This page is hosted on AFS file server space, which is being shut down on November 13, 2018. If you are seeing this message, your service provider needs to take steps now. Visit for more information.
American Diplomacy

Highlight map


Support American Diplomacy RSS Mailing-list Subscription Email American Diplomacy Facebook


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

[Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin at Yalta]

Criticisms of FDR and Stalin
for their Actions at Yalta

With the substantial benefit of hindsight, it is easy to be critical of FDR and his approach to certain issues at Yalta. For example, it has been argued, among others by Eden, that Stalin needed no encouragement to enter the war against Japan following the defeat of Nazi Germany.30 One can also argue that it was unrealistic to expect Stalin to honor the Yalta Declaration on Poland. Indeed, on the eve of Yalta, George F. Kennan, then the Minister-Counselor of the U.S. Embassy at Moscow, wrote a prophetic letter to his friend, Chip Bohlen, expressing profound skepticism about the prospects for cooperating with the Soviets in postwar Europe.31

Yet, especially given the general climate of public opinion in early 1945, I find persuasive the broad counter–argument enunciated at the 1982 convention of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies by scholar–diplomat John C. Campbell, who during World War II worked in the research division of the State Department. "No one in the U.S. government," he has held, "on the eve of victory over Germany and with the prospect of Soviet entry into the war against Japan, was prepared to break up the alliance over issues [in Eastern Europe] the American people would not understand, or to write off the world security organization before it was born."

Whatever history's final judgment on FDR's policy toward the USSR, it is only fair to point out that Stalin himself was not error-free either at Yalta or in his general approach to the West. As Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., has observed: "Signing the Declaration [on Liberated Europe] was from the Soviet point of view a grave diplomatic blunder. . . because the Declaration laid down standards for Eastern Europe, and Stalin's subsequent violation of these standards exposed him, once the club was out of the closet, to persuasive charges of bad faith and of breaking the Yalta accords."
33 Many years after Yalta, Molotov told a Russian biographer that he had warned Stalin at the time that the American draft was "going too far." According to Molotov, Stalin responded, "Don't worry. . . work it out. We can deal with it in our own way later."34

Additionally, one has to wonder about Stalin's agreement at Yalta to the holding of free and unfettered elections in Poland. Ambassador Averill Harriman, who was at Yalta and saw more of Stalin than any other American during the crucial years between 1943 and 1945, believed that Stalin changed his mind about permitting free elections in Poland when the Polish Communist leader, Bierut, told him a few days after Yalta that if such elections were held, "any free democratic leader such as Mikolajczyk would have become the rallying point for an overwhelming majority of the Polish people."

It may be useful to conclude this consideration of the FDR- Stalin relationship at the time of the Yalta Conference with the following points:

  • FDR summarized the rationale behind his approach at Yalta on the countries of Eastern Europe, especially Poland, to a small group of Senate leaders in Washington, D.C., just prior to his departure for the Crimea. FDR explained that the Russians had the power in Eastern Europe, that it was obviously impossible to have a break with them [presumably because of the need for Soviet military power to defeat the Germans and the Japanese], and that, therefore, the only practicable course was to use what influence we had to ameliorate the situation.

  • As for Stalin, I turn to Milovan Djilas, the one-time Yugoslav leader who had several direct and lengthy meetings with the Soviet leader from 1944 through early 1948:

    Today [he wrote in the early 1960s] it is truly difficult to decide how much of Stalin's action [at the Yalta Conference] was play acting and how much was real. . . . With him, pretence was so spontaneous that it seemed he himself became convinced of the truth and sincerity of what he was saying. He easily adapted himself to every turn in the discussion of any new topic. . . .37


    From Yalta to Warm Springs, 1945

    Whatever one might conclude about FDR's priorities at Yalta and the reasons underlying Stalin's position there, FDR had begun to doubt after Yalta whether his hopes were going to be realized that Stalin would in good faith carry out the spirit of the agreements. [Franklin D. Roosevelt] In the two months between the end of the conference and his death, he was confronted with several Soviet actions which must have weighed on his mind during the last weeks of his life. These actions came in rapid succession shortly after he left the Crimean conference.

