February 4

This Day in History

World War II

Feb 4, 1945:

The Yalta Conference commences

On this day, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Premier Joseph Stalin meet at Yalta, in the Crimea, to discuss and plan the postwar world—namely, to address the redistribution of power and influence. It is at Yalta that many place the birth of the Cold War.

It had already been determined that a defeated Germany would be sliced up into zones occupied by the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union, the principal Allied powers. Once in Germany, the Allies would see to the deconstruction of the German military and the prosecution of war criminals. A special commission would also determine war reparations.

But the most significant issue, the one that marked the conference in history, was Joseph Stalin's designs on Eastern Europe. (Stalin's demands had started early with his desire that the location of the conference be at a Black Sea resort close to the USSR. He claimed he was too ill to travel far.) Roosevelt and Churchill attempted to create a united front against the Soviet dictator; their advisers had already mapped out clear positions on Europe and the creation and mission of the United Nations. They propounded the principles of the Atlantic Charter, formulated back in August 1941, that would ensure "life, liberty, independence, and religious freedom" for a free Europe and guarantee that only those nations that had declared war on the Axis powers would gain entry into the new United Nations.

Stalin agreed to these broad principles (although he withdrew his promise that all 16 Soviet republics would have separate representation within the United Nations), as well as an agreement that the Big Three would help any nation formerly in the grip of an Axis power in the establishment of "interim governmental authorities broadly representative of all democratic elements in the population... and the earliest possible establishment through free elections of governments responsive to the will of the people." Toward that end, Roosevelt and Churchill gave support to the Polish government-in-exile in London; Stalin demurred, insisting that the communist-dominated and Soviet-loyal Polish Committee of National Liberation, based in Poland, would govern. The only compromise reached was the inclusion of "other" political groups in the committee. As for Poland's new borders, they were discussed, but no conclusions were reached.

The conference provided the illusion of more unanimity than actually existed, especially in light of Stalin's reneging on his promise of free elections in those Eastern European nations the Soviets occupied at war's end. Roosevelt and Churchill had believed Stalin's promises, primarily because they needed to—they were convinced the USSR's support in defeating the Japanese was crucial. In fact, the USSR played much less of a role in ending the war in the East than assumed. But there was no going back. A divisive "iron curtain," in Churchill's famous phrase, was beginning to descend in Europe.

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