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.