ALMOST EVERY DAY of the war that he was not travelling, Churchill visited his Map Room. Capt. Richard Pim, RN, the lanky Welshman who presided there, was a key figure in the Downing Street entourage, often accompanying the prime minister on his journeys to maintain the flow of battlefield news he craved. Churchill still intervened constantly in matters of detail concerning the armed forces. Britain’s falling troop strength was a preoccupation. He deplored the dissolution of some units to fill the depleted ranks of others. There were wearisome wrangles about the respective manpower claims of the army, RAF and coal mines. Churchill was anxious that soldiers dispatched to the Far East at the end of the German war should receive additional pay. He followed with the keenest interest the commitment of Germany’s new advanced U-boats to the Atlantic, British progress towards producing jet fighters to match those of Hitler, and efforts to counter the V-2 rocket bombardment which continued to inflict distress on southern England.
But these were all minor matters, by comparison with the great strategy decisions of earlier years. The Allied armies were advancing across Europe with little opportunity for the prime minister to influence their courses. He hailed successes, chafed in familiar fashion at setbacks and delays, but knew that power resided at Eisenhower’s headquarters and in Washington. Oliver Harvey wrote, somewhat patronisingly, “As the purely military problems1051 simplify themselves, the old boy’s tireless energy leads to ever closer attention to foreign affairs.” Almost all Churchill’s thoughts were now fixed upon the postwar settlement of Europe, which might be critically influenced by the Yalta summit. “I have great hopes of this conference,”1052 he told the House of Commons, “because it comes at a moment when a good many moulds can be set out to receive a great deal of molten metal.” Nonetheless, he complained to Harry Hopkins, who was in London, that if the Allies had spent ten years researching a possible rendezvous, they could not have devised a less convenient one than the Crimea. It was farcical that a desperately sick U.S. president should be obliged to travel six thousand miles to suit the whims of Soviet doctors, who had allegedly told Stalin not to venture abroad. As for the prime minister himself, on January 29 he arrived at Malta, the Anglo-American staging point for Yalta, with a temperature of 102 degrees.
The Combined Chiefs of Staff held an unpleasant preliminary meeting, its atmosphere poisoned by personality clashes entwined with the campaign in northwest Europe. Montgomery’s boorish behaviour towards Eisenhower sustained friction. Brooke was distressed to find that Marshall refused even to enter into argument with the British about strategy. America’s course was set, for a measured advance to the Elbe. Franklin Roosevelt arrived aboard the cruiser Quincy on February 2. If Churchill was feverish, the British were shocked to perceive in the leader of the United States the wreck of a man. It was a grim prospect, to set off for a summit with an American president unfit for important business. After the delegations’ first dinner together at Malta, Eden fumed about lack of serious discussion: “Impossible even to get near basics1053. I spoke pretty sharply to Harry [Hopkins] about it … pointing out that we were going into a decisive conference and had so far neither agreed about what we would discuss nor how to handle matters with a Bear who would certainly know his mind.” Human sympathy for Roosevelt was eclipsed by dismay about the implications of his incapacity to defend the interests of the West.
The Allied leaders’ arrival in the Crimea on February 3 was inauspicious. After the planes carrying the great men landed, Roosevelt had to be assisted into a jeep to inspect a Russian guard of honour, with Churchill walking beside him. There followed a nightmare six-hour trip to Yalta, along terrible roads. The prime minister looked around without enthusiasm. “What a hole I’ve brought you to!”1054 he said to Marian Holmes. Later, he described the resort bleakly as “the Riviera of Hades.” Generals found themselves billeted four to a room, colonels in dormitories of eleven. From national leaders downwards, all complained about the shortage of bathrooms. On February 4, there was a preconference dinner of the principals. Eden wrote: “A terrible party, I thought1055. President vague and loose and ineffective. W., understanding that business was flagging, 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.” Security around the Soviet leader was so tight that he arrived for a photo session almost invisible amid a phalanx of armed guards.
