Potsdam Conference – Day 12: Saturday, July 28, 1945

Saturday, July 28, 1945 at Potsdam, Germany

One of the few moments when the press was allowed into the conference room to take photos was on July 28th to capture the ‘new’ Big Three at the start of the tenth plenary session.

The British delegation had finally returned to Potsdam with new Prime Minister Clement Attlee and new Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin at the helm. Serving as Deputy Prime Minister under Churchill and anticipating a possible change in leadership, it should be noted that Attlee had been present for each plenary session since the Potsdam Conference began on July 17th.

Before heading to Cecilienhof, Attlee made his way to the Little White House at 9:15 PM to personally reach out and have a private word with President Truman. In many ways Truman would see that Attlee was much different than his predecessor.

Unlike Churchill, Attlee didn’t seem to have an ego, but he seemed to lack charisma. As historian A.J. Baime would write, “Clement Attlee had the look of an aging university professor – a bald dome ringed with hair, balanced on thin shoulders, lips curled around an ever-present pipe. He was an Oxford man with a conventional middle-class upbringing who had risen to the ranks of national power in Britain quietly…”

Many within the American delegation found it hard to believe that the British people had elected this man to head His Majesty’s government at this critical moment in world history.

New Prime Minister Clement Attlee with King George VI in front of Buckingham Palace

Even the Soviets seemed to feel the same way. As Admiral Leahy chronicled: “Although Churchill was their antagonist at almost every turn, Stalin and his top advisors appeared to have had a high personal regard for Churchill. There was a noticeable coolness in their attitude after Attlee took over.”

The British and American delegations made their way to the Cecilienhof Palace to meet the Soviet delegation for the tenth plenary session, which was called to order by President Truman at 10:30 PM.

The ‘new’ Big Three sat down at the large round-oak table to resume business. Right away, Stalin asked to make a statement.

“The Russian delegation was given a copy of the Anglo-American declaration to the Japanese people,” he said. “We think it’s our duty to keep each other informed.”

His tone seemed to suggest that he was a bit disappointed in the Americans and British, but then he said nothing further on the subject. Maybe he thought he would put it aside for now and bring it up at a later date. It’s difficult to say. At any rate, Stalin had addressed the issue that President Truman knew would anger the Soviets, but now for the moment it was time to move onto a related topic.

“I received another communication informing me more precisely of the desire of the Emperor to send a peace mission headed by Prince Konoye, who stated to have great influence in the Palace,” Stalin then said. “It was indicated that it was the personal desire of the Emperor to avoid further bloodshed. In this document there is nothing new except the emphasis on the Japanese desire to collaborate with the Soviets. Our answer of course will be negative.”

This sort of reaching out or “peace feeler” that Stalin had just communicated could only mean that the Japanese wanted to negotiate the terms of surrender – thus undoubtedly being in clear violation of the unconditional surrender demand.

By issuing the Potsdam declaration on July 26th, the Americans, British and Chinese had given the enemy the opportunity to surrender.

Japan had rejected it.

“I appreciate very much what the Marshal has said,” Truman responded. And then he moved to start with that evening’s agenda.

In short, Truman didn’t have to negotiate or make any concessions with the Soviets regarding peace with Japan. He was sitting at the round-table in Cecilienhof with, as he would later say, “an ace in the hole and and ace showing.” That is to say, the ace in the hole was the atomic bomb and the ace showing was American economic and military power. Unconditional surrender was still on the table for the Japanese if they wished to accept it.

Tonight’s agenda was mostly dominated by discussion on how Italy should pay war reparations. In short, right before the session adjourned just minutes before midnight, the Big Three agreed that heavy machinery and war equipment would be extracted as payment for peacetime production.

Potsdam Conference – Day 11: Friday, July 27, 1945

Friday, July 27, 1945 at Potsdam, Germany

Vyacheslav Molotov showed up at the Little White House for a one on one meeting with Jimmy Byrnes at 6:00 PM.

The Truman Villa (“The Little White House”) Kaiserstr. 2 (today Karl-Marx-Str.)

