Full House At Yalta

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As far back as July, 1944, Roosevelt had begun a long interchange of dispatches with Churchill and Stalin, urging that they all get together to discuss the many questions and plans that had developed since their last meeting in Cairo in December of 1943. From July to November, Roosevelt had suggested various places to meet, from Scotland through the Mediterranean to Jerusalem. Stalin repeatedly agreed in principle with the desirability of such a meeting but insisted that his doctors would not allow him to take a long trip or to experience a major change of climate. And besides, he said, the Russian armies were advancing so rapidly that he could not absent himself from his motherland. In October, 1944. Stalin suggested a meeting toward the end of November at a Soviet port on the Black Sea.

Both the British and the Americans objected to the Black Sea area at first, but eventually they agreed when it became clear that Stalin would not leave the U.S.S.R. Batum, Sevastopol, and Yalta were all discussed as possibilities, and finally, for reasons of climate and accessibility, Yalta was chosen.

Yalta was a famous summer resort, with mild winters because of its location to the leeward of the coastal mountains of the Crimea. We had to assume that some of the resort hotels might be available. The large airport at Saki was within four hours’ drive. Yalta had a small harbor that might be useful, and port facilities at Sevastopol were within fairly easy reach.

On December 23, 1944, Mr. Roosevelt agreed to meet at Yalta in late January or early February, and so informed Mr. Churchill. The prime minister readily agreed and suggested that the President meet him at Malta en route. Both decided to take very limited staff help; Roosevelt said he would have about thirty-five, about the same as at the Cairo conference. On December 28, Stalin concurred on Yalta, and Churchill sent Roosevelt a final message saying, “No more let us falter. From Malta to Yalta. Let nobody alter.”

Roosevelt informed the others that he would proceed by ship to Malta, and thence by air to Saki airport in the Crimea on the first or second of February. He would dispatch communications and logistic support in advance—a communications passenger ship, a cargo ship, and four mine-sweeper escorts. They would berth at Sevastopol.

During the first two weeks of January we in Moscow could get little useful information from the Soviets. I had several frustrating meetings with the Soviet naval commissar, Admiral Kuznetzov, at which I picked up some navigation and port information for our ships. But we could learn nothing of the Russian housing plans. This made us nervous, for each incoming dispatch from Washington indicated an increase in the number of staff members who planned to attend: from thirty-five to seventy, then to eighty, and by January 8 to over one hundred. It seemed that everyone in the Pentagon wanted to see Russia. We finally were told by the Soviets that there would be two buildings available, the Livadia Palace with twenty-one rooms and the “Court” building with forty-one rooms. It did not sound at all adequate, and when the U.S. list approached two hundred, Mr. Harriman and General Deane sent urgent dispatches asking Washington to reduce the numbers. A communications group of about forty was the only unit deleted, however; the deluge was never stopped. By the middle of January, we knew we would have to find beds for at least two hundred Americans. Meanwhile, we learned nothing more about conditions in Yalta from the Russians.

Mr. Harriman requested permission from Mr. Molotov for himself and four officers to go to Yalta at once. Molotov asked the ambassador to hold off until more preparations were completed, but said that the four officers could depart immediately. Since I had been present at Quebec and Cairo, I had a pretty fair idea of the facilities and arrangements required, so I was appointed to take charge of the group.

I took with me Major General Ted Hill, USAAF , who headed the Air Section of our staff and who went primarily to arrange for the use of three Soviet airfields in the Poltava area for restaging our bombers from England and Italy; Captain Ronny Alien, USN , my secretary and a most capable interpreter; and Lieutenant Joe Chase, USN , my communications officer, who was also an interpreter. Hill and I could not rely on our limited Russian to negotiate proceedings.

Now we had clearance to go, but no means. Day after day we asked for air transport; each day the Soviet office reported bad weather that prevented flying. Our concern grew every day, with each incoming dispatch proving that Washington had no conception of the problem and that it was paying little regard to our pleas to reduce the numbers planning to attend.