Potsdam Conference Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Potsdam Conference was intended to settle unresolved issues between the three major Allied Powers as to the end of World War II. It helped shape relations between those powers after the war, beginning the foreign policies that would lead to the Cold War and shaping the map of Europe for the next few decades.

Summary of Event

At the close of the Yalta Conference in February of 1945, the leaders of the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union had agreed that they would meet again to settle remaining European problems resulting from the defeat of Germany. These problems concerned peace treaties with the former Axis nations and satellites. For the Western Allies, the problems included the Soviet Union’s violation of its agreement to allow the establishment of free governments in Eastern Europe. [kw]Potsdam Conference (July 17-Aug. 2, 1945) [kw]Conference, Potsdam (July 17-Aug. 2, 1945) World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Allied planning meetings Potsdam Conference (1945) U.S.-Soviet relations[U.S. Soviet relations];World War II[World War 02] World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Soviet-Western relations[Soviet Western relations] Soviet-Western relations[Soviet Western relations];World War II[World War 02] World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Allied planning meetings Potsdam Conference (1945) U.S.-Soviet relations[U.S. Soviet relations];World War II[World War 02] World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Soviet-Western relations[Soviet Western relations] Soviet-Western relations[Soviet Western relations];World War II[World War 02] [g]Europe;July 17-Aug. 2, 1945: Potsdam Conference[01540] [g]Germany;July 17-Aug. 2, 1945: Potsdam Conference[01540] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;July 17-Aug. 2, 1945: Potsdam Conference[01540] [c]World War II;July 17-Aug. 2, 1945: Potsdam Conference[01540] Churchill, Winston [p]Churchill, Winston;World War II diplomacy[World War 02 diplomacy] Stalin, Joseph [p]Stalin, Joseph;World War II diplomacy[World War 02 diplomacy] Truman, Harry S. [p]Truman, Harry S.;World War II Hopkins, Harry Attlee, Clement Gaulle, Charles de [p]Gaulle, Charles de;World War II

When Germany surrendered in May, 1945, the Allied leaders began preparations for another conference. Prime Minister Winston Churchill was particularly eager for the meeting to be held as soon as possible, not only to forestall further Soviet gains in Europe but also because of the possibility that upcoming British elections to be held in July might vote him out of office before he could participate in these important foreign policy decisions. Harry S. Truman, who had taken office as president of the United States in April after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, wanted to delay the meeting long enough to familiarize himself with the issues to be discussed. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had no apparent preference regarding the scheduling of the meeting. It was finally agreed that the conference would open on July 17 and be held in Potsdam, Germany.

Winston Churchill, Harry S. Truman, and Joseph Stalin (lef to right) at the Potsdam Conference.

(National Archives)

Two other problems had to be solved. One involved the provisional president of France, Charles de Gaulle. France had been allotted an occupational zone in Germany, but past relations between the Allies and de Gaulle had been so trying that no one wanted him at the Potsdam Conference, and he was not invited. The other problem concerned the occupation armies in Germany Germany;postwar occupation . During the course of the war, both Western Allied troops and Soviet troops had occupied German areas not included in their agreed occupational zones. In addition, there were no American troops in Berlin, and the American military commanders wanted soldiers there to protect the president on his trip to Potsdam. The Soviet Union refused to allow troops into Berlin until Western soldiers left the Russian zone. Despite Churchill’s misgivings, Truman ordered a retreat, and the British and Americans were allowed into Berlin.

The Potsdam Conference began on July 17, 1945, and lasted for two weeks. In the middle of the conference, British election returns proclaimed the defeat of Churchill and the triumph of the Labour Party. Churchill was replaced as prime minister by Labour Party leader Clement Attlee. Since Attlee had attended the conference earlier, however, there was no change in British policy.

Recalling the hasty decisions and mistakes made at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, Truman proposed that the Council of Foreign Ministers Council of Foreign Ministers meet at their leisure to draft peace treaties for the defeated Axis nations. This proposal was accepted by all. Within two years, the foreign ministers produced acceptable treaties.

Eastern Europe, however, was a much more complicated matter. Stalin wanted Western diplomatic recognition for the pro-Communist governments there, but Truman and Churchill refused. As for Poland, the Allies had agreed at Yalta that free elections Poland;postwar government would be held “as soon as possible”; since the Yalta Conference, however, the Communist-controlled Warsaw government had taken over Poland and had made no plans for free elections. Furthermore, members of the anti-Communist Polish government-in-exile had been arrested when they had returned from London to Poland after the German surrender.

Truman had sent Harry Hopkins, formerly President Roosevelt’s top civilian adviser, on a diplomatic mission to Moscow in May to inquire into the Polish situation. Hopkins had arranged a compromise between the London and Warsaw Poles on a coalition government, despite the fact that the Communists held fourteen out of twenty-one of Poland’s cabinet seats, and the Polish government had agreed to hold free elections. At Potsdam, this agreement was ratified with the stipulation that the Allied press be admitted and allowed to report on the elections. The Polish interim government was granted Western diplomatic recognition.

As for the Polish-German Poland;postwar borders frontier, when Soviet troops had liberated Poland, they had turned over all German lands east of the Oder-Western Neisse River line to the Poles. The southern half of East Prussia had also been turned over to the Poles. Stalin proposed that the Allies recognize these boundaries permanently. Truman and Churchill accepted them only as temporary borders pending a final peace treaty with Germany.

