THE Yalta papers could not have appeared under worse auspices. The decision to publish them was colored by partisan political motives. The leakage during the process of selection and editing of sensational passages throws a strange light on the supposedly tightened security regulations of the Department of State. The circumstances under which the documents as a whole were released to the press in the form of uncorrected galley proof were, to put it mildly, peculiar. Finally, it is doubtful whether all the important papers in the Pentagon files have been included.

The most unfortunate effect of the release of the documents to the press in proof form, months before publication of the finished volume, is that attention has been focused on the minutes of the conference itself. This is inevitable, because the minutes have by far the greatest interest as "revelations." Of the pre-conference documents, which fill almost half the volume, only a few have attracted attention. Yet it is only from these papers that a clear view of the world as seen by the American negotiators, and of the objectives of American policy, can be obtained.[i]

The foreign policy objectives of the United States in 1944-45, as set forth in the pre-conference papers, can still be studied with pride by Americans; and they should be placed by the rest of the world in contrast to Soviet policy as it has unfolded over the last decade. To see that contrast it is necessary to cite only a few examples. On Italy: "United States policy toward Italy is, briefly, to encourage the development of Italy into a democratic and constructive force in the future Europe and to assist Italy to become politically independent and economically self-supporting as quickly as possible." On Iran: "Our policy in this case is based on the American Government's recognition of the sovereign right of an independent nation such as Iran, acting in a nondiscriminatory manner, to grant or withhold commercial concessions within its territory." On liberated countries: "In so far as the United States is concerned, the following two criteria could be applied to any proposed interim government: (1) that it should be dedicated to the preservation of civil liberties; (2) that it should favor social and economic reforms."[ii]

These are not isolated instances. Through every statement of policy in the period preparatory to the conference there is evident the conviction that American interests would be best served by the independence and the economic revival of other nations, by the liberation of subject peoples, by the spread of social reform, and by the free coöperation of all countries in the United Nations. And throughout it is evident that the one central problem was believed to be to obtain Soviet support for the attainment of these objectives. That support obtained, the conviction was general that the world would enjoy peace.

Yalta was the supreme effort of the United States Government to obtain Soviet support for these objectives, an effort which ended in disastrous failure. The Yalta papers, for the first time, give the American people an opportunity to understand clearly why the effort was made and why it failed, and it is vitally important that we should achieve this clear understanding. The present writer had no part in the formation of policy during World War II, and at the time he viewed what was known of our policy toward the Soviet Union with foreboding. Examining the record a decade later, however, he is driven to the conclusion that in the circumstances of the time, and given the accepted military view of the probable duration of the war and of the distribution of power in the world after the war, no other policy was possible. One can go farther and say that if the policy of the American Government in 1944-45 had not been attempted, wholeheartedly and to the point where its failure was clear without a shadow of doubt, the firmness of will and the serenity of conscience with which the American people today face a world full of ominous portent would have been impossible to attain.

In the winter of 1944-45 the duration of the war was uncertain. For planning purposes, it was assumed that the European war would be over, at the earliest, by July 1, 1945.[iii] At the time of the Yalta Conference, the Russian armies seemed to have a clear road ahead of them across the great European plain; the Western armies had not yet crossed the Rhine. In this situation, it was possible that the end of the war would find the Russians in possession of most of Germany, as they were already in possession of nearly all of what we now call the satellites.

Beyond the ending of the European war, there stretched the unknown duration of the Pacific war. For planning purposes, the end of the war against Japan was set at 18 months after the defeat of Germany.[iv] While this date was tentative and set merely for logistical purposes, there is clear evidence that the Joint Chiefs saw a hard fight ahead, as indeed there was. The probability that one atomic bomb would be ready by July 1, 1945, and more by the end of the year, was known.[v] But there is no evidence that the military had yet assessed the probable effect of atomic weapons on the length of the war, either in Europe or Asia.

If the war developed in this way, the whole strength of the United States would be concentrated in Asia for some time after the ending of the war in Europe, and if, during this time, the Russians were in undisturbed occupation of most of Europe north of the Alps and east of the Rhine, how would they use this time? Ambassador Harriman reported that, "the overriding consideration in Soviet foreign policy is the preoccupation with 'security'. . . . The Soviet Union seeks a period of freedom from danger during which it can recover from the wounds of war and complete its industrial revolution. The Soviet conception of 'security' does not appear cognizant of the similar needs or rights of other countries and of Russia's obligation to accept the restraints as well as the benefits of an international security system."[vi] This was ominous.