Molotov appeared furious and quickly lashed out. “Why were we not consulted regarding this ultimatum with Japan?”

Byrnes calmly stated the obvious – that is, “We did not consult the Soviet Government since the latter was not at war with Japan and we did not wish to embarrass them,” according to Byrnes’s interpreter on the scene, Chip Bohlen.  “Mr. Molotov replied that he was not authorized to discuss this matter further. He left the implication that Marshal Stalin would revert to it at some time.”

Meanwhile, the British delegation still hadn’t returned from London so the tenth plenary session would be put on hold for another day.

This gave Byrnes and Molotov a chance to negotiate one of the Conference’s most contentious issues: reparations and the future of Germany.

Secretary of State Byrnes

The Soviet Union had shed more blood and suffered more death in WWII than any other nation by far, and the Soviets expected to get the lion’s share of reparations in return.

First and foremost, the Soviets were first demanding that Germany pay $20 billion in reparations of which half would go to the USSR.  This figure was introduced at the Yalta Conference and accepted by Roosevelt not as an agreement, but rather “as a basis for discussion.”

This money was critical to the Soviet plan for postwar expansion and Molotov pressed Byrnes on agreeing to it. But Byrnes had to remind the Soviet Foreign Minister and explain to him in the simplest of terms that the $20 billion figure was set up at Yalta as a basis for discussion.

“If you say I owe you a million dollars and I say I will discuss it with you,” Byrnes would famously say during this meeting, “that does not mean I am going to write you a check for a million dollars.”

“I see,” Molotov replied.

But he didn’t. Byrnes’s analogy wasn’t sinking in; the Soviets wanted to get paid.

Yet, Byrnes knew that the $20 billion just wasn’t practical. He explained to Molotov and reminded him that Germany was in shambles; hundreds of thousands were starving, and were in desperate need of food, water and shelter.

And really the only way that Germany would be able to pay this would be through loans from the United States, which would likely never be paid back. History would therefore be repeating itself, as this was exactly the mistake that the United Sates made after WWI, and the American people would simply and surely not stand for it again.

Foregin Minister Molotov

So Byrnes had to come up with something else – that is, “namely, that each country would obtain its reparations from its own zone (of occupation) and would exchange goods between the zones,” Byrnes said.

Molotov immediately wanted clarification. Did this mean that each of the four occupying powers “would have a free hand in their own zones (to extract reparations) and would act entirely independently of the others?”

It’s funny that Molotov would even bring this up, for there was already ample evidence that the Soviets had been looting territories that the Red Army had conquered – in especially Germany.

President Truman had appointed a man named Edwin Pauley, a wealthy California oilman, as the U.S. representative on the Allied Reparations Committee. Pauley had been touring Germany and observed as he would write, “Red Army men packing woodworking machines, bakery ovens, textile looms, electric generators, transformers, telephone equipment – countless items, most of which could not be considered war potential, and assuredly not war booty. Yet there they were, moving before my eyes, on their way to the Soviet Union.”

In other words, the Soviets had already begun paying themselves at Germany’s expense.

When Byrnes asked Molotov if the Soviet authorities were removing German equipment and materials, even household goods, for transport to the USSR, Molotov did not deny it. “Yes,” he said. “This is the case.”

Yet, Byrnes was talking solely about reparations from each occupying power’s own zone, which hadn’t (wasn’t supposed to) even begun.

According to the meeting minutes: “The Secretary knew that there were some practical issues that needed to be confronted…The Russians grew the most food but had less industry; the British zone had the most manufacturing but would need to import food. These economic complexities would require trade, and meanwhile, each occupying nation would be extracting reparations from its own zone.”

Byrnes’s plan was an attempt to create a mechanism for a peaceful occupied Germany that would eventually reunify. He wanted to avoid future conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union, and thus diving Germany between east and west.

Interpreter Chip Bohlen recorded in his notes: “The Secretary said that he felt that without some such arrangement the difficulties would be insurmountable and would be a continued source of disagreement and trouble between our countries.”

