Seventy-five years ago, during the week of February 4-11, 1945, the most important Allied conference during the Second World War was held at Yalta on the Crimean Peninsula in the Soviet Union, between U.S. president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, British prime minister, Winston Churchill, and Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin. Their decisions determined the fate of tens of millions of people around the world, with important residues remaining even today three-quarters of a century later.
For eight years, beginning in 1937, the battle lines of war had been engulfing much of Asia, most of Europe, parts of Africa, and even touched the shores of North America. As many as 50 million people may have died in this devastating global firestorm of conflict. The war also marked a descent into a nightmare of human barbarism. The Nazis slaughtered millions whom they classified as “racial vermin.” Those innocent human beings were to be eradicated from the face of the earth in a deluded pursuit of engineering a “master race.” Never had humanity witnessed such a magnitude of designed madness.
By the beginning of 1945 it became increasingly clear that both Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan would be defeated, and the agony of war would finally end. The weary world longed for peace, security, and freedom. The future, everyone understood, was in the hands of the political leaders of the victorious United States, Great Britain, and Soviet Union. During that week of February 4–11, 1945, the Big Three met at Yalta to map out the postwar world.
Churchill and Roosevelt
Winston Churchill was in the weakest position of the three. He had led the British people through four years of war, standing alone for a year against the Nazi war machine after the fall of France in June 1940. Britain was financially and militarily exhausted by 1945. Thus, FDR and Stalin were really the ones to determine mankind’s destiny.
Roosevelt, though in poor health, had just been elected for an unprecedented fourth presidential term. His New Deal policies, beginning in 1933, brought about a colossal expansion in Federal power, spending, regulation, and control over virtually every facet of American life. Despite a setback in 1935, when the U.S. Supreme Court declared most of his economic planning schemes unconstitutional, FDR continued on the path of Big Government through a vast array of interventionist and welfare-state policies. He had transformed the traditional American Republic almost beyond recognition.
When war came, first in Asia between Japan and China beginning in July 1937, and then in Europe following the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, FDR took on a new mantle of authority: New Deal savior of the world. Violating numerous neutrality acts that the Congress had passed and which he had signed, Roosevelt bent the Constitution to edge America toward war long before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
The Brutal World of Joseph Stalin
Stalin felt stronger than ever at the Yalta conference. In the eyes of Western leftists, the Soviet Union offered the hope of a bright socialist tomorrow, where toiling workers ruled in place of capitalist profit mongers, and want and worry were to be vanished through the miracle of government central planning. In the early 1930s, FDR said that he admired the fact that the Soviet people “all seem really to want to do what is good for their society instead of [like Americans] wanting to do for themselves.” In 1945, when he came back from the Yalta Conference, the President told members of his cabinet that he found in Stalin’s nature “the way in which a Christian gentleman should behave.”
This “Christian gentleman” was in fact Hitler’s competitor in brutality and mass murder in the 20th century. A bank robber on behalf of the Russian socialist movement before the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, Stalin proved a master of political intrigue. After Lenin’s death in 1924 he succeeded in destroying all of his rivals and rose to absolute power in the Soviet Communist Party and government.
He let nothing stand in his way of implementing the socialist society. Ordering comprehensive central planning and total collectivization of the land in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Stalin quashed all peasant resistance through forced famines, torture, terror, and exile to the vast wastelands of Siberia and Soviet Central Asia. Between 9 and 12 million people perished in the process of imposing the collective farming system.
In the mid-1930s he turned his ruthless power against imaginary “enemies of the people.” Mass purges and show trials sent millions of new victims to their deaths, after “confessions” had been beaten out of them. At one point, Stalin instructed the KGB interrogators to beat their victims, again and again, until they came crawling on their stomachs with their confessions between their teeth. Millions more were sent to the forced labor camps of the GULAG to work and die as expendable slaves for “building socialism.”
After Hitler came to power in 1933, the Nazi and Soviet regimes used their propaganda machines to condemn each other. But in fact, the two dictators learned from and secretly admired each other. After Hitler purged his rivals for power within the Nazi movement in the summer of 1934, known as the “Night of the Long Knives,” through murders and arrests, Stalin came into a meeting of his inner circle of subordinates in the Kremlin, slapped down a copy of a Soviet newspaper reporting the events in Germany, and said, “That Hitler knows how to take care of his enemies.” Stalin soon let loose his own executions, purges and show trials around the Soviet Union, clearly with Hitler’s model in mind as an inspiration.
Using Hitler as a Means to Soviet Ends
For Stalin, Hitler was a useful tool to start a Second World War, which Stalin wanted to trigger “inevitable” revolutions that would bring communism to power throughout Europe. Lenin believed that World War I served as the catalyst for weakening the “capitalist nations” through conflict among themselves. Out of their war with each other came the opportunity for a socialist revolution and the overthrow of the property-owning “exploiters.” The proof of this, according to Lenin, was shown by the success of his Bolsheviks coming to power in Russia in 1917 and maintaining their control over one-sixth of the landmass of the world when the war was over.
