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July 21 - August 2, 1945

Group photograph of the "Big Three" heads of government at Potsdam, Germany, late July 1945. Those present are (from left to right):
British Prime Minister Clement Atlee; U.S. President Harry S. Truman; Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin.

Photo credit: Photograph from the Army Signal Corps Collection in the U.S. National Archives.

The Big Three Meet in Potsdam to Divide up Germany Amongst GB, USA, USSR and France.

The Big Three—Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (replaced on July 28 by newly elected Prime Minister Clement Attlee), and U.S. President Harry Truman—met in Potsdam, Germany, from July 17 to August 2, 1945, to negotiate terms for the end of World War II. After the Yalta Conference of February 1945 (see timeline entry for 4th February), Stalin, Churchill, and then U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (who had since died, see timeline entry for 12th April) had agreed to meet following the surrender of Germany to determine the postwar borders in Europe. Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945 (see timeline entry for 8th May), and the Allied leaders agreed to meet over the summer at Potsdam to continue the discussions that had begun at Yalta. Although the Allies remained committed to fighting a joint war in the Pacific, (and Stalin reaffirmed his commitment to have the USSR enter the war against Japan on 15th August) the lack of a common enemy in Europe led to difficulties reaching consensus concerning postwar reconstruction on the European continent.

The major issue at Potsdam was the question of how to handle Germany. At Yalta, the Soviets had pressed for heavy postwar reparations from Germany, half of which would go to the Soviet Union. While Roosevelt had acceded to such demands, Truman and his Secretary of State, James Byrnes, were determined to mitigate the treatment of Germany by allowing the occupying nations to exact reparations only from their own zone of occupation. Truman and Byrnes encouraged this position because they wanted to avoid a repetition of the situation created by the Treaty of Versailles, which had exacted high reparations payments from Germany following World War One. Many experts agreed that the harsh reparations imposed by the Versailles Treaty had handicapped the German economy and fueled the rise of the Nazis.

The Potsdam Conference is perhaps best known for President Truman’s July 24, 1945 conversation with Stalin, during which time the President informed the Soviet leader that the United States had successfully detonated the first atomic bomb on July 16, 1945 (see timeline entry for that date). Historians have often interpreted Truman’s somewhat firm stance during negotiations to the U.S. negotiating team’s belief that U.S. nuclear capability would enhance its bargaining power. Stalin, however, was already well-informed about the U.S. nuclear program thanks to the Soviet intelligence network; so he also held firm in his positions. This situation made negotiations challenging. The leaders of the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union, who, despite their differences, had remained allies throughout the war, never met again collectively to discuss cooperation in postwar reconstruction.

On the 27th July the United States, Great Britain, and China released the “Potsdam Declaration,” by cable to Japan. It warns Japan of the "utter devastation of the Japanese homeland" unless Japan surrenders unconditionally. The Soviet Union did not sign the declaration because it had yet to declare war on Japan. The Japanese consider the "formality of unconditional surrender" an unacceptable dishonor. Although “secret” talks had been taking place between Japan and the Allies regarding how to end the war the Japanese formally disregarded this warning.

Further readings:

JOURNAL ARTICLE : Mokusatsu, Japan's Response to the Potsdam Declaration

Kazuo Kawai. Pacific Historical Review Vol. 19, No. 4 (Nov., 1950), pp. 409-414

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