    Specifically, FDR was confronted with

    • the installation of a Communist-dominated government in Romania in late February,
    • the downgrading of Soviet participation in the April conference in San Francisco to draft the UN Charter by making it clear that Foreign Minister Molotov would not head the USSR delegation,
    • the disagreement over the Western response to soundings for the surrender of German forces in Italy, and
    • the deadlock in the negotiations in Moscow designed to broaden the Soviet puppet régime in Poland.
    One might speculate as to the reasons for the immediate post-Yalta actions by the Kremlin which aroused concern in both Washington and London. Stalin probably concluded that the Declaration on Liberated Europe gave him considerable leeway in Romania, especially in view of the "percentages" agreement Stalin believed he had reached with Churchill in Moscow the previous October, under which the USSR was granted 90 percent "predominance" in Romania, while the UK was given 90 percent "of the say" in Greece.
38 In addition, given Stalin's extremely suspicious nature, he appears to have been seriously concerned at the time about the abortive German soundings for the surrender of their forces in Italy, fearing that the United States and the UK were engaged in secret negotiations with the Third Reich (of the sort he himself had conducted with the Nazi régime in 1939). In a message to FDR on April 3, Stalin stated that his "military colleagues. . .are sure" that such negotiations occurred. And in response to FDR's prompt and vigorous rebuttal, Stalin noted that important towns in western Germany were being surrendered "without any resistance" and asked Roosevelt to admit "that this behavior on the part of the Germans is more than strange and unaccountable."39

For a variety of reasons, including the atrocities perpetrated by the Germans in the USSR and the reciprocal actions by the Red Army in East Prussia, it is not surprising that many Germans, both civilian and military, acted on their preference for Western rather than Soviet occupation. Nonetheless, it was probably unrealistic to expect that a man like Stalin would have credited this explanation grounded in the military facts of life confronting the German people in the early spring of 1945.

Whatever the reason for Stalin's actions in the immediate post-Yalta environment, both Harriman and Bohlen have cited specific examples of FDR's unhappiness with this behavior by the Soviet dictator. Additionally, a reliable British source has recorded a noteworthy instance involving Senator Arthur Vandenberg, who was a member of the American delegation to the founding UN Conference in San Francisco. Senator Vandenberg told Harold Nicholson on January 28, 1946, that he had visited Roosevelt shortly before he died and that FDR had asserted: "At Conference after Conference I have been forced to agree to things with which I did not agree, in fear lest Russia should make a separate peace. She will now blackmail us again by threatening to withdraw from the U.N.0."

Even allowing for the fact that FDR, the consummate politician, was speaking informally to Vandenberg, a leading Republican spokesman on foreign policy, there is still a ring of truth in this statement. Moreover, the question of his real intentions in the matter of Lend-Lease shipments to the USSR after the end of the war in Europe remains unclear. According to one source, on the day he left Washington, D.C. for the last time en route to Warm Springs, Roosevelt orally expressed unhappiness with Stalin and instructed the administrator of foreign aid to shut off Lend-Lease shipments "the moment Germany is defeated." While the Administration subsequently opposed a similar amendment submitted by Senator Taft, this action was apparently motivated by what was seen as a threat to Presidential authority and power.

Whatever Stalin's innermost thoughts during this crucial period, the situation created by his actions has led certain scholars to conclude that had FDR lived, he might well have stiffened the overall U.S. posture toward the USSR at a much earlier date than occurred under President Truman.
42 Others have argued that FDR would not have fundamentally changed his policy toward Stalin.43 Still other scholars have suggested that FDR might have taken a middle ground. For instance, as the British historian Robin Edmonds has speculated, FDR would have handled the announcement to Stalin of American possession of the atomic bomb differently than President Truman did at Potsdam. [President Truman with Churchill and Stalin at Potsdam] Moreover, Edmonds believes that it would surely have occurred to Roosevelt, as it did not to Truman or Secretary of State James F. Byrnes at Potsdam, to make use of Stalin's request for an American loan for the reconstruction of the devastated USSR.44

My own view is that a dying FDR -- described by Professor Warren Kimble as a "creative procrastinator" -- had really not come to grips with the major problem of what to do if Stalin's posture on the Polish and other problems remained as rigid as it appeared to be at the time of his death. Or, put another way, he wished to defer any major decision on American relations with the USSR for the time being, especially as the atomic bomb had not yet been tested and Japan had still not been defeated.


