For several generations of foreign-policy students, the term "Yalta" was a code word for an ailing President Roosevelt bartering into communist slavery Poland and other Eastern European nations. The undeniable evidence was that Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin treated many of the “agreements” painstakingly reached by FDR, Stalin and Winston Churchill in the Crimean city in February 1945 as worthless “promises” to be crumpled and tossed in the trash bin.
The conference at Yalta was a meeting between the three military powers: the USA, the USSR, and England. They were personified in Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill. The purpose of the meeting was to decide what to do with the nations of Europe once the war was over.
The Harvard Russian scholar S.M. Plokhy sums up the key lesson from the Yalta Conference in a telling phrase: "Democratic leaders and societies should be prepared to pay a price for close involvement with those who do not share their values." And indeed a heavy price was paid for what happened at Yalta.
The problem with the conference is that there was no way to enforce the agreements about the structure of post-war Europe, and there had never been an intention on Stalin's part of following through on his agreements. Stalin said whatever sounded nice, and signed whichever documents were prepared, but secretly intended to do very different things. Harvard's Professor Plokhy draws the general conclusions that free societies must be very careful when negotiating with totalitarian societies. Essentially, one can never develop a sense of trust in such negotiations.
In hindsight - always a good vantage point from which to examine history - the scenario for Yalta was preordained. The Red Army already held sway over a wide swath of Eastern Europe, and Stalin’s appetite for more territory appeared unsated. He was in no mood to bargain over the spoils he had in hand, declaring, "This war is not as in the past; whoever occupies a territory also imposes on it his own social system." Such is what he proceeded to do, without a glance at the peoples he subjugated under communism.
Stalin's armies already occupied much of eastern Europe, and he viewed such territory as his own, to do with as he pleased. Having murdered millions of citizens in his own country prior to the war in order to solidify his grasp on political power, he certainly would not let either human decency or diplomatic treaties affect his actions in occupied lands.
Thus we have Stalin blithely agreeing to negotiations over the postwar Polish state that would include both his hand-picked communists and a non-communist delegation that favored free elections leading towards democracy. When the latter group arrived in Warsaw, under a safe-conduct pass, the Soviet secret police promptly hauled them off to jail; several were shot. So much for Stalin's "word of honor."
Although the conference was held in 1945, many of the papers from it were not made public until the fall of Soviet Communism around 1990. The millions of pages of declassified documents required years of reading and research. History professors around the world are learning new facts about the Yalta conference, which helps us to understand this attempt to organize the post-war world. Some historians have thought that Roosevelt's failing health may have affected his ability to work, but Professor
Plokhy insists that the record shows no sign that Roosevelt's physical condition hampered his performance. Perhaps. But several factors should be considered. His blood pressure soared from 186/108 to 260/150 between March and November 1944. Physicians tried to restrict him to a four-hour "workday" (he refused). A hacking cough and abdominal pains made sleep difficult.
Even though we now have more information about the conference, it seems that we may never know the exact extent to which Roosevelt's health did, or did not, affect his ability to work. But we do know, now more than ever, that Stalin's Soviet Communism was based strictly on the desire to dominate other nations, and that Stalin saw murdering and lying as useful tools to get what he wanted.