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and the Wartime Summit Conferences with

A Retrospective View by
Charles G. Stefan

For faster downloading, Mr. Stefan's article is divided into the following linked sections:

Part I - Getting Together
 ·  FDR's Stance toward Stalin
 ·  Background to Tehran

Part II - Summit Conferences
 ·  Tehran
 ·  Yalta

Part III - Criticism & Reaction
 ·  Yalta Actions
 ·  Yalta to Warm Springs
 ·  Broader Themes

[Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill at Tehran]

The Tehran Summit Conference

November 28-December 1, 1943

The first Big Three wartime Summit in Tehran was, arguably, the most significant meeting of the entire war. It marks the moment when the decision to invade western France in the spring of 1944 finally became irreversible. This decision was climaxed at the November 30 plenary when FDR pledged to name shortly the Commander-in-Chief for the "Overlord" operation. (In the event, this officer would be General Dwight D. Eisenhower).

Other parts of the Tehran discussions, both formal and informal, were hardly less important, particularly those concerning the vexing problems of Poland. Churchill suggested to Stalin that Poland might move westwards after the war, and British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden explicitly linked this movement to territory that Poland would lose in the east; i.e., the territory east of the Curzon line, which would go to the USSR. FDR, in a private conversation with Stalin on December 1, indicated his relative lack of concern about the Polish problem.7 Even before Tehran, during a conversation on October 2, 1943, between the Soviet Ambassador to Mexico and Joseph E. Davies, the controversial former American Ambassador to Moscow, FDR had sent a signal to Stalin that the United States would eventually accept the Curzon line as the frontier between the USSR and postwar Poland. Churchill apparently was not informed by FDR about this conversation.8

It is difficult to resist the conclusion that after Tehran, Stalin had good reason to believe that the Western allies were prepared to go along with his desire -- made abundantly clear to Foreign Secretary Eden during their discussions in Moscow in December 1941 -- to reestablish the Soviet frontiers of pre-invasion 1941 in Europe. So far as Poland was concerned, this position was certainly made easier for Churchill and Eden to accept because the boundary demanded by Stalin was reasonably close to the Polish-Soviet frontier associated with the name of Lord Curzon, the British Foreign Secretary in 1920. FDR understandably did not wish to entangle the United States in the quarrels and ethnic disputes of Eastern Europe.

Both FDR and Churchill, however, confronted domestic political factors which imposed definite restraints on their public postures. Hitler's invasion of Poland had, after all, precipitated the British declaration of war on Germany. Moreover, substantial Polish forces were fighting and continued to fight valiantly on the British side throughout World War II. For FDR, there was the matter of the Polish-American vote. During the last of his private meetings with Stalin at Tehran, FDR volunteered to the Soviet dictator that he would like to see the eastern frontier of Poland moved further west (i.e., to at least the vicinity of the Curzon line) and the western frontier moved to the Oder River. However, reasons of domestic politics -- the six to seven million Polish-American voters -- would, during an election year, prevent him from saying anything in public on this issue.

Finally, at the subsequent tripartite meeting, FDR in effect confirmed the Churchill-Eden suggestion of the Curzon line as the post-war frontier between Poland and the USSR. In addition, he proposed the dismemberment of Germany into five self-governing parts, plus two additional crucial areas. The first of these latter areas would be the Kiel Canal and the city of Hamburg, and the second, the Ruhr and the Saar, which would be placed under international control. Churchill suggested detaching Prussia from Germany and moving southern Germany into a Danubian Confederation. Stalin predictably preferred FDR's suggestion.

The Big Three finally decided to hand the problem of Polish boundaries over to the European Advisory Commission (EAC) in London, which had been established during the preparatory foreign ministers' meeting in Moscow in October of 1943. (The members of the new EAC were the UK Foreign Secretary and the US and USSR Ambassadors in London.)

