Wednesday, July 25, 1945 at Potsdam, Germany
Something happened today that hadn’t happened since the Potsdam Conference began eight days ago: The Big Three sat down for today’s session before noon.
Some have claimed over the years that the reason why most sessions began around 5:00 PM was because Churchill and Stalin couldn’t be bothered to get up before noon. That might be partly true, but there was actually a lot going on behind the scenes in Cecilienhof before the Big Three met for their plenary sessions.
A typical day at the Potsdam Conference actually got underway around 8:00 AM with consultations in subcommittees, meetings among the joint Chiefs of Staffs, and then often followed by meetings involving the Foreign Ministers. Finally, the Big Three would come to (hopefully) make decisions on the agenda that had been put together based on what had been discussed or presented during the day.
Today was different, however. At the end of this plenary meeting, Churchill and his political opponent, Clement Attlee, would be leaving Potsdam for London, where they would learn the results of the British national elections that had taken place nearly two weeks before the Potsdam Conference began on July 5th.
Indeed, Churchill’s coalition government had successfully led Great Britain through the war, but the Labour Party’s decision to pull out of the national wartime government on May 23rd forced a general election to take place. And on account of the participation of 1.2 million absentee ballots – primarily from soldiers stationed abroad – the outcome of the election could only be announced three weeks afterwards.
President Truman called the ninth plenary session to order at 11:30 AM and once again, the Big Three would clash over Eastern Europe.
Churchill: We must at some time discuss the question of the transfer of populations. There are a large number of Germans to be moved from Czechoslovakia. We must consider where they are to go.
Stalin: The Czechs have already evicted them.
Churchill: The two and a half million of them? Then there are the Germans from the new Poland. Will they go to the Russian zones? We don’t want them. There are large numbers still to come from Sudetenland.
Stalin: So far as the Poles are concerned, the Poles have retained one and a half million Germans to help as laborers. As soon as the harvest is over, the Poles will evict them. The Poles do not ask us. They are doing what they like, just as the Czechs are.
Churchill: That is the difficulty. The Poles are driving the Germans out of the Russian zone. That should not be done without considering its effect on the food supply and reparations. We are getting into a position where the Poles have food and coal, and we have the mass of the population thrown on us.
Stalin: We must appreciate the position of the Poles. The Poles are taking revenge for centuries of injuries.
Churchill: That consists in throwing them on us, and the United States?
Truman: We don’t want to pay for Polish revenge. If Poland is to have an occupation zone, that should be clearly defined, but at the present time there are only four zones of occupation. If the Poles have an occupation zone they should be responsible for it. The boundary cannot be fixed before the peace conference. I want to be helpful, but Germany is occupied by four powers, and the boundary cannot be changed now; only at the peace conference.
Tired, annoyed and full of frustration, Churchill then spoke up for the last time at Potsdam and finally called a spade a spade by stating what had been obvious up to that point (indirectly predicting what mostly turned out to be the case at the end of the Conference):
If the conference ends in ten days without agreement on the present state of affairs in Poland, and with the Poles practically admitted as a fifth occupation power, and no arrangement for the spreading of food over the whole of Germany, it will mark the breakdown of the conference. I suppose we will have to fall back on our own zones…I do hope that we will reach a broad agreement, but we must recognize that we have made no progress so far on this point.
The Prime Minister was leaving at a low point for the conference. Like almost every other plenary session, Churchill’s last one at Potsdam had not gone smooth. As Truman put it in a letter to his wife, Bess:
There are some things we can’t agree to. Russia and Poland have gobbled up a big hunk of Germany and want Britain and us to agree. I have flatly refused. We have unalterably opposed the recognition of police governments in the Germany Axis countries. I told Stalin that until we had free access to those countries and our nationals had their property rights restored, so far as we were concerned, there’d never be recognition.”
Now Churchill was leaving, and nothing major had been accomplished at Potsdam.
After the official photographs had been taken out in the west courtyard of Cecilienhof and after all the formal goodbyes had been exchanged, Truman said to the two Britons, “I must say good luck to you both.”
“What a pity,” Stalin said. “Judging from the expression on Mr. Attlee’s face, I do not think he looks forward avidly to taking over your authority.”
“I hope to be back,” Churchill replied.
As the Prime Minister turned for the exit, one of President Truman’s advisers, Ambassador Joseph Davies, watched him leave. “There was a glint of a tear in his eyes,” the Ambassador recorded, “but his step was firm and his chin thrust out. He seemed to sense that he had reached the end of the road.”