Rough Transcript

Tooley: Hello this is Mark Tooley, editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy, speaking to you from my Buick sitting in a parking lot in Northern Virginia, not yet having reached my office, but having the pleasure of speaking to Catherine Grace Katz who has written a fascinating new book The Daughters of Yalta, spotlighting three formidable women and daughters of powerful leaders who were present at the Yalta Conference in 1945. Namely the daughters of Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, and Averell Harriman and the central but too often overlooked roles that they played at the summit that helped to reshape the post-war world. So, Catherine, thank you for writing this book, and thank you for joining this conversation.

Katz: Thank you so much for having me.

Tooley: And you will recall your bio much better than I. If you could just share a few words about where you come from and how you came to write this book?

Katz: Sure. So, I am originally from Chicago. I studied history at Harvard and did my MPhil in Modern European History at Cambridge. And after Cambridge, I spent a little time working as a financial analyst in New York. I did what I think many recent grads think is the smart thing to do, and went to work in finance. But coincidentally, in the lobby of my office was a bookstore called Chartwell Booksellers which specializes in books by and about Winston Churchill. And so, it was through visits to this bookstore, where I got to know the bookstore owner, that he introduced me to the International Churchill Society and the Churchill family. And it was around this time that they were opening the diaries of Churchill’s middle daughter Sarah to outside researchers, and they asked if I’d be interested in writing an article about them for their journal Finest Hour. And I was thrilled to do this. And it was a great way I thought to reengage with history, and little did I know that one article would not be where it ended. The more I learned about Sarah and her remarkable life, especially her wartime experience working as her father’s aide-de-camp at the Tehran and Yalta conferences, that her presence there also inspired the other two leaders to bring their daughters with them to Yalta. And so, it blossomed from that opportunity to write an article. And I should also mention I’m also a current student at Harvard Law School. Yeah, I didn’t have enough on my plate, and just finished writing the book during my first year of law school.

Tooley: Well, wonderful. Myself and probably most listeners would be most familiar with Mary Churchill Soames, who just died a couple of years ago, and was fairly prominent almost to the end of her life. Less familiar with FDR’s daughter, who died decades ago, and even more so with Averell Harriman, his daughter, who I think had a long life. But I can’t quite recall when she passed away. So, tell us a little bit about these women. Of course, Averell Harriman’s daughter would be probably the least well known.