Stalin accepted Lenin’s view and believed that another equally exhausting new world war among those capitalist nations would enable the socialist revolution to be extended all the way across the European continent. In a secret speech before Communist Party members in January 1925, Stalin said that the Soviet Union would not be able to stay out of a future war in Europe; but when action was taken by the USSR it should be at the end of the conflict to tip the scales toward an outcome favorable for socialist world revolution.
That’s why Stalin was open to entering into the diplomacy with Germany that led to the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of August 1939, which freed Hitler from the fear of a two-front war. The infamous pact contained a secret protocol that divided Poland between the villains and handed the Baltic States and parts of Finland and Romania over to Stalin’s “tender care,” in the event of a war breaking out.
Indeed, shortly before the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, Stalin delivered a secret speech in which he said:
“Comrades! It is in the interest of the USSR, the Land of the Toilers, that war breaks out between the [Nazi] Reich and the capitalist Anglo-French bloc. Everything must be done so that the war lasts as long as possible in order that both sides become exhausted. Namely for this reason we must agree to the pact proposed by Germany and use it so that once this war is declared, it will last for a maximum amount of time.”
Thus, in Stalin’s mind, Hitler’s drive for a Europe dominated by Nazi Germany was in fact a tool for him to use for advancing the global cause of communism. By freeing Hitler of the fear of a two-front war, Nazi Germany would invade Poland, the British and French might then declare war on Germany, and a prolonged war in central and western Europe would drain the capitalist nations, while leaving the Soviet Union neutral in the world conflict. This would enable Stalin to continue to build up Soviet military power, enter the war at a time of his own choosing, and bring communism to Europe through use of the Red Army.
But the collapse of France in June 1940 changed the configuration of forces and the likely length of the war. Hitler attempted to draw Stalin actively into the Axis alliance against the British Empire in November 1940 during a meeting in Berlin with the Soviet foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov. When that failed because Stalin’s price for participation was higher than Hitler was willing to pay, the Nazi leader ordered the plans to be set in motion for the invasion of the USSR in the spring of 1941.
That became Hitler’s fatal mistake, because in spite of the initial and dramatic Nazi advances into Soviet Russia following the invasion in June 1941, the Germans were stopped by the Red Army within miles of the Kremlin in Moscow in December 1941. And the renewed lightning advances the following year that brought the German Army to the Volga River at Stalingrad was the death knell of Hitler’s hope for victory when the Soviets enveloped and crushed the surrounded German forces during the winter of 1942-1943.
Stalin and the Spoils of Victory
Now, in February 1945, Stalin sat down with FDR at Yalta to gain the spoils of victory that he had dreamt about since his deal with Hitler in 1939. The job was made much easier for Stalin since, as the partly opened Soviet archives revealed in the 1990s, FDR’s government was riddled with Soviet agents and fellow travelers who passed along all of Roosevelt’s plans. In addition, the villa where FDR and the American delegation were staying at Yalta was completely bugged by the Soviet secret police.
A cornerstone of Stalin’s agenda was the destruction of Germany as a future political and military adversary, as a way for spreading communism to the rest of Europe. Germany was territorially dismembered with almost one-third of its eastern lands being annexed by Poland and the Soviet Union. (Stalin also kept almost all of the Polish territory he had gained in 1939 following the Nazi-Soviet partition of that country.)
What remained of Germany was divided into zones of occupation, with the Soviet zone reaching far into the center of Europe. Austria, too, was divided into occupation zones. In both cases, Berlin and Vienna were isolated islands in Soviet-controlled territory, leaving the American, British, and French zones in these cities at the mercy of surrounding Soviet forces. At the end of the war Stalin immediately stripped the Soviet zone of all undestroyed industrial equipment and began the process of establishing a puppet communist regime in what later became East Germany.
Ever the master manipulator, Stalin promised Roosevelt and Churchill at Yalta free and open elections in the Eastern European countries “liberated” by the Soviet Army. But Stalin had other plans. Two months after the Yalta Conference, he told a Yugoslavian communist delegation visiting Moscow that, “This war is not as in the past; whoever occupies a territory also imposes on it his own social system. Everyone imposes his own system as far as his army can reach.”
Indeed, over the next three years Stalin’s secret police assisted the Moscow-controlled communist parties in Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, and Czechoslovakia to set up “people’s democracies” through the usual means: repression, imprisonment and murder. Thus was created the Soviet Empire of Eastern European “captive nations,” as they came to be known.
While the war raged in Europe, the United States and Britain were also pushing back the Japanese in Southeast Asia and across the Pacific Islands at great loss of life following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Stalin, on the other hand, remained all this time at peace with Japan, having signed a non-aggression pact with Tokyo in April 1941.
The Soviet archives demonstrate that Stalin desired a war between the United States and Japan. He believed that the chaos of such a conflict would ripen the conditions for communist revolutions in Asia. Soviet foreign minister Molotov said in a message to the Soviet ambassador in Tokyo in 1940 that it was not in the interest of the Soviet Union for there to be an early end to the war between China and Japan, because “it might destroy our work proceeding among the suppressed peoples of Asia, and . . . it would not instigate the Japanese-American war which we desire.”
