The Potsdam Conference (German: Potsdamer Konferenz) was held at Cecilienhof, the home of Crown Prince Wilhelm in Potsdam, occupied Germany, from 17 July to 2 August 1945. (In some older documents, it is also referred to as the Berlin Conference of the Three Heads of Government of the USSR, USA, and UK.) The participants were the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States, represented respectively by Communist Party General Secretary Joseph Stalin, Prime Ministers Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee, and President Harry S. Truman.
Stalin, Churchill, and Truman gathered to decide how to administer Germany, which had agreed to unconditional surrender nine weeks earlier on 8 May (Victory in Europe Day). The goals of the conference also included the establishment of postwar order, peace treaty issues, and countering the effects of the war.
Relationships among the leaders
A number of changes had taken place in the five months since the Yalta Conference which greatly affected the relationships among the leaders. The Soviet Union was occupying Central and Eastern Europe; the Red Army effectively controlled the Baltic states, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania, and refugees were fleeing from these countries. Stalin had set up a puppet Communist government in Poland, and he insisted that his control of Eastern Europe was a defensive measure against possible future attacks, claiming that it was a legitimate sphere of Soviet influence.
Second, Britain had a new Prime Minister. Conservative Party leader Winston Churchill had served as Prime Minister in a coalition government; his Soviet policy since the early 1940s had differed considerably from President Roosevelt's, as Churchill believed Stalin to be a "devil"-like tyrant leading a vile system. A general election had been held in the UK on 5 July; but with results delayed to allow the votes of armed forces personnel to be counted in their home constituencies. The outcome became known during the conference when Labour leader Clement Attlee became the new Prime Minister.
Third, President Roosevelt had died on 12 April 1945, and Vice President Harry Truman assumed the presidency; his succession saw VE Day (Victory in Europe) within a month and VJ Day (Victory in Japan) on the horizon. During the war and in the name of Allied unity, Roosevelt had brushed off warnings of a potential domination by Stalin in part of Europe. He explained, "I just have a hunch that Stalin is not that kind of a man." "I think that if I give him everything I possibly can and ask for nothing from him in return, 'noblesse oblige', he won't try to annex anything and will work with me for a world of democracy and peace."
Truman had closely followed the Allied progress of the war. George Lenczowski notes that, "despite the contrast between his relatively modest background and the international glamour of his aristocratic predecessor, [Truman] had the courage and resolution to reverse the policy that appeared to him naive and dangerous", which was "in contrast to the immediate, often ad hoc moves and solutions dictated by the demands of the war". With the end of the war, the priority of allied unity was replaced with the challenge of the relationship between the two emerging superpowers. The two leading powers continued to sustain a cordial relationship to the public, but suspicions and distrust lingered between them.
Truman was much more suspicious of the Communists than Roosevelt had been, and he became increasingly suspicious of Soviet intentions under Stalin. He and his advisers saw Soviet actions in Eastern Europe as aggressive expansionism which was incompatible with the agreements that Stalin had committed to at Yalta the previous February. In addition, Truman became aware of possible complications elsewhere when Stalin objected to Churchill's proposal for an early Allied withdrawal from Iran, ahead of the schedule agreed at the Tehran Conference. The Potsdam Conference was the only time that Truman met Stalin in person.
At the Yalta Conference France had been granted an occupation zone within Germany, France had been a participant in the Berlin Declaration, and France was to be an equal member of the Allied Control Council. Nevertheless, at the insistence of the Americans, General de Gaulle was not invited to Potsdam, as he had too been denied representation at Yalta; a diplomatic slight which was a cause of deep and lasting resentment. Reasons for the omissions included the longstanding personal mutual antagonism between Roosevelt and De Gaulle, ongoing disputes over the French and American occupation zones and anticipated conflicts of interest over French Indochina;  but also reflected the judgement of both the British and Americans that French aims in respect of many items on the Conference agenda were likely to be at variance with Anglo/American agreed objectives.
Agreements made between the leaders at Potsdam
At the end of the conference, the three Heads of Government agreed on the following actions. All other issues were to be answered by the final peace conference to be called as soon as possible.
- The Allies issued a statement of aims of their occupation of Germany: demilitarization, denazification, democratization, decentralization, dismantling and decartelization.
- Germany and Austria were each to be divided into four occupation zones (earlier agreed in principle at Yalta), and similarly each capital, Berlin and Vienna, was to be divided into four zones.
- It was agreed that Nazi war criminals would be put on trial.
- All German annexations in Europe were to be reversed, including Sudetenland, Alsace-Lorraine, Austria, and the westernmost parts of Poland.
- Germany's eastern border was to be shifted westwards to the Oder–Neisse line, effectively reducing Germany in size by approximately 25% compared to its 1937 borders. The territories east of the new border comprised East Prussia, Silesia, West Prussia, and two thirds of Pomerania. These areas were mainly agricultural, with the exception of Upper Silesia which was the second largest centre of German heavy industry.
- "Orderly and humane" expulsions of the German populations remaining beyond the new eastern borders of Germany were to be carried out; from Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, but not Yugoslavia.
