A week of secret meetings between President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin at the Black Sea port of Yalta ends on this day in 1945, and Roosevelt and his daughter, Anna, begin their journey home. The meeting is Roosevelt’s last appearance at an international conference.
As an Allied victory appeared increasingly imminent, The Big Three met to decide the post-war boundaries of Europe and to discuss military strategy. FDR’s health had become increasingly delicate since his unprecedented re-election to a fourth term the previous fall and he went into a serious physical and sometimes mental decline as a result of the 7,000-mile trip to Yalta. Churchill’s personal physician had observed that Roosevelt suffered from typical symptoms of arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). Only two months later, he would be dead from a stroke. At Yalta, Roosevelt spent what little energy he had left trying to get Stalin to join the U.S. in the Pacific war against the Japanese and in privately reassuring Churchill that he would not give away too much post-war control to the Soviets.
Roosevelt took his daughter, Anna, with him to Yalta instead of his wife, Eleanor, as he and his advisors agreed that Anna would be best able focus on caring for the ailing president. Demands on the globally popular Eleanor would not only risk revealing the secret nature of the meeting, but would drag her away from the necessity of attending a very sick man. Anna also served as Roosevelt’s personal assistant and confidant. The president loved gossip and Anna readily supplied it. Apart from overseeing Roosevelt’s packed schedule, she also took care of the tiniest details, including making sure there was an even number of guests at the dinner table. Prior to one dinner at Yalta, Anna scrambled to add one more person with appropriate security clearances to a table of 13 in order to placate her highly superstitious father.
The decision to invite Anna annoyed the first lady, though she had rarely joined her husband on similar missions in the past, and it deepened a rift between the couple that had increased steadily as his health failed. Roosevelt’s former habit of consulting with his wife in diplomatic matters began to wane and his ill health and her subsequent irritation with him made the normally congenial couple snappish with each other. Upon the successful completion of the conference, Roosevelt sent Eleanor a cursory report that concluded, I am a bit exhausted but really all right. It has been grand hearing from you.
During the journey home, Roosevelt’s closest advisor, Harry Hopkins, disembarked at Algiers due to a serious illness, choosing to fly home at a later date. A cranky Roosevelt took Hopkins’ departure personally and his failure to forgive Hopkins soured their long-time friendship. To make matters worse, Roosevelt’s friend and military aid Pa Watson died of a stroke two days into the return voyage. Roosevelt also felt burdened by the knowledge that his concessions to Stalin would result in Eastern Europe’s subjugation to communist control. The combination of these factors drove Roosevelt into further physical decline and depression and he stayed in his cabin for the duration of the voyage. However, in typical Roosevelt fashion, he rallied the day before they docked at Newport News, Virginia, meeting Eleanor and the nation with a sense of optimism.