June 18, 1945 U.S. President Harry S. Truman Authorizes “Operation Downfall” to End WWII in the Pacific

Monday, June 18, 1945 at the White House in Washington D.C.

At 3:30PM Truman called a meeting to order with his Joint Chiefs and other top civilian cabinet advisors from the War Department. Among those in attendance was U.S. Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall who spoke up immediately after the meeting got underway and claimed that the only course to defeat Japan was to embark on the same kind of ground invasion that had brought the Nazis to their knees in Europe. He presented a two-phase invasion that would begin at the island of Kyushu at the southern end of Japan’s mainland, just 350 miles from Okinwa.

Kyushu, indicated in red, would have been the striking point of Operation Downfall on November 1, 1945

The Allied Expeditionary Forces would strike on November 1, 1945 (D-Day in the Pacific).

When it came to predicting Allied casualties, there was no way to exactly estimate the true number, but Marshall believed that the invasion would be as difficult as Normandy. The General estimated American casualties to be around 30,000 in the first 30 days of Operation Downfall. Another estimate at the Pentagon included the invasion of both southern and northern Kyushu, as well as Japan proper, to be around 220,000 casualties. And finally, in a memorandum on June 4, 1945, written by General Thomas Handy of Marshall’s staff, it stated that the United States would save no less than 500,000 to 1 million lives by avoiding the invasion all together (showing that figures of such magnitude were being discussed at the highest levels). 

U.S. Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall who Truman would appoint Secretary of State in 1947

Whatever the outcome might be, Marshall summed up the situation by saying, “It is a grim fact that there is not an easy, bloodless way to victory in war.”

It was obvious to everyone in Truman’s cabinet that victory would come at a heavy price. They continued to fear that the Japanese would not surrender without a long and bloody struggle. By this point in the war they had already been severely punished, practically defeated, but they continued to show no signs of yielding – no signs of surrendering unconditionally to the Allies. If one looks at the Battle of Okinawa, for example, which was coming to an end at this time, the battle itself was painting a bloody portrait of just how ferocious Japanese resistance could be. The fighting had been raging on since the beginning of April, killing over 10,000 Americans in combat, wounding anywhere between 38,000 to over 55,000, and entrenched in the jungles and caves of the island more than 100,000 Japanese chose to perish over surrender. For Truman and his cabinet, these were startling figures and conditions since they continued to indicate how much of a last ditch battle the Japanese could put up, as well as the kind of battle they could put up on their home islands in man to man combat. Moreover, Okinawa could be taken as an indicator that Japan needed dyer measures to defeat it. 

Truman went around the room and listened to each man give his opinion about a course of action for a ground invasion. By the end of the meeting, there was a unanimous agreement that it should happen within the next four months.

The beaches of Okinawa saw some of the bloodiest fighting of WWII from 1 April – 22 June 1945

The most interesting moment of the meeting probably came at the end when Truman turned to Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy who had pretty much let his boss, Secretary of War Henry Stimson, do all the talking during the meeting. “McCloy,” the President said, “Nobody leaves this room until he’s been heard from….Do you think I have any reasonable alternative to the decision (on the invasion) which has just been made?” McCloy then turned to Stimson, who said, “Say what you feel about it.”

“Well, I do think you’ve got an alternative,” McCloy said. And I think it’s an alternative that ought to be explored and that, really, we ought to have our heads examined if we don’t explore some other method by which we can terminate this war than just by another conventional attack and landing.”

McCloy began saying that he agreed with the topic of easing ‘unconditional surrender’ (something discussed earlier in the meeting) to let the Japanese retain their monarch, Emperor Hirohito. McCloy then brought up the Manhattan Project, the nearly three year old plan being carried out to develop a bomb out of the elemental forces of the universe – a nuclear weapon. He believed that the United States should tell the enemy of the bomb, and if Japan did not surrender, it would be used. He said, “I think our moral position would be better if we gave them a specific warning of the bomb.”

President Truman with Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy to his left

The response, as McCloy remembered the conversation: “We don’t know that it will go off; suppose it doesn’t go off; our prestige will be greatly marred.”

McCloy then responded by saying, “All the scientists have told us that the thing will go. It’s just a matter of testing it out now, but they’re quite certain from reports I’ve seen that this bomb is a success…”

Truman concluded matters by stating that this should be explored further, but decisions with regard to the bomb could not be made until it was tested successfully. Truman then ordered the Joint Chiefs to move ahead with plans for a ground invasion of Japan, an order that would begin the process of putting more than three quarters of a million Americans in man to man combat. 