Some Broader Themes:
Criticisms and a Rebuttal

A broader criticism of Roosevelt's approach and actions at Yalta is that wartime conferences at the Summit were not really the best forum for the conclusion of Allied agreements relating to the conduct of the war and the structure of the post-war world. One historian of the period, Professor Russell Buhite, has concluded that "all things considered, summit conferences have had serious deficiencies. . ." and that Yalta "was a conference in which the West had only a marginal chance of success."45

All of which leads one to the question of why both FDR and Churchill were so eager to confer personally with Stalin that they traveled thousands of miles to meet the Soviet leader in places, in effect, chosen by him and very much closer to Moscow than to Washington or London. Louis Fischer has suggested that:

Roosevelt, pre-eminently, and Churchill too, loved the drama of great confrontation, especially with so powerful, and at that time so enigmatic, a figure as Stalin. Few leaders can resist the limelight when there seems to be a chance to remake the world or at least to make history.46

There are other factors involved in this broad question. I submit that a critical one was the key role of Stalin in all major Soviet decisions. The record is replete with examples of the difficulty of getting subordinate officials to do or say anything without clearance from the Soviet dictator. No one but Stalin himself would do.

Even more importantly, as George Kennan has pointed out, the wartime Summit conferences had a

"distinct value as practical demonstrations of our readiness and eagerness to establish better relations with the Soviet régime and of the difficulties we encountered in our effort to do so. . . . Had we not gone into them, it is my guess that we would still be hearing reproachful voices saying: You claim that cooperation with Russia is not possible. How do you know? You never even tried."48

Turning to other basic issues, one can also question certain fundamental assumptions of both FDR and Stalin. It seems clear, for example, that FDR overestimated the power of the UK in the postwar period; one can speculate that this reaction was stimulated by his close wartime relationship with Churchill. He was not to live to see the overwhelming electoral defeat of Churchill in the UK elections held in the summer of 1945.

Still, it is difficult to resist the validity of two elements involved in FDR's wartime posture toward Stalin. Specifically, Roosevelt was undoubtedly aware of the burden borne by the USSR in the military effort to defeat Nazi Germany. Moreover, prior to the Tehran Conference, FDR had reason for concern that Stalin might seek a separate peace with Hitler. Indeed, there are indications that the Kremlin on more than one occasion probed the possibility of such a peace, especially in the important period in 1943 between the German recapture of Kharkov in mid-March and early September. While Hitler always declined to consider seriously a separate peace with the USSR, FDR could not have been certain of the refusal of the Nazi leader to take this step, which would have freed German power to concentrate on the struggle with the Western powers.

Whatever the motives and calculations of FDR and Stalin, it is important to recall the basic dilemma confronting the American leader throughout most of the war. There was no possibility of a compromise peace with a man like Hitler, and the Western Allies, fighting Japan as well as Germany (and Italy until late in 1943), may not have had the military capability to defeat the Germans without total Soviet participation in the war against the Third Reich.

About the Author
Return to Part I


30. Anthony Eden, Memoirs - The Reckoning. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965), 591. See also Kennan,Memoirs, 85.
Chip Bohlen mistakenly wrote that the committee never met; Bohlen, Witness to History, 183.

31. Bohlen, Ibid., 174-177. Some historians have also criticized FDR for his call for the "unconditional surrender" of the Axis, delivered publicly at the close of the Casablanca Conference in January 1943. On balance, however, this writer concludes that FDR's critics on this issue have not taken sufficient account of the special circumstances which moved FDR to announce this policy when he did so. See Feis,Churchill-Roosevelt-Stalin, 108-113; and Burns,Roosevelt,545-546, 548-550. For a more recent treatment of this issue, see Robert James Maddox, Weapons For Victory: The Hiroshima Decision Fifty Years Later, (Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 1995), 6-17.

32. Cited from an illuminating paper entitled "Kremlinology and Eastern Europe: The Wartime Record", delivered by John C. Campbell at the 1982 National Convention of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies (AAASS), 18.

33. Edmonds, The Big Three, 418.

34. Felix Chuev, Molotov Remembers: Inside Kremlin Politics. (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1993), 51. Edited with an Introduction and Notes by Albert Resis. See also Bohlen, Witness to History, 193.