Molotov, however, refused to let the $20 billion figure go and began to point fingers at the Americans that they were breaking the promise they had made at Yalta.

The meeting ended where it had started, with no agreement. Already, the hope for a peaceful reunification of Germany was slipping away.

Japanese Prime Minister Suzuki

Meanwhile in Tokyo, Prime Minster Kantaro Suzuki and his cabinet had met during the morning to discuss the release of the Potsdam Declaration.

Suzuki decided to simply ignore the matter. The declaration, he said at a press conference, was nothing but a rehash of old proposals and as such, beneath contempt. He would “kill (it) with silence,” he said.

The Potsdam Declaration had clearly warned the Japanese of “prompt and utter destruction” if they did not accept it.

It was rejected on July 27, 1945.

Potsdam Conference – Day 10: Thursday, July 26, 1945

Thursday, July 26, 1945 at Potsdam, Germany

With the British leaders back in London, there would be no negotiations or a plenary session held today.

But President Truman got up early as usual and boarded a flight for Frankfurt. When he touched down at the U.S. Army airfield there, Supreme Allied Commander General Eisenhower greeted the President along with an honor guard from the 508th Parachute Infantry.

Army units lined the roadways for over 30 straight miles and Truman rode past them in Eisenhower’s armored car with the general, inspecting the troops.

The car steered deeper into the countryside, through quaint villages that had not been bombed. It was a reminder that not every single German had supported the Nazis, as there were plenty of Germans who had lived reluctantly through WWII and had lost so much – family members, businesses, and their overall every way of life.

The group eventually ended up back at the Frankfurt headquarters where Eisenhower had organized the military government of the American Occupied Zone in Germany. The offices were housed in a building formerly owned by I.G. Farben, the giant chemical company that had supplied the poisons to gas millions of innocent victims in the Nazi death camps during the Holocaust.

When Truman returned to the Little White House in Babelsberg around 7:00 PM that evening, he had learned that the people of Great Britain had elected Clement Attlee as their new prime minister. Several couldn’t believe it, but the Soviets seemed the most upset of all.

According to Truman’s biographer, David McCullough, ‘How could this possibly be, Molotov kept demanding. How could they not have known the outcome in advance?’ Stalin postponed the Conference for another couple days and was seen by no one.

“First Roosevelt, now Churchill,” Truman noted privately. The old order was cleary passing.

Finally, at 9:30 PM Berlin time, the President’s Press Secretary and personal friend, Charlie Ross, handed the a finalized version of the Potsdam Declaration to the press whose job it would now be to spread this document all the way to Tokyo.

“We the President of the United States, the President of the National Government of the Republic of China, and the Prime Minister of Great Britain, representing the hundreds of millions of our countrymen, have conferred and agree that Japan shall be given an opportunity to end this war,” it began.

“We call upon the Government of Japan to proclaim now the Unconditional Surrender of all its armed forces,” it was announced from Potsdam. “The alternative for Japan is ‘prompt and utter destruction.”

Ross cabled his assistant back in Washington and informed him that President Truman’s wish was to get word to the Japanese people in every possible way. Soon, airplanes were flying over the mainland of Japan and dropping upwards of some 600,000 leaflets. The Potsdam Declaration would soon start to be read over the radio, and news of it appeared on the front pages of newspapers all over the globe in the morning.

At the Little White House that evening, Truman tried to relax out on his lakefront porch. The President was exhausted and he knew that Stalin was going to be furious.

The Generalissimo had never been consulted on the Potsdam Declaration before it had been released.

But then again, the Soviet Union was not yet at war with Japan and thus had no authority to make any official demand.

At the same time that the ultimatum was being released to the press, Truman had a special messenger walk the Potsdam Declaration up the street to Soviet Foreign Secretary Molotov. Even though the plenary sessions would still be suspended for another day, the President was certain that he’d be hearing from the Soviets the next morning.

Potsdam Conference – Day 9: Wednesday, July 25, 1945

Wednesday, July 25, 1945 at Potsdam, Germany

The Big Three in Cecilienhof’s west courtyard on July 25, 1945

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.