 

Bibliography of Quotations

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

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

On This Day – February 25, 1947 – The Allied Control Council Officially Abolishes Prussia

Tuesday, February 25, 1947 at Berlin-Schöneberg 

The sheer size of Prussian territory at the time of German Unification in 1871 indicated in red

After the Kingdom of Prussia was established in 1701, its kings – especially Frederick the Great – would quickly transform it into a formidable military state and expand its hegemony deep into current day Poland and across what is much of northern Germany today. And it would be this so-called “Iron Kingdom” that would create a single unified German state for the first time in 1871.

Unfortunately for Prussia, its reputation would be tarnished after Hitler came to power in 1933 as the National Socialists would fuse this ‘old glorious’ history to their ‘new’ regime, making it obvious to the western Allies by the end of WWII that – according to historian Christopher Clark – Nazism was merely the latest manifestation of ‘Prussianism’. As a matter of fact, as early as 1943, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt told a joint session of Congress in September of that year, “This is one thing I want to make perfectly clear: “When Hitler and the Nazis go out, the Prussian military clique must go with them. The war-breeding gangs of militarists must be rooted out of Germany.” 

The upper torso and head of a fallen statue of Kaiser Wilhelm I lie near a chunk of his horse in front of the still standing city palace in 1950

After Nazi Germany signed the unconditional surrender at the end of WWII, it didn’t take the occupying Allies long to quickly see that this defeated corpse that was Prussia needed to finally be ended. The Allied Control Council – established under Part II, Section A, Point 1 of the Potsdam Agreement of 1945 – soon began to discuss its future in the summer of 1946 when a member of the British Allied Control Authority submitted a memorandum to the Council putting the case against Prussia rather succinctly:

“I need not point out that Prussia has been a menace to European security for the last two hundred years. The survival of the Prussian State, even if only in name, would provide a basis for any irredentist claims which the German people may later seek to put forward, would strengthen German militarist ambitions, and would encourage the revival of an authoritarian, centralised Germany which in the interests of all it is vital to prevent.”

Map of the current states of Germany that are completely or mostly situated inside the old borders of Prussia

Therefore, it was on this day – February 25, 1947 – that the Allied Control Council issued Control Council Law Number 46 liquidating the State of Prussia, its central Government, and all its agencies. Technically the Nazis had already done this when they issued the “Law on the Reconstruction of the Reich” on January 30, 1934 which dissolved all federal states and placed them under the authority of governors who were now going to be appointed by Hitler himself, but Control Council Law 46 had now made the dissolution of Prussia official.

Today, its name is rarely seen, only a handful of structures exist to remind us of its past, and Prussia’s once humongous territory has now been divided up among nine federal states within the borders of current day Germany. 

 

V-J Day: Victory in Japan – Sunday, September 2, 1945

The highly anticipated ‘unconditional surrender’ is finally signed by the Government of Japan: Today, 73 years ago: Sunday, September 2, 1945 on the USS Missouri in the Tokyo Bay.

Aboard the deck of the ship named after President Truman’s beloved home state – the USS Missouri – Japanese officials arrived to sign the surrender documents that would finally and officially bring World War II to a close.

The scene surrounding this ceremony in Tokyo Bay was awe-striking.

With a fleet of navy ships anchored in the Bay, while American flags rippled in the wind, the colossal figure that was General Douglas MacArthur conspicuously appeared aboard the USS Missouri.

Today, it might be hard for us to understand the aura surrounding General MacArthur at that time. Called to active duty in the U.S. Army as major general, and named as the commander of U.S. Army Forces in the Far East (USAFFE) as early as July 1941, Americans would collectively come to see him as a kind of God – an infallible God – who had averted failure on several occasions and led successful campaigns – primarily in the Philippines – all the way up until the end of WWII in the Pacific.

The General only stood around 5 feet 9 inches tall, but many have said that – if you’d stood in his presence – it would’ve felt as if he were standing around 6 feet 6 inches tall. And he had all the props: The open collar shirt, the sun glasses, the crunched hat, and pipe. Furthermore, he took unclear directives and interpreted them in his own way. General Douglas MacArthur was the modern day ‘American Caesar.’

As the ‘American Caesar’ stood on the Missouri’s deck monitoring the proceedings, his face was so expressionless that he looked as though he was – as historian A.J. Baime would say – “(already) a bust that would sit in a museum.”

