The Teheran Conference took place from 28 November to 1 December 1943. It was the first time the three leaders discussed seriously the post-war settlement.
Stalin was easily the victor of the negotiations. The British General Brooke was very impressed: ‘never once did Stalin make any strategic error, nor did he ever fail to appreciate all the implications of a situation with a quick and unerring eye’.
One of the first things he did was to persuade the US delegation to take up ‘safer’ rooms inside the compound of the Soviet delegation.
He held three private talks with Roosevelt, where the two criticised the British empire and got on well with each other.
Stalin pleased Roosevelt by offering to join the war in the Pacific when Hitler was defeated, and by allowing himself to be persuaded to join the United Nations.
Meanwhile, Stalin baited Churchill. He teased and niggled him all the time. In one conversation, Stalin suggested that 50,000 German army officers should be shot. When the Americans appeared to agree, Churchill walked out in fury.
Roosevelt believed he had a special personal relationship with Stalin – ‘he hates the guts of all your top people’, he told Churchill. So at Yalta, Roosevelt almost ignored Churchill, and supported Stalin.
When Churchill suggested delaying Operaiton Overlord, and opening up the Mediterranean theatre, Roosevelt and Stalin united to defeat him.
Churchill came out worst at Teheran. It was at Teheran that Lord Cadogan remarked that the ‘Big Three’ seemed to have become the ‘Big Two-and-a-half’.
On 9-19 October 1944, Churchill went to Moscow to meet Stalin face-to-face to try to sort out their differences.
This meeting is famous for the so-called ‘percentages agreement’, where Churchill suggested that Britain and Russia agree ‘spheres of influence’ in the different countries of eastern Europe. He scribbled some figures down on a piece of paper (Romania 90-10, Greece 10-90, Yugoslavia and Hungary 50-50 etc.) and passed it to Stalin. ‘He took his big blue pencil and made a large tick upon it, and passed it back to us. It was all settled in no more time than it takes to set down’, remember Churchill.
Churchill came away thinking that he had the measure of Stalin, but he had just signed away eastern Europe to Soviet domination.
The Yalta Conference took place from 4-11 February 1945. Alan Bullock calls it ‘the high point of the alliance’. Certainly, it was the time the three leaders got on best and made most progress – it was at Yalta where the Big Three thrashed out the principles of the post-war settlement.
Stalin was, again, in the strongest position. Not only were his armies sweeping towards Berlin, but – because he told Roosevelt and Churchill that his doctor had forbidden him to travel – the conference was held inside the USSR.
In addition, he was well-informed about his allies. In Britain, a group of spies known later as ‘the Cambridge Five’ provided him with all the classified Foreign Office documents he needed. And from America, Alger Hiss [a Soviet spy working for the U.S. State Department] actually succeeded in becoming a member of the American delegation.
Roosevelt was the weakest player. He was not well (he was to die of a cerebral haemorrhage on 12 April), but most of all, he believed that he and Stalin had a special friendship, and that that friendship would prevent Stalin from bad faith:
I just have a hunch, that Stalin doesn't want anything but security for his country, and I think that if I give him everything I possibly can and ask nothing from him in return, ... he wouldn't try to annex anything and will work with for a world of democracy and peace.
Presdident Roosevelt, speaking just before the Yalta Conference.
So Roosevelt ignored the advice of Churchill (and many people in his own government) that he had to stand up to Stalin. His military advisers were telling him that the conquest of Japan would take many months and a million American casualties, and Roosevelt wanted Russian help in the Pacific ... whatever the cost. Consequently, Roosevelt agreed a deal with Stalin whereby, in return for entering the Pacific War, the Soviet Union would gain Sakhalin and the Japanese Kurile islands, and zones of influence in Manchuria and North Korea.
And as for Europe, Roosevelt told his advisers that he wanted to stay out of the European settlement. So, again, it was left to Churchill to argue with Stalin about what would happen to Germany, about reparations, and about Poland.
However, at Yalta, Stalin appeared reasonable. He was friendly and affable. There are few stories of him baiting Churchill – indeed, he let Churchill win many of the negotiations. For example, Stalin wanted Germany ‘dismembered’, but agreed with Churchill to leave this to another discussion. He agreed with Churchill to set up a reparations committee. And as regards the governments of eastern Europe, he agreed the Declaration of Liberated Europe and suggested that free elections could be held within a month.
Churchill was becoming increasingly alarmed that Stalin intended to establish a Soviet empire in eastern Europe. At the conference, Churchill disagreed with Stalin about many issues - he believed that Stalin had to be prevented from conquering all of eastern Europe. However, Churchill came away from the Conference believing that he had negotiated a workable deal with Stalin, and that he could trust him:
Poor Neville Chamberlain believed he could trust Hitler. He was wrong. But I don’t think I’m wrong about Stalin.
Winston Churchill, speaking just after the Yalta Conference.
After the conference, Churchill wrote a thank-you note to Stalin, thanking him for ‘all the hospitality and friendship extended to British delegation’.
The Potsdam Conference took place from 16 July to 2 August 1945.
Churchill went to the Conference in bullish mood. He had completely fallen out with Stalin since Yalta – accusing him of being insulting in his letters – and he had spent the intervening 5 months bombarding the Americans with messages about what the Soviets were up to in eastern Europe. However, on 28 July, Churchill was replaced by Clement Atlee who – although not as weak as Churchill suggested and sceptical of Stalin – did not play a major part in confronting Stalin.
As a result, it was left to Roosvelt's successor Truman to oppose Stalin. A lot is made of Truman’s anti-communism, and his statement that he was ‘sick of babying the Soviets’. However, he approached the conference quite nervously, aware that he was the ‘new boy’ and that he didn’t know as much as the others.
The key event of the conference had little to do with the negotiations – it was the message to Truman that the Americans had successfully tested the atomic bomb.
This released Truman altogether from reliance upon Russian help with Japan. The result was a difficult conference, which in the end agreed to reaffirm the general principles accepted at Yalta, and to pass the detail to a Conference of Ministers.
Stalin, as at the other conferences, was calm and pleasant. Churchill said he was ‘in the best of tempers’ and – at one banquet – describes him going round collecting autographs: ‘Stalin’s eyes twinkled with mirth and good humour’. Even when Truman told him about the atomic bomb, Stalin did not react, but merely congratulated the Americans and hoped they would use it.
It is probably true that at this point – with the Red Army in control of Berlin and the whole of eastern Europe, and just about to attack into north China towards Japan, Stalin had decided that the military conclusion would be more important for the future of the Soviet union than the political one.