An improvised British polling booth for soliders stationed near Cairo

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.”


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.

Potsdam Conference: Day 6 – Sunday, July 22, 1945

Sunday, July 22, 1945 at Potsdam, Germany

Last night at Stalin’s party, Churchill, who cared little for music, told Truman he was bored to tears and wanted to head home early. Truman, who – as it was written in yesterday’s blog – was having the best time he’d have during his entire trip to Potsdam, told the Prime Minister that he’d planned to stay until the party was over.

So, Churchill begrudgingly changed his mind and slowly made his way over to a corner for another half hour or so. Until the music ended, he “glowered, growled, and grumbled,” as Truman would amusingly describe it.

Things would be much different today.

Churchill Villa: Virchowstraße 23. 14482 Potsdam

Just after midday, Secretary of War Stimson made his way to Churchill’s Villa to read Grooves report which had gotten Truman “all pepped up” just before yesterday’s session.

Churchill now knew what had overcome the President to which he replied, “Stimson, what was gunpowder? What was electricity? Meaningless. This atomic bomb is the Second Coming in Wrath.”

The sixth plenary session was called to order at 5:10 PM. Although the question of what to do with Italy’s colonies was briefly discussed – which was eventually deferred to the Council of Foreign Ministers to include as part of their drafting of the Peace Treaty – the largest issue on the agenda today was once again Poland.

Polish Administration Area – highlighted in yellow – was the biggest topic of contention on this day.

If you remember from yesterday’s blog, Stalin had informed Truman and Churchill that a (Soviet supported) Polish Administered Area had been established from the Oder River at the start of the western front stretching to Germany’s 1937 borders in the east. Furthermore, Stalin also claimed that all the ethnic Germans in this area had left after President Truman had inquired about the “nine million” of them spread throughout this territory.

During this session, Stalin remained firm on his position when it came to the western frontier of Poland:

“I shall not undertake to oppose Mr. Churchill’s views on all these points, but I will deal here only with two. One, Germany will have resources in the Ruhr and the Rhineland, so there is no great difficulty if Silesian coal basin is taken from Germany. Two, the movement of population does not present the difficulties Mr. Churchill anticipates. There are neither eight nor six nor three million Germans in this area. There have been several call-ups of troops in this area. Few Germans remain. Our data can be checked. Could we not arrange for representatives of the Polish government to come here and be heard?”

President Truman’s main concern was that the Poles were essentially being given a zone of occupation, something upon which hadn’t been agreed:

“The Allies recognize that Poland must receive substantial compensation in the north and west…But Poland has in fact been assigned a zone of occupation contrary to our agreement. We can agree, if we wish to give the Poles an occupying zone, but I don’t like the way the Poles have taken or been given their zone.“

The Prime Minister’s concern was more of a humanitarian one:

“The burden falls on us, the British in particular. Our zone has the smallest supply of food and the greatest density of population. Suppose the Foreign Ministers, having heard the Poles, cannot agree. Then there will be indefinite delay, at least until another meeting of the heads of government. I am anxious to meet practical problems due to the march of events.”

Yet, Churchill also had economic and political concerns too:

“(The Polish Administered Area) destroys Germany’s economic integrity, and puts an undue burden on the occupying powers… I think Marshal Stalin and I agree up to this point, that the new Poland should advance to the Oder. But the difficulty between the Marshal and me is that I do not go quite as far as the Marshal…(Furthermore) Berlin draws its coal from the Silesian mines, which have long been worked by Polish miners. What is to happen to Berlin’s coal during the winter?”

Stalin: “Berlin draws her coal from Saxony. Let the Ruhr give her coal. There are different opportunities for supplying Berlin with coal.”

Caricature poking fun at Soviet expansionism published in the Daily Mail

Stalin then reintroduced his suggestion that representatives from the Polish Administered Area be invited to Potsdam to give their viewpoints on the current situation in their de facto zone. Churchill withdrew his initial objection and agreed. Truman also agreed.

