Wednesday night, August 1 – early Thursday morning, August 2, 1945 at Potsdam, Germany
“We will take up the report of the Protocol Committee,” President Truman announced as he opened the thirteenth and final plenary session of the Potsdam Conference at 10:40 PM.
All three delegations were prepared to sign off on the final wordings of the Potsdam communiqué – essentially a contract spelling out the few agreements the three governments had achieved.
In summary, what were some of these agreements?
First – and one of the least contentious issues – there was never an argument that Germany should be demilitarized and its Nazi war criminals be brought to justice, despite the fact that a detailed discussion and final agreement on it wouldn’t come until the very end of the Conference.
Second, one could argue that the Big Three’s establishment of the Council of Foreign Ministers (CFM) during the Potsdam Conference was an achievement at that time.
This body, consisting of the foreign ministers from Great Britain, France, China, the United States, and the Soviet Union, would have the immediate task and be authorized to draw up the peace treaties with Italy, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Finland.
(Yet at the Paris Conference in the spring and summer of 1946, the peace treaties produced there permitted Soviet troops to stay in Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania, decidedly acknowledging Moscow’s dominant role in the area).
Third, in artfully vague language, the Big Three agreed that the Council of Foreign Ministers would also prepare a peace treaty for Germany – at an unspecified time in the future – “to be accepted by the Government of Germany when a government adequate for the purpose is established.”
For the time being, however, Germany would remain divided into four zones under Allied occupation – which was in effect, divided down the middle between East and West.
It’s unfortunate – yet not hard to see – that the Big Three nor the CFM were able to eventually agree on how a German government would be established, who might have the authority to establish it, or what kind of government it would be. Soon thereafter, Germany would consequently become a divided nation for forty years.
Fourth, when it came to the highly contentious topic of Poland – particularly its western boundary – arguments about the German-Polish border had dominated much of the Potsdam Conference. Earlier on, Churchill had tried tenaciously to keep the German border as far east as he could, but the Red Army had pushed all the way to the Oder River and western Neisse River, and so those rivers were agreed to as Poland’s western frontier.
Although Churchill later asserted that he wouldn’t have accepted the western Neisse border if he’d remained for the entire conference, the reality was that there was little that he or Truman could’ve done short of going to war since the area was occupied by Soviet – not British or American – troops.
And as for free elections in Poland, it was agreed only that they should be held “as soon as possible,” which in reality meant the Polish issue remained unsolved.
Fifth, the British and American recognition of Poland’s western frontier – ‘for the time being’ – came as a compromise with the Soviets over German reparations: Stalin and Molotov ended up withdrawing their claim that Germany should pay a sum of $20 billion, which meant that reparations would have to come in other ways.
Ultimately, they decided that each occupying power could draw reparations primarily from its own zone of occupation with no overall limit. The Soviets also demanded 15 percent of German industrial equipment that was not needed in the Western zones. In exchange, they promised to ship food, minerals and other commodities from their zone. Stalin also negotiated an additional 10% of unneeded German industrial equipment from the Western zones without having to pay any compensation.
Through this rather complicated formula, we’ll never really know exactly how much Germany ended up paying in reparations when it was all said and done.
As it might seem as though the Soviets got the lion’s share at Potsdam, in some instances Stalin actually did not get everything that was discussed during the Conference. He badly had wanted Soviet trusteeship over Italy’s former colonies in Africa (whose topic was deferred to the United Nations), as well as a four-power control over Germany’s industrial area in the Ruhr region (where British and American troops occupied).
Yet, at the end of the day, it was the Western leaders who made the biggest concessions at Potsdam. Primarily due to the fact that, even before the Potsdam Conference had begun, Stalin had been able to use his army to drive his belt of protection all the way up to 30 miles east of Berlin, use his army to set up governments sympathetic to Moscow, and consequently use his army to ensure Soviet domination of eastern Europe for the next half century.
In conclusion: When one really thinks about it, the Potsdam Conference should’ve been a time of celebration. It should’ve been the most harmonious and most hopeful of the Big Three conferences. In short, it should’ve marked the start of a new era of good feeling among the Allied powers now that their common foe, Nazi Germany, had been defeated.
Unfortunately, it didn’t turnout that way – and in practical terms, there was really no chance that it ever would. This can be realized at the very first meeting between the Soviet leader and American President on July 17th.
At that lunch, Stalin had told Truman that he wanted to cooperate with the United States in peace as in war. “But in peace, that would be more difficult…” the Soviet leader would admit, immediately filling the Little White House with tension.
