Letter From Crimea: Averell Harriman and Alger Hiss at Yalta

This is the eighteenth in a series about a journey, by train and bicycle, across Russia to Crimea shortly before the war began.


The Big Three in 1945: a statue of Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin in front of Livadia Palace in Yalta, Crimea. Photo: Matthew Stevenson.

Before and after my bicycle ride to Livadia Palace on the Crimean shore of the Black Sea, I collected numerous accounts of the Yalta conference, many of which left me unsatisfied, as most stuck to the Cold War-Richard Nixon line that wily Russian agents, such as State Department official Alger Hiss, duped the ailing the Franklin Roosevelt into buying Soviet deceptions about peace and postwar goodwill among the allies.

The 1945 Yalta conference still matters, as disputes over its legacy explain much of the current war between Russia and Ukraine.

One of Stalin’s heirs, President Vladimir Putin, believes that Yalta gave Russia a sphere of influence over Eastern Europe (including Ukraine), while the West came away with the belief that Yalta allowed for free elections to decide governments in the East.

The Historiography of the Yalta Conference

For whatever reasons, the history of Yalta seems mostly to attract right-wing historians, who like to see the world according to Whittaker Chambers: in the late 1930s and 40s he was the most vocal of a truth squad that preceded Senator Joseph McCarthy in alleging Russian penetration in all avenues of the American government, notably the State Department.

In Yalta: The Price of Peace (2010), Harvard historian S.M. Plokhy (who otherwise writes well) toes the Chambers line in alleging that at Livadia Stalin had his claws into Hiss, which is also the approach that Catherine Grace Katz takes in her more casual (think Ladies Home Journal) diplomatic history, The Daughters of Yalta.

The Katz book, published in 2020, examines the conference through the prism of Anna Roosevelt, Sarah Churchill, and Kathleen Harriman, all of whom accompanied their dominating fathers to Yalta, which becomes the backdrop for what feels like a Freudian couch.

Another recent book that discusses Yalta is Nigel Hamilton’s War and Peace: FDR’s Final Odyssey, D-Day to Yalta, 1943-1945, which is the third volume in his Roosevelt-at-war series.

It dwells less on the enemy within, but emphasizes that for all his good intentions for a just, non-colonial world after World War II, the fatally ill Roosevelt was in no position to stand up to Stalin at Yalta.

Nor did Roosevelt want to hear hawkish opinions about Russia from Winston Churchill, who smelled a rat in Stalin’s presence, as by then the Soviet leader had replaced the British prime minister as the object of Roosevelt’s bromance.

In addition to reading about Yalta and riding around the Livadia gardens (the palace is more modest than I had expected, and when the conference was held it was barely habitable from all the damage sustained during the German occupation), I have heard three first-hand accounts of Yalta from participants who were there or, in the case of Curtis Roosevelt, close to someone who was (his mother Anna).

Their stories never tracked what has now become the semi-official line—that Russian intelligence at Yalta enabled Stalin to outwit the good intentions of noble Americans.

The Daughters of Yalta

When I was in graduate school in the late 1970s at Columbia University, I participated in what was called the International Fellows Program, which each week during the school year would travel off-campus to meet personally with a leading business leader, politician or diplomat.

On one of our trips to Washington, D.C., the Fellows were taken in a bus to the Georgetown home of Pamela and Averell Harriman, both of whom get extensive coverage in Katz’s The Daughters of Yalta.

Harriman’s daughter Kathleen was at Yalta and corresponding with her close friend Pamela Churchill, who was back in London. Pamela was married to Winston’s son Randolph but carrying on a love affair with Averell, who was thirty years her senior.

That affair ended, but twenty-five years later they reconnected and married, and it was Pamela Churchill Harriman who welcomed the Fellows into her Georgetown townhouse and told us somewhat sternly to be brief with our questions to the aging lion, Harriman.

In Katz’s book, Averell Harriman comes across as a knight-errant, a successful businessman (he inherited the Union Pacific Railroad from his father, E. H. Harriman) and an experienced diplomat who tried at Yalta and elsewhere to warn FDR about the nature of Stalinism.

Ambassador Averell Harriman Recalls the Postwar World

When I heard Harriman speak in the late 1970s, he was past what the British call the sell-by date and mostly spoke in platitudes about how hard diplomacy can be at a summit, when beyond the conference table there are troops on that ground that can dictate the settlement. He had also tried to negotiate the end of the Vietnam War in 1968-69 for President Lyndon Johnson, but that didn’t work out any better than did Yalta.