In conclusion: Today’s session revealed some of the largest frustrations that Churchill and Truman must’ve felt when it came to the Polish question at Potsdam. At the end of the day, both the President and Prime Minister wanted free and fair elections to play out in Poland, but the Soviet Army was occupying large parts of Eastern Europe (including Poland) and assisting in the establishment of new governments that would be sympathetic to the Soviet Union. Moreover, the Soviet goal was to essentially use these countries of Eastern Europe as a belt of protection against any future foreign invader.

“Whoever occupies a territory also imposes on it his own social system…as far as his army can reach.” – Joseph Stalin

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.”

Potsdam Conference: Day 4 – Friday, July 20, 1945

Friday, July 20, 1945 at Potsdam, Germany

From left to right: General Eisenhower, General Bradley, and President Truman

Late in the morning, Generals Dwight Eisenhower and Omar Bradley made their way to the Little White House to meet with President Truman. They spoke about strategy in the Pacific and the use of the atomic bomb, on which the generals were brought up to speed about its successful test four days earlier.

Even though Truman didn’t specifically ask the generals for their opinions, Eisenhower said he opposed the use of the bomb, thinking that Japan was already defeated. He’d even expressed to Secretary of War Stimson the hope that the United States would not be the first to deploy the most terrible weapon in the world. Some years later, though, Eisenhower would concede that his reaction was personal and based on no analysis of the subject.

Following a quick lunch, the three hopped into an open air car and headed up to Berlin. Along the way, the air stunk of death and destruction, and they saw firsthand the miserable procession of German citizens in rags, pushing what few belongings they had through the rubble. Truman recorded in his diary, “You never saw as completely ruined a city.” 

The scene was a tragic contrast from the dinner party the night before.

The President and the two Generals arrived in the American sector at the US Group Control Council Headquarters for a flag raising ceremony. The Stars and Stripes raised that day was the same flag flying over the White House when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and on the day the United States declared war on Nazi Germany in 1941 (it would be raised over Rome and Paris when those two cites were liberated as well).

President Truman speaking at the U.S. Headquarters on Kronprinzenallee (today Clayallee)

“We are here today to raise the flag of victory over the capital of our greatest adversary,” Truman spoke without notes and with obvious emotion, choosing his words carefully. “We are raising it in the name of the people of the United States, who are looking forward to a better world, a peaceful world, a world in which all the people will have an opportunity to enjoy the good things of life, and not just a few at the top.”

Unhooking his thumbs from the side pockets of his double-breasted suit, he freed his hands and chopped the air in unison as he then said, “We want peace and prosperity for the world as a whole,” as he stressed each word with emotion.

“We want peace and prosperity for the world as a whole.”

“If we can put this tremendous machine of ours, which has made victory possible, to work for peace, we can look forward to the greatest age in the history of mankind. That is what we propose to do.”

It may not have been what FDR would’ve said or other presidents before him, but Truman’s short speech was decidedly moving. General Lucius Clay recorded, “It was of lasting inspiration to all of us who were there…While the soldier is schooled against emotion, I have never forgotten that short ceremony as our flag rose to the staff.”

Following the ceremony up in Berlin, the fourth plenary session of the Potsdam Conference was called to order at 4:10 PM.

A plenary session coming to order at the Cecilienhof Palace

Today the Council of Foreign Ministers and the subject of the treatment of Italy would dominate this brief session. In short, Churchill wanted the Council to meet in London – to which Truman and Stalin supported – and the Big Three began discussing the terms of a peace treaty for Italy.

At the “Little White House” later that night, Truman recorded in his diary: “Uncle Joe looked tired and drawn today and the P.M. seemed lost.”

Little was accomplished.






Potsdam Conference: Day 3 – Thursday, July 19, 1945

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.”

Truman Villa

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.

Truman Villa from Griebnitzsee

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.


Potsdam Conference: Day 2 – Wednesday, July 18, 1945

Wednesday, July 18, 1945, at Potsdam, Germany

An avid early riser his whole life, President Truman sat down at his desk early in the morning on the bank of his lakeside house on Griebnetzsee and composed a letter to his beloved wife, Bess.

