Yalta Conference: APUSH Topics to Study for Test Day

The Yalta Conference of 1945 had huge implications for the post-WWII world. This meeting of the Big Three – Winston Churchill, FDR, and Stalin – would be what many historians came to consider the beginning of Cold War tensions. Keep reading for an overview of important Yalta Conference APUSH concepts to study for the exam.

What was the Yalta Conference?

Let me lay out the context before we get into what the actual Yalta Conference was all about. If you need an overview of World War II more broadly, please reference the PBS documentary The War, or any other resource you may have on the Second World War.

As the war continued into 1945, the momentum shifted to the Allies (Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union) after the Battle of the Bulge (December 1944-January 1945). As a result of not being able to break Allied lines, German forces lacked any real resources to mount another offensive. It is within this context that the Yalta Conference took place, in the resort town of Yalta on the Black Sea in early February of 1945.

Churchill (Great Britain), FDR (US), and Stalin (USSR) met here to discuss the terms of surrender for the German forces, and to create a strategy for the Pacific Theater of the war.


Big Three-Yalta Conference APUSH-magoosh

Churchill, FDR, and Stalin. Photo from the National Archives UK @ Flickr Commons.

What did the Big Three agree to at the Yalta Conference?

The biggest takeaways from the Yalta Conference are as follows:

  1. The Allies would demand unconditional surrender from Germany;
  2. Stalin would have free elections in eastern Europe (part of the US and Great Britain’s plan to undo the stronghold of communism in the USSR); and
  3. The USSR would enter the war on the Pacific front, in order to receive lands that Russia had lost in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905.

Wait, what does all of this have to do with the Cold War?

I’m so glad you asked.

As you well may know, the United States and the Soviet Union were allies during WWII; most historians would call that partnership one of convenience. Have you ever heard the phrase “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”? Well, that basically describes the mood at Yalta. The United States and Great Britain weren’t chummy with Stalin and the USSR, but they knew that if they were to have any hope of winning the war, they would have to cooperate with the Soviet Union.

So the Yalta Conference was an act of cooperation; until, however, the relationship between the democratic and capitalist countries and the communist and authoritarian USSR fell apart.

FDR died two months after the Yalta Conference, leaving his Vice President, Harry Truman, to negotiate the post-WWII world. Before the USSR could be much help in the Pacific Theater, the United States dropped the Atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan.

Why did the US drop the atomic bomb?

There are conflicting reasons for this decision. I’ll explain three possible motives as described by the Stanford History Education Group.

Reason #1: Military Necessity

Some historians believe that the intention was always to use the bomb, even though the war was quickly coming to an end. As stated in the US history textbook American Vision, “President Truman later wrote that he ‘regarded the bomb as a military weapon and never had any doubts that it should be used.’ His advisers had warned him to expect massive casualties if the United States invaded Japan. Truman believed it was his duty as president to use every weapon available to save American lives” (p. 615).

Reason #2: Saving American Lives

Other historians believe that an invasion of Japan, even with the assistance of the USSR, would have resulted in the loss of many American lives. At the Battle of Okinawa, only a few weeks before the dropping of the bomb, 123,000 soldiers – Japanese and American – died. Many believed that the death toll would increase exponentially.

An estimated 135,000 civilians (non-military individuals) died in Hiroshima immediately after the dropping of the bomb; the pre-bomb population was only 255,000. In Nagasaki, an estimated 64,000 civilians died immediately; the pre-bomb population was 195,000.

Reason #3: Stopping Russia

Finally, some historians believe that the main reason for using the bomb was to give the USSR the impression that the United States would not tolerate unchecked aggression into Asia. Read the following source for an example of this position.

“[James Byrnes, one of Truman’s advisors on the bomb] was concerned about Russia’s postwar behavior. Russian troops had moved into Hungary and Romania, and Byrnes thought it would be very difficult to persuade Russia to withdraw her troops from these countries, that Russia might be more manageable if impressed by American military might, and that a demonstration of the bomb might impress Russia.”
Source: Leo Szilard

In addition to defeating Japan, Byrnes wanted to keep the Soviet Union from expanding its influence in Asia, and wanted to limit its influence in Europe. Manhattan Project scientist Leo Szilard met with Byrnes on May 28, 1945. Leo Szilard wrote about his meeting with Byrnes in 1980.

Did the USSR keep the promises they made at the Yalta Conference?

For Stalin’s part, he did not keep his promise of offering free elections in Eastern Europe, and nowhere was that more apparent than in Germany itself. In the Potsdam Conference held in the summer of 1945 (after Germany surrendered in Europe, and before the bombs dropped in Japan), the Allies solidified an agreement they had made at Yalta to various zones of occupation in Germany.

At the end of World War II, Germany was divided into four zones. While the French, British and American cooperated, the Soviet zone grew more isolated. One of the striking examples of the effect of these occupation zones was in Berlin, where West Berlin (controlled by the United States and Great Britain) and East Berlin (controlled by the Soviets) had very different economies and political freedoms.

What is an example Yalta Conference APUSH question?

This question comes from Glencoe’s Multiple Choice quizzes (a great resource for preparing for the APUSH exam).

At Yalta (1945), the Soviet Union gained territorial concessions in Asia in return for agreeing to
A. join the United Nations.
B. enter the war against Japan.
C. give up reparations from Germany.
D. give up claims to Polish territory.
E. support the dropping of an atomic bomb in Japan.

Correct Answer:

The answer to this example Yalta Conference APUSH question is B. The Soviets would receive lands lost in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905.

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  • Allena Berry

    Allena Berry loves history; that should be known upfront. She loves it so much that she not only taught high school history and psychology after receiving her Master's degree at Stanford University, she is now studying how students learn history at Northwestern. That being said, she does not have a favorite historical time period (so don't bother asking). In addition to history, she enjoys writing, practicing yoga, and scouring Craigslist for her next DIY project or midcentury modern piece of furniture.

By the way, Magoosh can help you study for both the SAT and ACT exams. Click here to learn more!

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