Potsdam Conference 1945: Day-By-Day

Berlin Experiences - The Potsdam Conference - The Big Three

This month we take a look back at the Potsdam Conference. 

Seventeen days in the summer of 1945 that would change the course of human history forever.

This would be the first, and last time, that US President Harry Truman, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin would meet. Allies united in the defeat of a common enemy. The Big Three would gather in the former royal residence of Cecilienhof in Potsdam from July 17th until August 2nd to decide the fate of Europe and set the stage for the coming Cold War

(Special thanks to Jim McDonough of the Berlin Guides Association for expertly compiling this account of the proceedings)

Day 1 of the Potsdam Conference:
Tuesday, July 17, 1945 at Potsdam, Germany

“The Big Three” at the start of the Potsdam Conference:
Joseph Stalin, Harry S. Truman, and Winston Churchill


Shortly after the Unconditional Surrender of Nazi Germany in May 1945, Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union, Harry S. Truman of the United States and Winston Churchill of Great Britain decided to meet in Berlin to discuss what to do with a defeated Germany, Allied strategy in the Pacific Theater, and other issues confronting the postwar world.

Originally called ‘The Berlin Conference’ it would soon become more popularly known as the Potsdam Conference after it was decided to move the summit southwest of Berlin to the German city of Potsdam and the Cecilienhof Palace.

Completed in 1917, the palace was the former residence of the last Crown Prince of Prussia, Prince Wilhelm, and his wife Cecilia of Mecklenburg-Schwerin. Toward the end of WWII in January/February 1945, the two had left the palace before the Soviet advance on the area during the Battle of Berlin, leaving behind all their precious furnishings. This would be the site where the conference would be held for its seventeen-day period.

Not only was the palace chosen because of its size and the fact that it’d survived the war, but mostly as it provided ample space for the enhanced security necessary to protect the three most powerful men in the world given its seclusion on the northernmost edge of Potsdam.

Earlier in the day before the Conference began, President Truman and Soviet Generalissimo Stalin met each other for the very first time around noon at the ‘Truman Villa’ in Babelsberg, an eastern district of Potsdam.

“Promptly a few minutes before twelve, I looked up from my desk and there stood Stalin in the doorway,” the President wrote in his diary. “I got to my feet and advanced to meet him; he put out his hand and smiled. I did the same, we shook, I greeted Molotov (Foreign Minister) and the interpreter…”

As Truman’s biographer, David McCullough, would write: “He was the absolute dictator over 180 million people of 170 nationalities in a country representing one-sixth of the earth’s surface, the Generalissimo of gigantic, victorious armies, and Harry Truman, like nearly everyone meeting him for the first time, was amazed to find how small he actually was: ‘A little bit of a squirt,’ Truman described him, as Stalin stood 5’5″.”

“I can deal with Stalin…He’s honest but smart as hell…,” Truman would write. The Generalissimo, on the other hand, was less optimistic. He once told an aide that Truman was “worthless” and had pretty much already determined that he’d surrender nothing of any kind when the bargaining began.

At 5:10pm, arriving through their own separate doors, President Harry S. Truman, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin sat down with their foreign ministers, various advisers and interpreters at the large oak table that dominated the conference room in Cecilienhof to talk about the fate of the post-WWII world.

At Stalin’s suggestion, President Truman was made Chairman of the Conference and immediately began to present for consideration some of the proposals that he and his Secretary of State, Jimmy Byrnes, had prepared on their journey across the Atlantic. Byrnes would later write, “It was evident that the other heads of government appreciated the President’s efforts in having proposals ready for discussion.”

Before the first day was adjourned, the Big Three had agreed on the political and economic principles upon which to discuss the treatment of Germany after WWII. These would famously become known as the “Four D’s”: Democratization, Demilitarization, Denazification, Decentralization. They also had begun to discuss the political future of Bulgaria, Poland, Romania, and Italy. Furthermore, a division of the German Navy among the three nations had started to be considered.

Following the first day of talks, the Big Three went next door to the Weißer Salon. This large, bright and cheerful room was the Crown Prince and Crown Princesses music room. During the Conference, though, it served as the Soviet’s reception hall and the Soviet delegation had prepared a lavish and elaborate buffet for the other delegations.

From what President Truman would write in his diary, it became clear that the Soviets really knew how to put on a buffet at day’s end: “The table was set with everything you could think of…Goose liver, caviar, every kind of meat one could imagine, along with cheeses of different shapes and colors, and endless wine and vodka.”

A pleasant end to a short first day.

 

Day 2 of the Potsdam Conference:
Wednesday, July 18, 1945 at Potsdam, Germany

An avid early riser his whole life, President Truman sat down at his desk bright and early on July 18th and composed a letter to his beloved wife, Bess.

“I wasn’t sure if things were going according to Hoyle or not!”

“Dear Bess,

The first session was yesterday. It had made presiding over the Senate seem tame. The boys say I gave them an earful. I hope so…I was so scared. I didn’t know whether things were going according to Hoyle (protocol) or not. Anyway, a start has been made and I’ve gotten what I came for – Stalin goes to war August 15 with no strings on it…I’ll say that we’ll end the war a year sooner now, and think of the kids who won’t be killed! That is the important thing…Wish you and Margie were here. But it is a forlorn place and would only make you sad.”

The President then wrote another letter to his mother and sister which read, “Churchill talks all the time and Stalin just grunts, but you know what he means.”

Churchill Villa

Shortly after 1:00pm and accompanied by a half-dozen officials, President Truman walked to Ringstraße 23 (today Virchowstraße), Churchill’s villa, to have lunch with the British Prime Minister. The President showed the Prime Minister two telegrams that had arrived from Washington the night before confirming that the Atomic Bomb was ready. They both agreed that Stalin ought to be informed, but weren’t quite sure exactly how to do it. Should he be written a letter? Or just simply told? At any rate, Churchill believed that the Generalissimo should be made aware sooner rather than later, and Truman decided that the best time would be to just simply wait for the right moment during one of the forthcoming sessions.

Stalin Villa

Truman then made his way to Kaiserstraße 27 (today Karl-Marx-Straße) to pay a return visit to Stalin with his Secretary of State, Jimmy Byrnes, and his interpreter, Chip Bohlen. The three men were taken by surprise when they walked into Stalin’s villa and saw a second lunch waiting for them. Again, the Soviets painstakingly over-did themselves by preparing an elaborate meal in President Truman’s honour.

The President would later write: “He said he wanted to cooperate with the U.S. in peace as we had cooperated in war but it would be harder. Said he was grossly misunderstood in U.S. and I was misunderstood in Russia. I told him that we each could remedy that situation in our home countries and that I intended to try with all I had to do my part at home. He gave me a most cordial smile and said he would do as much in Russia.”

A tense President Truman

The second plenary session was called to order at 4:20pm that afternoon. Many observers agreed that Churchill didn’t seem himself. He was tired, cranky and distracted by the current election count which could end his term of office in a matter of a few days (Great Britain had held national elections on July 5th).

Stalin, on the other hand, was concise, friendly and very protective of his interests. “We cannot get away from the results of the war,” said Stalin.

The formal business was to be Germany and Truman suggested they begin at once.

Churchill spoke up and insisted that the delegations agree on defining what was meant by Germany. If they were to define Germany before WWII, then he was ready to discuss – his point being that the Germany of the moment was one with eastern boundaries being determined by the position of the Soviet Red Army.

Stalin: “Germany is what has become of her after the war. No other Germany exists…”

Truman: “Why not say the Germany of 1937?”

Stalin: “Minus what she has lost. Let us for the time being regard Germany as a geographical section.”

Truman: “But what geographical section?”

Stalin: “We cannot get away from the results of the war.”

The green line represents the 1937 Germany that the Big Three agree to define as a starting point. In the middle of it all is Poland

Truman: “But we must have a starting point.”

So it was agreed by the Big Three that the ‘Germany of 1937 should be the starting point’, bringing a shed of light to the delegations that a major step forward had been taken.

Finally, they turned to the question of Poland and began talks about its postwar future. After the first plenary session, Churchill’s Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, had written about his disappointing observation of Churchill: “The P.M. was wooly and verbose..” Again, on day two, Churchill entered into another narrative as he talked about the future of Poland, a subject that moved him immensely. It made him talk even longer than usual, and so went the remainder of the session.

According to biographer David McCullough, “Truman was exasperated. He could ‘deal’ with Stalin, as he said, but Churchill was another matter. Later that night he sat down at his desk and wrote to his wife, Bess: ‘I’m not going to stay around this terrible place all summer and just listen to speeches!'”

Tomorrow, President Truman would reach his boiling point.

 

Day 3 of the Potsdam Conference:
Thursday,
July 19, 1945 at Potsdam, Germany

President Truman called the third plenary session to order at 4:05pm.

The biggest issues confronting the Big Three today, on which everyone had his own viewpoint, was what to do with Franco’s government in Spain and what should now happen in Yugoslavia.

In short, Stalin wanted Franco out, while Truman wanted nothing to do with it. Both Truman and Churchill wanted free elections in Yugoslavia while Stalin supported Tito’s dictatorship.

Conflict was waiting to erupt.

Finally, Churchill and Stalin began to argue over whether the Prime Minister’s jabs at the Soviets over Tito were “complaints” or “accusations”.

Truman Villa

A fed-up Harry S. Truman, the normally humble Midwestern man, had reached boiling point: “I am here to discuss world affairs with Soviet and Great Britain governments…I’m not here to sit as a court! That is the work of San Francisco (the newly established United Nations). I want to discuss matters on which the three governments can come to agreement!”

Churchill responded with some dubious reference to the Yalta Conference, while Stalin would not surrender or relinquish his support for Tito.

Utterly annoyed and completely exhausted, Truman finally yielded to the stalemate and called the third session to an end. Only 3 of 17 days into the Conference and it was already clear that the wartime spirit of cooperation was fading dramatically fast.

What’s interesting to understand about the Potsdam Conference by this point is that the Big Three began facing their differences for the first time. During their previous meetings at Tehran and Yalta, which took place while they were still relying on each other to defeat Nazi Germany and liberate Hitler’s Europe, they had been able to make grand statements about the future of Germany and Europe while postponing or delegating issues on which they disagreed. Now at Potsdam, that was no longer necessary or possible.