Katz: Yes. So, I’ll start with Sarah Churchill since she’s probably the best known. Some people know her as an actress. She starred in a movie opposite Fred Astaire called Royal Wedding in 1951. But before that, during the war she was a member of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and an aerial reconnaissance intelligence officer at RAF Medmenham. And so, she was also extremely close to her father. They had a really close relationship since she was a young girl. And she felt that she understood her father’s mind, the way his brain works, better than anyone except for perhaps Clementine. He said that she used to say that she could walk in silent step with him. Even when he wasn’t speaking, she knew what he was thinking. She’s the middle of the Churchill children, and in many ways the most like him. She really wanted to make a name for herself, have her own career at a time when there are a few opportunities open to women of her class and age. And I believe that had she been born 10 years later, she might have even succeeded her father in politics, because she had his natural ability with language. She was a beautiful writer, and also had a really astute grasp of politics. Kathleen Harriman is one who was less familiar to readers, except perhaps in the context of the affair between Averell Harriman and Pamela Churchill, Winston Churchill’s daughter-in-law, during the period when Harriman was the Lend Lease envoy in London. And Kathleen and Pamela were best friends at the time, and Kathleen agreed to cover up for the affair because she was working there as a war reporter, which her father had arranged for her. Which is very ahead of his time in many ways. They were both extremely adventurous, great athletes. He was a business tycoon; he was the chairman of Union Pacific Railroad. He founded Sun Valley, a ski resort, Newsweek magazine, and he was very ahead of his time in wanting his daughters to be involved in his business affairs, to the extent that they interested them. And Kathleen was very interested. And so, when the war broke out, he made it possible for her to come with him to London to work as a war reporter, where they became very good friends with the Churchill family. And then when he became the Ambassador to the Soviet Union in 1943, Kathleen went with him, where she learned to speak Russian and at the age of only 27 became the woman who had more experience with and access to Stalin and his inner circle than any other American woman in history. And finally, there’s Anna Roosevelt, who was 38 years old and the only mother among the three daughters. She had three children. I should also mention that Sarah Churchill was 30 at the time. But Anna Roosevelt, like Sarah Churchill, had had a very close relationship with her father when she was a young girl, but this changed dramatically after her father’s paralysis from polio. And they spent many years in greater distance after that. She was somewhat rebellious, had made ill-advised marriages vows to a man when she was just 20 years old and had two children. And they ultimately divorced, and she then fell in love with a Republican journalist. And they married and she moved to Seattle, where they became the editors of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. And when her husband joined the Army in 1943, Anna decided to move home to the White House where she became essentially her father’s gatekeeper, largely because she recognized before anyone else that he was not in good health, and insisted he have a comprehensive medical examination to determine what was not right about him. And in this revealed that he had congestive heart failure. Anna and the doctor were the only people who knew the details of his illness. Even FDR didn’t ask anything about what was wrong with him. And you can imagine when you’re trying to win the war he may not have wanted to know, just so he could continue to function. But Anna, as I said, became the gatekeeper for him in the White House, helping decide who should have an audience with him, who should meet with someone else, sometimes even taking papers out of his inbox at night and distributing them to others. And even though he didn’t know what was wrong with him, he did sense that something had changed, because in January 1945, he wrote to Churchill saying “Winston, if you’re thinking of bringing Sarah as your aide again, I’m thinking of bringing Anna this time.” And so, Anna goes with him as his protector, literally trying to keep him alive the entire time they’re at the Yalta conference.

Tooley: My apologies. I incorrectly referred to Mary Churchill and of course it was Sarah Churchill, not the youngest, but the middle daughter, who was there.

Katz: Mary Churchill did go to Potsdam.

Tooley: Yeah, that’s right. Yes. Sorry. My confusion had some basis in reality. Some listeners might be perplexed that none of these individuals brought their wives with them, just bringing their daughters. Obviously, Churchill’s wife and FDR’s wife were essential political partners, but neither one was invited to Yalta. According to some accounts, Eleanor was a little bit hurt that her daughter rather than herself was invited. Is that actually true?

Katz: Yes. So first, Clementine Churchill, she did not like to fly. They flew to the Yalta conference and she avoided it as much as possible. But they as a family had agreed early in the war that someone from the family should always go with him on his foreign travels as a protector and confidant, but also to have sort of an unofficial family historian because they knew that he would want to write his memoirs after the war. And so, Sarah was there as much as his aide, as also kind of the unofficial family historian, which is really unique to think about. And she was a beautiful writer and very much the conscience of the conference through the thoughts that she recorded. So, her letters are a joy to read. Eleanor Roosevelt was very hurt that she was not invited to go to Yalta by FDR. I think in her case, she was incredibly energetic and effective in policy, especially domestic policy. She was less involved with the development of the war itself. And also, kind of very tragically, FDR was dying and for all of Eleanor’s wonderful qualities, she couldn’t see that her husband was dying. She couldn’t see the change in him. And also, she was a very energetic person, but at that moment that’s not necessarily what he needed. And so, Sarah, or I’m sorry, Anna, was someone who could kind of be that person, that strong, supported his side without necessarily making demands on his time. And it’s kind of a not necessarily pleasant thing to think about, FDR not wanting Eleanor in that capacity at that moment, but also you can get the sense of how committed the leaders were to making this a true working meeting. Because when you bring the First Lady, there are more obligations, or at least would be perceived to be obligations to make more of a focus of the pomp and circumstance. As FDR told Eleanor as kind of his excuse for not bringing her is that the Soviets who already have a very difficult task of making Livadia Palace, where they’re hosting the conference, even inhabitable, but bringing the First Ladies with them would make it much more ceremonial, and the resources would have to be significantly greater. And so, you can get the sense of also the acknowledgement of what the Russians are going through to even put this together. Which was remarkable what they accomplished in just three short weeks. But also, the sense of wanting to spend as much time working as possible and less time with the diplomatic formality that you might associate with a state visit.