The situation in Asia was even more ominous. Within China, according to the Briefing Book Papers of the Department of State, "there is now Kuomintang China, Communist China, and puppet [i.e. Japanese dominated] China. Kuomintang China is being weakened by dissident elements and widespread popular discontent. Communist China is growing in material and popular strength. Puppet China is filled with pockets of Communist guerrilla resistance." A continuance of this situation would be "detrimental to our objective of a united, progressive China capable of contributing to security and prosperity in the Far East." There was an even more dangerous possibility. If the U.S.S.R. entered the Far Eastern war, one line of attack might be from Outer Mongolia; Soviet troops could strike east and take over all of north China and Manchuria. The Department believed that as yet there was little to substantiate the fear that Russia intended "to establish an independent or autonomous area in north China and Manchuria," but an open break between the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communists would tempt Russia to abandon her declared policy of nonintervention in the internal affairs of China. "It is our task to bring about British and Russian support of our objective of a united China which will coöperate with them as well as with us."[vii]

Reading these documents, one sees clearly that the American policy-makers, civil or military, had no confidence in their ability, while the war continued, to compel the U.S.S.R. to accept the American plans for the organization of the Asiatic mainland. Moreover, our Government was eager to secure early Soviet military intervention in the war against Japan, and recognized the necessity to pay for it. The problem as seen in Washington was both to ensure early Soviet intervention and to bring the U.S.S.R. to recognize that "a strong and friendly China" was the best guarantee of Soviet security in Asia.[viii]

Even after victory over Japan, in the view of American policy-makers, the power of the United States directly to shape the future would be very limited. The strategic situation expected after the war is most clearly outlined in a letter which Admiral Leahy wrote to Secretary Hull on May 16, 1944, giving the view of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on a British proposal for the disposition of the Italian colonies.[ix] While this letter was written many months before Yalta, it was accepted as the basis for policy by the Department of State in the Briefing Book for the conference, and, so far as can be determined from the available evidence, the views of the Joint Chiefs had not altered during the intervening months. The central theme of the letter was the "revolutionary changes in relative national military strengths" resulting from the war, and particularly the "phenomenal development" of Soviet strength, absolutely, and relative to the impaired strength of Britain. The situation which was expected to result from this shift now seems so remote that it is almost forgotten, but it must be recalled if American policy in 1945 is to be understood. Admiral Leahy wrote:

It would seem clear that there cannot be a world war, or even a great war, which does not find one or more of the great military powers on each side. At the conclusion of the present war, there will be, for the foreseeable future, only three such powers--the United States, Britain and Russia. Since it would seem in the highest degree unlikely that Britain and Russia, or Russia alone, would be aligned against the United States, it is apparent that any future world conflict in the foreseeable future will find Britain and Russia in opposite camps. . . .

In a conflict between these two powers the disparity in the military strengths that they could dispose upon that continent [i.e. Europe] would, under present conditions, be far too great to be overcome by our intervention on the side of Britain. Having due regard to the military factors involved--resources, manpower, geography and particularly our ability to project our strength across the ocean and exert it decisively upon the continent--we might be able to successfully defend Britain, but we could not, under existing conditions, defeat Russia. In other words, we would find ourselves engaged in a war which we could not win even though the United States would be in no danger of defeat and occupation.

It is apparent that the United States should, now and in the future, exert its utmost efforts and utilize all its influence to prevent such a situation arising and to promote a spirit of mutual coöperation between Britain, Russia and ourselves. So long as Britain and Russia coöperate and collaborate in the interests of peace, there can be no great war in the foreseeable future.

The greatest likelihood of eventual conflict between Britain and Russia would seem to grow out of either nation initiating attempts to build up its strength, by seeking to attach to herself parts of Europe to the disadvantage and possible danger of her potential adversary. Having regard to the inherent suspicions of the Russians, to present Russia with any agreement on such matters as between the British and ourselves, prior to consultation with Russia, might well result in starting a train of events that would lead eventually in [to] the situation we most wish to avoid.

Seen in the light of Admiral Leahy's letter, much that is puzzling in the Yalta period becomes understandable: Mr. Roosevelt's elaborate efforts to avoid the appearance of intimacy with Britain, even to create the impression of friction between Britain and the United States; American opposition to the delimitation of Anglo-Soviet spheres of influence in Southeastern Europe; what seems now the shortsighted preoccupation of the Department of State with the possibility that the British and Soviet Zones in Germany might be administered along divergent lines. These and other aspects of American policy should be seen in relation to the conviction that, in the future, war between the U.S. and U.S.S.R was "in the highest degree unlikely," that Anglo-Russian enmity was the one likely cause of war, and that the United States must avoid appearing to line up with Britain on questions of direct interest to Russia "lest postwar disunity of the three great powers be thereby fostered with all the possibility of ultimate impact upon the military position of the United States which such a disaster would entail."[x]

