Thursday, July 19, 1945 at Potsdam, Germany
President Truman called the third plenary session to order at 4:05 PM.
Churchill kicked this session off by highlighting the current unrest in the Balkans. “One point Marshal Stalin raised was that there was some trouble on the Greek-Albanian frontier…We have heard of no fighting but people don’t like one another very much…There is no field division in northern Greece at all. There are many more troops on the borders in Albania, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria than there are in Greece (citing certain figures). We should make it clear to small states we will not tolerate marauding parties across frontiers and the frontiers will be settled by the Peace Conference.”
After Truman agreed that matters should be settled by the Peace Conference and not by direct action, Stalin aggressively responded, “I did not raise the question at this meeting but privately, and I will explain my views on another occasion.”
It’s important to remember that the plenary sessions, which only lasted one to two hours a day on average, accounted for just a small fraction of the overall time that the Big Three saw and interacted with each other during the Potsdam Conference. In addition to these ‘official’ late afternoon sessions, many conversations and social events took place in the the leaders’ villas in Babelsberg (just a couple miles away from Cecilienhof). There were exuberant celebrations and luncheon and dinner invitations and all parties tried to outdo each other with good things to eat, plenty to drink, and entertainment. Therefore, given Stalin’s aggressive response, it’s quite possible that he and Churchill had spoken about the climate of the Balkan area off the record at one of these occasions and the Generalissimo didn’t appreciate their private conversation being brought up and put on the record by the Prime Minister.
British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden read out today’s agenda which included talks on what to do with the German Navy and merchant marine; Spain; Yalta Declaration on a liberated Europe; Yugoslavia; Removal of industrial material as booty in Rumania.
The Big Three talked in circles as to how to divide up the German Navy and distribute its fleets and merchant ships. In short, Churchill not only wanted an equal distribution, but was also sympathetic to distributing a ‘fourth part’ to countries that suffered terribly during WWII, like Norway, pointing out the fact that their oil fleet was huge part of their nation’s strength. Truman was more concerned for the time being about isolating as much of the German Navy, fleets and merchant ships as possible to the Pacific to defeat the Japanese, while Stalin just wanted as much of everything as possible as war booty.
After the three leaders went back and forth for several minutes on the topic, Truman finally said, “That seems enough discussion. Let us proceed. The next subject is Spain.”
This was another highly contentions debate on which everyone had his own viewpoint – that was, what to do with Franco’s government in Spain which also raised the question of what should now happen in Yugoslavia. In short, Stalin wanted Franco out, while Truman was mostly in favor of just having the Big Three’s Foreign Secretaries come up with a plan. On the Yugoslavian front, both Truman and Churchill wanted free elections to take place while Stalin supported Tito’s dictatorship.
Conflict was waiting to erupt.
Finally, Churchill and Stalin began to argue over whether the Prime Minister’s jabs at the Soviets over Tito were “complaints” or “accusations.”
A fed up Harry S. Truman, the normally humble Midwestern man, had reached boiling point: “I am here to discuss world affairs with Soviet and Great Britain governments…I’m not here to sit as a court! That is the work of San Francisco (the newly established United Nations). I want to discuss matters on which the three governments can come to agreement!”
Stalin: “That is a correct observation.”
Churchill: “I thought that this was a matter in which the United States was very interested, particularly in view of their Yalta papers.”
Truman: “That is true. I want to see the Yalta agreement carried out.”
Stalin: “According to our information, Tito is carrying out the Crimea decisions.
Churchill: “Our paper is a repetition of what we have already said.”
Truman: “Let us drop it.”
Churchill: “It is very important.”
Truman: “We are dropping it only for the day as we did with Franco.”
Churchill: “I had hoped that we could discuss these matters frankly.”
Stalin: “But we must hear the Yugoslavs first.”
After briefly discussing the remaining items on the agenda in circles, Truman finally yielded to the stalemate and called the third session to an end at 4:50 PM. Only the third of 17 days into the Conference and it was already clear that the wartime spirit of cooperation was fading dramatically fast.
What’s interesting to understand about the Potsdam Conference by this point is that the Big Three began facing their differences for the first time. During their previous meetings at Tehran and Yalta, which took place while they were still relying on each other to defeat Nazi Germany and liberate Hitler’s Europe, they had been able to make grand statements about the future of Germany and Europe while postponing or delegating issues on which they disagreed. Now at Potsdam, that was no longer necessary or possible.
Disagreements could no longer be concealed.
Despite their differences in the afternoon, it was now President Truman’s turn to host Churchill and Stalin at “The Little White House” at Kaiserstraße 2 (today Karl-Marx-Straße). In his villa beautifully situated above Griebnitzsee, he threw a party that night and flew in two American GIs to entertain, a concert pianist and a professional violinist.
Dinner that night had to have been one of the most elaborate served in Europe in years: pate de foie gras, caviar on toast, cream of tomato soup, olives, perch saute meuniere, filet mignon, mushroom gravy, shoestring potatoes, peas and carrots, tomato salad with French dressing, Roca cheese, and vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce which had been flown in from the USS Augusta in Antwerp (Truman’s transportation across the Atlantic).
The wines included a chilled German white called Niersteiner from 1937; a fine Bordeaux, Mouton d’ Armailhac; Champagne, 1934 Pommery; plus coffee, cigars, cigarettes, port, cognac, and vodka.
“Had Churchill on my right, Stalin on my left,” Truman wrote his wife, Bess. “I was delighted to see Stalin so obviously enjoying himself. The old man loves music!”
Churchill even toasted to his political opponent, Clement Attlee, sitting quietly across the table: “I raise my glass to the leader of His Majesty’s loyal opposition.” Churchill’s icy sarcasm was not lost on Attlee, who had thus far said very little at Potsdam.
Finally, even Secretary of State Jimmy Byrnes was in unusually good form. “His stories were good, and told with both Irish and southern charm,” remarked one ambassador present. Meanwhile, Admiral Leahy got his chops busted from the others for his abstinence from alcohol.
Food, music and booze had come to save the day. The cold conspicuous glares of rigorous diplomacy in Cecilienhof during the day gave way to many genuine smiles at night.