot forget that in this war France opened the gates to the enemy.”
Churchill could hardly let the marshal’s shabby amnesia pass unchallenged. (“He loves France like a woman,” Moran told his diary later that evening.) But rather than remind Stalin of his 1939 nonaggression pact with Hitler, and of Moscow’s congratulatory telegrams to Berlin following every subsequent Wehrmacht victory, the prime minister slyly mused that every nation had “difficulties in the beginning of the war and made mistakes.” In postwar Europe, he insisted, “France must take her place.”
But who should pay for the catastrophe? Much of the Soviet Union lay in ruins—Roosevelt and Churchill had seen that for themselves in the Crimea—and rebuilding would require many years. Since shortly after the German invasion in 1941, Stalin had pressed for reparations. Now, he said, the Soviets had a specific plan: German heavy industry would be reduced by 80 percent through confiscation of aviation plants, synthetic-oil facilities, and the like, and the Soviet Union would require payment from Berlin of $1 billion in German goods annually for a decade, with a like sum to the Anglo-Americans.
On this issue, too, Washington and London had second thoughts. Roosevelt said the United States now coveted nothing from postwar Germany. (U.S. officials privately estimated that whatever German assets survived the war would be worth at most $200 million.) Yet he also did not want Germans to have a higher living standard than the Soviet people. Churchill’s opposition was stouter; privately he considered Stalin’s reparations plan “madness.” Germany, like France, would be an important counterweight to Soviet power in Europe, and he was also reluctant to bankrupt a future trading partner.
Recalling the oppressive conditions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, the prime minister told Stalin that he was “haunted by the specter of a starving Germany.” If the victors wanted a German dray horse to pull their wagon, he added, they “would at least have to give it fodder.” Stalin scoffed. “Care should be taken,” he said, “to see that the horse did not turn around and kick you.” This matter was likewise deferred: a commission would be appointed to examine reparation issues.
* * *
On it went for six more days of hammer-and-tongs work, the three leaders and their lieutenants like smiths attempting to forge a new world. Roosevelt privately complained of Churchill’s protracted monologues—“now we are in for ½ hour of it,” the president scribbled on a notepad when the prime minister launched into another allocution. As Churchill’s rhetoric soared, swooped, and pirouetted, Air Marshal Portal reported, “he ran away from the interpreter & was untranslatable.” Other delegates sought brief respites from the conference hall. One evening the U.S. chiefs watched National Velvet, a new film starring Mickey Rooney and a twelve-year-old actress named Elizabeth Taylor. Moran visited the villa once owned by his fellow physician Chekhov, admiring a wooden stethoscope and a bronze bust of Tolstoy. A clutch of British generals toured Crimean War battlefields, where Brooke attempted to make sense of the Light Brigade’s charge at Balaclava by thumbing through old maps and a guide to the campaign.
Back at the Villa Livadia, no issue occupied the Argonauts more than Poland’s fate, which was discussed in seven of the eight plenary sessions. The United States and Britain currently recognized a Polish government-in-exile in London—“a decent but feeble lot of fools,” in Churchill’s opinion—while Moscow supported a provisional, pro-Soviet regime in Warsaw. “If we separate still recognizing different Polish governments, the whole world will see that fundamental differences between us still exist,” Churchill asserted. “The consequences will be most lamentable.” Some 150,000 Polish soldiers fought alongside the Western Allies, but with ten million Red Army troops in eastern Europe and all of Poland now occupied, Stalin held trump.
Rising from his chair, Stalin called Poland “the corridor through which the enemy passed into Russia. Twice in the past thirty years our enemies, the Germans, have passed through the corridor.” Unpersuaded, Churchill reminded the marshal that Britain had gone to war in 1939 to restore Polish sovereignty. “We could never be content with any solution that did not leave Poland a free and independent state,” he said. Roosevelt, seeking to mediate, asked the Soviets, “How long will it take you to hold free elections?” Molotov replied: “Within a month’s time.”