Finally, after it’d been proclaimed by President Roosevelt in 1943, reconfirmed by President Truman at Potsdam in the summer of 1945, slightly revised in the second week of August 1945, and finally ‘agreed to be accepted’ on August 14, 1945, unconditional surrender was a signature away.

The Japanese government (on behalf of the Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mamoru Shigemitsu – and on behalf of the Japanese armed forces, Yoshijiro Umezu) officially accepted the Potsdam Declaration by signing the highly anticipated unconditional surrender on this day: Sunday, September 2, 1945.

World War II was now over. Victory in Japan – or V-J Day – could officially be celebrated, and General Douglas MacArthur had now become the supreme ruler of  80 million people in Japan.

 

 

Japan Accepts the Unconditional Surrender – WWII Is Over: On this day – Tuesday, August 14, 1945

Tuesday, August 14, 1945

Three full days had passed since the United States, United Kingdom, China, and the Soviet Union had jointly submitted their formal reply to Japan’s terms of unconditional surrender that they had issued on August 10th (see our blog post from August 10, 2018).

Finally, at 6:10 PM, Secretary of State Jimmy Byrnes received a message from Switzerland’s Department of State. It was what the world had been waiting for: Japan’s acceptance of the terms of surrender.

Secretary Byrnes then rushed to the White House to deliver the document to President Truman.

Just before 7:00 PM, newsmen pushed into Truman’s office to listen in on what the President was about to say. Indeed, there was a lot of excitement in the air. World War II had killed tens of millions of soldiers and civilians; it was the worst catastrophe that had ever struck the human race. It was now over – and everyone crammed into the Oval Office knew that the right side had won.

The photographers’ lights nearly blinded the President as he stood up from behind his desk, holding the document in his right hand.

All the top aides, advisers, and heads of his administration sat or stood around him. Even his beloved wife, Bess, was seated just a few feet away.

Truman looked as if he had just emerged from a bandbox. His double-breasted navy blue suit was neat and pressed – his style was immaculate for such a moment.

“All in!” a Secret Service man announced.

Truman glanced at the clock.

At exactly 7:00 PM, with his shoulders squared, he began reading slowly and clearly from the document in his right hand.

“I have received this afternoon a message from the Japanese government,” the President announced. “I deem this reply a full acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration which specifies the unconditional surrender of Japan.”

He went on to announce General Douglas MacArthur’s role as supreme allied commander over Japan, and that the proclamation of VJ-Day (Victory in Japan) would have to wait until the formal signing of the unconditional surrender.

In any event, World War II was now essentially over.

The hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers who were preparing to go to Japan to engage in man-to-man combat could now breathe a sigh of relief.

As was reported in the papers the next day, one jubilant soldier in Washington DC flung his arms around a civilian shouting, “We’re all civilians now!”

 

 

 

Bibliography

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

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

Revising Unconditional Surrender: The day after the tragic bombing of Nagasaki: 10 August 1945

Friday, August 10, 1945

Japanese Emperor Hirohito

At 7:33AM in Japan, monitors recorded the following broadcast over Radio Tokyo:

“The Japanese Government today addressed the following communication to the Swiss and Swedish governments respectively for transmission to the United States, Great Britain, China, and the Soviet Union…The Japanese Government is ready to accept the terms enumerated in the joint declaration which was issued at Potsdam, July 26, 1945, by the Heads of Government of the United States, Great Britain, and China, and later subscribed by the Soviet Government, with the understanding that said declaration does not comprise any demand which prejudices the prerogatives of His Majesty as a sovereign ruler. The Japanese Government hopes sincerely that this understanding is warranted and desires keenly that an explicit indication to that effect will be speedily forthcoming.”

What the Japanese appeared to be offering was not unconditional surrender. As so many advisers in President Truman’s inner circle had predicted, it was indeed the fate of Japan’s emperor that was the ultimate question that separated war from peace.

At 9:00AM Washington time, Truman sat down with the heads of the most important positions in his administration: Admiral Leahy (Chief of Staff), Jimmy Byrnes (Secretary of State), Henry Stimson (Secretary of War), and James Forrestal (Secretary of Defense). He went around the room and asked each man for his opinion on what to do next.

United States Secretary of State James F. Byrnes

Leahy and Stimson didn’t have a problem with Japan’s wanting to keep their emperor. If anything, they believed that he would be useful when it came to inspiring peace among the Japanese people after WWII.