Despite all the criticism of Churchill in the United States during the past months, few Americans at Yalta doubted the power of his personality. C. L. Sulzberger wrote in the New York Times that among the “Big Three,”1056 Roosevelt was “certainly blander than either of his colleagues,” while Churchill, “with his romantic conceptions, his touch of mysticism, his imperialism, his love of uniforms and color, is something of a Renaissance figure. He combines more talents than either Stalin or Roosevelt—more than almost any political figure who has ever attained his stature.”
Polls in America continued to report widespread personal respect for the prime minister, and a renewed faith that Britain would prove a reliable postwar ally. But enthusiasm for Churchill’s country was importantly qualified. Most Americans—70 percent—were implacable in their belief that at the end of the war the British should repay the billions they had received in Lend-Lease supplies. Even when told that their ally lacked means to do this, 43 percent of respondents said that they must do so anyway. It was a perverse and unhelpful compliment to Britain that the United States, its leaders and people alike, still overestimated the wealth of Churchill’s nation. Few grasped the extent of its moral, strategic and financial exhaustion. Finally, of course, the war had done nothing to diminish U.S. anti-imperialism. A March OWI survey reported: “During the past year, Britain1057 … has been under severe attack by an active minority for its alleged failure to play its proper role in the ‘Big Three Team’… During December and January dissatisfaction with Big Three cooperation was … directed chiefly at Britain … [which was] chiefly blamed for ‘not living up to the Atlantic Charter.’”
The attitude of the unusually large anti-British minority found striking expression in a widely publicised article in the Army and Navy Journal. In a stinging passage, equally critical of Russian and British policy, the journal accused Britain of “showing greater preoccupation in Italy, Greece and Albania to protect her life-line through the Mediterranean to India than in achievement of the prime objective of our American armies—prompt defeat of Germany.” The survey concluded: “A shift in the allocation of chief blame from Russia to Britain is revealed by recent polls.”
All this should be considered in the context of the miracle that, thanks to the statesmanship of George Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, Alan Brooke, Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and finally Harry Truman, the Western Allies preserved to the end of the war a façade of unity. Given the shortcomings of every alliance in history, the Anglo-American working relationship remains remarkable. But Roosevelt made policy during the last months of his life in the knowledge that the American people supported his own postwar vision, and felt scant sympathy for that of Churchill. Britain could draw upon only a meagre credit balance of sentiment in the United States.
The Western leaders’ first meeting with Stalin, at the Livadia Palace, where the conference convened, briefly revived Churchill’s spirits. Stalin, the affable host, deployed some of his limited repertoire of English phrases: “You said it!,” “So what?,” “What the hell goes on around here?” and “The toilet is over there”—all except the last presumably garnered from watching American movies. Churchill wrote later, describing the sensation of finding himself one of the three most powerful men on earth, now gathered together: “We had the world at our feet1058, twenty-five million men marching at our orders by land and sea. We seemed to be friends.” Such romantic illusions were soon banished. For the British at least, the Yalta experience became progressively more distressing.
Churchill opened on an entirely false note, by expounding to the first plenary session his hopes for an Allied drive from northeast Italy through the “Ljubljana Gap.” This idea had been dead for months in the minds of everyone save the prime minister. It seemed otiose now to revive it. With Eisenhower’s armies approaching the Rhine, Churchill sought to flatter the Russians by inviting their advice on large-scale river crossings. Stalin, in his turn, asked Roosevelt and Churchill what they would like the Red Army to do—for all the world as if their answer might cause him to alter his deployments. He declared sanctimoniously that he had considered the launching of Russia’s vast January offensive “a moral duty,” after the Anglo-Americans requested action to relieve pressure from the German offensive in the Ardennes. In reality, it is unlikely that the timing of the Soviet assault was advanced by a single day in deference to Western wishes.
