In was the last winter of the Second World War when the three leaders in the fight against Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany arrived in the Crimean resort of Yalta. Over eight days of bargaining, bombast and intermittent bonhomie from February 4-11, 1945 they decided on the conduct of the final stages of the war, on how a defeated and occupied Germany should be governed, on the constitution of the nascent United Nations and on spheres of influence in Eastern Europe, the Balkans and Greece.

Only three months later, less than a week after the German surrender in May 1945, Roosevelt was dead and Churchill was writing to the new US president, Harry S. Truman, of "an iron curtain" that was now "drawn down upon [the Soviets'] front".

Diana Preston chronicles these eight days that created the post-war world, revealing Roosevelt's determination to bring about the dissolution of the British Empire and Churchill's conviction that he and the dying president would run rings round the Soviet premier. But Stalin monitored everything they said and made only paper concessions, while his territorial ambitions would soon result in the imposition of communism throughout Eastern Europe.

Preston mixes foreign policy critique – arguing, for example, that if the US had threatened Russia with curtailing the Lend-Lease program for military allies, Poland might have been better served by the negotiations, and if Churchill and Roosevelt had been better briefed on the progress of the Manhattan Project, they might not have been so keen to have the Red Army join the fight against Japan – with vibrant descriptions of backstage activities, including Soviet intelligence agents intercepting British and American communications and "half-starving" Romanian prisoners of war reviving dilapidated palace gardens.

She brings to the fore secondary characters such as Anna Boettiger, Roosevelt's daughter, who curtailed access to her father while looking after his health, and reveals how Stalin's unwillingness to compromise over Eastern Europe, FDR's focus on the United Nations, Churchill's determination to retain control over Hong Kong, and the exclusion of "irksome" French leader Charles de Gaulle helped to shape the post-WWII order.

Colourful personalities, piquant details and a diverse array of perspectives make this a satisfying introduction to the subject. Preston is also the author of "Paradise in Chains: The Bounty Mutiny and the Founding of Australia".

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