In the event, elections would not be held in Poland for two years, and they were hardly free. But no confrontation short of armed conflict was likely to reverse Stalin’s conviction that stupendous Soviet losses in the Great Patriotic War had purchased the right to determine eastern Europe’s political contours, as the historian Warren F. Kimball would later observe. “All the Balkans except Greece are going to be Bolshevized, and there is nothing I can do to prevent it,” Churchill had lamented even before Yalta. “There is nothing I can do for poor Poland either.” Poland’s eastern and western borders eventually would be shifted west. By annexing eastern Poland—an area roughly the size of Missouri—the Soviet Union gained a wider buffer; in turn, much of Pomerania, East Prussia, and Silesia would be peeled away from Germany and appended to western and northern Poland. Following the war, Soviet puppets would rule in Warsaw, and the Red Army troops who had reentered Poland in 1944 subsequently remained for almost half a century. “Terrible and humbling submissions must at times be made to the general aim,” Churchill later wrote.
For Roosevelt, two paramount concerns shaped his views on Poland and other matters. The first reflected a January memorandum from the Joint Chiefs, declaring that prompt Soviet entry into the war against Japan “is necessary to provide maximum assistance to our Pacific operations.” In the Philippines, MacArthur had yet to capture Manila. In the central Pacific, the next American assault—against the flyspeck island of Iwo Jima—was not scheduled until mid-February. In Burma, the British remained months away from capturing Rangoon. And in New Mexico, there was no guarantee that the atomic bomb, a secret not shared with Moscow, would work. If the Pacific war were to last eighteen months after the victory in Europe—with huge American casualties, as feared by the Pentagon—Soviet help in tying down the Japanese in Manchuria and providing air bases in eastern Siberia would be vital to the Joint Chiefs. By entangling Moscow in Asia, the United States might also curb Soviet ambitions in Europe.
Stalin at the Teheran conference had tentatively committed the Soviet Union to war against Japan; now he firmly agreed to shift twenty-five divisions to the Far East and provide additional military aid within three months after Germany’s surrender. In exchange, Moscow would receive territories lost by imperial Russia in 1905 after the Russo-Japanese War, plus the Kuril Islands and guarantees regarding ports and railroads in the Far East. These penalties and others to be imposed by the Western Allies would ensure that Japan forfeited its entire empire. To preserve the illusion of Soviet neutrality in the Pacific and to forestall a preemptive Japanese attack, the agreement, formally signed on February 10, would for now remain secret, locked in a White House safe. Chagrined U.S. negotiators complained that in “trading with the Russians you had to buy the same horse twice.”
The second issue preoccupying Roosevelt, and the matter nearest his heart, was creation of a world organization capable of keeping the peace by balancing the security requirements of the great powers against the rights of small nations. He entertained what one adviser termed “pet ideas” of building strategic military bases around the globe controlled by what he called the “United Nations”; the U.N. would keep the United States committed to the wider world after the war, and offer a forum for Soviet engagement with the West. An elite security council within the organization would give smaller nations a voice while providing the great powers with a veto. Earlier discussions on the United Nations had stumbled over the precise configuration of that council, and over Moscow’s insistence on individual memberships for all sixteen Soviet republics. Molotov at Yalta agreed to pare the number to two or three extra votes. “This is not so good,” Roosevelt wrote, likening the demand to giving individual membership to all forty-eight U.S. states. But in the end he relented, ceding Moscow two extra votes in a future general assembly, for Ukraine and Belorussia, in addition to a seat on the security council for the Soviet Union. This deal also would remain secret.
* * *
ARGONAUT staggered to an end. They were “tired all through,” in Churchill’s phrase, not least from two more grand banquets that closed out the conference. Stalin hosted the first, at nine P.M. on February 8, in the Yusupov Palace, a Moorish Revival villa once owned by the prince who had helped orchestrate Rasputin’s murder. Bohlen counted forty-five toasts, while mosquitoes stung exposed ankles under the table and one inebriant repeatedly barked, “Drink it down!” Stalin hailed Churchill as “the bravest governmental figure in the world … a man who is born once in a hundred years.” Churchill in return called Stalin “the mighty leader of a mighty country.… We regard Marshal Stalin’s life as most precious to the hopes and hearts of all of us.” The prime minister invoked a beguiling image of “standing on the crest of a hill with the glories of the future possibilities stretching before us.”
