President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin meet to discuss the Allied war effort against Germany and Japan and to try and settle some nagging diplomatic issues. While a number of important agreements were reached at the conference, tensions over European issues—particularly the fate of Poland—foreshadowed the crumbling of the Grand Alliance that had developed between the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union during World War II and hinted at the Cold War to come.
Meeting in the city of Yalta in the Russian Crimean from February 4 to 11, Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin each arrived with their own agendas for the conference. For Stalin, postwar economic assistance for Russia, and U.S. and British recognition of a Soviet sphere of influence in eastern Europe were the main objectives. Churchill had the protection of the British Empire foremost in his mind, but also wanted to clarify the postwar status of Germany. Roosevelt’s goals included consensus on establishment of the United Nations and gaining Soviet agreement to enter the war against Japan once Hitler had been defeated. None of them left Yalta completely satisfied. There was no definite determination of financial aid for Russia. Many issues pertaining to Germany were deferred for further discussion. As for the United Nations, Stalin wanted all 16 Soviet republics represented in the General Assembly, but settled for three (the Soviet Union as a whole, Belorussia, and the Ukraine). However, the Soviets did agree to join in the war against Japan 90 days after Hitler’s Germany was defeated.
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It was over the issue of the postwar status of Poland, however, that the animosity and mistrust between the United States and the Soviet Union that would characterize the Cold War were most readily apparent. Soviet troops were already in control of Poland, a procommunist provisional government had already been established, and Stalin was adamant that Russia’s interests in that nation be recognized. The United States and Great Britain believed that the London-based noncommunist Polish government-in-exile was most representative of the Polish people. The final agreement merely declared that a “more broadly based” government should be established in Poland. Free elections to determine Poland’s future were called for sometime in the future. Many U.S. officials were disgusted with the agreement, which they believed condemned Poland to a communist future. Roosevelt, however, felt that he could do no more at the moment, since the Soviet army was occupying Poland.
As the Cold War became a reality in the years that followed the Yalta Conference, many critics of Roosevelt’s foreign policy accused him of “selling out” at the meeting and naively letting Stalin have his way. It seems doubtful, however, that Roosevelt had much choice. He was able to secure Russian participation in the war against Japan (Russia declared war on Japan on August 8, 1945), established the basic principles of the United Nations, and did as much as possible to settle the Poland issue. With World War II still raging, his primary interest was in maintaining the Grand Alliance. He believed that troublesome political issues could be postponed and solved after the war. Unfortunately, Roosevelt never got that chance—almost exactly two months after the end of the conference, Roosevelt suffered a stroke and died.