BOSTON — Sixty-five years ago this week, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill landed on an airstrip freshly cleared of snow near the Crimean town of Saky. Their final destination was Yalta, the Black Sea playground of Russian tsars and aristocrats.
Their host was Joseph Stalin, once a prisoner of the tsar and now the ruthless dictator of the Soviet Union. Roosevelt and Churchill had come to participate in the Yalta Conference, which lasted eight days, from Feb. 4 to 11, 1945, and left a lasting legacy in world affairs and America’s historical memory.
At Yalta, which Churchill called the “Riviera of Hades,” the Big Three coordinated their final assault on Nazi Germany and agreed on a blueprint for the postwar peace settlement. For 65 years, politicians and historians have continued to debate the outcome and significance of the summit.
Immediately after the conference, it was hailed as a major achievement on the road to a lasting peace. The Grand Alliance was indeed preserved, despite obvious cracks, and the war was won soon afterward. The conference inaugurated the longest peace in European history, but it was a cold peace, to say the least. Disagreements over the fate of Eastern Europe, which were papered over at Yalta, underlined basic differences in the Allies’ geopolitical visions and value systems, paving the way for the Cold War.
Even today, with the Cold War long over, the contradictory legacy of Yalta looms over the rapidly changing world of international relations. It was at Yalta that most of today’s European borders, including those between Russia and the European Union, were discussed and agreed on by the Big Three. It was also there that the world leaders assured themselves of a veto in the United Nations Security Council: if this prerogative helped the U.N. weather the international storms of the Cold War, it also limited the organization’s effectiveness. Finally, it was at Yalta that the Kurile Islands were handed over to the USSR — a decision that still prevents the governments of Japan and Russia from signing a peace treaty.
Unlike any other conference of the modern era, Yalta simply refuses to fade into the past. Aside from its continuing political relevance, it still has important lessons to teach. One of the most enduring of those lessons is quite simple: No matter how much effort is put into the preparation and conduct of an international conference, however skillful and resourceful its participants, and however promising its outcome, democratic leaders and societies should be prepared to pay a price for close involvement with those who do not share their values. If you support an ally of convenience and build up his power, it can then become difficult to keep him in check. Your enemy’s enemy may well become your own enemy once the initial conflict is over, unless the alliance is based on common values and principles.
The Grand Alliance lacked such a foundation, and there was little that the Yalta Conference could do to establish one. Stalin introduced his political system in the countries occupied by the Red Army. He was in a good position to do so, for the conference took place when American and British forces were still recovering from the German counterattack in the Ardennes, while the Red Army was already securing bridgeheads on the Oder River, a mere 40 miles from Germany’s capital. That situation was the result of choices made by the Western Allies before Yalta. Although they had been providing technical assistance and air support for Soviet military operations against Germany since the fall of 1941, they did not put troops on the ground in Western Europe until the Normandy invasion of June 1944. Their strength never reached even half of what the Soviets deployed on the eastern front, and diplomacy was in no position to change that uncomfortable reality.
The world is too complex and dangerous a place for anyone to entertain the notion that democracies should ally themselves only with democracies or that future alliances should be based solely on common values. But Yalta shows that the unity of democratic states is essential to achieve their common goals. There will always be ideological and cultural differences not only between enemies but also between partners, as was the case at Yalta, and an appreciation of those differences is essential to avoiding inflated expectations. When democratic leaders make uneasy trade-offs with the dictators of today, they should not forget what their predecessors had gained and lost at Yalta.
Serhii Plokhii is Mykhailo Hrushevsky Professor of Ukrainian History at Harvard University and author of "Yalta: The Price of Peace."