Churchill told Stalin that Eisenhower’s forces wanted the Red Army to do only one thing: keep going. The Soviets always knew, however, that British dollops of flattery masked a fundamental hostility to their objectives, while the U.S. president was much less intractable. “Our guards compared Churchill to a poodle1059 wagging its tail to please Stalin,” wrote Sergo Beria. “We shared friendly feelings towards Roosevelt which did not extend to Churchill.” Yet, Soviet cynicism was evenly apportioned between the two. Molotov quoted an unnamed colleague who said of Roosevelt: “What a crook that man must be1060, to have wormed his way to three terms as president while being paralyzed!” Soviet eavesdroppers laughed heartily1061 when they heard Churchill complain that he could not sleep at night because of the bedbugs.
Each day, the principals met at four p.m. for sessions which lasted four or five hours. In between, there were lunches, dinners, and tense national consultations among the delegations. Stalin was astonishingly amiable, as well he might be, as the most conspicuous profiteer from the war. Roosevelt drifted in and out of consciousness of the proceedings. When he engaged, it was most frequently to press for delay—for instance, in settling German occupation zones—or to accede to Soviet views. Again and again, the British found themselves isolated. Churchill opposed the “dismemberment” of Germany, to which Stalin was committed, and also argued against imposing extravagant reparations on the vanquished. He reminded the conference of the failure of such a policy in 1919: “If you want your horse to pull your cart, you had to give him some hay.” But the Americans and Russians had already settled on a provisional figure of $20 billion, of which the Soviet Union was to receive half.
The Americans joined with the Russians in resisting Churchill’s proposal to give France a seat on the Allied Control Commission in Germany. At British insistence, however, France was grudgingly conceded a zone of occupation. Churchill’s bilateral meetings with Roosevelt were fruitless. At lunches and dinners, platitudes were exchanged, but no business was done. The combination of Roosevelt’s mortal languor and disinclination to indulge Britain was fatal to Churchill’s hopes. There is little doubt that, at Yalta as at Tehran, the president deliberately sought to reach out to Stalin by distancing himself from the prime minister. It is hard to suggest that this tactic did Western interests substantial harm, for Stalin’s course was set. But it certainly conferred no discernible advantage.
Churchill, returning to his villa on the night of February 5, was irked to find that no intelligence brief had arrived from London. John Martin wrote: “It has gone to my heart1062 to hear ‘Colonel Kent’ calling again and again for news and being offered only caviar.” That night, before he went to sleep, Churchill said to his daughter Sarah: “I do not suppose that at any moment in history1063 has the agony of the world been so great or widespread. To-night the sun goes down on more suffering than ever before in the World.” Churchill’s fund of compassion towards the enemy, incomparably greater than that of his peers at Yalta, was among his most notable qualities. “I am free to confess to you,”1064 he wrote to Clementine, “that my heart is saddened by the tales of the masses of German women and children flying along the roads everywhere in 40-mile long columns to the West before the advancing Armies. I am clearly convinced that they deserve it; but that does not remove it from one’s gaze. The misery of the whole world appals me and I fear increasingly that new struggles may rise out of those we are successfully ending.” Amid such phrases, allegations crumble against Churchill the “war lover.”
The U.S. president and British prime minister have often been criticised for agreeing at Yalta to transfer to Stalin all Soviet subjects detained in Europe. Of those who returned, even from German captivity, some were shot and most were dispatched to labour camps. Almost all who had served in enemy uniform were liquidated. Yet, on the repatriation issue, it is impossible to see how the Anglo-Americans could have acted otherwise. The Soviet Union had borne the overwhelming burden of the land war against Hitler. The Western Allies were still soliciting the assistance of the Red Army, to complete the defeat of Japan. The price of Soviet military aid, of so much Russian blood spilt while so much American and British blood was saved, was acquiescence in a large measure of Soviet imperialism. Churchill expressed to the Soviet warlord his anxiety for the return of British POWs, whom the Russians were liberating in increasing numbers. In a world which, as Churchill so vividly described, was consumed by suffering, it was hard for the Anglo-Americans to demand much priority of sympathy for Soviet subjects who had served the Nazi cause. The integrity of Allied purposes in the Second World War was inescapably compromised by association with the tyranny of Stalin, to defeat that of Hitler. Once this necessary evil was conceded, lesser ones remorselessly followed. Among them was the surrender of hundreds of thousands of perceived Soviet renegades.