And this underlying tension that was felt in the beginning remained in tact all the way to the very end.
Sometimes it resulted in outbursts like at the twelfth plenary session when Truman made a personal plea to Stalin to agree to internationalize certain waterways, which he believed would lubricate trade in political postwar Europe.
“Marshal Stalin,” Truman said, “I have accepted a number of compromises during this conference…I make a personal request now that you yield on this point.”
Truman was simply asking that this issue remain a subject for future discussion.
“Nyet!” Stalin yelled out. Then he spoke English for the first time all conference to make himself crystal clear, “No, I say no!”
In a letter to his mother, Truman called the Russians the most pig-headed people he had ever encountered. He knew them to now be relentless bargainers – “forever pressing for every advantage for themselves,” as he later said – and in his diary he clearly showed that he understood the reality of the Stalin regime. It was “police government pure and simple,” he wrote. “A few top hands just take clubs, pistols and concentration camps and rule the people on the lower levels.”
Despite all the stress, frustration, rancor and serious exhaustion that came from dealing with Stalin and the Soviets, according to Truman’s biographer, David McCullough, “Still-still-Truman liked him.” Leading up to the end of the Conference he wrote to his wife, Bess, “I like Stalin. He is straightforward…” Even when he got back to Washington, he told former Vice President Henry Wallace that Stalin was a fine man who wanted to do the right thing.
Stalin was less sanguine. He would later tell Nikita Khrushchev that Truman was “worthless.” As it can be seen during the plenary sessions, Stalin had already made up his mind – even before arriving at Potsdam – that he would surrender nothing of any consequence when the bargaining began.
In short, at Potsdam, the struggle against Germany ended and the struggle over Germany began.
Of all those who sat at the negotiating table at Potsdam, Admiral Leahy – President Truman’s Chief of Staff – summed up the Conference the most tellingly:
“My general feeling about the Potsdam Conference was one of frustration. Both Stalin and Truman suffered defeats…The Soviet Union emerged at this time as the unquestioned all-powerful influence in Europe…One effective factor was a decline of the power of the British Empire…With France grappling for a stability that she had not achieved even before the war, and the threat of civil war hanging over China, it was inescapable that the only two major powers remaining in the world were the Soviet Union and the United States…”
The clock had just ticked past midnight. Stalin picked up his pen and signed the communiqué first, followed by Truman, then Attlee.
“I declare the Berlin Conference adjourned – until our next meeting which, I hope, will be in Washington,” Truman announced.
“God willing,” Stalin replied. “The Conference, I believe, can be considered a success.”
The President then thanked the other Foreign Ministers and all those “who have helped us so much in our work” before he said, “I declare the Berlin Conference closed.”
After all the formal goodbyes had been said and wishes for good health and a safe journey said, all three leaders made his own way out of the Cecilienhof Palace with his own entourage. As for Truman and Stalin, they would never see each other in person ever again.
Interestingly, Truman would admit years later that he had been naive at Potsdam. He called himself “an innocent idealist” and referred to Stalin as the “unconscionable Russian Dictator.” Yet even then he added, “And I liked the little son-of-a-bitch.”
In any case, a new geopolitical age had been ushered in at Potsdam in the summer of 1945.
Leahy further noted in his summary of the Conference:
“Potsdam had brought into sharp world focus the struggle of two great ideas – the Anglo-Saxon democratic principles of government and the aggressive and expansionist police-state tactics of Stalinist Russia.
It was the beginning of the ‘cold war.'”
Baime, Albert J. (2017). The Accidental President. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN 978-0-544-61734-6
Byrnes, James F. (1947). Speaking Frankly. New York: Harper & Brothers. ISBN 978-0-837-17480-8
McCullough, David (1992). Truman. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-0-671-86920-5
Foreign Relations of the United States: Diplomatic Papers, The Conference of Berlin (The Potsdam Conference), 1945, Volume II. Truman Papers: VI. Minutes and Other Records of Conference proceedings. https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1945Berlinv02/comp2 [accessed 15 July – 2 August 2018].
Smyser, William R. (1999). From Yalta To Berlin: The Cold War Struggle Over Germany. New York: St. Martin’s Press. ISBN 0-312-06605-8
Truman, Harry S. (1956). Memoirs: Year of Decisions Volume 1. New York: Doubleday. https://ia601603.us.archive.org/14/items/in.ernet.dli.2015.462682/2015.462682.The-Memoirs.pdf [accessed 15 July – 2 August 2018].