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.
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.
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 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.
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
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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
Wednesday night, August 1 – early Thursday morning, August 2, 1945 at Potsdam, Germany
“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).
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.
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).
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!”
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.
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.'”
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].
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Just before noon, Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov arrived to 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.
The British delegation had finally returned to Potsdam with new Prime Minister Clement Attlee and new Foreign Minister 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 9:15 PM 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 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.
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 10:30 PM.
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 and 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.
Tonight’s agenda was mostly dominated by discussion on how Italy should pay war reparations. In short, 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.
Vyacheslav Molotov showed up at the Little White House for a one on one meeting with Jimmy Byrnes at 6:00 PM.
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.
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, and were in desperate need of food, water and shelter.
And 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 Sates made after WWI, and the American people would simply and surely not stand for it again.
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.
Meanwhile in Tokyo, Prime Minster 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.
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 honor guard from the 508th Parachute Infantry.
Army units lined the roadways for over 30 straight miles and Truman rode past them in Eisenhower’s armored 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 organized 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 7:00 PM that evening, he had 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 cleary passing.
Finally, at 9:30 PM Berlin time, the President’s Press Secretary and personal friend, Charlie Ross, handed the a 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, airplanes 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 never 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.