Apart from the Polish question, it is worth noting that at Tehran, Stalin reiterated to the Western leaders the pledge he had earlier given to Secretary of State Hull in Moscow about Soviet entry into the Pacific war against Japan. Specifically, Stalin asserted at Tehran that once Germany had capitulated, the Soviet Union would be able to reinforce its military in Siberia, after which there would be "a common front" against Japan.
10 Subsequently, as noted below, FDR and Stalin were to negotiate at Yalta the specific terms concerning the Soviet Union's entry into the war against Japan.

Additionally, there were discussions about the partition of Nazi Germany and the organization of the post-war world. Both of these issues would be on the agenda at Yalta.

In his private conversations with Stalin, FDR made clear his opposition to colonialism and, in particular, to continued French rule in Indochina. It was FDR's belief that "trusteeship" there and elsewhere would meet the problem of colonialism which was bound to arise after the end of the war. Roosevelt did not live long enough, however, to implement his views about colonialism in the immediate post-war period. Thus we shall never know if events in French Indochina might have taken a different turn than they, in fact, did.

Apart from developments in French Indochina if FDR had lived, we shall also probably never know if FDR's comments to U.S. Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins after the Tehran Conference are entirely valid. As recorded by Perkins in her book published in November 1946, Roosevelt told her that in order to make "personal headway" with Stalin, he "couldn't stay in Tehran forever." At a plenary meeting, he had teased "Churchill about his Britishness, about John Bull, about his cigars, about his habits." FDR observed that "then . . . the ice was broken" and he and Stalin "talked like men and brothers.''
11 Career U.S. diplomat Charles E. Bohlen, who was at Tehran, has observed that FDR "sometimes liked to embroider the picture,''12 and FDR may well have done so when talking with Perkins after Tehran. In any case, FDR, in order to avoid any impression by Stalin that the United States and the UK were "ganging up" against the Soviets, avoided private meetings with Churchill at Tehran.

Finally, the Big Three at Tehran declared themselves "at one with the government of Iran in their desire for the maintenance of the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Iran.''
13 While the Declaration of the Three Powers Regarding Iran, adopted at the very end of the Conference, had no impact during the war, it did play a role in 1946 during the dispute over the continued Soviet occupation of Iranian Azerbaijan. The Iranian referral of this dispute to the UN Security Council led to the withdrawal of Soviet forces from the disputed territory and the reimposition there of Iranian sovereignty.14

FDR was not to confer directly with Stalin again until the Big Three met at Yalta February 4-11, 1945. Between Tehran and Yalta much had happened. A detailed consideration of these events is beyond the scope of this article. Nevertheless, these developments must be enumerated so that the reader will be aware of their significance as our story unfolds. On the Western side, one must cite the liberation of Rome, followed two days later by the successful invasion of Normandy and the subsequent push of Allied armies to the border of the Third Reich. The Soviets, greatly facilitated by the flow of Lend-Lease supplies, undertook the great offensives which brought their forces to the Oder river. These offensives were separated in time by Stalin's decision to halt on the outskirts of Warsaw and let the Nazis destroy the brave uprising in that city by anti-Soviet forces. One should also cite Churchill's second visit to the Kremlin in October 1944. On the German side, there occurred the unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Hitler in July 1944. The failure of this attempt led to Hitler's final military gamble in the Ardennes in December 1944. Although this offensive was unsuccessful, it did serve to ensure that the Western Allies were held west of the Rhine when FDR and Stalin met for the second time at Yalta.


[Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin at Yalta]

The Yalta Summit Conference

February 4-11, 1945

The Yalta Conference has been the subject of a wide variety of books and articles by distinguished statesmen and academicians. I cannot here attempt to deal with all the facets of this most controversial of the wartime Summits. I shall instead focus on certain features directly relevant to my subject. Roosevelt clearly had two primary goals at Yalta, and he secured both of them during the negotiations in the Crimea. One of these key objectives was to pin down Stalin on Soviet participation in the war against Japan. Many people -- especially Europeans -- tend to forget that in early February 1945, the Japanese seemed far from being defeated. The atomic bomb had not yet been tested,15 and Iwo Jima and Okinawa had not yet been invaded and conquered; above all, it was clear to most Americans -- and certainly to those of us in the U.S. Armed Forces at the time -- that the men in the Japanese military were, to put it mildly, determined warriors who disdained surrender.

