Letter From Crimea: Roosevelt’s Shadow Over Yalta

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

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Livadia Palace in Yalta, Crimea, where the 1945 conference took place. Photo: Matthew Stevenson.

Being in Yalta, even with rain and mud cascading out of the surrounding hills, reminded me of my friendship with Curtis Roosevelt, Anna Roosevelt’s son and FDR’s oldest grandchild, who died in 2016. Every time we got together in the last twenty years, the subject of Yalta came up, with me asking: was it an American diplomatic triumph or a sellout?

Not long after I moved to Europe in the early 1990s, I met Curtis through a friend in the expatriate community. He was then living in Spain but was thinking of moving to France or Switzerland, and when we first met it was to discuss places where it might make sense to buy a house. In the end he settled in Provence, which has milder winters than Switzerland, but we kept in touch, having lunch or dinner whenever our paths crossed.

I think the revival of the Cold War, war in Ukraine, and Stalinist-Putinist Russia would have broken his heart, as he was a great believer in the collective security of the United Nations and in the diplomatic optimism that followed World War II, both of which, for the moment, are in the dustbin of history.

The Arc of American History

Curtis and I talked endlessly talked about American history and politics, as he was descended both from Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt, and had grown up largely living in the White House (when not away at boarding school). His mother had remarried after divorcing Curtis’s father (who had the name Curtis Dall), but then during the war years Anna moved herself and her children to the White House, so that they could all be closer to FDR, whose health was failing.

Curtis was a teenager, and he said that most nights, there were about twenty guests at dinner—generals, senators, cabinet officers, labor leaders, etc.—including Anna and her children. Before dinner, FDR would mix martinis (not for the grandchildren), and during the meal he would hold forth, the Hyde Park patrician that he was.

The dinners left Curtis with a firsthand impression of figures that I only knew from my reading, such as Harry Hopkins, “Pa” Watson, General George Marshall, and Admiral Leahy. Any time we got together I would ask him about various personalities, and he would answer with great care (and no shortage of humor).

He had the greatest affection for his grandmother, Eleanor, who had been an awkward mother to Anna, but who made up for it by doting on her grandchildren.

Who Won at Yalta?

Early on in our friendship, I asked Curtis many questions about Yalta, as his mother had attended the conference and spoke at length about her experience there with her son. I am sure one of the reasons I was so eager to visit Crimea was because of our friendship.

Over and over, Curtis said that FDR’s overriding goal at Yalta was to secure Russian intervention against Japan, and for Stalin to endorse the United Nations and accept a seat on the Security Council.

Of the other issues negotiated at Yalta, such as the Polish elections or the repatriation of Soviet citizens captured by the Allies from the Germans, Curtis said FDR dealt with them much the way he horse traded with senators and members of Congress over appropriations. At the end of some of his Yalta stories, Curtis would imitate FDR (accurately, I thought) by contorting his face into an ironic yet forced smile, as if to say, “Well, it’s politics, now let’s move on.”

In no way did Curtis think that FDR had failed the United States or the free world at Yalta. He pointed out that in February 1945 Russian troops had occupied Poland and were advancing to the German border, and he added that however much Churchill might have objected to ceding Poland to the Russian sphere of influence, the Allies were in no military position to force the Russians out of Eastern Europe, where possession is nine-tenths of international law.

When I asked him about the alleged American spy Alger Hiss in the U.S. delegation under Secretary of State Edward Stettinius Jr., Curtis threw his head back and laughed, adding: “As if FDR listened to Stettinius…”

By that he meant that as president FDR took his own counsel, especially at international conferences, and it was an absurd notion to imagine that a junior State Department official, such as Hiss at Yalta, could have had any sway with the president, given that FDR had no time for his boss.

Curtis (who had a sharp political mind) then added that the Hiss case in 1948 was purely a case of presidential electoral politics, a way for Richard Nixon and others to put the Roosevelt presidency on trial, so to speak, without casting aspersions on the dead American legend.

Franklin and Eleanor

Listening to Curtis speak about both of his grandparents, I got the impression that FDR was happiest mixing martinis at the end of a long day and pouring them into the glass of a midwestern mayor or Democratic boss who had stopped by the White House to talk strategy for the next election.

Curtis said that FDR was not overly intellectual, in the sense of loving books or political theory, but his memory stored everything he heard in conversations—it’s how he learned—and years later, for example, he could recall the name of some ward captain’s sister or the contested issues in the mayoralty election in Indianapolis.

By contrast, Eleanor was a committed liberal who was impatient with FDR’s politicking and back slapping, and wanted him to embrace various causes for social justice—many of which made the patrician FDR uncomfortable.

Eleanor often brought to dinner some of her many protégés, such as Joseph Lash or Allard Lowenstein, hoping that FDR might hear what they had to say about poverty, race relations, or social justice, and then she would leave the dinner table in something of a bad mood, as FDR would wave his cigarette holder in her direction and say, “Oh, Eleanor, not now.”

By the late 1930s and 40s, the Roosevelt marriage was more of a political partnership than a romantic bond. FDR admired Eleanor’s ability to travel across the United States and meet people from all walks of life—something he could not do, given his paralysis. But he did not share her social outrage, preferring to spend his evenings with political bosses counting votes in the next primary.

FDR took his daughter Anna to Yalta because he feared that if Eleanor joined him on that world stage, their nightly tensions might spill over into the talks. Instead he brought along the calming influence of his daughter and some of his political cronies, so that his down time could be filled with political chit-chat, not a memo from his wife on world hunger.

A Childhood in Politics

After FDR died, Curtis remained close to his grandmother, especially as he was then working for the United Nations, where she was a member of several boards.

More than once, at my prompting, he told me how before the 1960 Democratic convention he accompanied Eleanor to a meeting with John F. Kennedy and his wife Jackie, to see if there was a way for Eleanor’s candidate, Adlai Stevenson, to have a shot at the nomination. (Curtis liked Kennedy, but later observed that he treated many women as if they were the equivalent of inflatable dolls—which are my words, not his.) By that point Kennedy had more delegates than did Stevenson and, while polite and respectful to the Roosevelts, Kennedy moved ahead with his nomination plans without catering to Eleanor’s wishes.

It was only after Eleanor died in 1962 that Curtis decided to move to Europe, stepping away from the goldfish bowl that came with growing up a Roosevelt in the White House. As much as he appreciated the memories of his historic political family, he often said that they came at the cost of emotional well-being.

When we were alone he would speak of his mother’s failed marriages (one of her ex-husbands committed suicide) and the stress that came from the public glare into the White House; in the 1930s Curtis was an endless fixture in national magazines. (In the tabloids he was called “Buzzie”.)

No wonder he decided to move abroad, where he worked as a successful ceramist and writer, and when he published his memoirs in 2008 he chose for the title: Too Close to the Sun.

I would love to hear Curtis’s take today on Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, as I think it would blend FDR pragmatic, open-mindedness about the Russians and Eleanor’s abiding faith in diplomacy to prevent future wars, although as I look at pictures of Russian cruise missiles laying waste to Ukrainian apartment blocks in what might be called The War of the Soviet Succession, I sense the Roosevelt vision might belong to the world of our fathers.

Next: The division of the spoils at Yalta. Earlier installments can be found here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, and The Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent book, about traveling in France and the Franco-Prussian wars, is entitled Biking with Bismarck.