Harriman had doubts about Stalin, but his weakness as an American diplomat was that he viewed politics as what his railroading father might have called a “trading pool”, in which the price of a share can be manipulated by those insiders at the table who are buying and selling at artificial prices.

In London, as the U.S. ambassador, Harriman drew so close to Winston Churchill (not to mention his daughter-in-law) that at one point Churchill used Harriman, then a U.S. diplomat, to represent the British government on a secret mission.

Equally, in Moscow, Harriman found himself in Stalin’s orbit (he needed access to the Soviet leader to remain in FDR’s good graces), which meant at Yalta he was not in a position (even if Roosevelt had so wanted) to push back hard against Soviet encroachment in Eastern Europe—although Harriman did oppose the sell-out of the Poles and negotiated to give France a slice of the German occupation.

Before he died, FDR did say: “Averell is right. We can’t do business with Stalin. He has broken every one of the promises he made at Yalta.”

In other words, no one duped or conned FDR at Yalta except himself, and for that blame his health and rigors of a long war.

The Demonization of the Democrats

The next first-hand account I heard about Yalta came from Alger Hiss, who if you believe Plokhy, Katz, and many others—including J. Edgar Hoover, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan—was the Russian spy who sold out America at Yalta.

First denounced by Chambers in the late 1930s and criminally charged in late 1948 (his case was first raised in the middle of the presidential election, in what became a dress rehearsal for McCarthyism), Hiss was convicted on the charge of perjury (for denying under oath that he gave documents to Chambers and saw him after January 1, 1937) in 1950 and served almost four years in prison, after which he returned to New York City and worked anonymously as a stationery salesman.

I met Hiss in 1979 through a family friend, and despite the differences in our ages, we became friends. I was interested in American political history, and he was happy to speak about the people and events he had witnessed in New Deal Washington and elsewhere. We would occasionally meet for lunch at a restaurant on Irving Place in New York, where I also got to know his son Tony.

In person, I found Alger to be direct, unassuming, well-read, generous with this time, and gracious in his approach to others (including some of his enemies). At that time he was petitioning the courts to have his conviction overturned, what was called a coram nobis petition. (The courts, led by a Nixon-appointed judge, turned it down.)

Around this time, Hiss was also featured in an excellent documentary film, The Trials of Alger Hiss, that another friend of mine, John Lowenthal, produced and directed. The film, which interviews surviving parties on all sides in the case, makes it clear that Hiss was the victim of a J. Edgar Hoover show trial.

Sunday Afternoon with Hiss at Yalta

Such was Alger’s openness at our meetings that on one occasion I asked him if he would accept a luncheon invitation to speak to a group of my friends, all of whom knew something about his celebrated case. He accepted instantly, and we picked a winter Sunday for him to come to my apartment, at which about eight friends had gathered.

At that time Alger was mostly speaking about his legal cases, but in this instance, we asked him instead to talk about his early career as a Washington lawyer, the New Deal, and Yalta, which he then did for about three hours.

Alger spoke about clerking for the Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes (late in the judge’s life, he would read to him out loud), the Depression, and his subsequent employment as a New Deal lawyer. He talked about people he admired (most were other New Dealers, including Franklin Roosevelt), books that he admired at the time (Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame comes to mind), and magazines that he read in those years (he loved The New Yorker, which isn’t exactly New Masses).

In my estimation Hiss was a New Deal liberal, committed to Roosevelt’s idealistic presidency and reforms. There was not an inkling in anything he said that connected him with either Marx or Lenin, or a starry-eyed, I’ve-seen-the-future-and-it-works conception of the Soviet Union (unlike, say, many of my college professors who in the 1970s had posters in their offices of Mao, Che, and Marx).

Pearl Harbor and the War Years

On the morning of December 7, 1941, Hiss was at his desk in the State Department, with responsibilities for the Far East, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. While he feared a conflict was looming with Japan, he had no sense that an attack would come in Hawaii. (Nor did he buy into the theory that FDR welcomed an attack.)

During the war, Hiss’s focus shifted to postwar planning and the creation of the United Nations, which can best be understood as the New Deal going global.

Interestingly, after World War II Hoover’s FBI had Hiss’s telephone tapped for several years, and had him tailed, but learned nothing suspicious, something that it withheld at his later trials (during which the FBI fed Chambers minutiae about Hiss’s life, to give his court testimony verisimilitude).

Who Won Yalta?

At Yalta, Hiss was included in the American delegation at the last minute because the United Nations was so important to FDR, who otherwise, even after the meetings, would have had a hard time recognizing or knowing Hiss’s name.

