- Historic Sites
Full House At Yalta
Vodka at breakfast was only one of the minor problems when Russians entertained Americans
June 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 4
It was 5 P.M. on Sunday, the fourth of February, 1945. After seven months of dispatches and a month of frantic preparation by the Soviets, the Big Three conference at Yalta on the Black Sea was about to commence. The senior representatives of the United States, Great Britain, and the U.S.S.R. had been invited to witness the opening and were assembled along the two long walls of the great ballroom of the Livadia Palace, the former summer playground of Czar Nicholas II . Once ornate, the great room was now quite bare except for huge drapes over the windows and a large doughnut-shaped table in the center. With other Americans, Major General R’fcssel Deane and I stood waiting. We were the two senior members of the U.S. Military Mission to the U.S.S.R. and had been in Moscow for the past sixteen months.
The low hum of petty conversation gave way suddenly to silence. Without fanfare, Marshal Stalin appeared alone under the great entry arch at the end of the hall. For a moment he appeared to be looking over the gathering. Then he walked down the center toward his advisory group. He was dressed in a very plain woolen military uniform. Short and sturdy, he moved with steady firm steps, a picture conforming to his reputation as a cold, steely, ruthlessly determined individual. In spite of his claim to ill health in the preceding seven months, he looked like a most healthy and formidable soldier to deal with now. Amid a burst of loud applause, he strode on.
I felt a nudge and heard General Deane whisper, “Come on, Olie, we ought to welcome him.” In Moscow Deane had participated in many war discussions with Stalin and his staff; it seemed proper that he should greet the Marshal here. We stepped out on an intercepting course. At once, two Soviet secret-service men started from the opposite wall. Stalin stopped. We stopped in front of him. The glaring guards stopped nearby. We saluted the Marshal, and Russel expressed the welcome of the U.S. delegation in his best Russian. With that, the Marshal’s eyes softened somewhat, and with a little smile he thanked us and shook hands. We quickly stepped aside to rejoin our astonished friends. The guards withdrew, and Stalin joined his staff at the table.
Now all eyes turned to see Prime Minister Churchill standing in the archway, posturing with his inevitable cigar and absorbing the setting. He was a picture of a strong and positive statesman, as grim and determined as John Bull himself and as solid as the Rock of Gibraltar. As applause rippled along the rows of spectators, he grinned, waved his cigar, and strode confidently toward his group at the table.
Once more all eyes turned toward the entrance. President Roosevelt had arrived in his wheelchair. The heavy boat cloak he wore over his shoulders helped to cover his legs, but his arms were free to manipulate his distinctive long cigarette holder and to wave at the spectators. Though he sat upright, he looked very fragile, and it was obvious that he was not in good health. The long voyage by ship to Malta and the flight on to Yalta had undoubtedly also fatigued him considerably. In spite of this, he smiled and waved to the applauding spectators, exhibiting some of his magnetic personality. He was undeniably pleased with himself, and rightly so, for regardless of his own poor health and his heavy worldwide war commitments, it was his, and only his, persistence and determination that had finally brought about this conference—a conference to settle the final and postwar policies of World War 11, and one that would affect the affairs of the entire world.
With the arrival of President Roosevelt, the conferees took seats, and the First Plenary Session began. The supernumeraries quietly withdrew.
When Mr. Averell Harriman became the United States ambassador to the U.S.S.R. in October, 1943, he brought with him a military staff to form a military mission with Army, Navy, Air, and lend-lease sections. We all worked harmoniously together. When Yalta was agreed upon, knowing that I had attended similar large conferences at Quebec and Cairo, Mr. Harriman directed me to take a staff to Yalta as soon as possible to assist the Soviet staff in preparing facilities for this conference. To my astonishment and concern, I soon became responsible for the full administration of the facilities for the American delegation, including housing, messing, communications, security, and transportation.
I was not a conferee, so I shall not comment on the substance or results of the meetings. What I want to tell about is how Yalta was chosen and my curious experiences in helping the Soviets transform three Livadia Palace buildings into relatively firstclass hotel accommodations for a conference of world significance—in less than a month.