Potsdam Conference – Day 7: Monday, July 23, 1945

Monday, July 23, 1945 at Potsdam, Germany

Early this morning, Secretary of War Stimson made his way to President Truman’s office in the Little White House.

He informed the President that a warning message to Japan was nearly ready. This document would be known as the Potsdam Declaration, a final ultimatum to force Japan to accept the unconditional surrender demand.

Roosevelt and Churchill at Casablanca in 1943

Unconditional surrender was a term introduced by Roosevelt at the Casablanca Conference in January 1943 and reconfirmed at the Cairo Conference later that same year. It meant that war would continue until both Nazi Germany and the Japanese Empire accepted this demand. Germany already had, but Japan hadn’t.

By this point in the war, Japan had been defeated. In theory, it had been defeated well before Truman became President. In fact, studies by the Japanese themselves had determined that their war had been lost by January 1944. Yet, Japan’s defeat was not the issue. It was their accepting the unconditional surrender demand that was so desperately wanted.

In particular, unconditional surrender would mean that Japan would have to do away with its Emperor, the heavenly symbol of the Japanese people. Truman had been informed by a number of his advisers, including Secretary of War Stimson, that the unconditional surrender demand would make it more difficult to achieve peace. He was therefore advised on a number of occasions to add an explicit provision that would allow the Japanese to keep their Emperor.

Although Truman listened carefully to this advice, Stimson and others failed to convince him to do so.

Secretary Byrnes, President Truman, Admiral Leahy

Secretary of State Jimmy Byrnes, who had been a part of Roosevelt’s inner circle at the start of the war and especially in 1943 when unconditional surrender was introduced – vehemently opposed any such change to the demand. He believed that unconditional surrender was an objective too long established, too often proclaimed; it had been, as Truman’s biographer David McCullough would write, “too great a rallying cry from the time of Pearl Harbor to abandon now, Byrnes insisted.” It was what the Nazis had been made to accept, and its renunciation with the Japanese at this late date, after so much bloodshed, the acceptance of anything less with victory so near, would seem like appeasement.

Especially if you consider American opinion at this time.

A Gallup Poll in June 1945 had shown that a mere fraction of Americans, only 7%, thought the Japanese Emperor should be retained after the war, even as a puppet, while a full third of the people thought he should be executed as a war criminal.

However, for every day that Japan rejected the unconditional surrender demand, fighting would continue and the loss of lives in the Pacific Theater would continue to climb.

Königsberg highlighted in pink

Meanwhile, at Cecilienhof, the seventh plenary session was called to order at 5:10 PM. Although there was talk about accessing and administering the Rhine and Danube rivers, along with Allied policy in the Middle East, the biggest topic of this session was Königsberg, a piece of German territory that the Soviets were demanding.

This was not only an ice-free port to the Baltic, but it was also a historically symbolic piece of Germany.

Initially inherited in the early 17th century as a Duchy by the House of Hohenzollern (the eventual ruling dynasty of the Prussian Kingdom and German Empire), it was here that Elector Friedrich III of Brandenburg, crowned himself King Friedrich I in Prussia in 1701. Soon the Kingdom of Prussia – with its official seats in Berlin and Potsdam – would go on to play a pivotal role in shaping the politics and history of central Europe for over the next two centuries.

Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov and Stalin at the roundtable in Cecilienhof

Stalin: This was brought up at Yalta. We stated it was necessary to have at least one ice-free port at the expense of Germany. Too much blood has been spilled by the Soviet Union not to have some piece of German territory. Neither the President nor the Prime Minister raised any objection at Yalta, so the question was agreed upon. We are anxious to have that agreement confirmed at this conference.

Churchill replied that the British government sympathized with the Russian desires, and Truman didn’t have any objection in principle.

After today’s session was adjourned, it was now the Prime Minister’s turn to host that evening’s dinner party and he had already promised that he’d “get even” with the Soviets and Americans.

Churchill had invited the entire British Royal Air Force Orchestra to play that evening while the Big Three indulged in copious amounts of delicacies and drinks.

Amusingly, Stalin arrived at Churchill’s dinner party in a bulletproof limousine with some fifty armed guards, while Truman showed up on foot with Byrnes, Leahy, and three secret service men.