Roosevelt, who had tossed down two cocktails before dinner, toasted Stalin as the “chief forger of the instruments which had led to the mobilization of the world against Hitler”; “the atmosphere of this dinner,” he added, “[is] that of a family.” Guests hopped around the table clinking glasses; only the foolish had failed to heed Russian advice to coat their stomachs with butter and oily salmon before the first sip of vodka. A huge man in a black alpaca jacket stood behind Stalin’s chair, advising the marshal on what to eat and drink. When Roosevelt asked the identity of a pudgy Soviet guest sporting pince-nez, Stalin replied, “Ah, that one. That’s our Himmler.” It was Lavrenty P. Beria, the sadistic murderer and rapist who served as chief of the secret police.
Churchill hosted the final dinner at the Villa Vorontsov on Saturday, February 10, the last night of ARGONAUT. Soviet agents arrived early to peer behind the walls and under the table, flipping chairs and chests. A British honor guard in regimental finery lined the front steps to welcome the nine guests; for half an hour the three leaders loitered in Churchill’s map room, studying battle lines east and west. Churchill broke into song, a rousing version of “When We’ve Wound Up the Watch on the Rhine,” and Roosevelt joked, “This singing by the prime minister is Britain’s secret weapon.” During the lavish meal—the menu included sturgeon in aspic, suckling pig, white fish in champagne, mutton shashlik, wild goat of the steppes, quail, and partridge—Churchill stood and lifted his glass to Stalin. “The fire of war has burnt up the misunderstandings of the past,” he said. “We feel we have a friend whom we can trust.” The president added, “We are here at Yalta to build up a new world, which will know neither injustice nor violence, a world of justice and equity.” Stalin daubed his eyes with a handkerchief. As he departed the villa behind his booted bodyguards, the British staff gathered in the foyer to be led by their prime minister in three rousing cheers for the marshal. Hip, hip, hooray!
They were done. A communiqué approved by the three leaders on Sunday morning affirmed their “sacred obligation” to maintain in peace the same Allied unity that had prevailed in war. A “declaration on liberated Europe” within the statement also endorsed “a world order under law” and “the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live.” “We will meet again soon, in Berlin,” Roosevelt told Stalin in a farewell from the Villa Livadia at 3:45 P.M. He gave the marshal a book titledTarget: Germany, published by the Army Air Forces, with vivid photographs of bomb damage. Two Russian servants arrived bearing Georgian wine, caviar, butter, oranges, and tangerines for the Americans. Stalin also promised to ship to Washington the desk Roosevelt used at Livadia because he had “worked so hard there.”
Churchill had begun the day in a querulous mood, sourly singing snatches of “The Soldiers of the Queen” after breakfast. He lamented both his failure to safeguard Poland—he decried the communiqué as “this bloody thing”—and the unmistakable decline of British influence in shaping the postwar world. But the prospect of sailing home from Sevastopol aboard Franconia cheered him. A former chef from the Queen Mary had been press-ganged to cook on the return voyage, and Stalin’s couriers delivered bulging hampers of gifts: seven kilos of caviar, seventy-two bottles of champagne, eighteen bottles of vodka, a case of chocolate, seven cases of fruit, and various wines, liqueurs, and cigarettes.
“Papa, genial and sprightly like a boy out of school, his homework done, walked from room to room saying, ‘Come, come on,’” wrote Sarah Churchill. Stalin, she added, “like some genie, just disappeared.”
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“I am a bit exhausted but really all right,” Roosevelt wrote Eleanor as he headed back to Washington. His spirits were high enough to mimic both Stalin, in a faux Slavic accent—“I had not thought of it. It is a good idea. I will sign”—and Churchill, whom he imitated putting up his hands defensively, like a boxer on the ropes. “Churchill is acting now as if he is always afraid of getting hit,” the president said. But there would be no rest for the weary, not yet. After a night aboard a Navy ship in Sevastopol, Roosevelt boarded the Sacred Cow at Saki airfield on Monday morning, February 12, and flew to Egypt. He had proposed a rendezvous with De Gaulle in Algiers, but the Frenchman—said by the U.S. embassy in Paris to be “in a sulky mood” at being excluded fromARGONAUT—brusquely declined.
