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Potsdam Conference: Day 5 – Saturday, July 21, 1945

Saturday, July 21, 1945 at Potsdam, Germany

Truman with Secretary of War Stimson

At 3:30 PM, Secretary of War Henry Stimson arrived at the Little White House with a full description of the test of the atomic bomb that had taken place five days earlier on July 16th. It was sent to Potsdam by General Leslie Grooves who was overseeing the Manhattan Project back in the U.S. and regularly updating Stimson while he was away at the Conference with the President.

Behind closed doors in Truman’s villa, Stimson read Groove’s document aloud to the President and Secretary of State Jimmy Byrnes. It took some time, as it was fourteen pages double-spaced.

At 530, 16 July 1945, in a remote section of the Alamogordo Air Base, New Mexico, the first full scale test was made of the implosion type atomic fission bomb. For the first time in history there was a nuclear explosion. The test was successful beyond the most optimistic expectations of anyone. Based on the data which it has been possible to work up to date, I estimate the energy generated to be in excess of the equivalent of 15,000 to 20,000 tons of TNT.

Grooves description would go onto note that windows were shattered by the blast as far off as 125 miles from ground zero. The 60 foot high steel tower, from which the bomb fell, immediately evaporated. It left a crater in the New Mexico desert more than two miles wide. It knocked down men more than 10,000 yards away and the mushroom cloud, containing a huge concentration of radioactive material, could be seen for more than 200 miles away.

After reading the document, Stimson looked up at the President to see that he was “tremendously pepped up by it,” as he would record in his diary. “He (Truman) said it gave him an entirely new feeling of confidence.”

Truman went straight to Cecilienhof after the meeting where the 5th plenary session was called to order at 5:05 PM. According to Truman’s biographer, David McCullough: The change in him was pronounced. He was surer of himself, more assertive. It was apparent something had happened.  Churchill later told Stimson he could not imagine what had come over the President (Stimson went to see the Prime Minister the next day to read him Groove’s report). 

Vice President for just 82 days and President of the United States for just over three months, it is hard to imagine that the farmer/failed haberdasher from Missouri was now anything less than fortified as he now sat in the presence of two of the most colossal figures of modern history, negotiating the postwar world.

At one point during this evening’s session, Stalin said that the three governments should issue a statement announcing a renewal of diplomatic relations with the former German satellite nations of Romania, Bulgaria, and Finland. When Truman disagreed, Stalin said the questions would have to be postponed.

“We will not recognize these governments until they are set up on a satisfactory basis,” Truman replied aggressively.

Yet, the biggest and thorniest question of the Conference was Poland, which dominated much of this session.

Immediately to the east of the Soviet zone is the new Soviet backed, Polish Administrative Area, which stretches east to the 1937 German border. After the war, millions of ethnic Germans were driven out of this area (Truman asked about the “nine million” on this day, but historians agree that there could’ve been upwards of 10-12 million Germans affected).

In vague language at Yalta it had been agreed that Poland would get territory from Germany to the west to compensate what Russia had taken from Poland in the east. At the moment, however, the Red Army was occupying all of Polish territory from Germany’s 1937 border (border with Russia) all the way up to the Soviet zone of occupation in Germany. Furthermore, a Soviet backed, Polish Administrative Area had already been established to run the area.

Truman: The question is not who occupies the country, but how we stand on the question as to who is to occupy Germany. I want it understood that the Soviet [Union] is occupying this zone and is responsible for it. I don’t think we are far apart on our conclusions.

Stalin: On paper it is formerly German territory but in fact it is Polish territory. There are no Germans left. The Soviet [Union] is responsible for the territory.

Truman: Where are the nine million Germans?

Stalin: They have fled.

Churchill: How can they be fed? I am told that under the Polish plan put forward by the Soviets that a quarter of arable land of Germany would be alienated—one-fourth of all the arable land from which German food and reparations must come. The Poles come from the East but 8¼ [8½?] million Germans are misplaced [displaced]. It is apparent that a disproportionate part of the population will be cast on the rest of Germany with its food supplies alienated.

Truman: I propose that the matters of the Polish frontier be considered at the peace conference after consultation with the Polish government of national unity. We decided that Germany with 1937 boundaries should be considered starting point. We decided on our zones. We moved our troops to the zones assigned to us. Now another occupying government has been assigned a zone without consultation with us. We can not arrive at reparations and other problems of Germany if Germany is divided up before the peace conference. I am very friendly to Poland and sympathetic with what Russia proposes regarding the western frontier, but I do not want to do it that way.

In other words, the Russians could not arbitrarily dictate how things were to be, and there would be no progress on reparations or other matters concerning Germany until this was understood.

Again, the Big Three tabled the question of Poland for further discussion and adjourned.

Truman had showed an unexpected amount of energy and confidence during this session. Churchill was pleased and his Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, thought it was Truman’s best day so far. Even Leahy, the President’s Chief of Staff, was impressed, though he was certain – bomb or no bomb – that Stalin had no intention of changing his course in Eastern Europe. He regarded Poland as a “Soviet fait accompli” and since millions of Soviet soldiers occupied the territory to the east, there was little the United States and Great Britain could do about it, short of going to war. This of course was unthinkable.

Stalin Villa

Finally, it was now Stalin’s turn to host the American and British Delegations for an evening party at his villa. Here, there was no trace of the heated tension from just a couple of hours ago. Stalin wanted to outdo the Americans in a contest of decadence. It’s safe to say that he succeeded as this evening would end up being the best time the President would have during his entire 19 days at Potsdam.

“It started with caviar and vodka…” he wrote in a letter to his daughter, Margaret. “Then smoked herring, then white fish and vegetables, then venison and vegetables, then duck and chicken and finally two desserts, ice cream and strawberries and a wind-up of sliced watermelon. White wine, red wine, champagne and cognac in liberal quantities…Stalin also sent to Moscow and brought his tow best pianists and two feminine violinists. They were excellent. Played Chopin, Liszt, Tchaikovsky and all the rest.”

At one point Truman even asked Stalin (also known as the “Man of Steel) how he could drink so much vodka. Through an interpreter, Stalin said, “Tell the president it is French wine, because since my heart attack I can’t drink the way I used to.”