Yalta was chosen because Stalin would not travel outside Russia. Churchill noted that ‘‘if we had spent 10 years on research, we could not have found a worse place in the world’’. The meetings themselves took place in the Livadia Palace, the summer residence of the Tsar before the revolution, where Roosevelt also stayed. Every room was fitted with listening devices by the Russians, who also had advance knowledge of the Allied agenda from their high-level agents in the British and American bureaucracies.
Some of the major issues on the agenda were how the occupation of Germany would be managed, what reparations might be demanded from the Germans and the question of trials for war crimes. Roosevelt’s two priorities were the establishment of the United Nations after the war and persuading Stalin to assist in subduing Japan, given the huge estimates for the loss of American lives in an invasion of the Japanese mainland. This gave Stalin a high card to play and he used it to great effect.
One item not on the agenda was the killing of millions of civilians, many of them Jews, already carried out by the Germans, particularly in extermination camps that the Allies had known about for some time but were almost afraid to acknowledge. Nor was the work being done on the development of the atom bomb by the British and Americans mentioned at the conference, although Stalin was well aware of this work from a number of Russian spies in the laboratories where the work was going on.
Each of the leaders was accompanied by a large contingent of political, military and diplomatic advisors. All these participants were fuelled by elaborate dinners, sometimes with 20 courses and 45 toasts, despite the fact that most of those in the surrounding Crimea region, and in much of Europe generally, were on the verge of starvation. These dinners were served with china and cutlery hastily removed from those hotels in Moscow that ran to such luxuries. A pall of smoke hung over the whole proceedings, not least from Roosevelt’s cigarettes, Churchill’s cigars and Stalin’s pipe.
Perhaps the most contentious issue at the conference was the future of Poland and the book details the implacable refusal of the Russians to move on this question. There was, however, something of an academic quality to all this because Poland was one of the countries in eastern Europe under effective Soviet occupation.
Churchill and Roosevelt tried to extract an agreement from Stalin that there would be free elections in Poland at the end of the war but they knew this would never happen. There was a particular irony in Poland’s fate, given that its invasion by Germany in September 1939 had been the trigger for Britain’s original declaration of war on Germany.
Although the great criticism of Yalta has been that it acceded to the Soviet domination of Poland and those other countries of eastern Europe that became Russian satellites after the war, this was a consequence not of the conference but of the war itself that left Russian forces in control of that region. Churchill was under no illusions about the future and wrote to his wife at this time: ‘‘The misery of the whole world appals me and I fear increasingly that new struggles may arise out of those we are successfully ending.’’