Prague, 23 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Sir Frank Roberts, a former British diplomat who served in the Foreign Office during World War II and later became ambassador to Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, recently spoke to RFE/RL about the February 1945 Yalta Conference, which he helped prepare and attended.
Roberts says the greatest misconception about Yalta is that it was not a post-war peace conference.
"People talk about it as though it was a peace settlement with the war all over and people looking at a map and saying: 'What is the most desirable thing to do?' But it wasn't like that at all," Roberts said.
Indeed, Roberts notes that when Josef Stalin, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill sat down together in the Crimea, the main issue still facing them was the defeat of the German army, which had just broken through the Ardennes on the Western front. In addition, Roosevelt was very preoccupied by the war with Japan.
Unsure of whether the atom bomb the Americans were developing would work, the U.S. president was anticipating a painful land offensive on Japanese soil. And he keenly wanted Stalin to commit his troops to invading Manchuria to open a new front against Tokyo. Roosevelt also wanted Stalin's cooperation in forming a United Nations, which unlike its predecessor the League of Nations, would be principally founded by the United States and the Soviet Union.
The reality of Yalta, says Roberts, was that by the time of the conference, the Red Army had already reached Poland and was advancing into Hungary.
"We had to accept where the armies were...We couldn't send troops to Poland to stop the advance of the Red Army," Roberts said bluntly.
In essence, Roberts maintains, the lines had already been drawn by soldiers on the ground, and while the war was continuing, there was not much the British or the Americans could do, since they needed Moscow's cooperation.
Roberts notes that Stalin had a particular interest in extending his sphere of influence to Greece and Italy, but since those territories were under the control of the British and American military, there was not much he could do. He was stymied there, just as the Americans and British were stymied in the East.
To sum up, Robert says, Yalta boiled down to a very simple question, "What else could the British and Americans have done?"
"We were allies still fighting Germany and Japan who were going to create the United Nations after the war. We couldn't have bombed the Russians. Roosevelt could have threatened to cut off economic aid after the war...but Russia refused post war aid anyway," Roberts explained.
"We could have refused to sign, but given the primary aims of defeating Germany and Japan, that would have been foolish," he concludes.
Already in December of 1941, at the start of the war for the Russians, Roberts recalls that Stalin asked British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden to support Moscow's claims to the territories it had acquired under the Molotv/Ribbentropp Pact. Eden, he says, was stunned and put the issue aside, but Roberts says Stalin's insistence showed he was already preoccupied with dominating the eastern half of Europe, even as the German army occupied fields just 19 kilometers from the Kremlin.
Everyone who knew Stalin understood his single-mindedness and ruthlessness, says Roberts, and the impossibility of driving him out of Eastern Europe in 1945, short of attacking him.
He illustrates his point with a quote from Yugoslav leader Josip Tito. Commenting on the brutal Soviet suppression of Hungary's 1956 revolution, Tito remarked to Roberts: "You and I would not be talking today if I had not liberated Belgrade and got the Russians armies out of Yugoslavia...very quickly."