Disagreements could no longer be concealed.

Despite their differences in the afternoon, it was now President Truman’s turn to host Churchill and Stalin at “The Little White House” at Kaiserstraße 2 (today Karl-Marx-Straße). In his villa, beautifully situated above Griebnitzsee, he threw a party that night and flew in two American GIs to entertain, a concert pianist and a professional violinist.

Truman Villa from Griebnitzsee

Dinner that night had to have been one of the most elaborate served in Europe in years: pate de foie gras, caviar on toast, cream of tomato soup, olives, perch saute meuniere, filet mignon, mushroom gravy, shoestring potatoes, peas and carrots, tomato salad with French dressing, Roca cheese, and vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce which had been flown in from the USS Augusta in Antwerp (Truman’s transportation across the Atlantic).

The wines included a chilled German white called Niersteiner from 1937; a fine Bordeaux, Mouton d’ Armailhac; Champagne, 1934 Pommery; plus coffee, cigars, cigarettes, port, cognac, and vodka.

“Had Churchill on my right, Stalin on my left,” Truman wrote his wife, Bess. “I was delighted to see Stalin so obviously enjoying himself. The old man loves music!”

Churchill even toasted to his political opponent, Clement Attlee, sitting quietly across the table: “I raise my glass to the leader of His Majesty’s loyal opposition.” Churchill’s icy sarcasm was not lost on Attlee, who had thus far said very little at Potsdam.

Finally, even Secretary of State Jimmy Byrnes was in unusually good form. “His stories were good, and told with both Irish and southern charm,” remarked one ambassador present. Meanwhile, Admiral Leahy got his chops busted from the others for his abstinence from alcohol.

Food, music and booze had come to save the day. The cold conspicuous glares of rigorous diplomacy in Cecilienhof during the day gave way to many genuine smiles at night.

 

Day 4 of the Potsdam Conference:
Friday, July 20, 
1945 at Potsdam, Germany

Late in the morning, Generals Dwight Eisenhower and Omar Bradley made their way to the Little White House to meet with President Truman. They spoke about strategy in the Pacific and the use of the atomic bomb, on which the generals were brought up to speed.

Even though Truman didn’t specifically ask the generals for their opinions, Eisenhower said he opposed the use of the bomb, thinking that Japan was already defeated. He’d even expressed to Secretary of War Stimson the hope that the United States would not be the first to deploy the most terrible weapon in the world. Some years later, though, Eisenhower would concede that his reaction was personal and based on no analysis of the subject.

Following a quick lunch, the three hopped into an open-air car and headed up to Berlin. Along the way, the air stunk of death and destruction, and they saw firsthand the miserable procession of German citizens in rags, pushing what few belongings they had through the rubble. Truman recorded in his diary, “You never saw as completely ruined a city.” 

The scene was a tragic contrast from the dinner party the night before.

The President and the two Generals arrived in the American sector at the US Group Control Council Headquarters for a flag raising ceremony. The Stars and Stripes raised that day was the same flag flying over the White House when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and on the day the United States declared war on Nazi Germany in 1941 (it would be raised over Rome and Paris when those two cites were liberated as well).

“We are here today to raise the flag of victory over the capital of our greatest adversary,” Truman spoke without notes and with obvious emotion, choosing his words carefully. “We are raising it in the name of the people of the United States, who are looking forward to a better world, a peaceful world, a world in which all the people will have an opportunity to enjoy the good things of life, and not just a few at the top.”

Unhooking his thumbs from the side pockets of his double-breasted suit, he freed his hands and chopped the air in unison as he then said, “We want peace and prosperity for the world as a whole,” as he stressed each word with emotion.

“If we can put this tremendous machine of ours, which has made victory possible, to work for peace, we can look forward to the greatest age in the history of mankind. That is what we propose to do.”

It may not have been what FDR would’ve said or other presidents before him, but Truman’s short speech was decidedly moving. General Lucius Clay recorded, “It was of lasting inspiration to all of us who were there…While the soldier is schooled against emotion, I have never forgotten that short ceremony as our flag rose to the staff.”

Following the ceremony up in Berlin, the fourth plenary session of the Potsdam Conference was called to order at 4:10pm.

Today the Council of Foreign Ministers and the subject of the treatment of Italy would dominate this brief session. In short, Churchill wanted the Council to meet in London – to which Truman and Stalin supported – and the Big Three began discussing the terms of a peace treaty for Italy.

At the Little White House later that night, Truman recorded in his diary: “Uncle Joe looked tired and drawn today and the P.M. seemed lost.”

Little was accomplished.


 

Day 5 of the Potsdam Conference:
Saturday, July 21, 1945
at Potsdam, Germany

Truman with Secretary of War Stimson

At 3:30pm, Secretary of War Henry Stimson arrived at the Little White House with a full description of the test of the atomic bomb that had taken place five days earlier on July 16th. It was sent to Potsdam by General Leslie Grooves who was overseeing the Manhattan Project back in the U.S. and regularly updating Stimson while he was away at the Conference with the President.

Behind closed doors in Truman’s villa, Stimson read Groove’s document aloud to the President and Secretary of State Jimmy Byrnes. It took some time, as it was fourteen pages double-spaced.

“At 530, 16 July 1945, in a remote section of the Alamogordo Air Base, New Mexico, the first full-scale test was made of the implosion type atomic fission bomb. For the first time in history, there was a nuclear explosion. The test was successful beyond the most optimistic expectations of anyone. Based on the data which it has been possible to work up to date, I estimate the energy generated to be in excess of the equivalent of 15,000 to 20,000 tons of TNT.

Grooves description would go onto note that windows were shattered by the blast as far off as 125 miles from ground zero. The 60 foot high steel tower, from which the bomb fell, immediately evaporated. It left a crater in the New Mexico desert more than two miles wide. It knocked down men more than 10,000 yards away and the mushroom cloud, containing a huge concentration of radioactive material, could be seen for more than 200 miles away.

After reading the document, Stimson looked up at the President to see that he was “tremendously pepped up by it,” as he would record in his diary. “He (Truman) said it gave him an entirely new feeling of confidence.”

Truman went straight to Cecilienhof after the meeting where the 5th plenary session was called to order at 5:05pm. According to Truman’s biographer, David McCullough: “The change in him was pronounced. He was surer of himself, more assertive. It was apparent something had happened.  Churchill later told Stimson he could not imagine what had come over the President (Stimson went to see the Prime Minister the next day to read him Groove’s report)”. 

Vice President for just 82 days and President of the United States for just over three months, it is hard to imagine that the farmer/failed haberdasher from Missouri was now anything less than fortified as he now sat in the presence of two of the most colossal figures of modern history, negotiating the postwar world.

At one point during this evening’s session, Stalin said that the three governments should issue a statement announcing a renewal of diplomatic relations with the former German satellite nations of Romania, Bulgaria, and Finland. When Truman disagreed, Stalin said the questions would have to be postponed.

“We will not recognize these governments until they are set up on a satisfactory basis,” Truman replied aggressively.

Yet, the biggest and thorniest question of the Conference was Poland, which dominated much of this session.

Immediately to the east of the Soviet zone is the new Soviet backed, Polish Administrative Area, which stretches east to the 1937 German border. After the war, millions of ethnic Germans were driven out of this area (Truman asked about the “nine million” on this day, but historians agree that there could’ve been upwards of 10-12 million Germans affected).

In vague language at Yalta it had been agreed that Poland would get territory from Germany to the west to compensate what Russia had taken from Poland in the east. At the moment, however, the Red Army was occupying all of Polish territory from Germany’s 1937 border (border with Russia) all the way up to the Soviet zone of occupation in Germany. Furthermore, a Soviet backed, Polish Administrative Area had already been established to run the area.

Truman: The question is not who occupies the country, but how we stand on the question as to who is to occupy Germany. I want it understood that the Soviet [Union] is occupying this zone and is responsible for it. I don’t think we are far apart on our conclusions.

Stalin: On paper it is formerly German territory but in fact it is Polish territory. There are no Germans left. The Soviet [Union] is responsible for the territory.

Truman: Where are the nine million Germans?

Stalin: They have fled.

Churchill: How can they be fed? I am told that under the Polish plan put forward by the Soviets that a quarter of arable land of Germany would be alienated—one-fourth of all the arable land from which German food and reparations must come. The Poles come from the East but 8¼ [8½?] million Germans are misplaced [displaced]. It is apparent that a disproportionate part of the population will be cast on the rest of Germany with its food supplies alienated.

Truman: I propose that the matters of the Polish frontier be considered at the peace conference after consultation with the Polish government of national unity. We decided that Germany with 1937 boundaries should be considered starting point. We decided on our zones. We moved our troops to the zones assigned to us. Now another occupying government has been assigned a zone without consultation with us. We can not arrive at reparations and other problems of Germany if Germany is divided up before the peace conference. I am very friendly to Poland and sympathetic with what Russia proposes regarding the western frontier, but I do not want to do it that way.

In other words, the Russians could not arbitrarily dictate how things were to be, and there would be no progress on reparations or other matters concerning Germany until this was understood.

Again, the Big Three tabled the question of Poland for further discussion and adjourned.

Truman had showed an unexpected amount of energy and confidence during this session. Churchill was pleased and his Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, thought it was Truman’s best day so far. Even Leahy, the President’s Chief of Staff, was impressed, though he was certain – bomb or no bomb – that Stalin had no intention of changing his course in Eastern Europe. He regarded Poland as a “Soviet fait accompli” and since millions of Soviet soldiers occupied the territory to the east, there was little the United States and Great Britain could do about it, short of going to war. This of course was unthinkable.

Stalin Villa

Finally, it was now Stalin’s turn to host the American and British Delegations for an evening party at his villa. Here, there was no trace of the heated tension from just a couple of hours ago. Stalin wanted to outdo the Americans in a contest of decadence. It’s safe to say that he succeeded as this evening would end up being the best time the President would have during his entire 19 days at Potsdam.

