Potsdam: When the Guard Changed

July 30, 1995

The last great meeting of the Allied leaders of World War II took place a half-century ago. Of the Big Three who had met in February at Yalta, one was dead, one was heading out of office and the third was becoming anathema to his allies.

The Soviet Union's Josef Stalin pressed for a meeting in Hitler's destroyed capital of Berlin. The most suitable site standing was the Palace of the Crown Prince in Potsdam, just west of the city. Stalin never got his triumphal Berlin Conference. It is remembered as the Potsdam Conference.

This was the international debut of President Harry S Truman, following Franklin D. Roosevelt's death in April. Britain's Prime 00 Minister Winston Churchill wanted the meeting before American troops withdrew from positions in Germany and Czechoslovakia. Truman wanted it after the secret test of the atomic bomb. In which case Churchill wanted it later still, after the results of the British election. Truman's date prevailed.

Although Churchill had hoped to keep his national coalition government together until Japan fell, the Labor Party quit it. The election was held July 5, but to accommodate servicemen's postal voting, the count was delayed three weeks.

The test of the A-Bomb was July 16. The conference began the next day, just after the U.S. Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson, handed Churchill a note saying, "Babies satisfactorily born." Churchill led the British delegation, which included his Labor opponent, Clement Attlee, as a member.

Churchill fought against the final borders of Germany and Poland and the ethnic cleansing of Germans. He fought to include non-Communists in the new Polish government. Truman, worried more by economic chaos than by communism, gave tepid help. Stalin prevailed on these matters, but wanted Libya and didn't get it.

Truman and Churchill, who had urged Stalin to rush into war against Japan, now pressed him to delay. Truman privately told Stalin the U.S. had an awesome weapon. Stalin's indifference convinced Churchill that Stalin was ignorant, and later convinced analysts that he already knew.

Churchill and Attlee left the conference to attend the British election count on July 26. The people who devotedly followed Churchill in war threw him out, choosing domestic reform over world politics. Attlee returned to lead the British delegation and sign the documents.

The conference designed postwar cooperation that never materialized. It demarcated boundaries of military occupation of Germany that became the Iron Curtain -- a phrase Churchill used in a memo during the conference -- for 45 years. The great decisions leading to the Cold War had been made. Potsdam, July 17 to August 2, worked out details. Its main contribution was to show that, in democracies, the work of state goes on even when great leaders die or get deposed by electorates.

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