The German problem was the central issue at Potsdam. The main dispute was between the Soviet desire for harsh reparations and a weak Germany to act as a buffer against future invasion and the Western Allied aim of a restored and pacified Germany to act as a buffer against Soviet expansion. So intense was this dispute that the leaders could agree only on noncontroversial issues. Thus, the Allies agreed to abolish Nazi institutions and prohibit arms manufacturing. They also agreed that Germany was to be treated as a single economic entity and that the Control Council in Berlin was to make unanimous decisions for Germany as a whole. Within each occupation zone, however, each military commander was to have sovereign authority. Local self-government was to be encouraged, and the German economy was to be geared toward peaceful pursuits.

On the question of reparations World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];reparations , the conference members agreed that each power could take what it wanted from its occupation zone. The Soviets, however, wanted industrial equipment from the Ruhr complex, which was located in the British zone, in order to compensate for the meager resources in their zone. The Soviets finally agreed to accept a percentage of the Ruhr industrial machinery in return for food products that they were to ship from their zone to the zones of the Western Allies. These Western zones needed food supplies, because they had become heavily crowded with refugees who had fled the Russian zone in the last days of the war. All other reparations were renounced.

In other matters, the Potsdam Conference members agreed on an occupational zone arrangement for Austria similar to that in Germany. They condemned Spain for having supported the Axis Powers during the war and forbade Spain’s entry into the United Nations. Finally, they agreed upon the orderly and humane transfer to Germany of nine million displaced German civilians living in areas outside Germany. They also established a mechanism to deal with the details of the peace treaties in the postwar period. In a final gesture, the Potsdam Declaration was issued to the Japanese government, calling upon it to surrender unconditionally or face total destruction. On August 2, a statement of the agreements, known as the Potsdam Protocol, was signed, and the participants went home.

Significance

The Potsdam Conference thus helped to draw the map of the postwar world—the map that would constitute the arena of the Cold War Cold War;advent . As a result, the issue of atomic weapons has loomed in retrospect as a major backdrop to this conference, causing much historical debate. Some scholars argue that the United States helped bring about the Cold War by taking a tough stance with the Soviets as a result of U.S. possession of an atomic bomb. Some have even argued that the exact date of the beginning of the nuclear arms race can be traced to Truman’s conversation with Stalin on July 24, 1945, in which he revealed that the United States had a weapon of “unusual destructive force.”

Other scholars point out that the United States no longer needed Soviet intervention in the Pacific war after they had successfully tested the bomb, so it had no reason to court Soviet favor or to appease Soviet desires. Many conservative historians see Potsdam as part of an overall acquiescence to the Communists. Nevertheless, given the military strength and strategic location of Soviet troops at the time of the conference, the agreements reached at Potsdam generally have been accepted as being motivated by political realism. The Soviets, who had lost tens of millions of people in the war, were absolutely committed to protecting their borders. The Western Allies’ motives for resisting the Soviet will were not equally compelling at the time, given that the Soviets could not have been dislodged from Eastern Europe without beginning another all-out war—something neither the United States nor Britain was prepared to do. World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Allied planning meetings Potsdam Conference (1945) U.S.-Soviet relations[U.S. Soviet relations];World War II[World War 02] World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Soviet-Western relations[Soviet Western relations] Soviet-Western relations[Soviet Western relations];World War II[World War 02]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Alperovitz, Gar. Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1965. This revisionist historian blames American bellicosity at Potsdam on the fact that Truman knew about the successful explosion of the atomic bomb.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Feis, Herbert. Between War and Peace: The Potsdam Conference. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1960. The author maintains that compromise was necessary since the Russian army stood in a strong European position, which placed it in control of Eastern Europe in 1945, and since the war against Japan was still in progress.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ferrell, Robert H. Harry S. Truman: A Life. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1994. Written by a premier Truman scholar, this work argues that no Western figure could allow the status quo to be defined by the presence of Soviet troops in the eastern part of Europe.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hasegawa, Tsuyoshi. Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2005. Details the role of Potsdam (which it calls “the turning point”) in the campaign against Japan after Germany’s surrender, as well as discussing the broader implications of Stalin’s interactions with Truman.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Maddox, Robert James. From War to Cold War: The Education of Harry S. Truman. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1988. Maddox analyzes the Potsdam Conference in the overall context of Truman’s coming to grips with the problems of the ending of the war and the subsequent unraveling of the coalition.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mee, Charles L., Jr. Meeting at Potsdam. Reprint. New York: Franklin Square Press, 1996. This volume argues that the victorious leaders acted in a Machiavellian fashion to achieve their goals, and that the origins of the Cold War and nuclear arms race can be found in this conference.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Robertson, David. Sly and Able: A Political Biography of James F. Byrnes. New York: W. W. Norton, 1994. Critical of revisionists, the author concludes that Byrnes’s primary motivation for use of the atomic bomb was to end the war with Japan and not to impress the Russians.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Woods, Randall, and Howard Jones. Dawning of the Cold War: The United States’ Quest for Order. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1991. This work, which is based on a synthesis of scholarship, concludes that the potential impact the atomic bomb would have on Russia was “not decisive” in Truman’s decision.

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