35. W. Averill Harriman and Elie Abel, Special Envoy To Churchill and Stalin, 1941-1946. (New York: Random House, 1975), 444-445. Ambassador Kennan has opined that the attitudes of Stalin and his senior colleagues on Poland were probably strongly influenced by the knowledge on their part of the wholly inexcusable murder by Beria's establishment of many thousands of Polish officers at Katyn and elsewhere. Stalin's only reasonably sure hope of avoiding a scandal lay in the preservation of a Polish government which he and his colleagues could dominate. Cited in a letter from Ambassador Kennan to this writer dated January 17, 1994. See also Weinberg,A World at Arms, 468. For a translation of the key Soviet document authorizing the Katyn massacre, see Appendix Five in Pavel and Anatoli Sudoplatov with Jerrold L. and Leona P. Schecter, Special Tasks. (Boston: Back Bay Books [Paper], 1995), 476-478.

36. FDR's statement on Eastern Europe is cited in Robert L. Messer, The End of an Alliance: James F. Byrnes, Roosevelt, Truman and the Origins of the Cold War. (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1982), 42. This particular statement in a private meeting with a relatively small number of Senators is an illustration of FDR's ability to conduct what one historian has described as "Roosevelt's dual foreign policy: a 'foreign' foreign policy, characterized by realism and designed for negotiating situations, and a 'domestic' foreign policy designed for home consumption and characterized by idealism". Other examples could be cited including FDR's decision to keep from Stalin any information about the massive effort to develop atomic weapons. The description of FDR's "dual foreign policy" is cited in Richard Crockett, The Fifty Years War: the United States and the Soviet Union in World Politics, 1941-1994. (New York: Routledge, 1995), 70. On FDR's atomic policy, see Ibid., 55, and Burns,Roosevelt, 455-459, 550. For the massive Soviet espionage operations which kept Stalin informed about Western efforts to develop atomic weapons, see Sudoplatov, Special Tasks, 172-220, 436-475. For the pitfalls involved in any effort by U.S. leaders to conduct the kind of "dual foreign policy" described above, see Burns, Roosevelt, 551-552.

37. For Djilas' evaluation of Stalin, see Milovan Djilas, Conversations with Stalin. (New York: Penguin Books, 1963), 77. For Stalin's view on the role of the military in the imposition of communist power in eastern Europe, asserted shortly after FDR's death to a small group of Soviet and Yugoslav Communist leaders, see Ibid, 90. For Stalin's toast at Yalta on February 8, 1945, see Feis, Churchill-Roosevelt-Stalin, 557-558. Djilas died in Belgrade on April 20, 1995, and the Balkans in particular and the West in general lost an outstanding writer and a courageous man.

38. Churchill,Triumph and Tragedy, 226-235.

39. For the text of these and other messages exchanged between FDR and Stalin, see Stalin's Correspondence With Churchill, Attlee, Roosevelt and Truman, 1941-45. (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1958). Stalin's suspiciousness was proverbial. For a graphic example of this trait of his personality, see Elliott Roosevelt, "Why Stalin 'NEVER FORGAVE' Eleanor Roosevelt", Parade Magazine, February 9, 1986, 14-17. In late November of 1946, during a Kremlin interview granted to Elliott Roosevelt by Stalin, the Soviet dictator charged that "the Churchill gang" poisoned FDR and that this gang "continue to try to poison me". Indeed, the thought that Stalin had, at the very least, pronounced paranoid tendencies has occurred to several Western biographers of the Soviet leader. For greater details, see the outstanding two-volume biography of Stalin by Robert C. Tucker.

40. Harold Nicholson, Diaries and Letters 1945-62. (London: Collins-Fontana Books, 1971), 47. For Bohlen's example of FDR's unhappiness with Stalin, see Bohlen,Witness to History, 208-209.

41. Jim Bishop, FDR's Last Year April 1944-April 1945. (New York: Pocket Books, 1975), 711-712. The Taft amendment was narrowly defeated, with Vice-President Truman casting the decisive vote.

42. See, e.g., Adam Ulam, The Rivals: America and Russia Since World War II. (New York: Viking Press, 1971), 33; and Robert Dallek, Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy, 1932-1945. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 534.

