Few Americans today remember the name Yalta. But for two generations following the end of World War II, the word conjured up conflicting political visions of the war’s outcome. It was there on the shores of the Black Sea that Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin met for eight days in February 1945 to resolve the most troublesome questions facing the Allies: the treatment of defeated Germany, the fate of Poland, and whether the Soviet Union would enter the war with Japan. How those questions were resolved set off the Yalta controversy, which would divide Americans throughout the years of the long Cold War. And historian Catherine Grace Katz opens a window on those fateful eight days in her engaging account of three elite women who bore witness as aides to their fathers: Anna Roosevelt, Sarah Churchill, and Kathleen Harriman.
The Yalta controversy
When the Big Three met at Yalta, victory was at hand. Dwight Eisenhower‘s legions were pushing ever deeper into Germany, while the Russians under Konstantin Rokossovsky and Georgy Zhukov were sweeping into Central Europe from north to south. Only in the Pacific was the end not yet in sight. Douglas MacArthur‘s troops secured the Philippines during the conference, Chester Nimitz‘s naval forces were moving ever closer to the Japanese home islands, and Curtis LeMay‘s bombers were incinerating Japan’s cities. But the invasion of Japan lay ahead — a massive operation far larger than the Normandy landings that promised the take the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans and last well into 1946 or 1947.
Clashing priorities among the Allies
Thus, for Franklin Roosevelt — and for America’s Joint Chiefs — the highest priority at Yalta was to secure Marshall Stalin’s agreement to enter the war with Japan. And that priority led him to part ways with Winston Churchill on the Prime Minister’s highest priority: securing the independence of Poland as a democratic state. Some of the President’s top aides, including Harry Hopkins and Ambassador to Great Britain John Gilbert Winant, frantically attempted to persuade FDR to join Churchill in taking a hard line on Poland. And Congressional Republicans later charged — loudly and repeatedly — that he had capitulated to Stalin, betraying the Poles and their Eastern European brethren. This, in essence, was the Yalta controversy. But there was literally nothing that the Western Allies could have done to ensure democratic elections in Poland, and FDR knew it.
In reality, Soviet troops had overrun Poland and were only forty miles from Berlin while the Big Three met at Yalta. They also held Romania, Bulgaria, and much of Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Yugoslavia. Nothing short of a declaration of war might have given Stalin pause. And, in the end, the Soviet leader consented to join the war in the Pacific three months after the war in Europe had been won. Unlike many other promises Stalin made and later broke, he kept his word to enter the war against Japan — three months to the day after V-E Day.
The Daughters of Yalta: The Churchills, Roosevelts, and Harrimans, a Story of Love and War by Catherine Grace Katz (2020) 435 pages ★★★★☆
The three women at the heart of this story
Sarah Churchill Oliver (1914–82) was thirty years old at Yalta. “To the woman standing beside him, Winston Churchill was simply ‘Papa.’” The second of the Prime Minister’s three surviving daughters — a fourth had died at age three in 1921 — Sarah was a stage actress. Separated from her husband, she had enlisted in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), the women’s branch of the RAF, when Britain entered the war. Sarah worked at a secret facility in rural England interpreting aerial reconnaissance photos in preparation for Allied operations in North Africa and Europe.
Thirty-eight years of age when she was at Yalta, Anna Roosevelt Boettiger (1906–75) was the oldest of FDR’s five children and his only daughter. She was the eldest of the three women profiled in The Daughters of Yalta. Anna was the mother of three children, two of them by her first husband. At the time of Yalta, she was married to John Boettiger, a lieutenant colonel in the US Army and a journalist. (The couple had jointly edited the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.) Although she had moved into the White House early in 1944 to help care for her ailing, wheelchair-bound father, he had taken her brothers with him to previous Big Three summits. The conference was her first experience of front-line diplomacy. Later in life, she would offer testimony that fed the Yalta controversy, but that lay years in the future.
At age twenty-seven, Kathleen Harriman (1917–2011) was the youngest of the three women profiled in this book. Yet she was in significant ways the best prepared for the experience at Yalta. She had lived with her father, Averell Harriman (1891–1986), in London for two years and then followed him when he served for an additional two years as Ambassador to the Soviet Union. She spoke some Russian. And she had the good looks and self-confidence she inherited from her father that enabled her to work untroubled face-to-face with the men then running the world.
Contrasting roles at the conference
The three daughters served different functions as aides to their fathers.
- Anna Roosevelt was one of a handful of people who knew that her father was dying of congestive heart failure. (He would pass away just two months later at Warm Springs, Georgia.) Her role, as she viewed it, was to prevent others from learning of the severity of his illness and to shield the President from the incessant demands of aides and military officers. In this effort, she was only partially successful. Aides sidestepped her, with FDR’s connivance. And relations with the Soviets were so touchy that she was unable to prevent his attendance at the interminable banquets with Joseph Stalin prolonged by endless toasts with vodka. And some of his own aides, most prominently Secretary of State James Byrnes, presidential counselor Harry Hopkins, and Averell Harriman, proved almost equally troublesome. It was their frantic attempts to divert FDR from his course that helped feed the conspiracy-mongers who later sustained the Yalta controversy.
- Although Anna Roosevelt was the oldest of the daughters, she was by far the least experienced in diplomacy of the three. And FDR, who was secretive at the best of times, rarely took her into his confidence about political or military matters. To others at Yalta, she appeared nervous. By contrast, both Sarah Churchill and Kathy Harriman were old hands at the game and fully trusted by their fathers. Sarah had been Winston’s confidante for years. It was Kathy — the youngest of the three — who appears to have played the most consequential role in dealing with the Soviets. In fact, she had worked with Soviet officials in advance of the conference to transform the bomb-riddled ruins of Yalta into a setting where the Big Three could work in relative comfort.
About the author
Catherine Grace Katz was raised in Winnetka, Illinois, on Chicago’s North Shore. She has two younger siblings. She holds a BA in History from Harvard as of 2013 and a Master’s in Modern European History from Christ’s College at the University of Cambridge the following year. Her dissertation at Cambridge was on the origins of modern counterintelligence practices. She is currently pursuing her JD at Harvard Law School. The Daughters of Yalta is her first book.
For more reading
I especially recommend two books:
- The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz by Erik Larson (An intimate view of Winston Churchill in WW2)
- Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood with Britain in its Darkest, Finest Hour by Lynne Olson (The men behind the British-American partnership in WWII). Sarah Churchill is a major character and Kathy Harriman appears on stage as well.
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And you can always find my most popular reviews, and the most recent ones, plus a guide to this whole site, on the Home Page of Mal Warwick on Books.