On the Yalta conference’s 75th anniversary, this insightful history recounts its enormous, if teeth-gnashing, accomplishments.
In her latest impressively researched volume, award-winning historian Preston (A Higher Form of Killing: Six Weeks in World War I That Forever Changed the Nature of Warfare, 2015, etc.) emphasizes that the goal of the 1945 meeting was to decide the fate of Germany and the Eastern European nations liberated from Nazi domination. The author astutely points out that while Franklin Roosevelt was not necessarily a deep thinker, he was a master in the rough-and-tumble arena of American politics. He arrived at Yalta confident that he could handle Stalin better than Churchill. Many readers may be unaware that Churchill, despite his charisma and heroism early in the war, was extremely conservative, even for his conservative party. He refused to consider social programs as long as the war continued, a fact that contributed to his defeat in the 1945 election. His fierce opposition to independence for British colonies irritated the Americans as well as many in his own party. Stalin insisted that Eastern Europe must provide a barrier—i.e., friendly governments—between the Soviet Union and Germany. Since his armies already occupied the area, there was little the war-weary Allies could do except extract a promise to hold free elections; he duly promised and, within months, reneged. Almost everyone, Preston included, agrees that the two leaders betrayed Eastern Europe at Yalta. She adds that both genuinely wanted a democratic postwar Europe, but this took a back seat to their national priorities. Roosevelt’s main priority was persuading Stalin to join the war against Japan, which was proving brutally difficult. Like his hero, Woodrow Wilson, he yearned to create an international organization to enforce world peace. Stalin agreed to both, but at a price. Churchill aimed to preserve British influence. Stalin had no objection and threw him a bone by agreeing not to support Greek communist insurgents.
An expert account of an unedifying milestone at the dawn of the Cold War.