Behind the scenes of Yalta

Franklin Delano Roosevelt didn't see the Polish question as being as important to his domestic policy as Churchill did. But I think he really thought he was doing something noble for good. For humanity, by founding the United Nations. That it would benefit everybody, even if it was more difficult for Poland in the short term - says Catherine Grace Katz, author of the book "The Daughters of Yalta."

How did you come up with the idea of writing about the critical event of WWII politics from the perspective of the participants' daughters?

The idea came to me through a series of happy coincidences that all came together. I had studied history at Harvard and Cambridge, and I thought that after I got my master's degree, I'd have finished with history and would be working in finance in New York City. And after a chance visit to the bookstore in the lobby of my Manhattan office, I quite unexpectedly returned to history and writing. This bookstore, named after Churchill's house, was called Chartwell and specialized in books by and about Churchill, but also about World War II history. Through the owner of the bookstore, I eventually met members of the Churchill family and this group called the International Churchill Society at the very time that Sarah Churchill's papers were being made available by the family in Cambridge. They asked me if I'd be interested in writing an article about her for the Churchill Society's Finest Hour magazine. And I said yes because I thought it would be a good way to keep busy, to engage with history, and do a little bit of writing. And that was my first chance to learn about Sarah Churchill.

And why are you so fascinated with her?

She was glamorous and dynamic, she was an actress, which lends itself very well to diplomacy, because acting and being a diplomat have a lot in common. But she's also very thoughtful and a wonderful writer, much like her father. Sarah worked with her father at the Tehran and Yalta conferences during the war, and she inspired two other fathers to bring their daughters to Yalta. As I approached the story, the Churchills helped me connect with Kathy Herriman's family and Anna Roosevelt's family. And so it was all kind of an organic process where one thing led to another. And I was just amazed by the story of these three women.

The Soviets were not the ones who invited their family to political meetings.

Not quite! Lavrentiy Beria, the dreaded head of the NKVD, the secret police of the Soviet Union, took his son Sergo Beria with him as the head of the eavesdropping forces (laugh). He was one of the "listeners" at the Yalta Conference and also at the Tehran Conference. The Soviets, of course, had bugged their allies extensively, and it is disputed to what extent the Americans and British knew they had been bugged. One of the funniest stories is that the Soviet hosts set up a small lemon tree in the hall after some of the British delegates said it would be good to squeeze a lemon into a cocktail one next day... Stalin did not take his daughter to Yalta, but she was introduced to Churchill beforehand. He met Stalin's daughter once when he traveled to Moscow in 1942, and Stalin brought his Svetlana to dinner, almost as a prop to pretend to Churchill that he was also a family man. And Churchill chatted a bit with Svetlana and told her about his daughter Sarah. Svetlana and Sarah both had red hair, which Churchill told her, and Svetlana then sent Sarah a brooch. This was a kind of gesture of diplomacy from daughter to daughter. And Sarah wore the brooch on her uniform throughout the conference.
The other fascinating part of the book is not foreign affairs, but... the affairs indeed.

It feels like Winston Churchill is the only one not involved in an affair! (laughs) He is the only one who loved his wife and was very devoted to her. But of course, our delegates had some interesting connections with each other. There's Sarah Churchill, who had an affair with the American ambassador to Britain, Gilbert Winant. Averell Harriman, the American ambassador to the Soviet Union, is having an affair with Pamela, Winston Churchill's daughter-in-law. And Pamela, meanwhile, is also having an affair with two other conferees, but she was not in Crimea. But she feels very much like a character who is there because of all these people writing her letters and trying to impress her. One of Pamela's admirers, Peter Portal, the head of the RAF, was at the Yalta conference. He wrote her a 30-page letter to impress her with everything that was going on, and then wanted to hand it to her personally to see her after the conference.
  These affairs took place, but because it was war, they turned a blind eye. People from Winston Churchill's circle asked Pamela questions about the people she had affairs with to get more insight into the American point of view, which is really interesting.

So we are in Livadia, the palace was once the summer residence of the tsar and tsarina, Nicholas II and Alexandra.

Once it was decided that the three leaders would gather at Yalta, the Soviets had to turn the ransacked villas into a site fit for one of the largest and most important international summits in history. Well, it was definitely a place that looked glamorous only from the outside, but once you saw the inside, it was anything but. Yes, it was the Tsar's summer palace, but it had been cleared out by the Nazis who had used it as their headquarters in the Crimea. And when they left, they took everything from the palace, all the furniture, the lamps, the art, the dishes, literally the doorknobs, which they cannibalized to use as scrap metal. And the Soviets have only three weeks from the time they decide the conference will be held here. They had to quickly furnish the villa with everything they needed, confiscating items from households in the area and taking things from glamorous hotels in Moscow, like the Hotel Metropole.

Some of the conditions of stay might be quite shocking to Western gentlemen. Barrels of caviar and vodka and lack of sanitary facilities.