Instead the president again boarded Quincy, moored adjacent to the Suez Canal, and welcomed a succession of potentates whose influence, he suspected, would expand in a postwar, postcolonial world. First came young King Farouk I of Egypt, wearing a fez and sunglasses, followed by the diminutive Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, the Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Elect of God, and descendant of Solomon and Sheba. Finally the destroyer U.S.S. Murphy pulled along Quincy’s starboard flank to deliver the imposing, black-robed King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia, with an entourage that included a fortune-teller, a food taster, bodyguards carrying scimitars, a royal coffee server and his deputy, nine slaves, and a herd of sheep whose numbers diminished with each bloody butchering on Murphy’s fantail. A Navy navigator provided bearings to Mecca for the proper positioning of prayer rugs. The king presented Roosevelt with a gold knife, perfume, and Arab robes, including “harem attire” for Eleanor; the president reciprocated with a wheelchair—the monarch was barely ambulatory—and a supply of penicillin. “2 Kings & 1 Emperor in 2 days,” Roosevelt wrote his secretary. “All goes well but again I need sleep.”
Escorted by a cruiser and seven destroyers, Quincy steamed for home. The president spent much of the voyage basking in a sun with little power to brighten his eye or bronze his cheek. “He had,” as Churchill would write in his memoir, “a slender contact with life.” At nine A.M. on February 28, he would arrive back at the White House, completing a journey of 13,842 miles. “It’s been a global war,” he told Eleanor, “and we’ve already started making it a global peace.”
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“We really believed in our hearts that this was the dawn of the new day we had all been praying for,” said Harry Hopkins, who suffered from liver disease and had less than a year to live. “We were absolutely certain that we had won the first great victory of the peace.” Other delegates shared his exuberance. “For what we have gained here,” Marshall said, “I would have gladly stayed a whole month.” Even Brooke was chipper, telling his diary, “Conference is finished and has on the whole been as satisfactory as could be hoped for, and certainly a most friendly one.”
Roosevelt and Churchill warranted Marshal Stalin’s good faith. “Stalin doesn’t want anything other than security for his country,” the president said. “He won’t try to annex anything and will work for a world of democracy and peace.” The prime minister would tell his war cabinet, “Stalin I’m sure means well to the world and Poland.… He will not embark on bad adventures.” He added, “I don’t think I’m wrong about Stalin,” whom he had called “that great and good man.”
Public reaction was overwhelmingly favorable once the joint communiqué revealed the first details of ARGONAUT. The New York Times claimed the agreements “justify and surpass most of the hopes placed on this fateful meeting.” Polling results given the White House in mid-March would show that only 11 percent of Americans surveyed deemed the conference “unsuccessful”; although 38 percent knew too little to have an opinion, a solid majority agreed that the Polish arrangement was “about the best that could be worked out.” In a spasm of optimism, Time averred that “all doubts about the Big Three’s ability to cooperate in peace as well as in war seem now to have been swept away.”
Within weeks the bloom had left the rose. Churchill sat listening to The Mikado on a gramophone, lamenting “the shadows of victory” and fretting that he had trusted Stalin as Neville Chamberlain had once trusted Hitler. “We had the world at our feet,” he mused. “Twenty-five million men marching at our orders by land and sea. We seemed to be friends.” Provisional agreements made at Yalta soon came unstitched. The Western Allies effectively scuttled the deal to dismember Germany and to extract reparations collectively. Moscow in turn consolidated its grip on eastern Europe, installing a Communist regime in Bucharest and deporting tens of thousands of ethnic Germans to the Ural Mountains as slave laborers. Polish leaders deemed anti-Soviet were arrested in utter disregard of the “declaration on liberated Europe”; exiled Poles in London decried the “partition of Poland, now accomplished by her allies.” The sentimentality of ARGONAUT quickly faded, along with delusions that Russian xenophobia and Leninist dogma could be sweet-talked away. Marshall alerted the Joint Chiefs to reports of “increasing Russian non-cooperation with U.S. military authorities,” and Roosevelt would complain in mid-March, “We can’t do business with Stalin. He has broken every one of the promises he made at Yalta.” To a friend in Washington he added, “I didn’t say the result was good. I said it was the best I could do.”
