July-August, 1945: Potsdam Conference Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

There were only three occasions when all three Allied heads of state met face to face: Teheran, November-December, 1943; Yalta, February, 1945; and the Potsdam Conference, July 17-August 2, 1945. At the Potsdam Conference–the third and last Big Three summit conference during World War II–the Allied leaders attempted, but failed, to resolve outstanding disagreements and to conclude a final peace settlement of the war. In addition to peace, the disposition of Germany, Eastern Europe, and the Japanese surrender were on the agenda.

There were only three occasions when all three Allied heads of state met face to face: Teheran, November-December, 1943; Yalta, February, 1945; and the Potsdam Conference, July 17-August 2, 1945. At the Potsdam Conference–the third and last Big Three summit conference during World War II–the Allied leaders attempted, but failed, to resolve outstanding disagreements and to conclude a final peace settlement of the war. In addition to peace, the disposition of Germany, Eastern Europe, and the Japanese surrender were on the agenda.

The personalities involved at the first two conferences were U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt, British prime minister Winston S. Churchill, and Soviet premier Joseph Stalin. Roosevelt died in April, 1945, and was succeeded by Vice President Harry S. Truman. The results of the general election of Great Britain were announced on July 26, after the Potsdam Conference began. Churchill, head of the Conservative Party, and Clement Attlee, head of the Labour Party, both attended the conference until the announcement was made that the Labour Party had won. Only Attlee returned. Stalin was the only Big Three leader in power before, during, and after the war. Thus, at Potsdam, Stalin enjoyed some advantage because of his experience and the enormous power he wielded as dictator of the Soviet Union.

The End of the War

The war in Europe had ended with the unconditional surrender of Germany in May, 1945, the Italians having previously surrendered in 1943. The war in the Pacific, to which the Soviet Union was not a party, continued, and at the time of the Potsdam Conference there appeared to be no immediate prospect for ending it. At the Yalta Conference, Stalin had promised to break the Soviet-Japanese neutrality pact concluded earlier and enter the Pacific war within two or three months after the Germans surrendered.

The strategic bombing campaign against Japan, and its ultimate dimension, the use of the atomic bomb, was being developed by the United States, with important British contributions. This effort involved massive resources and enormous costs, however. By the summer of 1945, sufficient materials for a small number of bombs were ready for use. Testing occurred successfully in New Mexico on July 15. President Truman was informed of this while en route to Potsdam. Materials for at least two additional bombs were assembled and rushed to Tinian in the Mariana Islands, from where superbombers could reach Japan. Much has been made of the fact that Truman, in an almost casual manner, informed Stalin of the fact that a bomb with massive destructive potential had been developed. Stalin urged him to use it against Japan. The British, who already knew of the project and its results, also urged the bomb’s use.

The Conference

The Big Three leaders assembled at Potsdam, south of war-torn Berlin, where the extensive palace complex of the former Hohenzollern rulers of Prussia was located. The official conference took place at the Cecilienhof Palace on the shores of Lake Griebnitz. At the time, the Soviet Union occupied all of Germany east of the Elbe River, including Berlin and its environs. Stalin and the Soviets therefore acted as host of the conference and made all the arrangements.

At the first of thirteen plenary sessions, Stalin nominated Truman as chairman. Truman was pleased to serve and had already prepared an agenda. The Yalta agreements were reaffirmed and elaborated upon. Previously, the European Advisory Committee had overseen Allied international issues in the European war. At Potsdam, the decision was made to replace that committee with the Council of Foreign Ministers, charged with preparation for peace terms in Europe, initially for Italy, Romania, Bulgaria, Austria, Hungary, and Finland. Other items included the political and economic principles that would govern Germany, continued discussion of the question of German reparations, German disarmament and military occupation, provisions for punishment of war criminals, and the disposition of Poland and other Eastern European states.

Plans for Germany

The disposition of Germany was perhaps the most important, pressing, and controversial issue on the table of the Big Three. At Yalta, a general agreement had been reached that Germany would be occupied by Allied forces. After much deliberation and debate, the Attlee Plan, named for the then vice prime minister of Great Britain, was accepted. Germany was to be divided temporarily into three zones–the Northwest, the Southwest, and the East–to be militarily occupied by Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union respectively. Berlin, the old capital, located about one hundred miles inside the Soviet zone, was also to be divided into three zones.

Originally, there were to be three occupiers, and zones of occupation were drawn up. However, at the Yalta Conference, after much persuasion, Stalin reluctantly had agreed with the Roosevelt-Churchill recommendation that France participate. Subsequently, the French did participate and a French zone was carved out contiguous to the French border. However, the French were bitter and disappointed because they were not a party to the arrangements, and they had not been invited to Potsdam.

Reparations

War reparations was another sensitive issue harking back to the previous treaties at Vienna and Versailles. Stalin consistently pressured for huge amounts to be extracted from Germany, rightly pointing out that the Soviet Union, more than any other power, deserved to be compensated for massive destruction of its homeland caused by the Germans. Roosevelt and Churchill acknowledged that, but also recalled the imbroglio caused by the reparations question after World War I. They effectively renounced all claims on Germany.

A tentative arrangement was initialed stating that the Soviet Union was eligible for the equivalent of ten billion dollars worth of reparations from Germany. Further discussion and much debate ensued on how, and especially from which zones of occupation, in-kind reparations could be obtained. Anglo-American leaders insisted that the future health of the German economy must be considered. Reparations remained a contentious issue between the Soviet Union and the Anglo-Americans, and final amounts and other details were not decided until later.

The central authority that was to administer occupied Germany was the Allied Control Council. Its objective was to disarm, demobilize, demilitarize, de-Nazify, and democratize Germany. Trials of Nazi war criminals were prepared and conducted at Nuremberg. Certain limits were placed on reparations if a threat to the future of the German economy was indicated.

Complications abounded. The Potsdam Declaration came out of the Potsdam Conference and was published on July 26. This was a joint statement to Japan calling for immediate surrender, signed by Truman, Churchill, and a representative of Chiang Kai-shek, the Chinese head of state. Since the Soviet Union was not, at that time, an official belligerent in the Pacific war, it was not a signatory.

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