Jimmy Byrnes, however, adamantly refused. He wanted nothing less than unconditional surrender. It was the policy that Roosevelt and Churchill had agreed to at the Casablanca Conference in January of 1943 and at the Cairo Conference in November 1943. Furthermore, he quickly reminded the President that unconditional surrender was once again reconfirmed at the Potsdam Conference just two weeks before.

“Why should we now go further than we were willing to go at Potsdam,” Byrnes said at that meeting. “And that was when we had no atomic bomb and Russia was not in the war (with Japan).”

Truman then asked to see the Potsdam Declaration one more time.

While the President was reviewing it, James Forrestal spoke up and probably brought forth the wisest plan of action: “Why don’t we suggest a reply in which the Allies could accept Japan’s terms, if these terms were spelled out further so that the Potsdam terms could be clearly accomplished?”

That was to say, the emperor could remain if he surrendered unconditionally.

United States Secretary of Defense James Forrestal whose revision of the words of unconditional surrender would help bring WWII to an end on paper.

This appealed to the President and he agreed. President Truman had gone against his Secretary of State. He decided, as he recorded in his diary, that if the Japanese wanted to keep their emperor, then “we’d tell ’em how to keep him.”

Jimmy Byrnes then got to work on the reply. It would eventually state that the Emperor would remain but “subject to the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers.” In other words, the reply attempted to satisfy all those Americans who demanded unconditional surrender, while allowing the Japanese the right to retain their emperor; and thus, for peace to be achieved.

And the new “Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers” – to whom the Japanese emperor would now have to answer – would be the extremely popular general, Douglas MacArthur.

If it wasn’t unconditional surrender, it was something very close to it.

Now the President needed the official approval of the two other countries that jointly issued the Potsdam Declaration, China and Great Britain, as well as the Soviets who were now at war with Japan.

Prime Minister Attlee cabled his approval that evening (Churchill also called the American embassy in London to express his approval), but the Australians were adamantly opposed. “The Emperor should have no immunity from responsibility for Japan’s acts of aggression…Unless the system goes, the Japanese will remain unchanged and recrudescence of aggression in the Pacific will only be postponed to a later generation,” said the Australians, who had been excluded from Potsdam and who had fought long and suffered greatly in the war with Japan.

The Soviet Union’s assault on Manchuria in the initial days of its invasion in August 1945.

The Chinese cabled their agreement the next morning (Saturday, August 11), as did the Australians, but reluctantly.

The Soviets, however, were stalling. They appeared to be doing this deliberately in the hopes of having some say in the control of Japan and to drive farther into Manchuria (where Soviet troops had already arrived days before), but Washington made it crystal clear that they would not agree to any Soviet claim in Japan. Eventually, Stalin also agreed.

A formal reply, with the approval of the four nations at war with Japan, was now transmitted to Tokyo.

The wait for Japan to accept these somewhat revised terms of unconditional surrender would now begin.

Bibliography

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

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

On This Day: August 9, 1945. The United States drops a second atomic bomb on the Japanese seaport of Nagasaki

President Truman addressing the world after the first atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.

Today we take a look back on the events surrounding the United States’ decision to release a tragic second atomic bomb on the Japanese seaport of Nagasaki on this day 73 years ago: August 9, 1945.

If you recall from our blog that chronicled the Potsdam Conference on July 26, 1945, the issuing of the Potsdam Declaration  by the President of the United States, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the President of China, had called upon the Government of Japan to accept the “unconditional surrender of all its armed forces.”
Japan’s alternative if it didn’t: “Prompt and utter destruction,” were the words used in the Potsdam Declaration.
By this point the United States armed forces had experienced some of the bloodiest fighting of WWII, particularly during the battle of Okinawa: Over 10,000 Americans had been killed and another 27,000 wounded. And entrenched in the caves and jungles of the island nation, more than 100,000 Japanese were killed or burned to death rather than accept the unconditional surrender.
And still the Japanese fought on.
As a result, President Truman had agreed to plans at the end of June for an invasion of the Japanese home islands to take place in early November; and if the invasion had gone through, hundreds of thousands of American soldiers returning from Europe would have soon headed off to the Pacific to face the Japanese in man to man total combat.
The Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall in utter ruins in the fall of 1945.

Then, on July 16, 1945, while President Truman and Prime Minister Churchill were touring a devastated Berlin just a little over a month after the German high command had signed the unconditional surrender that brought WWII in Europe to an official end, the first ever atomic bomb had been born just 95 miles north of Albuquerque in New Mexico.