In these circumstances, it is indeed difficult for me to be too critical of FDR's emphasis at Yalta on his objective of ensuring Soviet entry into the war against Japan, which was urged by Generals Marshall and MacArthur and was supported by the rest of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Ambassador Bohlen, who served as FDR's interpreter at both Tehran and Yalta, concluded in his memoirs that "Roosevelt's one reason for seeking Soviet entry into the Asian war was to save the hundreds of thousands of American lives his military experts estimated would otherwise be lost''.

His other major objective at Yalta was to establish the UN along the lines proposed by the American side. As Bohlen has pointed out, FDR believed that the UN "was the only device that could keep the United States from slipping back into isolationism" after WWII.
17 After detailed explanations of the U.S. proposals by Secretary of State Edward R. Stettinius, Stalin and Churchill accepted them. However, with the strong support of Churchill, who wished to have certain countries then in the British Commonwealth and Empire admitted to the UN, Stalin did obtain FDR's reluctant approval of UN membership for the Soviet Ukrainian and Belorussian republics.18

Of the other principal issues considered at Yalta, the problem of Poland was predictably much higher on both Stalin's and Churchill's list of priorities than it was on the American President's. The Polish crisis of 1939 had provided the occasion for British entry into WWII as well as Stalin's rather short-lived pact with Nazi Germany. For both Churchill and Stalin, Poland was an important element in the European balance of power, being then the largest and most-strategically situated country between Germany and the USSR. Poland was a vexing problem for Roosevelt, and one that for a variety of reasons, he preferred to leave to the British, the Soviets, and the Poles themselves.

By the beginning of the Yalta Conference, however, FDR was clearly aware that the Big Three would have to come to grips with the Polish problem. Churchill has pointed out that "Poland was discussed at no fewer than seven out of the eight plenary meetings of the Yalta Conference, and the British record contains an interchange on this topic of nearly eighteen thousand words between Stalin, Roosevelt, and myself.''
19 Despite these efforts neither Churchill nor FDR was able to achieve the kind of agreement on Poland that they initially sought. While they obtained Stalin's agreement in principle to the "reorganization" of the latter's puppet régime in Poland and to the holding thereafter by the new Polish government of "free and unfettered elections as soon as possible on the basis of universal suffrage and secret ballot," Stalin resisted all suggestions that those elections be observed and supervised by American, British, and Soviet representatives.20

When Presidential aide Admiral William Leahy read the compromise document on Poland submitted at the plenary meeting on February 10, he remarked to FDR that it was "so elastic that the Russians can stretch it all the way from Yalta to Washington without technically breaking it." To this, FDR replied: "I know, Bill -- I know it. But it's the best I can do for Poland at this time.''

Two other issues discussed at Yalta are noteworthy in the context of this topic. Of the greatest importance to Stalin was the matter of reparations from Germany. After considerable discussion, the actual amount to be paid by the Germans was to be decided by a reparations commission which would sit in Moscow. FDR, prodded by Harry Hopkins, finally agreed that this commission should "take in its initial studies as a basis for discussion, the suggestion of the Soviet Government, that the total sum of reparations should be 20 billions and that 50 percent should go to the Soviet Union." However, a historian close to Roosevelt has opined that in accepting Hopkins' advice, FDR believed that "he had left the door open for all sorts of deliberations in the future."
22 Subsequent events were to prove that FDR's judgment on this issue was very much on target.

