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The Road To Yalta
A dozen arduous years lay between our recognition of the Soviets and the conference in Crimea; then the friendship so briefly rekindled flickered out again
June 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 4
In August came Russia’s second turnabout—alliance with the former enemy, in the pact that helped unleash Hitler’s forces and win for Russia a share of Poland. This was followed by Russia’s “dreadful rape of Finland,” as Roosevelt termed it, which led us to place an embargo on many exports to this latest aggressor, while at home sentiment was rising in favor of aiding embattled France and Britain. In Moscow an appropriately chilly Foreign Service professional, Ambassador Laurence A. Steinhardt, represented us, engaged largely in delivering messages of protest over such incidents as the Soviet detention of the American freighter City of Flint .
Then on June 22, 1941, Hitler performed his fateful turnabout: he invaded Russia with 175 divisions. Overnight the whole configuration of affairs changed again: the Western “warmongers” of yesterday became in Russia’s eyes partners in her “Great Patriotic War,” while a hitherto lonely Britain and a defensive America set out to build with Russia the Grand Alliance. In barely a month, the President’s personal adviser, Harry L. Hopkins, was on the Moscow scene with an introduction from Roosevelt asking Stalin to treat Hopkins with “the identical confidence you would feel if you were talking directly to me.” Cordially welcomed at the Kremlin, he declared to Stalin “the determination of the President and our government to extend all possible aid to the Soviet Union at the earliest possible time.”
It was characteristic of Roosevelt under pressure that he conveyed this vital message not through his regular ambassador on the ground or through a visit by Secretary of State Hull (with whom his own relations had become distant) but by a special emissary. Hopkins, for his part, hastened to point out to Stalin that his mission was “not a diplomatic: one” in the usual sense. In title, Hopkins was Roosevelt’s administrator of lend lease. In fart, he was his Colonel House and closest friend; and the skill of this extraordinary expediter, sensitive yet durable, often ill and nerveracked yet searching and thorough, was never greater than during the crucial sessions—lasting only two days —in which he won the inscrutable Stalin’s confidence, gained from him a complete picture of Soviet military strengths and weaknesses, placed Soviet-American relations upon an entirely new footing, and did all this so circumspectly as to draw from the sidetracked Hull and Steinhardt no audible murmur of criticism. As Hopkins’ biographer, Robert E. Sherwood, remarks: “This was indeed the turning point in the wartime relations of Britain and the United States with the Soviet Union.”
It also marked a point from which there was to be no turning back. Stalin, whose armies were reeling under German impact across the Ukraine toward Moscow, needed immediately great supplies of guns and aircraft metal. Many expert Western observers on and around the scene were pessimistic; why, asked Major Ivan Yeaton, the American military attaché at Moscow, lend aid to a doomed cause? Yet when Hopkins reported to Roosevelt, “I feel ever so confident about this front … There is unbounded determination to win,” his word tilted the scales. Within a few days, at their seaborne conference in Newfoundland’s Argentia Bay at which the Atlantic Charter was framed, Roosevelt and Churchill determined to rush all possible equipment to Stalin even at some risk to their own arsenals, and to send at once a joint supply mission to explore his needs. This was the occasion that brought Averell Harriman for the first time to Moscow, along with England’s Lord Beaverbrook. Two weeks after they arrived, German spearheads had pushed to within thirty miles of the capital, government offices were being evacuated to Kuibyshev in the rear, and Major Yeaton was reporting that the end of Russian resistance might not be far away.
Yet while Americans were concentrating on first things first—to help Russia stave off defeat—Stalin was already thinking far ahead to the shape that Europe should take after the victory. Here was the great misstep on our road to Yalta: not only did Western leaders seem to fail to realize how large the Soviets might loom in the event of victory, but they refused to discuss the future with Stalin at a time advantageous to themselves, when he was so hard-pressed and weak. Thus it happened that soon after Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt, though aware of Soviet territorial demands in Poland and the Baltic area, specifically asked Stalin to omit such questions from the treaty of alliance then being negotiated. The absence of territorial discussion now left the new alliance a one-way street—we were giving the Russians more and more aid against Hitler’s onslaught, without pressing them to surrender some of their aspirations in return.
How much aid—and when? How soon are you going to open a “second front” to relieve us? When are you going to recognize our just claims in eastern Europe? These were the constant calls from Moscow, and each brought new East-West collisions. Only a few months after Hopkins’ warm reception at the Kremlin, the visiting Harriman was given a brusque one: Stalin showed impatience at the slowness of Western aid and warmed only when Harriman promised him five thousand jeeps. The President, aware how tough a customer we were dealing with, now thought we had better send him as resident ambassador a markedly tough personality of our own, and so Stalin got a battleship admiral.