“It started with caviar and vodka…” he wrote in a letter to his daughter, Margaret. “Then smoked herring, then white fish and vegetables, then venison and vegetables, then duck and chicken and finally two desserts, ice cream and strawberries and a wind-up of sliced watermelon. White wine, red wine, champagne and cognac in liberal quantities…Stalin also sent to Moscow and brought his two best pianists and two feminine violinists. They were excellent. Played Chopin, Liszt, Tchaikovsky and all the rest.”

At one point Truman even asked Stalin (also known as the “Man of Steel) how he could drink so much vodka. Through an interpreter, Stalin said, “Tell the president it is French wine, because since my heart attack I can’t drink the way I used to.”


 

Day 6 of the Potsdam Conference:
Sunday, July 22, 1945 at Potsdam, Germany

Last night at Stalin’s party, Churchill, who cared little for music, told Truman he was bored to tears and wanted to head home early. Truman, who was having the best time he’d have during his entire trip to Potsdam, told the Prime Minister that he’d planned to stay until the party was over.

So, Churchill begrudgingly changed his mind and slowly made his way over to a corner for another half hour or so. Until the music ended, he “glowered, growled, and grumbled,” as Truman would amusingly describe it.

Things would be much different today.

Churchill Villa: Virchowstraße 23. 14482 Potsdam

Just after midday, Secretary of War Stimson made his way to Churchill’s Villa to read Grooves report which had gotten Truman “all pepped up” just before yesterday’s session.

Churchill now knew what had overcome the President to which he replied, “Stimson, what was gunpowder? What was electricity? Meaningless. This atomic bomb is the Second Coming in Wrath.”

The sixth plenary session was called to order at 5:10pm. Although the question of what to do with Italy’s colonies was briefly discussed – which was eventually deferred to the Council of Foreign Ministers to include as part of their drafting of the Peace Treaty – the largest issue on the agenda today was once again Poland.

Polish Administration Area – highlighted in yellow – was the biggest topic of contention on this day.

Stalin had the previous day informed Truman and Churchill that a (Soviet supported) Polish Administered Area had been established from the Oder River at the start of the western front stretching to Germany’s 1937 borders in the east. Furthermore, Stalin also claimed that all the ethnic Germans in this area had left after President Truman had inquired about the “nine million” of them spread throughout this territory.

During this session, Stalin remained firm on his position when it came to the western frontier of Poland:

“I shall not undertake to oppose Mr. Churchill’s views on all these points, but I will deal here only with two. One, Germany will have resources in the Ruhr and the Rhineland, so there is no great difficulty if Silesian coal basin is taken from Germany. Two, the movement of population does not present the difficulties Mr. Churchill anticipates. There are neither eight nor six nor three million Germans in this area. There have been several call-ups of troops in this area. Few Germans remain. Our data can be checked. Could we not arrange for representatives of the Polish government to come here and be heard?”

President Truman’s main concern was that the Poles were essentially being given a zone of occupation, something upon which hadn’t been agreed:

“The Allies recognize that Poland must receive substantial compensation in the north and west…But Poland has in fact been assigned a zone of occupation contrary to our agreement. We can agree, if we wish to give the Poles an occupying zone, but I don’t like the way the Poles have taken or been given their zone.“

The Prime Minister’s concern was more of a humanitarian one:

“The burden falls on us, the British in particular. Our zone has the smallest supply of food and the greatest density of population. Suppose the Foreign Ministers, having heard the Poles, cannot agree. Then there will be indefinite delay, at least until another meeting of the heads of government. I am anxious to meet practical problems due to the march of events.”

Yet, Churchill also had economic and political concerns too:

“(The Polish Administered Area) destroys Germany’s economic integrity, and puts an undue burden on the occupying powers… I think Marshal Stalin and I agree up to this point, that the new Poland should advance to the Oder. But the difficulty between the Marshal and me is that I do not go quite as far as the Marshal…(Furthermore) Berlin draws its coal from the Silesian mines, which have long been worked by Polish miners. What is to happen to Berlin’s coal during the winter?”

Stalin: “Berlin draws her coal from Saxony. Let the Ruhr give her coal. There are different opportunities for supplying Berlin with coal.”

Caricature poking fun at Soviet expansionism published in the Daily Mail

Stalin then reintroduced his suggestion that representatives from the Polish Administered Area be invited to Potsdam to give their viewpoints on the current situation in their de facto zone. Churchill withdrew his initial objection and agreed. Truman also agreed.

In conclusion: Today’s session revealed some of the largest frustrations that Churchill and Truman must’ve felt when it came to the Polish question at Potsdam. At the end of the day, both the President and Prime Minister wanted free and fair elections to play out in Poland, but the Soviet Army was occupying large parts of Eastern Europe (including Poland) and assisting in the establishment of new governments that would be sympathetic to the Soviet Union. Moreover, the Soviet goal was to essentially use these countries of Eastern Europe as a belt of protection against any future foreign invader.

“Whoever occupies a territory also imposes on it his own social system…as far as his army can reach.” – Joseph Stalin



Day 7 of the Potsdam Conference:
Monday, July 23, 
1945 at Potsdam, Germany

Early on the morning of the 23rd, Secretary of War Stimson made his way to President Truman’s office in the Little White House.

He informed the President that a warning message to Japan was nearly ready. This document would be known as the Potsdam Declaration, a final ultimatum to force Japan to accept the unconditional surrender demand.

Roosevelt and Churchill at Casablanca in 1943

Unconditional surrender was a term introduced by Roosevelt at the Casablanca Conference in January 1943 and reconfirmed at the Cairo Conference later that same year. It meant that war would continue until both Nazi Germany and the Japanese Empire accepted this demand. Germany already had, but Japan hadn’t.

By this point in the war, Japan had been defeated. In theory, it had been defeated well before Truman became President. In fact, studies by the Japanese themselves had determined that their war had been lost by January 1944. Yet, Japan’s defeat was not the issue. It was their acceptance of the unconditional surrender demand that was so desperately wanted.

In particular, unconditional surrender would mean that Japan would have to do away with its Emperor, the heavenly symbol of the Japanese people. Truman had been informed by a number of his advisers, including Secretary of War Stimson, that the unconditional surrender demand would make it more difficult to achieve peace. He was therefore advised on a number of occasions to add an explicit provision that would allow the Japanese to keep their Emperor.

Although Truman listened carefully to this advice, Stimson and others failed to convince him to do so.

Secretary Byrnes, President Truman, Admiral Leahy

Secretary of State Jimmy Byrnes, who had been a part of Roosevelt’s inner circle at the start of the war and especially in 1943 when unconditional surrender was introduced – vehemently opposed any such change to the demand. He believed that unconditional surrender was an objective too long established, too often proclaimed; it had been, as Truman’s biographer David McCullough would write, “too great a rallying cry from the time of Pearl Harbor to abandon now, Byrnes insisted.” It was what the Nazis had been made to accept, and its renunciation with the Japanese at this late date, after so much bloodshed, the acceptance of anything less with victory so near, would seem like appeasement.

Especially if you consider American opinion at this time.

A Gallup Poll in June 1945 had shown that a mere fraction of Americans, only 7%, thought the Japanese Emperor should be retained after the war, even as a puppet, while a full third of the people thought he should be executed as a war criminal.

However, for every day that Japan rejected the unconditional surrender demand, fighting would continue and the loss of lives in the Pacific Theater would continue to climb.

Königsberg highlighted in pink

Meanwhile, at Cecilienhof, the seventh plenary session was called to order at 5:10pm. Although there was talk about accessing and administering the Rhine and Danube rivers, along with Allied policy in the Middle East, the biggest topic of this session was Königsberg, a piece of German territory that the Soviets were demanding.

This was not only an ice-free port to the Baltic, but it was also a historically symbolic piece of Germany.

Initially inherited in the early 17th century as Duchy by the House of Hohenzollern (the eventual ruling dynasty of the Prussian Kingdom and German Empire), it was here that Elector Friedrich III of Brandenburg crowned himself King Friedrich I in Prussia in 1701. Soon officially seated in Berlin and Potsdam, the Kingdom of Prussia would go on to play a pivotal role in shaping the politics and history of central Europe for the next two centuries.

Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov and Stalin at the roundtable in Cecilienhof

Stalin: This was brought up at Yalta. We stated it was necessary to have at least one ice-free port at the expense of Germany. Too much blood has been spilled by the Soviet Union not to have some piece of German territory. Neither the President nor the Prime Minister raised any objection at Yalta, so the question was agreed upon. We are anxious to have that agreement confirmed at this conference.

Churchill replied that the British government sympathized with the Russian desires, and Truman didn’t have any objection in principle.

After today’s session was adjourned, it was now the Prime Minister’s turn to host that evening’s dinner party and he had already promised that he’d “get even” with the Soviets and Americans.

Churchill had invited the entire British Royal Air Force Orchestra to play that evening while the Big Three indulged in copious amounts of delicacies and drinks.

Amusingly, Stalin arrived at Churchill’s dinner party in a bulletproof limousine with some fifty armed guards, while Truman showed up on foot with Byrnes, Leahy, and three secret service men.

 

Day 8 of the Potsdam Conference:
Tuesday, July 24, 1945 at Potsdam, Germany

Secretary of War Stimson made his way upstairs to President Truman’s office in the Little White House at 9:20am.

He had another message from Washington:

Top Secret: “Operation may be possible any time from August 1 depending on state of preparation of patient and condition of atmosphere. From point of view of patient only, some chance August 1 to 3, good chance August 4 to 5 and barring unexpected relapse almost certain before August 10.”

The Little White House in Potsdam-Babelsberg

President Truman had now been given the confirmation that the atomic bomb was waiting to be released.

At 11:30am – shortly after Stimson left the Little White House – Churchill and the British military leaders arrived for a conference of the combined Chiefs of Staff. The elite British and American military officials offered the Prime Minister and President a document spelling out the final strategy to bring the war in the Pacific to an end.

A month earlier, President Truman had agreed to plans to invade Japan in early November. Thousands of American soldiers – who’d just returned from the battlefields of Europe – were now preparing to go to war with the Japanese.