Soviet Booty in Asia
At Yalta, Stalin offered to enter the war against the Japanese three months after Germany was defeated – but only at a price. He demanded the Soviet annexation of the Japanese-controlled southern half of Sakhalin Island (with its oil fields) and the strategic Kurile Islands, north of the Japanese home islands. He also insisted that the Japanese military base at Port Arthur at the southern tip of Manchuria be transferred to Soviet control (Japan had acquired it in 1905 after the Russian defeat in the Russo-Japanese war). Finally, Stalin claimed Soviet jurisdiction over several of the major railway lines running through Manchuria. He insisted on all this booty in Manchuria without the Chinese government’s prior knowledge or approval.
The Big Three also agreed to divide Korea (which had been under Japanese control for half a century) along the 38th parallel into Soviet and American zones of occupation. When the war ended, Stalin started establishing a communist regime in North Korea. The Soviet archives confirm that Stalin also approved and helped plan North Korea’s invasion of South Korea in June 1950, which dragged the United States into a three-year war on the Korean peninsula at the cost of 50,000 American lives.
Soviet forces attacked the Japanese in Manchuria immediately after America dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in August 1945. At virtually no cost, Stalin gained control over a vast area of northeast Asia. Shortly after the Soviet Army overran Manchuria, Stalin had the industrial facilities of this part of China stripped and shipped to Siberia.
After the Japanese surrender, the Red Czar allowed Mao Zedong’s communist guerrilla forces to enter Manchuria. The Soviet Army proceeded to turn over vast quantities of captured Japanese military equipment to the Chinese communists, helping to assure Mao’s eventual victory on the Chinese mainland after defeating the Republican government of China in 1949.
FDR Viewed Stalin and Himself as the “Whole Works”
How did Roosevelt feel about determining the fate of the world with Stalin? FDR told a confidant,
“What helps a lot is that Stalin is the only man I have to convince. Joe doesn’t worry about a Congress or a Parliament. He is the whole works.”
Roosevelt acted in the same, near-dictatorial manner; the Yalta agreements determining the future of countries and continents were all signed by FDR on the basis of executive power.
In explaining the agreement to a joint session of Congress after returning from Yalta, Roosevelt said the future of Poland had been “agreed to by Russia, by Britain, and by me,” even though in his negotiations with Russia and Britain, “I didn’t agree with all of it,” and did not always “go as far as I want in certain areas.” [emphasis added] U.S. diplomacy and political commitments affecting American citizens and taxpayers had become synonymous in FDR’s mind with the personal pronouns of “me” and “I”.
He added and assured the country: “I come from the Crimean Conference, my fellow Americans with a firm belief that we have made a good start on the road to a world of peace.” For far too long, he also stated, Americans had been afraid of the word “planning.” FDR insisted that “many benefits to the human race have been accomplished as a result of adequate, intelligent [government] planning.” He was confident that the Yalta Conference had laid the “groundwork of a plan” for a new world order.
FDR: The Global Planner
That “plan” was the creation of the United Nations. For the establishment of the UN, Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave Joseph Stalin virtually everything the tyrant wanted. Everything would work out all right, because as FDR told a former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, William Bullitt, “If I give him [Stalin] everything I possibly can and ask nothing from him in return, noblesse oblige – he won’t try to annex anything and will work with me for a world of democracy and peace.” Lost in the clouds of his self-made Olympian heights, FDR could not imagine that Stalin – the “Christian gentleman” – might see the world differently than himself.
The UN, controlled by the United States and the Soviet Union, along with Great Britain, France and China, was to become the policeman of the world. FDR envisioned America’s participation in a project of global social engineering, which would set the world right through economic sanctions and military force. What this might cost in American lives and material fortune never seemed to enter Roosevelt’s mind. Nor did he appear to have second thoughts that giving the world a New Deal might result in further losses of liberty at home. No, FDR did not worry about these “minor” matters. After all, he had Stalin as his imagined partner for making and managing a “better world.”
Seventy-five years have now passed since that fateful meeting at Yalta. Stalin, who helped Hitler start the Second World War, reaped his reward at the end of it: Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, at the cost of terror and tyranny for all the people who were forced to live in the “socialist paradise” for almost half a century following the end of the war in 1945. The people of North Korea, also swept up in the communist net, still live under it. The triumph of communism in China was also helped along by the Yalta agreement, with the huge population of that vast country placed under the yoke of Mao’s murderous regime.
Stalin died in 1953. Thirty-eight years later, at the end of 1991, the Soviet Empire disappeared from the map of the world. Yet the legacy of the Yalta Conference still haunts us. Many of the conflicts around the world today are outgrowths of the political, economic, and moral destruction that Soviet communism left in its wake. It also fostered a belief that governments can plan the peace and happiness of mankind, if only they have the power to direct our lives and to militarily try to play policeman of the world. The task for friends of freedom in the remainder of the 21st century is to finally free ourselves from this legacy.
Made available by the American Institute for Economic Research.