Tooley: And the palace fascinatingly had belonged, had been a vacation palace for the tsar, and until recent months had been occupied by the German invaders. So, as you say, it was astonishing that the Soviets were able to clean it up as much as they could with those few days that they had. And most interestingly, with several hundred participants at the Yalta conference, and yet there were only what, a dozen or so bathrooms, indoor bathrooms available?

Katz: Not even that many, yes. I feel like that setting and the Livadia Palace itself are almost like a character in the story. It’s kind of one of those things where the Russians were incredibly gracious hosts, but if you peek behind the curtain even just a tad, you can see really what little substance there was behind it. Livadia Palace, which they were using for the Yalta conference, had been the Nazis’ headquarters in Crimea. And when they left, they took with them everything that they could carry that was of any value. Not just the furniture and the art and the China, but also literally the door knobs, which they could melt down and use for scrap metal. And so, the Soviets had three weeks from the time that they agreed to use Yalta and Livadia as their headquarters for this conference. And they took the contents of the Hotel Metropol and other glamorous hotels in Moscow and carted it 1000 miles south to Crimea and restocked it with everything that they could. And they even had to go and requisition mundane items like coat hangers and ashtrays from the local farms and local people whose lives had been almost completely destroyed by the fighting that had been taking place across Crimea for the last few years. So, it really was a Herculean effort and a huge accomplishment to be able to even host it there. But it was really just only a surface level of glamour. And just outside the walls of the palace, which the daughters were able to see on a few of their excursions to meet and observe the local people, just how much tragedy this region had suffered not only during World War Two but for centuries prior, including the Crimean War. Just down the road there was the charge of the Light Brigade, and it’s almost like as soon as this region rebuilds itself, war strikes again. And it’s just this constant cycle, kind of one of those flash points in the globe, where you see this happened repeatedly.
Tooley: And Winston Churchill famously said that there could not have been a worse, more inconvenient place to meet in the world than Yalta.

Katz: Exactly. If they had spent 10 years looking for one, they couldn’t have found something worse.

Tooley: Now, Kathleen Harriman was the first of the daughters to reach Yalta, and essentially was there performing reconnaissance and helping with the logistics. And remarkably had to take a train all the way from Moscow across many days, which perhaps had been helpful in that exposure to the full devastation that had been inflicted on the Soviet Union by the Nazi invaders.

Katz: Yes, Kathleen is very much her father’s assistant ambassador in functions at Yalta, and also in the sort of way that we think of like a protocol officer at the State Department today. She does travel by train all the way from Moscow to Yalta, and her father leaves her there to oversee the logistics in working with the Soviets while he goes to Malta, where Churchill and FDR are rendezvousing before the meeting with Stalin. So, he leaves her there knowing that she can speak Russian and can communicate and coordinate with the local Soviet teams that are handling the logistics to make sure that everything is not only livable and habitable, but also accessible for Franklin Roosevelt, who is in a wheelchair. And so, he trusts her implicitly to make sure that everything that needs to be done will be. And it’s kind of one of those unsung roles where if they do their job correctly, you don’t notice them because everything has gone well. But if something goes wrong, and someone is offended or slighted, then they carry that slight with them into the negotiations. Even something as simple as misspelling their name on some official documents or even the place card at a dinner. You want to minimize any possible friction there can be in these kinds of meetings, especially as they’re doing a very delicate dance with the Soviets at this point. And so, Harriman does rely on Kathleen to make sure that everything is just so, and she does a fantastic job with very limited resources and very little time.

