“The Big Three” at the start of the Potsdam Conference:
Joseph Stalin, Harry S. Truman, and Winston Churchill
Day 1 of the Potsdam Conference:
Tuesday, July 17, 1945, at the Cecilienhof Palace in Potsdam, Germany.
Shortly after the signing of the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany in May 1945, Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union, Harry S. Truman of the United States and Winston Churchill of Great Britain decided to meet in Berlin to discuss what to do with a defeated Germany, Allied strategy in the Pacific Theater, and other issues confronting the postwar world.
Originally called, “The Berlin Conference,” it would soon become more popularly known as the Potsdam Conference after it was decided to move the summit just to the southwest of Berlin in the German city of Potsdam.
Completed in 1917, the Cecilienhof Palace was the former residence of the last Crown Prince of Prussia, Prince Wilhelm, and his wife Cecilia of Mecklenburg-Schwerin. Toward the end of WWII in January/February 1945, the two had left the palace before the Soviet advancement on the area during the Battle of Berlin, leaving behind all their precious furnishing. This would be the site where the conference would be held for its seventeen-day period.
Not only was it chosen because of its size and the fact that it’d survived the war, but mostly it provided ample space for the enhanced security necessary to protect the three most powerful men in the world given its seclusion on the northernmost edge of Potsdam.
Earlier in the day before the Conference began, President Truman and Soviet Generalissimo Stalin met each other for the very first time around noon at the “Truman Villa” in Babelsberg, an eastern district of Potsdam.
“Promptly a few minutes before twelve, I looked up from my desk and there stood Stalin in the doorway,” the President wrote in his diary. “I got to my feet and advanced to meet him; he put out his hand and smiled. I did the same, we shook, I greeted Molotov (Foreign Minister) and the interpreter…”
As Truman’s biographer, David McCullough, would write: “He was the absolute dictator over 180 million people of 170 nationalities in a country representing one-sixth of the earth’s surface, the Generalissimo of gigantic, victorious armies, and Harry Truman, like nearly everyone meeting him for the first time, was amazed to find how small he actually was: ‘A little bit of a squirt,’ Truman described him, as Stalin stood 5’5″.”
“I can deal with Stalin…He’s honest but smart as hell…,” Truman would write about Stalin. The Generalissimo, on the other hand, was less optimistic. He once told an aide that Truman was “worthless” and had pretty much already determined that he’d surrender nothing of any kind when the bargaining began.
At 5:10PM, arriving through their own separate doors, President Harry S. Truman, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin sat down with their foreign ministers, various advisers and interpreters at the large oak table that dominated the conference room in Cecilienhof to talk about the fate of the post-WWII world.
At Stalin’s suggestion, President Truman was made Chairman of the Conference and immediately began to present for consideration some of the proposals that he and his Secretary of State, Jimmy Byrnes, had prepared on their journey across the Atlantic. Byrnes would later write, “It was evident that the other heads of government appreciated the President’s efforts in having proposals ready for discussion.”
Before the first day was adjourned, the Big Three had agreed on the political and economic principles upon which to discuss the treatment of Germany after WWII. These would famously become known as the “Four D’s”: Democratization, Demilitarization, Denazification, Decentralization. They also had begun to discuss the political future of Bulgaria, Poland, Romania, and Italy. Furthermore, a division of the German Navy among the three nations had started to be considered.
Following the first day of talks, the Big Three went next door to the Weißer Salon. This large, bright and cheerful room was the Crown Prince’s and Crown Prince’s wife’s music room. During the Conference, though, it served as the Soviet’s reception hall and the Soviet delegation had prepared a lavish and elaborate buffet for the other delegations.
From what President Truman would write in his diary, it became clear that the Soviets really knew how to put on a buffet at day’s end: “The table was set with everything you could think of…Goose liver, caviar, every kind of meat one could imagine, along with cheeses of different shapes and colors, and endless wine and vodka.”
A pleasant end to a short first day.