There were so few toilets for hundreds of people that long lines would form in the hallway in the morning and people would knock on the door to complain that this field marshal or that general was taking too long in the toilet. That's pretty funny. And one of my favorite stories was that Stalin went to the bathroom quickly during one of the breaks during the conference negotiations and his guards lost him in confusion as everyone was leaving the room. For a short time, they thought the Americans had kidnapped him. So there was a lot of bathroom humor.

The Khatyn lie

80 years ago, a village burned down whose ashes the Soviets used to erase the truth about Katyn.

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But the Soviets also wanted to be good hosts in many ways, despite the primitive conditions. They wanted to provide their guests with as much luxury as possible, even though that certainly wasn't expected. Huge banquets with fantastic food. But, of course, it wasn't perfect. Bed bugs were swarming everywhere, and they hadn't gotten rid of them. They had tried spraying them with chemicals now known to cause cancer (they didn’t know it then). Winston Churchill was bitten by these bugs while he slept.

The other heroine of your book is Kathy Harriman. Charming and amazing woman, but also the person who proves Katyn lie.

I think she was put in a really difficult position by her father and did not have enough evidence to blame the Soviets, even though she knew they were probably telling her lies. Kathy Herriman had a really interesting job when she was in London with her father. During the first half of the war, she worked as a war reporter for Newsweek magazine. Her duties included covering press conferences with the Polish government-in-exile in London. That's how she learned from Polish leaders at the beginning of the war that Stalin could not be trusted. And she was even ahead of her father in realizing that dealing with Stalin would not be like dealing with another ally. When she moved to Moscow with her father in 1943, she was the only person he could fully trust in the embassy there. And she was something like his deputy ambassador. She spoke Russian, which was very useful, and she was used to seeing difficult things as a journalist. When the forest graves were discovered, the Soviets claimed that the Nazis had murdered all these Polish officers, academics, and intelligentsia. The Americans knew this was probably not true and that they were being lied to, but it was difficult because they wanted to maintain relations with the Soviets before they opened the Western Front. They depended on the Soviets to continue to cooperate and do most of the fighting in the east. Harriman realizes that it would be inconvenient for him to travel to Katyn Forest if there were any doubt about whether the Soviets were telling the truth. Instead, he sends his daughter to take the American government one step away from the truth about what happened there. So Kathy appears as a witness on behalf of her father, along with a number of Western journalists.

In the forest of Katyn everything was fishy. But did the western allies in Yalta know the truth?

The documents found in the corpses didn’t seem to be quite right. It's just really terrible. But the Soviets make quite a spectacle of it in their demonstrations, and Kathy has a feeling that something isn't quite right. But she also knows she can't accuse the Soviets of lying because it's so important to keep them on her side while the British and the Americans prepare to open the Western Front. And so she says she knows something is wrong, but she doesn't have enough evidence to prove otherwise. And that's what she tells her father. And what she reports back is what goes into the official documents about what was discovered. And that was a really difficult situation for her. She was 26 years old. She knew that this ally was lying, but she couldn't call him on it. And that's something that really weighed on her and that she deals with later, after the war, in the investigations of what really happened and why.
Kathleen Harriman w mundurze w 1943 r. Podczas II wojny światowej sześć korespondentek wojennych, w tym ona, relacjonowało walki armii amerykańskiej w Europie. Fot. Centrum Historii Wojskowej Armii Stanów Zjednoczonych - Oficjalne zdjęcie US Army, Domena publiczna, Wikimedia
The Americans felt they had to go along with the Soviet cover-up. At the time, they strongly suspected that the Soviets did it, and the British ambassador to the Polish government-in-exile in London knows for a fact that this is true. Ambassador O'Malley writes a letter saying that we have used the good name of Britain as the Soviets used the little pine trees to cover up this lie. Churchill and Roosevelt also talk about it and realize that even though they think the Soviets are lying, they can't risk losing their ally, especially since the Red Army is doing a lot of the fighting in the East and the West was not ready to open up the second front. So it's a terrible choice they have to make. It's one of the great tragedies of the war that the British and Americans felt they had to make that decision, even though they knew the truth.

You may not know that "Yalta" is in the Polish dictionary under the word "treason." We appreciate that you have written a lot about the Polish question. But who was the ones at the conference who most desperately discussed the Polish future? Are we to believe that it was Winston Churchill?

The tragedy of the Polish situation was felt very strongly, especially by the British Prime Minister. He was very frustrated at not being able to secure what Britain had been trying to defend from the beginning. And the Polish government had been in exile in London since the beginning of the war. So, he has a very close relationship with the Poles in exile and feels very personally affected by the situation in Poland. This human aspect of the actors and the role of Poland in this story was very important to me from the beginning. And I think that for Western audiences in the United States and Britain, the role of Poland is perhaps not appreciated as much today as it was perhaps a few decades earlier. So it was exciting for me to bring the history of Poland to the forefront because it was so important to this conference.