The combined Chiefs of Staff at the Little White House told Truman and Churchill that, if the Japanese do not accept the unconditional surrender demand and if the ground invasion takes place, their set goal for ending the war would be November 15, 1946 – 16 months from now.

Truman wrote in his diary, “I asked General (George C.) Marshall what it would cost in lives to land on the Tokyo plain and other places in Japan. It was his opinion that such an invasion would cost at a minimum a quarter of a million American casualties.”

Truman had now fully understood what lay at stake. He knew that the atomic bomb was the most terrible thing ever discovered, but he also believed “it can be made the most useful,” as he’d record in his diary.

It was now time to tell Stalin.

Later on that afternoon, Truman called the eighth plenary session to order at 5:10pm. On today’s agenda: The governments of Eastern Europe and once again, Poland.

Stalin was determined to get the governments of Bulgaria, Hungary, Finland, and Romania to be regarded the same as Italy.

Truman and Churchill were prepared to welcome Italy into the community of nations for their declaring war on Japan just a few days before the Potsdam Conference began. Furthermore, they also didn’t believe that Italy was being influenced by the Soviets.

Yet, both London and Washington felt that the other said countries were clearly being governed by Soviet puppet regimes, operating behind the Iron Curtain.

Churchill: “We have been unable to get information, or to have free access to the satellite states (Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania). As soon as we have proper access to them, and proper governments are set up we will recognize them – not sooner.”

Stalin: “But you have recognized Italy.”

Truman: “The other satellite states will be recognized when they meet the same conditions as Italy has met…We are asking reorganization of these governments along democratic lines.”

All at the table understood what Truman was really saying – that was, Truman and Churchill would refuse to recognize any government that they believed were being influenced by the Soviet Union.

Stalin: “The other satellites have democratic governments closer to the people than does Italy.”

Truman: “I have made it clear that we will not recognize these governments until they are reorganized.”

Churchill then brought up Romania as an example: “Our mission in Bucharest has been practically confined. I’m sure the Marshal (Stalin) would be amazed to read the long list of incidents which have occurred.”

Stalin responded with rage: “They are all fairy tales!”

The Big Three could not come to an agreement. It was quite clear to the British and American delegations that Soviet expansion was well underway in Eastern Europe and there was nothing Truman and Churchill could do to stop it, unless if they chose to use military force.

And with that, a very contentious eighth plenary session was adjourned.

Truman then made his move.

The President rose from his chair and walked slowly around the conference table to have a private word with the Soviet leader.

The time was 7:30pm. The Russian interpreter, Pavlov, translated for his boss.

“I casually mentioned to Stalin that we had a new weapon of unusual destructive force,” Truman would later write in his diary. “All he said was that he was glad to hear it and hoped that we would make good use of it against the Japanese.”

Stalin was so bland and seemingly unconcerned about what Truman had just told him. Chip Bohlen, the President’s interpreter noted, “So offhand was Stalin’s response that there was some question in my mind whether the President’s message had got through to him.”

Afterwards, Churchill approached Truman and asked, “How did it go?”

“He never asked a question,” Truman responded.

The deed was done. The Americans and the British all assumed that Stalin had no knowledge of the existence of the atomic science.  Yet, as Chip Bohlen later noted, “I should have known better than to underrate the dictator.”

What we know now is that Stalin had already known more than the British and Americans could have imagined at that time.

A German-born physicist and naturalized British citizen named Klaus Fuchs had been providing the Soviets with atomic secrets for some time. Moscow judged this information from Los Alamos as “extremely excellent and very valuable.”

 Stalin understood perfectly well what Truman had just told him.

 When Stalin got back to his villa in Babelsberg, he instructed Molotov, his foreign secretary, to get in touch with the leader of the Soviet atomic project and tell him that he must “speed things up,” according to Marshal Georgy Zhukov, who was there at Stalin’s villa and realized that the two were talking about the atomic project.

There can be no exact date when the Cold War started. However, as historian Charles L. Mee Jr. has pointed out, the nuclear arms race is a different story: “The Twentieth Century’s nuclear arms race began at the Cecilienhof Palace in Potsdam at 7:30pm on July 24, 1945.”

 

Day 9 of the Potsdam Conference:
Wednesday, July 25, 1945
at Potsdam, Germany

The Big Three in Cecilienhof’s west courtyard on July 25, 1945

Something happened today that hadn’t happened since the Potsdam Conference began eight days ago: The Big Three sat down for today’s session before noon.

Some have claimed over the years that the reason why most sessions began around 5:00pm was because Churchill and Stalin couldn’t be bothered to get up before noon. That might be partly true, but there was actually a lot going on behind the scenes in Cecilienhof before the Big Three met for their plenary sessions.

A typical day at the Potsdam Conference actually got underway around 8:00am with consultations in subcommittees, meetings among the joint Chiefs of Staffs, and then often followed by meetings involving the Foreign Ministers. Finally, the Big Three would come to (hopefully) make decisions on the agenda that had been put together based on what had been discussed or presented during the day.

Today was different, however. At the end of this plenary meeting, Churchill and his political opponent, Clement Attlee, would be leaving Potsdam for London, where they would learn the results of the British national elections that had taken place nearly two weeks before the Potsdam Conference began on July 5th.

An improvised British polling booth for soliders stationed near Cairo

Indeed, Churchill’s coalition government had successfully led Great Britain through the war, but the Labour Party’s decision to pull out of the national wartime government on May 23rd forced a general election to take place. And on account of the participation of 1.2 million absentee ballots – primarily from soldiers stationed abroad – the outcome of the election could only be announced three weeks afterwards.

President Truman called the ninth plenary session to order at 11:30am and once again, the Big Three would clash over Eastern Europe.

Churchill: We must at some time discuss the question of the transfer of populations. There are a large number of Germans to be moved from Czechoslovakia. We must consider where they are to go.

Stalin: The Czechs have already evicted them.

Churchill: The two and a half million of them? Then there are the Germans from the new Poland. Will they go to the Russian zones? We don’t want them. There are large numbers still to come from Sudetenland.

Stalin: So far as the Poles are concerned, the Poles have retained one and a half million Germans to help as laborers. As soon as the harvest is over, the Poles will evict them. The Poles do not ask us. They are doing what they like, just as the Czechs are.

Churchill: That is the difficulty. The Poles are driving the Germans out of the Russian zone. That should not be done without considering its effect on the food supply and reparations. We are getting into a position where the Poles have food and coal, and we have the mass of the population thrown on us.

Stalin: We must appreciate the position of the Poles. The Poles are taking revenge for centuries of injuries.

Churchill: That consists in throwing them on us, and the United States?

Truman: We don’t want to pay for Polish revenge. If Poland is to have an occupation zone, that should be clearly defined, but at the present time there are only four zones of occupation. If the Poles have an occupation zone they should be responsible for it. The boundary cannot be fixed before the peace conference. I want to be helpful, but Germany is occupied by four powers, and the boundary cannot be changed now; only at the peace conference.

Tired, annoyed and full of frustration, Churchill then spoke up for the last time at Potsdam and finally called a spade a spade by stating what had been obvious up to that point (indirectly predicting what mostly turned out to be the case at the end of the Conference):

“If the conference ends in ten days without agreement on the present state of affairs in Poland, and with the Poles practically admitted as a fifth occupation power, and no arrangement for the spreading of food over the whole of Germany, it will mark the breakdown of the conference. I suppose we will have to fall back on our own zones…I do hope that we will reach a broad agreement, but we must recognize that we have made no progress so far on this point.”

The Prime Minister was leaving at a low point for the conference. Like almost every other plenary session, Churchill’s last one at Potsdam had not gone smoothly. As Truman put it in a letter to his wife, Bess:

“There are some things we can’t agree to. Russia and Poland have gobbled up a big hunk of Germany and want Britain and us to agree. I have flatly refused. We have unalterably opposed the recognition of police governments in the Germany Axis countries. I told Stalin that until we had free access to those countries and our nationals had their property rights restored, so far as we were concerned, there’d never be recognition.”

Now Churchill was leaving, and nothing major had been accomplished at Potsdam.

After the official photographs had been taken out in the west courtyard of Cecilienhof and after all the formal goodbyes had been exchanged, Truman said to the two Britons, “I must say good luck to you both.”

“What a pity,” Stalin said. “Judging from the expression on Mr. Attlee’s face, I do not think he looks forward avidly to taking over your authority.”

“I hope to be back,” Churchill replied.

As the Prime Minister turned for the exit, one of President Truman’s advisers, Ambassador Joseph Davies, watched him leave. “There was a glint of a tear in his eyes,” the Ambassador recorded, “but his step was firm and his chin thrust out. He seemed to sense that he had reached the end of the road.”

 

Day 10 of the Potsdam Conference:
Thursday, July 26, 1945
at Potsdam, Germany

With the British leaders back in London, there would be no negotiations or a plenary session held today.

But President Truman got up early as usual and boarded a flight for Frankfurt. When he touched down at the U.S. Army airfield there, Supreme Allied Commander General Eisenhower greeted the President along with an honour guard from the 508th Parachute Infantry.

Army units lined the roadways for over 30 straight miles and Truman rode past them in Eisenhower’s armoured car with the general, inspecting the troops.

The car steered deeper into the countryside, through quaint villages that had not been bombed. It was a reminder that not every single German had supported the Nazis, as there were plenty of Germans who had lived reluctantly through WWII and had lost so much – family members, businesses, and their overall every way of life.

The group eventually ended up back at the Frankfurt headquarters where Eisenhower had organised the military government of the American Occupied Zone in Germany. The offices were housed in a building formerly owned by I.G. Farben, the giant chemical company that had supplied the poisons to gas millions of innocent victims in the Nazi death camps during the Holocaust.

When Truman returned to the Little White House in Babelsberg around 7:00pm that evening, he learned that the people of Great Britain had elected Clement Attlee as their new prime minister. Several couldn’t believe it, but the Soviets seemed the most upset of all.

According to Truman’s biographer, David McCullough, ‘How could this possibly be, Molotov kept demanding. How could they not have known the outcome in advance?’ Stalin postponed the Conference for another couple days and was seen by no one.

