Conference of the Big Three at Yalta makes final plans for the defeat of Germany. Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Premier Josef Stalin." February 1945.
Credit: Image courtesy of the National Archives.
By the beginning of 1944, victory in Europe was all but assured. The task of diplomacy largely involved efforts to define the structure of the postwar world. Among the salient issues with which allied diplomatists grappled were the fate of the Eastern European nations, the future of Germany, and the establishment of a new international organization to replace the League of Nations. Behind them all was the problem of whether the liberal, democratic West and the Marxist, totalitarian Soviet Union could continue to coexist as allies. Throughout modern history, former Grand Alliances—including the ones that defeated Germany in World War I, Napoleon's France in the early nineteenth century, and Britain in the age of the American Revolution—had come apart once they had served their purpose. President Roosevelt and large numbers of the American people believed that the World War II Grand Alliance would have a different future.
At the end of 1943, in the wake of the Tehran Conference, the Grand Alliance appeared more united and effective than ever. British efforts to initiate major new military operations in the Mediterranean were rejected by the United States. Instead huge quantities of men and materiel poured into England during the first half of 1944 in preparation for the invasion of Western Europe. On the Eastern Front, the Red Army steadily pushed the Germans back. On June 6, 1944 (D-Day), only a month behind the original schedule, British and American forces landed on the beaches of Normandy. The Soviet Union responded with its own promised major offensive. In late July, American troops liberated Paris.
Military victory also produced difficult problems. Russian troops surged into prewar eastern Poland, and the USSR established a pro-Soviet government at Lublin. When the Red Army massed across the Vistula River from Warsaw, Polish partisans within the old capital began a major uprising against the German occupiers. Realizing that the partisans wanted to reestablish an independent Poland with its 1939 boundaries, Stalin ordered his generals to cease offensive operations. Given free rein by the USSR for two months, the Germans destroyed the uprising.
Further south, the Soviets advanced with much more dispatch. One by one, Germany's satellite allies and puppet regimes in Eastern Europe either surrendered or were overwhelmed. At the end of 1944, most of the region was under firm Soviet military occupation with civilian administrations installed by the Red Army. This situation, if made permanent, would constitute a major affront to the ideals that both American and British leaders had invoked to justify the war. Moreover, it represented a potential threat to Britain's Mediterranean interests.
Conferring with Stalin in Moscow (October, 1944), Churchill proposed the division of southeastern Europe into Soviet and British spheres of influence. Russia would have predominance in Rumania and Bulgaria, the British in Greece, which historically had been an area of British hegemony. The two countries would have joint 50-50 influence in Hungary and Yugoslavia. Stalin quickly accepted the deal. It is unlikely that he ever intended to give the British much of a voice in the 50-50 countries, but he would refrain from sending Soviet troops into Greece, where Britain would establish itself in early 1945. The Churchill-Stalin agreement excluded Poland and Czechoslovakia; scribbled on a piece of note paper, the accord was never formalized. The United States never recognized it. Indeed, it would have been a serious political liability for Roosevelt, campaigning for his fourth term as it was negotiated.
The formal U.S. tool for a new world order was a United Nations Organization, which would replace the old League of Nations and provide an inclusive democratic front for the four great powers that Roosevelt hoped would police the world. It began to take shape at the Dumbarton Oaks conference in Washington, DC (August 21-October 7, 1944), and would become a reality after the end of the war in Europe at the San Francisco conference (April 25-June 26, 1945). The United States invested enormous amounts of hope and moral prestige in the organization. So did much of British public opinion.
Another important aspect of the American postwar design was the establishment of an international monetary system to stabilize major national currencies and thereby facilitate international trade. Along with this, an International Bank for Reconstruction and Development would fund postwar reconstruction and development. These mechanisms were established at the Bretton Woods Conference in New Hampshire in July, 1944. The creations of Dumbarton Oaks and Bretton Woods were institutional representations of a Wilsonian liberal vision that defined peace in terms of democratic nations settling disputes multilaterally and engaging in the business of peaceful trade rather than aggressive war.
A final issue of increasing urgency was the future treatment of Germany. At the second Quebec Conference (September, 1944), Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr., argued for the deindustrialization of Germany and its transformation wholly into an agricultural state. Churchill, among others, objected that in practice the result would be mass starvation and genocide. Roosevelt, at first favorably inclined, backed away as details leaked to the public during the presidential campaign. All the same, American policy makers never formulated any clear alternative to Morgenthau's vision. Agreements among the Big Three on reparations and occupation policy immediately after the war would be in fact loosely consistent with it.
Many of these issues would reemerge at the Yalta Conference (February, 1945), the second and final meeting of the "Big Three" leaders—Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin. (The conference decisions on issues relating to the war in the Pacific and the Far East will be covered in Lesson Plan 4 of this unit.) With Soviet troops pushing into eastern Germany and US-British forces fighting in the border areas of western Germany, the end of the war was in sight. European decisions took on a special urgency.
Poland was the critical test case. The conferees reaffirmed the decision—first reached at the Tehran Conference—that Poland's eastern boundary would be relocated to the west. They further agreed that the Poles would receive German territory in compensation, but did not precisely specify the new Polish western boundary. They also agreed that the pro-Soviet Polish government established at Lublin would be reorganized to give representation to all democratic Polish factions. World War II had started with the Nazi invasion of Poland, giving both the United States and Great Britain a special interest in that nation's reestablishment as a liberal-democratic state. The large Polish-American vote in the United States underscored that interest in a way that no American political leader could ignore.
Poland was equally a test case for the rest of Eastern Europe and here also various ethnic voting blocs in the United States could not be disregarded. The conference issued a Declaration on Liberated Europe, promising representative governments and free elections but providing no specific procedures or timelines.
