Potsdam Conference: Day 2 – Wednesday, July 18, 1945

Wednesday, July 18, 1945, at Potsdam, Germany

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

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

“Dear Bess,

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

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

Churchill Villa

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

Stalin Villa

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

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

A tense President Truman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Truman: “But what geographical section?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tomorrow, President Truman would reach his boiling point.