“First Roosevelt, now Churchill,” Truman noted privately. The old order was clearly passing.

Finally, at 9:30pm Berlin time, the President’s Press Secretary and personal friend, Charlie Ross, handed the finalized version of the Potsdam Declaration to the press – whose job it would now be to spread this document all the way to Tokyo.

“We the President of the United States, the President of the National Government of the Republic of China, and the Prime Minister of Great Britain, representing the hundreds of millions of our countrymen, have conferred and agree that Japan shall be given an opportunity to end this war,” it began.

“We call upon the Government of Japan to proclaim now the Unconditional Surrender of all its armed forces,” it was announced from Potsdam. “The alternative for Japan is ‘prompt and utter destruction.”

Ross cabled his assistant back in Washington and informed him that President Truman’s wish was to get word to the Japanese people in every possible way. Soon, aeroplanes were flying over the mainland of Japan and dropping upwards of some 600,000 leaflets. The Potsdam Declaration would soon start to be read over the radio, and news of it appeared on the front pages of newspapers all over the globe in the morning.

At the Little White House that evening, Truman tried to relax out on his lakefront porch. The President was exhausted and he knew that Stalin was going to be furious.

The Generalissimo had not been consulted on the Potsdam Declaration before it had been released.

But then again, the Soviet Union was not yet at war with Japan and thus had no authority to make any official demand.

At the same time that the ultimatum was being released to the press, Truman had a special messenger walk the Potsdam Declaration up the street to Soviet Foreign Secretary Molotov. Even though the plenary sessions would still be suspended for another day, the President was certain that he’d be hearing from the Soviets the next morning.

 

Day 11 of the Potsdam Conference:
Friday, July 27, 1945
at Potsdam, Germany

Vyacheslav Molotov showed up at the Little White House for a one on one meeting with Jimmy Byrnes at 6:00pm.

The Truman Villa (“The Little White House”) Kaiserstr. 2 (today Karl-Marx-Str.)

Molotov appeared furious and quickly lashed out. “Why were we not consulted regarding this ultimatum with Japan?”

Byrnes calmly stated the obvious – that is, “We did not consult the Soviet Government since the latter was not at war with Japan and we did not wish to embarrass them,” according to Byrnes’s interpreter on the scene, Chip Bohlen. “Mr Molotov replied that he was not authorized to discuss this matter further. He left the implication that Marshal Stalin would revert to it at some time.”

Meanwhile, the British delegation still hadn’t returned from London so the tenth plenary session would be put on hold for another day.

This gave Byrnes and Molotov a chance to negotiate one of the Conference’s most contentious issues: reparations and the future of Germany.

Secretary of State Byrnes

The Soviet Union had shed more blood and suffered more death in WWII than any other nation by far, and the Soviets expected to get the lion’s share of reparations in return.

First and foremost, the Soviets were first demanding that Germany pay $20 billion in reparations of which half would go to the USSR.  This figure was introduced at the Yalta Conference and accepted by Roosevelt not as an agreement, but rather “as a basis for discussion.”

This money was critical to the Soviet plan for postwar expansion and Molotov pressed Byrnes on agreeing to it. But Byrnes had to remind the Soviet Foreign Minister and explain to him in the simplest of terms that the $20 billion figure was set up at Yalta as a basis for discussion.

“If you say I owe you a million dollars and I say I will discuss it with you,” Byrnes would famously say during this meeting, “that does not mean I am going to write you a check for a million dollars.”

“I see,” Molotov replied.

But he didn’t. Byrnes’s analogy wasn’t sinking in; the Soviets wanted to get paid.

Yet, Byrnes knew that the $20 billion just wasn’t practical. He explained to Molotov and reminded him that Germany was in shambles; hundreds of thousands were starving, in desperate need of food, water and shelter.

Really the only way that Germany would be able to pay this would be through loans from the United States, which would likely never be paid back. History would, therefore, be repeating itself, as this was exactly the mistake that the United States made after WWI, and the American people would simply and surely not stand for it again.

Foreign Minister Molotov

So Byrnes had to come up with something else – that is, “namely, that each country would obtain its reparations from its own zone (of occupation) and would exchange goods between the zones,” Byrnes said.

Molotov immediately wanted clarification. Did this mean that each of the four occupying powers “would have a free hand in their own zones (to extract reparations) and would act entirely independently of the others?”

It’s funny that Molotov would even bring this up, for there was already ample evidence that the Soviets had been looting territories that the Red Army had conquered – in especially Germany.

President Truman had appointed a man named Edwin Pauley, a wealthy California oilman, as the U.S. representative on the Allied Reparations Committee. Pauley had been touring Germany and observed as he would write, “Red Army men packing woodworking machines, bakery ovens, textile looms, electric generators, transformers, telephone equipment – countless items, most of which could not be considered war potential, and assuredly not war booty. Yet there they were, moving before my eyes, on their way to the Soviet Union.”

In other words, the Soviets had already begun paying themselves at Germany’s expense.

When Byrnes asked Molotov if the Soviet authorities were removing German equipment and materials, even household goods, for transport to the USSR, Molotov did not deny it. “Yes,” he said. “This is the case.”

Yet, Byrnes was talking solely about reparations from each occupying power’s own zone, which hadn’t (wasn’t supposed to) even begun.

According to the meeting minutes: “The Secretary knew that there were some practical issues that needed to be confronted…The Russians grew the most food but had less industry; the British zone had the most manufacturing but would need to import food. These economic complexities would require trade, and meanwhile, each occupying nation would be extracting reparations from its own zone.”

Byrnes’s plan was an attempt to create a mechanism for a peaceful occupied Germany that would eventually reunify. He wanted to avoid future conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union, and thus diving Germany between east and west.

Interpreter Chip Bohlen recorded in his notes: “The Secretary said that he felt that without some such arrangement the difficulties would be insurmountable and would be a continued source of disagreement and trouble between our countries.”

Molotov, however, refused to let the $20 billion figure go and began to point fingers at the Americans that they were breaking the promise they had made at Yalta.

The meeting ended where it had started, with no agreement. Already, the hope for a peaceful reunification of Germany was slipping away.

Japanese Prime Minister Suzuki

Meanwhile, in Tokyo, Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki and his cabinet had met during the morning to discuss the release of the Potsdam Declaration.

Suzuki decided to simply ignore the matter. The declaration, he said at a press conference, was nothing but a rehash of old proposals and as such, beneath contempt. He would “kill (it) with silence,” he said.

The Potsdam Declaration had clearly warned the Japanese of “prompt and utter destruction” if they did not accept it.

It was rejected on July 27, 1945.

 

Day 12 of the Potsdam Conference:
Saturday, July 28, 1945
at Potsdam, Germany

One of the few moments when the press was allowed into the conference room to take photos was on July 28th to capture the ‘new’ Big Three at the start of the tenth plenary session.

The British delegation had finally returned to Potsdam with new Prime Minister Clement Attlee and new Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin at the helm. Serving as Deputy Prime Minister under Churchill and anticipating a possible change in leadership, it should be noted that Attlee had been present for each plenary session since the Potsdam Conference began on July 17th.

Before heading to Cecilienhof, Attlee made his way to the Little White House at 9:15pm to personally reach out and have a private word with President Truman. In many ways Truman would see that Attlee was much different than his predecessor.

Unlike Churchill, Attlee didn’t seem to have an ego, but he also seemed to lack charisma. As historian A.J. Baime would write, “Clement Attlee had the look of an aging university professor – a bald dome ringed with hair, balanced on thin shoulders, lips curled around an ever-present pipe. He was an Oxford man with a conventional middle-class upbringing who had risen to the ranks of national power in Britain quietly…”

Many within the American delegation found it hard to believe that the British people had elected this man to head His Majesty’s government at this critical moment in world history.

New Prime Minister Clement Attlee with King George VI in front of Buckingham Palace

Even the Soviets seemed to feel the same way. As Admiral Leahy chronicled: “Although Churchill was their antagonist at almost every turn, Stalin and his top advisors appeared to have had a high personal regard for Churchill. There was a noticeable coolness in their attitude after Attlee took over.”

The British and American delegations made their way to the Cecilienhof Palace to meet the Soviet delegation for the tenth plenary session, which was called to order by President Truman at 10:30pm.

The ‘new’ Big Three sat down at the large round-oak table to resume business. Right away, Stalin asked to make a statement.

“The Russian delegation was given a copy of the Anglo-American declaration to the Japanese people,” he said. “We think it’s our duty to keep each other informed.”

His tone seemed to suggest that he was a bit disappointed in the Americans and British, but then he said nothing further on the subject. Maybe he thought he would put it aside for now and bring it up at a later date. It’s difficult to say. At any rate, Stalin had addressed the issue that President Truman knew would anger the Soviets, but now for the moment, it was time to move onto a related topic.

“I received another communication informing me more precisely of the desire of the Emperor to send a peace mission headed by Prince Konoye, who stated to have great influence in the Palace,” Stalin then said. “It was indicated that it was the personal desire of the Emperor to avoid further bloodshed. In this document, there is nothing new except the emphasis on the Japanese desire to collaborate with the Soviets. Our answer, of course, will be negative.”

This sort of reaching out or “peace feeler” that Stalin had just communicated could only mean that the Japanese wanted to negotiate the terms of surrender – thus undoubtedly being in clear violation of the unconditional surrender demand.

By issuing the Potsdam declaration on July 26th, the Americans, British and Chinese had given the enemy the opportunity to surrender.

Japan had rejected it.

“I appreciate very much what the Marshal has said,” Truman responded. And then he moved to start with that evening’s agenda.

In short, Truman didn’t have to negotiate or make any concessions with the Soviets regarding peace with Japan. He was sitting at the round-table in Cecilienhof with, as he would later say, “an ace in the hole and an ace showing.” That is to say, the ace in the hole was the atomic bomb and the ace showing was American economic and military power. Unconditional surrender was still on the table for the Japanese if they wished to accept it.

The evening agenda was mostly dominated by discussion on how Italy should pay war reparations. Right before the session adjourned, just minutes before midnight, the Big Three agreed that heavy machinery and war equipment would be extracted as payment for peacetime production.

