Washington — Forty years after the ``Big Three'' of World War II -- Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin -- met at Yalta, the agreement they reached there is remembered as marking the end of a hot war and the beginning of the East-West cold war. The main objective of the Feb. 4-11, 1945, summit at the Russian resort on the Black Sea was the final defeat of Germany and Japan. But political agreements made at Yalta quickly led to the division of Europe. Behind that division came cold war, armed alliances, and nuclear tensions.
For four decades historians have debated whether the division of Europe was avoidable. Now the question is, how long the division will last? In a widely noted article in Foreign Affairs, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was President Jimmy Carter's national security adviser, says a divided Europe is unfaithful to history. In time, he says, it will be undone.
Others aren't so sure. ``There's no way to undo the division of Europe short of general war,'' says Dean Rusk, who was President Lyndon Johnson's secretary of state. ``You can reduce the importance of the boundaries with trade and cultural exchanges. But the boundaries are a fact of life, and that's not going to change.''
The Yalta conference brought together three of the towering political figures of the 20th century, and despite a common objective of winning the war against Nazi Germany, three remarkably diverse political agendas.
Churchill, the canny student of European politics, came eager to defeat Germany but wary of Soviet ambitions. Yalta ended his last hopes of saving eastern Europe from Russian domination.
Stalin, the ruthless, shrewd Soviet leader, came with an empire to gain. He left with the oldest dream of Russian diplomacy -- control over central Europe and the Balkans -- on the verge of realization.
Roosevelt, the idealist, came to strengthen alliance unity in order to end the war and establish a just postwar order. Within 10 weeks, both Roosevelt and his dream of postwar great-power cooperation would be dead.
The first meeting of the Big Three took place at Tehran, Iran, in November 1943. There, the Allies made the first tentative plans to divide conquered Germany into the zones of occupation that eventually led to the nation's division. At Tehran, Churchill and Roosevelt also affirmed plans for the long-awaited invasion of the European mainland that took place seven months later on D-Day -- June 6, 1944.
Now, at Yalta in southern Russia, the Big Three met again, this time to plan the final military actions of the war and to decide on the shape of postwar Europe.
The negotiations that followed were indelibly influenced by the military situation as the Big Three convened. The Soviet Army, having routed Germany in the east, now held uncontested control over central Europe.
The Western Allies, meanwhile, still faced stiff opposition in Europe and the Far East. Although the final German offensive -- the Battle of the Bulge, was broken in January, the Rhine crossing was still six weeks away. In the Pacific, the great battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa were yet to be fought, while the US War Department was calculating possible losses of half a million American soldiers in the final assault against the Japanese mainland. Worst of all, Roosevelt learned at Yalta that the atomic bomb might not be complete in time to aid the war effort.
Thus, as the Yalta conference started, it was Stalin who held the trump cards. Having, in effect, won his war, the question was what he would now do, and at what price, to help his Western partners win theirs.
At Yalta several agreements were reached. The Big Three concurred that Germany should be forced to surrender unconditionally and afterward be dismembered. Stalin and Churchill also agreed to Roosevelt's cherished hope for the formation of a United Nations.
In the Far East, the Soviets were given territorial concessions at the expense of Japan and China in return for a pledge to intervene against Japan.
In Europe the stakes were highest. Here, Churchill and Roosevelt recognized territorial adjustments that gave part of Poland to the Soviet Union and, to compensate, gave part of Germany to Poland. For his part, Stalin agreed to reorganize the Polish government on a broader Democratic basis and to encourage free elections elsewhere in Soviet-occupied Europe.
In his last speech to Congress, an exhausted Roosevelt, showing the effects of his arduous 14,000-mile journey, described Yalta as a ``turning point'' that would ``spell the end of exclusive alliances, spheres of influence, balances of power, and all the other expedients that have been tried for centuries.'' Instead, Soviet military control was quickly translated into political domination all across central Europe and the Balkans. Promises of ``free elections'' and ``democratic procedures'' were ignored. By 1948, Churchill's famous Iron Curtain had descended on Europe, leaving the once-dominant community of nations divided and politically impotent.
The agreement made at Yalta quickly became the object of heated controversy. Conservatives charged ``betrayal,'' comparing Yalta to Neville Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler at Munich in 1938. More moderate critics said Roosevelt could have gotten a better deal.
``The US could have been more stubborn at Yalta,'' says Adam Ulam, a Soviet specialist at Harvard University's Russian Research Center. If Roosevelt had made clear to Stalin that the subjugation of eastern Europe would lead to unspecified ``complications,'' says Mr. Ulam, this part of Europe might today enjoy the status of neutral Finland.
Defenders say Roosevelt had little negotiating leverage. Eager to keep the grand alliance intact to win the war in Europe, fearing the very real possibility of a separate Soviet-German peace, and facing the prospect of heavy casualties in the Pacific, he was in no position to drive a hard bargain. With the American public in no mood to fight yet another war for Poland, say supporters, Roosevelt had little choice but to accept Soviet promises. The question now is, how long will the legacy of Yalta last?
Though he says change may not come immediately, Zbigniew Brzezinski says Yalta can be undone slowly and peacefully. ``The situation in Europe is not immutable,'' he comments, noting ``growing demands'' of Western Europeans for ``a larger share of their own destiny'' and the ``rejection of Soviet rule in Eastern Europe.'' He says the West should use the 40th anniversary as the occasion to repudiate the legacy of Yalta.
At the same time, Brzezinski urges a policy of gradualism that takes into account legitimate Soviet security interests. The key to the ``peaceful undoing of Yalta,'' he says, will be a politically revitalized Europe less dependent on the US for conventional military defense.
Others say change, if it is to come, can occur only under more drastic circumstances. ``Change will not happen gradually,'' says Richard Pipes, for two years a Soviet specialist on President Reagan's National Security Council staff. ``Only internal crisis in the Soviet Union will help weaken Soviet control over Eastern Europe.'' The US can abet this process, notes Mr. Pipes, by withholding economic and technical assistance and raising the cost of Soviet interventionism abroad.
Still other experts say the Yalta legacy may be permanent, since the circumstances that made the agreement inevitable in the first place -- the division of Germany combined with Soviet security concerns on the Western front -- have not changed. Most agree that while the Soviets may be forced to accept some degree of political liberalization in East Europe, reform will be kept within strict limits, especially along the corridor through Poland, which for centuries has been the main route of attack for invading Western armies.
``Even the Germanys have written off the goal of reunification as achievable, except in the very long term as part of a general European reunification,'' says Gebhard Schweigler, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Reunification, he says, is not a ``current practical policy goal. As both Germanys continue to develop a separate national identity, reunification will become harder, not easier.''
Nearly everyone agrees that the process of change, if it is to come, will be part of a long evolutionary process that the US and other nations can only encourage through quiet diplomacy.