A decision on another issue related to Germany could not so easily be deferred by the device of referring it to a committee. This issue was the question of an occupation zone for France and the related matter of a seat for France on the Allied Control Commission (ACC), to be established in Berlin immediately after the surrender of the Third Reich. Churchill took the initiative on this issue, arguing with great vigor that France be given both an occupation zone and a seat on the ACC. The British prime minister was understandably anxious to engage France in the task of occupying and controlling Germany, and in general to rebuild French power with a view to help offset the Soviet military presence in Central Europe. After substantial behind-the-scenes persuasion by Hopkins, Bohlen, and senior U.S. diplomat H. Freeman Matthews, FDR was finally convinced that France should be given a seat on the ACC.
23 Stalin then agreed, but it should be noted that this decision in no way affected the size and location of the Soviet Zone of occupation. It had always been understood that any zone for France would be formed out of part of the British and American Zones, already delineated.

Churchill's concern about these particular issues undoubtedly reflected his apprehension that the United States would not maintain an armed presence in Europe very long after the defeat of Germany. During the British prime minister's visit to Moscow in the fall of 1944, Stalin had noted that "a long occupation of Germany would be required." In reply, Churchill stated that he "did not think the Americans would stay very long." This opinion was subsequently confirmed for Churchill by FDR in a telegram of November 18, 1944, in which the latter stated inter alia: "You know, of course, that after Germany's collapse I must bring American troops home as rapidly as transportation problems will permit."
24 It thus came as no surprise to Churchill when FDR at Yalta, during the discussion of the French role in the occupation of Germany, remarked that American occupation troops would not remain in Germany much more than "two years."25 At a later session at Yalta, he amended this statement to some extent by explaining that he had made it with current American attitudes in mind; if an international organization was created, FDR thought the American people were much more likely to take part in "world activity."26

Finally, Stalin accepted a watered-down Declaration on Liberated Europe, one based on an American draft. While little more than a statement of intent to consult about the achievement of democratic governments in "liberated" Europe, it at least kept the door open for discussions to this end. It is necessary to add here that FDR -- for whatever reasons, perhaps in part because he did not wish to complicate the negotiations with Stalin on issues which he regarded as more important, and probably also because of his reluctance to get the United States too involved in the complex affairs of Eastern Europe -- declined a State Department proposal that a High Commission for Liberated Europe be established to enforce the Declaration. The absence of such an entity undoubtedly made it easier for Stalin to accept the Declaration and may have helped convince him that Roosevelt was really not very concerned about the implementation of its high principles.

Before leaving this summary of the deliberations at Yalta, it is pertinent to consider briefly several questions which have aroused differences among both historians and participants in the wartime Summits.

  • The first of these questions concerns the state of FDR's health at Yalta and the extent to which this factor might have affected his performance. Witnesses disagree on FDR's physical condition at Yalta, although the long trip and the demands of the negotiating schedule must have been taxing on a man in increasingly declining health. Perhaps Anthony Eden has provided the best answer we are likely to get to this question: "I do not believe," he concluded. "that the President's declining health altered his judgment, though his handling of the Conference was less sure than it might have been."

  • Another question involves the issue of the dismemberment of Germany, which had been discussed at Tehran. At the outset of the first Political Plenary Session at Yalta on February 5, Stalin recalled FDR's suggestion at Tehran that Germany be divided into five parts; he stated that he associated himself with this view. In response, Churchill indicated that while in principle all of the Big Three were agreed on the dismemberment of Germany, the method it would be accomplished was too complicated to settle in a few days. It would require further examination by a special committee.

    If Stalin had hoped that FDR would support him on this issue, he was disappointed. Roosevelt argued that if dismemberment were to become a matter of public discussion, there would be numerous different opinions. He therefore urged that the three foreign ministers should produce a specific plan. After further discussion about the desirability of including a reference to dismemberment in the surrender terms to Germany, this question, too, was referred to the foreign ministers. The final result of the subsequent deliberations on this issue at Yalta, as set forth in the Protocol of the Conference, was merely an agreement to fudge on the question. A committee was established in London, chaired by Eden and including the American and Soviet ambassadors to London.

    The first meeting on March 7, 1945, resulted in the drafting of a directive for the committee by Soviet Ambassador Gusev. This directive was sent to Moscow for approval; Stalin and Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov found it unsatisfactory. In its place, Gusev was instructed on March 24 in effect to stall.