- War reparations to the Soviet Union from their zone of occupation in Germany were agreed. It was also agreed that 10% of the industrial capacity of the western zones unnecessary for the German peace economy should be transferred to the Soviet Union within 2 years. Stalin proposed and it was accepted that Poland was to be excluded from division of German compensation, to be later granted 15% of compensation given to Soviet Union.
- It was to be ensured that German standards of living did not exceed the European average. The types and amounts of industry to dismantle to achieve this was to be determined later (see Allied plans for German industry after World War II).
- German industrial war-potential was to be destroyed, through the destruction or control of all industry with military potential. To this end, all civilian shipyards and aircraft factories were to be dismantled or otherwise destroyed. All production capacity associated with war potential, such as metals, chemical, machinery etc., were to be reduced to a minimum level which was later determined by the Allied Control Commission. Manufacturing capacity thus made "surplus" was to be dismantled as reparations or otherwise destroyed. All research and international trade was to be controlled. The economy was to be decentralized (decartelization). The economy was also to be reorganized with primary emphasis on agriculture and peaceful domestic industries. In early 1946 agreement was reached on the details of the latter: Germany was to be converted into an agricultural and light industry economy. German exports were to be coal, beer, toys, textiles, etc. – to take the place of the heavy industrial products which formed most of Germany's pre-war exports.
France, having been excluded from the Conference, resisted implementing the Potsdam agreements within its occupation zone. In particular, the French refused to resettle any expelled Germans from the east. Moreover the French did not accept any obligation to abide by Potsdam agreements in the proceedings of the Allied Control Council; in particular resisting all proposals to establish common policies and institutions across Germany as a whole, and anything that they feared might lead to the emergence of an eventual unified German government.
- A Provisional Government of National Unity recognized by all three powers should be created (known as the Lublin Poles). When the Big Three recognized the Soviet controlled government, it meant, in effect, the end of recognition for the existing Polish government-in-exile (known as the London Poles).
- Poles who were serving in the British Army should be free to return to Poland, with no security upon their return to the communist country guaranteed.
- The provisional western border should be the Oder–Neisse line, defined by the Oder and Neisse rivers. Silesia, Pomerania, the southern part of East Prussia and the former Free City of Danzig should be under Polish administration. However the final delimitation of the western frontier of Poland should await the peace settlement (which would take place 45 years later at the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany in 1990)
- The Soviet Union declared it would settle the reparation claims of Poland from its own share of the overall reparation payments.
William D. Leahy's Role
One person who was at the Potsdam Conference, but is not mentioned often is William D. Leahy. Leahy was Fleet Admiral in the U.S. Navy and stood as advisor to President Roosevelt during the Yalta Conference and to President Truman during the Potsdam Conference. Leahy had lengthy military background as he served as the senior-most United States military officer on active duty during WWII. He said in his book, I Was There: The Personal Story of the Chief of Staff to Presidents Roosevelt and Truman Based on His Notes and Diaries Made at the Time, that the Potsdam Conference was one of the most frustrating out of all the conferences, due to hostile relations between The Soviet Union and the United Kingdom and The United States. Throughout his work, he refers to the conference as its code name, Terminal. Later in his book he discusses a tour of Berlin which he takes with President Truman, and describes this experience as "I never saw such destruction. I don’t know whether they learned anything from it or not."
In addition to the Potsdam Agreement, on 26 July, Churchill, Truman, and Chiang Kai-shek, Chairman of the Nationalist Government of China (the Soviet Union was not at war with Japan) issued the Potsdam Declaration which outlined the terms of surrender for Japan during World War II in Asia.
Truman had mentioned an unspecified "powerful new weapon" to Stalin during the conference. Towards the end of the conference, the United States gave Japan an ultimatum to surrender or meet "prompt and utter destruction", which did not mention the new bomb but promised that "it was not intended to enslave Japan". The Soviet Union was not involved in this declaration, as it was still neutral in the war against Japan. Prime minister Kantarō Suzuki did not respond, which was interpreted as a declaration that the Empire of Japan should ignore the ultimatum. Then the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima on 6 August and Nagasaki on 9 August 1945. The justification was that both cities were legitimate military targets, to end the war swiftly, and to preserve American lives.
When Truman informed Stalin of the atomic bomb, he said that the United States "had a new weapon of unusual destructive force", but Stalin had full knowledge of the atomic bomb's development due to Soviet spy networks inside the Manhattan Project, and he told Truman at the conference to "make good use of this new addition to the Allied arsenal".
The Soviet Union converted the other countries of eastern Europe into satellite states within the Eastern Bloc, such as the People's Republic of Poland, the People's Republic of Bulgaria, the People's Republic of Hungary, the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, the People's Republic of Romania, and the People's Republic of Albania.
Previous major conferences
- Yalta Conference, 4 to 11 February 1945
- Second Quebec Conference, 12 to 16 September 1944
- Tehran Conference, 28 November to 1 December 1943
- Cairo Conference, 22 to 26 November 1943
- Casablanca Conference, 14 to 24 January 1943
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