 

Day 13 of the Potsdam Conference:
Sunday, July 29, 1945
at Potsdam,Germany

Just before noon, Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov arrived at the Little White House in Babelsberg. He said that Stalin had caught a cold and that his doctors would not let him leave his house. Therefore, he asked that President Truman excuse him from the next plenary session scheduled for that afternoon.

This gave Truman and Secretary of State Jimmy Byrnes a chance to talk one on one with Molotov. The Polish western boundary and German reparations dominated much of the meeting as these were two of the largest issues that had not been agreed upon up until this point.

The following minutes were recorded by the President’s interpreter, Chip Bohlen:

“The Secretary said that if we were able to get an agreement on reparations along the lines of his proposals to Mr. Molotov that the United States was prepared to go further to meet the Soviet wishes in regard to the Polish western frontier and would make the following proposal in that regard. (He handed Mr. Molotov a copy of the proposed United States suggestion with regard to the Polish western frontier, copy attached).

After it had been translated, Mr. Molotov said that this would not put under Polish administration the area between the Eastern and Western Neisse. He said the Poles were most insistent upon receiving this and he recalled that Mr. Mikołajczyk had made a most convincing and definite argument before the three Foreign Ministers as to the vital importance of this area for Poland.

The Secretary pointed out that this was true, but that since the final determination of the boundary would await the peace settlement, it did not follow that Poland might not receive this additional area if the peace conference so desired. He then said that as the President had frequently remarked, it had been agreed at Yalta and elsewhere that there would be four occupying powers in Germany, but that we now had a situation when there was in fact a fifth—Poland—which had been assumed without consultation or agreement with the United States, French, or British Governments.

Mr. Molotov replied that this was no one’s fault; it was an extraordinary condition, since all Germans had fled the region.

The President then remarked that he had thought that this suggestion would be agreeable to the Soviet Delegation, since in his opinion it represented a very large concession on our part and he hoped Mr. Molotov would submit it to Marshal Stalin.

Mr. Molotov replied that he would, of course, do so but he thought he could say here that Marshal Stalin was most insistent that this region as well should be placed under Polish administration.

The Secretary pointed out that for the purpose of the occupation of Germany we had, of course, thought that all of this area would be the responsibility of the Soviet occupying forces.

Mr. Molotov replied that even though the Poles were administering this, Soviet troops were still in the area. He repeated, however, that he would submit the proposal to Marshal Stalin.

The Secretary then inquired whether Mr. Molotov had had an opportunity to really think about his proposal in regard to reparations, namely, that each country look to its own zone for reparations and then exchange reparations between zones.

Mr. Molotov said that the Secretary’s proposal was acceptable in principle but that the Soviet Delegation would like to have clarity on certain points, in particular, the amount of equipment which would be turned over from the Ruhr to the Soviet Union. He said they had spoken of equipment to the amount of two billion dollars or five or six million tons.

(Mr. Molotov did not specify exactly what he meant by five or six million tons, whether productive capacity or actual weight of equipment).

The Secretary explained that our experts felt that it was impossible to put any specific dollar value or tonnage on the equipment which would be available for reparations from the Ruhr, but that our proposal was to offer the Soviet Union 25% of the total equipment considered as available for reparations from the Ruhr.

Mr. Molotov said that 25% of an undetermined figure meant very little and that they wished to have a fixed sum or quantity agreed upon.

The Secretary replied that at Yalta Mr. Maisky, who was the only one who would mention figures, had suggested in his proposal a total of twenty billion for reparations from Germany, of which ten billion would go to the Soviet Union.7 He said that from further study and the discussions here it had been made clear that these figures had no relation to reality and that this was a very good illustration of the danger of attempting to fix sums prematurely. He added that if we were to do that now, in the absence of sufficient data, six months from now if the figure turned out to be incorrect the Soviet Government might charge we were going back on the agreement reached at the Berlin Conference.

There was further discussion on this point, with Molotov maintaining his position that some fixed sum be set otherwise the percentage would be meaningless, and The Secretary maintaining from our point of view that it would be impossible to give any fixed figure. There was an extended discussion as to the Soviet share of reparations, with the Secretary maintaining that according to our calculations 50% of the national wealth of Germany lay in the Soviet zone, and with Mr. Molotov stating that according to their calculations only 42% lay in the Soviet zone.

Mr. Molotov said that under their figures the Russians would be entitled to obtain some reparations from the British, American and French zones in order to complete the 50%.

The Secretary said that in his opinion percentage figures fixed at Yalta were no more agreed to except as a basis of discussion than had been the actual amounts of reparations.

The President stated that what they were trying to do here was to fix a workable plan for reparations and that he desired to see the Soviet Union receive 50% of the total.

Mr. Molotov expressed his appreciation at the President’s statement.

The Secretary reviewed his argument in favor of his proposal, pointing out that it would do away with almost certain points of friction in the future.

Mr. Molotov inquired whether we still intended to have some central German administration, not a government, but some central organization through which the Control Council could operate in matters affecting finance, transport, foreign trade, etc. on which it had been agreed to treat Germany as an economic whole. He pointed out that if reparations were not treated as a whole, what would happen to overall treatment of economic matters.

The Secretary pointed out that under his scheme nothing was changed in regard to overall treatment of German finance, transport, foreign trade, etc. The Secretary subsequently repeated this statement in reply to a further observation of Mr. Molotov that the reparation proposal would affect the overall economic administration of Germany. The Secretary then said there was one other subject he had forgotten to mention, namely, that of the division of the German navy and merchant fleet.

The President stated that in his opinion they had reached agreement on that, namely, that Russia was to get one-third of the navy now and that the merchant fleet was to be utilized in the war against Japan, with one-third earmarked for the Soviet Union.

The Secretary thought it would be well to embody that agreement in writing and suggested the formation of a sub-committee for that purpose. He added that part of the agreement had been Mr. Churchill’s suggestion that a large part of the submarines be destroyed.

Mr. Molotov said what they desired was one-third of the navy and one-third of the merchant fleet. He said that the Soviet Union was also interested in shipping for the Far Eastern war and that, of course, they would be used for that purpose.

The President said it was his understanding that the merchant fleet should be used for the prosecution of the war against Japan.

The Secretary said that the Russian portion should be earmarked and used in the Pacific.

Mr. Molotov repeated that the Soviet Union would use these ships in the Pacific.

The Secretary said in addition to that question, it would be important to clarify the question of replacement. For example, if the Soviets did use them in the war and they were sunk, it would be necessary to consider the question of their replacement.

Reverting to the subject of reparations, Mr. Molotov said he wished to have the Secretary’s proposal clearly in mind; as he understood it the Soviet Union would look to its own zone for a fixed amount of reparations and would receive as reparations 25% of the equipment from the Ruhr available for reparations.

The Secretary replied that this was not quite accurate, since in the first place the Soviet Union would take what it wished from its zone, and second, the 25% to go to the Soviet Union from the Ruhr would be exchanged for food, coal and other products needed in western Germany from the Soviet zone.

Mr. Molotov said they [the United States?] had understood that all the equipment which the Soviets might receive from the Ruhr would have to be balanced off by exports from the Soviet zone. He said he had understood that only part would be so covered and that in any event it was a matter for discussion as to how much and what the Soviet zone could offer in return.

The Secretary added that there had been another possibility, namely, instead of 25% from the Ruhr alone, the Soviets could receive 12½% of equipment available for reparations from the French, British and American zones taken together.

Mr. Molotov returned to the question of a fixed sum and inquired whether the Secretary could give him even a rough estimate of what we thought might be available to the Soviet Union.

The Secretary repeated that he was unable to do this that all our experts agreed that it was impossible to place any value on the equipment available for reparations for the following reason[s]:

1. It was difficult to agree on a standing valuation to be placed on the equipment; and,
2. The Soviets would undoubtedly have preferences as to the type of machinery which would affect the valuation.

Mr. Molotov replied that they were interested in heavy metallurgical machinery, machine-building and chemical installations. He added that they had proposed using 1938 prices.

The Secretary answered that our experts thought it was impossible at this stage to fix any value; it would require long study on the spot and therefore we preferred the percentage basis. During the course of this discussion the Secretary remarked that at Yalta at one point Mr. Maisky had suggested ten billion in reparations for the United States and that our experts considered that there were only three or four billion dollars in all of possible reparations in western Germany. What, therefore, would Mr. Molotov say if we should ask for an additional six billion from the Soviet zone to make up the figure mentioned by Mr. Maisky. The Secretary added that he was merely citing this illustration to show the danger in agreement on any fixed sum.

Mr. Molotov said that in conclusion he had one other matter that the Marshal wished him to take up and that was the immediate cause of the Soviet entry into the Far Eastern war. He said that the Soviet Government considered that the best method would be for the United States, England and the other allies in the Far Eastern war to address a formal request to the Soviet Government for its entry into the war. He said that this could be based on the refusal of the Japanese to accept the recent ultimatum to surrender and made on the basis of shortening the war and saving of lives. He added, of course, that the Soviet Government was assuming that the agreement with the Chinese would be signed before the Soviet Union entered the war.

The President said that he would, of course, examine carefully this Soviet request”

Later on that afternoon, President Truman met with Prime Minister Attlee to discuss his earlier meeting with Molotov.

The eleventh plenary session was cancelled due to Stalin’s being ill.

 

Day 14 of the Potsdam Conference:
Monday, July 30, 1945
at Potsdam, Germany

President Truman and Prime Minister Attlee received word early this morning that Stalin was still feeling ill and was directed by his doctors to remain at his villa for another day. Therefore, the eleventh plenary session would once again be suspended for today.

Potsdam Conference room at the Cecilienhof Palace in Potsdam

Instead, the Foreign Ministers and their advisors met for the tenth time at 5:00pm in the conference room at Cecilienhof.

Ernest Bevin, the British Foreign Minister, chaired today’s meeting and suggested that the following questions be on the agenda for debate:

1. The invitation to the Governments of France and China to participate in the Council of Foreign Ministers.
2. Notification to the French Government of the decision on political principles with respect to Germany.
3. Reparations from Germany, Austria and Italy.
4. Disposition of the German fleet and merchant navy.
5. Political principles in the first stage of the control period in Germany—additional points.
6. Yugoslavia.
7. War crimes.