    When the second meeting of the committee convened on April 11, Eden indicated that all its members were in agreement on the issue of dismemberment. On the next day, FDR died at Warm Springs, Georgia, and shortly thereafter, on May 9, Stalin declared in his address to the Soviet people that the USSR was not going "either to dismember or destroy Germany." A Russian scholar, Lydia V. Pozdeva, has noted the difficulty in giving a full answer to the question of why Stalin, in effect, scuttled the Dismemberment Committee and thus "struck the issue of Germany's division off the diplomatic agenda." Pozdeva has observed that historians in 1994 still did not enjoy "proper access to Stalin's archives." She has guessed, however, that one motive for changing the Soviet position was Stalin's disinclination to take the initiative by proposing any Soviet plan for dismemberment, thereby laying greater responsibility on the USSR for this action. Pozdeva has also noted that the "irritable tone" of Molotov's message to Gusev on this issue "squares with the strong Soviet démarche on coincident conversations in Switzerland on the possible surrender of German forces in Italy to the Anglo-American armies there."
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7. Eubank,Summit at Tehran, 357.

8. Ibid., 111-116. For an interesting insight into the importance Stalin placed on his relations with FDR after the Tehran Summit, see Vladislav Zubok and Constantine Pleshakov, Inside The Kremlin's Cold War: From Stalin to Khrushchev (Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1996), 39. The authors bring a Russian viewpoint into their treatment of the topic of their book. This writer would add the obvious fact that the FDR-Stalin relationship matured during WWII when a common enemy had provided a major incentive for settling or living with outstanding differences in ideology and general approach to problems.

9. Charles E. Bohlen, Witness To History 1929-1969. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1973), 127-132; and Feis, Churchill-Roosevelt-Stalin, 217-223. For FDR's thinking on the boundaries of Poland and on the dismemberment of Germany at Tehran and Stalin's reaction, see Eubank, Summit at Tehran, 357, 369-370.

10. Robin Edmonds, The Big Three: Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin In Peace And War. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1991), 350.

11. The quotations are taken from Frances Perkins, The Roosevelt I Knew. (New York: Harper and Row, 1946), 83-84. Perkins also recalls FDR confessing that he didn't really understand the Russians and asking her for material to help him understand "what makes them tick." Ibid, 85-86. Professor Eubank has observed that "no other source has corroborated Roosevelt's account [of the episode reported by Perkins] which he certainly embroidered." Eubank, Summit at Tehran, 351.

12. Bohlen, Witness to History, 141.

13. Eubank,Summit at Tehran, 379.

14. Bohlen,Witness to History, 251-253.

15. The Soviet leadership were kept aware of US and UK efforts to build an atomic bomb by a number of American and other spies. For details, see David Holloway, Stalin and the Bomb: The Soviet Union and Atomic Energy. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994).
When the first American atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, this action was responsible for the slight hastening of the Soviet offensive in Manchuria. In turn, this offensive together with the shock generated by the two American atomic attacks, were instrumental in bringing the Japanese to surrender. The actions of the Japanese emperor in precipitating this surrender were critical and remain a noteworthy feature of this episode. See Gerhard L. Weinberg, A World At Arms: A Global History of World War II. (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 884- 893. FDR had earlier agreed with Churchill that the Western allies would not share their knowledge of the atomic project with the USSR, but he did not live to learn of the first successful test of the atomic bomb in July 1945.

16. Bohlen, Witness to History, 196; and Burns,Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom, 574-577. See also David Fromkin, In The Time Of The Americans: FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, Marshall, MacArthur. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995), 480; and Eric Larrabee, Commander in Chief: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, His Lieutenants, and Their War. (New York: Simon Schuster, Touchstone Edition, 1988), 203.