“I wasn’t sure if things were going according to Hoyle or not!”

“Dear Bess,

The first session was yesterday. It had made presiding over the Senate seem tame. The boys say I gave them an earful. I hope so…I was so scared. I didn’t know whether things were going according to Hoyle (protocol) or not. Anyway, a start has been made and I’ve gotten what I came for – Stalin goes to war August 15 with no strings on it…I’ll say that we’ll end the war a year sooner now, and think of the kids who won’t be killed! That is the important thing…Wish you and Margie were here. But it is a forlorn place and would only make you sad.”

The President then wrote another letter to his mother and sister which read, “Churchill talks all the time and Stalin just grunts, but you know what he means.”

Churchill Villa

Shortly after 1:00 PM and being accompanied by half dozen officials, President Truman walked down to Ringstraße 23 (today Virchowstraße) to Churchill’s villa to have lunch with the British Prime Minister. The President showed the Prime Minister two telegrams that had arrived from Washington the night before confirming that the Atomic Bomb was ready. They both agreed that Stalin ought to be informed, but weren’t quite sure exactly how to do it. Should Stalin be written a letter? Or just simply told? At any rate, Churchill believed that the Generalissimo should be told sooner rather than later, and Truman decided that the best time would be to just simply wait for the right moment during one of the forthcoming sessions.

Stalin Villa

Truman then made his way to Kaiserstraße 27 (today Karl-Marx-Straße) to pay a return visit to Stalin with his Secretary of State, Jimmy Byrnes, and his interpreter, Charles (Chip) Bohlen. The three men were taken by surprise when they walked into Stalin’s villa and saw a second lunch waiting for them. Again, the Soviets painstakingly overdid themselves by preparing an elaborate meal in President Truman’s honor.

The President would later write: “He said he wanted to cooperate with the U.S. in peace as we had cooperated in war but it would be harder. Said he was grossly misunderstood in U.S. and I was misunderstood in Russia. I told him that we each could remedy that situation in our home countries and that I intended to try with all I had to do my part at home. He gave me a most cordial smile and said he would do as much in Russia.”

A tense President Truman

The second plenary session was called to order at 4:20 PM that afternoon. Many observers agreed that Churchill didn’t seem himself. He was tired, cranky and distracted by the current election count which could end his term of office in a matter of a few days (Great Britain had held national elections on July 5th).

Stalin, on the other hand was concise, friendly  and very protective of his interests. “We cannot get away from the results of the war,” said Stalin.

The formal business was to be Germany and Truman suggested they begin at once.

Churchill spoke up and insisted that the delegations agree on defining what was meant by Germany. If they were to define Germany before WWII, then he was ready to discuss – his point being that the Germany of the moment was one with eastern boundaries being determined by the position of the Soviet Red Army.

Stalin: “Germany is what has become of her after the war. No other Germany exists…”

Truman: “Why not say the Germany of 1937?”

Stalin: “Minus what she has lost. Let us for the time being regard Germany as a geographical section.”

Truman: “But what geographical section?”

Stalin: “We cannot get away from the results of the war.”

The green line represents the 1937 Germany that the Big Three agree to define as a starting point. In the middle of it all is Poland

Truman: “But we must have a starting point.”

So it was agreed by the Big Three that the ‘Germany of 1937 should be the starting point’, bringing a shed of light to the delegations that a major step forward had been taken.

Finally, they turned to the question of Poland and began talks about its postwar future. After the first plenary session, Churchill’s Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, had written about his disappointing observation of Churchill: “The P.M. was wooly and verbose..” Again, on day two, Churchill entered into another narrative as he talked about the future of Poland, a subject that moved him immensely. It made him talk even longer than usual, and so went the remainder of the session.

According to biographer David McCullough, “Truman was exasperated. He could ‘deal’ with Stalin, as he said, but Churchill was another matter. Later that night he sat down at his desk and wrote to his wife, Bess: ‘I’m not going to stay around this terrible place all summer and just listen to speeches!'”

Tomorrow, President Truman would reach his boiling point.