Most of these topics had already been addressed – and in some cases heavily debated – at some point during the Potsdam Conference, except for war crimes.

Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov (1939-1949)

Molotov made a well-deserved point that many people would expect the Potsdam Conference to say a word on how to deal with Nazi war crimes. The Soviet proposal was that the first ten war criminals who were currently in Allied custody should soon be dealt with.

Secretary Byrnes also agreed and said that he had already discussed the matter of German war criminals with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, who was leading the U.S. War Crimes Commission but wanted to talk with him again to ascertain the status of the Commission’s negotiations.

Molotov then suggested that they discuss the matter tomorrow. He had information to the effect that the disagreements in the War Crimes Commission had been disposed of with two exceptions which would be easy to settle. There had been a disagreement as to the place where the tribunal should sit—whether in Berlin or in Nuremberg. He said the Soviets would agree to either place.

British Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin (1945-1951)

Foreign Minister Bevin then said that he was glad of this because the British delegation preferred Nuremberg. As this was the city in which the NSDAP held its annual party rally, it would be befitting to bring the criminals to justice in a city that was so highly revered by the Nazis.

Meanwhile, President Truman spent most of the day at the Little White House in Babelsberg. He wrote in his diary that he ordered the USS Augusta to make its way to Portsmouth, England where he would take an aeroplane and meet it after the conference was over.

He desperately wanted to go home and knew that leaving from England would get him there quicker than if he had left from Antwerp, as initially planned.

The Truman Villa (“Little White House”) on Griebnitzsee in Potsdam-Babelsberg

Furthermore, he expressed his frustrations on paper about the stalemate over the discussion of Poland’s borders and reparations. He also seemed to be annoyed by the fact that the conference was once again delayed due to Stalin’s indisposition.

Yet, it’d only be a matter of a few more days and the Potsdam Conference would finally be over.

 

 

Day 15 of the Potsdam Conference:
Tuesday, July 31, 1945 at Potsdam, Germany

All of President Truman’s messages from the War Department in Washington arrived a half a block down the street from his villa at the Army message center, where they were immediately decoded. From there, they were then taken to the Little White House and given to the officers on duty in the Map Room, who then gave them to the President.

The Little White House in Potsdam-Babelsberg

Late the previous night, July 30th, an urgent top-secret cable was received and decoded and then delivered to the President early in the morning of the 31st. It was another message from Secretary of War Stimson’s adviser back in Washington, George Harrison:

“The time schedule on Groves’ project is progressing so rapidly that it is now essential that statement for release by you be available not later than Wednesday, 1 August…”

Truman now knew that the atomic bomb had been fully assembled; the most dangerous weapon on earth was now waiting for his approval to be released.

The moment had come for him to take the decision that only he could take.

At 7:48am, Berlin time, on July 31st 1945, President Truman wrote his answer large and clear with a lead pencil on a piece of message paper:

Reply to your suggestions approved. 

                                          Release when ready, but not sooner than August 2.                                                                           

The actual reply that President Truman wrote on this day: July 31, 1945. (Photo taken by the relative of this blog’s author at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library in Independence, MO, USA.)

As Commander in Chief of the United States Armed Forces, President Truman had now signed off on the use of the atomic bomb.

Everything was now on automatic pilot – that is to say, unless the President had a drastic change of mind, the release was now up to the military.

After a two-day delay due to Stalin’s indisposition, the eleventh plenary session at Cecilienhof was finally called to order at 4:05pm.

Following British Foreign Secretary Bevin’s report on the tenth meeting of the Foreign Ministers from the previous day, Truman said, “The first point on the agenda is the United States proposal regarding reparations, Polish frontier, and admission into the United Nations of various categories of states.”

In other words, it looked as though it was going to be another run-of-the-mill session of the Big Three talking in circles about Poland, reparations, and Eastern bloc countries (the latter, as far as the Americans and British were concerned, were being influenced by the Soviets).

On the topic of reparations:

Bevin: “In regard to percentage(reparations) we thought we had met you yesterday by agreeing to 12½ and 7½. We thought that was very liberal.”

Stalin: “That was not liberal—just the opposite.”

Bevin: “It was generous.”

Stalin: “We have a different point of view.”

But just when things looked like they were headed for another clash:

Bevin: “I will give you 17½ percent on exchange and 7½ on the free.”

Stalin: “That is your suggestion.”

Bevin:I think that it is better.”

Stalin: “We receive only 7½ percent then? I think 15 and 10 is fair.”

Bevin: “Well, I will agree.”

With no objection from the American delegation, President Truman then said, “The next question is Poland.”

Bevin: “I want to settle this but does not the Control Council agreement give it jurisdiction over Germany with its 1937 boundaries? I don’t press the point. What happens in this zone? The Poles take over and the Soviet forces withdraw.”

Stalin: “The Soviet troops would withdraw if territory did not constitute a line of communication with our troops in Germany. There are two communication lines running through Poland. These are the routes through which our armies are fed just as your[s] are fed through the roads of Belgium and Holland.”

Bevin: “Troops are limited to your communication needs?”

Stalin: “Yes. We have already removed four divisions of our troops and we contemplate further reduction by agreement with Polish government. This zone is now actually administered by the Poles.”

Bevin: “Could you help in this interim period with this air communication?”

Stalin: “This must be discussed with the Poles…I will do all I can.”

Truman: “This settles the Polish question.”

So what just happened?

The Soviet Union would receive 15 percent of German industrial equipment that was not needed in the Western zones. In exchange, the Soviets promised to ship food, minerals and other commodities from their zone.

Stalin then negotiated an additional 10 percent of unneeded German industrial equipment from the Western zones without having to pay any compensation.

It’s worth noting that Stalin only agreed to this form of reparations if the ‘temporary’ western frontier of Poland would run along the western Neisse River – temporary in the sense that the issue of Poland’s western frontier would be revisited as part of drafting the official peace treaty.

It’s safe to say that the Polish question was undoubtedly the most contentious issue that had dominated most of the Potsdam Conference. The map below describes the course of the debate surrounding the Polish western frontier at Potsdam.

Green: The border between Germany and Poland in 1937: On July 18, 1945, the Big Three decided to take this border as the basis for their discussions on the future of Germany.
Blue: The course of the Oder River: On July 22, 1945, Churchill designated this as the rough line that should, in British opinion, form the border with Poland.
Brown: U.S. proposal of July 29, 1945: The Americans felt that the German-Polish border should run through Swinemuende, then continue west from Stettin to the Oder, and then go along the Oder River and the eastern Neisse (Glatzer Neisse) up to the border with Czechoslovakia.
Yellow: Border proposals along with the Oder and the Queis, mentioned by Stalin in a conversation with the the Polish Administration Area President, Bierut, on July 29, 1945.
Red: Poland’s western frontier as ultimately and temporarily agreed upon at Potsdam, placing former German territory (between the green and red lines) under the Soviet backed, Polish Administration Area. Although it was only meant to be temporary – as it was intended to be discussed again at the peace treaty summit – this would be the German/Polish de facto border, until it became legal among the international community with the German Reunification of 1990.
This is still the current German/Polish border today.

After talking briefly about prosecuting Nazi war criminals and whether or not the Allies should name names when compiling their list of whom to prosecute, President Truman announced that the Foreign Ministers would meet tomorrow around 11:00am and the twelfth plenary session would kickoff at Cecilienhof around 3:00pm.

The 11th session session was now adjourned.

 

Day 16 of the Potsdam Conference:
Wednesday, August 1, 1945 at Potsdam, Germany

By this point, all efforts had been put into place to wrap things up by August 2nd. As a matter of fact, the final two plenary sessions would take place today, with the thirteenth and final session adjourning just after midnight.

President Truman called the twelfth plenary session to order at 3:30pm. After the Big Three agreed that Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia could claim German assets within their jurisdiction – which would be published in the protocol as well as the impending communiqué – the next subject was Nazi war criminals and whether or not prominent prisoners should be referred to by names.

“Names are necessary and are very important to give proper orientation,” Stalin said. “The people should know that we are going to try some industrialists, that is why we mentioned Krupp.”

Truman didn’t like this idea. “If you name some, others will think they have escaped,” the President pointed out.

“Well, people wonder about Hess living comfortably in England,” Stalin fired back.

A few of the most notorious names prosecuted: (From left to right) Herman Göring, Rudolf Hess, Joachim von Ribbentrop, and Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel (who signed the unconditional surrender for Nazi Germany on May 8, 1945) in the first row at Nuremberg.

Attlee quickly spoke up and said, “You need not worry about that.”

At any rate, the Allies had eventually agreed to prosecute leading war criminals of Nazi Germany with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson leading the prosecution. Twenty-two defendants would be charged with “crimes against peace” (planning and waging a war of aggression), war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Twelve of the twenty-two were sentenced to death, a further seven received prison sentences, and three were acquitted. Numerous other trials against further Nazi conspirators took place separately in the four zones of occupation in the immediate years to come.

Prime Minister Attlee then spoke up and said, “We have an agreement regarding the feeding and fueling of Berlin for the next 30 days. I suggest that we instruct the Control Council to provide a program to provide uniform subsistence standards for the next six months. This is a practical matter which requires immediate action.”

Before the end of WWII and even during the course of the Potsdam Conference, the Foreign Ministers had laid the groundwork for the establishment of the Allied Control Council (ACC). This body would be the chief authority in Germany, as it functioned based on the instructions from the leaders of the four occupying powers on matters involving each Allied country’s own zone of occupation and matters affecting Germany as a whole.

The Kammergericht (the supreme court of the state of Prussia) – located at Kleistpark in the Berlin-Schöneberg district – housed the ACC during it’s short active life. Notice the four white flagpoles which once held the flags of the four Allied occupying powers.

Furthermore, the ACC communicated with the German people via official pronouncements such as laws, orders, directives, and proclamations. It was seated in Berlin and would play a pivotal role in the governing of Germany and Berlin in the immediate years following WWII.