Tooley: And as you say, it’s quite amazing that Averell Harriman decided he did not have time to learn Russian as he became ambassador to the Soviet Union, so his daughter seemingly fairly quickly picked up Russian, which I took in college. In two years, I failed to pick it up quickly. So, she must have had a very vibrant mind to have achieved that. The three daughters, did they did they know each other beforehand, and did they befriend each other during the conference?

Katz: So, Sarah and Kathleen knew each other before Yalta because they had spent several years together in London. They were two of the few young women who would have been part of these new dinners and conversations that the leaders were having. As I mentioned, the Churchills and the Harrimans were very good friends. They were even celebrating Kathleen’s 24th birthday on December 7, 1941 when they learned the news about Pearl Harbor. So, the two families were very close, and Sarah Churchill was also aware of the affair between her sister-in-law Pamela and Kathleen’s father, Averell. And did her part to, unfortunately, cover up for it to keep the peace and not allow it to become a scandal that could be distracting or embarrassing to either Harriman or her father as Prime Minister. So, they did know each other and they liked each other. And Kathleen had even seen Sarah act in a few of her performances at the very beginning of the war. But neither of them had ever met Anna Roosevelt, but we’re very curious and intrigued by her and what they knew about her. They knew that she had been living in the White House and that she was a mother. But Averell Harriman had met her on a trip to Washington, DC and had told Kathleen that she was “a peach.” So, Kathleen was excited to meet her. Anna, despite being the President’s daughter, was actually the least experienced, especially in kind of foreign diplomatic situations, among the three of them. And it is very tempting to think of the three daughters as kind of a combined unit, three young girls against the world, but you have to remember that their loyalties were first and foremost to their fathers and their countries. And the relationship among the three of them ebbs and flows, mirroring the relationship among their fathers. And so, they left Yalta certainly friendly, but they didn’t walk away the best of friends.

Tooley: It’s too bad Stalin didn’t bring his daughter Svetlana. That would have been a fascinating addition to the mix.

Katz: Yes. She did speak English, so she could have been very useful to him in the way that the other daughters were in their kind of quasi-official daughter diplomat sort of roles where they could go out and have conversations off the record, but deliver subtle and extremely important messages that couldn’t necessarily be delivered by someone speaking on behalf of the government. But they would speak with the force of their fathers behind them. But Stalin, he really didn’t allow Svetlana to engage with foreigners. On the rare occasions when he did, for example, when Churchill came to Moscow in 1943, he kind of paraded Svetlana around before dinner as if to show that he was a family man too, as kind of like putting on a role that was not one that fit him very well. And so, Svetlana and Stalin had a very contentious relationship. She had learned as a teenager that her mother had been kind of driven to commit suicide by Stalin. She had an affair with an older man who he then sent to Siberia, and then she made a rebellious marriage at 19 and married one of her classmates who was Jewish. And Stalin refused to ever meet his son-in-law. And so, they were not at all on good terms at this point in history.

Tooley: Now of course the summit at Yalta involved the three democrats, or the two democratic Anglo-American leaders Churchill and FDR, and then of course the Soviet dictator Stalin, who from a moral perspective was hardly admirable, having sent possibly millions to their deaths. So, the three daughters presumably liked and admired Churchill and FDR. What were their thoughts about Stalin?