The foremost business of Yalta, above all in Churchill’s eyes, was the future of Poland. Stalin wanted recognition of its new frontiers—the so-called Curzon Line in the east, the Oder-Neisse in the west. Churchill made plain that he was now less concerned with territory than with the democratic character of the new Polish government. He sought to exchange Western recognition of the frontiers Moscow wanted for some shreds of domestic freedom for the Poles. He could not, he said, accept that Moscow’s “Lublin Poles” represented the will of the nation. Stalin riposted that the new Warsaw regime was as representative of the Polish people as was de Gaulle’s new government of France. Roosevelt sought to adjourn the session, but Churchill insisted that the Polish issue must be resolved. The president observed impatiently that “Poland had been a source of trouble for over 500 years.” The prime minister said: “We must do what we can1065 to put an end to the trouble.” Here was another exchange sorely damaging to British purposes. Roosevelt’s apparent indifference was once more flaunted before Russian eyes.
Overnight, however, some reinforcement was secured for the Polish cause. Roosevelt signed a letter to Stalin, saying that the United States—like Britain—could not recognise the Polish government as then composed. At the conference’s third plenary session on February 7, the president described the Polish issue as of “very great importance.” There was more talk of occupation zones in Germany. Agreement was reached about respective states’ voting rights at the proposed new United Nations. On February 8, Churchill reasserted the urgency of settling the Polish question. Molotov said that the new communist government had been “enthusiastically acclaimed by the majority of the Polish people.” Churchill pressed for immediate free elections, which prompted Stalin to again raise comparisons with France, where no poll was scheduled. Then, however, the Russian leader conceded that an election might be held in Poland within a month. There was still no visible anger in the conference chamber. There followed, indeed, more exchanges of compliments between the principals. But that night Churchill said bleakly: “The only bond of the victors is their common hate” towards Hitler.
Anglo-American leverage with Stalin derived solely from Lend-Lease supplies. Even had Roosevelt threatened to suspend shipments unless the Western powers gained satisfaction about Poland, the Russians would not have bowed. Stalin had shown himself implacable in imposing his territorial demands since 1941, when Western aid was much more important than in 1945. From start to finish, he grasped the fact that the Anglo-Americans needed Russia’s vast human sacrifice more than Russia needed Western supplies. Even had the president himself been willing to exercise such pressure—as, of course, he was not—neither the American nor the British people would have supported sanctions. Popular enthusiasm for a common front against the Axis still ran high. Attempts to impose Western wishes upon the heroic Russians would have commanded sympathy only with a small minority of people who grasped the reality of looming eastern European servitude.
At the fifth plenary session on February 9, Churchill said that diplomatic observers must monitor the Polish election. The Russians responded smoothly that this was perfectly acceptable to them, but the Warsaw government must be consulted: the presence of such observers might wound the Poles by implying that they were not trusted. Likewise, when Churchill said that a British ambassador should be sent to Warsaw, the Russians deferred the matter to Polish arbitration. With his usual serpentine skill, Stalin reminded the prime minister of his debt to Moscow by asserting that he had “complete confidence” in British policy in Greece.
Next day, the tenth, Roosevelt caused consternation to the British by announcing that he would leave Yalta on the following morning. When the president had cabled the prime minister back in January, asserting his intention to spend only five days at Yalta, Churchill expostulated to his staff that even the Almighty had allowed himself seven to make the world. Now, in British eyes, the summit had yet to achieve decisive conclusions. But the president was correct; even had he lingered, it was unlikely anything further would have been accomplished. The chasm between Russian intentions and Western aspirations in eastern Europe was unbridgeable. Nonetheless, an agreement had been reached about Poland which, if Stalin kept his word, might sustain some fig leaf of democracy. Churchill professed satisfaction. He could do little else. He spent February 12 as a tourist, visiting British battlefields of the Crimean War, and gazing on the ruins of Sebastopol. The next day, he rested aboard the British liner Franconia, anchored off the coast at his pleasure, then flew to Athens.