43. See, e.g., Robert Nisbet, Roosevelt and Stalin: The Failed Courtship. (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway, 1988), 5. A.W. DePorte has speculated that FDR might "in the end have given the highest priority to maintaining the entente with the USSR, particularly after the advent of the atomic bomb". However, DePorte also concedes that to follow this course of action, FDR "would have had to swallow much bitter medicine ... not only in terms of his own postwar. plans but also of the impact on American opinion of Soviet proceedings in Eastern Europe". A.W. DePorte, Europe Between the Superpowers: The Enduring Balance. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), 111.

44. Edmonds,The Big Three, 462.

45. Russell D. Buhite, Decisions At Yalta: An Appraisal of Summit Diplomacy. (Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 1986), 132- 136. It is also clear that until Harriman's arrival in the fall of 1943, FDR's penchant for special envoys to the Kremlin understandably vexed Admiral William H. Standley, Harriman's predecessor as the American Ambassador to the USSR. See, e.g., Rudy Abramson, Spanning the Century: The Life of W. Averill Harriman, 1891-1986. (New York: William Morrow, 1992), 344-351. FDR was, of course, not the only American President to engage in this particular practice.

46. Louis Fisher, The Road to Yalta: Soviet Foreign Relations, 1941-1945. (New York: Harper and Row, 1972), 142.

47. See, e.g., Eubank,Summit at Tehran, 296-297.

48. George F. Kennan, American Diplomacy 1900-1950. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), 86.

49. There is disagreement among Russian and German sources on the timing and motivation of Soviet peace feelers toward Nazi Germany, both in the immediate period after Hitler's invasion of the USSR and subsequently in the period in 1943 between the German recapture of Kharkov and early September. By the latter date, Stalin was confronted with a new situation created by the important Soviet victory at Kursk and by the Allied invasion of Italy coming shortly after their conquest of Sicily.

Whatever differences exist in the available sources, all are agreed that in the end Hitler rejected all efforts to reach a separate peace with the USSR. For details from a German source about the probes for a separate Soviet-German peace, see Peter Kleist, The European Tragedy. (Isle of Man: Times Press and Anthony Gibbs and Phillips, 1965), 139-141, 144-155, 162- 171. Kleist makes the valid point that "there will probably always be a veil of mystery over all that happened" concerning this particular subject. Ibid., 132.

For other German sources, see Klaus Hildebrand, The Foreign Policy of the Third Reich. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), translated by Anthony Fothergill), 127-128, 131. For details on German Foreign Minister Ribbentrop's feeble efforts to initiate peace feelers to Moscow, see John Weitz, Hitler's Diplomat: The Life and Times of Joachim von Ribbentrop. (New York: Ticknor Fields, 1992), 302, 321.

For Russian sources, see the updated edition of Sudoplatov,Special Tasks, 145-148, 376-380; and the Russian language edition of Dmitri Volkoganov, Triumph and Tragedy. Book II, Part I. (Moscow: Novosti,1989), 172-173.

About concerns on the Western side regarding a separate German-Soviet peace, see Sherwood, Roosevelt and Hopkins, 734; and Edward M. Bennett, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Search for Victory: American-Soviet Relations, 1939-1945. (Wilmington, Del: Scholarly Resources, 1990), 92. See also, on this intriguing subject, Vojtech Mastny, Russia's Road to the Cold War: Diplomacy, Warfare and the Politics of Communism, 1941-1945. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1979), 74-85; Walter Laqueur, Stalin: The Glasnost Revelations. (New York: Scribner's, 1990), 221-223; and especially the two books by Gerhard L. Weinberg, Germany, Hitler, and World War II: Essays In Modern German And World History. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 298, 305; and Weinberg, A World at Arms, 463-469, 609-614.

50. Mark A. Stoler, George C. Marshall: Soldier-Statesman of the American Century. (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1989), 126-127. For a more recent but similar conclusion by a British historian, see Richard Overy, Why the Allies Won. (New York: W.W. Norton, First American Edition, 1996), 323-325. Additional sources on this key issue are Warren F. Kimball, The Juggler: Franklin Roosevelt as Wartime Statesman. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991), 395; and The Kennan-Lukacs Correspondence. (???????: University of Missouri Press, 1997), 41.
The question of whether the Western allies could have defeated the Third Reich and the Japanese Empire without the all-out participation of the USSR was -- happily for the West -- never put to the test.

About the Author
Return to Part I

white starAmerican Diplomacy white star
Copyright © 2012 American Diplomacy Publishers Chapel Hill NC