Katz: Yeah, so they could kind of see the various signs of his personality, which, on the one hand, he was a very generous and gregarious host. They felt that he truly was making an effort to impress the Western delegations, make them feel welcome, and was really pulling out all the stops showcasing the best of Russian and Soviet cuisine in the middle of a war zone, something that no one would expect to have. And there’s a wonderful anecdote from Kathleen, which is based on something that her father had told her, that when Stalin was in meetings and things would be going well, he’d be doodling little harmless figures on the side of his paper. But when things turn tense or he really became more serious, his doodles will become more threatening and he would start to doodle things like wolves, which is a really unique insight into his personality. And Sarah Churchill picked up on this as well, remarking on what a genial host he was when he’d give his toasts at the grand banquets at this conference, but also looking into his eyes and seeing “cold hard water,” is she describes it. And it’s not unlike the way that her father described dealing with Stalin. There is a quote about him, Churchill, saying, “If only I could have dinner with Stalin once a week, we’d have no problem.” But then privately expressing much more anxiety to Sarah throughout the conference about Stalin’s willingness to hold up his promises. And so, it’s the kind of public signaling, combined with the private reflections, which you can see through the daughters, that give a much more nuanced picture to how the President and the Prime Minister viewed Stalin and who exactly they were dealing with, as well as who are the people surrounding him, some of whom were much easier to deal with than others. But at the end of the day, even if they personally liked you, it wouldn’t really affect the way that they perceive their foreign policy.

Tooley: And then finally, the narrative said almost immediately, certainly after the war, at least from American conservatives that Yalta had been a great victory for Stalin and defeat for the West and that physically-weakened FDR had not fully realized what he was giving away and had undermined Churchill. I think other scholars dispute that narrative of course, and believe that Churchill and FDR got what they could, given the circumstances of Stalin’s overwhelming military strength in Eastern Europe. But what did the daughters think in the immediate aftermath of the Yalta Agreement? Did they think it was a positive plan for peace in the world, or were they more ambivalent?

Katz: So, for Anna Roosevelt, who I mentioned, she was the least experienced in foreign policy, and her father was very optimistic about having made a breakthrough personally with Stalin, which he wanted to build on and to use as a foundation for the bringing the Soviets into the post-war international order after the common enemy was defeated, through mechanisms like the United Nations, which they agreed on the final details at Yalta. And so, she, I think, was the most optimistic of the three daughters, which reflects her father’s attitudes towards Stalin at this time as well, where there is some wishful thinking and lack of experience, and which is different from some of the foreign policy experts on the Soviet Union at the time, like Chip Boland and George Kennan, who are writing to each other behind the scenes of this conference. Which is one of the fascinating kinds of background pieces that is taking place that I was very excited to learn about and write about in the book. Kathleen Harriman, I think, is kind of momentarily caught up in the euphoria of what they feel like they’ve accomplished at Yalta, but she had been very skeptical of Stalin and the Soviet Union from the time that she was a war reporter in London covering the press conferences with exiled European governments, like the Polish Government in exile in London. Her father was willing to give the Soviets the benefit of the doubt early on in 1941 and 1942 about dealing with them, the way that a Western businessman would. And he had dealt with the Soviets in business in his capacity as a businessman prior to the war. And so, I think it’s when he moved to Moscow in 1943 and realized that things were very different than he had anticipated that his thinking became more aligned with Kathleen’s skepticism about how genuine they would be in their promises. And so, it’s, I think, with her it is kind of that momentary euphoria replaced very quickly by a reality check which she had had earlier. And Sarah, I think, is the most cautious about Yalta. Again, I really see her as the conscience of the conference. And at no point is she overwhelmingly enthusiastic about what has been accomplished. I think she is hopeful, the regular people who she has met in Crimea at this time give her hope that war will not continue forever, and out of this wreckage there will be something positive and people will rebuild their lives and move on. But her skepticism and hesitancy about celebrating at the end of this conference reflects much more her father’s private concerns. Which is not necessarily indicative of the tone he takes when he goes back and reports to Parliament after Yalta, where he proclaims it publicly to be a success, just not really what he’s expressing privately.

Tooley: And finally, could you hold up a copy of your book?
Katz: Of course.

Tooley: Let’s take a look at it. The Daughters of Yalta, freshly published. I commend it to all of our listeners, and thank you so much for a very insightful interview.

Katz: Thank you so much for having me.