The contrast could not have been greater between his previous visit, amid gunfire, and the hysterical applause with which he was received on the afternoon of February 14. Vast crowds thronged the streets of the Greek capital, offering a vindication that was sweet to him. He elected to make a further brief stop in Cairo. “A wandering minstrel I,” he sang to himself, a ditty from his beloved Gilbert and Sullivan, “a thing of threads and patches.” He landed back in Britain on February 20. Beaverbrook was among those who offered extravagant congratulations on his alleged “success” at Yalta, which “followed so swiftly on the heels1066 of the Greek triumph, that you now appear to your countrymen to be the greatest statesman as well as the greatest warrior.”
Even by Beaverbrook’s standards, this was a travesty. In the House of Commons, there was profound anxiety about the outcome of Yalta, and its implications for the Poles. The concluding communiqué by the Big Three had asserted that Poland’s provisional government should be “reorganized on a broader democratic basis with the inclusion of democratic leaders from Poland itself and from Poles abroad.” The new government “shall be pledged to the holding of free and unfettered elections as soon as possible … In these elections all democratic and anti-Nazi parties shall have the right to take part.” The cession of eastern Poland to Russia was acknowledged, in return for indeterminate territorial compensation in the west, which should “thereafter be determined at the peace conference.”
Churchill told the War Cabinet that he was “quite sure” Stalin “meant well to the world and to Poland.” Likewise, facing fierce criticism in the House on February 27, he cited the fact that “most solemn declarations have been made by Marshal Stalin and the Soviet State” about Polish elections. “I repudiate and repulse any suggestion that we are making a questionable compromise or yielding to force or fear … The Poles will have their future in their own hands, with the single limitation that they must honestly follow … a policy friendly to Russia. That is surely reasonable.” Fortified by the fulfilment of Stalin’s promise of noninterference in Greece, he clung to the hope that the Soviet warlord would keep his word about Poland: “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.”
Over a drink in the smoking room afterwards with Harold Nicolson and Lord De La Warr, he said that he did not see what else he could have done at Yalta, save accept Stalin’s assurances. On the night of February 28, he told Jock Colville that he would refuse to be cheated over Poland, “even if we go to the verge of war1067 with Russia.” He voiced aloud his fear1068 that he might be deceived by Stalin, as Neville Chamberlain had been deceived by Hitler—then dismissed it. He was exultant when an amendment on Poland moved by Tory right-wingers in the Commons was defeated by 396 votes to 25. But eleven ministers abstained, and one resigned. Eden, lacking confidence in Russian good faith, remained deeply depressed. General Anders, for the Poles, told Brooke that “he had never been more distressed1069 since the war started … He could see no hope anywhere.”
Back in Moscow, Stalin expressed satisfaction about the outcome of Yalta. Unsurprisingly, he spoke more warmly of Roosevelt than of Britain’s prime minister. “Churchill wants a bourgeois Poland1070 to be the USSR’s neighbour,” he told Zhukov, “a Poland that would be hostile to us. We cannot allow this. We want to ensure a friendly Poland once and for all, and that is what the Polish people want, too.” Pravda’s political columnist told Russian readers with satisfaction, “We see unprecedented unanimity1071 in the United States and England in welcoming the resolutions of the Crimea Conference.” The paper asserted that American and British commentators treated the protests of Polish émigrés with the contempt which these deserved.
No course short of war with Russia would have saved Polish democracy in 1945, and by February only a compound of vanity and despair could have caused Churchill to pretend otherwise. The Soviet Union believed that, having paid overwhelmingly the heaviest price to achieve the defeat of Hitler, it had thus purchased the right to determine the polity of eastern Europe in accordance with its own security interests. To this day, Roosevelt’s admirers declare that he displayed greater realism than Britain’s prime minister in recognising this. The Western Allies lacked power to contrive any different outcome. Churchill, who had fought as nobly as any man in the world to deliver Europe, was now obliged to witness not the liberation of the east, but the mere replacement there of one murderous tyranny by another.