A good start to understanding the Yalta conference and the bitter controversy that followed it is to take a mental walk with me over to the East Wing of the White House on a chilly day in late January 1945.
The president and his staff were getting ready for the trip to Yalta, in the Crimea, where Franklin Delano Roosevelt would for the last time meet with the other leaders of the grand alliance, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin. I wanted to learn what I could about plans and hopes for the conference from Adm. William Leahy, who was Roosevelt's chief of staff and senior member of the Joint Chiefs.
My press pass let me past the guard at the door. A yeoman and an aide, both in naval uniform, ushered me into the admiral's inner office. He looked up as I came in, signaled me to a chair, and then said in a tone of utmost gravity:
''Harsch, how do you think the American people would take the news of a half million casualties on the beaches of Japan?''
I gulped and stammered something banal, that they probably would be unhappy. Then I asked him if there were any way to end the war at less cost.
Yes, he replied, the cost would be far less if the Russians were in the war and we could use Russian air bases in Siberia for round-trip bombing.
Use of Soviet bases critical
That was the key to the American position at Yalta. FDR went with his first and overriding task to persuade Stalin to bring Russia into the Pacific war. Roosevelt was not interested in Soviet ground troops. Above all, he wanted use of those bases so that American air power could clear the way for the American infantry coming in over the beaches. It was the prospect of 500,000 casualties on the beaches if there were less than full air support that concerned the American military planners.
So when Roosevelt arrived at the former czarist palace at Yalta, he and the two other principals at the meeting had entirely different objectives.
To the British, the important thing was the future of Poland. Britain had entered the war to win back the independence of Poland. The British had no taste for fighting a war only to have Poland swallowed up by the Russians instead of by the Germans.
The Pacific war and the manner of the defeat of Japan were secondary matters to the British.
As for the Russians, Stalin was primarily concerned with the reorganization of peoples on his western frontier. Russia had been invaded three times from Germany and by Germans in modern history. The French army that invaded Russia in 1812 had a large German element. Prussia was then allied to France, as were several other German states that sent troops on their way to Moscow with Napoleon. Russia was invaded by the Kaiser's armies in 1914, and again by Hitler in 1940.
What Stalin wanted most out of the war, and what he sought at Yalta, was security against being invaded again from Germany. He wanted control over the peoples between Russia and Germany. Above all, he wanted control of Poland, because Poland was on the invasion route between Germany and Russia -- either way.
When the three started bargaining at Yalta, the British pushed as hard as they could for fair and free elections for a permanent Polish government and, in the meantime, for equal rights for the London Polish group in the provisional government with the ''Lublin Poles,'' whom the Russians had brought back with them from Moscow. Was postwar Poland to be ruled by Russian stooges or be truly independent?
Did FDR push hard enough?
The British felt that Roosevelt did not push hard enough for agreements that might have saved not only Poland, but also the other eastern European countries. The Yalta accords did contain a statement of support for ''free elections'' to produce ''governments responsive to the will of the people,'' but it was toothless and could be interpreted by the Russians to justify communist regimes -- as it was.
Did Roosevelt sell out the middle countries of eastern Europe?
The answer is that he did not fight as hard as the British thought he might have for the Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, and Romanians. The other side of the coin is that by that time the Russian armies were swarming over all those countries. Roosevelt had no leverage, nor did the British. And besides, to Roosevelt the vital thing was to get Russia into the war against Japan.
After Yalta, I was once in a group of reporters listening to Roosevelt talk about the Yalta meetings. He said that he had taken Stalin aside at one time during the conference and given him a long talk about the United States' ''good neighbor'' policy toward Latin America. He said he hoped that Stalin might get the idea that it is better to treat small neighbors gently and kindly than to try to run them directly. He said that it was all he really could do for the Poles, Czechs, and the others because, af ter all, the Russians had them in their hands. He could only hope to persuade Stalin of a better way. He could not coerce.
Under the circumstances, Roosevelt was probably right. And if he did less than he might have for the Poles and Czechs, it was done for the sake of reducing American casualties in the projected last stages of the war in the Far East.
Paying a high price
In retrospect it can be said that Roosevelt paid too high a price, even an unnecessary price, for Russian entrance into the war. Japan was probably closer to defeat than was appreciated at the time. But the American delegation went to Yalta with vivid memories of Japanese warmaking. From the battle for Guadalcanal on, the Japanese had put up fierce and tenacious resistance to every American advance.
Guadalcanal took six months and cost 24 American warships. At Tarawa, the marines took 30 percent casualties in the landing. It was heroic. Few military units in history have ever taken 30 percent casualties and kept going. But Japanese resistance was formidable. It was again formidable on Okinawa.
At Yalta, President Roosevelt had good reason to seek anything that could offer a prospect of fewer American casualties on the beaches of the main Japanese islands.
The first article in this series ran Jan. 27. Former Monitor writer Joseph C. Harsch covered World War II from Washington, D.C., the Pacific, and Europe.