World War II: Potsdam Conference

Attlee, Truman, and Stalin at the Potsdam Conference
Clement Attlee, Harry Truman, and Joseph Stalin at the Potsdam Conference.

U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command

Having concluded the Yalta Conference in February 1945, the "Big Three" Allied leaders, Franklin Roosevelt (United States), Winston Churchill (Great Britain), and Joseph Stalin (USSR) agreed to meet again following victory in Europe to determine postwar borders, negotiate treaties, and resolve issues pertaining to the handling of Germany. This planned meeting was to be their third gathering, the first having been the November 1943 Tehran Conference. With the German surrender on May 8, the leaders scheduled a conference in the German town of Potsdam for July.

Changes Before and During the Potsdam Conference

On April 12, Roosevelt died and Vice President Harry S. Truman ascended to the presidency. Though a relative neophyte in foreign affairs, Truman was significantly more suspicious of Stalin's motives and desires in Eastern Europe than his predecessor. Departing for Potsdam with Secretary of State James Byrnes, Truman hoped to reverse some the concessions that Roosevelt had given Stalin in the name of maintaining Allied unity during the war. Meeting at the Schloss Cecilienhof, the talks began on July 17. Presiding over the conference, Truman was initially aided by Churchill's experience in dealing with Stalin.

This came to an abrupt halt on July 26 when Churchill's Conservative Party was stunningly defeated in the 1945 general elections. Held on July 5, the announcement of the results was delayed in order to accurately count votes coming from British forces serving abroad. With Churchill's defeat, Britain's wartime leader was replaced by incoming Prime Minister Clement Attlee and new Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin. Lacking Churchill's vast experience and independent spirit, Attlee frequently deferred to Truman during the latter stages of the talks.

As the conference began, Truman learned of the Trinity Test in New Mexico which signaled the successful completion of the Manhattan Project and the creation of the first atom bomb. Sharing this information with Stalin on July 24, he hoped that the new weapon's existence would strengthen his hand in dealing with the Soviet leader. This new failed to impress Stalin as he had learned of the Manhattan Project through his spy network and was aware of its progress.

Working to Create the Postwar World

As talks commenced, the leaders confirmed that both Germany and Austria would be divided into four zones of occupation. Pressing on, Truman sought to mitigate the Soviet Union's demand for heavy reparations from Germany. Believing that the severe reparations levied by the post-World War I Treaty of Versailles had crippled the German economy leading the rise of the Nazis, Truman worked to limit war reparations. After extensive negotiations, it was agreed that Soviet reparations would be confined to their zone of occupation as well as 10% of the other zone's surplus industrial capacity.

The leaders also agreed that Germany should be demilitarized, identified and that all war criminals should be prosecuted. To achieve the first of these, industries associated with creating war materials were eliminated or reduced with the new German economy to be based on agriculture and domestic manufacturing. Among the controversial decisions to be reached at Potsdam were those pertaining to Poland. As part of the Potsdam talks, the U.S. and Britain agreed to recognize the Soviet-backed Provisional Government of National Unity rather than the Polish government-in-exile which had been based in London since 1939.

In addition, Truman reluctantly agreed to accede to Soviet demands that Poland's new western border lay along the Oder-Neisse Line. The use of these rivers to denote the new border saw Germany lose nearly a quarter of its prewar territory with most going to Poland and a large part of East Prussia to the Soviets. Though Bevin argued against the Oder-Neisse Line, Truman effectively traded this territory to gain concessions on the reparations issue. The transfer of this territory led to the displacement of large numbers of ethnic Germans and remained controversial for decades.

In addition to these issues, the Potsdam Conference saw the Allies agree to the formation of a Council of Foreign Ministers that would prepare peace treaties with Germany's former allies. The Allied leaders also agreed to revise the 1936 Montreux Convention, which gave Turkey sole control over the Turkish Straits, that the U.S. and Britain would determine the government of Austria, and that Austria would not pay reparations. The results of the Potsdam Conference were formally presented in the Potsdam Agreement which was issued at the meeting's end on August 2.

The Potsdam Declaration

On July 26, while at the Potsdam Conference, Churchill, Truman, and Nationalist Chinese leader Chiang Kai-Shek issued the Potsdam Declaration which outlined the terms of surrender for Japan. Reiterating the call for unconditional surrender, the Declaration stipulated that Japanese sovereignty was to be limited to the home islands, war criminals would be prosecuted, authoritarian government was to end, the military would be disarmed, and that an occupation would ensue. Despite these terms, it also emphasized that the Allies did not seek to destroy the Japanese as a people.

Japan refused these terms despite an Allied threat that "prompt and utter destruction" would ensue. Reacting, to the Japanese, Truman ordered the atomic bomb to be used. The use of the new weapon on Hiroshima (August 6) and Nagasaki (August 9) ultimately led to the surrender of Japan on September 2. Departing Potsdam, the Allied leaders would not meet again. The frosting over of US-Soviet relations that began during the conference ultimately escalated in the Cold War.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Potsdam Conference." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). World War II: Potsdam Conference. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Potsdam Conference." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).