January 28, 2020

By CATHERINE GRACE KATZ

February 4–11 this month marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of the hotly debated Yalta Conference, the second and last wartime meeting between Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin, where the Big Three attempted to lay the grounds for peace in the postwar world. By the end of the following summer, however, much had changed: Roosevelt was dead, Churchill had been voted out of office, and the world had entered the nuclear age.

While it is easy to think of Yalta in the impersonal terms of sweeping geopolitical forces that lay on a collision course, it is important to remember that it was also a deeply human experience for all of the conference participants. After so many years of war, they looked to the future with hope. Alongside heated debates and disagreements, Yalta was also filled with moments of levity—a bathroom shortage led Stalin’s panicked guards to think the Americans had kidnapped their leader; high-ranking generals queued for the loo; and goldfish magically appeared in fish tanks. In addition, there was intrigue of a serious nature, with double agents operating undetected in the sanctum of power.

The Yalta meeting was also a profoundly important moment for three young women whose involvement history has long overlooked: Sarah Churchill, Anna Roosevelt, and Kathleen Harriman. Each accompanied her father to serve as his aide-de-camp, at a time when the world remained decades away from meaningful female participation in international diplomacy.

Today, seventy-five years on from Yalta, historians have learned to look behind the faceless forces of grand strategy and examine as well the personal relationships that bound together the participants. History may place individuals at the summit of diplomacy, but they remain human nonetheless.

National WWI Museum and Memorial, Kansas City

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Catherine Grace Katz is author of The Daughters of Yalta: The Churchills, Roosevelts, and Harrimans: A Story of Family, Love, and War, which will be published in September. Pre-order your copy at Amazon.com.

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