February, 1945. The Allies were closing in on Berlin and World War II was drawing to a close. Of course, this wasn't the kind of victory where your opponent's territory and people were considered spoils of war and absorbed by the victors. Europe had to be restored. The conquests of the Nazi Party had to be restored, and the Axis Powers had to be disarmed somehow without repeating the kind of turmoil and economic ruin that gave rise to Adolf Hitler in the first place.
But no one country could decide how this would be done. All the Allies had made sacrifices during the war, but it was no secret that the United Kingdom, the United States and the USSR were the military powers primarily responsible for the coming victory. And so it was decided among their leaders that they should get together to decide what would happen to Europe when Germany was defeated. The location they agreed upon was the Livadia Palace in Yalta, a resort city on the southern coast of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula. The men who attended were the recognized leaders of the "Big Three": British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, American President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Soviet Premier Josef Stalin, along with members of their respective staffs.
They talked from February 4 to 11, working out the general details of Europe's restoration. Everyone there knew everyone else's place: while the British population had suffered much and contributed much to the effort, the Soviets had lost the most and had the least help on their eastern front. The United States' economic might had been instrumental to the Allied victory, but their location meant they had suffered the fewest losses and only one attack on their own territory. The US and the UK were allies with a common background, politically opposed to the USSR's communist government. Each country owed a debt to the other two in this war.
In the end, five major issues were agreed upon:
- The United Nations would be established and would convene for the first time in the US on April 25, 1945. Its permanent Security Council would consist of the US, UK, USSR, China, and France, with all other seats being transitory. The USSR's Ukraine and Belorussia would each receive their own seats.
- The Atlantic Charter was reaffirmed, liberating all the nations Nazi Germany had conquered and restoring their governments.
- Upon its surrender, Germany would be occupied in four sections by the US, UK, USSR, and France (once it was restored). Each country would be responsible for disarming that part of Germany under its control. Fifty percent of all reparitions would go to the USSR.
- Poland, which was liberated by the USSR from Germany, would be divided along the Curzon Line about halfway through the former nation's territory, with the eastern half being added to Russia and the western half being restored to independence. Democratic elections would be held there as soon as possible.
- The USSR would join the other Allies in the war against Japan within three months, in exchange for certain islands and lands in east Asia.
Not all of these agreements were documented, and none of them were made public until long after the war was over. Poland was the stickiest issue of all. American criticism of Roosevelt was pronounced, claiming he had sold out to the Soviets over Poland and eastern Germany. But in his own words, "I didn't say the result was good. I said it was the best I could do." The USSR was a real power to be reckoned with, and the US and UK couldn't pretend they had the upper hand against them.
Nevertheless, Stalin didn't completely live up to his promises. Germany surrendered about three months after the Yalta Conference, on May 8. It so happened that the war with Japan was won, thanks to the dropping of the atomic bomb, just under three months after that on August 6, saving the Soviets the trouble of actually joining the combat once they declared war on August 8. Poland's free elections were never held. Roosevelt never saw these results himself, however -- his polio finally took his life on April 12, leaving Harry S Truman to finish the war in Japan for him.
The Potsdam Conference in July of that year cemented many of the decisions begun at Yalta, but it was unable to undo any of its perceived mistakes. The USSR had begun the expanse of communism into eastern Europe with the reluctant permission of the western democracies. As a result, this conference is generally regarded as the start of the Cold War between the US and the USSR.