They could justifiably feel pride in a few of the results. The “Big Three” agreed to meet in San Francisco to establish an international organization that would secure the peace in the postwar world. They decided to divide Germany into four occupation zones, won a commitment from Stalin to enter the Pacific War once Germany had surrendered, and pledged themselves to oversee free and fair elections in war-torn Europe.
But within two years, much of Yalta’s promise had crumbled. FDR died in April 1945. By that summer, Churchill had lost his seat as prime minister. And a Cold War that set the United States against the Soviet Union had commenced by 1947. It was in the late 1940s that the Yalta summit, in the eyes of some American critics, began to assume its more sinister connotations, a record of treachery and ineptitude. A summit that had once raised hopes of building a better world, grounded in Western democratic ideals and values such as liberty and the right to national self-determination, turned into a source of recriminations over America’s inability to thwart a tyranny that was just as evil as Nazism.
The latest book to tackle this most infamous of summits is Diana Preston’s “Eight Days at Yalta,” a colorful chronicle of high-stakes negotiations and a study in human frailties, missteps and ideological blinders. Yalta has long been seen as “a symbol of lost opportunity” and “a milestone on the road to the ‘lost peace,’ ” in the words of historian S.M. Plokhy. The American right lashed out at Roosevelt’s alleged treachery, as hard-liners charged that a dying FDR had sold out Eastern Europe to communist slavery. Alger Hiss, a Russian spy who was a U.S. political attache at Yalta, fed the Russians information that enabled them to dupe the Americans, these critics also said.
By the late ’50s and ’60s, a generation of New Left historians found other faults with Roosevelt’s record at Yalta that had set the stage for the Cold War. Revisionists claimed that by keeping progress on the atomic bomb secret from Stalin, FDR and Churchill fostered mistrust that later triggered a nuclear arms race between the two superpowers. And the United States was the aggressor in the war’s aftermath, violating Yalta’s terms and leaving “the Soviet Union with no alternative than to substitute unilateral action for a policy of cooperation, which they had hoped for, but which had never emerged — except briefly, at Yalta,” historian Diane Shaver Clemens claimed in her influential 1970 account of the summit.
Preston’s book provides a blow-by-blow recounting of each side’s strategies, arguments and maneuvers during the negotiations, and the author ultimately seems to stake out a kind of middle ground in her assessments. Her analysis of Roosevelt’s and Churchill’s record at Yalta is more charitable than the judgments of conservative politicians and some New Left historians. FDR was extremely ill, Preston notes, but he was still effective; he understood that Russian troops dominated most of Eastern Europe. He focused on persuading Stalin to commit troops to the Pacific War to spare American lives and speed the end of the conflict in Asia, and prioritized establishing an international organization that could prevent the outbreak of a third world war. Churchill was single-minded in his focus on preserving the empire and failed to win “concessions more crucial for Britain’s future,” Preston argues.
Preston depicts Stalin as a brutal, wily interlocutor whose chief aim was to establish a security buffer to Russia’s west. Stalin understood that his dominant military position gave him a crucial advantage (“whoever occupies a territory also imposes on it his own social system,” he observed). Although FDR and Churchill wished to liberate Eastern Europeans from tyranny, they were constrained by the military facts on the ground. They knew that their war-weary publics would not stomach a fight with the Soviet Union, and they were sympathetic to the estimated 26 million Soviet citizens who had died in the war.
“Eight Days at Yalta” provides an engrossing chronicle of the human foibles and miscalculations that marred the summit and influenced the shape of the postwar world. It is at once a record of soaring idealism and the military, ideological and economic conflicts among the Allied powers as they sought a final conquest over fascist militarism.
At times, however, one wishes that Preston stated her views about the summit’s legacy more forcefully. Although the details add color and make the story fun to read, they sometimes seem to be randomly cobbled together, and it’s not always clear how some of them are relevant to the summit’s outcome and legacy, or to the story she’s trying to tell. Do we really need to know in a book about Yalta, for example, that Churchill was “not highly sexed” and therefore probably stayed faithful to his wife; or that a Women’s Royal Naval Service officer “urgently needed a lavatory stop” as the British motorcade rumbled over mountain roads toward Yalta?
Nevertheless, “Eight Days at Yalta” is a smart chronicle of personal miscalculations and structural constraints — physiological, military and ideological — that shaped the war’s end and curtailed what was possible to achieve in its aftermath. A moment of hope amid global carnage became, if not necessarily a guarantee of a “lost peace,” a bittersweet end to history’s bloodiest conflict.
How Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin Shaped the Post-War World
By Diana Preston
398 pp. $28