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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
∗A personal recollection: While at the Office of War Information in 1942, in charge of broadcasts to Germany, I was assigned by Robert E. Sherwood to go to Moscow on a mission arising from an offer made by Foreign Minister Vishinsky—that of my speaking nightly from there to eastern-front Germans in the name of the Voice of America. At that time, when American troops had not yet come to grips with Germans, it seemed a promising idea to convey in this fashion the message of Allied unity, and Vishinsky had promised that, apart from sheer military censorship, what I said over the Moscow radio would be subjected to no surveillance whatsoever. After I had waited several months with packed suitcases for travel orders, though, the mission was finally vetoed by Ambassador Standley on the ground that this, too, might lead to too-close collaboration with the Russians.
Standley had the ill fortune to represent us in Moscow during our hardest times there. During 1942 and most of 1943 the promised American aid never lived up to expectations, due first to enormous convoy losses and then to our own build-up for the second front that Stalin had demanded. But the Soviet chieftain kept upbraiding us for our delays in respect to both. When Allied armies streaked across Sicily and landed on the Italian mainland, though, the Bear warmed once more; and when in October, 1943, Standley having been retired to the shades, Secretary Hull arrived in Moscow for a four-power foreign ministers’ conference accompanied by a new ambassador (Harriman) and a new military-aid chief (General Deane), Stalin was genial. With enormous forces now building up for OVERLORD (the Anglo-American descent upon Normandy) and supplies flowing to Russia over several seas, broad pledges of mutual aid and confidence were exchanged. Harriman was particularly elated when, in a daring mood, he proposed a toast at the Kremlin to the day “when we would be fighting together against the Japs,” and Molotov suddenly responded: “Why not- gladly— the time will come .”
Yet Harriman was not so elated as to lose perspective. A shrewd observer and Presidential trouble shooter, he had known all the ups and downs of American-Soviet relations, and the reassuring atmosphere of the Moscow foreign ministers’ conference had not concealed from him its lack of real achievement.
Now the final stage of the road led via Teheran and Moscow to Yalta—conferences marked by increasing inter-Allied warmth as the outlines of military victory became clearer, although the ultimate political consequences remained hidden in the veil. It was as if the civil plenipotentiaries, having failed to lay a basis of searching diplomacy with each other at the start, had come to feel that the soldiers would resolve their problems for them by providing a smashing triumph that would leave everyone happy—if exhausted. Stalin was enormously impressed by the prospects of OVERLORD. Churchill was equally impressed by the avenging progress of the Red armies and supported Stalin’s claim for territory to protect Russia from future German invasions, even though this meant shifting Poland several hundred miles westward. Roosevelt, though he said he wanted no part of the Polish wrangle—not until after the 1944 elections, in any case—was inclined to support the Anglo-Soviet understanding reached on this point during the summit meeting at Teheran at the end of 1943.
Harriman, though a devoted admirer of Roosevelt and a believer in mobility in dealing with the Soviets, was not quite so sure. Shouldn’t we, he asked, try to awaken them to the fact that we expected them to give as well as receive? In this he was supported by his top military-aid man, General Deane, a newcomer constituted very differently from his predecessor, General Faymonville. Deane demanded detailed information from the Soviets as to just what they were doing with supplies, even as Harriman kept requiring of them more specific knowledge of their political plans as Hitler’s legions fell back. But then came the great convergence of Anglo-American armies upon Germany, (simultaneously with the Soviet armies’ even greater one); the knowledge that the Soviets would join our hard-won march against Japan; and a profound feeling that amid so many mutual sacrifices made and joint victories won, the problems remaining between us—the fate of eastern Europe, the control of Germany, the level of reparations, the structure of the Balkans, the ratio of representation in the new United Nations —could be amicably resolved.
This was the immense agenda that faced the Big Three chiefs of government when they met at Yalta in the Crimea in February, 1945, for a week of breathless negotiating and climactic banqueting that would give new shape to the world. Time was short at Yalta- too short; the chieftains had to hurry home to direct the closing scenes of the military drama in Europe and stage its last act in Asia. Moreover, Roosevelt and Hopkins were both ailing; the new Secretary of State who accompanied them, Edward R. Stettinius, was inexperienced; and our standing representation in Russia itself had been so assorted and at times discredited that the President found himself with little in the way of a concerted body of first-hand experience there on which to draw. In our massive delegation at the Livadia Palace, the effective “Russian experts” were just two—the overburdened Harriman and young “Chip” Bohlen, serving as interpreter.