Another contentious issue was that of German reparations. The Soviets wanted huge payments from Germany on top of whatever "war booty" they seized. The US and Britain both felt that the issue of German reparations had destabilized the world politically and economically after World War I. The conference established a commission to study the problem.
Finally, the three leaders seemed to reach agreement on voting and discussion procedures for the new United Nations Security Council. Roosevelt and Churchill also secretly assented to separate UN membership for the two Soviet "republics" most ravaged by the war—Byelorussia and the Ukraine.
Despite President Roosevelt's upbeat report on Yalta to Congress and the American people, key agreements, especially those pertaining to Poland, quickly unwound. Roosevelt's sudden death (April 12, 1945) complicated the situation. His successor, Harry S. Truman, demanded Soviet compliance on the promise of democratic politics in Poland. Faced with the arrest of Polish leaders and Soviet questioning of UN voting procedures at the San Francisco conference, Truman sent Harry Hopkins to Moscow to meet with Stalin. Hopkins could not undo the increasing Soviet dominance in Poland, but he did achieve Stalin's agreement to go ahead with the establishment of the United Nations. By then, the USSR was also moving to control other nations covered by the Declaration on Liberated Europe.
The final Big Three meeting (Potsdam, July 17-August 2, 1945) would achieve resolution of none of these issues, although its closing communiqué put as good a face as possible on the results. A decade later, Europe would be divided between a Western Bloc with the United States and Britain at its core (NATO) and a Soviet Bloc (the Warsaw Pact). (See 1956 map of Europe, accessible via the EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Public Library.) One can only ponder whether the Grand Alliance might somehow have endured after the war with different leadership, or was naturally fated to dissolve in the manner of the many victorious alliances of the past.
Review the lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and links from EDSITEment-reviewed websites used in this lesson. Download and print out selected documents and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing. Alternatively, excerpted versions of these documents are available as part of the downloadable PDF.
Download the Text Document for this lesson, available here as a PDF. This file contains excerpted versions of the documents used in the first and second activities, as well as questions for students to answer. Print out and make an appropriate number of copies of the handouts you plan to use in class.
If your students lack experience in dealing with primary sources, you might use one or more preliminary exercises to help them develop these skills. The Learning Page at the American Memory Project of the Library of Congress includes a set of such activities. Another useful resource is the Digital Classroom of the National Archives, which features a set of Document Analysis Worksheets.
In order to do this activity, students will need to be familiar with the principles to which the members of the Grand Alliance were committed by formal agreement in these two core documents:
If students have already completed Lesson 1 of this series (See the Unit "American Diplomacy during World War II," Lesson 1, "How 'Grand" and 'Allied' was the Grand Alliance?"), they may move on to the next step. If not, they can read the two documents and answer the Activity #2 worksheet ("Goals of the Grand Alliance") from Lesson 1 either in class or as homework. In any event, the class should discuss—either for the first time or by way of a quick review—these formal commitments made by the members of the Grand Alliance before beginning the analysis of the other documents.
Students will read and then analyze documents by filling out a "Document Analysis Chart," each focused on one of four questions, and each with categories that will guide students as to what information to look for and how to organize it. These charts are available on pages 3-6 of the Text Document that accompanies this lesson. An "Other" category will allow students and teachers to come up with additional categories if they wish. A "Table of Documents" is included on pages 1-2 of the Text Document for distribution to students. It numbers and lists documents (single documents or groups of related documents) in chronological order and notes which documents relate to which of the four questions. Note that, because document #12—The Berlin (Potsdam) Conference, July 17-August 2, 1945 (a) Protocol of the Proceedings, August l, 1945 is quite lengthy, an excerpt has been provided on pages 7-14 of the Text Document.
The questions, their categories, and the related documents are:
Teachers have several options as to how to organize this reading and analyzing of documents:
The teacher may choose to focus group discussion on any number of the appropriate questions listed in the evaluation section below. In fact, several of these can be reshaped into further debate topics or to replace the topic in Activity #2 (e.g., by turning them into a controversial statement, such as "The Grand Alliance was based on pragmatism rather than principle. This was the only way to win the world war.").
"Did the U.S. compromise its ideals as it concluded the war against the Axis and planned for a post-war world in 1944-45?" This activity will encourage students to take a position on this question and defend it based on the documents they have read. They should also be encouraged to use any insights gained from the map "The Military Lines of Control in Europe during the Yalta Conference, February, 1945" (click on "February 1945—Yalta Conference" in the upper-left-hand corner). Students will then debate their positions with one another in groups or as individuals.
Teachers have several options as to how to organize and conduct the debate:
When the debate draws to a conclusion, the teacher might do one of several things:
After completing this lesson, students should be able to write essays answering several of the following questions, depending upon the teacher's particular emphases and upon the level of the students:
Teachers might consider using a "lottery bowl' container and put in numbers that correspond to the questions listed below. Students can work individually or in groups, and do so in class or as homework. Students would take turns drawing numbers and then being give a copy of the question and either responding orally or writing at the time or being given time to develop answers—as homework.
The New York Times "This Day in History" features actual Times stories on the events of the period. Most important for this lesson are June 6, 1944, D-Day invasion of France (actual date of story, June 7, 1944), February 11, 1945, Yalta Conference (actual date of story, February 12, 1945), and May 7, 1945, Germany Surrenders. This site is accessible via the EDSITEment-reviewed site Digital History
Likewise, the site of the British Broadcasting Corporation, linked from the EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Public Library has an audio version of Churchill's May 8, 1945 speech "This is Your Victory", as well as a useful site on the Yalta Conference.
3-4 class periods