After a brief discussion about equitable Allied property in the satellite states as a further point to the topic of reparations, President Truman adjourned the session at 5:50pm.

The delegations would now have just under five hours to finalize all the agreements in the protocol and to cram in any extra details or content before the Big Three took their seats in the Cecilienhof Palace for the last time.

 

 

Final Day of the Potsdam Conference:
Wednesday night, August 1 – early Thursday morning, August 2, 1945 at Potsdam, Germany

The Big Three at the end of the Potsdam Conference: Front row (Left to Right) Prime Minister Attlee, President Truman, Generalissimo Stalin. Back row: Admiral Leahy, Foreign Minister Bevin, Secretary of State Byrnes, Foreign Minister Molotov.

“We will take up the report of the Protocol Committee,” President Truman announced as he opened the thirteenth and final plenary session of the Potsdam Conference at 10:40pm.

All three delegations were prepared to sign off on the final wording of the Potsdam communiqué – essentially a contract spelling out the few agreements the three governments had achieved.

In summary, what were some of these agreements?

First – and one of the least contentious issues – there was never an argument that Germany should be demilitarized and its Nazi war criminals be brought to justice, despite the fact that a detailed discussion and final agreement on it wouldn’t come until the very end of the Conference.

Second, one could argue that the Big Three’s establishment of the Council of Foreign Ministers (CFM) during the Potsdam Conference was an achievement at that time.

This body, consisting of the foreign ministers from Great Britain, France, China, the United States, and the Soviet Union, would have the immediate task and be authorized to draw up the peace treaties with Italy, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Finland.

(Yet at the Paris Conference in the spring and summer of 1946, the peace treaties produced there permitted Soviet troops to stay in Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania, decidedly acknowledging Moscow’s dominant role in the area).

Council of Foreign Ministers meeting at Paris in 1946.

Third, in artfully vague language, the Big Three agreed that the Council of Foreign Ministers would also prepare a peace treaty for Germany – at an unspecified time in the future – “to be accepted by the Government of Germany when a government adequate for the purpose is established.”

For the time being, however, Germany would remain divided into four zones under Allied occupation – which was in effect, divided down the middle between East and West.

It’s unfortunate – yet not hard to see – that the Big Three nor the CFM were unable to eventually agree on how a German government would be established, who might have the authority to establish it, or what kind of government it would be. Soon thereafter, Germany would consequently become a divided nation for forty years.

Fourth, when it came to the highly contentious topic of Poland – particularly its western boundary – arguments about the German-Polish border had dominated much of the Potsdam Conference. Earlier on, Churchill had tried tenaciously to keep the German border as far west as he could, but the Red Army had pushed all the way to the Oder River and western Neisse River, and so those rivers were agreed to as Poland’s western frontier.

Although Churchill later asserted that he wouldn’t have accepted the western Neisse border if he’d remained for the entire conference, the reality was that there was little that he or Truman could’ve done short of going to war since the area was occupied by Soviet – not British or American – troops.

The borders that the British and Americans ‘temporarily’ agreed to at the Potsdam Conference. They were meant to be revisited when the Council of Foreign Ministers began drafting the peace treaty for Germany. The German-Polish border at the Oder River and western Neisse River would not become permanent under international law until the German Reunification in 1990.

And as for free elections in Poland, it was agreed only that they should be held “as soon as possible,” which in reality meant the Polish issue remained unsolved.

Fifth, the British and American recognition of Poland’s western frontier – ‘for the time being’ – came as a compromise with the Soviets over German reparations: Stalin and Molotov ended up withdrawing their claim that Germany should pay a sum of $20 billion, which meant that reparations would have to come in other ways.

Ultimately, they decided that each occupying power could draw reparations primarily from its own zone of occupation with no overall limit. The Soviets also demanded 15 percent of German industrial equipment that was not needed in the Western zones. In exchange, they promised to ship food, minerals and other commodities from their zone. Stalin also negotiated an additional 10% of unneeded German industrial equipment from the Western zones without having to pay any compensation.

Through this rather complicated formula, we’ll never really know exactly how much Germany ended up paying in reparations when it was all said and done.

As it might seem as though the Soviets got the lion’s share at Potsdam, in some instances Stalin actually did not get everything that was discussed during the Conference. He badly had wanted Soviet trusteeship over Italy’s former colonies in Africa (whose topic was deferred to the United Nations), as well as a four-power control over Germany’s industrial area in the Ruhr region (where British and American troops occupied).

A caricature depicting Soviet expansion through eastern Europe that appeared in the Daily Mail in 1947.

Yet, at the end of the day, it was the Western leaders who made the biggest concessions at Potsdam. Primarily due to the fact that, even before the Potsdam Conference had begun, Stalin had been able to use his army to drive his belt of protection all the way up to 30 miles east of Berlin, use his army to set up governments sympathetic to Moscow, and consequently use his army to ensure Soviet domination of eastern Europe for the next half-century.

In conclusion: When one really thinks about it, the Potsdam Conference should’ve been a time of celebration. It should’ve been the most harmonious and most hopeful of the Big Three conferences. In short, it should’ve marked the start of a new era of good feeling among the Allied powers now that their common foe, Nazi Germany, had been defeated.

Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out that way – and in practical terms, there was really no chance that it ever would. This was evident from the very first meeting between the Soviet leader and American President on July 17th.

At that lunch, Stalin had told Truman that he wanted to cooperate with the United States in peace as in war. “But in peace, that would be more difficult…” the Soviet leader would admit, immediately filling the Little White House with tension.

And this underlying tension that was felt in the beginning remained intact all the way to the very end.

Sometimes it resulted in outbursts like at the twelfth plenary session when Truman made a personal plea to Stalin to agree to internationalize certain waterways, which he believed would lubricate trade in political postwar Europe.

“Marshal Stalin,” Truman said, “I have accepted a number of compromises during this conference…I make a personal request now that you yield on this point.”

Truman was simply asking that this issue remain a subject for future discussion.

“Nyet!” Stalin yelled out. Then he spoke English for the first time the entire conference to make himself crystal clear, “No, I say no!”

Stalin and Truman with their respective delegations at the Stalin Villa in Potsdam-Babelsberg.

In a letter to his mother, Truman called the Russians the most pig-headed people he had ever encountered. He knew them to now be relentless bargainers – “forever pressing for every advantage for themselves,” as he later said – and in his diary, he clearly showed that he understood the reality of the Stalin regime. It was “police government pure and simple,” he wrote. “A few top hands just take clubs, pistols and concentration camps and rule the people on the lower levels.”

Despite all the stress, frustration, rancour and serious exhaustion that came from dealing with Stalin and the Soviets, according to Truman’s biographer, David McCullough, “Still-still-Truman liked him.” Leading up to the end of the Conference he wrote to his wife, Bess, “I like Stalin. He is straightforward…” Even when he got back to Washington, he told former Vice President Henry Wallace that Stalin was a fine man who wanted to do the right thing.

Stalin was less sanguine. He would later tell Nikita Khrushchev that Truman was “worthless.” As it can be seen during the plenary sessions, Stalin had already made up his mind – even before arriving at Potsdam – that he would surrender nothing of any consequence when the bargaining began.

In short, at Potsdam, the struggle against Germany ended and the struggle over Germany began.

Possibly the most famous communiqué in the world signed on this day: August 2, 1945 just after midnight.

Of all those who sat at the negotiating table at Potsdam, Admiral Leahy – President Truman’s Chief of Staff – summed up the Conference the most tellingly:

“My general feeling about the Potsdam Conference was one of frustration. Both Stalin and Truman suffered defeats…The Soviet Union emerged at this time as the unquestioned all-powerful influence in Europe…One effective factor was a decline of the power of the British Empire…With France grappling for a stability that she had not achieved even before the war, and the threat of civil war hanging over China, it was inescapable that the only two major powers remaining in the world were the Soviet Union and the United States…”

The clock had just ticked past midnight. Stalin picked up his pen and signed the communiqué first, followed by  Truman, then Attlee.

“I declare the Berlin Conference adjourned – until our next meeting which, I hope, will be in Washington,” Truman announced.

“God willing,” Stalin replied. “The Conference, I believe, can be considered a success.”

The President then thanked the other Foreign Ministers and all those “who have helped us so much in our work” before he said, “I declare the Berlin Conference closed.”

After all the formal goodbyes had been said and wishes for good health and a safe journey said, all three leaders made their own way out of the Cecilienhof Palace with their own entourage. As for Truman and Stalin, they would never see each other in person ever again.

Interestingly, Truman would admit years later that he had been naive at Potsdam. He called himself “an innocent idealist” and referred to Stalin as the “unconscionable Russian Dictator”. Yet even then he added, “And I liked the little son-of-a-bitch”.

In any case, a new geopolitical age had been ushered in at Potsdam in the summer of 1945.

Leahy further noted in his summary of the Conference:

“Potsdam had brought into sharp world focus the struggle of two great ideas – the Anglo-Saxon democratic principles of government and the aggressive and expansionist police-state tactics of Stalinist Russia.

It was the beginning of the ‘cold war.'”

To learn more about our Potsdam tours, visit our Potsdam Private Tour category or our specific Potsdam tours by foot and with car/van:
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Bibliography

McBaime, Albert (2017). The Accidental President. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN 978-0-544-61734-6

Byrnes, James (1947). Speaking Frankly. New York: Harper & Brothers. ISBN 978-0-837-17480-8

Cullough, David (1992). Truman. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-0-671-86920-5

Foreign Relations of the United States: Diplomatic Papers, The Conference of Berlin (The Potsdam Conference), 1945, Volume II. Truman Papers: VI. Minutes and Other Records of Conference proceedings. https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1945Berlinv02/comp2 [accessed 15 July – 2 August 2018].

Smyser, William (1999). From Yalta To Berlin: The Cold War Struggle Over Germany. New York: St. Martin’s Press. ISBN 0-312-06605-8

Truman, Harry S. (1956). Memoirs: Year of Decisions Volume 1. New York: Doubleday. https://ia601603.us.archive.org/14/items/in.ernet.dli.2015.462682/2015.462682.The-Memoirs.pdf [accessed 15 July – 2 August 2018].