Hiss believed that Roosevelt and the U.S. delegation at Yalta did the best that they could with a weak hand, as Stalin’s forces were on the ground in Eastern Europe. They secured Soviet participation in the United Nations and in the war against Japan, and partitioned Germany into quarters, three of which were in Allied hands.

In 1955 Hiss wrote: “We coordinated the final military strangulation of Germany; Stalin agreed that Russia would enter the war against Japan within three months after Germany’s defeat; we were granted air bases north of Vladivostok to ensure maximum bombardment of Japan, and other bases in Hungary from which to press our air attacks against Germany.”

Reflecting in 1982 on Yalta, Hiss wrote in The Nation:

Just before the American delegation, of which I was a member, left Yalta, Secretary of State Edward Stettinius was standing with Gen. George C. Marshall outside our villa. Stettinius turned to Marshall, who had rarely left his desk in Washington during the war years, and said, “General, I assume you are very eager to get back to your desk.” Marshall answered, “Ed, for what we have got here, I would have stayed a month.”

That was the mood of the participants at Yalta. And I have no doubt today that we got as much as circumstances permitted.

Roosevelt’s Ear

I once asked FDR’s oldest grandson, Curtis Roosevelt, if it was at all conceivable that Hiss (assuming, which I do not, that he was a Soviet mole) had any influence on FDR at Yalta.

Curtis tilted his head back in that trademark Roosevelt laugh and said: “FDR didn’t even listen to Stettinius…” (who at Yalta was the US Secretary of State and Hiss’s boss).

Another inconvenient truth about the charges made against Hiss is that at Yalta, his one trademark position, which stands out in the histories, was his opposition to giving each socialist republic of the Soviet Union a vote in the General Assembly of the newly forming United Nations. Would someone really in Stalin’s grasp have taken such a public position at Yalta?

Here’s a twist on that particular Yalta debate that you will not hear in the Kremlin: Stalin eventually compromised with the West on this point and approved UN votes only for Belarus and Ukraine—on the grounds that they were independent nations.

Churchill Skinny Dips

What I remember most from Hiss’s stories about Yalta is his description of once being at Vorontsov Palace, which housed the British delegation.

Hiss was there for a meeting, and he was seated with a view toward the sea. After a while, Winston Churchill emerged from somewhere and, dressed in a robe, began waddling to the water’s edge.

At the shoreline he dropped his robe, which revealed nothing underneath, although he did have cigar in his mouth. For a while Churchill stood waist deep in the sea, lost in contemplation about a conference going wrong. Then as he turned to come out, a wave appeared that covered Churchill (and doused his cigar), prompting the prime minister to turn around, angrily face the sea, and make a rude gesture.

The Inheritances of the Hiss Case

In their recent Yalta histories Plokhy and Katz buy into the Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev theory (from The Haunted Wood and elsewhere) that at Yalta Hiss had the Russian code name ALES and was spoon-feeding his Soviet handlers American positions, although writing in American Scholar the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Kai Bird analyzed the ALES allegation and concluded that it wasn’t Hiss at all, but most likely Wilder Foote, another officer in the State Department at Yalta. (And filmmaker John Lowenthal won in court against Vassiliev, after Lowenthal was sued for debunking Weinstein-and-Vassiliev concocted theories about Hiss and ALES.)

In reality, the chief accuser (although others chimed in) of Hiss as a Soviet operative was the delusional Whittaker Chambers, who in the 1930s and 40s lived a fantasy world of his own creation, imaging himself (and many others) on the frontline of international conspiracy not far from the Finland Station, when, in fact, during those years Chambers was busy translating books, including Bambi, from German into English; men like Alger Hiss or Francis Sayre (Woodrow Wilson’s son-in-law, who Chambers also denounced) were no more Russian spies than was Chambers. But it suited Chambers’ fabulist conceptions of himself to appear to the world as a Soviet courier—as will become more clear when historian Jeff Kisseloff’s account of the case is published.

Descended from the warped imagination of Whittaker Chambers we get the political career of Richard Nixon (he was the House Un-American Activities Committee member who went after Hiss, in time for the 1948 presidential election), the rantings of Joseph McCarthy, the sanctity of J. Edgar Hoover, and the rise of Ronald Reagan (who gave Chambers the Presidential Medal of Freedom), if not the McCarthy lawyer Roy Cohn and his protégé Donald J. Trump.

Next: Curtis Roosevelt, FDR’s grandson, talks about Yalta. Earlier installments can be found here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.