On 4–11 February 1945, Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin convened secretly at the Black Sea resort of Yalta in what proved to be the last meeting of the “Big Three” of World War II.
With Nazi Germany collapsing, the Yalta conference focused upon postwar reconstruction plans for Europe, the formation of a new international organization, and the military defeat of Japan. Shrouded in military secrecy and driven by the imperative of getting the Soviet Union to enter the war against Japan, the Yalta agreements generated only mild controversy in 1945.
However, as the cold war intensified and the Truman administration embraced the policy of containment, conservative critics in the Republican Party began to brand Yalta as the appeasement of communism, suggesting that Roosevelt, under the influence of advisers such as Alger Hiss who were positively disposed toward communism and the Soviet Union, had conceded too much to Stalin.
The 1952 Republican platform called for the repudiation of “all commitments contained in secret understandings such as those of Yalta which aid Communist enslavements.” Rather than a diplomatic agreement, Yalta was in the eyes of anticommunists such as Senator Joseph McCarthy evidence of the Communist conspiracy to infiltrate the U.S. government.
The Yalta accords called for the Soviet Union to attack Japan within three months after the defeat of Germany. Stalin also agreed to self-determination for the areas of Eastern Europe, such as Poland, which the Soviet army had already “liberated.”
Chiang Kaishek was recognized as the leader of China in the struggle against Japan, but the Soviet Union was granted joint control of China’s Manchurian railroads, providing the Soviets a voice in the postwar governance of Korea and Manchuria.
In exchange for Stalin’s pledge to enter the war against Japan, the Soviets were promised the southern half of Sakhalin Island, lost in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, and Japan’s Kurile Islands. The “Big Three” also committed their nations to the formation of the United Nations, reserving veto powers for themselves as permanent members of the Security Council.
An ailing and tired Roosevelt returned to the United States and remained seated while addressing Congress, arguing that the agreements made with the Soviets deserved the support of the nation.
Initially, Yalta appeared to enjoy bipartisan support, and influential publications such as Time announced that no U.S. citizen could claim that his nation’s interests had been “sold down the river.”
Perhaps the adroit Roosevelt might have maintained the initial enthusiasm, but, following his death from a stroke on 12 April 1945, international relations between the United States and Soviet Union rapidly deteriorated.
Stalin and President Harry Truman clashed at Potsdam in July 1945, while the successful testing of the atomic bomb in New Mexico rendered unnecessary any Soviet participation in an invasion of Japan.
As the cold war intensified in the late 1940s, critics of the Yalta conference conveniently forgot military estimates of heavy casualties that would result from an invasion of the Japanese home islands. Republicans, seeking to attract votes from those of Eastern European ancestry, seized upon Yalta as a betrayal of Poland by the Roosevelt and Truman administrations.
The emergence of China as a Communist state in 1949 led to assertions that Yalta had betrayed Chinese democracy. Yalta critics also concentrated upon the conviction of Alger Hiss for perjury following the 1948 appearance by Whittaker Chambers before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).
Chambers accused Hiss, who had been an adviser to Secretary of State Edward Stettinius, Jr., at Yalta, of engaging in espionage for the Soviet Union. Alleging treason, Senator McCarthy and his supporters focused upon how Hiss influenced a “physically tired and mentally sick Roosevelt.”
Allegations of Democratic “softness” on communism played a role in the election of a Republican Congress and president in 1952. Once in power, the Republican administration of Dwight Eisenhower embraced containment rather than the “rollback” of communism.
The more extreme voices of Republican dissent were marginalized in March 1955 with publication of the Yalta papers, demonstrating that no new secret agreements existed and documenting that Hiss played only a minor role at the Crimean conference.
It was difficult to charge a Republican administration with a “whitewash” report, and the Senate censure of Senator McCarthy and negotiations between the Soviets and United States further undermined the conspiracy interpretations of the Yalta accords.
While the fervor of Yalta as a partisan issue declined after 1955, allegations of Communist conspiracy, fueled by misconceptions of the Yalta agreement, continued to be a mainstay of U.S. politics into the 1980s.