Recriminations followed, inflamed by the eventual revelation of secret concessions regarding United Nations membership and the enticements that had induced Moscow to make war on Japan. A stigma soon stained Yalta, “a connotation of shameful failure, if not outright treason,” as one British historian wrote, “matching that attached to the Munich Conference of September 1938.” For decades the Western delegates would be blamed for everything from the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe to the rise of Communist regimes in China, northern Korea, and Indochina.
Roosevelt’s frailty came to be seen as both the proximate cause of craven negotiating and a metaphor for the West’s weak answer to Stalin’s belligerence. “The shrewdness has gone, and there is nothing left,” Moran wrote of Roosevelt during the conference. “The president’s opinions flutter in the wind.” Yet those working in closest proximity found, as Churchill later told the Commons, “an extraordinary effort of the spirit over the flesh, of willpower over physical infirmity.” The president evinced both a reasonable command of complex issues and, the historian S. M. Plokhy would write, “his trademark ability to make alliances, strike deals, and maneuver in order to achieve his main goals.” Eden wrote that although Roosevelt “gives the impression of failing powers … I do not believe that the president’s declining health altered his judgment.” Photos from Yalta would show a wasting man, gray and thin; U.S. Navy color movie footage shows a man indeed gray and thin, but also animated and plainly alert. Reporters ferried to theQuincy for the 992nd press conference of Roosevelt’s presidency found him articulate, droll, and quick; asked whether the conference had laid a foundation for an enduring peace, Roosevelt replied, “I can answer that question if you can tell me who your descendants will be in the year 2057.… We can look as far ahead as humanity believes in this sort of thing.”
Two generations later, Yalta can be seen as neither the portal to Roosevelt’s “world of justice and equity” nor a disgraceful capitulation to red fascism but, rather, an intricate nexus of compromises by East and West. Roosevelt “largely followed through on earlier plans, and gained most of what he wished,” the historian Robert Dallek concluded, including Soviet support for the United Nations and participation in the defeat of Japan, an obligation punctually fulfilled by Moscow’s declaration of war three months after the German surrender. That declaration may not have “saved two million Americans,” as Admiral King had envisioned at Yalta, but along with two atomic bombs it encouraged Tokyo’s decision to surrender. With the Soviet Union killing far more Germans in combat than all other Allied forces combined, at a fell price of 26 million Soviet lives, Stalin was not to be denied what the diplomat George F. Kennan called “a wide military and political glacis on his Western frontier.” If Roosevelt sounded plaintive and exasperated, his explanation also captured the political reality of Europe in February 1945: It was the best I could do.
War had held the Big Three together—the common cause of crushing Germany proved stronger than the centrifugal forces that beset any alliance. Now the entropy of peace threatened to unknot those ties, as postwar interests and imperatives emerged. Even Roosevelt and Churchill, who had met on nine occasions to spend 120 days together during the war, felt the bonds of blood and history fraying week by week. When the reporters aboard Quincy asked Roosevelt whether Churchill hoped to reassemble the antebellum imperial empire, the president replied, “Yes, he is mid-Victorian on all things like that.… Dear old Winston will never learn on that point.… This is, of course, off the record.” But Churchill knew. Roosevelt “cannot leave the empire alone,” he told Moran. “It seems to upset him.” Eden shrewdly suspected that the president “hoped that former colonial territories, once free of their masters, would become politically and economically dependent upon the United States.”
Moran in February observed, “We have moved a long way since Winston, speaking of Roosevelt, said to me in the garden at Marrakesh [in January 1943], ‘I love that man.’” Perhaps it was too much to expect such attachments to survive when so much had perished. Speaking to the Commons a few days after his return from Yalta, the prime minister warned: “We are now entering a world of imponderables.… It is a mistake to look too far ahead. Only one link in the chain of destiny can be handled at a time.”
Yet for those who felt destiny as a following wind, the morrow beckoned and the imponderable held more promise than peril. “The Americans pitch their song on a higher note,” Moran wrote. “They feel they are on top of the world.”