Finally, Poland was sold, but how important in this transaction were... health problems. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had one foot in the grave, was naive about the Soviets and obsessed with the idea of the United Nations.

In February 1945, the President of the United States was very ill. He was dying of heart failure. His exhaustion and illness created a problem in his relations with Churchill, who was full of energy and held very strong views. Unfortunately, at this point in the war, Roosevelt found that the American star was rising while the British star was sinking. So he didn't have to work as closely with Churchill because he didn't need the British as much as he used to. And he saw his relationship with Stalin as something he wanted to build, particularly in terms of the goal of creating this United Nations project. FDR believed that the future international organization would guarantee peace in Europe for, he hoped, 50 years. And he believed that he could forge a personal bond with Stalin, as he had done with Churchill. That was something that served him very well in domestic politics and in his relations with other foreign heads of state. He was very personable and had the ability to make that connection on a human level. But I think that, unfortunately, he didn't realize that this wouldn't work with Stalin. He wasn't well informed about the Russian mentality, history, culture, and the nature of that state.
He wasn't clear what kind of evil Josef Stalin was.

I don't think he knew. Roosevelt wasn't even interested in Soviet history or the Tsarist period, which is important even now to understand Putin's aggression against Ukraine. He knew nothing about the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, about the territorial changes between Japan and Russia in 1905, which were directly implicated in the agreements he had made with Stalin.

Why was he so obsessed with the idea of the UN, in your book you point out that he could even give a place in the new organizations for the Ukrainian and Belarusian SSRs

I think that, unlike Churchill, he didn't see the disputes between individual countries as being as important to the big picture because he thought that the United Nations would be the mechanism to solve these global problems. He thought that the United Nations would be the mechanism for resolving all problems, where countries could come together in one place and have their diplomats negotiate together, and that the creation of the United Nations as a forum for resolving disputes would override the importance of a single regional dispute between different countries. So in a sense, he was willing to make short-term sacrifices for the long-term prospect of peace. I think that's what makes the story so complicated. I don't think Roosevelt was indifferent. He also didn't see the Polish question as being as important to his domestic policy as Churchill did. But I think he really thought he was doing something noble for good. For humanity, by founding the United Nations. That it would benefit everybody, even if it was more difficult for Poland in the short term.

Do you think that Stalin ultimately lied to everyone? An important part of the Yalta agreement was Russian participation in the war against Japan. But the Red Army moved the troops to the East a few days after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

So the Yalta agreement was that the Soviet Union would enter the war against Japan three months after the defeat of the Germans in Europe. Based on that agreement, Stalin and the Soviets kept their end of the bargain. But it suited them very well to be able to declare war on Japan and get some of the spoils and territorial concessions without having to do much work. Some believe that the decision of Japan to surrender was not caused only by the atomic bomb or that it was the combination of the atomic bomb and the fear that the Soviet Union would intervene in the fight, and these two factors together caused Japan to surrender. It's hard to say which of these is true because you can't prove a counterfactual situation, although I think the atomic bomb certainly played the biggest part in that calculation. But if you just go by the strict agreements of Yalta, it's very unfortunate that three months passed when the atomic bomb was ready, and that the Soviets were then able to gain so much after contributing so little to the fight against Japan.

Harry Truman, FDR's successor, pursued a tougher course toward Russia. Had he been at Yalta, might Polish history have been different?

Truman was certainly more skeptical of the Soviets than Roosevelt. He wasn't persuaded by Stalin's personal charm. He was very confrontational toward Vyacheslav Molotov when Molotov came to the opening of the United Nations. So you can see that some areas of discussion could have been better. But I think when it comes to the core agreements of the conference, particularly the fate of Poland, I don't even know if it would have turned out differently if Truman had been there because that wouldn't have changed the fact that the Red Army was firmly in control in Central Europe and only 65 kilometers from Berlin. And the tragedy of it was the that the signs were there since August 1944 with the Warsaw Uprising which was, so to speak, Poland's last attempt to assert itself. To get a seat at the table for these future conferences. And the fact that they weren't at the Yalta Conference was based on a lie by Stalin. He pretends that he tried to invite them but that none of the Polish leaders were available to come. I don't know if an exchange of personalities at that point in the war would have changed the facts. The facts on the ground had crystallized over the previous months and years. So, it's a slow tragedy that you can see, and it's almost like a train that you can't stop at this point.

–interview by Cezary Korycki

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

Catherine Grace Katz is a writer and historian from Chicago. She graduated from Harvard in 2013 with a BA in History and received her MPhil in Modern European History from Christ’s College, University of Cambridge in 2014 where she wrote her dissertation on the origins of modern counterintelligence practices. The Daughters of Yalta is her first book.
Main photo: U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill with their daughters Photo: FDR Presidential Library and Museum - Photo 48-22 3659(15), CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia
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