It is probable that one can go farther. On many questions Mr. Roosevelt's position at Yalta seems to waver, even to involve contradiction. When Mr. Churchill insisted that France must participate not only in the occupation of Germany but also in the Control Commission, Mr. Roosevelt at the outset joined Marshal Stalin in opposing the British proposal, and made disparaging remarks about the French which, read now, cause justified resentment. At the end of the conference, however, Mr. Roosevelt moved to the British position. Surely, in such cases the position of a statesman should be judged, not by isolated remarks on a single occasion, but by his long-term policy, and the policy of his responsible advisers. Mr. Roosevelt had shown himself a friend of France, and historians of the future are likely to describe American policy toward France, before and after Yalta, in the words the Secretary of State addressed to the President:

It is in the interests of the United States to assist France to regain her former position in world affairs in order that she may increase her contribution in the war effort and play an appropriate part in the maintenance of peace. . . . In the long run this Government will undoubtedly gain more by making concessions to French prestige and by treating France on the basis of her potential power and influence, than we will by treating her on the basis of her actual strength at this time.[xi]

Similarly, the real state of Anglo-American relations in 1945 cannot be determined on the basis of a few quips made by Mr. Roosevelt to Marshal Stalin; much more can be learned from the few words with which General Marshall justified his refusal to insist on precise formulation of American right of access to Bremen: "The broad policy had been decided and the good will was there."[xii]

What requires explanation is the fact that, at the end of the Yalta Conference, the American delegation was convinced (so far as can be determined from evidence set down at the time, and not from undocumented afterthought) that Soviet support had in fact been won. In the last days a note of relief, even of rejoicing, breaks through the cold summaries of the proceedings.

To understand this rejoicing it is necessary to stress, not the concessions made by the Americans and the British, but the attitude and the promises of the Russians. On Poland, the Americans and the British stood firm until Stalin said that free elections could be held in about one month; then agreement was quickly achieved. On Germany, what seemed important at the time was that the Soviet Union agreed to a single administration for all the zones, thus apparently eliminating the possibility of disastrous friction between the occupying Powers. On the Far East, the concessions to Russia in Manchuria, Sakhalin and the Kuriles seemed justified not only because they insured Soviet military intervention in the war against Japan; these concessions also set limits to Soviet expansion in an area where there was no effective force to oppose Soviet expansion; finally, these concessions brought a Soviet promise to support the government of Chiang Kai-shek. When Molotov agreed to accept the American proposal that in the United Nations the veto should not be used in questions involving the peaceful adjustment of disputes, Mr. Roosevelt "felt that this was a great step forward" and Mr. Churchill echoed the President's words, adding that the decision "would bring joy and relief to the peoples of the world."[xiii]

Over and above concrete concessions, there were Marshal Stalin's repeated protestations of his determination to "create for the future generation such an organization as would secure peace for at least fifty years,"[xiv] and, in contrast to earlier exchanges between the Allied Governments, his disarming friendliness and apparent eagerness to continue the wartime coöperation into the years of peace which lay ahead. Even Mr. Churchill, whose detestation of Communism went back to 1917, was persuaded to hope that "we were all standing on the crest of a hill with the glories of future possibilities stretching before us," while Mr. Roosevelt felt that the atmosphere "was as that of a family, and it was in those words that he liked to characterize the relations that existed between our three countries."[xv]

Seldom in history has deception been so successful and so decisive as that perpetrated at Yalta by the Soviet leaders at the expense of Britain and the United States. Immediately after the conference closed, evidence began to accumulate that the Soviet promises were worthless. If the Americans alone had been deceived, one would be driven to conclude that they were deceived only because they were blind to the nature of their antagonists. Blind they certainly were. Nowhere in this volume is there anything which suggests that American statesmen were conscious that they were dealing, not with Russian national leaders, but with Communist revolutionaries determined to outwit and eventually destroy their allies, allies not from choice but because of the mad decision of Hitler to attack the Soviet Union.

Even those who urged a firmer policy in dealings with the U.S.S.R. did not make it clear that Russia was now, not a national state pursuing national interests, but the center of a revolutionary movement dedicated to the creation of a Communist world ruled from Moscow. General John R. Deane believed that for the United States always to be "at the same time the givers and the supplicants" was "neither dignified nor healthy for U.S. prestige." But he also believed "we have few conflicting interests, and there is little reason why we should not be friendly now and in the foreseeable future."[xvi] Ambassador Harriman shared General Deane's views on the need for tougher bargaining with the U.S.S.R., but he also felt strongly "that the sooner the Soviet Union can develop a decent life for its people the more tolerant they will become. . . . I am satisfied that the great urge of Stalin and his associates is to provide a better physical life for the Russian people, although they will retain a substantial military establishment."[xvii] Such statements did little to undermine the belief, dominant in Washington, that Russian and American interests were identical, and that the only problem was to bring the Soviet leaders to a recognition of this fact.