17. Bohlen,Witness to History, 177. For FDR's primary objectives at Yalta, see Edward R. Stettinius, Jr., Roosevelt and the Russians: The Yalta Conference. (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1949), 139- 150, 171-172. See also Bohlen,Witness to History, 200; and Fromkin, In the Time of the Americans, 479.

18. William D. Leahy, I Was There. (New York: Whittlesey, 1950), 310; and Bohlen, Witness to History, 194. In practice, Ukrainian and Belorussian membership in the United Nations General Assembly had little impact during the Cold War, and at the present time both are independent nations and entitled to their seats.

19. Winston S. Churchill, Triumph and Tragedy. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1953), 365.

20. Ibid., 336-387; and Bohlen,Witness to History, 187-192.

21. Leahy,I Was There, 315-316.

22. Sherwood, Roosevelt and Hopkins, 862. Gromyko has written that at Yalta, Stalin himself wondered about FDR's real position on reparations for the USSR. Andrei Gromyko, Memoirs. (New York: Doubleday, 1989, translated by Harold Shukman), 87-88.
Stalin also obtained western agreement that the reparations to be extracted from Germany should include the "use of German labor." Feis,Churchill-Roosevelt-Stalin, 536-538. When this writer arrived in Moscow in the summer of 1948 on his first assignment to the American Embassy there, he found German prisoners of war working as laborers on construction projects within a few blocks of the Kremlin.

23. Bohlen,Witness to History, 184-185. At the first Political Plenary on February 5, FDR and Stalin had agreed with Churchill's compromise proposal that France should be offered a zone in Germany but that her "status" (i.e., membership on the ACC) should be the subject of "separate discussions".
Professor Gerhard L. Weinberg has pointed out to this writer that at one point, shortly before the Tehran Summit, FDR had proposed a zonal division of Germany in which the American and Soviet occupation zones met in Berlin. While this is certainly a pertinent observation, it seems clear that FDR was primarily concerned about avoiding any reliance on transit rights across France to supply US occupation forces and that this concern was met by providing for an American enclave around Bremerhaven in the proposed UK Zone of occupation. In any case, as Kennan has written, on May 1, 1944 Washington approved the boundaries of the Soviet zone as already agreed upon by both the British and USSR governments. See George F. Kennan, Memoirs: 1925-1950. (New York: Bantam Books, 1969), 174-182.

24. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, Road to Victory 19411945. Vol. VII, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986), 995, 1059. For the full text of FDR's telegram to Churchill dated November 18, 1944, see Kimball, Correspondence, Vol. III, 394.

25. Feis, Churchill-Roosevelt-Stalin, 531.

26. Ibid., 532

27. For Molotov's recollections of Stalin's attitude toward the Declaration, see p.l7 in the FDR telegram text. See also Fromkin, In the Time of the Americans,483.
For a crisp treatment of two secondary issues dealt with at Yalta -- the effort to bring representatives of the Yugoslav government-in-exile into the new régime being established in Yugoslavia by Marshal Tito and the return of POWs -- see Gerhard L. Weinberg, A World at Arms, 808-809. The POW issue in WWII had dramatic repercussions in the next East-West armed conflict, the Korean War. It led to a firm US position against the involuntary repatriation of North Korean and Chinese Communist prisoners. All of this, of course, occurred after the death of FDR.

28. Cited in Diane Shaver Clemens, Yalta. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), 104. For a discussion of the impact of FDR's health on his performance at Yalta, see the Appendix in Warren F. Kimball, Forged in War: Roosevelt, Churchill, and the Second World War. (New York: William Florrow, 1997), 339-341. Kimball reaches a conclusion similar to Eden's, cited by Clemens.

29. Lydia V. Pozdeeva, "The Soviet Union: Territorial Diplomacy," in Allies At War: The Soviet American, and British Experience, 1939-1945. (New York: St. Martin's, 1994),373-374. For Churchill on dismemberment at Yalta, see Gilbert,Winston S. Churchill, 1178. For the opinion of a member of the UK delegation at Yalta on Stalin's reaction to Churchill's statement, see Ibid., 1179.

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