Saturday, July 28, 1945 at Potsdam, Germany
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.
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.