While weighing the options of whether or not to use the weapon, President Truman recorded in his diary at Potsdam: “I asked General Marshall (George C.) 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…” Interestingly, however, when it came to what he thought about the atomic bomb, Marshall would add, “after long and careful thought, I did not like the weapon.”
On Friday, July 27, 1945, Japanese Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki said at a press conference that he’d “kill (the Potsdam Declaration) with silence,” as it was “nothing but a rehash of old proposals and as such, beneath contempt.” In other words, the Government of Japan had rejected the Potsdam Declaration.
The Hiroshima Peace Memorial, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, serves as a memorial to the upwards of 80,000 people killed instantly in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.

Years later, some would argue that Japan could’ve been forced to surrender without the bomb.

Some would argue that the Allies should’ve just blockaded the Japanese island to force them to surrender.
Some argued that the Allies could’ve warned the Japanese with a demonstration bomb.
Some would argue that the United States should’ve just simply lightened up on ‘unconditional surrender’ and allowed the Japanese to fully and uncompromisingly keep their emperor.
President Truman would later say, “In order to end the War without invading Japan, the Bomb had to be used.”
On Monday, August 6, 1945, the most terrible weapon ever developed in human history was dropped on the densely populated Japanese city of Hiroshima. A blast equivalent to the power of 20,000 tons of TNT reduced 4 square miles of the city to ruins.
“Some of our scientists say that the area in Hiroshima will be uninhabitable for many years because the bomb explosion had made the ground radioactive and destructive of animal life,” recorded President Truman’s Chief of Staff, William Leahy, after the release of the bomb, which instantly killed upwards of 80,00 men, women, and children and an additional tens of thousands of people as a result of radiation sickness in the days and years to come.
Later on that day, President Truman issued a statement to the Government of Japan and to the rest of the world:
“What has been done is the greatest achievement of organized science in history. It was done under high pressure and without failure. We are now prepared to obliterate more rapidly and completely every productive enterprise the Japanese have above ground in any city. We shall destroy their docks, their factories, and their communications. Let there be no mistake; we shall completely destroy Japan’s power to make war.

It was to spare the Japanese people from utter destruction that the ultimatum of July 26 was issued at Potsdam. Their leaders promptly rejected that ultimatum. If they do not now accept our terms they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth. Behind this air attack will follow sea and land forces in such numbers and power as they have not yet seen and with the fighting skill of which they are already well aware.”

The last page of the Potsdam Declaration of July 26, 1945 issued just outside Berlin at Potsdam, Germany.
Two days later, the Russians declared war on Japan, but yet there was still no word of surrender from the Japanese.
Sadly, on this day 73 years ago at 11:00AM a second atomic bomb was dropped on the Japanese seaport of Nagasaki. In 1/10 of one-millionth of a second the city was utterly annihilated, instantly killing upwards of another 40,000 men, women and children and an additional tens of thousands over the next several years.
Following the bombing of Nagasaki, President Truman took the authority to use the atomic bomb (there was still one more ready to use) away from the United States military and placed it once again in his own hands.
The following morning on August 10, 1945 in Japan, monitors recorded a broadcast over Radio Tokyo.
Check back tomorrow as we chronicle the final days of the Second World War.

Bibliography

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

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

Potsdam Conference: July 17 – August 2, 1945: FINAL SESSION

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 10:40 PM.

All three delegations were prepared to sign off on the final wordings 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 able 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 turnout that way – and in practical terms, there was really no chance that it ever would. This can be realized at 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 in tact 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 all 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, rancor 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 his own way out of the Cecilienhof Palace with his 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.'”

 


Bibliography

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

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

McCullough, 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 R. (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].

 

 

Potsdam Conference – Day 16: Wednesday, August 1, 1945

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 3:30 PM. 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 on 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 5:50 PM.

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.

 

 

Potsdam Conference – Day 15: Tuesday, July 31, 1945

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 last night (July 30th), another urgent top-secret cable was received and decoded and then delivered to the President early this morning. 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 make the decision that only he could make.

At 7:48 AM, Berlin time, on this day 73 years ago, President Truman wrote his answer large and clear with a lead pencil on a piece of message paper:

Reply to your suggestion’s 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 Dawn Wilson 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 4:05 PM.

Following British Foreign Minister 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, they 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 11:00 AM and the twelfth plenary session would kickoff at Cecilienhof around 3:00 PM.

Today’s session was now adjourned.

Potsdam Conference – Day 14: Monday, July 30, 1945

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 5:00 PM 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 airplane and meet it after the conference was over.

He desperately wanted to go home and knew that leaving from England would get him their 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.