But it was not just the Americans who were deceived at Yalta. Churchill also was deceived, and that was indeed a triumph for Soviet duplicity, for Churchill's denunciations of "the foul baboonery of Bolshevism" are among the most magnificent examples of sustained invective in the English language. Here we touch the real root of Soviet success at Yalta: British and American consciousness of the consequences of failure to reach agreement with the Soviet Union. Churchill stated the case with his customary precision when he presented the Yalta agreements to the Commons: "I decline absolutely to embark here on a discussion about Russian good faith. It is quite evident that these matters touch the whole future of the world. Sombre indeed would be the fortunes of mankind if some awful schism arose between the Western democracies and the Russian Soviet Union."

That awful schism did arise. This volume makes abundantly clear that in 1944 and 1945 the American Government made an honest, a desperate, effort to secure Soviet friendship. At Yalta, the professions and promises of Stalin and Molotov convinced the American negotiators that Soviet friendship had been won, that Soviet good faith was assured. Almost immediately after Yalta the conviction was shaken, and slowly, much too slowly, it was destroyed by Soviet aggression. But if that honest and desperate effort had not been made at the outset it is hard to believe that we could now accept unflinchingly the tragically unfolding consequences of the schism between East and West.

The schism is not of our making. So much consolation we can derive from our failure at Yalta. Farther we need not go, and should not go.

[i] The pre-conference documents make untenable Mr. Byrnes' belief that Mr. Roosevelt "had made little preparation for the Yalta Conference," as well as the less directly stated suggestion that Mr. Roosevelt had no knowledge of the contents of the Briefing Book prepared for him by the Department of State (James F. Byrnes, "Speaking Frankly." New York: Harper, 1947, p. 23). The Briefing Book consisted of papers summarizing the status of the problems likely to be discussed at Yalta, and stating American policy, or making policy recommendations, on each problem. It is almost certainly true that Mr. Roosevelt did not read most of the papers. However, there is clear evidence that the main points of many of the papers were known to him, and that he was familiar with the policy statements or recommendations in most of the important papers. I have used the statements of policy as given in the Briefing Book only when it seems clear that the statement was, in fact, American official policy.

[ii] As only the galley proofs of the Yalta papers are available at this writing, and the precise title of the volume is uncertain, location of a paper within the volume can be given only by chapter and section within the chapter. The first quotation above is from a Briefing Book Paper on "United States Policy Toward Italy," printed in Chapter 2, section entitled "The Italian Cabinet Crisis;" the second is from a dispatch from Stettinius to Harriman, October 30, 1944, printed in Chapter 2, section entitled "Iran;" the third is from a Briefing Book Paper on "Liberated Countries," printed in Chapter 2, section entitled "Liberated Europe and Spheres of Influence."

[iii] February 9, 1945, Report of the Combined Chiefs of Staff to President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill, paragraph 18, printed in Chapter 8.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] December 30, 1944, Groves to Marshall. Printed in Chapter 2, section entitled "Entry of the Soviet Union Into the War Against Japan."

[vi] January 10, 1945, Harriman to Stettinius, printed in Chapter 4.

[vii] Briefing Book Papers on "Political and Military Situation in China in the Event the U.S.S.R. Enters the War in the Far East," and "Unity of Anglo-American-Soviet Policy Toward China," printed in Chapter 2, section entitled "China."

[viii] Ibid. It should be emphasized that the American objective was not simply to bring the U.S.S.R. into the war against Japan: "Russia's entry at as early a date as possible . . . is necessary to provide maximum assistance to our Pacific operations" (January 23, 1945, The Joint Chiefs of Staff to the President, printed in Chapter 2, section entitled "Entry of the Soviet Union Into the War Against Japan").

[ix] May 16, 1944, Leahy to Hull, printed in Chapter 2, section entitled "Liberated Europe and Spheres of Influence."

[x] Ibid.

[xi] January 4, 1954, Stettinius to Roosevelt, printed in Chapter 2, section entitled "The Rôle of France."

[xii] February 6, 1945, Meeting of the Combined Chiefs of Staff, printed in Chapter 8.

[xiii] February 7, 1945, Fourth Plenary Meeting, Bohlen Minutes, printed in Chapter 8.

[xiv] February 6, 1945, Third Plenary Meeting, Bohlen Minutes, printed in Chapter 8.

[xv] February 8, 1945, Tripartite Dinner Meeting, Bohlen Minutes, printed in Chapter 8.

[xvi] December 2, 1944, Deane to Marshall, printed in Chapter 4.

[xvii] January 6, 1945, Harriman to Stettinius, printed in Chapter 2, section entitled "Proposed United States Loan to the Soviet Union."

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  • RAYMOND J. SONTAG, Professor of History at the University of California; in charge of the German War Documents Project, Department of State, 1946-49; author of "European Diplomatic History" and Editor of "Documents on German Foreign Policy, 1918-45"
  • More By Raymond J. Sontag